It's all about friends

When I was in high school (I graduated in '59) it was common knowledge that "girls cannot trust other girls." The assumption being, I suppose, that we were all in competition and therefore suspect. And despite having long-time friends I depended on and loved, so indoctrinated was I that I almost believed it.

How different the world looks now. Women—no, everything has changed in so many ways since the 1950s and 60s, in no small part thanks to Betty Friedan and the feminist movement she initiated. I remember reading an excerpt of her book when I was living in San Francisco. It made me so angry I threw the magazine across the room. Why was I angry? Because I couldn't, or wouldn't, believe that the life I had prepared myself for was as awful as described. I was twenty-two then, caught up in the romanticism of youth and believing—probably—that Prince Charming would find me at last. (That he did is beside the point.)

Ten years later I was part of a women's group—a popular idea in the '70s. We met regularly to discuss "women's issues." In essence, anything and everything. We discovered the amazing strength of women, the power of feminine friendship, and the value of sharing our troubles and triumphs with others.

It didn't take Betty Friedan or a women's group to convince me of the value of friendship, though it may have changed the way I thought about it.

I am lucky to have several childhood friends who remained close through all the changes, disruption, and distance that life and years inevitably bring. Sadly, some are now gone. But one, a child I met when she was three and I was four, lives only a few hours away. We've managed to stay in touch through her four marriages and my one, her demanding career as an opera singer, our many moves and travels, and despite living on different continents and opposite coasts for most of our lives. We are essentially opposites—she bold and outgoing, a consumer of life, a performer at all times. Me, reticent, a lover of solitude, avoiding conspicuousness at all times.

So what is it that has kept us friends? We share a trust, developed over a long history; we share the same outlook on life; we share too many memories to count; and we share a commitment to the friendship itself.

Many years ago I concluded that a marriage works best when the marriage itself is a partner in the effort. That is, it has a place in the relationship that must be honored for it to survive. Long lasting friendships are more flexible than marriage, looser in structure and therefore more forgiving. But attention is still required.

Friends are wonderful in ways spouses are not. For one thing, if you're lucky, they share your backstory. They suffered with you through that horrible second grade teacher; they were there when your family dog died, when you learned to drive or had your first crush. Nothing ever needs to be explained to an old friend.

Because of our many moves and our time spent out of the country, most of my good friends are scattered. Email and telephone have made staying in touch easier, but even when we haven't spoken for several years the relationship continues. It's always been interesting to me that I can go long periods without seeing some of these women, yet when I do our conversation takes up where it left off, with no stress or strain, with neither accounting nor falseness.

It is a kind of magic when two people are so in tune that even years of silence disappear in a hug and hello. But a friendship doesn't have to be longstanding to be valuable. And every friendship, long, short, casual or vital, keeps us tethered to the best in ourselves and provides the kind of feedback, and lessons, that make life meaningful.

Because I've had such varied jobs and lived in so many places, I've been lucky to meet and befriend all kinds of people. And it seems to me that every acquaintance and every friend represents a different facet of my life, reflecting it back to me like the multiple cuts on a diamond. This is a great gift.

I try to imagine how it might be had I lived in one place all this time. I might by now have a sizable collection of good friends, women and men with whom I shared good times and bad, who knew and understood me, and whose lives, habits, and families were well known, even loved by me. That would be marvelous.

But I cannot change my history, nor do I wish to. My distant friends may not always be available, but they are when I need them. And new friends constantly appear. That too is a wonderful magic. Somehow I keep meeting new members of "my tribe," just when I need them, and my tribe has grown surprisingly large. And since there's no rule that one can have only x number of friends, I expect to keep meeting them 'til I die.