Alone

NaBloPoMo_1114_298x255_blogrollI really like being alone. How does that ‘fit’ with friendship? It’s clear that friendships require maintenance. As with any organic, living thing, they need to be nurtured. For the purposes of this conversation, I am including family relationships with the chosen relationships we have with friends.

Then there is ‘self care’, a relatively new age term, once known more commonly as ‘time to myself’. For mid-20th century women, this was often time spent on maintaining their appearance: the beauty parlor (hair, nails), and clothes shopping being two obvious examples. In some life situations, it might mean simply having a quiet cup of tea or attending religious services.

The self care phenomena has blossomed well beyond the beauty salon, with fitness centers, yoga classes and an ever widening pool of health producing and stress reducing options available. I mean no disrespect; to each their own, I have and do partake of these activities myself. In addition to reading, music, sewing, crafting, gardening and cooking for pleasure, there are now a multitude of electronic choices for enjoying in ‘downtime’. And, of course, many of these self care opportunities are or can be social in nature, from the time honored relationship with one’s hair dresser, to a personal trainer, reading group or a hiking buddy.

A third element to everyday life is work. There is the traditional nine-to-five job to earn money, attending school or a training program, engaging in creative work, or running a household and raising children. Yes, they are all, or can be, creative work. The point being that these endeavors occupy a significant amount of time in our daily lives, separate from and also intermingled with the pieces I am calling ‘relationships’ and ‘self care’.

I‘ve seen various pie charts over the years that show research results about how most people use their time and suggest the optimal division of one’s time into these areas of existence. What I know, from my own experience, is that the work piece seems to take up as much space as possible, squeezing relationship time and alone time into a small portions of the pie.  In this admittedly personal analysis of friendship and the role it plays in one’s life over the years, I want to re-examine those slices of the pie.

One thing that is undeniably true for me, is that unless I have time to myself, I cannot enjoy time with others. This has always been true and seems to be increasingly important as I age. I am well aware that many people do not feel this way; and that my need for solitude is as unfathomable to them as their pleasure in crowded places is to me. I’m not sure how to quantify my aversion to an excess of humanity: over-stimulation? Or to explain my need for substantial stretches of quiet time: my thoughts need room to percolate? But I am clear about what makes me happy and what makes me… well, irritable and difficult to be around, to phrase it most kindly.

What is the distinction between solitude and isolation? I have a dear friend with whom I have had endless discussions about our shared inclination to isolate when in emotional pain. We know it’s ‘not good for us’. He lives alone and can indulge in hermit behavior whenever and for as long as he desires. Living, as I do, with spouse and daughter, I do not have that dubious ‘luxury’. There have been countless occasions where I envied him the option of total withdrawal and also some times when I have, even in extreme distress, acknowledged the helpful necessity of not abandoning my child.

I spent a fair amount of time with the elderly in the decades of my youth and middle age, both family members and their fellow residents in various settings for elderly living. It was always strikingly clear who was making a choice to stay engaged with the world, in spite of disability or ill health, and who was copping an attitude (angry? defeatist?), saying: “Who cares? I’m old and lonely and that’s the way it is.”   Through all those years I promised myself that I would find ways ‘to be of use’ (another Marge Piercy line) when I was elderly. That I would make connections with people, with younger people, as my peers began to die. That is still my plan. I keep it at the forefront of my thoughts, building the muscle memory of wanting and needing connection, as I experience my ‘young old age’ (a phrase from Mary Pipher’s brilliant and extraordinary book, Another Country.)

I expect to still enjoy solitude as I age, but I am clear that relationships will become ever more vital as the years pass. But for today, I aspire to a pie that contains a slice of solitude that is equal to the time spent on and in relationships, balanced by a necessary, but not outsized slab of work time. I believe this is possible, if I make choices that support this vision.

And what about you? What is the current state of your life energy pie chart and how would you like to reconfigure the balance of its parts?

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My Mother on Facebook

NaBloPoMo_1114_298x255_blogrollWhere to begin? I can try to follow the train of my thoughts, but they quickly become/became a confusion of threads, not tangled, but criss-crossing and delightfully complex. I was thinking about my mother; it will be seven years in June since she unexpectedly left this world. If you know me at all, in person or through reading my online voice, you know that our relationship was not always the best.

I remembered a letter that a friend of hers, who had become a friend (and confidant) of mine, wrote to me when mom died; I located and read it. This was a friend she made in the final years of her life; they met at the Life Care Community where they had each moved with their husbands, to spend their final years. Fran had advanced Parkinson’s disease when we met, extremely limited in what she could do physically and one of the most alive people I have ever known. Her life force filled any space she entered and likewise nourished those she encountered. In this brief letter, she told me more about my mother as a friend than I had ever known.  I will quote a bit of it here….

Written the night of your mother’s death: It’s 11:50 p.m. and I’m not sleeping. I almost called you up, because I think you are not sleeping either. I am thinking of the twinkle that lived [here] at PL for too short a time. Mary Johnson, the perfectly wonderful. She was so terrific I cannot think of a single flaw. I wish I had known her years ago, so we would have had more experiences in common, what a blessing that would have been…  I’ll always remember the humor, the twinkle, the perfectly wonderful Mary Johnson, my friend and pal for too short a time.

As a child and carrying on into adulthood, I always believed that my mother had few, if any, real friends. Her dependence on my siblings and myself, (expressed differently once we were grown, but with the same intensity), indicated to me that she had little support from her peers. My father, of course not; her mother, a difficult self-absorbed woman; the other moms in our neighborhood, she believed (or appeared to) that she had nothing in common with them.   There were a few friends from her college days, one she had known since childhood, with whom she corresponded occasionally for decades, by mail.

What did I know? I thought I knew so much, knew everything about her and her ‘little’ world. Time has rubbed my face in the fact that I did not. What did she think friendship meant? What about the giving and receiving that underlies relationships? Where did I learn the ‘safety’ of giving, instead of asking and receiving?  There I was, busily setting limits on how close others could get to me, in order to protect myself, that they not see my true, flawed self.

At the same time I was ever so judgmental about her ‘hollow, care-taking’ relationships with others. “Where was the substance?”, I thought, condescendingly. When I reread what Fran had to say about her, I realize how wrong I was. The arrogance of youth, I’d like to say, but I carried that arrogant  ignorance for an awfully long time. Never too late to learn, I hope.

I am reminded of some lines from a poem, written by Marge Piercy, entitled The Seven of Pentacles.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.  You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.  More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet… Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.  Live a life you can endure… Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in, a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside, but to us interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Words are beginning to fail me here, as I move through the thoughts and feelings that arise. There is so much that was true about my mother and her connections, that is true of each of us, that is unseen, that grows underground. In her letter mourning and praising my mother, Fran spoke with clarity and insight about the woman she knew.

She also said something that struck me to the core. “You have within you her practical nature and patience, and her appreciative spirit, her ability to bear the ‘not so swift.’” Fran may have been referring to her own disability, her need to use a power chair. But she tapped right into something that rang so true about my mother. She, in the words of Piercy’s poem (above), continued to “reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in”…  Through all the years of her life, she continued to make new connections.

I will conclude now, by going back to the idea of my mother on Facebook. In the last couple of years of her life, she had begun to use email a bit. She learned how to play solitaire on the computer and just months before her death, I taught her how to use a search engine. She was Depression-era frugal, but loved to shop (with my sister – I wasn’t much of a shopper – which is a tangent I could follow, but will not.) I imagine that given more time she would have taken to shopping on the world wide web with great pleasure.

But Facebook? That we shall never know, but perhaps I can begin to imagine…

A Hornet’s Nest

When considered closely, the expression “Stirring up a hornet’s nest…”, like so many other aphorisms I use (and hear or read) frequently, is quite a puzzle. Bumping into or stepping upon a hornet’s nest is something I can imagine; an accidental encounter with the buzzing, dive-bombing, only-trying-to-protect-themselves-and-their-kin wing-ed beasts. I have had those encounters and the hornet’s sting is no joke. Which takes me back to the phrase: ‘stirring up’; to me, that word choice indicates a behavior that is an act of volition, not an accident. Why, I ask, would one choose to stir up a hornet’s nest?

Is curiosity an adequate reason? You wonderfully astute readers will have gotten ahead of me here, I suspect. I am wondering why I have stirred up this hornet’s nest of thoughts, memories and feelings about friendship. Another ‘yoicks’ moment. I think it is a case of curiosity to begin with, which morphs into an unsolicited stream of reflections. Here are some of the random scraps that been surfacing.

I’ll start with the concept of ending friendships. There are the ‘naturally faded away’ ones, that happen as a result of changes in circumstance: moving to a different neighborhood or city, marriage or having children when friends are still single or non-parents, leaving a job and other such innocuous, but life changing events. Then there are the endings that I have tried to disguise as circumstantial shifts.

Confession time: there are those whose presence in my life was driven by things like living or working in proximity or having children who enjoy play dates together.  A cordial relationship develops, but on my part at least, there is no experience of real connection. In fact, I find that I am bored, avoiding, even averse to being with this person. Excuses and evasion begin to dominate and with some guilt and more relief, I start to pull back. I’m sorely tempted, as part of this confessional note, to defensively explain some of the annoying episodes that take place when I am ‘done’, but the other person believes we have a true friendship.

I can also defensively rationalize my choices: ‘Only so much time in my day; I want to spend it with people I enjoy; life is short; I don’t have to take care of people who are needy…’ Question: are these rationalizations or legitimate reasons? I guess the uncomfortable part is a sense that I have been duplicitous; failing to be forthright and explain my behavior, which a little voice tells me would be ‘the right thing to do’.

Here’s a story for you. Once upon a time, as I was involved in one of these distancing scenarios, the acquaintance inquired of my spouse “Are you still having the XYZ parties? Why are we no longer invited?” Obviously I wasn’t present, and this happened many years ago now, but in some way the individual asked if we were no longer friends. The response, inelegant, but nonetheless, painfully true, was something to this effect: “It’s actually Cathy who doesn’t like you…” Ouch, ouch, ouch. I was ‘outed’ as a ‘hater’, which was shocking because being caring and generous was (is) such a large part of my self-image.

Okay, here is another tangential commentary, admittedly inserted here because my innards needed to scramble away from that confession. There was a scene in some movie that I watched in the last few months… couldn’t tell you what film, although you may recognize the quote. An adult and a child (man and boy, I believe) are walking along and the man is awkwardly explaining something to the boy. The boy interjects, offering the word ‘haters’, to summarize a clumsy description and the man seizes upon the word, saying: “Yes, ‘haters’, we didn’t have that word back then…” I found that moment to be both touching and hysterical. The next generation has certainly coined language that is sorely needed.

One last note… I have been on the other side of this equation. I have also been rejected, dropped, jettisoned. It is disturbing, upsetting, confusing and the sense of injury lingers for a long time. Please forgive me if my courage fails. I’m not quite ready to air those hurts and grievances in this forum.

But I am extremely curious to hear if anyone reading this has thoughts about this equation, theoretical reflections or personal experiences. It’s a knotty issue, me thinks. Thanks for listening.

To Urge on the Hounds…

What got me started thinking and writing about communication methods yesterday was a feeling somewhere between sadness and guilt. Nice combo, huh? You see, my email inbox has a pile of messages from friends that I truly care about, some I truly love, that I want to respond to, but there is ‘never enough time’. So I feel guilty and sad.

I miss being in touch with these individuals, some of whom I have known for 30 or 40 or even 50 years and each of whom holds a special place in my life story. I dream of making plans to see them, especially the ones that are more local, but it can take me days, weeks or months to manage to write an email! What is up with that? I think longingly of the simpler time I wrote about yesterday, when face-to-face was the way we communed.

Yes, life is full and busy. Yes, after more than half a century of meeting people and forging connections, there are a lot of folks to try and keep up with… Yes, it is all about priorities and choices of how I spend my time. But what do they think and feel when my response is so delayed? I can’t bear to think of them feeling slighted, unappreciated or angry. At the same time my head throbs when I even imagine trying to ‘catch up’ on all these emails, much less sending the handwritten notes I would like to pen.

Facebook? Yoicks . [Footnote: I love the sound of ‘yoicks’ and I enjoy writing it too. Want to know what the dictionary has to say? ‘An exclamation, used by fox hunters to urge on the hounds; of unknown origin.’]

Okay, Facebook. Virtually none of my closest friends are on FB. That could tell me something. These are women with whom I feel safe to share all kinds of messy shit that comes up from inside of me. Well, FB, in my humble opinion, is not the place for that kind of soul bearing. Others folks, many other folks, obviously don’t share that opinion. No matter.

Why am I ‘on’ Facebook? Two reasons, or maybe three. One is that it has given me a small window into the world of the millennial children (now young adults.) The same can be said of YouTube, I guess. It may sound strange, but it’s the same sense of understanding another generation as what I have regarding the big band music of the 1930’s and 40’s, which is my link to my parents WWII generation. Both offer me a comforting sense of who came before (and spawned) my baby boomer generation and who will follow us into the unknown, sometimes scary sounding future.

A second reason is that for her sixteenth birthday, my daughter ‘friended’ us, her parents. That was an unexpected honor; a gesture of trust, opening some of her personal life to us that I will always treasure. Granted, she and many of her generation now use other electronic methods of connection more than FB, but it is still used as a place to make public announcements.

So, I feel ‘in the loop’ to some extent, or at least as much as I want to be. I virtually never post on FB. I don’t even respond by ‘liking’ things very often. But I do enjoy a lot of the random comic & inspirational video links and quotes people post. Like the unanswered emails, I generally don’t ‘have time’ to watch these offerings, but sometimes I do.

The third reason is probably most germane to the topic. I have ‘Facebook Friends’ with whom I attended high school or that I worked with at a long ago job. Again, I don’t post much, but I get a kick out of hearing about their lives, even if it is not personally from them to me. Photos and milestones of their children and grandchildren, weddings, vacations, news clips and art from around the world that they have chosen to share… oh, and political opinions. Those can be very mixed. It seems that a lot of the people I knew in high school are now (maybe always were) quite conservative, which I find annoying. So it goes.

I want to thank my friend Em, an awesome, longtime blogger, (see Em-i-lis) who posted a comment here on EAW a couple of days ago, sharing her experience: “I’ve been repeatedly surprised, often thrilled and sometimes saddened by the friendships that remain as well as those that have faded.” It’s gotten me thinking in terms of the basic story line – beginning, middle and end – of friendship.

An interesting footnote to this blog post: I have never met Em in person. We met through an online writing course and, along with two others from that class, have built our friendship electronically and telephonically. Yep, wonders never cease, even for me, a blogging boomer.

What say you?

We hear it all the time: women are about relationships (and men are about competition.)

Since I was in my 20’s, I’ve been curious about women and friendship. My interest hasn’t faded; in fact new questions and new angles keep coming up. I want to explore my own needs and expectations regarding friends and to see how those factors have changed over time.

Well, its almost four decades later, so research across the decades is now part of my own experience. However, hearing from others about what they believe friendship means would add a great deal to my understanding. Please take a look at the list below and tell me which questions interest you, which issues resonate? These are some of the things I may be writing about this month.  If other thoughts come to mind, please add them in the comments section.

I’m not really focused on expanding the reach of my blog, so (dear readers), if your interest is piqued by anything I write or ask here and you want to pass it on to a friend, that would be marvelous. If I don’t get any comments, I am prepared to ramble on about this topic, until I run out of juice. Which may take a while…

  • How were/are friendships formed in your teens, 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s,70’s… ?
  • Are situational factors the most common? Classmates, roommates, coworkers/colleagues, parents of children’s friends, neighbors, shared interests (sports, handcrafts, support groups etc.)
  • What needs do friendships meet at each of those ages?
  • What do you need to receive from friends? What do you expect/want?
  • What do you believe you need to give?
  • What are the responsibilities of friendship?
  • How do you see friendships in relation to partner/husband relationships?
  • How long do/can/should friendships last? Is there a predictable duration?
  • How do friendships end? Drifting apart, fading out, conflict, one person cuts it off?  Are there common experiences of termination?
  • What about friendships across differences? In age, gender, sexual preference, parent/non parent, race, ethnicity, economic class?
  • What about family members as friends? Sisters, cousins, aunts, mothers, daughters?
  • Friendships over distances of space or of time. Long-time friends vs ‘new’ friends.
  • Elder friendships.
  •  ? ? ? ?

 

Friends don’t let friends…

‘Friends don’t let friends… ’ This phrase is perhaps most associated with the crusade against drunk driving. Which is a very basic way of underscoring another critical element to a good friendship. A friend is drunk… you take their car keys and drive them home (or put them in a cab, if you are also under the influence.) They may not express their appreciation for your concern at the time, but that is part of the deal. As a friend you are willing to get in their face, tell them something that maybe makes them mad, maybe even belligerent, but you step up and speak up, because it is about their safety.

Another way to say this is that a good friend ‘has your back’. A somewhat contemporary expression, but the imagery is quite clear, I think. A friend stands behind you when you need support. A friend watches your back, alerting you to things you may not see on your own. A friend will speak up and defend you, if it is called for, when you are not there. And all of this is reciprocal – they know that you ‘have their back’ as well.

Thinking about my discouraged and self-doubting post a few days ago, I am aware of the friends who have and are supporting me in my writing. They encourage me – give me courage – when I don’t know if what I am trying to say makes sense. They hang in there with me, telling me what they ‘hear’ me saying and help me to refine my thinking and my writing. So, when I slip into that ‘slough of despond’, I only need to look up and there’s a friend, reaching to help me out. Thank you, readers and friends.

There was one particular section in Caitlin Moran’s book, How to be a Woman, which really popped my eyes open regarding women, body size and addiction. I thought that I had posted about that eye-opener last year, but when I searched for it, I see that although I wrote it, I did not share it. Still too close to the bone for me, I guess. So I will offer you a link to her website and return to that piece of writing another time.  In addition to her wacky site, here’s a link to a review of the book, written by Peggy Orenstein and posted on slate.com.  Orenstein quite accurately states:  “Moran’s feminism is as much attitude as analysis. She is, in equal measure, intellectual, rebel and goofball…”

Moran was interviewed recently by Lorraine Berry in the online magazine, Talking Writing. Here’s a bit of that interview. They are discussing publication, which is not my issue, but it speaks to the self-doubt experienced by many women writers.

Berry: Do you think male editors and publishers are oblivious to who they’re publishing? They really don’t notice they’ve wound up hiring all these men? Or do they think men are inherently better writers?

Moran: When people say, “Men are inherently better writers,” they mean that men appear to be more “normal” writers—because the people making that judgment are other men.  So, when they read men writing these things, it’s like, “Yes, yes, yes. That’s generally my experience. That’s how I feel.”

Whereas when a woman writes about what she feels or her experience, suddenly they’re like, [imitating a male voice with a posh Oxbridge accent] “No! That’s weird. She’s gone a bit mad there.”

When they say “better,” they just mean less startling or less weird. Any clever entity will realize that startling and weird are good.

In so many ways, the Internet is great, because now women can blog. They don’t have to wait to be approved by a man to get their voices out there.

Berry: I’ve heard one more explanation for why women don’t get published as often as men. The editor of a very left-leaning magazine said the problem is that women don’t write about serious issues

Moran: Often, women are too scared to put themselves forward to write about serious things… when we were younger… we thought we should just write about women’s issues because that’s something we know about—and we wouldn’t write about war and diplomacy because we didn’t know that much about it.

But when I… talked to male columnists… they said, “You know, we write about politics and war, but we don’t know that much about it, either.” Men just have that confidence to say, “Well! I’m not an expert on it, but I’ll give it a go. I’ll just bring my common sense to it, do a bit of research, and I’ll do it.”

I now write about these big subjects because—you know what? – its me having a bit of a thought about this, and it’s equal to what anybody else is going to write, I reckon. You just need to have that swaggering confidence to do it.

You may think that I’ve drifted off topic, but the truth is that when Caitlin Moran goes ahead and writes things that seem ‘crazy and weird’ she is very much a friend to me. She articulates my concerns about writing honestly about feelings and experience. That’s what was choking me the other day; the fear was cutting off my voice. I love the way she says: “… it’s me having a bit of thought about this…”.

Yes, that’s exactly what I want to be doing here, just as if I were in a conversation with a good friend.  Having a bit of thought. I like that.

And your thoughts about what… friends don’t (or DO) let friends…?