The work of friendship
Sometimes we're all just really the worst.
A few weeks ago, I took a short business trip to Switzerland. Just one night in Basel, a day of meetings, and then a 90-minute prop-jet flight into City Airport, and I was home by 7pm. No big deal, really. Still, it was the cap on an exhausting and chaotic week. I spent the next two days catching up on life, getting organized for the week ahead, and also just quietly relaxing. I blithely forgot about the tentative plans I'd made to get together with a dear girlfriend whom I hadn't seen for some time. I didn't think much of it until it the Monday morning, when, just as I was about to leave for work, my phone pinged with a message from her, "Are you alive?"
Ha! I thought, and replied straightaway, that indeed I was, and that I'd like to get together in the next few days. It then occurred to me that I'd missed our date. My phone pinged again. Actually, no, let's not get together this week, she said. She was pissed that I'd blown her off.
I understood, because she was right, but I'll admit that I was also slightly shocked. Canceling and rescheduling is so commonplace. We're used to it, we all basically have a gentlewoman's agreement that releases us from feeling any guilt when we do, and we never call each other out on it, not really. Sometimes our lack of ability to actually make plans and stick to them borders on the absurd, like in one of my favorite New Yorker pieces of the past few years:
"B: I am total garbage at scheduling and forgot we were supposed to meet up tonight. Could you do Mon? SO SORRY. I feel terrible.
A: OMG, do not feel terrible. You are not as bad as I am. If you’re garbage, then I am, like, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, because Monday doesn’t work. What about tomorrow?
B: I am worse than the global food crisis. Tomorrow’s no good. This is embarrassing, but I signed up for a yoga workshop. (I know, eye roll.) Anyway, hopefully I’ll get my shit together and stop being the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami by next week. Xo."
In the wise words of Homer Simpson, it's funny cuz it's true. We are all the worst at being friends. I may not have related to much of the experience of Girls (which did not at all get in the way of my falling in love with it, ultimately), but as the show ended this week, it's now clear that the central arc was not about the enduring strength of female friendships, come hell or high water. Rather, it was about the reality of how they change over time, and often reach a natural end.
Friendships dissolve, more often due to lack of nourishment than because of some dramatic event (like when your best friend hooks up with your ex, and then the two of them make a short film together about your relationship, for example). In the past several years, I've lost two close friends myself, one somewhat dramatically, and another, one of my oldest, mostly because she's not really on social media.
Which is funny, isn't it- how Facebook is actually what keeps us together these days, and I'm incredibly grateful for it. It doesn't necessarily matter that it may have been ages since we last saw each other in person, or if we even have. I care to see how friends' lives have unfolded in parallel to my own. Our handful of connections in life may be tenuous and fleeting, but they are inextricable, and for the most part, I relish the small ways we remain in touch.
My friends are like GPS pins on the path of my life. They remind me of where I am and where I've been, how I got there, and what happened in between. Friendships are where I find myself, where the pieces start to fit together, and where some are missing. They are, in a sense, my home.
I've never been one of those people surrounded by a crew, traveling in a pack, creating an instant pop-up party wherever they go. Nor do I have, like one amazing friend of mine, a network that reaches far and wide that I can just tap into when the mood strikes for an impromptu date to a concert or an afternoon at a wine bar, wherever I happen to be at the moment. Moving around as much as I have, most of my friendships are categorically long-distance relationships, kept warm with lengthy if sporadic emails, Skype sessions, and occasionally a rendezvous in some part of the world where we are either lucky or coordinated enough to be at the same time.
Because of this, I may occasionally forget how to be friends in person. In spite of myself, I have become Charlie Ravioli, the too-busy-to-pin-down imaginary friend of writer Adam Gopnik's young daughter in yet another one of my all-time favorite pieces in The New Yorker, "Bumping into Mr. Ravioli:"
"On a good day, she “bumps into” her invisible friend and they go to a coffee shop. “I bumped into Charlie Ravioli,” she announces at dinner (after a day when, of course, she stayed home, played, had a nap, had lunch, paid a visit to the Central Park Zoo, and then had another nap). “We had coffee, but then he had to run.” She sighs, sometimes, at her inability to make their schedules mesh, but she accepts it as inevitable, just the way life is. “I bumped into Charlie Ravioli today,” she says. “He was working.” Then she adds brightly, “But we hopped into a taxi.” What happened then? we ask. “We grabbed lunch,” she says."
Gopnik's essay was published in 2002, not even 20 years ago, yet an impossible-seeming time before Facebook and WhatsApp and Messenger became the ties that bind. In the ensuing years, it's plausible that his daughter Olivia, around five years old at the essay's writing is today one of the women above, trapped in an endless cycle of making and canceling plans, being a terrible friend.
As Gopnik goes on to say, "Busyness is our art form, our civic ritual, our way of being us." Our lives lived on social media are nothing if not a testament to it, our updates to the world photographic and geo-tagged evidence of how utterly undisposed we are. We are so busy that Gmail auto-suggests terse yet cheerful two word email replies.
Our sense of being in touch these days is one that keeps our relationships at an arm's length, within reach, but not fully embraced. Gopnik continues,
“The crowding of our space has been reinforced by a crowding of our time, and the only way to protect ourselves is to build structures of perpetual deferral: I’ll see you next week, let’s talk soon. We build rhetorical baffles around our lives to keep the crowding out, only to find that we have let nobody we love in.”
I'm so sincerely moved to receive reminders of your friendship week over week, your words of encouragement, the resonance of a particular story. Thank you all for being there, and for making time in your schedules for me. Maybe we can't always promise consistency, but we can promise effort. Sometimes all it takes is showing up.