Hilary and Terence’s (awesome) friend Launa is keeping a marvelous, funny, gorgeously-written blog about her experience living in France for a year with her husband and two daughters. Launa’s writing has that ineffable humorous-and-wise combination that speaks to me best, and her blog is now one of my very favorites.
Today she wrote about friends. About how being in a totally foreign place has made her thoughtful about both making new friends and about those old relationships back at home. Her story of sitting in the sunlight and combining her various hard-copy address books, parsing who makes it into the new version and who does not was hilarious and spot-on.
– William James
(incidentally, another wise expatriate)
Of course I identify with Launa’s primary discourse about learning to make friends in a foreign country and language. The move I remember most clearly is that from the US to London in January of 1987. That was not great. I’ll never forget when my parents told Hilary and I we were leaving. I believe that was when you must be mistaking this for a democracy really took hold in my family’s private iambic pentameter. We moved in the middle of the school year to a country where we knew nobody, went into local schools as the only Americans…. and, well, it was tough (incidentally I just typed democrazy by accident and thought … hmm, there’s something to that).
I will never, ever forget walking into my classroom with a girl named Stefanie was assigned to greet me at the front door. She pushed through the double swinging doors and cleared her throat. 25 girls, all hopelessly glamorous and foreign-looking, turned to stare at me. Stefanie, with the dry delivery I would learn was characteristic but not unfriendly, announced, “This is Lindsey. The new girl. The American.” She then turned and vanished into the crowd. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as mortified as I was right then.
So when Launa talks about making friends in new places I can relate. The language barrier is of course different in England, and my friend-making in Paris was early enough that I don’t recall much of it. I do remember the French school, the heavy green door, the rabbit hutch in the courtyard, and a sleepover where I got so homesick that Mum had to come and rescue me. But the memories of struggling to make friends are not as vivid for the Paris years as they are for those spent in London.
The next layer of Launa’s meaning is where my mind is today, though. As she discusses who endures from address book to address book, which friends manage to stick with us through life’s perambulations, I find myself thinking about the same things. Maybe it’s also because I just finished After You, a lovely novel centered on a pair of lifelong friends. Maybe, too, it’s because my spirit will always run on the academic year calendar, and September reminds me of the friends I made in those expansive years.
There have been three fertile periods of friend-making in my life. The first was my childhood friends, my “family friends,” who really functioned more as siblings than anything else in my early life. These friends flanked me through those first important years, though the relationships were driven as much by our parents’ friendships as by anything individual to us. I am not in daily touch with any of those friend-siblings these days, but they remain close to me in the way of people who have shared formative life experiences. Like, perhaps, people who went through trench warfare together. I also had dear friends from my grade school (one of whom I saw last week and realized that Grace is about to be the age we were when we met – holy holy holy!).
The second was college. High school, fractured as it was between England and New Hampshire, was quite fraught for me. I had some good friends in London but we have dropped out of touch, proving to me that the weight of different cultures and the ocean was too heavy for the fragile bonds we shared. At boarding school I pulled into myself for a variety of reasons, and I remember those two years as some of the loneliest of my life. Yes, I had friends, and people with whom I shared the long cold days; one of my very best friends now I met there though it was really in college that our friendship blossomed into what it is now. But I spent a lot of time alone, too, running endless miles in the snowy woods, black trees silhouetted against gray sky, and writing essays and reading books in my tiny bedroom.
College changed all of that. I arrived at Princeton desperately lonely, full of insecurities and fears (yes, believe it, even more than now). I don’t think I had realized the extent to which those two years in New Hampshire saddened me. I was desperate for a place to call home, a group of friends into whose embrace I could relax. Oh, and how I found it. To this day, Princeton remains the place I was happiest. There was standard college drama, of course: sadness, frustration, embarassment, heartbreak. But oh, my friends. I was and am still surprised that such extraordinary women wanted to be my friends. Some of this was, of course, in reaction to the cold years at Exeter. For sure. But it mostly just my lonely heart gratefully opening to the warmth of Princeton, to the spring sky riotously full of magnolia blossoms, to orange tee shirts and mardi gras beads, to young women singing “oh what a night” at the top of their lungs at a dive Chinese restaurant.
Those four years were healing, and the friends I made there will always be the dearest of my life. Anne Patchett writes about how true friends are “native speakers,” and I find myself recalling how at Princeton we basically invented our own language. We were teased for abbreviating everything, and indeed, we did. Abbrevs, T and a P, TDF, the chalice, DTR … I could go on. Those of you who know what all of those things mean know who you are. And you speak my language.
And many of these college friendships have endured, grown thicker and stronger and more sustaining even as we move further away from Princeton. We have passed through early professional choices, graduate school, weddings, divorces, more weddings, babies. I’m not sure I can say it better than I did, in a letter addressed to these wonderful women, several years ago:
“There will be and are other incredibly special friends, but as a community you all are ground zero: yardstick and safe haven, the people who knew me when I was becoming who I am.”
The third rich period of friendship in my life was around pregnancy, delivery, and the transition into motherhood. This passage is so complex, the particular dilemmas and issues of life with a newborn so detailed and specific, that the people I shared it with have become dear friends. These friendships developed in the context of family and children, and the women I have grown close to in that fecund place full of abundant concerns and anxious questions are deeply special to me.
It strikes me that it is not an accident that our truest and most lasting friendships are forged during times of life transition; we are closest to those who have shared experiences that changed who we are. Whether it was childhood, college, or becoming mothers, this is true for me. There are other examples, individuals who have shared things with me that contributed indelibly to who I am. In this way, a very few other people have become a part of my own self, their voices permanently embedded into my private narrative.
The truth is, though, as I read about Launa crossing off names in her address book, I know I am familiar with the pruning too. With the way that some friendships wither as others grow, sometimes with no difference in attention paid. Some people grow apart from us while others draw nearer. There are a few sustaining threads in my life, people whose story I know will always run next to mine, friendships whose sturdy support I lean on routinely. I have many friends but know that very few truly know me. That handful of people are dearer to me than they know. This is hardly the first time I’ve thought about this, but I believe it remains worthy of comment. The remarkable individuals who have the brave forbearance to stick with me on this journey deserve much more acclaim and celebration than I am able to give. All I can say is the simplest words, but also the ones that mean the most: