this is the riddle of friendship

In the fourth grade, my best friend and I bought matching Christmas outfits from the Gap: red, long-sleeved shirts, red fleece zip-up vests with leopard fur-lined hoods, and stretchy black bell bottoms. Not just ordinary pants: the seams were dotted with tiny, fake rhinestones.

At that age, I had no desire to be unique. Unique meant different, which meant alienation and loneliness--it meant you had no friends, that you existed without allies, which was a terrifying thought. Your identity at school was determined first and foremost by who your friends were; your membership to a friend group classified you in the genus and species of the elementary school landscape: jock, popular, nerd.


In fact, friendships were ways of togetherness, of saying, we don’t exist alone in the world. Our matching outfits loudly proclaimed to the world that we were bound together, even if by bad taste and little fashion sense. As with friendship bracelets or hair wraps or code names, we paraded through the school hallways in our red hooded get-ups, assured by these external markers that our relationship did actually exist--and in the process, trying to assure everyone else that yes this was a fact. Mainly it was to make ourselves feel better though.

These token rituals of friendship persist, even as we age. These tokens assure us of our togetherness as much as they isolate, or protect ourselves from the rest of the world. We become more reluctant to wear matching outfits as adults because we’re aware of its loudness; how doing so forthrightly proclaims an existence apart from the world, and most of us are trying to integrate into it, or do our best to be a part of it, and we want intimate relationships and we want secret friendships, but then again, we don’t want to close ourselves off from the rest of the world. We want everything.

Our tokens and rituals of friendship become more subtle, perhaps, or we might forgo them completely as our perceptions of self-identity branch out, change, and spread thinner; no longer are our identities merely in friendships, but in the work we do, the brands we flaunt, the hobbies we take on, the beliefs that seize us and convict us; and so many of us see those identities in flux, always in a precarious balance, or not.

You see, the most intimate friendships close as many doors as they open. You bind yourself to another person, and you remove yourselves, together, from the rest of the world.

In college, my best friend and I regularly walked to a pie shop on a small neighborhood street. It was hidden underneath old signage which still referred to its past life as an Italian deli. The paint was peeling on the outside, and inside the tables and floorboards were dusty, bare, unvarnished wood. We perfunctorily procured coffee and pastries, and spent mornings and afternoons there giving each other language lessons in the languages we each possessed separately but did not share (we only shared English). We tried to give each other words that the other did not have, expanding both the breadth and depth of our communication, for the nuances of every language also determine its speaker's ways of being and believing. With more words to interchange, we could share more feelings; more languages meant more significance, more ways to express the things we wanted to say, even though I know now how delicate and weighty the silences were too, like recesses in a cathedral wall. I traded her my Spanish and Mandarin for her Swahili and French. We named each other, as if we were initiating ourselves into the tribe of our friendship. Years later, writing the names elsewhere, except to each other, still feels blasphemous, so I won’t write them here, but I’ll say what they meant:

Her name was a combination of Spanish and Swahili and translated to “sweet honey,” like the color of her hair, like the jar of honey she carried back for me from Tigray, Ethiopia, wrapped in her own handwritten label, sticky and worn from the long ride. My name was French and Swahili, meaning “fierce sun in the sky.” We never called ourselves these names out loud, but like Navajo names, which are only used ceremonially to preserve their power, significance, and sanctity, we only used our names in the letters we wrote to each other, or on the CDs we burned for each other, or on the index cards we traded each other, with quotes and lyrics and verses on them--I always carried those in my backpack. These were our own little ceremonies.

Every name, in the Sioux naming system, has a separate significance: birth order, honor, special deed, spirit names. Our names, known only to ourselves and used only with each other, were markers in the lineage of our friendship: a declaration that we had our own language, which wasn’t one that existed already. We created our own, even if that meant taking what we already knew and turning it into something that was ours alone.

In these exchanges, in these signals and gestures and rituals, friendships seem immortal, and somehow, they are, even across distances and time and shifting spaces. Even when you haven’t talked in years. Despite this immortality (once a kinship comes into being, it will never cease to exist), the landscape of friendship is nevertheless eroded or built up; it is always changing. A landscape never dies, but winds and water will sand and smooth and wear a place down; or seeds will be sown and then they will grow and blossom and wither away.

A friend catches an unlikely glimpse of your soul, and it is that specific knowledge of some specific part of who you are at such a specific time in your life that seems more indestructible than our mortal bodies. No one else knew you better, maybe not even yourself.

And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea, but for now we are young let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see.

This was the song we listened to and shared the first time we met. How surprised and delighted we were to find another with the same longing. No, we did not just want ephemeral, material beauty, or the enchantments of this earth, which are so easy to fall in love with. We wanted eternal, immortal beauty, the kind that is steadfast and sometimes subtle, the kind that delights in the trivial and the ordinary and in the nothings that seem not to matter. You see, ultimately, friendships are quiet harbors, not always thrilling or stomach-churning like the surging crests of romance; they are the hand-holding, not the kissing; the hammock, not the swing. The best and truest ones keep your heart safe, while making your heart bigger and more spacious, for more beauty, for more God; they are most specific in their knowledge and habits and gestures; they're life nets for insanity, and they're rich, sweetly satisfying loves that linger long, ideally, unconditionally.

This post is now also on Medium.


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