Friday, October 11, 2013

Midlife Friends

I've been thinking about friends, about the kinds of friends I think I should have, the kinds of friends I wish I had, the kinds of friends I've had in the past, all the ways that friendships change.

Before we moved here in 1998, I hadn't lived in any place longer than 5 years.  And even during those 5 year stints, there were changes:  grad school years starting and ending, different houses, job variety, that kind of thing. So if friendships changed, it was easy to find apparent causes.

Now I've been in my current workplace for over 10 years, which means I've been friends with these people for a long time.  And yet, there have been changes:  health crises, the trajectory of children, the job itself, our creative interests.  It can be tough to navigate.

When I was young, my family moved a lot.  I felt like the outsider, always seeing other people who seemed to have deep and intricate friendships.  I wanted friendships like those.  I imagined that we would tell our deep, dark secrets.  I wanted to be known and loved despite of my shortcomings.  Those were the kinds of friendships that I saw depicted in books and movies too:  two people who commit to each other through thick or thin, who know each other in all sorts of ways, who stay together.

It sounds like marriage, doesn't it?  And like our unrealistic expectations of marriage, I think that our unrealistic expectations of friendships can doom us.

I've been thinking about the people in my life who are friends of sorts, yet my younger self might not have described them such.  For example, at my gym, I know all sorts of people.  I see some of them more regularly than I see most friends; some of them I see daily.  I often know about how they're feeling, about their recovery from various ailments, and I often hear about family members.  Yet I don't know everything about them.  I have no idea where they went to school, if they went to school, what kind of significant relationships they've had, or their view of spirituality.  And yet, in many ways, they are good friends.

Last night I got to spin class after work only to discover that I had packed two shirts, instead of a shirt and a pair of shorts.  I went back to the spin room to tell my teacher why I couldn't stay.  Not one, but two of my spinning friends offered to loan me an extra pair of shorts.

I said yes to one woman, even though I felt strange about borrowing her clothes.  It felt intimate in some way; I'd be sweating intensely.  When I said this to my friend, she shrugged and said, "You'll wash them."  I also worried about ruining her shorts in some way:  splitting a seam or stretching out the cloth beyond repair.  But it was only an hour, after all.

This generosity amazed me and touched me deeply.  On some level, I felt unworthy, like we didn't know each other well enough to be sharing clothes.  And yet, two days earlier, we'd gathered around this woman's  iPhone to see pictures of her granddaughter, a child not one year old, a child who is on a liver transplant list. I've spent the summer praying for this baby and her family, as have the rest of us who are praying people.  On Tuesday, we found out that the child's liver appears to be rejuvenating, although she'll stay on the transplant list just in case.

Maybe these are the kinds of friends one has at midlife.  I think back to my college friends, back when we lived in the same dorm or a no further away from each other than a quick walk across the Quad.  We spent lots of time together.  We had intense conversations.  We helped each other through all kinds of crises.

Once I'd have said I missed that level of intense friendship.  Now that life throws plenty of drama our way, I marvel at the manufactured drama of those college years:  why did we do that to ourselves?

Still, in having stayed planted in this place, there's a bittersweet nature to my longterm friendships, a memory of what we once had, a sadness at what's gone.  When did we all get so busy?  What happened to our good health?  How did we once create so much, and now it's hard to see any project to completion?

Is there abundant recompense, as Wordsworth might have phrased it?  I'm sure that there is, but it will take me time and distance to be clear about the nature of that recompense.

And in the meantime, there are all sorts of friendships that provide comfort and succor.  There are friends who notice my absence when I don't make it to the gym.  There are friends from past places who write e-mails and plan to meet me at retreats or monasteries.  There are friends at church, with whom I will unload pumpkins on Sunday.  Those kinds of projects cement us together in ways that late night philosophical conversations used to do for college friends.

I am rich in friends of all sorts, and on this Friday, I'm grateful for that.


Wendy said...


I moved around so much growing up, I always wondered what it would be like to have a "best" friend. With my most intimate friend, I tend to be in the second circle of friendship, what we once might have called a "next-best-friend." I had already lived in 3 different countries by the time I was my daughter's age (6). Right now she is back in her bedroom with the friend she has known since we began to go to their church before she was 2, when I was expecting her brother. They see each other every day at school, every Sunday at church, and right now Saturdays for soccer, and we still have to pry them apart when it's time to go home. I wonder what happens over the next few years, but I find it kind of amazing.

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