Nov 13, 2011

Oh Friend, Where Art Thou?

When it comes to friendships, it's quality that matters over quantity, right? Sometimes I'm not so sure. I've got plenty of both, and still sometimes wonder where all my friends are. And (to use a very clever turn of words), I don't think I'm alone in this feeling.

In terms of quality, I've got many people who appreciate and enjoy me, and a lovely group of people who know and appreciate Me at a deeper level. The latter are people whom I know I can turn to, who'll accept Me regardless of where I'm at or what I've done, who "get" how the sometimes disparate and random parts of me do somehow integrate into a cohesive Rick.

As for quantity, since moving to the valley I've found myself investing more of myself and my time into a smaller circle of friends. Perhaps it's from becoming more confident, or perhaps finally "getting it" myself, but I've truly understood that I can't, don't want to, and oughtn't to try to reach that deepest level of connection and intimacy with everyone in the world.

But there's another dimension of quantity that I've been puzzling over, and that's time. My friend's marital counselor says that married couples need 16 hours of time together each week to maintain and grow their relationship (yes, 16!). How much time does a friendship need?

This musing started as a lamentation over the fact that I've had basically zero private time with my closest friends since, oh, probably last spring. We agree to a walk or an after-drop-off cinnamon bun "soon", then it never happens. One dear friend emailed me 2 months ago, "I do not want for busy lives to mean that we do not take time to be with each other to catch up and stay connected." Since then we've tried to set even 20 minutes to sit together several times, but have yet to make it happen.

On bad days I take these personally; but really I do understand that it's not indicative of lack of love or intention, and that I'm just as guilty of over-programming as they are. But I do have to wonder, as my friend does above, what it does to our connection.

I see these friends all the time, mostly in the school parking lot where there's time for a good hug, a quick "how's life" exchange, maybe even an extra 5 minutes as the parent crowd disperses. That's enough to stay in each others' lives, but not enough to share truly deep joys and pains at any substantive level. I truly love the 8:30 and 3:00 exchanges, but also need to peel back other layers of me that would just get too chilly and exposed in the school parking lot.

So where does that level of sharing take place? In a world where all of us share this complaint and pressure, are any of us getting this need met outside of (hopefully) our marriages and blogs?

My dear wife gets even less daily interaction than I do. But she does get to be part of a few monthly circles that I'm not privy to. When she comes home she's radiant, having soaked up and spilled out a full month's worth of personal sharing and connection. Even though she never tells me what was talked about, I vicariously feel re-connected to our mutual friends, absorb some of the overflow and feel warm and somewhat satiated.

I don't, of course, actually get any closer to knowing what's going in my friends' lives and hearts and souls, not do they enter mine. And in a community where none of us seem to have time for one-on-one dates, where these circles serve as one of the only opportunities for such sharing, it does leave me on the outside trying to find some other meaningful social pattern.

In the absence of circle membership and daytime dates, where do I have ongoing healthy relationships? In the parking lot. With longer-term consulting clients. In committee meetings and volunteer gigs. While building a bedroom with my contractor. With the neighbourhood association. In a monthly potluck party. On the shared drive to yoga.

In other words, my social life and connection comes through Doing. And that is what I was told about this valley when we first moved here - people are much more likely to be together at a barn-raising than a sit-down dinner. And the irony is, that's more my style anyways.

I openly admit to coveting women's circles, but truth be told I wouldn't want to be in one every month. Friends in Austin couldn't drag me to a group that met every week to scream and cry and hug each other. And as much as I'm craving a one-on-one tea date, I wouldn't want to have to plan every Monday to open up some new deep inner wound, or Joy, as my main connection. I want to know what's going on inside my friends to and to share that in me, but in a way that freely flows while puffing up Mt. Tzouhalem or tossing pumpkins to the cows or leaning on a shopping cart.

So it turns out that this posting is a bit complaint but more acceptance. Complaint that I don't hear enough of the big and little things in my friends' lives. That while I may not be a second-tier friend, I am on a second-tier communication rung to which important bits don't always filter down. And that this gap does put an extra strain on maintaining connection.

But this is much more an acceptance, even a celebration. That social circle I uncovered a few paragraphs up is real, and rich, and varied, and full of beautiful people who are intrigued and amused by me, in love and loved by me. If I needed help or an ear I know exactly who would drop everything to be that for me in an instant, even if we haven't shared hot chocolate since last winter.

And it's a call to action. A call to myself to continually appreciate what and who I have in my life, and to make the most of that. To fully grasp that, like pretty much anyone, the greatest quantity and quality of my social web is in the day-to-day little things, not just the cathartic climaxes. 5 minutes in the parking lot is gold, and doesn't need to be compared to anything else. The quick personal check-in before a committee meeting is real and meaningful connection, and the committee business that is then discussed in an environment of respect and trust is just as personal as the brownies that close the meeting.

I will still play the dayplanner juggling game with friends to enjoy an occasional tea or hike together, but will not measure the quality nor the quantity of my friendships by these dates. I will continue to share more and more of myself in these short, daily-life exchanges not because it's all I can get, but because that's what makes us real.


  1. Dear Friend!!

    As you and I have experienced many times, we immerse ourselves in each other's company after a long absence and all is well very quickly. But going back to the 16 hours thing... Speaking only from my experience, friendship and marriage are fundamentally different in that I don't rely upon my friends in the same way and therefore don't need the same amount of daily work to maintain the marriage bullwarks eroded by the tide.


  2. Oh Rick, that's so like my life. Between teaching, mothering, gardening and commitments to older family members, time for friend dates is next to zero and a dear, dear friend living a few minutes' drive away hasn't seen me in many months. I miss her. Thanks for reminding me that acceptance isn't all bad, and to value the interactions and connections I do have, for example at work, and with our neighbour-friends.
    It's easy to take time with family for granted, too.

    Like you, I'll keep trying anyway. And my one secret to friendship survival is that I spend a week per year away from my family, with three close friends who live in another city. Enough time to peel through layers and get some grip on where we are, now.

  3. This post made me cry.

    This post made me laugh.

    This post made me think.

    I wish I had a friend. All I have are people who have sold me out for a pack of cigarrettes. How can I trust them? But what choice do I have?

    Thank you.