After Coleman, a colleague from my New York days, had died, I was reminiscing about him with his partner, Gary. "When Coleman was on his deathbed," Gary recalled, "he suddenly looked as if he were having a vision. I came close and asked him, What do you see? ‘I see my friends, all in a circle.’ What else? ‘Nothing else. Just my friends.’"
That’s all the proof I needed of the transcendent power of friends. And yet, there they were, at the bottom of my to-do list: Call Tia. Call Max. E-mail David and Steve and Elaine. By the end of a day, it often seemed that I’d checked off everything except getting in touch with the people who may (or may not) attend my passing, all in a circle.
Troubled and a bit saddened by this revelation, I mentioned it to my wife, Laurie. While Laurie has her own struggles nurturing friendships—and neither one of us buys the cheap argument that says women always "do relationships" better than men—she and her many friends have found a host of ways to honor and delight each other. As we talked, Laurie, too, voiced a desire to stay in closer contact with people she cares about. She had a few suggestions for me and then we put our heads together and came up with more ideas, some of which have turned out to be a great help in keeping our friendships vibrant, fun, and at the top of the to-do list.
The 19 kinds of friends
-Pagan Kennedy, Ms.
Got time for friends?
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"Being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own history. And a time to pick up the pieces when it’s all over."
Laurie reminded me that while it’s fine to talk about something called "friendship," the idea is meaningless if you don’t acknowledge the absolute uniqueness of each of your friends. Listening deeply to what they say and responding from your heart is more important than any list of friendship-maintenance principles. Some friends require a lot of attention, and others may be uncomfortable with a flood of phone calls or visits. Recognizing and acknowledging these preferences plays a vital part in keeping connected with your friends.
Every friendship is different, and there’s nothing wrong with a range of relationships, from casual to soul-deep. There are buddies who delight and energize you, though you wouldn’t entrust a heavy, sad problem to them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the lighter friendship is broken or deficient; it may be a perfectly enjoyable and meaningful bond.
Express yourself in your friendships. Laurie is an artist, so creating birthday cards for her pals—cards that take a lot of work and show a lot of love—are pure pleasure for her, not dutiful labor. I like to send literary friends long rants about art, books, culture, and history, full of jokes and doubtful logic.
While friends need to be truth-tellers, they never tell the truth just for its own sake. Friends tell each other the truth because they love each other, and along with the truth they always express their loyalty. And even when anger erupts, friends don’t withdraw but try to stay engaged in order to get beyond it.
Friends often come in twos and threes and fives. Mixing in a lively group broadens and sustains individual friendships. Fully half of my longtime friends were fellow students in graduate literature programs at Stanford and the University of Minnesota. Our connections go a lot deeper than a shared love of Dante or Chinese poetry, but that love remains an important badge of shared experiences and values.
"The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away."
A group of writer friends and I established a Tuesday-night gathering—the Tracy’s Tertulia, held at a neighborhood bar and grill—that has become much more than a salon. It’s a formal container for our friendships, a pledge that we will see each other regularly, and a subculture too, with a set of code words the mere mention of which can send us all into gales of laughter.
A friend of Laurie’s belongs to the Weird Hair Sisterhood, a group of gal pals pledged to honesty about each other’s appearance. The unspoken rules of the group make the necessary acts of honesty ("Honey, you’ve got a weird little hair growing out of that mole") not only nontoxic, but life-affirming.
Your parents were right about thank-you notes. I mean real thank-you notes, in envelopes, in the mail. Laurie and her friends exchange them all the time—after a visit, a helpful phone call, or even a chance conversation that helped a friend through a hard time. They are exquisite artifacts of living friendship.
The ingenious gift is the great symbol of friendship. Laurie’s friends, for instance, are always sending each other gift certificates for massages, and I know a very happy woman who received 50 tiny cards from a dear friend on each of the 50 days before her 50th birthday. A collage artist culls the newspapers every day, looking for images that will move or delight his friends. He arranges them into wondrous creations and sends them out frequently, not just for birthdays.
We leave this house Tuesday for Genoa and New York. I hope everything’s going better for you. If there is anything you need done here as in America—anything about your work, or money, or human help under any head—remember you can always call on
Your devoted friend,
F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway, December 1926
Friendship doesn’t have to be a major production. Try taking just half an hour every day (or 15 minutes if you’re particularly harried) for connecting with friends and nothing else. I love the magic of the half-hour. It’s short enough that it doesn’t set off my I’m-not-working alarm, but long enough to send a couple of e-mails, write a short note, make a call. Do it every day for the rest of your life and I guarantee you will feel graced with great friendships.
Friendship exists outside our modern economy of scarcity. This is perhaps the most important thing to remember. It’s not about apportioning vanishing resources of time and energy. Friendship is a blessed relic of the ancient economy of the gift, and the time freely given to people dear to you actually creates magical abundance. When you care for your friends your heart opens. And when your heart opens, the day lengthens. The "necessary" task becomes less urgent. Time and space mutate from confining boxes into swirling circles of joy and love. That’s what Coleman saw, and you can see it too.
"They are few who will not disclose the private affairs of their friends when at a loss for conversational subjects."
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Jon Spayde is contributing editor of Utne Reader.
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