The voicemail was brief and to the point. She’d called to let me know her phone had been inoperable or she sure would have called me sooner to see how things were. I’d left her a voice mail a few days earlier about my spouse’s new worrisome medical issue. Just hearing her voice brought a sense of relief. I knew we would talk more and soon. B. is always there for me and vice versa, even if we must miss each other a couple times.
I had met her 25 years ago when working with addicted, gang-affiliated, abused and generally high-risk teens in a long-term residential facility. B. was about as different from me at first glance as one might imagine: big and tough, boisterous and prone to swearing, full of jokes and quick to aggressively make her views known. I often found her obnoxious while I gained respect for her insights, her firm boundaries yet good rapport with the clients. We often clashed over the simplest things. Then we began to share a smoke during our breaks, talked more, and became cautious friends, then good friends. It turned out she had a tender side, was often considerate and could be very good natured. We made each other laugh a lot. I was still new to Portland, and having her friendship helped usher me into a more welcoming, hospitable adjustment. In time she calmed down a little, got a bit softer though her boldness and strength are never in dispute. She has shown herself to be generous with time and resources. We are very close friends and I cannot begin to say how much I yet admire and appreciate her.
Developing friendships has never been easy as it was when I was a child. I moved a lot in my twenties and thirties. Life circumstances have often created barriers– living in the isolating country, lack of free time (five kids), work demands, health problems, a spouse who prefers to be more of a loner. I have had to more often carefully root out potential friends, and sometimes have even advertised for them (more on this later). I have also had to be ready to let go of them as work and life have demanded yet another move. Luckily, I have been in Portland the longest I have lived anywhere–and some good friends have remained here, as well.
Making friends used to be clear and simple: bumping into someone at the playground while playing catch, being asked to join a group or team, perhaps finding one’s self sitting next to the new kid and wondering who she or he was–so offering a smile, asking her or his name and maybe from which street, town or state the person had moved. One was connected in a neighborhood just by being present or from engagement in school activities, church events or attending a good weather picnic and special parties that grown-ups organized. In my childhood city of Midland, population about 28,000 when I grew up, it would be hard to get too lost in a crowd for long. We knew who lived on our blocks but even beyond, who delivered mail and newspaper (as well as their families), who participated and how in school or town events. I might make a new friend because an old one invited that girl to a pajama party. And we might even know of one another already. We inhabitants of smallish hometown were familiars more often than not, knew people via family name or accomplishments, as well as other basic information like who had a big family or had lost a parent or grandparent to illness or accident (with perhaps details of same). It was a fairly friendly town, (though it could be a closed place, as well–other cities found us a bit exclusive) and finding new connections was just a part of ordinary living and doing.
My first significant best friend (beyond my several neighborhood “besties”) attended the same United Methodist Church. We met in the fifth grade in Sunday school. We noticed we shared the same first name (somehow I was dubbed “Cindy” by my teens; I didn’t like it, though, and reclaimed my birth name at 18). We sat huddled in the airy balcony during services, passing notes back and forth as we scribbled away on church bulletins. We developed a Sunday afternoon tradition of meeting at nearby Nugent Drugs’ lunch counter to enjoy a cherry or lime Coke and split an order of steamy hot French fries and gab for an hour. I’d sometimes spend the night at her place and she, at mine. We hung out in junior high school, walking arm in arm down the hallway, both of us turning when our names were called out since we answered to both. She had dark wavy hair; mine was a light auburn and she was a few inches taller. I felt part of a set of unmatched twins.
It seemed we could talk about anything–from hunky but annoying boys to hairdo fiascoes to the meaning of religion to private hurts and dreams. We lived in different areas of the city–hers was a far wealthier neighborhood. Her father worked for Dow Chemical Company in a higher up position and my father was in music and educational administration. It created a disparity in economic levels though not otherwise; it didn’t seem to matter. We were introspective with extroverted tendencies, loved academics and reading, enjoyed competition, and had four siblings who drove us nuts. Admiration played a part: I thought she was pretty and smart; she thought I had plenty of talent. But mostly we liked each other’s company. Perhaps as important or more so we entrusted each other with our secrets, our real life issues.
We began to drift apart as we got engaged in more serious high school life a few years later. It appeared we’d slowly and radically changed–or I had–and prioritized different goals. She was a debater and class president; I was edging toward hippie/folk singer/poet who explored more liberal politics. I had, instead, become best friends with another girl, someone who seemed to better understand me as I faced various challenges and trials. This new friend, Monica, was an intense personality, a rebel. I found her caring and loyal, while very zany and spontaneous. We supported each other through ups and downs that no one else comprehended as fully.
I was also very close to a boy or two, and one in particular with whom I remained friends until his death four years ago. A year before El passed away he decided to visit all his oldest friends. He flew out from the Midwest and on his itinerary Portland was a stop. We spent the entire day. I drove him to the most beautiful places, and we shared food and drink at a lovely street cafe. His conversation overflowed with happy memories and a generosity of love. It pained me to see him so ill with congestive heart failure, saw how death lurked about him and yet he was vibrant in a profoundly intrinsic way, as ever. We hugged a long moment before he turned and walked away. I watched him go and then gazed at the space where he had been. I knew he was soon to leave us all. Through the decades we’d been first and last kind to one another, shared triumphs and sorrows. Reached out to each other with phone calls, long letters, spur of the moment emails that were about creativity, the great beating heart in music–he was a sound engineer–and life’s madness as well as its ineffable beauty. I so valued and still miss El. I always felt blessed to have a male friend who had remained just that–close to my heart, as my buddy.
Although my first friend C. and I stayed in touch with occasional phone calls and with later random newsy letters, the last time we met a few years ago the conversation felt stilted. At best based loosely on reminiscences, at worst without interesting focus, losing momentum as awkward pauses derailed us. We lived in the same city so I’d hoped we’d reconnect well. Well, she’d become a political professional, had been single and childless. I’d become a mother and wife, a counselor, was deep into writing and the arts. It felt like a second loss of the same friendship though it was a matter of life taking us in far different directions. And time passing–we had quite outgrown each other, I think.
My second best friend left our hometown and found substance troubles and drifted about the Southwest– while I kept up my own drug using lifestyle, then switched track to enter college, write and paint. Then got married, had children just like that, and remained longer in Michigan. We lost track of each other fast, only years later caught up with each other again via email. But that had its limits. Too much had happened to span the gaps sufficiently, despite our deep if brief friendship of yore. I was happy to find out she taught biology and math at a Southwest high school, had two sons she adored. It was good to hear she was well, that she liked her life.
I figured out by age 20 that friendship might not, and need not, last for a whole lifetime–though I wished it would, at times. People (and friends) came and went throughout college and when moving to and living in different cities, even states. When I look back, I realize I’ve had dozens of friendships that have enriched and opened up my life. But they have not all been intimate or long-term or even valued beyond a certain circumstance. They have not always come to a gentle end, either. One or two were wrenching. Thankfully, most have been bittersweet at worst, marked by sweetest farewells at best. I’ve also twice made sincere attempts over months to become part of certain apparently pleasant groups that center around my interests–but finally gave up. Cliques are cliques, no matter one’s stage of life; I have no patience with them. (One gym membership was ended after over a year of trying to make an inroad within a group of older adults. It became apparent most had been members for even decades; their friends were picked and that was that. I found it very odd–it was just an ordinary gym.)
Work is one place to connect with others, though I feel that such friendships function best within work; otherwise, things can get complicated. But such friendships are vital to ensuring a more genial, supportive environment. I could flop down in an office chair and process a half a dozen weighty concerns about work and some of my life with several co-workers, and they would do the same. but never had dinner at each other’s homes, and seldom if ever met partners beyond the family photos on our desks, the tales we impulsively shared. Still, I can name many people I came to respect and feel fondness for, whom I would call friends even now, despite changes in work environments and passage of years. I yet have lunch very few months with a couple of co-workers from the last agency I worked at four years ago. We catch up as easily as we did before, greet each other and say farewell with firm hugs. And that is valuable to me.
Some of my good friends were found using want ads: “Looking for an experienced writer, women preferred, who would like to share/critique our writing projects. Can meet in library, coffer shop, homes. ” Others were pleas for larger writers’ critique groups. I have been in three main groups and have had one-on-one interactions with three writers in the past few years, I also have attended weekly writing groups for various periods of time as well as attended workshops. Those provide a lot of opportunity to get to know people who love to write. The individual meetings have provided good exchanges not only of writing, but also greater discourses and disclosures that led to closeness while always centered around writing/critiquing.
After a year or more, when our projects were each addressed and reviewed with one another, those particular friendships became less important to us both. Inevitably, we met less and less and finally no longer. One friend moved to Arizona and embarked on a whole different life. Another got too busy with her family and her teaching responsibilities. A third friend and I had a significant disagreement regarding the ending of my novel, leading me to think she had missed the point of what I was writing. I think she felt the same way about her poetry and my critiques. That’s how it can go…we never mended that rift enough to be as friendly as before. You never know what will happen when you advertise for writers who may or may not become friends. Most of the time I’ve had great fun and learned more about craft, about communication of ideas and story making than when revising all alone. Writers’ groups can be equally variable while also worth one’s time and engagement.
My closest adult friends have tended to be found in recovery groups. I became involved in Alcoholic Anonymous way back in 1980. I was not glad to attend, didn’t trust it all, and found the people to be sad, touchy-feely, and overly simplistic in their thinking. Eventually I figured out there were more than a few people who knew a lot more than I did about staying sober and reconstructing a rewarding life. And out of those more contacts arose, opportunities to make friends. I could call anyone I thought a good bet for supporting a recovery lifestyle; they would listen on the phone, meet me for coffee. We had lots of satisfying conversations; I well recall the contentment they brought when I was in need of more peace.
One thing the twelve steps promise and make good on is that whenever anyone needs help they will be there, even though we didn’t know one another very well. I found that remarkable and generous. A few women and I just clicked as we learned of each other’s needs/hopes/challenges. We became trusted confidantes as well as cheerleaders for our ongoing sobriety. I knew that just by saying I had a rough day, they would immediately know what I meant and care enough to listen as well as share insights and hope with me–and soon I was able to be there for them.
No matter where I have moved–to Tennessee, to different cities and towns in Michigan, to the Pacific Northwest–I have had a ready group of friends if I so choose. I can go to a meeting even while travelling. All I have to do is walk into one, shake hands if I want to and offer my first name–not even why I am there or w hat I want out of it. I just can sit there in the midst of others who are redeveloping their broken lives or just refreshing their peace of mind. It’s a remarkable function of A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson’s original idea that one person who has a little more sobriety can and should if possible help out another. And so we do, and in the process, we form bonds that are strong. My three best friends are women who’ve been in recovery for at least as long as I have been if not more. Hard to believe that all these years have passed and that we still love each other, will take care of each other. We have seen each other at our worst and at our shining best.
Sometimes as I sit here pondering or writing, or I run errands and see other younger women linking arms, I muse over the years when friendship making could be a built in-perk of raising a family or going to work day after day. My children are grown and for the most part have moved away–or are swamped with their own work and family matters. In fact, even my grandchildren are nearly grown up or already gone. I think about how I might make more friends; I don’t have a surplus. I do find solitude refreshing, fulfilling, full of creative options I can finally enjoy. But I also miss at times the company of more than the usual crew, the exchange of a vast mix of ideas and belly laughs. I wonder if I might return to working outside home, or dive into volunteer work. I guess as we age opportunities to meet others have to be created more deliberately. But I have such gratitude for the friends I have–even if they still go to work and we have to set a date, time and place to have lunch. They are fine people to know and it sure isn’t the number but the quality of friendships we have, in the end.
Come to think of it, I am going to a meeting to see one of my three best friends tonight; I need to pick a good movie to see on Sunday with another. And I need to get back to B., who left me that voice message. I know she has her own issues and would enjoy a chat over a muffin and herbal tea or just the phone. Thank God for the beautiful saving graces of tried and true friendship. It’s like a seaworthy boat in life’s restless waters that always has room for one more.
(P.S. B. called me just as I was finishing this post–she was in need of a listening ear. I am so glad to still be here to give it.)