On being a social creature.

I’ve always been social.  Part of it is clearly personality; much of it is growing up in a context where social connections outside of the home were vital — in the original sense of not just important but necessary to life.  And social anxiety has been part of the scene all along, as well, complicating mightily the basic impulse to connect.  But here’s what I know now that I’m forty:

1. People are awesome. They are interesting and complicated and varied and often not in the ways you’d expect.  There’s always more to learn, about them and therefore about you.  And there’s always poignancy, humor, rage, disapproval, astonishment, respect, and joy in knowing others.

2. I like to have people in my life.  Not just my completely fabulous husband and sons…other people, too.  I want people who do different things, think different ways, hold different values.  And I want people who are like-minded, too, who model for me how I want to be, what I wish I had the courage or the skill to achieve.  I like the beauty of other people: their style, their generosity, their quirky natures.  They take me out of myself and remind me how much bigger and more important the world is.

3. I like my people to like my other people.  This is what we call community…well, either the liking bit or just being-together-despite-not-really-liking, but in this era of isolation, I’ll go ahead and say that community in my life is having a group of people who all like each other and choose to spend time together.  I like us to have reasons to get together at least once a month.

4. For whatever set of reasons, that’s really hard to achieve.  When I lived in Iowa, I was part of a group who all valued good food and good company and who all got a little bored (and maybe antsy?) living in such a small town.  So we started a Thursday night potluck dinner.  Location rotated; themes were often international; food and companionship were always excellent.  I’ve missed that like crazy.  I tried, when we first moved here, to arrange lots of gatherings, but I always felt that no one came, so I gave up.  I slipped into the culture of isolation that, we are told, is typical to the cold Northeast.  But I don’t like it.  So I’m not going to do it anymore.

5.  Announcing that people are awesome and that therefore they will gather with other awesome people seems like a good strategy.  I launched that recently and got some positive responses.  And yet it continues to feel strange to engineer our social lives to this extent…we persist in the illusion that community develops naturally, that we fall together with the people we like to be together with.  And maybe that’s true for those who have careers and lives they’ve managed to fill with evenly balanced activities.  For me, and for many people (especially moms) I know, it’s a much harder thing.  We need the intentionality or else we end up alone, every night, watching Netflix with a glass of wine.  (Which could be a lot worse, which is why we do it.  But you see my point here, I think.)

In a nutshell, then, my strategy is like my friend April’s.  When I saw her by surprise at one point, she held out her arms and said, “Hug me!”.  Exactly.  People rock and I adore them and they need to hang out with me more.  And hug me.  And clearly it’s up to me to tell them so.

Friends: to have and to hold

I recently read Pam Houston’s latest book, “Contents May Have Shifted.”  Like most of her work, it’s a fascinating inside look at globetrotting, wilderness survival (usually both of those, together), relationships with men, and some measure of recovery from an abusive childhood.  And all of them lean heavily on her friendships with women — rich, whole, complicated, open, hilarious, and intimate. Most of the time, these friendships seem like backstory, or like the tide that moves her life, enabling her to cope with everything else.  But for the first time in this novel, it hit me: these friendships are her LIFE.  For real.

So of course it got me thinking about my own friendships, the handful of extraordinary women I treasure around the globe, and how the first thing I got when I had a baby was a bluetooth so I could talk while nursing.  Well, eventually my bluetooth died and I had another baby and then it just came to pass that most of my conversations with my friends were in my head.  And since that’s the kind of people these women are, it was okay just to touch base every six (or eighteen) months.  But here’s the thing: I MISS them.  I miss the sound of their voices, the stories of their cooking, their kids, their bosses, their wardrobes, their reading, their vacations, their partners, their home improvement projects, their yoga mishaps, their favorite new wine, their afternoon tea habits.  I miss the gestures that you can’t get over the phone anyway, but at least the turns of phrase will help.  It occurs to me that handwriting is an excellent substitute, so I’m digging up my stash of cards and trying to locate some stamps.  (STAMPS?)

How do we end up here, more connected than ever and yet so busy and distracted that we forget to even WANT the kind of deep connection that used to be the whole point?  And more significantly, how do we get back?  Or how do we move forward into each other’s lives in ways that honor what all we’ve got going on AND our need for each other?  How do we construct a village when we live so scattered?  I realize this is largely what the blogosphere has done for many of us, and I am powerfully grateful.  But there’s more to it than that, and I want to live in it.  So I’m trying harder to live like Pam (or her characters; that’s always a little fuzzy): to let people in, even right from the beginning.  To recognize the connection that’s there rather than play it down.  To issue invitations and keep issuing invitations; to go when and where you are invited.  To bring things with you, however small.  To realize that thank-you notes are not always about formality but are often actually about real gratitude that doesn’t NEED to be expressed but that WANTS to be.

I called a dear friend yesterday to see how her boys were recovering from the flu, and we had a hilarious hour of conversation, punctuated by the games and needs and uproar of our collective male offspring.  At one point, her four-year-old, who now has a suspected stomach bug, dragged his exhausted body across the floor to her, every fiber of his being working toward, it appeared, resisting the need to vomit.  She’s offering me a cautious “hang on a minute…” when I hear her boy ask in a sprightly way: “Who ya talkin to?”  Surprise!  He’s fine.  Just enjoying the drama of mama home — again — with all their illnesses.  She sighed, appropriately pleased to be still clean and dry, and told me in a thoughtful way: “You know, I’m really glad you called.  I don’t think I could have made it through another one of these days.  I may call you again this afternoon.”  You see?  We are lifelines, and laughter, and succor, and sanity.  We are, it often seems, all we’ve really got.  Which is absurd, in many ways, but you know what I mean: we are the only ones who get us completely, who ARE us, in a certain way.  So if our job is to be present to ourselves, surely that means in part being present to our better selves, wherever and in whomever those selves are located.