Category Archives: Friendship

Danse Russe

“I am lonely, lonely. haring4

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!”…

 

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

 

William Carlos Williams,

“Danse Russe”

Lately, the philosophical question plaguing me is whether solitude is the natural state of humans… which says something about the state I’m lately in.

It’s July and, as a teacher, I don’t report to work. However, my wife still leaves each morning, my son lives elsewhere, and this summer my daughter has a job in the wilderness of Wisconsin. Between seven am and seven pm, email, Facebook, and the internet generally keep me company. With my sabbatical ahead, I forecast a long stretch of similarly uninterrupted solitude for the next 14 months.

Scientists believe they’ve answered my philosophical question definitively: humans are not solitary, never have been, and, in fact, experience changes in genetic expression in response to social situations. Where scientists once believed you were stuck with the genes you possessed at birth, they now recognize the environment, including the social environment, can turn on certain genes and change traits thought immutable. Research indicates people who live alone develop suppressed immune systems and manifest marked changes in genes linked to depression. Abused children with access to support outside the home, for instance, show–genetically—less sensitivity to stress and trauma. Closeted gay men fall much more rapidly to AIDS than more connected victims. Solitude, science says, is bad for you.

I’m not naturally social. In that great divide between those energized by company and those taxed by it, I’m squarely in the second group. A day of teaching runs upstream against my disposition, and, by the end of the workday, I have no talk left. As most people do, my wife looks forward to parties, guests, and visits. I try to. I remind myself how much fun I’ll have, how good it will be to reconnect with friends, how exciting meeting new people can be. Nonetheless, my apprehension grows. Almost involuntarily, I experience a kind of dread.

I’m no recluse. I love most humans and seem to function well in public. Some people, I’m always surprised to hear, say I’m interesting, even charming. Still, solitude is easier.

There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is a choice. Loneliness implies unfulfilled desire. A solitary person likes quiet, enjoys controlling his or her time, and finds productive and satisfying ways to spend what may appear to others empty hours. In contrast, a lonely person feels lost in a desert of time and wonders where the oasis is, where life-sustaining company might be, right then. Solitude evokes strength, self-sufficiency, autonomy, confidence, and completion. Loneliness stings. It never feels right and elicits resentment, bitterness at the thought of being dismissed or neglected.

I aim for solitude, but its border with loneliness wavers. I consider calling people so we can get together, then I give the idea up as weakness—they have their own lives and could certainly call me if they wished. I shouldn’t impose. I remind myself of my good fortune, the time to read, and study, and think, and write. Then, when I’m not looking, the switch flips. I feel excruciatingly bored and forgotten. The day begins with journal writing, a to-do list, an hour or so of studying a psychology text, and work on my latest creative projects. It ends with Netflix, iPad games, and anything to pass time before my wife (finally) walks in.

If I complain, she says, rightly, “Do something about it.” And I say, “I should.” Yet, the next day, I return to the same strategy of making the most of being alone. Sometime soon, I may scream. In the meantime, I structure my new solitary life like a dike to keep loneliness out. I mean to keep loneliness out.

A researcher named Steve Cole has devoted his career to studying the physical effect of social isolation and has discovered that, even more than stress, “Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.”

Scientists may have answered the question of whether humans are solitary, but my own experiment continues. My days negotiate self-reliance and desire, fellowship and autonomy, productivity and yearning to hear another voice. Nothing seems so immediate and real as this battle between being myself and being part of something. Even this post is a skirmish, a surrogate for conversation, piled earthwork, more effort to occupy time.

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Filed under Ambition, Depression, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Facebook, Friendship, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Rationalizations, Resolutions, Sabbaticals, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Thoughts, Time, Voice, Work, Worry

Then Silence

two_shadows“Silence propagates itself,” Samuel Johnson said, “and the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find anything to say.”

When I’m sleepless in the middle of the night, I think about lost friends and wince over unreturned phone calls, emails, and letters, all the thank you notes, flowers, and thoughtful gestures I meant to make to show affection. Most of the people who haunt my insomnia have likely forgotten me or think no less of me for drifting on, but life would be richer with their continuing company. I find plenty of time to work, to engage in activity I forget a few days later. I put tasks before people, and, if I could reverse that, I might sleep better.

I enjoy company and find sympathetic souls everywhere. Only recently, though, have I tried to cultivate and keep friends. Carl Jung said the meeting of personalities is like a chemical reaction—both personalities are transformed by contact. His statement only makes sense if you and the other personality are reactive, if you’re willing to venture outside yourself. Most of my life I haven’t been willing. It’s easy to converse, to slot in personal stories your listener doesn’t yet know. You rifle through relevant and appropriate remarks and, like a good raconteur, offer your most skillful talk. Or you can take the more secure stance of bouncing everything back to the speaker. Now you see. I’m well-practiced at the familiar and accepted steps of civil discourse.

But careful and polished steps aren’t dancing. Dancing is chemical and requires more than keeping up.

One of my first real friends welcomed me to his lunch table after I’d been exiled from another. Middle school cool failed me, and my usual companions froze me out. My new friend barely knew me, knew only that I had nowhere to sit and invited me over, but vulnerability proved a good place for us to start. His kindness endeared him to me, but hurt created our relationship. No purpose in pretense, we began with honesty instead.

His family invited me on vacation, he ate over my house whenever I could make him stay, and, even after I moved away, we exchanged antic letters full of imaginary schemes for becoming treasure hunters or famous tag-team auctioneers or dueling butter sculptors or engineers specializing in converting schools to bumper cars. We laughed, I think, because we knew we needed to. We were seldom comfortable except in the company of the other.

Some people believe no true friendship can ever cease, that, even after years of neglect, friends feel the same old understanding and affection. That thought consoles me at 3 am—though, in most cases, I can’t verify it. I wouldn’t know how to start looking for many of the people I’ve lost. In some cases, I remember how I felt with them and not their names. And though we might achieve familiar rapport if we were thrown together, what I’ve missed would be just as telling.

Next weekend my younger brother is going on a golf outing, and some of the people are part of a group of friends he sees frequently, old friends from high school and college he’s seen through every stage of life. I don’t care about golf—it’d be horrifying to even try playing—but I’m jealous. My oldest and best friends are, right this second, elsewhere, expecting and accepting the usual distance between us. We will talk when we talk. His friends wouldn’t let him neglect them. He wouldn’t allow it either.

After receiving a commission to West Point, my friend came home in three weeks. He wrote a letter that was meant to be funny but threw me. I wasn’t sure how I felt, how to console him or whether he wanted consolation and can’t recall now what I did say to him, if I did. Some nights I can’t convince myself I wrote back. I continued to hear reports of him—he went to college locally and then law school, he excelled in moot court and sang in his church choir. He married and had a daughter.

But by the time I looked for him—finding him was why I joined Facebook—someone told me he was gone, killed in a traffic accident a couple of weeks before. I read the obituary and thought again and again of writing his widow, his daughter, his mom. Perhaps he mentioned me. They donated a bench in Central Park because he liked to visit New York, and I could find it and sit on it.

I didn’t. I haven’t. It isn’t just that my right to speak seems lost, and that every day pushes him and our history further into the past. I’m beginning to think the best way—the only way—to honor him is to try harder to be an actual friend, the sort he was to me.

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My Honking Lament

imgThe geese in Lincoln Park are residents. They don’t migrate, or, if their flight can be called migration, only consists of travel to the western suburbs, announcing their exercise with loud exaltation, arresting pedestrians’ attention.

I wish I were so proud. My own diffidence says little more than, “Hi, I’ve arrived” or “I’m back” or “I’ve been thinking…” or “I’m still here.”

Travel isn’t something I relish, yet I know I have to leave here sometimes. I must meet the world to be part of it—no pretending musing online is being public—and life is supposed to be about greeting folks, about expanding myself through contact with genuine others.

The electronic reality I occupy suggests otherwise. The “friends” I create through Facebook and other “social” media don’t seem to seek intimacy. They appear to desire the electronic equivalent of a honking sortie through fall or spring skies, affection without heart. Noise over communication.

I’m sorry if that’s insulting, better to be sincere even when wrong. I’m guilty too.

And no wonder I’m lonely. Maybe my inability to express my feelings is my limitation. True character would insist on recognition, demanding—seeing as normal—the spouting I lid and re-lid daily. But I don’t know what to think or whether feeling is really looked-for from me. Most men live lives of quiet desperation, but what if quiet oppresses? I hesitate to say more… except to confess obsessing over all I hide, withhold, and swallow.

It’s not anger. I’m not mad as hell and can’t take it anymore. I want company, would like to be starkly myself.

Do people sense how convincingly “acceptable” overthrows “sincere”? Do others long to meet, long to talk instead of text, long to release feeling and speak rather than perform? The niceties aren’t nice, the insults more brutal by being couched.

Taking risks sounds good in abstract. Really, it’s embarrassing, showing emotion you know others—discretely or indulgently—ignore. You imagine people laughing. Derision is the modern default. The Eliot of “J. Alfred Prufrock” knew that, the Arthur Miller of “Death of a Salesman” knew that, but we’ve learned little. We devise new modes of communication to say less, in fewer characters.

Real life still awaits us—by that I mean, of course, real life awaits me—and I travel further and further from authenticity by circling, circling, circling.

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Empty Bed

empty_bed_in_an_empty_room_ii_by_aimeelikestotakepicsAs I’ve said before, I’m not particularly gifted at fiction, but sometimes stories occur to me, and I write them down.

She leaves him sleeping, but he isn’t asleep. With his eyes closed he assigns meanings to each zip and snap. When she steps in front of the window, a shadow like a wandering cloud overtakes him. The mattress dips. He hears her putting her feet into her shoes, imagines her pausing at the mirror, waking her hair with her fingers, tilting her head to her left and leaning toward her reflection, rubbing the smudges under her eyes as she does, giving up, and then walking out. At any point, he might speak. She might speak. Neither care to.

They’re friends, but lately they’ve acknowledged this mutual need and the convenient means to fill it. Sometimes, in the throes, he detects a low strain of melancholy in her voice, and he thinks she must want more from him than release, or a release greater than this. Sometimes she reminds him: if she finds someone, they are through with these nights.

And he agrees. When the door closes, he swings his feet to the floor and finds it welcomely cool. These first moments are an untangling—complications resolved in cascades. He’s hungry now and will eat.

They met in middle school. She wasn’t so beautiful then, with odd glasses and braces and a shape stretched mid-growth and not yet full. Still, she seemed perfect, and he averted his eyes when she caught him looking. He engineered ways to line up near her or stand at the same lab table. From the beginning, they laughed apart from the rest. All day, as bells moved him from class to class, their last conversation lingered, and, later, when they spoke again, she remembered what he’d told her. They were experts in each others’ lives.

Through it all, he felt grateful, indebted. She had boyfriends in high school—and some girls had been interested in him—but their friendship never suffered. She still called late. He still gathered thoughts he meant to tell her. When they met again after college, each brought a new store of experience to share. Only recently have they stopped really talking.

When he opens the refrigerator he sees she’s taken the leftovers. He has eggs, the little butter remaining, and a jar of salsa. Enough.

His friends didn’t believe him when he said he’d never kissed her before six months ago, and he was immediately sorry he’d said so. He doesn’t talk about her staying over. She doesn’t forbid him—she wouldn’t—but he always knows what she wants. He doesn’t always like it or like knowing, but he does.

In the years they lost each other, he reinvented her, imagined new warmth between them. During his loneliest hours, she was his fantasy. Now these are his loneliest hours. The touch between them is a sort of ache. He can’t remember how it started.

One day she’ll have news. She’ll meet someone or find distant work. They’ll have a last dinner between them and laugh. Old stories will be aired, and she’ll say again how much he’s always meant to her.

He wonders what he wishes she’d say. He eats his eggs and stares at the blank face of his phone.

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The Messenger

chicago-downtown-sunset_30728_990x742I’m having a busy week and only found time to get a little writing exercise. I’ve tried to compose a very little story of ten sentences, the first of 50 words, the second of 45, the third 4o… you get the idea. It felt a little like rolling downhill, and the tone and content may have tumbled with it…

Because you left the door open and because your expression said you meant for me to enter, I walked through it, and, though you wanted comfort—isn’t comfort all we ever want?—I was only silent company, another heart in a room, a near stranger often worthless even to himself. Once, as my mother waited for my father, sitting in the gray light of a Saturday’s end, an empty glass in her hand, her hand resting on the table, staring toward the street, she hummed music I barely heard and didn’t know, and I spoke. She turned as you turned, eyes landing on my face as if my face were dusk itself, the final whisper of light when sun slips past the last obstacle, and every echo of reflected gold in every window blinks out. Now I don’t remember exactly what either of us said, but her half smile, which she hoped offered warmth and attention, couldn’t hold its place on her lips and, despite her, fell with her tears. So perhaps you understand why I didn’t extend a word but sat just out of your reach and vision, more keen to be present, frightened to topple your fragile calm. When you grow up in a house that swings between ferocity and exhaustion, you harmonize without noticing, settling into whatever keeps you safe but close. And what was there to say that you didn’t know?—he was gone and meant to be, wouldn’t be back. Sorry as I was then, I couldn’t tell you so because I loved him too. He left both of us, and he meant to leave. I only found him gone.

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Walking Around The Year

First birthday cupcakeA week of milestones:

  • the new school year starting
  • two history classes (I’m usually an English teacher)
  • my daughter going to college (and my wife and I becoming empty nesters)
  • this blog cresting 1,000 followers
  • 150 on both derelict satellite and Haiku Streak
  • reaching 365 posts on this blog

Some parts of life are furniture. Your job, the tasks of buying food and other essentials, central relationships, and weekly avocations can be moved around, but once you have a couch you generally keep it a while. When the urge to rearrange the room strikes, your aim is always to get it right at last, to set items in convenient and pleasing order. None of the list above constitutes a new room, a new state, or a new country. All are matters of furniture.

The last, reaching a year’s worth of posts, is no change at all because I wrote a post on Tuesday, and I’m writing one today. Yet, it means something that someone might set out to read a post a day and arrive at the end more than a year later. I’m not recommending such a tour—I’m sure you’d discover unflattering truths I’d like to hide, my retold stories, the finitude of my topics, every bête noire and psychological stumbling block, the many potholes in the quality of my thought or expression. Nonetheless it’s something. It means this blog has passed my previous one. It means I’ve posted here for almost five years. It means that, if every post were the size of this one, I’ve written 225,000 words or 750 pages.

And constancy is something. WordPress suggests you gain readers by posting at regular times and regular intervals. As this offering arrives later on Saturday than usual, clearly I’m not perfect. But my practice has been disciplined (or retentively fastidious, depending on how you see it). I’ve thought of stopping several times because why do I need more labor in my life and who is out there, really? Still, I’m writing two times a week (and every day on haiku streak and twice a week on derelict satellite too), fighting through doubts and frustrations and questions that really ought to be settled by now. After 365 posts, I still experiment, looking for something (sometimes anything) new to say.

This 366th post sounds the usual alerts that come with hitting anticipated moments. No figurative or virtual or literal balloons will drop from the ceiling but, if this blog were a TV series, it would be high-time for a clip episode. I’ve thought about how to celebrate. In honor of this occasion, for instance, I might address the five posts with the greatest number of visitors:

The first two were “Freshly Pressed” and the last three I suspect are fodder for plagiarists and image seekers, so that won’t do. More interesting to me might be posts I liked that received less than 10 views:

That list seems desperate. And these “Greatest Hits” are inexhaustible. I might create an obliquely confessional list, a truly confessional list, an antic list, a lyrical list, a written-for-language-alone list, an oddly resonant list, a list list.

In fact, I just have, in case you haven’t noticed.

Yet, when you write to practice writing as I do here, words pulse only briefly before dimming, the most ephemeral of lightning bugs. And next Tuesday will come, and I’ll have another post to offer. It’s hard to speak of a body of work when that body changes each moment. We note the circles of the sun largely to acknowledge experience. It’s nice sometimes to pause and look back. What lies ahead is as frightening as it is enticing. But I need to keep walking.

I hope, Dear Reader, you will go with me. It means so much to have company, and I deeply appreciate hearing your voices in my mind.

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25 Unsent Letters to My First Best Friend

tbt_bferry61.

My first thought today brought back Bolivar. When I stayed with you there, foghorns on tugboats pushing barges lowed in the Intracoastal Waterway. Even when I didn’t hear them, I held them in my head like thoughts loosely tethered together.

2.

If we saw a butterfly, bird, snake, or insect, one of my brother’s books would identify it. We leaned over the pages as if we were looking into a deep hole. We didn’t mind touching. The object of our search didn’t always appear, so we whispered to catalog everything we had seen, pointing and saying when and where we’d encountered it.

3.

Early on, I thought of friendship as gathering together-stories, the time we shot a mocking bird with your b-b gun and buried it so the police wouldn’t discover we murdered the state bird, or the time we cut sections of grape vine to smoke and coughed for a week, or the time we soaked your sister’s underwear, froze it, and returned it to her drawer.

4.

In my memory you never ask me to go to your house after school, never show up at my door to ask me to play, never say “Best Friend.” Our parents negotiate our visits and sleepovers. We have no plans. We account for time by being together.

5.

Mom says the school must have separated us because we’d be trouble together. You may recall that after first grade, we never sat in adjacent desks.

6.

Concentrating, I can bring back your scent. It hits me just as the first whiff of your house did when I walked through your door.

7.

Do you remember all the accidents I witnessed? I was present when you spilled boiling water on your chest, cut your foot jumping out of the window over your garage, split your knee open as we skim-boarded after a morning thunderstorm. Your mother was so calm. She sent me home as if we both needed soothing.

8.

I don’t do friendship well anymore, as it requires leaving the room of myself, something strangely challenging. But our hours seemed easy, as neutral as the sun’s indecisive attention to shadows on a cloud-crowded day.

9.

We must have fought but I don’t remember apologies.

10.

People in the neighborhood often mistook me for you, partly because we were the same size but mostly because we shared the same first name. Did you know when they meant me? Did you correct them?

11.

The depression in the center of your chest troubled me. Where my sternum was straight as a last yours seemed to leave no room for your heart to beat.

12.

During all the weekends I spent with your family in Bolivar, the house remained unfinished. When we returned from roaming the salt marshes looking for Jean Lafitte’s treasure, empty cans of Falstaff and Lone Star gathered near sites of fitful labor.

13.

Mom says your dad was one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen. She thought you and I looked alike, but I wasn’t sure she approved of you. Sometimes you can tell when, inside, someone sneers.

14.

When people use the expression “Something came between us,” I imagine a scary story you made up once about a husband and wife waking with a corpse.

15.

We saw the moon landing together. Of everything I’ve reported, I’m sure you don’t need to be told that.

16.

Later we shared friends. They were your friends first, then mine. Being with them when you weren’t present felt like winging around in a looser orbit. One punched me in the face when I beat him at basketball. Another invited a girl over so I could learn how to French kiss. One day, out with one of your friends, we broke into an empty house to smoke cigarettes and the cops came. You may actually have been there too. It feels like it.

17.

You convinced me to explore the network of cement storm sewer tubes crisscrossing under our neighborhood. You kept saying how surprised people would be when we suddenly appeared somewhere else. Girls would be impressed, you said.

18.

I just remembered the summer I invented a language you refused to speak.

19.

There must have been a day I stopped calling you my best friend.

20.

Maybe memory stumbles here, but I connect every friend to you. Not directly, because all those separate steps disappear, but in character—as if they stood in the same circle of smoke blowing from the same fire.

21.

When people run into other people who know people they know or are people they know, they say, “It’s a small world.”  Maybe that’s the biggest change since last we met. It hasn’t felt small enough for me in quite some time.

22.

One of my college roommates regarded friendship as a test. If you passed, you couldn’t un-pass. He took you on forever, though not really. I expected to finally relax but never overcame feeling indebted. When I tried to explain my discomfort to another roommate, I used you to demonstrate proper friendship. I’m ashamed I’ve exploited your memory for such petty causes.

23.

The summer I left our hometown, I imagined saying goodbye to you, but, by then, we barely knew each other and practicing our conversation was like talking with a ghost who’d left the attic long before.

24.

People brought me news of you after I moved away—some of it horrifying and heartbreaking—but those accounts were as fanciful as games we played as boys, when it was fun to imagine the neighborhood as a harsher, less forgiving landscape.

25.

I’ve never reinvented you as a character in a story. The few times I’ve tried to describe you in writing before now, the prose slipped from my grip like a kite that slackened and fell as soon as I stopped tugging.

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