Summer Diary: Making friends, silver and gold, new and old

Old-age friendships are slightly different from those made in the past, which consisted largely of sharing whatever happened to be going on. What happens to be going on for us now is waiting to die, which is of course a bond of a sort, but lacks the element of enjoyability necessary to friendship. In my current friendships I find that element not in our present circumstances but in excursions into each other’s pasts.

Diana Athill first published these words about friendship in The Guardian in 2010 with the title “The Decision.” She was 93 at the time, and the decision refers to the reluctant acknowledgment that she would have to give up a house she loved, and move to a room (of her own, but just one room) in a home for the elderly. It’s not often that we have an autobiographical narrative by a woman of Athill’s age radiating unmistakable joie de vivre. I read the piece in the kind of shock only something new can produce, as an essay collected in Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter (2016). I picked up the book by chance from a table in a bookstore this summer while visiting London, drawn in part by the striking portrait of its author on the cover.

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At 75, and already feeling old―a state Athill postponed fully embracing until her nineties–I suddenly saw how much my idea of life in one’s later years has been shaped by my friend Carolyn Heilbrun’s ambivalent stance toward aging. On the one hand, in The Last Gift of Time Carolyn described the singular beauty of feeling life ending―the bittersweet sense of doing some things for the last time in one’s sixties, the joys of being free of the burdens of conventional femininity. But on the other, that frame of mind was made possible only by the conviction that she did not want to advance much further into the life of old age. In fact Carolyn’s perspective on aging depended on the decision―a decision very different from Athill’s―to end her life at some point in her seventies, at 77, as it turned out.

For more than a decade, I’ve lived with Carolyn’s decision to kill herself and its aftermath. I confess that I never fully believed her many unambiguous declarations, published and private, of her intention to commit suicide. A rational suicide still seems implausible to me, and yet it happened. The suicide hangs over my seventies as both warning and invitation. Carolyn was right about so many things. Was she also right about this?

After the cancer diagnosis that inaugurated my seventies, I assumed the disease would make the question moot. I liked the idea that the end of my life would be decided for me. Almost five years later it’s “alive, alive oh.” Much to my surprise (and everyone else’s) the cancer hasn’t yet killed me, so I suppose the question is back on the table–the decision―though it is not foremost in my mind.

What captured my attention in Athill’s reflection on old age had to do with her vision of friendships formed in such late life, for Athill, specifically, in her nineties, with the women in the home. Since I’m not in my nineties, and that decade is not truly on my horizon, what seduced me was the notion she puts forward of “pastness” as forming the basis of friendships made in the perspective of death. I can’t help feeling that in revisiting my friendships in the book I hope to write, I am making “excursions” like those into our past, pasts that seem strangely present to memory. These friendships, of course, are not new ones, but as I return to them, they are renewed, brought back to life.

If Carolyn’s vision of aging was radically different from Athill’s, Athill’s continued pleasure in the changes old age brings reminds me of Colette, another writer who a enjoyed life in all its variety, including growing old and, like Athill, never stopped writing. Colette died at 81 (young compared to Athill). The somewhat autobiographical novel Break of Day, published in her early 50s, carries the tone Athill often adopts when looking back on relationships, and a certain renunciation of sexual life. In the novel, Colette the narrator bids farewell to a man she was in love with, bidding him farewell with a mixture of pleasure, resignation, and nostalgia. He has left, but is he really gone? And is she really alone? It hardly matters. Unlike Athill who never married, Colette met her third husband while creating a novel about how to live after love. What matters is the way Colette conjures the departure of her current lover. She helps him leave by imagining his transformation into many things, but most important, a book still open (livre sans bornes ouvert) and whose boundless pages she might yet fill, an oasis, the novel’s final metaphor, a pause, perhaps a reprieve from an absolute ending.

That is what I wish for my book: that I can still see my friends as they existed in the past, and now continuing with me in memory. They are shifting shape but they are not dead, as long as I write.

“Roberta liked Flavia… they shared a tennis court” (apologies to Virginia Woolf)

I can’t have been the only viewer of the U.S. Open women’s final, who teared up at the sight of the two competitors, Roberta and Flavia, embracing each other lovingly at the end of  the match. (For a point of comparison, think Djokovic/Federer, or rather, don’t.) Or Venus embracing Serena after their match, and whispering “I’m happy for you,” after her own defeat, just as her brow furrowed while watching the upset of the semi-final that deprived her sister of the trophy she longed for.

What Woolf in A Room of One’s Own thought her imaginary female novelist of the future could show was friendship between women undamaged by jealousy: “Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair?” Woolf wished for something more complicated, and I think the Italian pair would have made her happy.

I’ve been writing about friendship for a while, trying to, and aware of how often I have been a bad friend. It’s not so much jealousy around appearance, though I feel prepared to kill any woman with bone straight hair. It’s more a matter of envy―envy of certain accomplishments, or rewards for those accomplishments. It’s long been a cliché that women are not trained to compete, by which I mean compete without suffering after losing. What men do, or supposedly men do. I didn’t stay up late enough to know whether after the final match, Djokovic and Federer embraced, cradled each other’s heads, murmured gentle words of friendship and support.

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Ladies Doubles, Provincetown, circa 1970. My silver-haired mother far left; her (much taller) usual partner, second from right.

I grew up watching my mother play tennis. She was an avid amateur, competitive and talented. She often played with a particular (much taller) woman friend, whom she continued to like and admire, regardless of the score, though of course they kept score. I rarely give her credit but I have to admit that on the tennis court, if nowhere else, she could compete with joy.

In the days of our consciousness-raising group and seventies feminism we used to talk about the “economy of scarcity,” how if one woman had or did X, that meant the other could not. We tried. Everybody’s different is what we were supposed to learn in kindergarten, and relearn in feminism. It’s not an easy lesson to hold on to, to practice, especially in academia, where it so often feels that winner takes all. With the image of Roberta and Flavia before me, I want to learn to love losing.

And then there’s Elena Ferrante’s Lila and Lenu, but that’s for another post.

FRIENDSHEEP: A Summer Romance

Sometimes you just have to give in, admitting, say, you’re just a dumb tourist and buy the tchotchkes on offer. This summer I traveled in Wales with my much younger and ridiculously fit friends Victoria and Jay. We were “walking,” as we did last summer in Yorkshire (think rocks and stiles, also sheep), and as usual I brought up the rear, including mortifyingly falling on it. But off the trail, we returned to a more civilized horizontal.

Jay, I should say, is unembarrassed by kitsch, especially if it is animal related. (Remember his “How to Raise a Jewish Dog” post.) I am strenuously resistant to animal cuteness―in life or image―but when after a tea break Jay showed me his latest find, I surprised both of us by saying I had to have one of my own. The keychain had my name on it, as it were. (I did not buy the recycled sheep-pooh paper, however. There are limits.)

What could sum up our Welsh adventure better than this miniature, laminated tribute to “friendsheep”? The only mimetic flaw here being the two creatures, rather than the trio we hilariously made up.

photo-2I’ve been wrestling with my friendship project for a while now, not least on this site, especially since it has a slightly mournful quality (the dead friends part). The keychain reminds me that silliness is key (as it were) to the friendships that matter most to me―an anti-memento mori.

Miles away from Wales and sheep, I can’t help smiling every time I lock and unlock my door.

When a Friend You Love is Ill

Right now, I am at my desk preparing my seminar for tomorrow, but my thoughts keep straying from Holocaust testimony―this week’s subject, as it happens―to the fate of a close friend. My friend is in the hospital recovering from surgery, but probably not recovering from the cancer that made the surgery necessary. It is not all that strange for me to be thinking of her as I try to concentrate on work.  I’ve just taught one of her essays, an essay on the use of metaphor  in literary texts representing the Holocaust.  You may know the author, but I don’t want to violate her privacy by going any further. The singular identity of this friend matters to me, of course, but that is not my subject. Nor is the essay she wrote, which I have always loved.

UnknownIn his work on friendship (friendship between men) Derrida writes somewhere: one always leaves before the other. (Every once in a while Derrida says something stunningly simple and true.) When I read his text, thinking about friends I’d lost, I realized that I had never confronted that truth.  I expected my parents to die; one does, even in this era of increasing longevity. And if we are coupled, we worry, when we make our wills, about who, in a spousal dyad, will go first. Typically, neither wants to be the survivor. But in the matter of friendship, even if you are old (and I am), we tend not to foresee the loss of a contemporary―give or take ten years. It does not seem part of the contract. We are unprepared in addition to being bereft.

One of the strange features of friendship, I’ve learned, is that a pair of friends, no matter how intimate, rarely forms a single couple. What I mean is that the friend I lose is not only mine to lose. There are others who mourn the loss of relation to her―intimacy, laughter, solace. At a memorial service, you discover just how many people loved your friend. You are not a solitary mourner, you are part of a community―friends of your friend.

When I first observed this phenomenon, I felt a kind of shock seeing my bond diminish, spread across a room, oceans, geography. But now, as I’m becoming more accustomed to the community of loss, I realize that there is a peculiar comfort in sharing our dread, sadness―it sometimes takes the edge off extreme loneliness.

Still, I don’t want to lose “my” friend; her essay can’t fill the place in my heart.