Saturday, June 3, 2017

On Friendship

I have been really blessed with the strong friendship of strong women throughout my life. These friendships have given me, taught me, helped me so much that it is simply impossible to explain. I could write a book about my memories of some of my friends, and about all the times I turned to them and was rewarded with affirmation, good advice, and some darn fine meals (people who care about food have friends who care about food, I guess^^).

Lately I've been thinking about friendship a lot. It started a few months ago when someone I was getting to know expressed rueful jealousy at my friendship with Kimberly (fast friends since 1997 – the closest friend I made in all my time in Korea—and since she lives in Vancouver, someone I get to see more than on Skype). To me it was almost impossible to imagine what this young woman told me—that at twenty she didn't have one close female friend, one long term friend. When I was twenty I had been friends with Faith for over a decade. Faith and I still talk or meet each other frequently (she's on Lopez, and now that I come to Lopez often she also exists beyond Skype). When I was twenty I was already friends with people like Rane (in Maryland, she mostly exists on Skype now, but when she gave birth to her eldest, I was there).

It can be hard to stay friends with people after you no longer live in proximity to each other, but in this internet connected age it's a lot easier than it ever was before. Back in 1996 when I first moved to Korea I was writing people letters on paper. That was harder. With the mailing time lag, even if someone did respond right away, the problems you were worrying would be solved or forgotten by the time you got a response. Now I'm partially addicted to Facebook because it's the way I can stay in touch with my people, as spread around the world as they are. And the reminders about birthdays sure are nice. I'm writing this on the ferry to Lopez, and in the five minutes since I sat down (we're still at the dock) five Facebook friends or their children (Yahanni, Kylie greeted me by name! So sweet!) have waved at me, said hi, or otherwise made small talk. I'm reasonably up-to-date on their lives thanks to Facebook. Other friends resist Facecrack, but we can stay in touch through email.

But even with the help of Facebook, Skype, and email you still have to do certain things to make and keep long term friends. One thing is just plain showing up—sometimes you have to go to the birthday parties and weddings and do all you can to ease their pain when they lose someone. I'm not always the best at that. I think I skate much too close to the thin ice on that one. I could justify this saying something like "they didn't come to my wedding" (then again, I got married on the Tibetan plateau), but the reality is that showing up matters and you can't be absent too often before people start to wonder if they are important to you. I try to help people understand my absences, but without making excuses, but one of my goals right now is to get better at showing up. I've been working at just showing up for my family (now that I live a few hours and a ferry ride away), and sometimes just that feels overwhelming for someone like me who is stretched too thin, but I need to show up for my friends, too.

And another thing is just being the type of person who knows how to be friends without spending physical time together—certain personalities know how to do that well, like Rebecca (the closest friend I made during my doctorate, currently in my life via Skype). Unfortunately there are other friends who are people I still really treasure, but for them it seems that face time must also include breathing in a certain amount of air that was previously in each other's lungs. Sometimes you don't know what type someone will be until you move, but the type of person who has long phone conversations while you're still living in the same city is probably also going to tolerate long phone and Skype conversations when you're not in the same city.

But there is a lot more to friendship than using technology and finding people who don't need you there to feel that you are still there.

For one thing, friends just accept each other. They get what makes each other tick. You can disagree with your friend (maybe it's something about their partner, their parenting, their diet or their use of a substance), but if you're friends you accept them. People turn to friends for acceptance. People turn to friends to know that even if they are a little crazy, it's okay. Friends offer advice and criticism when it's asked for, and most other times they just make a little comment like "well you know that's not my style,”  “I wasn't there,” “I don't have kids/work in that field.” Your friend probably already knew that you were unlikely to have made the same choice because they accept you being different than them. Friendship is very largely about acceptance. Because you have to be able to be honest with your friend. It's impossible to have any kind of real relationship without expressing what's important to you, honestly. And that does leave you vulnerable. But the friend –never- takes advantage of that vulnerability to slip a knife into your heart when your shields are down.

This is not to say you shouldn't tell someone they are out of line, tripping, or whatever when you just really need them to dial it back on down. But say it without judgment and then leave it alone. Do this without drama in a way that they will hear. If you're still building on the friendship, and the issue doesn't impact you personally, table it for another day when you're closer. (If it does matter that much, rethink the friendship—because saying "I am telling you this because I'm your friend" & "I have to be honest with you because I care about you" implies that other people don't tell the truth, that only the speaker is honest, and this is just a mild form of gas-lighting).

One of my oldest friends used to demonstrate against abortion (not nasty outside clinic demonstration, but at least once she went to a march). It was hard for me (because I believe strongly in women's choice) when she told me that, and we'd already been friends since we were five or six, but I couldn't figure out what to say about it. So as I remember it I simply said I had the opposite opinion, but it drove a wedge between us (from my side, I'm not sure about her side) and I spent less time with her (and then moved out of that city and it was pre-email so we fell out of touch for awhile). I couldn't figure out how to reach her with my feelings, but didn't want to trash the friendship. And you know, she and I are still friends today. And in the years since she went to that rally in 1990 (?) she's also been faced with the sort of situation where many many women would rethink their anti-abortion position, and yet she didn't get an abortion. All respect to her. She's a different person than me, she lives her truth, and we'll be friends until we die. I could run away from my life with the clothes on my back, and she'd give me a place to sleep for as long as I needed. So you can have diametrically opposite opinions about something (perhaps not the most elemental and central thing in your life, or something as all encompassing of a difference in values as voting for Twittler) and if you want to be friends, you accept each other. (And perhaps it's true that when she had that baby the lingering feeling I'd carried with me for more than fifteen years went away, because I respected that she never backed down from her own beliefs.)

Once in awhile, when your friend asks, you tell them some hard truth. But you make sure they're asking for that first. And you try to be super aware of their feelings and how they're taking your hard truth. Say something, wait, listen to their response and if they seem like they don't want to listen to what you just said—shut up about it. Do you want to be friends, or do you want to say your piece? Can you still be friends if you change the subject and go back to safe territory? Can you accept that they aren't ready to hear what you're saying? Are you making it about you and the fact that you're "right" more than the fact that you want to be friends with them next week, next year, next decade? Does expressing your truth matter more to you than their feelings while listening to you? Being a friend means being sensitive to other people's feelings. If you make a decision that winning an argument or saying your piece is more important that someone else, that means you've just decided that you matter more than they do. And if that's what you think, then you didn't really want to be friends.

There was a lesson I learned once. It was when I was in my third year of college and I was living with my best friend, Dawn. My splurge was to buy real honey for my tea, coffee, and baking needs. I was really broke (almost compromise and use white sugar degree of broke)—paying the tuition percentage left over after my fellowships, grants, and loans, rent and food costs by working forty or more hours per week while going to college full time with zero financial help from my parents. And Dawn kept using my honey. I knew how fast I used it—much slower than it was disappearing. I was really pissed about it for awhile and then I realized that Dawn was much more important than the honey. That she had different financial concerns than me, and different pressures on her, and came from a different culture where people were less frugal with treats. That it was worth buying twice as much honey to have a friend like her. I'm sure there were things about me that weren't easy for her to live with, either (probably quite a few), but she was tolerating them and accepting me. It was an important lesson. I have fallen back on that lesson thousands of times since, and it's probably a large reason that across the cultural divide my relationship with my husband is stronger than ever seventeen years after we first got together. What's more important, that person or something they do that bothers you? As long as the answer remains that person (and it helps if you reflect on things you do that also bother them, that they usually let slide), then you try really hard to let it go.

Actually, there is one time that as a friend you should occasionally give unasked for advice. That's when you think your friend has been neglecting a bigger goal in favor of something right in front of them. Or when they are neglecting some amazing talent or ability they have in favor of some immediate but maybe more practical thing. It's your duty as a friend to occasionally nudge at them about writing the novel they always promised you, or recording those fabulous songs of theirs, or starting that business that you suspect they're a little scared to try to start because they are afraid of failure. As a friend you should give them a little reminder, in a positive and upbeat way that lets them know that someone stands behind them even when they are reaching for the stars.

Other rules as a friend?

Listen to each other's bad day. Stand behind your friend. On the bad day listen to them gripe about anyone and anything and don't judge them for it. If you cannot stand listening to them gripe, are you really their friend? And the rules are that if it's their day to gripe, you have to let them talk it out. You can tell them about the similar thing that happened to you, but unless you're also in crisis mode right now, this is their time to do the whining, and all you can do is normalize the whining by proving they aren't crazy, you've experienced that sort of ________ as well. But you don't get to unburden. They need it, now. Let them talk it out. Listen and wash the dishes, clean the floor, take a brisk walk, but let them keep going. If it starts to seem like that's all your conversations are, and they always bitch and you always listen, then you can re-evaluate the friendship. But in a long lasting friendship, in my experience, you take turns.

Bring them the good stuff. You visit them or call them when you're in crisis, but you also have to show up on the great day. You have to tell them right away when "the" good thing happens to you. Do something silly and happy to let them know you were thinking about them. Kimberly has insisted before on buying me something because she was sure I should have it and she invites me when they buy something delicious to make for dinner (and I pretend to be excited about tiger spotted prawns and eat four which I would only do because they are locally caught that same day but mostly because my best friend is sharing with me her special treat and it feels really great to be invited for the happy special day even if I am more excited about asparagus and potatoes and salad). Actually writing this paragraph is just re-emphasizing to me how Kimberly is just the sweetest friend in the world. I am so freaking lucky.

Do the favor for them when you don't want to because you're just too busy. You Photoshop that series of photos into the desired format and they read your overdue book review (thanks Rebecca!). Cooperating helps lighten everyone's load.

I'm still learning all this stuff as I go. I haven't kept every friend from my whole life close. Some it's because we have diverged too much to have a lot to talk about (even if we still carry love for each other in our hearts). Some it's because the friendship becomes imbalanced over time in a way that's not sustainable. For example, I had this friend for about ten years. I introduced her to her husband (who I first met in 2000 or 2001, so you can see how deep the connection is). When we first met we lived in the same building, worked for the same university and exercised in the same studio. In other words, we spent a lot of time together. She used to call me to work through cultural differences she was having with her husband and such. When I left Korea and went to do my doctorate and we started spending less time together in person and on the phone I guess something changed for her. When I moved back to Korea and the same time zone I was happy to talk often again. I called her one day, no answer, and got a text message that she was taking an extended vacation in Colombia, she'd call me when she got back. This is someone I'd talked to on the phone at least once every couple weeks for the past year after returning from the US. But I realized in that moment that it was almost always me calling her. She'd moved on, her interests and needs had changed. I wasn’t the person to excitedly talk about an upcoming vacation with. I had to let that friendship go and leave it as a memory—it had meant a lot to me in the past, but wasn't part of my present. Who knows, maybe she'll reach out again someday. But we grow and we change, and that means what we need from those around us and the type of people we want to spend time with also changes. If all your friendships end in giant blow ups, then of course something is wrong with you, but if you just fade away from each other, move on from each other, but leave communication channels open then when the need arises you can still turn to each other, and you'll still care about each other. Even when I unfriend someone I was once close to on FB (for example when they post lots of things that rile you up) I make sure to send them a note and let them know my email address and ask them to reach me that way if they need. I don't want to close the channel of communication, even if I don't want to read their public character assassinations of their ex (who I never met and might actually be horrible) every other day.

Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about friendship, and what friendship means, and how to be a good friend. These are lessons I learned on the go, from my friends. They deserve all the credit for making me into a better friend, and tolerating me when I don't always get it right.

Love you all!

p.s. and of course sometimes the best friend is an animal
p.p.s. the friend I've know the very longest, my mom, read this post to make sure I didn't sound like a crazy person and suggested a few clarifying touches. Love you mom! I'm not sure when you became my very bestest friend (and not someone to wipe my bum or rebel against), but you rock. 

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