Are your dearest nearest?

When I was a baby, my mother put me in the playpen with her best friend’s baby who promptly bit me. The mothers’ plan for us to be best friends so that they could continue to be was threatened.

When I was ten and I wanted to see my best friend, I ran through my back yard, climbed an ancient fence with kid-worn footholds in it, scrambled down an often-muddy bank, trespassed ever so quickly through the yard of a barely-known family, traversed a basketball court, slipped through a hole in a better fence, ran across a big backyard, flung open a screen door, told the dog, “Shut up! You know me,” and ran up to my best friend Price’s room.

When I was 21, I lived with 15 women in a duplex, college seniors. Diverse as we are, we bonded. We still see each other yearly, in person. We sit in one circle and listen. I’ve written about them often; here’s one piece.

When my husband and I were newlyweds, we realized having friends together wasn’t going to just happen; we’d have to work at it. We spent $314 of our yearly, combined salary of $14,448 on a dinner party for 14 — ourselves and six other couples. Looking back, the restaurant must have subsidized us generously (in spite of our “one drink per person” rule), but it was the best money we ever spent. It launched our social life — not because the Russian food was all that great, but because we initiated.

What does it take to have friends? A recent article in The New York Times by Alex Williams names three factors: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.

By that measure, my playpen buddy wasn’t trustworthy; my friend Price (right in my own backyard) was; and my group of college friends bonded with all three factors. The adult dinner party would not have worked had we not run into each couple repeatedly around town, and in fact we’re close now with only two of those couples, both of whom we’ve ended up living relatively near to in another city for decades since.

So what does it take, in mid-life, to have real friends? I’m thinking about this a lot. There are people I enjoy immensely, perhaps even as much as I enjoy some other people, but with whom I haven’t gotten or stayed enormously close. For me, there are factors of trust and of proximity. “Trust” in this regard isn’t so much about whether I can trust them with my secrets (I assume that or I wouldn’t be working on the relationship). It’s about whether they will respond when I reach out, do the work of staying in touch, i.e. give me feedback that my presence is wanted. And proximity, well it’s just true that it’s easier to see someone — given busy schedules — whom you can quickly connect with. That’s the “repeated, unplanned interactions” factor– running into someone at the dry cleaner’s cements bonds. And for those who don’t live near me, the common factor is staying in touch deliberately through sustained conversation of one sort or another.

I’ve had some rich conversations lately about this — musing about what it takes to have strong friendships and connections in the empty nest stage (or to form new ones). I’m not sure the elements are so different at other stages of life but this one limits the number of people with whom you have “repeated, unplanned interactions” in that those often happen through our children, with whom we must get out and about more than we have to on our own. I’m at a transition point for this in my life.

How, when people seek out suburbs for peace and quiet or safety and thus lose proximity, can they foster these connections?

How, when we have such disparate and far-flung relationships, can we even expect “repeated, unplanned interactions?”

It may mean that we have to work ever harder to create “setting(s) that encourage people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” That’s one reason I’ve created SPACIOUS.

What do you think? What’s working for you and your community?


5 thoughts on “Are your dearest nearest?

  1. I often think of what it takes to make and be friends. I’ve been thinking about it a lot this last two years as I’ve transitioned from bachelorhood to fatherhood. Here you mentioned the unplanned interaction but I wonder about spontaneous interaction.

    As I look back over the years the folks I’ve built relationships with my closest friends are full of spontaneous interaction. The “I’m hungry, let’s grab lunch” type of interactions. Two friends of mine became best friends when one texted the other “Would you like to do something irresponsible tonight?” to which the other simply responded, “Yes.”

  2. You know, I think the unplanned interactions set us up for the spontaneous ones, as does proximity. That’s, I guess, the factor of acting on the opportunity given.

  3. Beautiful – I can see Cary before I knew her:).

  4. Two additional things at this stage of life for me – there is a willingness to hold things lightly, and to invite and enjoy surprise.

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