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.