Sagadahoc Stories 141: 12/6/05

On Friendship

Some recent encounters with friends – both old and new – set me thinking about the fragility, and the durability, of our chosen relationships. Just what is friendship, anyhow, in this digital age?

Thanks to the internet I seem to run into an old friend or acquaintance every couple of months. My latest run-in was thanks to a blog linked by a major news site. Chasing down that digital trail I found a familiar voice echoing my own sentiments about it and about. Put me right back in 1967. In fact Jesse had just done an internet video piece about boomers coming of age which rang my bells.

But Jesse is someone I knew briefly back when, and we soon parted company. There are others from those heady days who have stayed in touch down the years, more or less. Why this one, and not that? What compels us to maintain contact with some, who become our “friends,” while others devolve into old acquaintances?

Peggy says our true friends make us feel good about ourselves. I would broaden that to say we are drawn to those who bring out the best in us – or at least reveal aspects of ourselves, to ourselves. The most durable friendship from my childhood is with the kid who brought out the mischief in me – and the laughter. Peggy says she can tell when I’m on the phone with John because I’m laughing so hard. When I asked John how come we keep in touch, he said it’s good to know someone 3000 miles away is thinking of you.

Do parts of us only exist as reflected in our relationships? Do we only exist because someone is thinking of us? And what about that tree in the forest? Peggy comes crashing down when someone whom she thinks of as a friend treats her as invisible, doesn’t see who she is. Is it mutual self-perception which defines true friendship?

Our first friendships are creatures of circumstance. The neighbors we play with. Children of our parents’ friends. The kids we go to school with. But from the very beginning some companions engage and inspire us, while others don’t. Sometimes the connection is mutual interests, with others it may be that spark of self-revelation. That magic of bringing out the laughter.


[photo by ?]


[Bill Glass Photo]

I was an only child until I was 21, with no close kin around, beside my mother and father. On the one hand I became friends with my parents. On the other my companions were my only siblings. Elective kinship.

When we lived on remote islands, where everyone was kin, we discovered people there chose which cousins (they said) they were related to. And because kinship was the only way to relate, we were adopted as elected kin. This made all the sense in the world to me, as I’d been choosing my kin all along.

Maybe friendship, in a mobile atomized culture, takes the place of an extended kin network. If you don’t have family, you make friends. Certainly I felt a different charge on “friendship” in traditional communities where everyone was kin. Nobody spoke of their “friends.” In Jonesport I might have opportunistic solidarity with crewmates on a boat, but that ended with the fishing season, unless we were bound together in the local web of constant connection.

Daily ritual contact defined who were kin in the islands. Phone calls, drop-ins, CB radio chats, meetings at the watering holes. Maintaining your local network is the only way to local solidarity, kin or no kin. Lucky I’ve got a large loyalty bump, and an endless supply of small talk.


I always felt part of friendship was staying in touch, so paying the local dues in a small town to maintain connections came natural. Still does. There was a while when I was a regular at the local bars in Brunswick, and I still chow down at the corner restaurant, to keep in touch with my local friends.

But my feelings about friendship have changed with time. There was an emotional intimacy about the friendships of my youth. An almost visceral sense of co-conspiracy. We were in it, or up to no good, together. Part of that was a shared imagining. They say the trick of improv comedy is to always validate your partner’s nutty leads. Isn’t that what we did with our childhood friends? You think that’s nuts, try this!

By sharing childhood make-believe we became part of each other’s dream world. As our dreams came true the friends we’d imagined them with became totems of that realization. The story which is my life has a cast of fellow characters. They must be my friends, they’re in my story.

The intimacy fades, though. It may be scientists will find a “friendship molecule” like the Nerve Growth Factor they have identified with first love. Over time our friends don’t give us the same rush of collaborative coziness. When circumstances separate friends in space and time we begin to orbit different planets.

This is where I get mixed up. I used to think that friends were for life. Once we had grokked each other we were part of the same tale, I thought. I spent a lot of my early wandering years going from old friend to old friend. Maintaining the storyline. Nice, nice, very nice.

I soon discovered I was a oddity this way. Old friends rarely sought me out. They were totally immersed in their local scenes. I was always welcome as a wandering loony, but: out of sight, out of mind. Except for a few companions who had that same loyalty bump. They would show up on my doorstep wherever I was. They, of course, became the friends for life.

But this represents an act of will rather than an act of passion, I think. If we make new friends by happenstance, with people we are thrown together with, our friendships last because we keep up the connection. Those who reciprocate our loyalty become our lasting friends. Once the “friendship molecule” has been absorbed, do we have to work at friendship for it to last?

Sounds like marriage. I was blessed to meet my very best friend at 17, although it took me six years to convince her it was mutual. That love molecule is still slopping around in us, maybe. But for sure we’ve needed plenty of willpower to get across the rough water. Peggy still brings out the best in me, although it has taken some convincing to admit she knows better about most things.

25th Anniversary

[photo by ?]
Did a lucky marriage take the pressure off my friendships? Do I require less of other friends because I have a mirror to look into at home? Has the love of a partner diminished the emotional need for other friendship? Perhaps. Though there are certainly times when I need a friend to talk to outside our marriage. And I’m still compelled to rub that loyalty bump.
So, what are the grounds for friendship, past the age of consent? Propinquity for starters, even if the nearness is only virtual. Common interests help knit the bonds. For me that once was intellectual conversations, now it more often tends to be musical ones, or artistic ones. Doing stuff together makes us head-fellows. Being together through a crisis or a change of life puts red flags on our companions. The guys I first dropped acid with still loom large in my memory, as are the men I went fishing with. And there are magical encounters with complete strangers, as well as with everyday acquaintances. But whatever sparks the connection, we have to work to keep it alive.


Seth & Bryce

[Photo by Peggy]
There was a time when all my friends were of an age. Now I’m in touch with octogenarians and 20-somethings. During the years when Seth was in the house, he was the link to new connections, and his friendship is a gift I feel lucky to have. Just as child rearing takes you out of some networks while it puts you in others, so our mobile lives tear up the maps of friendship. As letter writing disappears, we play digital tag with those friends who are on line, but the charge of e-mail is as ephemeral as a pop-up. I’m in touch with more old acquaintances that ever before, and I feel less connected than ever.
So we make new friends. This fall I’ve discovered a kindred spirit in my new dealer. Tom has an extraordinary eye for the beautiful and the evocative, and it’s a treat to have him take my work into his gallery. But it is especially nice that he sees the same things in my work I do. We might have simply made a business alliance, but for the fact that Tom sees right into the soul of the work. Worse yet, he knows the pieces which don’t quite hack it. If friends are those who show us our better selves, Tom has my number.


[Photo by Chris Brewer]

New friendships in later life are a different creature. There isn’t the same need to tell all at once. Where I used to gush personal details, to help others know me, now there are simply too many tales to tell. We still tell new friends our stories, but without such an intense yearning for recognition. Maybe we know who we are, and require less mirroring from others.

There are fewer deep echoes, too. When we were young and on the edge our friends were often wrapped in unconscious content. We were fragments of a great mystery and our encounters were often charged with numinous energy. Together we visited places out of time, and I assumed those soul connections were timeless, too. Sure enough, with some old friends you can pick up where you left off without skipping a beat. But the music seems to have faded with others. Or we have grown deaf to it.

Our old friends are waymarks in the story of us, just like old songs. They remind us of who we were, and maybe still are. And our loyalty maintains the connection, but how deep does the truth-telling go? Maybe we are too old for youthful self-revelation. The mirrors grow cloudy.

I believe the soul connections we make are outside of time, but our relationships in time are easy prey to circumstance. So we may have seen one another’s hallucinations on a Brooklyn night, and known some kind of crazy selflessness together, but I haven’t seen Evan in 40 years.



The flip side of the record plays, too. Those whom circumstance throw together can still make timeless connections. If the soul work never ends, there may be magic in any relationship. Synchronicity happens.

I see this most clearly with the Buzzards. At one level we a just a bunch of old guys playing some blues together. When we are working up an arrangement we are very much in the here and now, fussing with the details. We have the solidarity of a common purpose, and the common joy of too much fun. But every now and then, down in the music, we escape the time, even while we keep the beat. That’s what the music is for.

Perhaps that’s what the friendship is for, as well. To transcend the solitary, and escape time. So, whenever I run across an old friend, there’s a momentary lapse in the flow. And when the Buzzards get in the groove, I know they’re my friends right now. Time goes away. And maybe the loneliness.

Mike and Olivier

[Photo by ?]

The Buzzards

[Photo by ?]

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