Some of us are lucky enough to be living in our hometowns. We have extended families and familiar friends with whom to talk and laugh and share our troubles. Our grandparents, great-grandparents, even great-grandparents lived and worked and loved and died within the familiar boundaries of our town. We know the best swimming holes, the crankiest citizens, the oldest trees. The creaky floorboards of the corner store are as known as the creaky stairs in our own homes. Older folks remember us from when we were kids. We have a support system. People know us . . . love us or hate us . . . but know us. We feel connected and involved.
Others of us aren’t so lucky. We’ve relocated to new towns and cities in search of work, or perhaps we just wanted a fresh start. Without the security blanket of shared history, we find ourselves exposed to the coolness of strangers. We are more isolated than we’d like. We wonder why we just don’t seem to “fit.” Perhaps we’ve landed in a place that doesn’t really suit our personality. Perhaps the natives are distrustful of newcomers. Perhaps we are homesick for the familiar landscapes of our childhood and cannot find even an approximation.
We crave companionship and a sense of belonging. We cast about for fellow pilgrims, for friendship. We wonder if we’ll ever feel at home in this new place. We join circles, salons, teams, groups, clubs, societies, packs, parties, neighborhoods and tribes. We seek soulmates, friends, companions, partners, neighbors, and colleagues. Eventually, if we are lucky, we find some fellowship.
I’ve been talking with various people about this lately (okay, pretty much non-stop for the last six years or so), and it seems that the older I have gotten, the more difficult it has been to hook-up with likeminded individuals, to make connections, to find a circle of friends, to forge deep and lasting friendships.
Growing up in a rather insular church society that included a private school, I had few friends outside the small, yet secure environment in which my parents placed me. My friends were the kids who attended Sunday school with me every weekend and whose desks were next to mine in our Christian-school classrooms from kindergarten all the way up through twelfth grade. We grew up together, went through the process of “becoming” together.
We shared clothes and books and food from our lunchboxes. We slept over at each others’ houses and talked all night. We listened to the same music, had crushes on the same boys, watched the same television shows, and hated and loved the same teachers. We played on sports teams together and sang together in the chorus. We endlessly discussed who we wanted to be, what we wanted to do, who we wanted to marry, where we wanted to live when we grew up. We analyzed our relationships with other friends, boyfriends, parents, and siblings. We talked about our bodies, our fears, our dreams, and our humiliations. Oh, those humiliations.
College friendships were easy, too. There we were, young adults with no more than four years difference between us, attending classes with the same professors, eating the same meals at the cafeteria, sleeping in indentical dorm rooms, drinking out of the same kegs at the same parties and watching the same people pass out behind the couch (okay, so I didn’t go to too many keg parties, but you get the idea.)
Here, too, we shared our thoughts and feelings about anything and everything, growing wiser and deeper together, feeling the possibility and power of our youthful potential. Heady days, figuring out who we really were . . . or were becoming.
Inevitably, graduation and careers and marriage and moves forced us apart, and now most of us live hours and days from each other. We are left stranded in our adulthood and wondering why it is so difficult to forge new friendships that are that easy and comfortable and close. What has happened to us, we wonder?
After much discussion and thought, I think I’ve figured out the secret ingredient to strong friendships–time. When you are a child, and even more so when you are a young adult in college, you have countless hours in which to “hang-out.” As an adult? Not so much. Some of us have jobs and long commutes that eat up most of the weekday hours. We have PTC meetings and volunteer duties. We have houses to clean, wood to get into the cellar, pets to take to the vet’s office, cars to register at the town office. We’re lucky if we can squeeze in a half-hour for exercise and dinner with the family. Heading over to the coffee shop to sit with a friend feels like a luxury we can rarely indulge in.
Mant of us have children and spouses demanding our attention. Grown-up social gatherings don’t just “happen” like they did in college. There is no designated party house for every Friday and Saturday night. Parties are now planned well in advance to allow for childcare arrangements and coordination of schedules . . . and God forbid anyone comes down with a virus or a snowstorm hits.
When we aren’t involved with the daily ups and downs of our companions, though, we lose intimacy. The word “time” is even embedded in the word “intimacy.” In our older friendships, shared history is a shortcut to intimacy. With new friendships, there are no shortcuts. It’s just plain work. Fun work, but time consuming work. And the path is full of twists and turns and false starts and missteps.
Time is the big factor, but we may also be psychologically closed to the kind of friendship we made in our younger years. Having outgrown adolescent narcissism (hopefully) we are sure the other person doesn’t want to hear all about our past triumphs and failures, and so we hold back. We’ve been through stuff. Maybe we don’t want to be completely open because we’ve been burned in the past, shared with someone who took our stories and broadcast them to our embarrassment. We have our reputations and our spouse’s and children’s reputations to worry about.
We don’t want our crazy pasts (or presents) to reflect badly on our families. Maybe a fresh start and a clean slate were part of the reason we left our hometown in the first place. Perhaps we feel foolish, admitting lonliness, admitting mistakes, admitting failures. We are adults, now. We should know better–about everything. It would be daft to admit we don’t, in fact, have it all together.
No longer looking ahead to our adult lives, we are smack in the middle of them. We feel silly talking about our hopes for the present, for the future. Where do dreams and aspirations fit into a middle-aged life? We are supposed to BE there, to have ARRIVED already. We can talk about our hopes for our kids and maybe about retirement (but, really, that’s a little depressing, isn’t it?), but we’ve forgotten how to dream for ourselves . . . or at least we’ve forgotten how to share those dreams. We are embarrassed. We’ve learned to hold in our feelings. It’s what adults do.
Yet, we feel alone. I know I’m not the only one who feels this lack of connection because so many of my women friends confess to feeling the same way (somewhat self-consciously and reluctantly). We don’t know our neighbors the way we imagine we should. Our activities pull us in many different directions. Our kids have baton and music lessons, Lego League or basketball practice, and homework.
Even though we live in the same town and our kids go to the same school, a great bit of life is spent in our cars traveling out of the hometown to points hither, thither and yon. Spouses work in the cities an hour from home. We are so used-up at the end of the day that the thought of getting into the car one more time–even to visit with a friend–exhausts us. In all this hecticness, something gets lost, and most often what is lost is regular time with like-minded companions. Friendship, like expensive chocolate, feels like a luxury we shouldn’t indulge in.
All this busy-ness fractures our communities, as relationships form the structure on which a community is built and relationships are glued together by time.
If we want to feel connected–to our friends, to our community, to our neighbors–then we need to give those ties time to bind. Schedule a regular coffee break with that nice person you met at the PTC meeting. Call your friend two or three times a week and share the highlights and lowlights of your days. Don’t rely on social networks on the internet. Get face-to-face with your favorite people on a regular basis. I can’t emphasize this enough: schedule friend-time.
Maybe you can exercise together, shedding pounds while sharing your life stories. Work on a home project together–first at one house and then the other. Invite a buddy over to watch a football game on Sunday afternoon (you were going to watch it anyway; why not bond over a plate of nachos and a beer?) Host a craft night.
There are layers of connectness. You might not want to be “best-friends” with your neighbors, but recognizing them in the grocery store would be nice. This is something I need to work on. My idea this holiday season is to bake cranberry bread for my neighbors and deliver it along with an invitation to a get-to-know-your-neighbors open house sometime in January.
Shopping at local businesses and volunteering for local charitable or civic organizations are two more ways to make community connections. It’s next to impossible feel part of the “Wal-Mart community” or the “Target community.” But when you go to the local supermarket and chat with various townspeople two or three times a week, you begin to feel connected. You know which cashier can never remember the price of the farm butter but makes the toddlers riding in the carts laugh when she says “see ya’ later, alligator.” When you volunteer at the library, you learn which patrons like the romance novels, which ones gravitate to the home decor section, and who never returns their books on time but always has a friendly comment about that month’s art display on the walls.
As we head toward the beginning of a new year, take a minute or two to think about your local ties. Is there someone you’d like to know better? Is there an organization you’d like to join? Can you maybe give up an hour or two of television in exhange for some quality time with a new friend or neighbor? Give a little of yourself, take a chance on sharing some of your history. If you don’t connect with one person, try again with someone else. Maybe the current place will never feel like your hometown, but it will be your kids’ hometown. Maybe the current place isn’t perfect for your temperament, but you can create pockets of comfort in the community when you begin to forge new friendships. Examine this place in which you find yourself, focus on what you like, and ignore those things you don’t like. At least that’s what I am attempting to do . . . Outside the Box.
P.S. Here’s an idea for a handmade gift for a friend–old or new. Cute little Mary Jane-style slippers. I got the pattern from a most excellent magazine called MARY JANES FARM. The slipper pattern was in the August-September 2009 issue on page 88. I purchased the yarn at the Steep Falls Farmer’s Market a few months ago. The wool came from a nearby farm and was processed into yarn at the Barlett Mill in Harmony, Maine–a wool-spinning mill that has been in operation since 1821! Check it out, grab your knitting needles (there’s a crochet pattern, too), and whip up a quick pair of slippers.