You’ve Gotta Friend

I had coffee with friends this morning—well, I had Diet Coke and they had coffee—with whom I have gathered at local coffee shops most Wednesday mornings for the past 15 years. We shared laughter, our to-do lists, updates on mutual friends, and a little bit about the news. I left feeling nurtured and connected, with the added benefit of two recommendations for contractors who clean and repair rain gutters.

I love getting together with these women (and other friends) to share our lives, loves, and relationships, to support each other, and in short, to gather. There is no substitute for sitting, walking, playing, and eating together with friends. I truly value many long distance friendships, and I enjoy keeping in touch via Facebook and email and texting and phone calls. But I crave face-to-face communication with friends. I felt this way before surviving cancer, but recognition of the centrality of friends in my life deepened  during cancer and my ongoing struggle with late effects in the decades that have followed.

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The weekly coffee date grew out of an early morning water aerobics class that some of us still attend. A few weeks before my 49th birthday, I am one of the youngest of the group, with the others ranging in age to their mid-70s. This group overlaps substantially with a group that gathers once a month as part of the Dining for Women organization, and also with some of my past and current co-workers. Having friends of all different ages is a tremendous gift.

My older friends have hilarious stories and tales of epic failures from having maintained  relationships—or not—and a wealth of fascinating experiences. Many of them are retired and have time for shopping trips, lunches, or theatre with me, all while continuing to pursue their interests in photography, genealogy, lay ministry, travel, sea turtles, volunteering, church, or good books.

I have friends who are close to my own age, and with them I have the comfort of sharing historical reference points—we remember when Jimmy Carter was elected President and where we were when the Challenger exploded. We enjoy singing along to the hits of the 80s while driving up the highway and groan over pictures of our big 80s hair. Recently we have noticed that we approaching our half-century mark.

And I love having friends who are younger than me. I have two millennial friends who are former students of mine who used to do house sitting and cat care for us when we traveled, and who are now my honorary nieces. They teach me things like what’s new in music and what current slang means. For example, it turned out that “Netflix and chill” does not mean what I thought it meant!

New faculty and graduate students I meet often are 15 or 20 years younger than I am, digital natives who can always seem to get the projector to hook up to my laptop correctly. They understand the academic world in a way that I no longer remember—when theory and methodology and enormous bodies of research still spread out before me as vast, uncharted wilderness to explore, and the language of academia had yet to be absorbed. I recall that I was terrified of learning to conduct my own research and looked with awe at senior scholars whose work I had read, but I can’t remember what the thrill and terror and awe felt like in my bones.

When I hang out with new scholars, I glimpse a time when I was less cynical and less sure I knew my field. I learn a lot from my younger colleagues’ fresh perspectives and keen awareness of the cutting edges of our fields. They ask different questions and make different connections among ideas than I do, and I love that.

My friend Bill Rawlins’ research on communication in friendship across the life span richly describes the rewards and challenges of friendship. “Friendship is part of living well, a part of being able to connect with others, a part of productivity, a part of a good romantic relationship, a part of facilitating community building, and it teaches people how to treat others with respect and joy,” he says. I agree.

I make it a priority to foster friendships both as rich, meaningful ends unto themselves and as sources of help, companionship, and, of course, recommendations for getting my gutters cleaned.

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