Sunday, April 28, 2013

Friend as a Verb

A month or so ago, I was told by a man that he would never treat a friend in the way I had behaved toward him. My response was that he should reexamine his idea of friendship; I regarded him as a Facebook  acquaintance to whom I'd offered a job which he then did worse than badly. His sloppy work and the amount he wanted for doing it disgusted me and I wanted no more contact with him. His feeling was that I breached the responsibilities of friendship and thus was an unworthy human being.

I realized after this that my idea of friendship is a stringent one, based upon what surrounded me when I was a child. Friends were people with whom you would share your last meal and who would do the same for you. While you might be very different people, you respected each other's differences and found a common ground in humor, honesty, and a profound respect for labor. Work was what was done to stay alive; it wasn't a disposable occupation and it demanded to be done in the best way possible. A poorly placed log in the construction of a cabin or a carelessly aimed bullet when hunting a moose or a heedlessly brandished chainsaw all had the potential for tragedy. Working for wages brought the money that would keep a family alive through the winter. Jobs of any kind had a certain sacramental quality; one way or another they all meant survival. A friend was someone you trusted to help you get that job done, whom you would help in return. Friendship was a straightforward relationship in those days.

Last week I spent a couple of hours with a man I haven't seen in six or seven years. We only rarely exchanged comments on the internet; we both had a very vague idea of how the other had spent the gap of time that spread between his going-away party and the minute that I let him into my apartment. There wasn't the slightest apprehension that we weren't going to enjoy our visit and I certainly did. I'm 64; he's 33. We became friends quite improbably because we both have a bitter, ironic sense of humor, we each have a gluttonous passion for the printed word, and we respected the jobs that we did to the best of our abilities. That is enough to make this man one of my friends forever.

Another friend whom I truly love ended our initial visit together with a very direct sexual proposition. I declined, we parted amicably, and have been close ever since. Again it's print that is the primary bond between us, along with a delight in the incongruous and unexpected gifts that life offers, and a weakness for painful, unflinching honesty. We live in different corners of the planet now and see each other once or twice a year. We are quite indubitably friends.

The same bookstore that provided me with my 33 year old friend gave me one of my most enduring friendships with a woman so unlike me that we would never have encountered each other under normal circumstances. She is blonde, slender, and beautiful, with a charming, blue-eyed demeanor. I'm short, dark, and intense, with a look of reserve that can be interpreted as prickly indifference. We read the same books, we write because we have to, we both have an almost desperate curiosity about places with which we have no rational connection. We send each other sporadic emails that launch online conversations and then are silent for months on end. We talk on the phone once a year and see each other less frequently than that, but her presence in my life is a constant buttress for me, both in my writing life and in the realm of personal experience.

At a certain point, family members have to observe the same respect and consideration toward each other as friends do, or they drift far apart. I'm lucky. I have a sister who is as honest and as accepting as any of my other friends and I do my best to be the same way toward her. It's difficult sometimes because we bear many of the same scars and we know the dark and dirty corners of each other's history. Friendship between sisters takes more work than other relationships do but in many ways the results are the most rewarding. I have three sisters and I believe that one out of three is a good ratio. I'm grateful that my youngest sister and I have come through a rough patch to become friends.

Facebook has made "friend" into a verb but the word is actually a rare gift. Some of my Facebook friends are truly friends, some are very close acquaintances, including people I've yet to meet in real life, many are what I call my imaginary friends, pleasant shadows who glance across my internet life with "likes" and "shares." But my real friends? These are the people whom I rarely encounter at the ADD cocktail party that Facebook has created; we simply don't have to go there.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


I have a feed that tells me the origins of some of my blog readers. Most of the places are ones attached to faces. Others are strangely comic--I'm sorry, you were looking for real information about buying a sofa or Levis in Bangkok--or sad--no, this isn't really about hearing impaired people in Thailand--or sordid--anything about Bangkok has to be about sex why yes indeed.

One reader began to leave comments and we're now Facebook friends. We may never meet but we look at each other's photographs, leave small messages, share a common passion for travel.  Another is a man with whom I experienced an absurd and debauched period at Tower Books; we rarely see each other but when we do, there's never a gap between us.

And now there's someone showing up from my corner of Alaska--not the town I lived in, but close enough that I wonder who in Homer is coming to Tone Deaf, and why? Perhaps it's someone I used to know; perhaps they will leave a message. And then again maybe we'll just be particles in cyberspace. I like that.

A Suitable Book

When I was small, I envied my mother's ability to float away from us in a book, sitting within reach but oblivious to what went on around her. She never sprawled when she read, always sat upright, often in a wooden rocking chair. Seemingly poised for action, she truly was out of touch. She had tuned us out.

I resented that when I got older. Long before she was able to physically leave us alone, she had perfected the art of going away, while sitting in a chair with a book. Without alcohol or pills, my mother had found a means of escape that was as total as any other drug.

Then I began to feel contempt for that action as I got older. My mother's reading was banal stuff, mysteries and big fat novels. She sent some of them on to me when I married--James Clavell, R.M. Delafield, Trevanian. How could anybody fade away from experience in favor of this bilge, I'd ask myself, still too respectful and fearful to ask her.

"I can stand anything as long as I can read,' she told my sister at the end of her life, and read a book a day until her body agreed to begin its dying. "Is she reading?" is a question I asked over the phone with more urgency than "Is she eating?" I knew my mother could live without food, but never without books. When she stopped reading, I knew she was on her way out.

"I won't know what I'm going to feel when you die until you're dead," I told my mother once. I didn't expect the emptiness that I fell into when she was dead, a weird, hollow feeling that is worse than active grief and that didn't want to go away.

I felt it most often when I thought of books and she would come to mind. I remembered how many hours of how many years I saw her roaming through pages of print, no matter what crisis consumed the rest of her attention. I went to the library and borrowed two fat novels.

Neither of them are books I would naturally gravitate to. They were all plot, all story, written well enough to keep me from wanting to hurl them against a wall. I picked up James Lee Burke one afternoon and read steadily until the book had ended. The next night I read a frothy satire about a family wedding in Maine. I began to feel better; the words were filling up that empty space.

Last night it was Huckleberry Finn. Tonight I'll spend with an old friend, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy--and that will stay with me for several nights. I'll feel centered by the story and the words and the companionship--and I may turn occasionally from the book to say "Stop reading over my shoulder." My mother will understand. These are words she often said to me.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Where Are You, Johnny?

Before I turned fourteen, my best friend died. I had other friends with whom I had more in common, but only one who was always there when I needed him, whose grin always made me happy, whose common sense outweighed my imagination. Johnny Howard was the first boy I ever knew. In true Anchor Point style, he stayed with us when his mother had to leave town to see a doctor. We fought over the same toys, slept in the same bed. It never occurred to me whether I liked him or not or he me. We belonged to each other in a way that my other friends and I did not. No matter what, I knew we would always be friends.

Then he went swimming in a frigid lake, got a cramp, and drowned. Another friend, another Johnny, was there. He couldn't help. I couldn't believe it. When my mother said she was going to the funeral, I insisted on going with her.

It was an open-casket ceremony. My mother went up. I didn't. She came back shaking with sobs. "That wasn't Johnny," she told my shoulder as she cried. My mother never cried.

I stared at her. Of course it wasn't Johnny. He had no place in this little church where people sang hymns and plastic flowers filled the front of the room. Johnny was outside somewhere, waiting for me, grin exploding in his freckled face, drawling out my name. What was going on here had nothing to do with him at all.

But I couldn't find him, ever again. Now I know that when people say they've "lost" someone, that someone is "gone," they aren't employing euphemisms. Just when I needed him most, as I stopped being a little girl and became something I didn't understand, I lost the boy who would have helped me through all of this. I know somewhere in the woods where we used to play or near the river where he went fishing, Johnny Howard is there. He's waiting for me. I just have to find him.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Rebecca, My Mother, and Me

My parents went camping at Cape Hatteras on their honeymoon, carrying a tent, sleeping bag, and a copy of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. My father was a man who loved to read but when he discovered that his young bride had brought a rival to his affections, he was a bit miffed. "Of course I brought a book, we were there for a week" my mother explained to me years later, and I was in complete agreement.

Several years after that, when she gave me my own copy of Rebecca, I read and reread it until the glued paperback binding gave way and I had to hold it together with a rubber band.

Much, much later, my mother and I spent a few days together on the Oregon coast. I can't remember what books we took with us, but I was working at Elliott Bay then and I know a stack of arcs would have been part of our baggage. What I do remember is Mother and me sitting on a beach in a patch of winter sunlight, each with our own copy of the Sunday paper, doing the crossword puzzle in companionable silence.

Words were our bond and sometimes our battle line. We read and we talked and we told each other stories all of our lives. Today I feel heavy with the weight of stories, told and untold, those that are still to happen and those that went unspoken.

She was always there, usually at the end of a telephone line. I woke up this morning after a fitful sleep, knowing that April had begun, without my mother. I know it but I still want to write her a note. I guess this is it.