“No man is a failure who has friends.” I learned this lesson early from Clarence, the wise/silly old angel character in perhaps my favorite movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life. In earnest childhood years, I unconsciously took this to heart and was so grateful for my best friend, crying when she moved away to Arizona. I was best-friendless until the age of ten, when a snowy evening introduced me to the one I would soon think of, and continue to be thankful for, as “my person.”
From the very first snow fort that very first night, when we engaged in serious discussion of the “Barbie Girl” song and the feeling of earthly perfection that comes with hot cocoa and cold cheeks, my person and I spent forever in hours happy together. We rollerskated in circles around the garage, sharing one pair of skates – one skate for each of us – to Barry Manilow’s Because it’s Christmas, in all seasons. We invented games at the park. She told me the surprise endings of the movies I’d never be allowed to watch. I told her about places in scary Portland she wasn’t allowed to visit. We got our periods within a couple of months of each other. We compared takeaways from our voracious reading habits. She excelled in all things school; I in English, history, sociology, anything about words and people. We planned our futures.
When in the earliest days of adolescence the concept was hammered home to me that being chubby and highly empathetic detracted from my value as a human, I made another subconscious lifestyle choice: I would go for quantity over quality. Since I am of less worth than others, I thought, I will make myself busy. I will, as Glennon Doyle Melton puts it so well, “send my representative” into the world and she will make lots of friends. Teachers will love her, she will smile and be just awkwardly funny enough to charm. Meanwhile, I will do just enough of the actual life things to get by. I will use the freedom of my driver’s license and newly back-to-work mom to escape these feelings of not being enough. I will go wherever I feel like going, whenever the need hits, with anyone I know who is unsupervised or able to climb out a window. I will drive away from these feelings and I will cover them with fast food. The only people who will continue to be allowed to know me are my person (with whom I spent increasingly less time – after all, she knows me and I am not worth much) and my journal.
So I did. Variations of that escape mechanism existed for at least a decade. Thankfully, I retained a life-saving curiosity about the future, and didn’t enter my existentialist crisis of spirituality until later, when I had developed a firm grasp on and love for myself. Despite the internal turmoil of those years, myself, my real self, was in there and silently screaming to be let out. In retrospect, I think I let me out often enough to find my footing through times that would otherwise have been totally destructive.
I moved to California. I added dozens more to the community of those who cushioned me from myself. I met a boy. This is not a story of how a girl was saved by a boy. It’s a story of being healed, sustained, taught I am worthy of love, through friendship. This boy, this new best friend, while not my person (no one replaces my person), showed me through laughter and confidences, through many late nights of endless talking and some fighting, that being known – while really scary – is okay when the person you allow to know you is safe. Knowing… knowing yourself, knowing someone else, being known is, in fact, a lifeline. It is, in fact, the only thing that brings meaning. I grew to really know and really love this boy, and he did the same with me. Eventually, I married him. Eventually, I turned into a woman and he into a man (not a virginity joke). He is still my partner and still my best friend.
I began to consider quality again, over quanitity, in the realm of friendships. This did not make people happy. I stumbled my way through the process of weeding through relationships, realizing most of those I had allowed to know bits and pieces of me did not respond well to those pieces. My representative fared far better in a culture where, despite all preaching to the contrary, charisma was king and appearance queen – a land focused, as most institutions are, on amassing power-control-money-fill-in-the-blank. So when “to thine own self be true” became important for me again, it moved in with force. It came in with a vengeance. Me took possession of “me.” I HAVE to be myself; I am drowning in otherness, I am choking, somebody make it stop. Oh. Me. I have to make it stop.
So I did. A several-year process unfolded, a whole different story for another time, or perhaps maybe never. But in the detoxification process, something beautiful happened. I realized I had four friends. My life partner friend, my person friend, and two friends I met during the year everything went haywire and I began to become myself again. Quality.
Since that time, some friendships have deepened and some have reframed a bit, as friendships do when we grow and change, and some new ones have been added. And I have a small collection of people very important to me with whom I love to share a glass of wine or a mug of tea or a good meal or a walk or a hike or all of these things in one day.
But knowing and being known?
I have my life partner friend, who makes me thankful every day that we are walking our journeys next to each other. Sometimes one of us runs up ahead of the other one. Sometimes one of us has to come back and say, “Get up, lazy. This part of the road sucks, but we can do it.” Sometimes one of us sits down in the mud next to the other one and we cry or sigh together for a bit. More often, we point out cool roadside attractions and laugh together. He is my heart.
I have my person friend, who is the first one I call; who I can text when stupid people annoy me and when George Takei tweets something awesome, and who sent me a care package that included a Jane Austen quote coloring book, when Joseph and I lost our first child in utero; who I would drop everything and go into debt for if she needed me on the other side of the country today. 2017 is our twenty-year anniversary.
I have my face-licking friend. We lick each others’ faces in greeting. It’s a long story and doesn’t make a ton of sense. She is probably thankful to have moved to Minnesota, away from my mouth. Words are not enough to describe the timeliness of our connection (her friendship gave me hope when I didn’t have much at all), and how grateful I am she is in my life today. I know she will be there always. We will be super old, talking about food and disagreeing about politics and licking each others’ faces and our grandkids will be embarassed.
I have my California friend, who represents a beacon of light and refreshment and authenticity at all times. We get each other. We are strong and stubborn, each of us, and we have wrestled with the difficulties of life, together and apart. Watching her parent is an inspiration. Watching her live with a simultaneous abundance of gracefulness and beauty and realism is key to my own inner monologue on life. She is somehow practically perfect in every way and yet a normal flawed human. She’s a hero.
I have my girls night friends, who challenge me and make me laugh and who I can talk to about my marriage and my journey toward having children and my work and my hopes and dreams and plans. We drink lots of margaritas. We eat good food together. We are super loud in restaurants, as a collective. There is more to these women than I have time to express. “Girls night friend”is a poor moniker for each of these warrior humans. These women are so precious to me and my life misses the richness when our regular hangouts don’t happen. They are both therapists. It’s very handy.
Knowing and being known is worth it.