When I was eleven years old, my family moved from backwoods Minnesota to a large Mennonite community in central Ohio. Overnight, my friend set changed from girls who climbed trees, slept over in haymows, and jumped rope to girls who followed professional football, talked fashion, and stalked cute boys. At the first birthday party I attended, my new friends exhibited behaviors I had never imagined – taunting a father’s employee with fingers in ears and tongues stuck out, throwing food at each other in a deli, and talking about someone who’d had sex. My mother had instructed me about sexual intercourse, but I didn’t know there was anything about it to be had.
I was so lost as to be practically dirt beneath their feet: lost for years in terms of secrets, belonging, and real connection; lumped in with the other outcastes and misfits; a hopeless goody-two-shoes in a world of rebels.
Sometimes I wonder how many of my adult relationships are still centered around trying to get in.
There is only one close friendship in my life that I walked away from. I didn’t actually know her; we met through our writing and fell deeply into like with a flurry of fascinating emails and disclosures. We made plans, dreamed dreams. Suddenly I panicked that she wasn’t who I thought she was, that she was out to get, that I couldn’t team-dream at that level, and I backed out the door with a bang.
At the time, it was easy to say that “she” did this or said that, but the firm reality in retrospect is that I was terribly afraid.
And I broke a beautiful thing.
This is still a discordant note in my life.
I am usually honored when people want friendship with me. I haven’t forgotten the eleven-year-old days, and the pain of finding myself on the outside of an impenetrable circle.
Only once in my life do I recall being pursued by a woman I didn’t want friendship with. She was an intense person, and delightful and talented, and she wanted something and I didn’t know what. She did everything right – gave little gifts, said kind words, reached out, spent time, asked and offered services. But everything in me said no no no no no no no no I can’t.
I received, but I did not reciprocate. Later, we found a working relationship, but we never achieved the level of closeness that I believe her to have been reaching for. I wish I knew then, as I wish I knew now, what I might have done differently.
I once knew a girl who was exactly suited to be a great friend, but despite similar situations, close proximity, and warm times together, I just couldn’t quite get there. She had a unique sense of humor I didn’t understand – the kind of person who would eat Triscuit crackers at a ladies party and say, meditatively, “You know, these crackers always make me feel like a cow.” I stared at her. She said, “I mean, I kind of like it. You know, hay.”
These days, it would make me howl. Back then, I thought, “Who likes feeling like a cow?”
My husband said, “Maybe you have to think of it as a different kind of friendship. It might not be the spark kind, the kindred spirit kind. Maybe it looks like raising your babies together and attending the same events and comparing notes on laundry.” So I did that, and I thought like that, and it began to come.
Then we took one very special trip together, an overnight retreat, just us two, and late at night when our emotions were haywire we took a drive over a mountain to our lodgings. While she called her husband on the phone, I drove, and we got the giggles trying to impress him with our competence and we laughed until I was crying so hard I couldn’t see the road and I still think it’s a miracle of Jesus that we didn’t crash off one of those switchbacks.
Now for many years she has been the dearest friend I have nearby, and the spark is there for sure. When I am with her, I still laugh hard and I cry.
Today my friendships feel rich, though sometimes spread too thin.
These are the stories I think of when I hear yours.