Making Families Out of Friends
by Jane Howard
from Families, “A Peck of Salt.”
The trouble with the families many of us were born to is not that they are meddlesome ogres but that they are too far away. In emergencies we rush across continents and if need be oceans to their sides, as they do to ours. Maybe we even make a habit of seeing them, once or twice a year, for the sheer pleasure of it. But blood ties seldom dictate our addresses. Our blood kin are often too remote to ease us from our Tuesdays to our Wednesdays. For this we must rely on our families of friends. If our relatives are not , do not wish to be, or for whatever reasons cannot be our friends, then by some complex alchemy we must transform our friends into our relatives. If blood and roots don’t do the job, then we must look to water and branches. . . .
These new families, to borrow the terminology of an African tribe, may consist either of friends of the road, ascribed by chance, of friends of the heart, achieved by choice. Ascribed friends are those we happen to go to school with, work with, of live near. They know where we went last weekend and whether we still have a cold. Just being around gives them a provisional importance in our lives, and us in theirs. Maybe they still will matter to us when we of they move away; quite likely they won’t. Six months or two years will probably erase us from each other’s thoughts, unless by some chance they and we have become friends of the heart.
An achieved friend, a friend, of the heart, is one who perceives me as one of the better version of myself, who has troubled to map the oddities of my mind’s geography, as I have of his. We have found the way past the blind alleys and the detours to the side roads that lead to the plazas where sometimes the music plays. We make good music, this friend and I, and we make good silences, too. Talk we can take or leave. As for politeness, we don’t confuse it with generosity. My friend will tell me to get some new rims for my glasses at once, to stop yearning after someone who doesn’t deserve me, but that even though I have wasted the last eighteen weeks of my life on a pointless and stupid endeavor, even considering my egregious imperfections, there still is hope.(“To be her friend,” as someone said eulogizing the writer Jenny Moore, “was to be a little while as good as you wish you were.”)
My friend and I phone each other earlier and later than we would dare to bother others. Our talk starts out frivolous: Are brasses more pleasing than strings, long vowels than short ones, webbed feet than hooves, bridges than tunnels, tubs that showers? Two in the afternoon, we agree, is the dullest hour, forty the dreariest temperature, north by far the most inviting direction. At times we argue: Is far left more dangerous than far right? Does amity depend on enmity – for every Us does there have to be a Them? We travel together, too, when we can. In flush spells we go to see deserts and duomos; when cash and time are short a trip across town will do. Anywhere, just so we can gather, hone, and compare our reactions. Coming and going we absorb each other’s histories: who brought us up, who taught us, where we were when the shots were fired, when the bombs fell, when the lights went out, what used to scare us and what still does.
To borrow Martin Buber’s word, we have “happened” to each other. Our friendship may have begun with a thunderclap, the way romances do, with what Muktananda followers call shaktipat, or it may have grown so gradually as to catch us by surprise. Wishing to be friends, as Aristotle wrote, is quick work, but friendship is a slowly ripening fruit. An ancient proverb he quotes in his Ethics had it that you cannot know a man until you and he have eaten a peck of salt. Now a peck, a quarter of a bushel, is quite a lot of salt – more salt, perhaps, than most pairs of people ever have occasion to share. We try, though. My friend and I break bread and pass salt together as often and at as many tables as we can. Between-times we see each other at our ugliest, forgive each other our falls from grace, make each other laugh aloud, and steer each other through enough seasons and weathers so that sooner of later it crosses our minds that one of us, God knows which or with what sorrow, must one day mourn the other. If I were sick enough to have good reason to want to die myself, he would let me do so in his house, as I would let him in mine. When his mother dies, I will help him go through her things.
It would be splendid to live in a society that encouraged such friendships. Ours does not. Ours is awash in what Robert Brain calls “emotional promiscuity. . .there are whole days when a busy person can come into no real contact with anyone else. Our culture has deprived us of any possible guidelines in making friends. . . . Friendship must be taken as seriously as sex, aggression, and marriage. I have no qualms in elevating friendship into an imperative.”
Neither have I. Nor have I qualms in repeating that if some of our friends are not in effect part of our family, then they ought to be, and soon. Friendships are sacred and miraculous, but they can be even more so if they lead to the equivalent of clans. If the important people in my life discern in my friend a fraction of the worth that I do, and if those who matter to him can understand his affinity for me, then we are on our way: the dim but promising outline of a new sort of family emerges.