"I've lived in Arizona since 1966 and have friends from Tucson who were once so close -- maybe when we were mothers with young kids or newly divorced -- who now seem like relative strangers," she said. "We've changed and grown -- or not grown -- and now some of us seem to have little in common."
Have you ever had a friend you thought you'd be close to forever -- and now you wonder how and why you were ever close?
Have you had a friend with a quirk that used to be funny -- but now, years later, you've stopped laughing and started getting irritated?
Have you ever had a friend that you sometimes love, sometimes hate?
Have you noticed that, as we age, long-time friends become even more of what they were before -- and sometimes that's very good....and sometimes not so good.
I took a deep breath and called my lone surviving college roommate Ruth the other day to wish her a happy birthday. And when she answered, I was both glad and on edge to hear her voice.
I was glad because, since the untimely deaths of my other three former roommates, I don't take survival lightly. I'm happy to hear she's alive and well.
We roomed together at Northwestern during my junior year and her senior year when we were thrown together in a tiny attic dorm room because we both had bad numbers in the housing lottery. We didn't know each other at all and had asked for specific other roommates -- both of whom also had drawn wretched lottery numbers and were assigned elsewhere. But we quickly adjusted and began to enjoy each other immensely.
I admired her intelligence, her audacity, her triumph over a childhood filled with an acrimonious parental divorce, the impoverished aftermath living in a trailer park, serial stepfathers and a Dad who didn't want to know her now that he had a new family. Having grown up with a different type of family dysfunction, I nevertheless understood well the feeling of being a perpetual outsider and forging ahead through pain and innumerable obstacles.
While we were -- and are -- very different people, I've always felt deep empathy and understanding for where Ruth has been and joy for the wonderful turns and choices in her life that have led her to a place of happiness and contentment.
But I was on edge when I heard her voice on the phone the other day because one aspect of her character has survived these many years: barbed teasing and casual contempt for what she sees as stupid life choices. It seems these days -- when we talk twice a year, on her birthday and mine -- that our conversations end up the same: with me feeling hurt and wondering why we're still friends.
This conversation started well enough.
I asked her how she was doing and her reply was a litany of wonderful things. I was truly delighted to hear that her law practice is going well, that she still found such pleasure in her work, that her wonderful daughter Catherine is doing so well both personally and professionally.
Then there was a pause and Ruth asked me about my life. "Terrific!" I told her and braced myself for her arguments to the contrary.
And it hurt my heart before a word was spoken.
Then, predictably, she proceeded to tell me everything that she thinks is wrong with my life:
Retirement is a hideous mistake. It's the beginning of the end.
Living in an active adult community has to be the most depressing lifestyle ever.
How can you allow yourself to look so old?
Why don't you wise up and write a steamy sexy novel that will make some money instead of working on memoirs that no one will ever want to read? And blogging?? Give me a break! I keep forgetting to read your blog and if I --a life-long friend -- can forget, why would anyone else remember?
Your family is so crazy and dysfunctional. No wonder you and your siblings have such horrible lives....
What hurts my heart is not only the content of what she says, but also the fact that she would say it at all.
It seems to me that an important part of friendship is celebrating, not denigrating, differences and
giving each other the safety to share not only what is happy and good and working well in our lives but also painful confidences or disappointments. With my closest friends, sharing vulnerabilities, the whole balance of our lives, is a defining trait of the relationship.
One of my dearest friends has political views that are nowhere close to mine but we give each other the space to believe as we wish and defend each other's right to hold our own views. "Honey, don't torment our dear friend with our political views," she said gently to her husband during my recent visit with them. "Kathy feels differently -- and that's perfectly okay."
I have close friends who are addicted to bridge or who dislike cats or otherwise disagree with me in many ways, but the respect and acceptance we offer each other makes friendship not only possible, but perhaps richer for this loving respect of differences.
And I wish Ruth could hear and understand my quiet contentment with my life.
Retirement is allowing me -- and so many others -- to follow our true passions without the drudgery of working long hours at something that is not a passion just for that paycheck.
Living in an active adult community is an eye-opener -- providing me with many fitness role models and many cautionary tales in terms of taking care of myself. It is also a much more friendly place than my old L.A. neighborhood.
I look my age and I don't mind. I've earned my wrinkles and white hair. I'm comfortable with the person I've grown to be. I'd like to be slimmer for health reasons. But I truly don't mind looking every day of my 67 years. I'm grateful to have reached an age that neither of my parents was fortunate enough to achieve.
I may not ever be rich, but I love writing -- at long last -- what interests and inspires me. It isn't all about money, after all.
While my brother, sister and I grew up in a deeply troubled family and suffered abuse, we also learned a great deal, laughed a lot, and were inspired by the creativity and passion we saw in our parents and, especially, in our very special Aunt Molly. If given a chance, I wouldn't change how, where and with whom I grew up. My brother says he wouldn't either. Where we've been is so much a part of who we are now. And my brother and I agree, we're in a lovely time and place in life.
But it is a very different universe from Ruth's.
"Well, as far as I'm concerned," she was saying. "I refuse to date a man over 55 years old. I like them young. But my daughter made me agree that I won't date a man younger than she is."
I laughed. Ruth is a character. She is pretty and looks years younger than she really is. She and her 31-year-old daughter look like sisters. She's very smart. She's tough. She's resilient. She has truly earned her professional success. And she has been blessed with a beautiful, kind, and truly gifted daughter.
With all the blessings, why the harsh judgments?
We ended our conversation with promises to keep in touch and she mentioned once again getting together, with her using frequent flyer miles to come from Atlanta to Arizona to visit. But I suspect she won't. I breathe a sigh of relief.
And I wonder just what it is that makes me (and so many of us) hang onto friendships that hurt.
Sometimes, of course, we don't.
Years ago, I became friends with a talented young actress. We talked and visited every day. We shared confidences and clothes and went on innumerable diets together. In hours and hours of talking and sharing, we told each other our fondest hopes and dreams. And when she got a starring role in a popular, long-running television series, I couldn't have been more delighted for her.
Several years into her new stardom, however, the balance in the friendship began to change. She would call me at my magazine staff writing job asking me to run errands for her during my lunch hour. I knew she was on hiatus from filming at that time and asked why she couldn't do the errands herself. "I have a tennis lesson," she said. "And, besides, I thought you might be happy to help." The imperious tone gave me pause. I was growing up and had a stronger sense of self. I wanted to be treated as an equal.
The last time I saw her, she had invited me to her lavish new home to celebrate my birthday and to talk about something. When I arrived, she looked at me with surprise, obviously having forgotten about the promised birthday dinner. But she had a proposition. "You live in such miserable circumstances in that dumpy apartment and are making so little money for that stupid writing job you have," she said. "I'll pay you $100 more a month and you can live in the maid's room here if you'll become my personal assistant."
I turned the offer down and she thought me terribly ungrateful. We haven't seen or talked with each other for nearly 40 years.
But Ruth, well, it's different. She has expressed caring and loyalty -- minus judgments and criticism -- during some of the lowest moments of my life. And when challenged on her hurtful behavior, she apologizes and says being critical and bossy is a habit, that she gets like that with people she cares about and doesn't mean to hurt my feelings.
But still...the pain is real.
I came across a quote from George Eliot the other day and it resonated with me: "Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words."
As much as I dislike categorizing people and, certainly, friends, George Eliot's thoughts have prompted me to see certain complicated friendships in a different light.
There are close by or long distance friendships we gradually let go as our conversations dwindle and what once united us begins to disappear.
There are long distance, limited contact relationships -- and safety is maintained by distance.
There are long distance, intimate friendships with safety and joy however we connect.
There are close by acquaintances who will never be more than that, no matter how much time we spend together and close by new friends with whom I feel safe and loved.
Friendships built on mutual respect, caring and safety are a treasure whether they're new or have thrived through a lifetime of change.