NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Friendship” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Friendship: A friend in deed
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
When I list the most important areas of my life, friends are in the top five, joining – equally weighted – health, purpose, creativity, and family/intimate relationships.
According to a recent survey, Americans have, on average, only two close friends, and 25% have nobody at all they can confide in. For most of my childhood, I was part of the Isolated American syndrome. As an adult, however, I have come 180 degrees from that position, and that has saved my life.
Friends have filled the role of family when family was less than I needed it to be. They have sustained me through health, financial, and emotional crises, and encouraged me in my creative and career choices. When I have lost sight of my own direction, friends have helped me find it, or have held their vision for me until I was ready to take it back. And I have striven to do the same for them. Navigating life without close friends has become unthinkable.
Following are vignettes of pivotal moments in some of my close friendships and a little about what I’ve learned from them.
Richard: Richard and I met in a poetry workshop in my junior year at the University at Buffalo. Richard and two of his boyhood friends had bought a dilapidated house for $5,000 with their student loans. I was working as an apprentice carpenter and Richard recruited me to help renovate it. Each weekend, a group of us would haul junk out of the house, strip off layers of roofing, run wiring, tear down walls, build new ones. After a day’s backbreaking labor, we’d all sit around Richard’s dining room table eating spaghetti and meat balls, groaning at Richard’s Buffalo-style humor, and connecting in ways I had never felt as connected before.
As the weeks passed, I noticed that Richard and his older friends were increasingly giving me a hard time: teasing, insulting, making up names (I became “BQS Bookbinder, the Dancing Fool” as soon as they found out I was taking modern dance). I often left feeling fulfilled by the camaraderie but confused and hurt by the teasing and name-calling. One night, as Richard was driving me home, I got up the nerve to tell him how I was feeling. His reply: “Well…. You want to be one of the boys, don’t you?” All the teasing and insults took on a different character in that moment, and one of the boys I became.
We have been friends for more than 40 years, and I’m still one of the boys.
Larry: My friendship with Larry has had its ups and downs, including very close moments as well as periods when its future seemed uncertain. But he is among several friends I owe my life to.
In early 1993, when we were both doctoral students in English at the University at Albany, I had mainly been associating with the group of graduate students who put out the literary magazine. Larry was on the periphery of my friendships. Our interactions had been limited to fiction workshops and the occasional lunch, where I tried to discourage him from acting on some of his zanier schemes.
All that changed after my brush with death, a watershed event that separated out those who could not handle the changes I was going through from those who could. Larry was among the very few in Albany who were not frightened of me in my pale, disoriented, and emaciated state, which for my literary friends made me a specter of death. He visited me in the hospital almost daily, drove me home through the ice-covered landscape, and came out to see me frequently during my long recovery.
Since then, our evolving friendship has included a steady diet of seeing bad movies, taking hikes, sharing meals, misfortunes, and good luck, each of us advising and accompanying the other on our respective, interlocking paths. A few years ago, when he was reinventing himself as a filmmaker, he flattered me by saying he wanted to do a character study for a documentary filmmaking class, and I was the most interesting character he knew.
Susan: Susan was the first person I met in the Boston area. She was a semester ahead of me in the BU creative writing program. While still at an artist colony in Virginia, I’d written to her for tips on teaching undergraduates. Once we met, a friendship quickly started that has lasted more than 30 years.
We have similar curly hair and facial features, and back then people who saw us together often thought we were siblings. (When Susan explained to a workman that we were unrelated, his response was, “Well, ain’t that one of the little peculiarities of life!”) We exploited our pseudo-familial link by sharing an office and setting up each half as a mirror image of the other. We had identical desks and chairs, hung identical posters over our desks, populated our bookshelves with the same books.
Ironically, over time, Susan has become the sister I never had. I lived with her and her young family when I was between apartments and have become an honorary uncle to her kids, now in their 20s, each of whom is currently pursuing a career in psychology. We have been witnesses to each others’ lives, celebrating our triumphs and being there for each other when things seem to be falling apart. We have also occasionally fought like siblings, major conflicts that threatened to tear the friendship apart – and have always overcome them.
Bill: My friendship with Bill goes back to 1976, when we lived together in a “homestead” house in Brooklyn we were renovating for the owner in exchange for living rent-free. Every week or so, in our frequent talks about life’s purpose and our relationships with women, Bill seemed to display unusual wisdom. Eventually I asked, “Where are you getting all this from?” He told me he’d been seeing the pastoral counselor at Pratt Institute, where he was an architecture student. He offered to introduce us, and thus began a several-year relationship with the good Father, my first successful counseling experience, and one which contributed to my later becoming a therapist.
Bill and I have not lived near each other since 1979. Nevertheless, we continue to support each other through career crises, relationship issues, financial hardships, at the same time exchanging philosophical, spiritual, and psychological views, always laced with our particular brand of humor.
Bill’s support was critical when I discovered my medical malpractice attorneys had robbed me of my award. I stayed with him the night before I went to their Manhattan offices to confront them and told him the details of what had happened. He immediately wrote out a check. “I know it’s not much compared to what they stole,” he said, handing it to me, “but it’s something.” I never cashed that check, but the gesture was worth more than money can buy.
Sue and Jack: Sue and her husband Jack were among the first people I got to know after I returned to the Boston area from Albany. We met as “writing group friends,” and they remained in this category for the first several years I knew them.
They became much more when I collapsed, literally, into their arms following discovery of a major relationship betrayal. At that time, I was too distraught to drive the 50 miles from Gloucester into Boston, where the people I thought of as my closest friends lived. Instead I called Sue to tell her what had happened and she immediately invited me over. I sat in their living room, crying, while she and Jack offered tea and sympathy. Opening their hearts and home to me transformed our relationship, and we continue to grow closer with each passing year.
Davida and Pat: I met Davida and Pat, my two 85-year-old friends, at a writing meeting in Gloucester about ten years ago. They were reading from a play Davida had written, a powerful piece based on her long but difficult marriage. After the reading, I asked her if the play had been produced. Davida said it hadn’t, so I suggested we do a staged reading at a local theater, drawing on the people in the room to be the performers. And we did, with Pat directing. I acted the role of Davida’s husband and in the rehearsal process came to know both of these women, themselves best friends.
Both Davida and Pat have become mentors to me, surrogate mothers whose advice I can trust because I know they “get” me. They are my go-to people for advice on matters of the heart and creative ventures, in part because I can see an older version of myself in them and they, perhaps, a younger version of themselves in me.
Friendships have taught me (and continue to teach me) about what it is to be a friend.
From Richard I learned that there are many ways of showing affection; from Larry, that friends stand with you no matter what happens; from Susan, that rifts, even severe ones, can be healed, and the friendship thereby strengthened. From Bill, I learned that friendship can continue to develop across barriers of time and space; from Sue and Jack, that acquaintances can have much greater potential, if only we let them in; and from Davida and Pat, the value of friendships that cross generational boundaries. From all my friendships, I learn to be the kind of friend my friends have been to me.
I have no children, but when I die, I expect to be remembered by my friends, both current ones who survive me, and those I have yet to meet as I increasingly open with age, like a late-blooming flower.