Monday, November 21, 2011

The Last Good Hiding Place

This past weekend, I spent an evening with several of my closest friends and (this is the weird part), their children.  I know!  Crazy.

One of the funniest things happened at the end of the night, when Bethany tried to sneak off into the bathroom by herself, for just two minutes.  It took about 10 second for her son to barge through the door to "Hey!  I'm in here!"  We all laughed (obviously, it was hysterical), but it also made me realize that the one thing we have to learn to let go of, as we get older and open our lives to spouses and children, is privacy. 

This realization did not just come to me last night.  I have been noticing a significant lack of personal space for many years now.  The more and more of myself that I share with Matt, simply through cohabitation, the fewer and fewer private spaces I have left.  (I am speaking metaphorically here, relax!)  For a while, I thought that it was just us; we have been together forever so I figured that we just had a weird relationship that precluded personal space.  But a few months ago we came up to VT (this seems to be the place where I have revelations about things) and Brooke asked us, "So, how long were you two together before you were able to read each others minds?"

And Matt and I just laughed.

Because we CAN and do read each others minds sometimes.  It is FREAKY.  I will be in the car thinking about something, in the privacy of my own mind, and he will say that exact same thing out loud.  AHH!  Get out of my head!!

I think that when you live with someone, and especially when you have children, there is a reasonable expectation that physical space will cease to be personal.  No room in the house, no location on the planet, will ever truly be yours alone; that other person can and will invade (that is sometimes exactly what it feels like--and invasion) that space.  However, there IS an expectation that the space inside your own body, especially the intangible "space" that is human cognition, will remain private.

For as much as we may sometimes think that we want to be able to read minds, the truth is that true telepathy would be uncomfortable and would probably make us insane.  Not only would you constantly be bombarded with other people's thoughts coming at you, those people would be able to read your thoughts.  Sitting on the T in the morning, commuting to work, you could no longer think about your fellow commuters--they would know exactly what you were thinking.  And you would know exactly what they were thinking about you.  It is more than creepy, it feels invasive and horrific.  Our minds, our thoughts, are the one thing that we can keep to ourselves when we choose to do so.

But once you have spent enough of your life with someone, that changes.  Your mind stops being a private place, and suddenly it is a shared space.  It does feel invasive and uncomfortable.  Yes, sometimes it is great.  You are out somewhere and see something: you want to make a snarky comment but fear being overhear.  You can use your ESP to share a joke without risk.  But, it is not a selective power; there is no way to turn it off later.  So an hour later you are riding home in silence and the other person makes a comment that mirrors your thoughts.  And it is weird.

This is for me, perhaps, a weird and uncomfortable thing because I like my privacy.  (Oh the irony of the blog about privacy is not lost on me, don't worry.)  Of course, if you have met me you know that I love to talk.  But I also like the illusion that I have control over when and what ideas I share with someone.  Sometimes, I do need to spend time alone, to have some personal space; it is not always possible to be physically alone when you live with someone.  So you turn to the one last hiding place you have: your mind.

And the other person is there.

Lurking.

Thinking the same thoughts at the same time.

Of course, this never works the way that it should: I think "pizza" and he says "chinese food."  I have yet to successfully compel him, using my mind, to fold laundry or vacuum spontaneously.  (For the record, verbal commands are pretty hit-or-miss too, so...)  But ever so often, I will think that I am alone in my mind only to find that I am not!

Once upon a time, I believed in privacy.  I believed that I had hiding places left in this world.  But hiding places are only as good as the barriers you build up around them.  Those barriers collapse as soon as you choose to share your life with another human being.  You cannot simultaneously maintain the walls and the relationship, and so you must choose which to let dissipate.  If you chose the relationship, that is your loss.  Yes, you will always have privacy, but at a terrible cost.  If you chose to let the walls fall away, you are acknowledging that there is genuine value in allowing others into your hiding places.  As uncomfortable as it may be to squeeze in there together, it does ensure that you can never hide for too long in that place--you cannot get lost in the dark there.  You have someone who knows where you are hiding, who can come in and drag you out of your hiding place, and bring you back out into the world. 

Although, as important as that is, it is still very nice to at least have two minutes, every now and again, with some privacy!!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

BFFEWYLION (Best Friends Forever and Ever Whether You Like It Or Not)

First, let me say how much I have missed writing.  This fall has been incredibly busy for me, much more so than I had imagined.  I spend an enormous amount of time reading other people's writing, so it has been difficult to find time for my own writing.  But, starting today, I am going to make a concentrated effort to write at least once a week (we'll see how that goes)!

Okay, all that said I don't really want this post to be all about how busy I am!  Instead, I want to talk about a question that has come up in several, separate conversations over the past two weeks: what does is mean to be "friends" with someone?  And how do you know when someone really is your friend?

This question started in my writing class last week.  We watched a video about social networks, and a discussion started around the word "Friend" as defined by Facebook.  According to Fb, a friend is pretty much anyone you have ever had contact with, however fleeting, and sometimes friends can be people you don't even know.  Which is sort of the amazing thing about social networks, right?  You know a few people who know a few people, which creates a connection; these connections spiral out to create links between you and hundreds of other people, potentially.  In the video we watched, the presenter talked about the benefits of social networks: you can meet a variety of people, it can create a sense of community, it makes our world closer than ever before.  The down side?  You are connected to all those people: one virus (computer or zombie), and everyone has it.  The other downside?  A false sense of who your friends are.

In class, we talked about the difference between "friends" and "Facebook friends."  We talked about the difference between the people who you actually speak to (even if it is just a few times a year), the people you would turn to in an emergency, versus the people who you know but haven't spoken to in years, or the people you have never actually spoken to but you went to high school with someone who knew them at summer camp and they always make funny comments so you friended them.  Definitely not the same kind of relationship, so why do we use the same word for both?

A few days after this class, Renee and I had a follow-up conversation while running.  Now, for those of you who know me, or Renee, or both of us, you know how we can be: we are not quick to make new friends.  Which is not to say that we are not friendly, nice people.  We will talk to anyone, but that (as we discussed) is not the same thing as being friends with someone.  So lately, I have been thinking about what it means to be friends with someone.  I know that it is not just based on a few passing conversations, or on some cyber connection.  But what is it based on?  How do you know when you have actually become friends with someone?

As a kid, you think of your friends as the people you hang out with, the other kids you play with or eat lunch with or have things in common with.  But, those things are not always enough as you get older.  As we grow up, we develop different levels of relationships with people, and it gets more difficult to tell the difference between people you hang out with and real friends.  Then, when I was in high school, one of my friends said something to me.  She was talking about another friend of ours, and how they had spent time together over one of our breaks.  She was describing how she knew they were really friends because they had spent time together and didn't feel the need to talk to each other.  It was sort of a revelation for both of us, this concept that you don't have to talk.  (Yes, I know that by that definition I must have no friends at all... haha.)  For some reason, that has always stuck with me.

In a lot of ways, that is a good place to start with determining whether a person is a friend or not.  Can you just be there with them, without feeling that silence is awkward, a void that needs to be filled?  For a lot of us, this is the test that people never pass.  They aren't the kind of friends that we can just be with, in silence.  But other people we know do past this test.  They are the people you can ride in a car with for hours, or run 20 miles with, or even just sit at a bar with and not talk.  And that not talking is okay.  In fact, with our very close friends, the not talking is important.  Sometimes, we all want to be with someone, but without having to talk to them.  Maybe it is at the end of a bad day, but there is that need to companionship but without the effort of being friendly.  And so you turn to those few people in your life who you can just be there with.

Of course, with friends it is not all sitting silently; there is lots and lots of talking, too.  That is how you get to know the other person--what they like, what they think, all those details that determine whether or not you are fundamentally compatible.  That is the other myth about friendship that comes to light as you grow up.  As children, you and your best friends like all the same stuff--you have the same favorite color, food, book, game; whatever it is, you feel exactly the same way about it.  If you come across something that one of you doesn't like, it is unthinkable.  But as you grow up, you start to develop your own ways of thinking, your own ways of seeing the world.

At some point, your views come in conflict with those of your friends.  And that is when you learn who is really your friend.  Your friends are not the people who always agree with you, who only tell you what you want to hear, and think exactly the way you do.  Your true friends are the people who will call you out when you are doing something stupid, who tell you how the world really is, and who see things from a different perspective and then share their insight with you.  I remember having an argument with a friend in front of students once (on a field trip to DC that one of my readers may remember); later on that trip the student said to me that she could tell that I was friends with Ms. Parrot because I didn't yell at her, but Mr. Delena and I yelled at each other so we must not be friends.  How do you explain to a 15 year old girl that your friends are the ones you DO yell at?  And that the only reason I didn't yell at Ms. Parrot was because she wasn't the one driving like a crazy person in a school van?  But if she had been I would have yelled at her, too! 

Sometimes these differences lead to fights, even epic fights (especially when the difference in perspective is about a significant other).  Maybe you and your best friend don't talk for a while: a day, a week, a year or more.  It happens.  If that person is truly your friend, though, you get over it.  It might not be easy; there may be an awkward period where you don't know what to say, or how to act.  It is hard to reach out to the person, to repair the friendship.  But, like a broken bone, once you rebuild the friendship, it is that much stronger; it can never break in that way again. 

But different opinions don't always lead to fights.  They mostly just lead to conversations, sometimes heated ones, about values, beliefs, and assumptions.  This confrontation is what makes us better people.  Not necessarily more moral people, or nicer people.  But, cognitively better.  When our world views are challenged, it forces us to think about why we believe what we do; it forces us to take another person's perspective.  That causes us to grow cognitively.  It gives us the skills to think about problems from more than one view point, to take other people into account, and to live with ambiguity.  And there is a whole lot of ambiguity out there in life.  As kids we think adults have all the answers.  As adults we realize that there are no answers, and the more you are able to navigate that truth, the better off you are.  That process of challenge helps us in that navigation.  But challenge only makes us stronger when it comes from someone we respect and love, like a best friend.  If someone you already discount challenges you, it is easy to write that person and their views off as crazy.  When you are challenged by a friend, it makes you a better person.

Over time, your friends may come and go, both physically (as people move) and metaphorically (as people move on with their lives).  Friends are not forever things, despite all notes from middle school that were signed "BF4Ever."  That is another thing that we have to learn to accept as part of friendship; it ebbs and flows.  But, with those people who are truly our closest friends, we tend to find each other again.  Ironically, Facebook--the great diminisher of the word "friend" for a whole generation--is one of the best ways to reconnect with old friends.  Through it, you can find people who you may have thought you would never talk to again, and you can rebuild old friendships.  Sometimes when you talk to old friends it is awkward; you find them to be completely different from the person you remember.  You have lost whatever it was that held you together.  But other times you get lucky; you take a chance on reaching out to an old friend and when you connect, it is like no time has passed, even if it has been years and years.  You can pick up where you left off, chat here and there, and know that you are a part of each other's lives still, even if you live on other sides of the country or the world (or even one state over but you are both so busy that you never see each other!). 

Friends are a weird and complicated thing.  When you start dating someone, there is that period when you don't know if you are together or not; it is not a good feeling.  But at some point you have the talk, where you decide that you are together and you can start calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend.  It is not like that with friends; there is no special dinner when you ask the other person to be your friend, and not just Facebook friends, but real, best friends.  Unless, of course, if you are hanging out with a crazy person who says point blank to you "We can be best friends or mortal enemies; what do you want to do?"  and then you are crazy enough to pick best friends.  For most friends, it is a slow process that ends in a moment of realization.  Sometimes that realization comes during a moment of silence, or after a fight when you miss each other, or at the end of a bad day when you immediately reach out to that person, or even just when you see their name in your chat list and all you say is "Hi."  Whatever it is, I think that in the end, it doesn't matter why or how we know who are friends are, the most important thing is that we know who they are and that we have them in our lives.

Here and Back Again: A Race Recap of Sorts

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