Monday, July 17, 2006

Lament on the Occasion of Friend's Engagement

Just after dinner today, I got a call from one of my best friends who had a big announcement: she's engaged! I screamed so loud and smiled so wide I thought I'd go deaf then burst. After a fantastic weekend and a decent day, it was just great to hear her tell the story and talk about her ring and ask me to be in the wedding party (YES! I MADE THE A-LIST! SUCK ON THAT, EVERYONE ELSE! HA!), and tell me all about her summer job where she hopes to return full-time on graduation, and talk about all the other things going on in her life right now. It just eats me up that I couldn't see the excitement on her face or hug her.

There's been a rather cerebral discussion of the problem of modern community up on Mair's blog for a few days, and I'm at a loss for how to join in. My experience so colors how I look at friendship, community, and what it means to thrive as a human being in modern, mobile society. And my experience is a rather mixed bag.

In case you haven't read my blog profile, I was born in Argentina. As in the country, yes. I lived at the green arrow from when I was born until I was a four years old. Then we moved to the pink arrow from age four until we left for the States at age seven. There's a couple day's journey in between. I lived in the Detroit area until I left for college in Western Pennsylvania. After college, Hubster and I moved away from both our families (Michigan and New York states) to the greater D.C. area. I've never lived in a five-mile radius for longer than a few years. I have no idea what it means to grow up in the same house in which you came before memories were possible. I have no idea how a human being could be born, grow up, live their entire life and then die in the same state, much less in their hometown. The details of your homes might not be so dramatically disparate, but you probably have no idea what that's like either.

Of the few memories that remain from my childhood, few are so vivid as those in which I'm crying myself to sleep, trying desperately to remember my friends from Argentina and wishing there was something I could do to see them again before I forgot what they looked and sounded like. Saying goodbye has been a staple of my life - and most often there was no end-date to the separation. The last time I saw my best friend from Villa MarĂ­­a was five years ago. She has since begun medical school and maybe found a guy and probably changed quite a bit, but I haven't been a part of any of it, and I have no idea when I'll see her next. My grandparents and two aunts, one uncle, and my now ten-year-old cousin live down there and I haven't seen most of them since that trip five years ago. I honestly thought the two who made it to the wedding weren't going to be able to make it.

When I'm not trying to ignore it or stop it out with details of daily life now, I cry about it. I cried just now thinking about how little I've been a part of the lives of those friends and of my family especially. When I found out my grandmother wasn't going to be able to be at the wedding, I was surprised at the level of anguish it inspired, after all, she'd missed birthdays, graduations and plenty of other milestones. I love to travel and I could love to live in another country for a time, even a long time, but saying goodbye and missing loved ones is just as hard and heart-breaking with all that practice behind me.

I remember that same sinking feeling after high-school and college graduations, after camps (whose short length belied the depth of the emotional bonding we'd do), after family events and visits to Argentina. I could feel that despair descending - the despair of not knowing when and if I would ever be active in their lives again. Part of this is my habit of being peerlessly bad correspondent. You'd think with that kind of negative reinforcement, I'd be all for the letters, emails, and such. Alas, I seem to be cut from my father's cloth - a face-to-face kind of gal when it comes to relationships. Sure, I can express myself better in written format, but I'd much rather blather on in person given the chance.

What does that mean about my experience with community? I certainly haven't been without some form of it often. In Argentina, the churches in each area offered us a steady community. My parents would teach Sunday School or help out with the youth, and my brothers and I would run around with the kids. That pattern continued when we moved to the States. We never moved outside a half-hour ride from the church because we volunteered so often and it afforded us the built-in social group along with our religious enrichment. When I left for college and realized that this sacrifice meant I'd had friends since first-grade I fell in awe of God's goodness because he'd given me what I'd always wanted. In college, the networks were plentiful, although a bit loose for what I needed, so I fell through the cracks into depression. Obviously, this need for community in some sense drives my psyche.

Right now, I have a good church. I have a husband who has been a great support. But I don't really have a local best friend. [Disclaimer: I don't want any of my local friends to get the wrong idea: you are all near and dear to my heart. I'm talking about a very specific idea of a "best friend" so please don't impute any malice or even any apathy toward you. This feels really lame to say, but I don't want you to feel unloved, okay?] Getting together with friends right now is a bit of an ordeal, involving schedule-jiving, car-wrangling (Hubster and I still only have one), location disputes, and probable postponement. There is no "hey, let's just hang tonight" or "yeah, I need some new shoes, so let's go." Best case scenario: we hang out once every couple of weeks, but that's extremely rare. It feels selfish to denigrate my good life right now, but I have to say that I would really like having a local best bud. In fact, I think I might need it. It's not a need like water or food, but I know Hubster has to work harder at being a social network for me than he should. Dude does enough. I just need more people to love than just him - and most marriage counselors would agree that's normal. And as much as I love blogs as a means of communing with you, I would delete this whole thing if could move y'all into my neighborhood and have cocktail parties and borrow cups of each other's sugar.

I have no idea what we can derive from this little exercise in storytelling. The human need for connection continues unabated. Our means of connection are growing and shrinking at once. Churches has been a good source of community - drawing together people of similar beliefs with the goal of worship and mutual encouragement has a tendency to build a community feel (though that's not guaranteed, heaven knows). The bowling leagues and such that used be alternatives to church are declining popularity. If you have kids, it's hard to stay isolated in the middle-class world of soccer leagues and piano recitals, but I'm sure it's more likely when the money isn't there for those things. The freedom to travel has brought with it the impetus to search in wider radiuses for work. Work moves us from each other, expanding our horizons but shrinking the time we spend in each other's homes and lives, really. Then again, each person knows more people and more kinds of people through their travel. If I had never moved from my hometown, I would never have met 99% of you. It's a mixed blessing I can't really quantify. I can't make this a better/worse thing because it literally IS the story of my life.

Something J Morgan said summed it up for me:

For thousands of years, community was assumed and was tied to certain other static realities (race, language, religion, region, family, custom, profession, etc.). We live at a time when community is not tied to anything, least of all assumptions about how it should look or function or develop. We - together and individually - are cut free, our courses determined by our will more than ever before. That is in one sense freeing and hope-giving; in another daunting and tragic. It should give us pause when we realize that very little from the past can give adequate instruction now; we are in a unique historical moment. As exciting and useful or as ridiculous and dismissible as this moment may seem, there are always other powerful realities that cannot be ignored, but make any of those judgments hard to swallow.


Beth said...

I suspect that this friend of yours might be one whose name starts with a K and rhymes with an "Elsy" ... and, if that's the case, I would like to express what VERY EXCITING news I think this is! How wonderful!

(And if I'm wrong and I just made an ass of myself ... well ... that's embarrassing! Of course, anyone's engagement should qualify as exciting news ... but I hope it's the same cause for excitement that I think it is. And I hope I'm not an ass.) ;-)

E.A.P said...

Beth, your comments are totally lacking in ass-yness - it is Kelsy. I'm so giddy about it and now I'm giddy about your hilarious comment, and all of this does NOT add up to Erica getting to bed on time instead of looking at pictures and reminiscing into the wee hours.

I kinda didn't want the cat out of the bag before she was done making calls, but your admirable bean guessed it and I cannot tell a lie. Now you'd best pretend to be surprised, though, because if I lose the bridesmaid gig over this, I will be one angry absolute ruler.

CharlesPeirce said...

Let's go to Argentina sometime. Sweet.

J. Morgan Caler said...

"Our means of connection are growing and shrinking at once."

I think that is exactly right. This is a really good and insightful post that, in one way or another, I think most of us can relate to.

Mair said...

Dearest E.
This was a beautiful post. Thank you for being so self-revealing. You gave a great biographical account of the very thing I was trying to intellectualize on my post. (Yes, I just made up the word "intellectualize" - social scientists can do that sort of thing.) Anyway, I wanted to say - IF I COULD I WOULD MOVE INTO YOUR BASEMENT SO WE COULD DRINK TEA AND GO SHOE SHOPPING EVERYDAY!!!!!!!!

Seriously. But, you really did articulate what I was touching upon and I appreciate it. (And I miss you and staying up way too late (under the guise of going to bed) talking in our tiny room in MEP).

RedHurt said...

Wow - really great post! Thanks for sharing so much of your thoughts and feelings and past - it's really interesting.

I have a pretty different experience specifically because I'm not a face-to-face person. I'd much rather have all of you guys living close also, but the daily emails and blog entries I exchange do quite a lot to make me feel connected and surrounded by you friends.

While this is nothing profound, I feel like we simply have to make conscious efforts at community, and that this is harder for some people than others. I think we have to purposefully view our interactions with others as fluid and changing, and allow ourselves to be authentic and vulnerable in the moment on a daily basis.

But I sympathize some with what you're saying about saying goodbye, and the sense of sadness and loss that can create. I hope you can find community and friendships to help you heal from that, because I think we're meant to be whole, and too many goodbyes can do something to sever a person.

Anyway, I'm rambling, but again, excellent post.

Don Quixote said...

What a great post. Thanks so much for sharing. I guess the one thing that I would say is that you have to embrace change. It CAN be good. If you had your life to live over again, would you never have left Argentina? If so, think of the wonderful friendships you experienced in high school and college that would have never happened.

Trust me, Kid. I don't like it either, but I have to live with it. I still get a sinking feeling in my stomach when I pass the room that used to be my little girl's bedroom (and really, it wasn't her bedroom for all that long). I hated letting her go, but she had to if she was to become the great person she is today.

The "fringes" of the change are the toughest. I was so depressed after my little girl left for college, but as time went on, I adjusted. In the same way, it is tough for you now because you are too new to the area to have the kind of community you built up during your 4-year sleepover.

Take heart - you are too lovely a person to be isolated.

E.A.P said...

Mair - DO NOT ENTICE ME WITH TALK OF LIVING IN MY BASEMENT. To Quote Oscar Wilde "I can resist anything but temptation." I'm sorry I only articulated it and did not really enhance what you thought, but I think we're both there, staring at the same stories and wondering if things could be better if they were different. Getting our bearings is a start, but only a start.

CharlesPierce and J Morgan - We really should go there - I read an article that says Buenos Aires is the Prague of the 2000s with bang-for-your-buck tourism. Also, steak and wine and no jet lag. Just sayin'. And thanks for the compliment, J, since it was your words that really brought that line to mind.

Redhurt - you make an interesting point about personality. I have no doubt that plays a hand in my reaction to my circumstances. I think there IS something to be said for more indepth discussion when the daily grind can't interfere. I guess it's an extension of the idea that when you live in DC, you never go to the monuments or museums because YOU LIVE THERE, but when you visit DC you have to hit all those up or you missed out. The bigger things in life stand out when you don't have to go grocery shopping. And I should say, too, that your idea of being more fluid in relationships and taking the change as it comes is a better articulation of what I've done. In order to embrace my life, I've had to embrace the cast list changing, and I didn't mention this, but I think I see the strength of my friendships more across those miles and months. It's a testament to God's gift of connection that it transcends time and space like that.

Don Quixote - Thanks. I was feeling particularly tuned into my emotions as I wrote this. In your example, I was walking by the room and noticing the absence. Most days I'm walking by on a mission, or I look at it with wistfulness. I don't regret the turns life has taken, but it has closed some paths off to me and made me leave friends behind. You know better than I that some days you can't help but seeing what's missing.