26 August 2007

Friendship, A Third Look

Every now and then, I do a purge on my address books. The "s" on the end of that word catches my attention just now. As a kid, I didn't have an address book; I held names, telephone numbers and addresses in my head. (Zip codes were not widely in use in those days.) Somewhere along the line, probably around the same time carrying a purse became a necessity, I started recording addresses in a book. For a short while, I still knew the contents by heart but over time I became completely dependent on the address book to contact anyone beyond my immediate family.

Eventually, I added another address book to my collection:
this one lived on my desk. In general, I took greater care maintaining the accuracy of the desk book.

With the popularization of personal computers, I added a computer version to my collection and later, when email really
caught on, a "Contacts List" was added. In 2004, when my life as a sojourner began, I got my first cell phone and gained one more place to store addresses and phone numbers and more.

The address book in my purse fell into disuse over the years and since coming to the Gulf Coast, I have abandoned it all together.

So, periodically, I purge my address books: the cell, the computer, the email accounts (yes, there's that 's' again...) and the desk copy. It's not a regularly scheduled task. Waiting to catch a plane, I might purge my cell phone directory. Adding a new Contact or taking a break from other computer work I might prune my email directory. I run down the list--sometimes in alphabetical ascension, sometimes the other direction--and start deleting entries. If I don't remember the name, OUT. If it's a number I have never dialed and the owner has never called me, OUT. In most but not all cases, if the person is deceased, OUT.

Then there's another kind of purge.
It involves entries who in their minds or mine are "friends" and I perform it with either tears in my eyes or a frown in my brow. My heart hurts during this purge. I am provoked to it when I'm lonely or depressed or trying to make a difficult decision. I'm reaching out. I'm in need of a "friend" rather than a "contact." I browse the list and realize there is no one on this list who could be with me in a way appropriate to the way I'm feeling in that moment. I am faced again with the daunting reality of our essential aloneness.

The purge criterion: If three or more of my last calls were never returned, OUT. If the vibe was weird or the enthusiasm waning in our last encounter AND we've haven't made an explicit commitment to doing the work of relationship together, OUT. If just looking at the name or number I feel abandoned or disinterested or cold, OUT.

This practice, or at least the way I talk about it, strikes some people as disturbingly clinical, hard-hearted even. A simple drifting apart, with no words spoken and no overt gestures made, is the more popular method for friendship to end. You know someone and then some time passes and you begin to refer to them as "a woman I once knew." Friendship is a mythical, romantic concept and "end of friendship" has inspired much heart-wrenching art and poetry, painting and song.

Any measure of intentionality attached to the end of a friendship is distasteful and disturbing. No one wants to go there. We don't want to be rejected and we don't want to reject someone else. Pulling a brush drenched in White-Out over a line or clicking "delete" on the computer is intentional. When I mention my purges to others, it's common for
one or both of us to try to make a joke of it. It feels too heavy otherwise, I guess.

This weekend I heard from four people who've been out of touch for awhile. Two of them had been purged from my files. My heart leaped and giggled to hear from them again. I got their info and re-recorded it in my Contacts list at Gmail.

One of them, I'll call her Liz, shared a story about the recent ending of a lifetime friendship. Liz had inadvertently offended her friend who said nothing at the moment of offense. She sent Liz an email a week later, venting her hurt and anger and announcing the official end of their friendship.

Another friend returned to his hometown this summer after a long time away. He spent some time with a friend from the old days. When he returned home, he received a scathing email from that old friend outlining his disappointment and outrage to see what he'd made of his life. The email contained several threatening insinuations that the friendship was over.

A couple of years before I left the Bay it happened to me. Rhonda wrote me out of her life. It hurt all the more because we had made explicit promises to always be friends and she had pried a promise from me that in my entire life I have made only once, to her: no matter how bad life gets, I promised not to kill myself without contacting her first. At the time I made the promise, her willingness
to accept and hold such a vulnerable, intimate vow felt like a huge act of love. In retrospect, given that her brother's suicide several years before we met had been a singularly crushing event in her life, her insistence that I make the promise was likely driven by more selfish needs. She cared about me and she was also likely taking care of herself.

In the end, nothing happened. There was no dramatic event. No misstep or obvious mistake that she ever shared with me. She sent me an email saying she could not see a purpose for going forward with our friendship. Goodbye.

I suspect I purge to get the jump on rejection: I "delete" you before you delete me. I also purge because clutter, in any form, distracts me. I purge because I don't want to hold onto anyone in a bald attempt to stave off loneliness or for the pathetic comfort of having more marked pages than blank pages in an address book or a longer Contact list in my email account.

Ultimately, I purge because, where "friends" are concerned, I don't like loose ends. Maybe Rhonda doesn't either and she was just tying up loose ends in her way. I am patient to a point. I can go a long time without hearing from a "friend." Then, my stomach gets nervous and my scalp starts itching. I have to know: are we doing this or are we "over"?

I dial their number or drop them a card or an email. I report my discomfort and pose the question: do you want to keep going?

It takes the edge off and I grow patient again.

But it's only a matter of time. I will purge again. I will run down the list and see their name and remember: I never heard back from him or her.

Usually, OUT.

"If you love someone, set them free."

Note: An inspiration for the current blog was finding a huge stack of business cards in my desk drawer. You can watch my re-discovery of these cards at my new blog, Cards

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