Friendship is important to all of us and it gets more important as you get older. I am one of a cadre of women and men who have known each other for many years. We have been through the wars together and we will get to see each other out of this world.
When someone is younger, relationships, partnerships, children, workmates, often take precedence over friends. But as you age, these fall away. People leave, or they die. Your children are busy with careers and their own children, you are no longer working and you turn towards your friends for support.
Aging is primarily a long confusing identity crisis. The things that once gave my life meaning and goals have fallen away: work, teaching, relationships. My children are loving but far away and always too busy. What I am learning to cherish more and more is good friends, loving friends, people I meet for coffee, lunch or dinner, people who exchange with me grief, joy and everyday experiences. Some of us are dealing with grief, some with pain or illness. When we tell each other stories of whatever it is we are dealing with, we listen carefully. We nod. We understand each other. The rest of the world is not always so understanding.
Friendship includes love but isn’t based on it. The importance of friendship is often overlooked until you need your friends, and then it becomes paramount.
My friends are all in my life because something about them engages me; I find them admirable, interesting, fun, and helpful. The first time I became aware of the importance of friends was in high school, when three lovely girls, who are still my friends, saw my loneliness and confusion as I came into high school from a small one-room school. I didn’t know anyone in this new school and I hid in the library at noon, afraid of being alone. My friends saw this and simply enfolded me in their friendship and saved my soul. I will always be grateful to them.
A few years ago, I had a concussion and a traumatic brain injury. Again, my friends came to the rescue, setting up a rota of people who came to care for me, drive me to medical appointments, cook me meals, buy me groceries. This time, they saved my life and my soul.
I have many friends. It’s easy to make friends in a small community. There are many levels of friendship, from people I see in the grocery store or at a party once or twice a year, to the few people with whom I share the intimate details of my life, some of whom I have now been friends with for over forty years.
That level of knowing approaches the same depth and intimacy as a marriage but it is very different, with different boundaries. It can be confusing. Levels of friendship can vary over time. One or the other person gets busy or their life changes or one person pulls back for some unknown reason. You don’t get a divorce from a friend but sometimes you do. Sometimes there is a fight or a disagreement and you realize that the basis of your friendship has changed. Someone says something or does something that changes your relationship.
Friendship can also be unexpected. I once had an amazing revelatory relationship with a woman I didn’t know. We were both writers; we had both written memoirs. We both needed an editor. Through a friend who knew both of us, we met and exchanged manuscripts. I went home and read about her long struggle with illness, her conversion to Christianity, her getting well, falling in love and having a child. At the same time, she was reading my life.
When we met to discuss our books, it was confusing. We knew all about each other but we didn’t actually know each other. Eventually we became great friends but we had to decide to learn about each other on a personal level as well as a literary one.
I had another odd experience with friendship when I was teaching creative writing online for the University of British Columbia. I love teaching and I loved my students. One of the classes I taught was nonfiction and my students wrote amazing stories about various complexities in their lives. Their stories were brilliant, honest, often heart breaking, sometimes joyful. I only knew them from their writing and from their personalities as they were presented in the UBC online forum. We shared many things beside stories; the books we were reading, ideas we had about writing issues, or even just stories about raising kids and being writers at the same time.
Then in the summer, I would go for two weeks to UBC to teach in person. And there were my students, looking like they did in their photos online, but different. They were the same people but larger sonehow. There was always a shock in meeting them in seeing how much bigger they were in person, somehow, than they were online. We met with genuine good will and friendship, but our relationships had to grow past and through what we had been online. Sometimes this worked well; sometimes it didn’t.
Friendship, like any other intimate partnership, needs work and attention. There are things about your friends you might find irritating or annoying or even weird but you accept it because they are, after all, your friends. That means you like them, you respect them, you are fond of them, you love them dearly, and then you leave them at the restaurant or the coffee shop or the party and you go home.
This is why I cherish my long term friends so much. Over the thirty or forty years we have known each other, we have rubbed any sharp edges off our friendships. We know and love and accept each other, rough patches and all. We can depend on each other. We have seen each other through lovers and kids and illnesses and triumphs and difficulties. We have found the levels and boundaries in which our friendships can thrive. And best of all, we see and understand each other. The gift of true understanding is rare in this world and friends provide that. I am grateful to all of them.