“Thou are the thing itself,” King Lear
Tell the story of a friendship—the sparkling, surf-like beginning; the deepening into calmer, cooler waters; the storms; the ports of call; the doldrums; the bright days of moderate, steady wind—the log book and cartography of a long voyage. Perhaps the tale ends, wracked on a rocky shore. Let me alter the course of your story, just a little. A long voyage does not play out in a simple, linear fashion, as a short trip might, but encounters many times its ludic beginnings and episodic middles, perhaps even the debris of its multiple near-ends.
The emotional dynamic of friendship bears a striking resemblance to that of romance, granting two essential differences. To a romance belongs the complexifying, yet singular, sexually-oriented purpose we give to marriage. And to romance we give that unique and compelling sense that this one, and no other, must be the one, intimately living ‘with,’ for as long as we breathe. My point, briefly stated: We fall in love with each other, as friends, and over time we learn what it means to love for the long voyage.
For a few years in Hereford, Arizona, I did odd jobs for Ruth Gregovich. Working for her became working with her, and work always turned to long conversation.
We built a decorative stone wall. We built a stone fountain. We hung pictures, painted walls, and admired paintings by her friend, Diego Rivera. We sat on her patio, quietly spying on the desert quail pecking through the grass. On some evenings, we watched the sun drop behind the Huachuca Mountains.
Very early one Saturday morning, Ruth called me. “Cheetah died. Can you help me bury her?” “Sure. I’ll be there in 15.” At the base of her stone wall, we dug a shallow grave, placed the cat in a shoe box, and set the box in the grave. After covering Cheetah with the dirt and turf, we set up the match-stick cross her granddaughter had made.
Linda and I moved to Texas. Ruth and I wrote letters for more than 20 years. She died at 92. She would be 101 now. At 61, I still miss her, painfully at times.
As my new colleagues mingled through the long hour of a faculty-staff mixer, I stood, nodded, smiled, and talked when I had to. I noticed another fellow sharing my discomfort and caught his eye. I knew. He knew. I exaggerate to say we loved each other at first sight, but we love each other to this day.
Mike, his wife Katie, my wife Linda, and I developed a friendship that has endured for nearly 30 years, a voyage, an adventure, a long and sometimes arduous journey deep into each other’s terra incognita.
The definitive anecdotes remain elusive. I reach for stories among the 23 months at a college where Mike and I worked. Perhaps the week with them on Chincoteague? In our home in Montana?
Our friendship, in fact, has been one long conversation, in person, by phone, by email. Words have woven us together.
I met Autumn, the 10-year-old daughter of my son’s Siksika girlfriend. I was 58. We eyed each other cautiously at first, grew to like each other, and soon began the adventure of building a history as friends.
On a long hike to a mountaintop, we trudged side-by-side in a group of six. I topped the peak in last place, a few meters behind her, but she felt proud, having begun the trek with considerable trepidation. I felt proud of her; much of our conversation involved me convincing her that a girl of nine could master a mountain.
One day, walking with Linda and my son Lewis, Autumn and I began to joke about some music coming from the door of a café. So we danced on the sidewalk, she and I, a clomping, arm-swinging, ludicrous sort of dance, but oh we danced!
I say I love you to a motley bunch of hims and hers, old and young—Christian, Hindu, atheist, Muslim—accountant, professor, carpenter, ex-student, pastor, computer techie, nurse, office administrator, . . . . I count every one as gift.
I read friendship literature, almost always with disappointment. Efforts to classify friendships by type, for instance, strike me as futile. In any case, I do not understand the value of asking, “Hmm, what ‘type’ of friendship do Ahmed and I have?” When a friendship goes awry, I do not find it helpful to divide and classify, applying labels to the was, is, and will be. I love what Maya Angelou says, “We are more alike, my friend, than unalike,” and yet individual complexities give every human a uniqueness that, likewise, makes every friendship unique. It has never occurred to me that I should ask, “Hmm, what ‘type’ of human is Roshni?”
How many human beings exist? How many possible friendships, mathematically speaking, could form? Let friendship proliferate unabated, exponentially, with a wild diversity (I am tempted to say ‘promiscuity’) of age, gender, color, culture, religion, forever!
Well, true, we can only sustain a very limited number of friendships in a lifetime. Our finiteness in time and space limits our capacity for acting upon our love. But perhaps not. I recall a story I have told before: I met a man on an airplane, a year before I married. As he left to board another flight, he said of his 50-year marriage, “My wife died a few months ago. Cherish your wife; it does not last long enough.” I never met him again; I think of him as a friend. Friendship never lasts long enough.
I insist upon this: friendship is the foundational human relationship. For Christians, God is friend; and a human, Abraham, for instance, can be a friend of God’s. Every other relationship we have, with God or each other, has definition and purpose—role, costume, and script. Friendship needs none of those. Conversely, I cannot imagine marriage or child-rearing without friendship at the core. My wife is my best friend, and I know our life together would be profoundly diminished, if that were not so.
To romance belongs the naked body, but it wears the cultural, social garments of marriage. To romance and friendship alike belongs the naked heart.