So today I was thinking about friendships. I read through, “A friend loves at all times . . . .” (Proverbs 17:17). As many of you know, I grew up without a mother (she died when I was very young). Dad did a good enough job as a single father, and I had various women in and out of my life growing up, but none with a really significant, lasting impact. As a child, I had no friends that carried through to adulthood (at least, no closeness to them still). I was a pretty crappy friend myself (which I’ll highlight again later) and thought we should always play what I wanted to play (very self-serving). I sometimes see that in young children today and I just sigh, because I know that to have a friend, you have to be a friend. Sure, it’s a cliché, but it is a good one! I never bought into the truth of it until adulthood.
Then, when I was working as a house keeper pursuing my Bachelor’s degree, I developed a great (and I mean phenomenal!) relationship with an older woman. I was 24 at the time, she was 72. Gerry taught me more about my friendships with women, just through actions, than I’d known before, and I carry those points with me today. I thought I would share.
1) Don’t get stuck in a friendship rut – be flexible. I love having friends who are Moms, because they understand the scheduled chaos motherhood inherently brings about. Mom-friends seem to come in and out of my life, often because of moving, or work changes. When I want to get out of the house, it’s more likely I can hang with the Moms (their kids in tow in addition to my own) because my single or child-free girlfriends may not want a get-together where I’ve got to stop the conversation to pull out a breast and nurse a child. On the rare night I can pop up to my neighbor’s house for a glass of wine, child-free, we both love it all the more. What happens more often is she comes down here for a cup of coffee on the weekends. We have to be open to being flexible with our friendship needs and adjusting to those over our life course. With the social networking that is out there, I can keep up on my friendships with women across the country (planning trips that *someday* will come to fruition). At one point Gerry was the most influential woman in my life, and now we catch up once or twice a year over the phone. I miss her. I know if I need her still, I just need to pick up the phone. Sometimes my friendship needs change, and that’s okay.
2) Digging in the dirt is always better with a friend beside you. When I was working “for” Gerry (she was my employer, but there was never that awkward authority issue), we spent hours and hours tending her flower gardens (and there were acres of them). Gerry’s idea of planting was to just fling the seeds out in haphazard abandon (she approached a lot of things this way) and let them root where they will. Great for a beautiful garden, but certainly took a lot of work combating the weeds (especially to a person who doesn’t know the difference between a wildflower and a weed). Fortunately, Gerry often weeded with me, and we had some of our best talks laboring on our hands and knees in the garden. I hate gardening (to this day), but having a friend beside you makes every onerous task more enjoyable.
This week I’ve got a “new” friend coming over, and we’re going to can together. I’m excited about this, because I’ve wanted to be friends with her for a while. (Surely you know how that works – there’s a really cool woman you see around, you think her life story would be interesting if only you knew the details, you like how she parents and actually enjoy her child(ren), and she seems like a good wife – all earmarks that tell me this person would be someone I’d enjoy spending time with). Now, I should clarify that my excitement comes from anticipated enjoyment of time with HER, not time canning (I hate canning). The canning will pass so readily, though, I’m sure.
3) Give as good as you expect in return. This was probably my biggest stumbling block in childhood. I wasn’t willing to give anything. I was one of those bratty kids who wanted to play what I wanted to play, or I’d say, “Fine, then I’m not going to play with you.” Frankly, I have no idea how that developed. I could argue I just didn’t have a lot of modeling of what good friendships looked like. I could argue I didn’t have anyone saying, “Hey! Don’t be a brat! Take turns playing what others want to play.” (Something admittedly I’ve told my own kids when I see them being unkind with friends). I could even question at what point that stopped, and not be completely sure. Just speculating, I would argue it happened when I found Jesus. That also sounds cliché, but it was probably the first time I developed a network of women who I could talk to about anything, and who shared their counsel and life wisdom with me (thank you, Titus 2). I trusted them. During my divorce, I leaned on them. They were there. I’ve learned from Gerry and other women along the way that I have to give of my time if I expect women to give back to me when I need a friendship refill. I also have to be honest if I expect honesty, be willing to listen to them if I expect them to listen to me, be willing to go to their house if I expect them to come to mine.
4) Food always makes people feel valued. Gerry fed everyone. She had friends over all the time for lunches, dinners, birthday parties, bridal showers, Bible studies, or just afternoon tea. She made casseroles for funerals, for sickness, for weddings, for housewarmings, for new babies – she was always delivering food somewhere. At the time, I thought she just really liked to cook. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that there’s some element of feeding people that says, “I value you. I want to lighten your load. I want to give you something from my heart, crafted by my hands, developed through my time.” It’s probably from Gerry that I’ve developed this particular component of my own character (and what many would perceive to be my special little gift from God). No, it’s not a gift of being a good cook (I still burn plenty, and many of my more creative efforts are met with dubious skepticism around the table), but a gift of service. I’ve found that service is invaluable to friendships. Cooking may not be your gift, or your means to serve, but every friendship benefits from a well-timed casserole (anecdotally speaking).
5) Embrace the differences, and learn from them. This last one is probably my favorite, and a caveat that ties in (there’s always a caveat). I am a Jesus-loving girl, but I’m not the variety that feels all my friends need to be Jesus-loving girls. In fact, I really adore having friends who aren’t. I’ve got friends who are Jewish, Universalist, Wiccan, where’s-the-order-of-things agnostic, and even one who’s an Atheist (at least, only one I know of who is an Atheist).
I’ve got friends of all races, ethnicities, social classes, and orientations (I’m white, middle-class, and straight, not that it should matter). I learn SO MUCH from my friends who are “not like me.” When I was growing up, in my whiter-than-white school district of affluent yuppies, I had no clue or appreciation of the beauty in the differences of mankind.
Being exposed to different opinions really helps shape my own ideological positions. I’ve got a few friends who are feminists, and while I tend to favor Marxism over feminism, I am constantly learning more about the societal subjugation of women. I can still love the capitalists (like my sister). I’ve got a few friends who are gay, and while I do the whole Jesus thing, I support gay rights because I want my friends to have the same happiness and life opportunities that I have (plus, I honestly think Jesus would have been like, “Let it go, people . . . just love one another”). I’ve got friends who distinctly oppose gay rights, but I still consider them my friends, even though we differ in our positions. I’ve got ultra-conservative friends and ultra-liberal friends (one in search of something further left than liberal to describe herself), and even though I’m a moderate, I love them and feel loved by them still. I’ve got Republican friends and Democrat friends. Something I learned from Gerry was to accept people as they are – if they have a character I enjoy, I can embrace them as my friend.
There’s one caveat to this, and it’s just something that I’ve developed that “feels right” to me – I don’t have a lot of male friends. When I was growing up I did . . . tons, in fact. I remember in high school saying, “I just don’t like girls. I’m much more comfortable with boys.” I hear that now from young girls and shake my head a bit, because it often means we’re insecure with ourselves as women, and quite possibly have some Daddy issues to work through. But that’s beside the point.
I’ve got three friends from grad school who are men, and we keep in touch, and I love them dearly. I’ve got one neighbor friend who’s male and we email quite a bit, but he was friends with my husband long before he was friends with me. I’ve got a couple of facebook friends who are men (but they’re generally dads of my girlfriends or husbands of my girlfriends). However – I don’t spend time alone in their company. I don’t go “do” things or “hang out” with my male friends. My husband has never addressed it, and may well not give a fig if I did, but as a married woman, I’m very careful about my male friendships. When I consider how I’d feel about my husband having female friends, I get a little twinge of discomfort in my tummy. It’s not jealousy or insecurity really, because I know my man is faithful. It’s not that I buy into the societal double-standard of rules for men versus rules for women. It’s just my own issue. Inasmuch as I try to be the friend I want to have, I try to be the spouse I want to have. Fortunately, since my husband is my very best friend, I’m not missing the male perspective on anything. 😉
I hope I can teach my children how to be a good friend – I hope I can model that in my actions. I hope they have lifelong friends like I didn’t, even though they’ve faced challenges of moving a lot in their childhood and have only sunk down some roots these last few years. I hope they know that their siblings can be wonderful friends, but other women can be as close as sisters, given some time and energy. It took me long enough in my life to get to this point, but I’m glad I finally got here!