Saturday, January 19, 2013

My Friends

Twenty or so years ago I found a little pile of copies of this slim novel on the remainder table at the legendary and lamented Coliseum Books (just seeing their logo with the doric column, which was imprinted on the bookmarks that the cashiers, almost all of them aging grad-school refugees, would stick in the store's black plastic drawstring bags bearing the same logo, gives me a painful sense of nostalgia. Où sont les neiges d'antan?).  I bought one and read it, and it became, and remains, one of my favorite books of all time. It's the first-person account of the bumbling attempts of World War I veteran Victor Baton to maintain a life of modest freedom without having to work and to find some sort of meaningful human companionship in 1920s Paris. He fails fairly miserably at both, and the book is sweet and funny and suffused with an aching melancholy. Emmanuel Bove, himself a veteran, asserted upon its publication that he had created a new genre, the novel of impoverished solitude. If you can find a copy, you will love it.

I've thought lately about my own friends, and my own solitude, which is not now, as it once was, impoverished, and which endures only for the brief period each day when my big son is at school, my husband at work, and Jude napping, time during which I'm pledged to work on my scholarly book for the English publisher in between the scores of mundane tasks that need to get done and the occasional snuck-in mystery novel. One of the things I miss most about New York, apart from teaching, is my friends there, although the truth is that many of the dearest ones of my youth left New York long before I did, which makes me wonder if nostalgia is really the sense of longing for things misremembered, for the mistaken recollection of things that were really quite differently arranged or never perhaps even existed. It's such a cheerful thing, though, to have friends who are peers -- who are at the same stage of life, or engaged in the same activities, or love the same things that you do. While I had those friendships back in New York, here I have not found them. Perhaps such friends don't live here, or maybe it's just that it's so much easier to make friends there: everyone is out on the street walking around all the time; there's the sense of a flowing stream of humanity, and there are so many self-selective places where like-minded people can go and engage with one another, that one is sure to make some friends. I've always thought that, no matter how obscure your interests or obtuse your personality, there are at least 2,500 people in New York who are just like you.

My friends here in northern Appalachia are unlike me in my own forms of obscurity and obtuseness. While my New York friends were artists and intellectuals, my friends here include a heavily-made up Greek housewife whose American husband abandoned her for what we would call, back where I come from, a puttan; a hairdresser who's taught me everything I know about how to help my autistic son; and a Rwandan refugee I met at church, who works the night shift as an aide in a home for developmentally-disabled adults. There's the doctor's wife who taught me to drive and, when she found out my mother was dying, offered to, and did in fact, drive me and my children three hours to my mother's bedside, since I'm not a confident enough driver to make such a trip and my husband couldn't leave work until the following day. There's also an unemployed Iraq War vet whose biracial son is in my son's first-grade class, and who always treats little Jude with great warmth and respect. I'm the room mother in the classroom, and as such have all the children's addresses, and when I realized that he and his family lived in the worst house I've ever seen in my life (owned by an absentee landlord in New Jersey), and noticed at school pick-up that his children didn't have winter coats, I asked my husband, in lieu of a Christmas gift, to let me get them a Walmart gift card in an amount that would allow them to buy some, along with boots and hats and gloves (I did do this, and the card was passed along to them anonymously through the school social worker).

And I do have a friend here from New York -- A., the young single mother of three children who moved here in the hopes of giving them a better life. While she was able, here, to get a minimum-wage job and off welfare, it appears that improvement may have been short-lived, since her children's father, who joined the family here and stayed home with the children while A. worked, recently abandoned them, forcing her to quit her job because of the lack of child care. I went to see her last night, and found that she'd been inside with her children for two weeks and had no food in the house, having been unable to get them bundled up and down three flights of stairs by herself and marched off to the supermarket a mile away with one stroller in the freezing cold. I went to the store and got diapers, soap, and toilet paper and filled her refrigerator, though she didn't want me to, with food.

All of this makes me wonder whether perhaps we idealize friendship unrealistically in the same way we idealize romantic love. Perhaps friendship is not all Anne of Green Gables and Diana, just as romantic love is not all Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. We are often instructed that love is a choice, an act rather than a feeling; perhaps friendship is too. My friendships here are not based on shared intellectual or artistic pursuits, nor on a shared love of certain music, books, places, or food, nor on a shared parenting style, but upon the idea of mutual aid, even if its mutuality is not readily apparent at this time. I would like that A. not always see herself in the position of receiver of my beneficence, but as my friend. Perhaps A. "does nothing" for me, but I, in turn, "do nothing" for the doctor's wife who has shown me such great generosity. So, as much as I would like to have a "bosom friend" like Diana Barry in Anne of Green Gables, perhaps this place is providing me with the chance to be formed in the school of true friendship. In true friendship, as in true love, loneliness is not forever banished, as much as our longing for its extinction may motivate us to reach out in friendship and love to others. Those whose friends or spouses share their aesthetic values and ways of looking at the world may be lucky, but those whose friends or spouses do not are not necessarily unlucky.  I think that, being away from New York, where everything is always already in place and you only have to advance toward it, I'm now in a place that's stripped bare of everything I formerly wanted and loved and strove towards, but perhaps here I have the opportunity to learn what it means to love in all kinds of ways.

13 comments:

BettyDuffy said...

This is so right on, and also, beautifully reflective.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, BD. I think you would love the novel, by the way.

Robotboy said...

Hey Kiddo
The strength of this is in your wisdom that we can find friends who don't share the same aspirations that we do. (And the great details of life up there. You could write some great short stories...).
That said, those soul friends that you've found remain, and are important. Twenty-six years now, my dear, and counting.

Pentimento said...

MIss you, Robotboy.

Rodak said...

This left me sobbing, Pentimento. Or rather, since I'm at work, suppressing my sobs. Thank you so much.

Pentimento said...

Well, I never like to make people cry, Rodak, but, as Auden said, "In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountain start." xo

JMB said...

Pentimento,
Please submit this to a magazine, like Real Simple "life lesson". Such good writing! My mom used to tell me all the time that friendship grows from proximity. I don't know if that is a cynical or realistic view of friendship, but the older I get, the more truth I see in it. I've lived in the tri-state area my entire life, and sometimes I secretly cringe when I run into an elementary school friend at the supermarket because I just don't want to go back to 3rd grade again. Make sense?

Pentimento said...

I'm flattered, JMB. I also know what you mean about cringing when you see people from your past everywhere. There's a certain freedom in going somewhere where you know no one and no one knows you.

Lizzie said...

What a fantastic post, Pentimento! This is so true about idealising friendship and what we think it should look like. I have reflected on this since living in London - in a big city, you can choose exactly how to spend your time and who to spend it with which can really narrow your horizons and perspective of what true friendship is and what different people can bring to your life.
I grew up in a semi rural community and I look back on who my friends were and the people we hung out with and it was so much more varied than how my life is now.
I think local parish life is good for forming friendships with people who 'aren't like me'.
On the flip side, as Robotboy says, those soul friends who do have similar interests, a shared history with you etc. are so so precious.
God bless you and yours.

Pentimento said...

That's an excellent and interesting point, Lizzie, about all the choices available to one in a big city actually limiting one's understanding of what friendship is. That's not often mentioned and I'm going to be thinking about it.

Hala said...

Right around the time you were writing this post, I wrote you a letter in the depths of a really bleak depression. I just found it, moving into my new place in Salem, Massachussetts. I miss you a great deal and would love to be back in touch.

Pentimento said...

Oh, Hala, I miss you too! Do you have my email address? It's still the same one.

Pentimento said...

Also, I still have the same cell number as when we were in NYC, if you have that.