Monday, December 29, 2008

What do you say after 28 years?

Tonight I had dinner with a friend I haven't seen in probably 28 years, maybe more. I suppose you can rightfully question the word "friend" after this lengthy silence, but I'm not sure what other term to use.

Cathy and I were friends in high school. She was a year ahead of me and after she graduated we drifted apart a bit, and then I went away to school, and you know the story. It has been repeated millions of times and our version is no different. Except that she found me on facebook and we reconnected. Or at least we had dinner.

So, what do you say to someone over barbecued chicken breast and salmon when you haven't talked in 28 years? How exactly do you catch up? Where do you even start that process?

I was thinking on the drive there what I would ask someone that would give me insight into who they are. I ponder this occasionally and, as of yet, I've been unable to come up with the questions that are appropriate to ask in such a circumstance. What I want to know is, "who are you? what do you think about? what do you dream of? where do you want to go? what has touched you? what defines your life? how would you describe yourself without mentioning another person or a profession? how do you move in the world?" I just haven't figured out how to ask people those things. Any one of those questions tends to cause a physical recoiling. I want to know the answers to all of those plus about four dozen more. I have learned through experience that this is overwhelming to people.

I will say the conversation tonight flowed easily, and none of it was rehashing our high school glory days. (Not that I had any glory days then but it seems that "glory" is always supposed to precede "days" in such cases.) I know I've covered my dislike of that rehashing here, so I won't belabor the point.

A lot happens in a life in nearly three decades. It's more than a generation, after all.

It's not my place to tell her story, so I won't, but suffice it to say that tragedy has touched her family's life. The honesty of sharing that is astounding. Tragedy shapes who we are and to enter into a relationship with another person we have to be honest about the forces that act on us. How we react to tragedy speaks volumes about the people we are. Before she told me of this, she told me her family was happy. That is what all of us are seeking, in one way or another. I'm so glad they have found it.

When I was driving home I realized that I shared very little of myself - at least the "self" that I think is the important one. That wasn't intentional on my part, it just happened that way. Maybe the music was too loud or the temperature was too cold or my mind was too occupied with the oddness of seeing someone I hadn't seen in so long. The more obvious answer is that I was reminding myself to not launch into a recitation of the above questions.

We did cover some meaningful topics. The experience caused me to consider how we really do engage with people in different environments. Or at least how I do.

Relationship is more about how we conduct ourselves than about how we say we do. Maybe that's why it's hard to maintain relationships with people when we're not with them on a regular basis. When you interact daily with people it requires a level of honesty unlike anything else, and it's an honesty we have no choice about. What we say is not as meaningful because we're living our lives in front of them. It's impossible to hide our embarrassment, longing and foolishness from those who are witness to it. But, we can build in a buffer zone. Twenty-eight years is a serious buffer zone.

But, Cathy and I both had the courage to come forward and step across it. And it has certainly given me something to think about. The experts say we all like to talk about ourselves, but if that's true, then why do we find it difficult to talk about who we really are most of the time?

And in this sort of situation, it's hard to figure out what you want to say about yourself that is telling that they don't already know. What are the defining moments that brought you from the eighteen year old they knew to who you are today? And, is the first meeting in nearly three decades the right time to subject someone to a litany of them? The answer is "no," I believe, so tonight we covered some of the really big ones and left the lesser known, but very powerful ones, for another time.

Friendship is a dance of timing and revelation. Even reconnecting to old friends. And honesty is a big part of it all. Maybe that's why blogs where people talk honestly about their lives - warts and all - are always more interesting than those where people just recite their children's latest accomplishments. Don't we all want to think others are as uncertain as we are? Does that make us horrible people? Or is it just a bit of 'round about honesty that we feel uncertain?

Something I really appreciated about this encounter was that Cathy went to some effort to make it happen. She called and wrote. I called and wrote. And eventually we made it happen. That seems a good beginning to a reconnection. It was great to see her.


Anonymous said...

Lovely piece.

Patsy Terrell said...

Thanks, Mary... It's interesting to think about how we form relationships... and keep them going.