Tag Archives: friendship

“Why Don’t People Write More Poetry?”

Why I Wake Early book cover by Mary Oliver

That’s the question my friend G. asked me today. She’s just a few years older than me and has had a dozen strokes; the doctors don’t know why. She struggles with words — fidgets with her hands as if trying to create  words out of invisible clay — and her short term memory is shot. But she gets poetry.

During my visit today, I brought along “Why I Wake Early” by Mary Oliver, the poet known for revealing the marvelous in her minute observations of nature. For some reason, I’d dog eared the poem “October.” When I started to read it, I immediately thought I’d made a mistake. It’s written in seven numbered sections with abstract imagery in which Oliver seems to hover above a scene. Gail was intrigued, had me read it seven times. As she listened she closed her eyes, enraptured.

When I read “Peonies,” she picked up on the phrase “beauty the brave,” and repeated it over and over. That one we read three times. Then “Goldenrod.” She loved the language of it, the assonance of “rumpy bunches,” the alliteration of “dumb dazzle.” She rolled the phrases around in her mouth like marbles. I don’t know how many times we read that one.

When I read her the last few lines, in which the goldenrods “bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,/they rise in a stiff sweetness/in the pure peace of giving/one’s gold away,” I told her that she has gold to give — her unfettered love and sense of humor. Though her abilities have changed, her value has not. If anything she is more cherished than ever by those who love her.

We almost didn’t make it past the first line of “Blue Iris”: Now that I’m free to be myself, who am I?

Each time I started down the 15-line poem, she laughed and stopped me.

Why don’t more people write poetry, or at least read it?



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Girlfriend Magic

Emerald Isle North Carolina

Long, long ago, at the first hint of connection with someone interesting – someone of the opposite sex – I got a shivery, fluttery, electric feeling. Magical!

I still know that feeling. I felt it last spring when I reunited with an old friend.

At first it was awkward. We did the obligatory greeting thing: she told me I looked great, I said I loved her hair (gone silvery salt-and-pepper since the last time I’d seen her), she liked my perky metallic tennis shoes. I could tell she was a little worried about how I might view the changes she had undergone since I last saw her a decade before. I was, too. Even we confident women are a bit self-conscious about our aging appearances.

As we walked to her car, we glanced furtively in each other’s direction. Or maybe we were mentally pinching ourselves to say this is real, we are really together again.

I had made the trip east for an errand related to my parents’ burial arrangements, but I decided to stop first to see her. Happily, my visit coincided with the premiere of a documentary she produced after five long, hard years of work. I felt like I was watching Cinderella at the ball as she was appreciated by literati, family and friends. That was supposed to be the end of it, a quick weekend in town before I traveled north to Washington, D.C.

She knew that my trip to DC would be a pilgrimage. It wasn’t just an errand to secure a date for my father’s honor burial at Arlington. I was preparing the way for my mother and father’s final passage. It was the last thing that I would be able to do for them.

She insisted on coming with me. We stopped for two nights at Emerald Isle on the Crystal Coast of North Carolina, a place that factors large in her own history. Long talks, more than a little wine ensued. Then she drove me north through rural roads all the way to Washington.

Though we entered the Virginia side on a nondescript highway, I felt like I had passed through the gates of a mythical realm. I remember almost nothing from the years my family lived in the area, when my father served as Executive Officer at Marine Corps Barracks. But I knew of those years, the importance that they held in my mother’s memory and the long impact they had on my father.

Everything I saw, heard and felt over the next few days was amplified, like Dorothy finding herself in the technicolor world of Oz. I traced my father’s footsteps, imagined him leading the Evening Parade, even saw my Mom among the flowers at Washington National Cathedral.

It would have been hard to make the journey alone. But my friend knew that. She knew that before I did.

Back and forth. In conversation, we girlfriends have an unwritten code. We instinctively listen to our friends, who in turn draw us out, before we turn the conversation back to them. Back and forth.

But there is another pendulum in our lives. We bond, are pulled apart by the demands of our lives, and only later have the space in our lives to reconnect. Anna Quindlen writes brilliantly about the importance of girlfriends:

…(if) you push her on how she really makes it through her day, or more important, her months and years, how she stays steady when things get rocky, who she calls when the doctor says ‘I’d like to run a few more tests’ or when her son moves in with the girl she’s never much liked or trusted, she won’t mention any of those things. She will mention her girlfriends. The older we get, the more we understand that the women who know and love us — and love us despite what they know about us — are the joists that hold up the house of our existence. Everything depends on them….

When I think back, I realize that in my own life there was a girlfriend interregnum, a time during which I lost the knack for, the connection to, but never the need for close female friends…. Perhaps only when we’ve made our peace with our own selves can we really be the kind of friends who listen, advise, but don’t judge, or not too harshly. My friends now are more cheerleader than critic. They are as essential to my life as my work or my home, a kind of freely chosen family, connected by ties of affinity instead of ties of blood….

As we grow older the mythology has it that female friendships falter because we compete, for everything from the alpha job to the alpha male, but I didn’t find that to be true. What I did find was that a frantic existence left too little time for friendship as it ought to be configured, deep and consistent. For decades I was focused on my work, my kids, my routine….

…(I)n the end we wind up with the friends who really stick. Being female, we pride ourselves on doing for them, on listening to them complain or cry, on showing up with a cake or a casserole and taking charge when disaster strikes. But the measure of our real friends, our closest friends, is that we let them do the same for us. We’ve been taking charge for decades; to let go, to take help instead of charge, is the break point of friendship.” (from Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake)

I wrote this post in response to a request from my friend’s sister to send along a note in honor of her 60th birthday. Reuniting with my friend of 30 years ago has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. So happy birthday, dear Sharon, I wish us many happy returns.

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Dreaming, Again

Pt. White sunset by Betsy C Stone

I dreamt of water again.

Friday afternoon I received the unbelievable news that one of my oldest friends died suddenly; a freak, bolt-of-lightning, one-in-a-million medical event tore her away from us, and in the process, ripped a hole in the universe.

The hours between 3:30 in the afternoon, when I received the call, and 12:30 a.m., when I collapsed in a hotel bed, felt numberless.

I awakened early with the fragmentary memory of floating on water. How did I get there? Slowly I followed bread-crumbs of crazy images backward as far as I could.

I was in the attic of a four-story ramshackle Victorian. Around me were strange but genial characters who resembled figures out of stories: a giant, an old man with a long beard, and a curly-headed individual who resembled Merry Brandybuck but initially seemed neither male nor female.

I was happy to see “Merry” in my dream. As I hugged her in reunion – by then this character was a she — it had the feeling of simultaneous greeting and farewell.

Then the house collapsed. It had been unstable to begin with, with floors no longer square above the other, the attic teetering on top, off balance. We had already taken note of a gash in the wooden floorboards, below which we could see sky.

The attic suddenly gave way, but rather than crashing to earth as we expected, the room transformed into an aircraft. A fuselage of patched boards took shape and the walls tore away, revealing long extensions on both sides: wings.

Immediately, the house-turned-plane dived downward, out of control. Though shocked, Merry and I weren’t afraid. I looked at Merry, smiling and sending a silent message that said, “I love you… I’m grateful you were in my life… we’ll be together again.”

Just before the moment of impact, our craft stabilized into a glide, inches above the water. We floated above a gently meandering river, safe. Then as we rounded a bend, tall trees on both sides sheared off the wings. Now, surely, we would die.

A plume sprayed up on both sides. Miraculously, our craft held. The convex hull buoyed us on the water. We were safe.

After Dad died, I hoped that I would be sent the kind of dream that comforted me after the death of my mother: a vision of her happy and whole, sitting at the kitchen table in her favorite pink satin bathrobe. Instead, I had water dreams. In the first, I heroically forded a cold river to rescue a boat that was to be used in a race. In the second, I returned home to find the ferryman Charon, replete with black swim cap, seated in my living room, waiting to help Dad cross over.

I dreamt of water again. This time, I got to say goodbye and tell her we would meet again.

Source of all blessings, you bless us with dreams-dreams while we sleep and dreams in our most wakeful moments. May I be responsive to both forms of dreams and pass these blessings on by living a life that is faithful to their guidance. — Brother David Steindl-Rast


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Memorial Day: A Friend Never Forgets

Photo credit: fkehren via flickr under CC license

Photo credit: fkehren via flickr under CC license

Announcement time at church. There was a reminder about the hiking club outing, a request for sign-ups to bring a salad or cake for the parish picnic on June 9, and a woman who said she had become a great-grandmother once in January and twice in April.

An older man dressed neatly in a coat and tie took the microphone. “I want to remember friends who never came back,” he began.

The rustling of papers and quiet conversations ceased.

— I remember George Monroe who died in the invasion of Saipan. He was a lieutenant in the Marines. He had a contract to play baseball with the Boston Braves but he never returned.

— And my friend Rocky Rogers. He had been captain of the swim team at Amherst. He was shot down over the Channel.

— These are the friends I want to remember on this day of days, Memorial Day.

Because the George’s and Rocky’s who never came back are remembered by fine men like Herb, men with big hearts and long memories, we remember the meaning of Memorial Day.

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Chaos and Comfort

Friend card

My friend Sharon has been laughing at me all weekend. It started soon after my arrival when I began straightening up, knowing that her family was coming in the next day.  It’s what a good guest does, I said. But she and I both knew the truth. I’ve become a teence obsessive, an aftermath, perhaps, of feeling that things were so out of control as my father lay dying a few months back.

Every time I open one of her cupboards, my palms literally itch to organize them. Most of the cans are on an upper shelf, but why are the canned clams on the shelf below it? Why is the sugar in a baggie on the floor?

I itch, but I don’t fix. I realize that this is her home, and she likes it comfy.

Walking Saturday, our conversation turned to families. She has been “an orphan” for some time, one of four children born within a five year span. I talked about my evolving relationship with my brothers. A recurring question for me in the months since Dad died has been, “Who is my family now? Who are we to each other?”

There is choice involved now, you see. Dad gave us a reason to come together for birthdays or holidays. He was the draw. Though there may still be obligation, it is less compelling.

In families like ours, where there are more than two siblings, there are affinities. A pair might feel more like-minded and naturally confide in one another. Or having the distance of a couple of years and a sibling in between, they might feel less competitive. A common interest — like trout fishing — may foster a bond.

We grow up with a natural place in the family architecture. My Dad’s family referred to the eldest brother as “the handsome one,” the youngest brother as “the sweet one,” and my Dad, the middle child, as “the smart one.”

My friend and her siblings are finding their way. It’s hard to say if their paths will draw them together, or push them apart. They may become more intransigent, or, like my Dad, more tolerant.

You can rearrange cupboards but you can’t rearrange your siblings. Their comfort may be my chaos, but we are the only people in the world who carry the precious and intimate knowledge of our family from childhood forward.

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