Letters to Lisa: The Joy of Sacred Friendship

Rev. Marti  Keller

August 8, 2010

At the end of May, I flew off to Trumansburg New York via Syracuse on a narrow aisled 50 seater plane, landing in a  Spartan airport with just a sports bar,  a pizza stand and a candy, gum and mass paperback  bookstore. I got off that small, bumpy plane, entered that mini terminal and went down the one escalator to the baggage claim, suddenly panicking that I had landed in the wrong place—perhaps I should have flown to Rochester or Schenectady, and that Lisa, my second college roommate in Stern Hall, UC Berkeley, would not be there to greet me.

And even if I was in the right city, I would not be able to find her, let alone recognize her, having only seen a tiny Facebook portrait of her recently.

After all we had not been with each other in the flesh since shortly after I turned 21.

Lisa started school a couple of quarters late, straight from Southern California, Newport Beach it turns out, though at the time we roomed together all I knew ( or remember that I knew) was that her dad was a physics professor at the university in Irvine, and that shortly after she moved in she started spending a lot of time away from that retro all women’s dorm with the mandatory dress code and  sign out sheet curfew with her grown-up, off campus boyfriend.

She would flee regularly down to the flats, away from the walnut and brown sugar coffee cake Sunday breakfasts and the confinement of our shared quarters  to a peeling bungalow a few miles away on a street smelling of bay water( and probably some illegal substances).

My world then seemed smaller—and larger. Besides classes, the up and down hill trek to Eschleman  Hall, the sixth floor Daily Californian headquarters, where there were manual typewriters and rimmed copy desks, seniors smoking cigarettes, editing half sheets of cheap beige paper, me, as a newbie, an underling, assigned to put together the calendar with colloquium and underground foreign film screenings.

In an article I wrote for the alumni magazine ten years after I graduated—“When We Were Young and Gassed,” I recalled that there had been an almost unbroken series of dramatic clashes since I started as a cub reporter on that nationally known paper: the December l966 student strike, following an attempt to move Navy ROTC out of the student union, anti-draft rallies, sit-ins, mill-ins, and a Third World Liberation Front strike.

At one point there was an anonymous piece printed in the arts section suggesting that in view of the current situation on campus, the following proposal is offered—that future riots be scheduled ahead of time and they be held in the Greek Theatre, where no windows will be broken and there’s plenty of fresh air to disperse the gas, and seats for those who wish to watch.

Those reporters I interviewed for the retrospective piece collectively remembered about working on the paper in those years was that there were days that the editorial offices were so dirty, so charged, so filled with noxious fumes and fatigue that normal life, or what we imagined was normal life, seemed just a happy dream.

Lisa, who was then and is now a gifted artist and a nurturer of children and other living things, recalls that when we met she felt unformed, and that when she found me, perched on the edge of my narrow single bed, almost folded in on myself at a moment of rare respite from the activities and stresses of my life at that time, that she thought that my life seemed passionate and real. I thought from the moment we met that her life was passionate and real.

From this first meeting came a relationship that has been, after the few months we roomed together and the times we got together while we still lived in the same quarter of the universe as she liked to describe it, almost entirely created and maintained through letters and occasional calls.

Letters that waxed and waned: letters handwritten on onion skin typing paper, yellow lined paper, handmade and drugstore note cards, cheap and then better quality computer paper, and most recently cyber space.

Given the distance, the geographic distance between us, this was the only way.

I graduated and stayed in the Bay Area for more than twenty years after we last saw each other.

She moved in with and then moved away with her slightly older, paving crew and construction working, brilliant guy, traveling in Europe, and then gravitating back East, nearer to his family, to upstate New York where they eventually built their own house on an unpaved rural road, where where she raised goats and made cheese, became a Montessori teacher, did her batiks.

I had children early and first, naming my daughter for her, writing a poem that became a recorded folk song, with a chorus that described the difference between my life and the life of her namesake, my life friend: Alisha, I want you to know you were named for the journey I did not make into dairy land in sandals, with farming books, a harp and a loom and a backpack full of dreams.

The letters we mailed to each other were filled with stories about our personal lives: musing about whether, post-graduation, we would be working in the same pancake house with our fancy degrees; how Lisa and John, who eventually became her husband, had to live with a 60 year old widow in a giant Victorian house, exchanging room and board for being maid and butler, housecleaner and handyman, confidants and surrogate children- eating spaghetti and butter with a side of macadamia nuts–  how I tried to fit in my journalism and my poetry with sick children, housekeeping, and city vegetable gardening. How glad we were both were to see the 1970’s decade end— how peculiar it was, how we were tumbling into the Eighties with more hope. How I decided to divorce, how she decided to have children. The years when the correspondence trickled on one side or the other, one year me apologizing, telling her “ there is no excuse for not having written, except a badly broken foot, a car arson, a move, a wedding. “Please write soon we would both sign off. Take care.

It wasn’t until 1991, 20 years after we probably last saw each other, that either one of us mentioned the extraordinary ( or what we thought were extraordinary) outside events that surrounded our young adult years, Lisa writing me that her daughter, who was in the eighth grade had watched a PBS series on the Sixties and found it compelling, reminding her of when we first met and what she viewed as my daring journalistic ventures on campus.

Only in the first decade of this new millennium did the name or names of presidents, liked and detested, appear on the pages of our letters of two women who are not indifferent to the goings on in the larger world.  The nature of our relationship, the texture of our friendship, has been more like mutual touchstones: always there, sources of nourishment and revival in times of drought and celebration in times of abundance and joy.

As Beth Kephart write in her wonderful memoir about these special relationships, friendships succor us, they fill in the blanks, they give us a purpose. Because, she reminds us, all friendships are finally mirrors, they provide proof that we do exist, that we are.  They give us a reason to laugh as well, to just laugh at life, flat out and keep going.

This came up for me just a week or so ago, when I flew again, this time to Phoenix, to participate in the Standing on the Side of Love actions in support of immigration  reform .

This time I was picked up at the airport by another longtime friend, Susan, who used to be married to my husband’s cousin. While sympathetic, deeply empathetic, to the cause which brought me in the middle of the summer to the heat of Arizona for a show of  support for those concerned about the human rights of undocumented immigrants and the injustice of racial profiling, she let me know that her first concern was for me: whether, as she always puts it, I was properly fed and “fluffed.”  Which for her means and meant making me scrambled eggs, grinding coffee, providing a water bottle and a cooling scarf for my neck for the march and demonstration in the hot desert sun. Transporting me and a fellow congregant from the actions downtown to the Phoenix UU congregation. Pouring me wine at the end of the day, insisting that I take a swim.That was the role she chose to play, as energy and health limitations prevented her from entering the fray.

In the midst of all this caretaking, was the most nourishing element— the constant talk, part-idle chatter, part soul sharing, the conversations that started 26 years ago and have continued, intermittently , ever since. Because, in general, as Beth Kephart notes, adult friendships are not the same among women as among men: women talk, the cliché says, while men revel in mutual doing.

Certainly this has seemed so for the men in my life, at least as I have observed them.

My first husband had a would be friend who died suddenly and young from a heart attack, leading me to write a poem, observing that “ they might have been friends in the way men befriend each other, across the lunch table, slipping a private tale or two between the manila folders of their attaché  cases, marking a column for personal accounting… not loosed tongued between clotheslines, but circling each other in an ancient ceremony of pride and territory… “

Friendships in bowling allies, on basketball courts, on hiking trails. Shared activities. According to  Geoffrey Greif, author of “Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships”, while women may enjoy getting together over lunch. men are usually comfortable meeting over a shared activity. When men meet, he says, they may not share anything personal at all.

He tells the joke that a man goes over to his friend’s house for a couple of hours and comes home and his wife asks him about his friend’s divorce, and the man says- ‘it never came up.’

We are told that friendships between men and women are different than same sex ones,  and no one like the other. We have circles of friends, from our religious communities, our neighborhoods, mothers and fathers of our children’s friends—some longer lived and more significant than others. As the reading from this morning reminds us, we adopt them, we celebrate them, and claim they are part of us and suddenly they are gone.

Because inevitably there are friends for a particular moment, a life stage—friends like Joann and Dee, the athletic, bright but not intellectual girls I would have felt so threatened by in high school and college, more comfortable on the tennis court, swimming, jogging and hiking—or in  wet weather, sewing and other handwork that always brought me to frustrated tears. Yet I gained  much  from them as young mothers and wives whose concerns at a time were so like mine and yet whose backgrounds, even inner lives were so different.

The health-saving benefits of friendship has been the subject of increased scientific scrutiny. In an article published last year in the New York Times by Tamara Parker-Pope, she reported that in the quest for better health, many people turn to doctors, self-help books or herbal supplements, overlooking “ a powerful weapon that might help them fight illness and depression, speed recovery, slow aging and prolong life—their friends.”

She cited a ten year study in Australia that found older people with a larger circle of friends were markedly less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. A large study a few years back showed an increase of more than 60 percent in the risk of obesity among people whose friends gained weight—and jumped 170 percent if a close  friend was significantly overweight.  In the same piece, the reporter cited a study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer which found that women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with 10 or more friends-.And it didn’t make any difference how close these friends lived or how much contact—the friendships themselves were protective.

While much of the research has focused on the friendships between women, some research has shown that men can benefit too—reducing the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease, lowering blood sugar and blood pressure levels, releasing mood elevating hormones.

Out of this data has come a plethora of practical, how to advice about how to find friends: getting busy, getting out : joining  fitness centers and dinner clubs, adult education or community volunteering; reaching out, extending invitations to dinner or a movie, phone calls, online messaging, support groups, neighborhood strolls. Getting a dog to walk.  Moving to co-housing communities where the chance of social isolation is hopefully less likely.

Making the connection between substance abuse prevention and recovery, and sounder mental health,  the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued a self-help guide on making and keeping friends,  including building skills that enhance friendships, qualities that make friendships richer and stronger, including being independent and self-sufficient, being positive, upbeat and warm, doing your share of both the talking and the listening, being non-judgmental, giving the other person plenty of “space.”

Why this growth industry for guides to true friendship in the 21st century?  As Unitarian Universalist Association President The Reverend Peter Morales commented in his sermon delivered to the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis, the people to whom we must minister are the most disconnected people who have ever lived. What supreme irony, he said. We who have smart phones, we who have instant messaging, tweets, email, voicemail, and  zillions of friends on Facebook, are by objective measure, emotionally isolated—exchanging more messages than ever but, he told us, at the price of true intimacy and real community.

He talked about a major survey of interpersonal relationships published 25 years ago in the American Sociological Review, the leading journal of sociology, repeated five years ago in order to measure the changes  that had taken place in a generation.

Rev. Morales found the results stunning. One of the key questions asked participants how many people they knew with whom they felt they could confide personal information, a marker of a level of intimacy. Respondents could give an answer from zero to 10 or more.

In l985, the answer most frequently given was three—about 25 percent.

In 2004, the answer most frequently given was zero, that for around a quarter of the respondents, there was no one.

Another quarter answered only one, and that answer was almost always a life partner.

What that means, he emphasized, was that only half of all Americans have a close relationship outside their household.

In the short time since that repeat study in 2004 that internet communication vehicles like My Space and Facebook have been created and taken off, has this had any impact on these findings—are we more deeply, intimately connected as a result of the names , the “friends” we have added to our pages?

Essayist William Deresiewicz, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education last year about what he maintains is faux friendship says we live in a time when friendship has become all and  yet nothing  at all— so-called BFFs and parents who befriend their children ,and teachers, clergy and even bosses who, he maintains, seek to mitigate and legitimate their authority by asking those they oversee to regard them as friends.

We are on a first name basis with everyone—and yet, he asks, in our brave new world, what is the nature of these friendships we claim?

Friendship in ancient times, he tells us, which was far from ordinary and universal, in fact rare, precious and hard won, described in some classic literature as more wondrous than romantic love. From this sort of preciousness, this special relationship has become, from his perspective,  universalized to the point where our friendship circles have “ expanded to engulf the whole of the social world,” giving us not actual connections, but a false sense of intimacy.

As we post to our average of 130 Facebook friends, with quite a few of us having many more than that, we are not asked to participate in real friendship as one blogger pointed out. We need not, she asserted, know anything about each other, let alone care about each other. We do not have the obligation or opportunity to tell and listen to each other’s stories, which takes probing and questioning, and the luxury of time: whether through 10 page missives, three hour conversations, a walk around a lake, or some other form of sustained contact. And the scale of friendship, given its requirements—time and little distraction, mutuality, nurturance—is necessarily bounded, as one writer said.

In a newspaper article titled “Are 5,001 Friends Too Many?”, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar posed a theory that the number of individuals with whom a stable interpersonal relationship can be maintained ( read friends) is 150, which flies in the face of the practice of a Facebook friends roster growing like Kudzu, which may provide business and social networking activities, but fail to substitute for actual human contact on a manageable scale and the cultivation of real friendship.

Peter Morales in his keynote sermon was asking UU congregations to  look at how we promote genuine special relationships—friendships where people can go deep in a trusting context. Robert Hill in his classic guide to small group ministry in our religious communities suggested that besides being an effective way to grow our congregations in numbers, providing sustainable meaningful programs—these covenant groups are places to find others to talk with without barriers or reservations,  to be totally and openly ourselves.

Consider the possibilities here.

When I finally found my friend Lisa at the bottom of the escalator in the Syracuse airport, the exact right place I was supposed to meet her, the decades slipped away. We spent the next three days walking her country roads, now paved and named—looking for egrets—drinking cups of tea,   drinking in the joy of being in each other’s company, the sense of being made whole.

In the words of poet and spiritual teacher Andrew Harvey, coming to experience and celebrate the holiness of sacred friendship and to be grateful for the wisdom of your friends increases your faith in life and your capacity for skillful action.

And from the poet Rumi: Whatever fires the heart is a ray from my Friend.