I don’t know what I’d do without my friends, that inner circle of people, mostly not related by blood, who I love and feel loved by.  I was going to write “who I love and who, in return, love me.”  But that’s not it.  There’s no quid pro quo in friendship, no deals that are struck.  That’s the beauty of friendship.  It feels spontaneous and freely given.

Because friendship is not as charged and complex as marriage—positively and negatively—we often get to be our best selves:  loving, generous, funny, strong, (a vulnerable, silly, candid—you name it.  Maybe because friendship lives within a narrower emotional range and with fewer obligations, we feel easier within it.  We don’t challenge our friends.  We don’t try to improve friendship as much as we tend to do with family relations. It feels easy: easy to relax within its flexible cocoon.  And our worst qualities, those that we regret and try to hide elsewhere, almost never come out.  We are at home in this kind of relationship.

And the gift keeps giving.  The predictability, the dependability is immensely comforting.  All we have to do is enter that cocoon and we are, with few exceptions, the person we want to be.

When we think of friendship, we often think about what we receive but I think that misses the point.  Instead, it’s what we give.  It’s how much easier it is to be generous, for instance, than elsewhere.  With friends, we share material things and feelings with relative ease.  When in the mood, we share our woes and amusements, pleasures and pains, and feel better for the sharing.  Partly, I suppose, because the sharing doesn’t assume many obligations.

There’s another quality of friendship that needs highlighting: the experience of being well known.  Good friends finish sentences for us.  They know how we think about things.  Often they have known us for a long time—they knew us when.  Which means they know us in many contexts, in many of our best and worst places.  They know the story of your life, the whole person, surely the one we chose to have seen, and sometimes the one we’ve tried to hide.  And they still choose us.  That’s a comfort beyond almost all others.

Close friend and especially ‘best friends’ are like family, except they are chosen.  That makes the relationships a little more tenuous, but most of the time the fragility that lurks beneath all chosen relationships stays hidden.  For many of us—older people whose families have drifted away, or middle–aged people whose children have flown the coop—circles of friends are, for most of every day and week, simply what we’ve got.

Best friends often seem like second marriages—and easier, simpler ones, at that.  Except for those mad adolescence friendships which resemble romantic engagements more than anything else, these relationships are mostly contained within a much narrower range of emotions and expectations.  They often balance and buffer more tumultuous marriage and family life. They serve as a tension release, a place of rest and—or so it can seem—a place of sanity when marriages are in their most irrational or explosive phases.  In this way, close friendships contribute to the success of marriage and family

The apparent simplicity of friendships, however, is deceptive.  It actually requires great discipline to sustain them over a long period of time.  There are two arenas in which that discipline is particularly necessary: maintaining jointly established “rules of the road” and sustaining a shared narrative—the story we both tell that reflects the essence of our friendships.

The rules are largely implicit and rarely articulated.  What do I mean by rules?  Here is one – it pertains to how much candor is permitted.  If one friend’s candor becomes hurtful or frightening, the other will indicate that a rule has been broken by saying something or moving away—until the friends creep back to the established norm.  This kind of movement speaks to another rule that concerns how close or far we are allowed to go.  For instance, a kiss or a certain embrace might exceed what at least one person thinks is the limits of this intimacy.   Not calling on the telephone for a longer-than-usual period of time might also break a rule about emotional distance.

A third genre of rule reflects what’s legitimate to talk about:  other friends? our partners? politics?  Here I am thinking, for example, of the wide, political divide that separated me from one of my closest friends.  It took us a number of irritable conversations, spaced out over years, to figure out what we could comfortably discuss, what was off the table, and how we should approach the topics we deemed “discussable.”  In recent years, we have found a stable, unthreatening way to have these conversations.

Each transgression of these rules has to be corrected.  Each one tests the friends’ commitment and skills.  Each success can increase their confidence and even, perhaps, broaden the arenas of interaction.  In all, there is an intricate web of agreements, some just between friends, others prescribed by culture.

Think about the ‘rules’ that govern your key friendships?  How have they been broken?  How have they been fixed or changed to preserve or enhance the relationship?

Now onto our friendship narratives.  Friendship narratives describe the qualities,  activities, and meanings of relationships.   My friend, David, and I, for instance, first got together to play tennis.  We noticed immediately that we liked each other’s game.  That was a good beginning for being tennis buddies, but not enough for friendship.  Then one day it began to snow pretty seriously, and without a word between us, we continued to play through it.  That began the narrative that focused on our similarities—easy empathy, determination, fierce and joyful competitiveness.  We were crazy, of a type, “a couple of nuts.”  As our friendship developed, we could trust each other to understand and not judge the way we exceeded or transgressed all kinds of cultural norms.  And while others teased us, we basked in the companionship that allowed, even encouraged, us to be ourselves.

Finally, I’d like to say that, over time, many of the best marriages either begin as friendships and add romance or begin with passion and add friendship. In the more common case of couples who begin with romance, two people eventually learn to establish rules of engagement and stick to them—in much more skillful and determined ways. Individually and together, they grow more disciplined.  They also build and adhere to a shared narrative even when it doesn’t entirely fit.  Together and individually, they learn to correct missteps, and over time, to do so more quickly and with less fuss.

There is so much more I could and will say about friendship.  But this is a start, and I will depend on you to be a friend: to agree and to criticize and to add to what I’ve begun.


What I Loved and Miss Most and Don’t Want Back

When she was 75, my mother confided that her best years took place when her children were young.  She loved the everyday hubbub of their lives and she relished the times when she threw herself into an effort to build support for a new public school in our neighborhood.  Later, her interest in her grandchildren was affectionate but hardly intense.  I wondered where all that nurture in her had fled.  “Would you like to go back to those early days?” I asked.  “Not at all,” she responded, without a moment’s hesitation.

I’ve come to think that there’s nothing unusual about my mother’s changing interests.  There are so many things that I miss—deeply, poignantly—but don’t want back.

As a young man, every morning around 6 AM, I’d set myself up in a huge beige easy chair in our Victorian living room, writing in my journal and waiting for my children to sleepily ease onto my lap.  There we’d sit for fifteen or twenty minutes, quietly for a while, then sharing our thoughts.  After that, we’d walk to school together, only to start all over again in the evening.  There is hardly an experience in life that I miss more than those easy, companionable hours.  But I don’t want to be raising young children now.

I loved to work, really loved it for more than fifty years.  I loved the hours I spent helping couples figure out how to become better friends and lovers.  Or coaching young leaders on how to focus their staff.  I loved building organizations — and I built several.  There’s nothing like the excitement of putting new ideas into action.  But I don’t want to be responsible for all those people and organizations any more.

Then there’s young, romantic love.  Here’s how the novelist, Penelope Lively puts it in her memoir, Dancing Fish and Amonites,: “…I don’t in the least lament certain emotions.  I can remember falling in love, being in love; life would have been incomplete without that particular exaltation, but I wouldn’t want to go back there.  I still love—there is a swathe of people that I love—but I am glad indeed to be done with that consuming, tormenting form of the emotion.”  P 47

The activities that consumed much of my life me evoke rivers of nostalgia, but no serious desire for a return engagement.

Now don’t get me wrong.  There are plenty of things I’d like to go back to, mostly to do with physical wholeness and exuberance.  To name a few: a strong, healthy body and an assumption that my immune system will fight any disease, like those carried by those little cess pools, my grandchildren; and a firm knowledge that broken bones will quickly heal.  I’d love to run and jump and race to the moon.  I’d like to eat enough for five people as my metabolism long let me do.  I’d like to make love all day long and then come back for more in the morning.

So then why no desire to resume my other cherished activities?  First of all, I suppose that they seem exhausting.  After just a weekend alone with our delightful, young grandchildren, I crawl onto the sofa with Franny to watch mindless TV or read junk fiction.  Not only am I physically tired, but my mind craves quiet — certainly moreso than does Franny’s.  I love being with those children and I know that it would be a challenge for me as a daily diet.  Franny recently retired from over 30 years as a university professor; she loved it all — teaching, thinking, and writing. But now, although she misses the rhythms, the sense of purpose, and the press of colleagues and students, she can’t imagine returning to it – too many constant demands, too little time for contemplation.

So maybe that’s the key:  We want to limit demands going forward, as though we’ve already met our lifetime quota.  Franny figures that, encoded in DNA, is a lifetime limit of dinners women can cook – kind of like eggs able to be fertilized.  And too bad for me, since she’s a good cook, she’s sure she’s closing in on hers.  Perhaps there are these limits, set by some unseen gods, on the extent to which most of us can be responsive to, and responsible for, others.

And maybe you also get into a new rhythm that seems hard to break from .  When we are young, working and taking care of children are just part of the day, which reduces the energy required.  Going back in time would pull us out of the cadence of our present lives —  we’d get out of the rhythm—out of the saddle, too—and it seems to hard to start dancing again.

I know that I reached a point at work where I didn’t want any more administrative responsibility.  I didn’t want to manage anyone, report to anyone, or feel accountable for outcomes.  That’s when I knew it was time to retire.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like parts of my work, and I’ve maintained some parts—like leadership coaching or advising—but, even when I have worked a bit, I leave my roles at night and rest.  Just like I send the grandchildren home after we’ve frolicked for a day.  What a relief!

Maybe there are biological or neurological functions that slow down so much as we age that even doing the same thing as we always have done seems like too much.  But look at all those ancient candidates for the United States presidency.  And, I have to admit, there are times when I am so engaged that working all day seems more invigorating than debilitating.  There’s nothing I used to do at work or with children that, on the face of it, seems impossible now.  Except that I don’t want to do it.

I suppose that once we start to pull back, we wonder if we can come back; and when that process begins, once the momentum builds, there’s a process of diminishment that sets in.  Doing less makes us feel like we can only do less.   Penelope Lively puts it this way:  “… perhaps there is some benign mechanism that aligns diminished capacity with diminished desire.”  P25  Or the perception of diminished capacity; and we don’t want to find out if that perception is true.

The very idea of diminished capacity makes us anxious.  And in the midst of present anxiety, it is easy to remember those anxious times of parenting and work.  Somehow they come into the foreground; and we lose track of how strong and determined and confident we also were.  I have a friend, for instance, who was an immensely successful health care executive, taking on responsibilities that would have crushed most other people. He took a break for a year or two and loved how free he felt, but got lured back into action for several more years.  But the momentum towards anxiety and the desire to flee had already taken hold of him.  Though he continued to perform brilliantly, his fear of failure grew commensurately.  He now loves his retirement and even cherishes the sense of diminishment that protects him from going back.

I’m sure that the apparent paradox of not wanting to return to what we loved most does not apply to everyone.  I have friends who adore retirement and the activities they now find so engaging.  There are some who never loved the younger years to begin with.  There are those who are bored to tears by the ‘golden years’ and would love to return to their youthful activities.  Still others keep on working into their 70’s and 80’s because they love what they do.

I also know that some people don’t retire because they don’t believe they will find the same kind of satisfaction elsewhere.  I know that some people, more women than men, dive into grandparenting, where they find a new, often intense absorption and satisfaction.  But I’ll bet that most people don’t find the engagement to be as complete.  And I’ll bet that most hold back.  They don’t want a return to the full intensity of motherhood.  That’s what makes grand parenting so sweet.  We have some distance, some perspective, and lots more time and separation.  But that’s also what makes it less deeply satisfying, which brings on the nostalgia.

The bottom line?  Many of us do live this apparent contradiction of missing and moving on from the past.  The missing, the nostalgia is a regular part of our lives.  And I believe we can live well with it if we keep it in perspective, if we don’t romanticize the past too much.  Nostalgia can simply be part of our days, a spur to contemplation and a search for meaning in our lives.  I have learned to relish it.