Of all the little pieces of paper and bits of data and shreds of parchment in the world, we only know of 2 which Francis of Assisi himself wrote on. One of them was kept for decades by his friend, Leo. On one side is a beautiful writing known as the “Praises of God” with its litany of names for God (my favorite is “You are all our riches unto sufficiency.”) The other side is the one Leo thought was most precious. He folded this parchment three ways until it was a tiny rectangle that would fit presumably in a pocket of his crusty old habit. I imagine he opened it up once in a while to re-read it in the many long years after his friend Francis died. Have you ever had such a precious note or letter? These days, I guess it might be a snapchat or text that we hold dear as a friend expresses her care for us. Although most who would study this parchment care more about the poetry, Leo preserved the little note meant for him. You can tell this because of the way he folded the parchment, careful to keep the more precious side on the inside. Right before he turned it over for safekeeping, probably at the end of his life, probably to the order of cloistered women who also knew and followed Francis, he took red ink and described what this was.
Recently, I was reading something by someone smarter than I am as he lamented that people no longer see friendship as something worthy of philosophizing about. In fact, I can’t even think of any songs which celebrate friendship. They’re usually about love or hate of one person who either now or then was an object of desire. I use Facebook as much as anyone and I wonder sometimes if we aren’t all just kind of sharing little press releases all the time, unawares of who is actually reading them. I overheard a conversation at the gym this morning. The friends had not seen each other in a long time but were able to reference the things they’d seen on Facebook. It made for a funny discussion since they had information about the other person’s recent doings without necessarily having firsthand experience with them or without the other person knowing they knew about what they’d been up to. The conversation seemed stilted and, sadly, unnecessary.
Here’s a quote I’ve remembered since high school: “Affection can withstand very severe storms of vigor, but not a long polar frost of indifference” (by Sir Walter Scott). A strange thing happened to me in 2015. On the same day, I was to drive a couple of hours from where I live to have lunch with one friend and coffee with another friend. As it turns out, the time before that was the last time I’d get to see either one of them. One friend had an accident that week and went into a hospital, then another and another. She passed away in February. I wrote about losing her on this blog. I grieve her still. I just finished creating a documentary about women who serve the poor (called “Energy of Nuns”) and dedicated it to her, “To Madeline, who also loved and served the poor.” This woman was so giving and kind. Even in death, she has allowed her body to be part of the training for medical school students so they can learn from her how to heal others. I still cry for her and I just cannot believe she is gone. If you want me to tell you more about her, email me. She was remarkable and influential and I think, has helped to set me on a path toward really telling the stories of those who serve the poor in order to motivate others to do the same. She is very alive to me in my memory and has influenced my worldview so much over the years that I have to credit her for a lot. She really helped me integrate my intense experience of living in a Hartford ghetto for a year while working at a homeless shelter into serving at a college and a university as a campus minister in Winston-Salem.
On that same day in 2015, I was supposed to have coffee with another friend. We had been in touch a few days before through texting and Facebook so everything seemed on track to get together as planned. Well, I was told the night before that she did not wish to see me because I had said something a month before which really upset her. She told me to “take care” and subsequently did not respond to my attempts to reach out. I scoured my memory, trying to recall what it was that was so awful that a friend of 15 years could not stand the sight of me after it. Almost a year later, I am still scratching my head and wondering what combination of words I managed to string together (unawares) that dealt a death blow to our relationship. I still don’t know. I am cautious now as I speak with friends, afraid at any moment that I will alienate them as quickly. I had no idea I had the power to destroy something so precious in such a simple way. It is terribly humbling and frightening. I grieve that loss as well, though it too seems unreal.
My husband’s job has brought us to many different places over the years and I’ve had to start anew with making friendships. A kind woman who had been a regular at the local YMCA for decades became a friend to me as we’d see each other every morning at 7:15am. In another town, one thing led to another and I became the unofficial assistant volunteer youth group leader (in Reidsville, NC) and met a wonderful woman who I’m going to text right now and tell her I want to see her (excuse me a moment).Okay, I’m back. I don’t want a few months of absence to be confused for a “long polar frost of indifference.” In another town, my friends were all retirees, in their 70s, 80s and even 90s. I share the story that I had my first jello shot that year with a woman who was 88 (and it wasn’t her first!). God has been good to me and given me lots of wonderful women who have given me advice, encouragement and companionship when I’ve needed it most. Naturally, other friendships have come and gone over these years. I’m comforted by the thought that some were just for a season and that it is natural that there is such an ebb and flow. In our country, we move so dang much and we live over such a vast area (one of my bridesmaids is a 40 hour (!) drive away from me) that friendships have to be elastic and able to adapt to changes. Another good friend and her brood of countless kids will be moving back “up nawth” as we say down here. It makes sense logistically since that is where her husband’s job is but it doesn’t make sense to my heart yet. I’m supportive of her and I will do what I can to assist and encourage her because it must be done but man, I think there’s another round of grieving about to hit me again.
A few years ago, I was with some people from high school. One person spend the whole time examining the nature of what she had always thought was a friendship. Reading other meanings into it now, 20 years later, she wanted to approach the person and explore “what was really going on.” This seemed fruitless and even dangerous since both are married now and I’m glad I was able to talk her out of broaching that topic. Sometimes a friendship is just a friendship. Except I don’t mean that. I don’t mean “just” a friendship. I don’t remember where the heck I read it (sorry) but I read recently that friendships are holistic and demand something from us socially, physically, mentally and more. I love when a friend trusts me to water plants while she is out of town. I love to write another friend’s relative who is in prison because I know it brings her some comfort as well. I love to meet up, if just for a cup of coffee or a quick bite to eat with a friend. Yesterday, I even got to spend an entire day with a woman I’ve known for over 20 years, since we swam together in high school. I thank God for these moments. There’s a line from “Stand by Me” at the end where the narrator laments about the death of a childhood friend that “Although I haven’t seen him in more than ten years I know I’ll miss him forever. I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve… does anybody?” Yeah, I think we can. I think we have to work harder at it. Even though today is officially “Social Media Day,” I think we have to work IRL (In Real Life) to support and encourage our friends. I don’t think I’m finished making friends yet. Heck, last year I made friends with a lovely woman who is an Au Pair, here from another country for a year. We have great conversations and as a matter of fact, we’re having lunch tomorrow after my ESL class. Want to join us? You’re invited, friend.