So Many Streets, So Many Connections

Photograph of Virginia Woolf , 1911 – 1912. Oil on board, by Vanessa Bell. In the public domain.

I have lost friends, some by death… others by sheer inability to cross the street. 
 Virginia Woolf

I just finished reading an essay, “Girlfriends,” in Anna Quindlen’s Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. In her memoir Quindlen passes along Virginia Woolf’s wise words, above. Those words struck me hard. For, you see, I am at an age where I have lost friends to death, although you might say age has nothing to do with it, and that’s true. Friends, or God forbid, family, can be snatched from us at any age, at any time; witness the recent unspeakable event in Aurora, Colorado.

How Wide Is the Street?

Having gotten those morbid thoughts out of the way, I’d rather focus on the other part of Woolf’s quote. We lose friends, Woolf suggests, “by sheer inability to cross the street.” Those words stunned me. How many times have I let friendships languish out of inertia? How often have I been unable, or unwilling, to “cross the street”?

I thought immediately of a good friend–we used to be “besties,” as the young ones might say–whom I haven’t seen in months. We haven’t even talked on the phone or emailed. I’m mystified by this neglect of a long-time friendship. I’m afraid we’ve drifted away from each other because of political and religious differences, and there’s no way one of us can convince the other she’s wrong. Even though we have “agreed to disagree,” those differences have cast a pall on our friendship. And yet, why have I not crossed the street, called one more time, and suggested we get together? I have not, and it’s a shame.

Then there’s my dearest childhood friend who writes me long, lovely, handwritten letters occasionally, newsy notes about her and her husband and what’s going on in their lives.  When we do talk, maybe once a year (why not more often?), we always pick up where we left off, as though not one of the events of our later lives has intervened. We might as well be girls again, sleeping over and giggling–or crying–about boyfriends. That’s a rare friendship indeed. My response to those long letters she writes? She’s lucky if she gets an email in return. She deserves a better friend.

And there are the friends in my book group (we call it “the bookgroup,” as in the only one). Some of us “go way back”; others are relatively new friends with whom I share a great love of books. We don’t always agree; in fact, we have spirited discussions when we meet. But we respect each other. I think it’s safe to say we love each other. We would cross the street; indeed, we have. (One of those friends shared the Quindlen essay with me. Thanks, J—.)

Coffee cup

A Whole New World

And then there’s the new world of cyber-friends. Friends, you say? Are you skeptical? That’s all right. I was, too, in the beginning. Yes, I use Facebook to keep up with my dear ones. Otherwise, Facebook “relationships” seem superficial, at best. And yet, if you’re lucky, a comaraderie develops over time as acquaintances open to each other through common interests; as they sense when someone needs a good word; as they listen (figuratively, yes); as they offer themselves unselfishly, laugh together, and cry together.

This is particularly true of writers, I think. I’ve become associated with a group of writers  through Facebook and other social media. We may have started out with the goal of increasing our online presence and creating a “platform” so that as we publish and hopefully, someday, really need a platform, we’ll be ready with the website and the Facebook Writer’s Page and a Twitter account and a nice number of connections across the Web. But I believe, as we’ve gotten to know each other better, bonds have formed among us. We don’t all know each other equally well; we don’t all share the same goals; we might not recognize each other if we were all thrown into a crowded room together. But we are connected. What we care about—our writing, mostly, but also our successes, our failures, our significant life moments, both good and bad—we have come to expect to share with these other folks whom we may never see in the flesh.

Let’s Have a Cup of Coffee

Yet we are, in a real sense, capable of “crossing the street” for each other. It’s not the same as sitting across from that old friend I miss a lot, having a cup of coffee, and catching up, or writing that long overdue letter, or having a pithy book discussion that ends in good will and laughter. It’s not the same as showing up at the home of a friend when somebody is sick or there’s terrible news.

But give us time and technology! We may just get there.

How important are your friendships, “in the flesh” or otherwise? Let me know your thoughts!

Somebody You’re Longing to See

For G and J

What happens when people meet again after many years of separation?  Might they find they have nothing in common and go their separate ways? Or might the bonds formed early outlast all the changes a lifetime brings?

Reunion

This past Monday, a high school friend and his wife spent the afternoon with my husband and me.  The friend and I had reconnected at a class reunion a few years ago, but just like during the intervening years after our graduation, we had been out of touch since the reunion. So we got together for lunch and wound up spending the afternoon getting reacquainted, reminiscing, and swapping stories.

Thormahlen “Swan”

His wife is a musician, so she and I have that in common (although I’d say I’m a sleeper musician; I don’t play the piano much these days). She brought her harp for me to see—a beautifully crafted Thormahlen “Swan,” a real work of art. She demonstrated how to tune it and then she played it for us, such lovely music. I brought out my almost-brand-new dulcimer, untouched ever since I broke a string about a year ago. He helped me tune it and gave me some rudimentary instruction. “Find a teacher,” they both said. “Learn it. It’s fun.” They are into adventures and new learning, a fine example for me.

Backstory

My friend and I found, just as we did three years ago at the reunion, that we have much in common, not just our upbringing, but our faith journeys, our politics, our love of travel and books and music. We grew up in the red clay hills of north Mississippi, a rural, poor part of the state (in case you have misconceptions about Mississippi, pockets of extreme poverty were not and are not limited to the Delta). His father was a Baptist minister, his family huge. My dad owned an automobile parts store; I was an only child. My friend and I didn’t know each other until he moved to town at the end of our ninth grade year. He was a shy boy, good-looking, sweet, and smart. He reminded me that he asked me to prom our junior year, but I already had a date. He moved on to date one of my best friends.

Roads Diverged

After high school, we went our very separate ways. What surprised us when we reconnected, I think, was how we had “outgrown” the place where we grew up, and yet how shaped we are, despite our different paths and experiences, by that time and place and people. Both of us had strong, hard-working fathers who sacrificed for us and for others. Both of us had home-making mothers whose chief duties were to mother us. We had good teachers who expected much. We had the good wishes of our friends—many of whom stayed behind in that small town—as we left that place behind. I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” We all chose our paths, but he and I chose “the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Time Lost

My friend’s wife and I have a lot in common. We talked music and children and grandchildren and shared photos. He and my husband swapped father stories for much of the afternoon, poignant memories of words said or unsaid, connections and failures. I enjoyed watching them get to know each other in that way.

Hambidge path, Spring 2011

Our reunion turned out to be bittersweet. I’m grateful for the renewal of friendship, but I grieve that interim of years, all that time lost when we might have enjoyed each other’s company, when we might have been there for illnesses or hard times. But those aren’t the only “lost years.” There’s my husband’s life before we met, and the lives of my children since they left home, and the bits and pieces of lives that have crossed with mine only briefly. The don’t-knows are endless.

As a fiction writer, it’s the most natural thing in the world to imagine them. And if they become fodder for the imagination—isn’t there some redemption in that? It’s a little like inventing character: taking the bits and pieces I know and weaving them into the don’t-know of their lives.

So forgive me, old friends, and new, if some fragment of you winds up in a story. It’s a compliment, really, to your reality. To your existence as part of my life.

Is there somebody you’re “longing to see,” as the old song goes? Somebody whose missing years you would take back or re-invent, if you could? Try writing about her. Try imagining what she would say to you if she could.

Share your thoughts here, please. I’d love to know what this piece and this little exercise trigger for you.