Monday, 28 April 2008

"Haunt" Tracing

Or, how I spend three days talking without pause . . .

We've all had friendships of "proximity" -- at the water cooler, the sand box, or the shared fence. While they last, these sorts of friendships are great fun -- and a natural and necessary part of life. But more often than not, (and sometimes even surprisingly so), when you take away the shared props and bonding basis, only the ghost of former friendship remains. Perhaps most friendships are of this sort, and realistically, they do have value -- as long as you can accept the limited shelf life.

However, there is another kind of friendship, too. The rarer kind; the kind that really lasts. This friendship might be based on mutual interests, too, but it is lit from within by some indefinable kind of chemical spark. The kind that doesn't need constant feeding. Even if starved for years, a true friendship can go from dormant to vital -- especially if given the rich compost of unfettered time.

I wonder: Does each person have an essence that remains unchanged -- no matter how many changes they might undergo? If you come to know the essence or the core of the person, do you always "know" them . . . even if time and distance get in the way?

When I was 20/21, I had a little box room in a sort of boarding house for American college students. Mabledon Court. WC2. At the edge of Bloomsbury; the rough, ungentrified edge near the gateway train stations of King's Cross, Euston, and St. Pancras. Down the hall from me was Michelle, from Minnesota. Unlike most of the other students, we two commuted across town to Queen Mary College on the Mile End Road. We were both English majors; unsurprisingly, we shared the love of reading. But books alone, although they are good food and a marvelous touchstone, aren't quite enough to make a friendship.

Sometimes friendship is like spontaneous combustion; and sometimes (often, in my experience) this sort of friendship burns out quickly, too. My friendship with Michelle was slower to spark, and it took time to build. She was cautious, I think, about making new friends -- and I was all over the place, spreading myself thin with new experiences and acquaintances. However, by the spring of that year, we were intensely close friends and that friendship was part of the magic of living in London for a year and discovering who I was (or rather, wanted to be).

Saying goodbye to London, and returning home to my senior year in Texas, was a wrench. At first, Michelle and I saw each other regularly -- in Texas, and New York City, and Connecticut, and Minneapolis -- and of course we corresponded frequently. But over time -- and 20 years is a long time -- our visits were reduced to my occasional visit to New York City. The last time we saw each other was fall 2002 -- when I stopped in NYC on my way to West Point to visit my brother. Michelle met me at my hotel room, and we talked in the hallway for a couple of hours -- because my children were tucked up in bed.

Sometimes life gets in the way of friendship -- we all know that. Soon after I saw Michelle in that hotel hallway, my marriage broke up . . . and it took a long time to mend. Mending it was so involving, and so emotionally draining, that many friendships got neglected. It all seemed too much to explain, and I couldn't always understand what was happening to me, anyway. My life had lost a describable shape, and my future was a frightening blank.

Although I sent Christmas cards, I was never sure if Michelle received them. We moved six times in those five years -- and I wondered if Michelle had moved, too. I thought of her, though, particularly when a shared favorite crossed my path again. Nanci Griffith, May Sarton, Gifts from the Sea -- these were amongst the memories that I had shared with Michelle. If I lived to be 100, I doubt that I could think of them without thinking of her, too.

When I decided to start a blog, I named it Bee Drunken -- it had been a poem that Michelle and I discovered together, and we had dedicated ourselves to living that 21st year in the most "be drunken" way possible. Becoming "Bee" again was so intermingled with this friendship; I couldn't bear to be Bee without being in touch again with Michelle. So I decided to Google her. (I know that other people would have thought of this option long, long ago; but as I stated, in my opening blog, I am a computer idiot -- or more kindly, innocent.)

I asked Michelle if she minded being blogged about, and she just laughed -- wryly? The truth is, Michelle is already very much part of the public domain. As a writer for BusinessWeek, her byline is all over the Internet. And as I discovered, when I googled her, her life in the last couple of years has been part of a social experiment of sorts. I will be writing more about this later, because it is fascinating, but if I've piqued your interest you can read this article . . . just as I did, one February day.

I know that there is a school of thought that says we make our own luck, and I would agree that some part of that is true. But I have a more mystical side, too, and it acknowledges the role of serendipity and unexplained good fortune in life. Because not long after reestablishing contact with Michelle, I received an email which trumpeted the good news that she would be coming to London for a visit. Amazingly enough to me, as I have been in and out of London for most of my adult life, Michelle had never been back. Thus, not only was she visiting me, she was revisitng a time and place whose memories had been entirely untrampled by fresher experience. Happily, all the stars aligned -- and not only was I able to join her for some "haunt tracing," but the English weather conspired to give us some rare glorious spring days for our jaunting.

So all of this is background to understanding just why this past weekend, spent in London with Michelle, could have been the set-up for disappointment . . . but instead was like one long wordy ode to the glories of friendship. Never for one minute was I unaware of how much a gift it was to be given time with my friend -- time without constraint or consideration for the needs of family, jobs, houses or other pressing obligations. As Michelle would say, it was delicious; we ate it up.

And yet: I suppose there is always an inherent melancholy to haunt tracing -- particularly the haunts of 20 years ago. The evidence that life has moved on is always incontrovertible. Mabledon Court is an inexpensive hotel now, and I wonder how many travellers (or even immigrants) to this country spend some time in its box-like rooms. (A kindly African man let Michelle see her own rooms, and she was amused to see what a "dump" we had lived in.) I hope, like us, these new inhabitants are too excited by the possibilities of London to mind their claustrophobic, spare sleeping place much.

Our most-beloved haunt, The Hermitage, had closed more than fourteen years ago. I had tried to visit it soon after, soon enough to find the notice on the door announcing that the owners had sold up and moved to Greece. We wasted much time wandering around looking for a Cranks -- the vegetarian restaurant that had been a neighborhood favorite, and was still listed on the Internet. Perhaps it had only been recently swallowed up -- by the ongoing march of Starbuck's and that sort. We ended up eating a late, and rather indifferent lunch -- but we were too engrossed in conversation to notice or care. Another favorite, Troubadour Cafe in Earl's Court, was still going strong . . . but the soothing candlelit atmosphere and delicious "white" coffee was gone -- replaced by blaring music and weak lattes and cappuccinos.

And yet, none of this really mattered. London had changed, like we had changed -- but the essence of London was still there, and it still beckoned to us and beguiled us. We drifted rather aimlessly around Regent's Park, and as we climbed to the top of Primrose Hill the city lay at our feet. I had been telling Michelle about some secret heartbreak, and as I looked down from our green perch I realized that time had, almost imperceptibly, healed me. I felt a rush of love and gratefulness -- partly for Michelle, partly for Everything.

Serendipity ruled the day: at one point we got lost, somewhere in the beautiful neighborhood of St. John's Wood. We had gone off my map, and were relying on only my dubious sense of direction. Without knowing, we had drifted onto the famous Abbey Road -- a place that neither of us had visited before. Except for the graffitti on a pair of pillars, we couldn't have distinguished the famous music studio from any of the other beautiful houses in that area . . . and yet there was still magic in realizing that the The Beatles had recorded most of their timeless music there. The ghosts of London always make marvelous companions for the imagination.

There were also new treasures to discover -- particularly at the gorgeous shops on Marylebone High Street. I relished introducing Michelle to some of the things that I currently love in London. At Daunt's bookstore, I bought Michelle a copy of Nancy Mitford's great English classics -- because she had never read them. I also found Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K. and Lessing's The Grass is Singing down in Daunt's South African section. (I had been searching for these books for weeks!) Daunt's are known for their travel books, and rather idiosyncratically, they group fiction and travel literature by country. Michelle's little daughter absolutely needed a china mug, painted with quirky brown chickens, from Emma Bridgewater. We shared a plate of colorful macaroons (in the French style) at Paul -- a haunt that I share with my dear friend Jenni.

Everything about the weekend was a delicious bon bon -- beautiful on the inside and out.

Mostly we just talked -- and London was the backdrop for that conversation. On Friday, we estimated that we talked for twelve straight hours without pause. I probably did more than my share of talking, as Michelle is the most marvelous listener. It would be tempting to say that journalism has honed her listening skills, but actually, she listens in just the same way as I remember. She fixes you with her big brown eyes; she nods; she occasionally repeats phrases; if you are lucky, she laughs with much gusto and appreciation. She listens with great attention; quite a rarity, in my experience. I enjoyed the fact that the occasion for her visit to London was a journalism award for "Best Communicator."

We talked about all of the subjects we've always talked about: books and writing, above all; then family and relationships; travel; food; politics; the environment; memories; music; shoes and clothes; and assorted pop culture detritus. We also talked about marriage and motherhood -- two subjects new to us since our long-ago London days. I never felt that there was a veil between us; but only that open-heartedness and complete attention that is rare, even with close friends.

Although our haunt tracing was not a complete success, it was a delight to discover that we have so much more in common than just a shared past. Our visit was part sentimental journey -- but the greater part, by far, was about a friendship that still has the stuff to run and run.


Alyson said...

How beautiful. Those relationships are rare, as I am discovering. There are just those random people here and there that we will always be bonded to. I love finding these people and I love when I find that I'm still bonded to certain people in the past.

What a great experience to be able to reunite in the place where you met and began your friendship!

Brave Sir Robin said...


You always seem to be able to put into words the things some of of feel or "know" to be inherently true.

Those friendships are rare, and all the more beautiful for their rarity.

I too, have had a couple of those long over due reunions with a "soul" friend. I am so happy for you to have had the opportunity to reignite the embers of that friendship. I have no doubt that it will continue to blaze for many many years.

btw - I read that NYT article when it came out. Talk about Synchronicity!!

Anne said...

What a great post! I have one of these friendships with my dear friend Katie, whom I mention from time to time on Beyond Ramen (and who comments there occasionally). We see each other frequently now that we live close to each other, but in college we would often go months without a word between us. At each reunion the friendship went, as you say, from dormant to vital. How wonderful that you were able to reawaken your long-dormant friendship with Michelle! And in the city where it began.

I read that NYT piece on the no-impact experiment when it was first published. It was fascinating, and I enjoyed reading it again just now. I bet Michelle has some entertaining stories about that period!

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Bee, lovely, lovely as usual. I am so happy you had a chance to reconnect with your dear friend.

bakerina said...

I can't tell what I love more: your brilliant and warm and perceptive comments about the sort of friendship that weathers time and distance and quiet (I have one of those, too -- also with someone named Michelle!), or your travelogue of your whirlwind London haunt trace, which filled me with a longing to visit London again. (Every time I've been to London, I've never stayed longer than three days, not nearly enough to give the city its due.) Either way, though, I'm so glad for it -- and glad for you, Bee, so very glad to have you and your words here, and even gladder that you are willing to share them with us.

(To answer your question on PTMYB, Lloyd is not really a slide guy, but I am, and would be thrilled to take that trip with you. :)

maurinsky said...

Such a lovely ode to friendship! I find it easy to make casual acquaintances but much harder to make deep and abiding friendships. But I have some people in my life that just clicked perfectly with me.

The last time I was in London was my favorite visit, even though we saw little of the city - I spent most of my time drinking tea in my cousin Eileen's kitchen, she and her husband Mick were two people I felt instantly connected to.

Bee said...

Dearest new friends,
Your comments have warmed my heart.

There is nothing that can make you feel as well-placed in the Universe as the company of a good friend. And a soulmate friend? That is just whipped cream, nuts, and the cherry, too.

It is so marvelous that a true friend lets us be utterly ourselves, and yet somehow even more than ourself -- some "best" self, rather like a spirit that transcends the earthbound, petty self.

(Isn't friendship akin to that whoosh of the slide, Bakerina? First trust, then freedom, then you are flying!)

Please know that I am available for London tours for anyone who visits here. I have been casting around for the perfect job . . .

Bee said...

Oh, and there is going to be more -- soon -- about Michelle and Colin's experiments in No Impact living!

It is cool that several of you had already read about their eco-adventures in NYC. It makes for that cozy small-world feeling, doesn't it?

Multitude-Audrey said...

I loved this. I, too, have some friendships formed when I was a student in London aged 21 that I still count as my closest friends. I don't know if you ever make those kind of connections again once you have your own family and kids etc... But I am so grateful for at least having the time and the place to experience it before.
Would be interested to read more about your friend's experiment--do you think she was happy to see you or to see toilet paper? Gross!

JaneyV said...

Bee - thanks for visiting Whittering On ...
Thanks because it's always nice to meet new readers but also thanks for bringing me to your blog, which I love. You have a wonderful, easy, pull-you-into-my-world style. You're a joy to read!

I too have some friendships of that pure quality. Two go back almost 29 years and one is about 10 years. These three women mean the world to me. I'm meeting one in June when she stops over on her way from the US to Ireland and I can't wait.

I firmly believe that when you hold a thought in your mind, you draw that thing into your life. I think we are the creators of our own serendipity and joyful coincidences. Love's a powerful messenger.

Right now I'm loving the Lotto - I'll let you know how that works out for me ;D

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

I did my junior year abroad in London too, but my best friend there ended up becoming my husband. Michelle sounds special – how nice that you could reconnect. Good friends, like good books, are well worth revisiting. I loved Gifts from the Sea too and have read it several times. Happy May Day!

Bee said...

You bring up something that I've been pondering: Can we still make intense friends in that busy, obligation-filled part of our life? Michelle and I were constantly aware of what a LUXURY it was to just have the open time together . . . and friendships need lots of time to build.

On the other hand, I really do believe that you can just have a "click" with certain people . . . and maybe you just have to be open to it.

Michelle's oldest friend (Laura, who made the documentary about their no-impact year)made a documentary about two women who became BEST FRIENDS after meeting in a nursing home. I loved that.

Thank you for the kind feedback -- and I felt exactly the same way about your writing when I encountered your blog! The blogging click! I really enjoy the serendipitous aspect of finding new blogging friends.

I do think that love is a powerful messenger . . .and that it can have a boomerang impact in one's life.
I don't feel as if I contribute a lot to the world, but I have a deeply held belief (faith?) that it is important to be a force for the good and loving.

You are so fortunate that your husband is your best friend.

"Gifts from the Sea" is one of those books which bears rereading every couple of years. It is a really useful meditation, don't you think?

I'm going to visit you right now . . .because I can't wait to hear what you have to say about May Day!

Colin aka No Impact Man aka Michelle's husband said...

When you speak of Michelle, Bee, can you possibly speaking of the same sneaky person who systematically went through all the chocolate cookies in the box that you sent as a gift to me?

And thank you so much, by the way!

And I so grateful that Michelle has such a wonderful friend.

And one interesting thing is that your ode to friendship and the No Impact project have a lot in common. Because one thing I think is that the busy, resource-consuming lives we lead, which are contributing to our harm to the planet, are also causing us to spend less time with the people we love.

So I say, let's all hang out more, use up less stuff, and thus, save the planet!

Love Colin

Anil P said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, actually visualised how it must be to trace haunts.

Shared space helps connect friendships, weaving memories together.

There're few things that bring as much meaning to life as friends we've shared our growing years with.

You've narrated it vividly.

Bee said...

Well, Colin, to be fair the ORGANIC SHORTBREAD were meant to be yours . . . and Michelle kind of nudged me toward the choccie biscuits for herself!

I have been thinking about you all day, actually . . . and talking you up to my WP! WP says: Everyone needs to plant veggie gardens! Love, Bee

Lovely to "meet" (become aware of?) you, and thanks for your kind words.

Colin said...

You'll excuse me for the mistake, Bee, I hope, because the organic shortbread were, in fact, half gone before they got off the airplane!

Bee said...


I just laughed out VERY loud. Obviously, Shell takes her vows seriously . . . "what's mine is yours," and so forth.

Have you figured out a way to offset enough carbon to come visit your fatherland?

Bad Bunni said...

I wanted to comment on this post far soon than I was able to thanks to my students and their collective ridiculousness. That said, study after study has illustrated that the key factor to the development of friendship is proximity. In fact it is a better indicator than similarities in age, religion, values, and politics. (of course the internet has had some impact on that) Furthermore a study I read a few years ago in the NYT indicated that as time goes on our spouses take the place of our friends or in other words the functions once look for in a group of friends is now supplied by his/her spouse. Now these are broad generalizations, and certainly there are friendships that buck these trends, but very few. You are indeed very lucky.

The reality is I've hugged too may friends who assured me that nothing would change when they moved to California, NJ, Germany, even Brooklyn and downtown. And these were not lighthearted friendships, one of my closest college friends with whom I spoke every day moved to CA and I didn't hear from him, despite calls, for 3 years. Now I occasionally get a two line email once a year. Another good friend moved downtown with her boyfriend and might as well have moved to Germany. After losing so many people, it's only natural that it would impact on one's desire to pursue a friendship.

Thus, I think the reason why our friendships aren't like they were when we were younger is multilayered. We no longer look to our friends to supply us with the same support they did when we were 16 (or 20 even) when our friends were our family. But also I've lost too many friends-not to death but to life actually. Building a friendship is an act of faith, and I've lost so many friends by now to so many things (including, unfortunately, death) I don't have the strength to throw myself into a friendship as once did.

Your post was touching and thoughtful, but ultimately made me sad for all of my friends that I tried to hold onto and ultimately couldn't.