Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Not Who You Thought I Was

Think you basically know who your neighborly acquaintance and co-workers are? And perhaps can get a good idea of the stranger’s state of being who stands behind you at a coffee shop and offers a cheery “hello”, a two minute chat? It’s likely you trust that you do after x many years of  various sociable interactions, and that you can pretty much “read” first impressions received–but maybe best to think again.

I’ve lately perused several reviews about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. His research and conclusions intrigue me; people intrigue me, in general, as a writer and as a retired counselor. I also suspect many of us know already that strangers can be almost any type of person behind the knee-jerk performances given us. We generally tend to be cautious by teen-age years–and certainly by adulthood. Now more than ever, it must be said. I will read his book at some point, to see what new insights have been discovered.

Beyond that, his ideas obliquely dovetailed with my post idea for today. It may seem the opposite of Gladwell’s subject matter and I admit it’s too-large a topic: the origins, nature, and outcomes of friendships. (I will keep it more personal and shorter than all that.) But the reality is, our friends generally begin as strangers unless we knew them shortly after birth and even then, there was that first meet-up. Our knowledge starts close to zero before climbing upward toward some imagined one hundred percent, yet we probably never draw near to the fullness of deeply knowing another. Or we might be more fortunate, who knows at the inception of connection?

We are drawn to others for certain reasons–consciously or not–and we tend to see what we want to see. Suspense novels demonstrate this over and over; crime headlines and stories do, as well. yet we blithely go about our business of developing assessments, making new friends and perhaps becoming closer in time, determining who we can count on and who is a fair weather buddy and who is–let’s be honest–is a wash-up.

I’ve not had the most prolific friends compared to many. An introvert with strong extrovert bursts for pleasure or customary needs, I take my time, try to choose carefully. I learned to withhold  who I am until I am more certain of what may come of it. I had more friends when younger, due to circumstance and personal leanings. But when I review my history, it turns out those I decided might not be such fine cohorts were better, often far better, than first determined. Because I surmised who they were rather poorly, too wary at times. Or perhaps we found opportunity for a diversity of interactions and it changed things. Or a common cause led us to team up, then held other benefits.

The truth is, my good and even best friends were quite surprising–not who I thought they were more often than not.

My first close friend as a youngster sat with me at church. We passed notes on a Sunday bulletin and watched from the balcony all the other goings-on. After church services, we often met near my house at a drugstore counter to delve into a huge shared plate of  hot, salty French fries and cherry or lime Cokes. We enjoyed the occasional sleepover but mostly we enjoyed each other’s company at church events for years. Then we went to the same school by grade seven and became closer. She came from money, I was middle class but it seemed less important then–having parents who were educated and church going seemed to be the expectations for making friends back then.

We share the same first name, and that was dealt with by my name being shortened to “Cindy” which I detested–but then we both answered to that, too. She was the oldest of five kids in her family; I was the youngest of five. She even then seemed older than I. Both achievers, we did well academically but while I was involved in the arts, she was more politically inclined, running for and winning president of the student council. Many must have thought we were an odd couple of friends but it made good sense to us.

But she was not really as I first thought. She was deeper, gentler, and also much angrier. Her family life seemed blissful in their beautiful house but in fact, it was not. There was strife in her parent’s marriage; her mother was deaf and often seemed unhappy and her father drank a bit much. Loud arguments were not uncommon–between adults and  kids. In my family, no one argued; we tried not to even raise our voices. No one talked of anything too personal. And there was no alcohol in our house; none was drunk elsewhere. She was not athletic but I was; she was a class leader and I became more a rebel in mid-1960s. We still shared a desire to achieve; a sensitive nature under which was a well of deep hurt; a passion for fashion and books; and a sturdy trust of one another. And yet, when people change, friendships alter, and can fizzle out little by little. There is not the same alignment as before. And when one moves past the unusually intense bonds of teenage-hood, the need of closeness evolves. One grows up, and there is a loosening of ties while others form in appropriate ways.

We moved away from the hometown. She ended up in television news production while I raised two children, attempted to complete my degree and kept on writing, letting go of music and theater. She was yet my childhood best friend, and we kept in touch via letter, some phone calls; these dwindled to nothing. After over twenty years of not being much in touch we bumped into each other, fatefully, in yet another Methodist church service. She had been living in my city, too. But our get-togethers were strained; she was wane and terribly thin, pushed a piece of bread around her plate. She spoke of things that meant little to me– and vice versa. She’d never had kids; I had raised several. She had never remarried; I’d married three times, four if counting a remarriage. We had our childhood in common, memories, that was all. I was baffled, and worried about her mysterious frailty never explained, a vagueness in her eyes that had once been clear and quick, though they’d always been beautiful and still were. My heart was softly bruised by loss as our friendship was void of relevant meaning. She was not anymore who I thought she was. Maybe time had altered us that much. It is as likely that she never was who I imagined, just another youth trying to find her way–a partial stranger who for a time was known a bit and filled an important need in my life. And I, in hers.

I had another best girl friend to whom I swore loyalty. She was fierce from a distance. I was practicing becoming fierce. She was sullen, too, but one who always spoke her mind and defied convention– but displayed more compassion than I’d ever seen among our peers. We became the support needed for three years. She left town after high school as did I. Over time we lost connection.

Fifteen years ago we learned of each other’s whereabouts. Our email updates were lovely but brief– then ended. As if that was all we needed to say after the past intense years. She had become a biology, chemistry and psychology teacher at a high school in the Southwest. I’d imagined she’d been a world traveler/vagabond or maybe, if she settled down, then a social worker. Clearly I was mistaken but not entirely surprised–she was bright and she’d liked knowledge, the give and take. I wonder if we had tried harder if we would’ve enjoyed an adult friendship across the miles. But I always think of her fondly, a firebrand who smoldered less or differently, settling into her life, as I did mine.

There were college friends, too, many of whom lived on the same street in ramshackle rented houses. Like a mini-colony or commune, just a brief walk from one door and through another. Who knows if we would have been so keen on friendship except for being in an accessible place, at a propitious time. We met in class or at a college event or during a crisis hotline volunteer shift shared. It might have been our common sense of irony–so popular then–or similar degree program or mutual friend that first linked us. But before long we camped, hiked and skinny-dipped in backwoods lakes, took turns hosting dinners and musical gatherings, critiqued each others’ poetry or songwriting, held each other’s hand as loves soured. The women were engaged feminists; we had weekly women’s meetings that empowered us, attended protests, helped educate one another. Most of us went our separate ways but they are with me internally, as those were happy, passionate times of community in a real sense. (I married one of the men from then– eventually–and am married to him now, a best friend, too.)

I have had the good fortune to make friends everywhere I’ve lived and I’ve moved a great deal since nineteen. For one thing, since I’m in recovery, I can find twelve step meetings almost anywhere. Many of my closest friends have also been in recovery and what friendships those have been! In every city and countryside I have lived, there were women of all ages and stations in life who’ve been smart, honest, caring, and always lively. We’d go on walks, out for coffee or a meal, talk on the phone for hours, laugh over our ridiculousness. We’d hold each other when life felt unbearable, and mine the humor where there seemed to be none left. We were willing to be there for each other, which is not always the case in the more ordinary (not in recovery) world. And often what we’ve had in common was mainly a need and desire to live fuller, healthier lives, with no substances abused.

I initially seldom guessed how friendly we might become. Even at those meetings as people try to be open and thorough about serious addiction issues, you don’t–can’t really–know the complexity of a person. We each don our worldly masks, some more than others, and addicts and alcoholics are well known for being chameleons to survive their lives. Who knows what a nice smile really hides or means to convey? We all harbor a prejudice or two even when we wish we didn’t, and all kinds of people come through the doors.

But you know about their recovery or how they are working at it, not much that might reveal a whole truth. That is only one part of their story; one’s essence is multi-layered, even more fascinating. Gradually people take more steps forward, learn to build trust so solid relationships grow. I have often felt that many of the finest people I have come to know have been those I’ve met at meetings. When you have lost or are on the verge of losing everything thought to be of value, you discover what ultimately counts most. You keep things to essentials. And that can make for profound ties for those who get it.

I recently enjoyed a visit with a woman I met 26 years ago. We were working with homeless, usually gang-affiliated, abused and addicted youth. I had fallen into the job, or so I thought until I fell in love with it. She had chosen the field. Larger and taller than I with a mane of hair, her swaggering attitude and assertive words intimidated me some. She acted as if she knew everything and commanded those kids–at times aggravated them with her boldness. I didn’t like her at all, I thought she was hard and crass and I had seen or felt enough of that in life. I figured she should get a grip on her style if she was going to be an example to the youth. She obviously felt otherwise and we went our own ways if we could, throwing looks at each other in the charting room but cooperating on the job.

But we both smoked then and took our smoke breaks behind the building’s fence where the kids–forbidden to smoke–couldn’t see us or smell the smoke. Rather than stand silently, we got into various conversations. I offered just a little of who I was. She told me right off that I was “prissy, a nit-picker, too inexperienced in all ways for this work.” I didn’t show it, but it got to me enough that I shared a bit more of my story just to get her to stop the commentary. I figured she might respect me more if she saw beyond my “Miss Junior League” clothes (her idea but she wasn’t the only one to think such things), ingrained manners and reserved presentation. It almost seemed if I swore here and there she got more congenial, but I informed her I didn’t like it. We swapped a more stories, shared our last cigs with each other, then stopped the mutual hassling–mostly. (Much later we laughed over how to annoy or tease a person can mean you like them, a peculiar method of showing it.)We worked better and better together and the kids in the facility saw that, how such different personalities could work in tandem for their welfare. After four or five years I moved on to another job as did she. At best she was a good companion in our work and we laughed a lot once I got to know her more; at worst still rough-edged and hard to know more deeply. And I think we both figured that was that and “good luck to you.”

Oddly, or perhaps serendipitously, we found ourselves often working for the same agencies in our city. And on the same teams again. Or one of us would be leaving an agency and the other would be coming into it. We began to spend time after work, going out for coffee and catching up, sharing inside info about what we knew of places we worked or wanted to next work. And gradually I began to hear about her parents, siblings, lovers and partners, past mad exploits and current sobriety challenges, her foibles coming forward as well as many strengths. I learned she loves opera as well as Bonnie Raitt (we’ve attended five concerts) and Mavis Staples. And also live theater–so I took her to a musical theater performance and had a great evening. I soon knew that she is part Native American; we’ve been to a few pow wows together. I realized she’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, both with time and money. That she is devoted to whatever dog she has last rescued and made her own. That she loves to go to Las Vegas for glitzy extravagant shows, yet also has a fascination with politics and volunteers for various campaigns. That she dislikes the outdoors as much as I adore it. And that she will never marry–we accept this difference despite my being the marrying kind. She does, however help raise a great niece and adores the child despite bellyaching about her hi-jinks.

We are getting older now, yes. There are even more things we can guffaw like fools over when we meet and slurp the steaming drinks with sugary scones, muffins or rich chocolate cookies. I have had the pleasure of enjoying five of her dogs; the last, an unlikely cross between a terrier and a basset hound named Dave, is a peach. She is not well; she has not been since I first met her. She has recovered from some things and developed others, serious maladies. She walks with a cane and a major limp despite being younger than I, and I know she is in pain every single moment. She doesn’t talk about it unless there is a crisis; I don’t talk about my health issues, either–we have too little time to enjoy all the good, the absurd, the miraculous, the strange, the love that circulates about despite many barriers to it. She has long worked in a women’s prison, helping them learn new things and get better, find their way back to lives more worth living. She is tired out by it but she won’t stop as I have; she wants to do this until she cannot take another step, I think. She will do it because it is what she loves–and to stop might mean not so good things are ahead for her.

I certainly had not sized her up correctly at first meeting eons ago. (As well, she did not make the correct evaluation of my personhood; she saw externals and decided who I must be.) She was this whole entity with interesting facets, far less like her projected demeanor than I even surmised. I found in time that she’d become a dear companion, someone I find marvelous and can count on. Laugh and weep and celebrate with, as needed. Someone who always can count on me.

A beloved friend. Once a stranger, as I had been to her. We both had been in error.

I could write of many people admired and gradually loved. Though I am not as social these days and can feel a bit too alone, I know that despite my share of heartaches and horrors–some trying to throw me off what can seem like the tightrope of life– I’ve been gifted with wonderful people to care about. They each have entered my life as a surprise, for all the right reasons. (More so than the people I should have avoided and also, unfortunately, judged inaccurately.) I believe we ought to pay better attention, make discernments the best we can–but then we must take our chances. Give others the leeway for reassessment and perhaps acceptance into our lives. Otherwise, we miss out on finer, richer truths of other human beings, the kaleidoscope of insights, delights, and mutual enrichment.