There are two kinds of social interactions I find easy. One: conversations with special friends, people with whom I have a relationship so close and genuine that I know we’re not judging each other. Two: spontaneous chats with strangers. It’s the in-between situations that are complicated. Parties—which I leave as soon as I politely can—and large meetings. Dreading the tedium of one of those meetings, I opted to attend it by Zoom even though I could have walked to it. I was rewarded for my avoidance by getting a call during the meeting from a friend in Virginia, one of those close friends with whom everything flows. We’d been phone tagging but hadn’t connected in many months, having different schedules and living in different time zones. I spent most of the meeting off camera talking with her instead of paying attention to the agenda. I’ve never felt so good about not showing up.
She passed on in February. I still think of her. Still miss her.
We were critique partners, writers who appreciated each other’s work. Though we knew each other’s real names, we connected and communicated by pen names, Anna Castle and Amber Foxx. We never met. Our friendship, though we shared other interests and agreed on some major issues, was centered on writing. Sharing your work in progress with another writer takes trust and respect. She critiqued my short story suite, Gifts and Thefts. She followed and appreciated my blog post essays. I was honored to critique Anna’s Francis Bacon mysteries, to become a beta reader when I was already a fan of the first books in the series. I love the characters, the historical depth, the wit, the originality, the settings—I could go on and on. To be able to contribute to her next work in any way, when the work was as good as hers was, meant a lot to me. I miss that partnership.
I also miss the social media interactions, the humorous exchanges, even the updates on the progress of the grass paths in her garden. I believe her fictional characters miss her, too. She told me how the Bacon series would progress, what would happen in future books. Books that will never be written. The real Francis Bacon went through difficult periods in his life which were going to make their way into the series. Perhaps the fictional Francis is spared those challenges, but Tom Clarady will never complete one of his great life goals. Perhaps in the world the characters inhabit, they carry on—and he does. Anna planned that he should.
Elizabethan healer and herbalist Jane Moone must miss her author, too. I had an inkling where the Cunning Woman series was going, and was eager to see its fulfillment. These historical paranormal cozies set in a village where magic is real are as fully researched as the Bacon books. I admit the Moriarty series didn’t hook me, simply because I’m not fond of the Victorian period, but the one story I read was as brilliantly crafted as the rest of her work. Her cozies set in Lost Hat, Texas were her only modern mysteries, and I delighted in those.
I may always miss our exchange of creativity as writers. The trust with each other’s words.
This isn’t an anniversary of anything. It’s just something I needed to say, and have needed to say since February. I was prompted by a post on the blog Pleated Stories about friends we meet online and friends we lose.
Note: Alas, Anna’s web site address seems to have been taken over by some strange, rather frantic entity in a language I don’t speak. Her Goodreads page is still there, though. If you have not yet discovered her books, I encourage you to explore. Honor her memory through her characters. They live on.
“I’ve got nothing better to do. Might as well turn eighty-five.”
Last year, when Bob turned eighty-four, another friend and I took him for a float trip on the Rio Grande. With a very old friend, each birthday is a special occasion, even if he says things like the title of this post. When I stopped by Sunday to give him a book for his eighty-fifth, he was sitting on the cement porch of his apartment—a cheddar-yellow, purple, and red building in true T or C style. With him was a friend who had brought a cake, and they were having a quiet celebration in 2020 mode. The chairs on his porch are a little over six feet apart. His mask hangs on the knob of a large, heavy bureau he somehow hauled out from his living room along with his armchairs, a lamp, a clock, a table, and little potted plants. He’s pretty much established his pandemic parlor outside.
Every other day at sunset, I walk his dog. She’s old, too, but she’s a faster walker than he is, so I’m in charge of her cardio workouts, while he takes her for leisurely, companionable strolls to the river.
The bats have relocated yet again. Now they live in the Baptist church. The sky is alive with their dances as the dog and I finish our walk. I deliver her back to Bob, and we talk and watch the sunset. A ceremony of cherishing the day and our friendship.
When I was a teenager with divorced parents, one of the many things I loved about living with my father was the spontaneous sociability. People dropped in on him, often in the late mornings on weekends, and on summer evenings we would go for walks and drop in on friends. We were in a small town on the Maine coast where he was informally referred to as “the mayor,” though the town was in fact so small it didn’t have one. He was one of the few year-round residents.
Where I live now, spontaneous socializing happens on the streets, in coffee shops, and at the brewery, but I don’t drop in on friends unless they own shops—dropping in on shop-owners is a social custom here. Otherwise, I’ve developed the habit of calling if I want to make short-notice plans. Then my cell phone provider and I had to part ways, due to a series of annoying technical events. I couldn’t make calls. I was in the middle of I-will-not-tell-you-what kind of hassle trying to set up online with the new provider when I heard a knock on my door.
A friend had dropped by to tell me his phone didn’t work.
Needless to say, the timing was perfect. I invited him in. I’d been meaning to call him during my three days of phone problems and couldn’t. We vented about cell phone service, and he said he’s going to get a landline. “Why do I need a phone with me all the time?”
I didn’t go quite so far back in tech time as he decided to, but I still don’t have a smart phone. Why do I need a computer with me all the time? I like talking. If friends want to get in touch, I like it if they call and talk, not text. If it’s after eleven a.m., they can even drop in.
After a run at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, I was using the multi-level play structure on the playground near the end of the trail as my stretching station. I soon realized there were children not only climbing and sliding on the structure, but under it, using one of its platforms as a sheltered, shady cave. Remembering how much my friends and I loved secret, cave-like spaces when were around eight or nine like these boys, I hoped my presence didn’t bother them.
“Are you mostly with your dad?” one asked.
Ah. New friends getting to know each other. I suspected the boy who asked had divorced parents and spent more time with one than the other.
“I hardly ever see my mom,” the second boy replied with quiet force. “My mom is the least person in my whole life.”
He went on to talk about his father’s parents, and how he saw them a lot, but his pained and frustrated description of his relationship with his mother was what struck me. So did his new friend’s reaction. He simply listened. No advice, no interruptions, just silence.
When the story was complete, the listener let it rest a while, then exclaimed that they should go on the “zip line,” adding, “I don’t care if I break a bone!” Perfect timing.
They charged off to the part of the play structure where child can grab a sliding bar and zip from one platform to the next. It’s not high enough off the ground that a fall would do more than skin their knees, but the fear element must have made it more exciting, and taking risks together helped grow their friendship. Emotional risks as well as physical ones.
Vulnerability, not just doing things, is what makes friendship possible. Otherwise, you’re just acquaintances.
I’m at a point in my work in progress where my protagonist is going through a deluge of stress and making major decisions about her relationships. She’ll form the strongest bond with the person who can listen and accept her vulnerability without judgment.
Cut off and Connected
Last Sunday, a pleasant, sunny day in the mid-seventies, wasn’t a normal power outage sort of day—no storms, no wind. But around five-thirty p.m., a loud bang was followed by a loss of electrical power to a few blocks of T or C, just the stretch between my side of the street and the Rio Grande. No big deal, when you don’t need heat, lights, or air conditioning, and people right across the street do have power should you desperately need it for something. What the surprise outage did do was kick everyone it affected off their computers or TVs. Nice. I stopped reading a book review online, since the internet connection cut off, and wondered if my neighbor in Apartment 2 knew what was going on. When I arrived, the gentleman from the trailer next door was already there. My landlord soon joined us, and the four of us hung out and talked for a while. It’s not as if we never socialize with each other under normal circumstances, but the way we all went to one man’s apartment intrigued me. Sometimes, when we’re focused on screens, what we really want is a connection, and when the screen goes dark, we realize it. In this corner of T or C, we knew where to go for that human connection. My neighbor’s calm, humorous, welcoming nature made us gravitate toward him. His generosity gave us the assurance he wouldn’t object to our dropping in under the circumstances. He’s quiet, and I might not have met him if we weren’t neighbors, so I’m glad that we are. Simply being himself, at home in his true nature, he has the qualities of a spiritual teacher without claiming the title.
I have a file called Blog Posts Yet to Post where I store drafts of ideas and eventually find some worth revising and using. Today, in search of this week’s post, I found three rough drafts about moving, and I since I’m getting to the end of that topic, I didn’t need three posts. One was about sorting through my books and deciding which to keep and why, one was about parting with some of my art, and one was about no longer working as a professor. I’m so happy about the latter, there’s not much else to say. I went into my office this afternoon just to use a desk with a proper chair (I’ve sold almost all of my furniture) and that felt good, but I won’t miss sitting there for hours reading student papers. Or emails. I will stay in touch with some special people I got to know through the job, but it’s easy to let go of the work itself.
A friend who is going to open a used bookstore bought about eighty books. Those were easy to let go of, too. Parting with a piece of art is harder, sort of like cutting scenes when revising a book, but I decided not to challenge certain fragile things to make a trip to New Mexico. The Santa Clara Pueblo buffalo dancer, a small statuette made of black pottery, broke a hand, a foot, and a leg on his way to North Carolina from Santa Fe many years ago. I repaired him as well as I could. The powerful energy I felt at a buffalo dance was unforgettable, a force that swept through my whole body to the bones. He holds that sacred feeling in his glued-together form. I was happy when a neighbor who teaches history in the public schools and loves Native American history wanted him and several other items. When she came to get them, she asked which piece was made by which tribe, and appreciated the buffalo dancer for what he means, cracks and all, not for collectible value. I packed him carefully, wrapped the tiny Acoma cats so they wouldn’t break, and sent the collection off with someone who will feel the spirit of New Mexico in it.
Friends value us that way—for our spirits, flaws and all, not expecting or needing perfection. Letting go of people is harder. My closest friends in Virginia (and North Carolina and Georgia) will come out to see me eventually, but I won’t see them as often anymore. One who has helped me with the multitudinous hassles of the moving-out process has grown even closer as we’ve worked on things like my moving sale, and I will miss her all the more. I’ve said most of my goodbyes on campus, but I still have two more yoga classes to teach, to students who have been with me for years. I have friends to rejoin in T or C, and I’ll find new yoga students there, but it will still be hard to say the last “namaste” in Virginia.
What is Pleasant to Live Through …
… seldom makes a good story. I was reminded of this as I searched for something interesting to say in an e-mail to a friend. I wanted to stay in touch and to hear from him, but my sane, steady, enjoyable life provided little material. Hello. I’m happy. My students are great this semester. My yoga classes are going well. I’m reading good books and I’m writing. In conversation, a lot could flow from any of this, but in writing, not much.
A few years ago, I was talking with a new acquaintance at a faculty holiday party, and he mentioned that he was reading The Lord of The Rings for the first time. I had read it my freshman year in high school. Yet, when he mentioned the passage that stood out most strongly for him, it was one that I’d often thought of in the decades since reading it. Tolkien sums up the passage a long and pleasant time for the travelers in his story in one or two lines, then adds that things that are agreeable to live through are often dull to tell about, but things that are hard or even terrible to live through make marvelous tales. Authors tend to feel affection for their characters, and yet to make good stories, we have to put them through challenges. No life would remain pleasant if it didn’t require us to do something difficult. And that’s where the story is—growth through pain or danger.
At the last meeting of my book club, each us got the others caught up on her summer. One person was getting divorced, another had seen a friend through a major crisis, and another had taken her peace studies students to Hiroshima, a place that literally went through hell to become what it now is, a city dedicated to peace. And I … had been on vacation. Needless to say, the most compelling narrative wasn’t mine.
I had tons of fun, but my friends had more questions about a medical weirdness that took place shortly before I left for New Mexico. Because what makes a better story? “I went on vacation and it was great,” or “I had a posterior vitreal detachment?” They were fascinated by the phenomenon of having the gel in my eyeball partially detach and getting flashes of light and a giant floater in one eye. “How big is it? Like, the size of blueberry? Is it always there? Do you have to have surgery?” (Smaller than a blueberry, in case you care, and no, and no.) Ah, we humans. We love icky, scary stuff, and you can’t get much ickier than eyeballs.
I thought the divorce story was amazing, a much better story. Not for the conflict but for the grace. The couple who are parting ways took a long-planned backpacking trip together even though they had decided they would end their marriage. I’ve talked to each of them about it and they’re glad they had this final adventure together. It’s their story, so I won’t tell any more of it here, but I can see in it the qualities that make the best stories. In a way, it ties in with the peace studies story and the helping-a-friend-in-crisis story. It had value and purpose, and took strength and courage. It made them grow and change. And in its difficulty shines its beauty.