“I force people to have coffee with me, just because I don’t trust that a friendship can be maintained without any other senses besides a computer or cellphone screen.” – John Cusack
Snapshot: Saturday afternoon, East Village, Des Moines, Iowa. My friends, Layne and Kristen are ahead of me on the sidewalk, my friend Tammy is walking beside me. I can see the state capitol behind the two leading our small pack, so I call out and ask them to stop so I can take their picture. Layne says, “It feels like we’re out shopping with our moms.” We all laugh, but I still take the photo.
We were in Des Moines visiting Layne. A few weeks ago, we were reminiscing about our friendships on social media, and I thrust this weekend gathering upon her – “Let’s all meet at Layne’s”, and she gracefully accepted the challenge of houseguests despite her busy life as a working mom whose job requires regular travel.
In these first few hours of our reunion, the pace was a bit frenetic. I can’t speak for anyone else, but to me it felt like we were meant to be jubilant in our togetherness, yet hadn’t quite shifted back into in-real-life mode, as opposed to texting and direct-messaging mode. No one said, “OMG!” or “LOL!”, though it would not, perhaps, have felt out of place.
It didn’t take long for a shift to happen. In one store, Layne said, “Let’s go home and hang out with Oliver” (her adorable toddler son) and that was all it took. The honest longing in her voice to be at home, and our willingness to move past the triteness of the “girl’s weekend” cliche of being out on the town (not that we weren’t planning an evening involving much wine and “Cards Against Humanity”, also a girl’s weekend cliche) were all it required.
Here is what wasn’t cliche about our weekend gathering: The five of us (sadly missing our fifth wheel, Tricia, who could only be with us in spirit due to family obligations) are unlikely friends. We span four decades of life – with at least one of us in each decade from their 20s through their 50s. We have a variety of academic degrees and divergent interests. Some have families, others do not. We met in our workplace, where I hired and supervised all but one of the others. Often, this alone would prevent my inclusion in the group – people may love their boss as a boss, but it is somewhat less likely that they will become the kind of friends who crash at each others’ homes.
The two youngest, whom I hired as Hall Directors right out of college, have a light in them that shines warmly. Like other millennials, they grew up reinforced and supported for their uniqueness. While many people my age lament what they see as the problematic aspects of this generation, I celebrate their positive qualities. I wish that women in my generation had been taught to stand up for ourselves, to believe in our competence, to allow our unique qualities and quirks to be more than fodder for bullying or self-shame. Since the day we met, and for the rest of our lives, I will do everything in my power to help these two hold on to that shine – despite the ways our world may work to dim it.
The middle two are literally two of the most supportive and loving women I know. Empathic and honest, they don’t shy away from those difficult places that friends sometimes to fear to go with each other. And they love to shake things up a bit, to belly laugh, to be occasionally outrageous.
For the five of us, it was a soul-satisfying adventure to work together. It remains an adventure as we maintain our connectedness while living in different cities.
One of the most surprising things in my life has been the richness of relationships: rich in variety, depth and nuance. Because of this richness, I have often been disappointed in the dearth of words to describe our relationships. We have concrete words for family connections (though everyone of us experiences the actualities differently), a few words for romantic relationships, and some for friendship. Many of these words are used so broadly, as placeholders for suck a multitude of variations, they end up lacking degree or depth.
This is why, I suspect, my younger nieces and their age-cohort tend to call whichever friend they are with at the moment “my best friend” in the comments on their Instagrams or Snapchats. It is also why, in graduate school, my friend, Cathann, and I began calling each other “comrade” – not because we shared a political affiliation, but because we felt words like “pal”, “buddy”, “friend” didn’t capture the intellectual quality of our emotional connection with one another.
What is the word for “my friend whom I love like my child except that I also get to be my totally flawed self with unlike a mother gets to be”, I wonder? Or the one for “this woman is exactly the person I want to be except that I get to keep my own stuff, just take on some of her loveliness while also experiencing it in her”? What do I call “my not-brother who makes me feel loved and protected and respected as a woman even when I swear like a longshoreman when we’re together?” The best word I can find for each of these friend.
I am grateful for the multiplying ways we are able to remain in contact with the people who offer this rich texture to our lives. But one thing the weekend in Des Moines reminded me of is that there is no substitute for time spent in physical proximity to the people we love. To see the shifting facial expressions, hear the laughter and the vocal expressions of emotion, to feel the hugs and occasional slugs on the shoulder – the sensory experience of relationship is so vitally important. And it is for this reason that, like John Cusack says, I will continue to force people to have coffee with me – or foist my company upon a distant friend. I am so deeply grateful for each and every buddy, pal, comrade, colleague, co-conspiritor in my life…for each and every friend.
“Wherever it is you may be, it is your friends who make your world.” – Chris Bradford