I have known Zoe and Sarah since I was thirteen years old. On my first day of boarding school, sitting high on the third floor of that ancient brick building and trying very hard not to cry, I saw someone turning cartwheels on the lawn. It took every shred of my bravery to go out and introduce myself to that free spirit, but it turned out to be Sarah. She made me laugh right away. She’s inspired infinite bravery and laughter since.
Zoe was a sophomore, impossibly beautiful in glittery ska pants and plastic butterfly rings. It took me longer to acquire the courage necessary to speak with Zoe (she was a SOPHOMORE) but soon we were writing poetry back and forth, dancing in cornfields and trying to reach each other in dreams from across the hall.
The three of us wrote letters, real ones, all the way through college and after. Sarah’s letter to me from a farm she was working on in France saved my skin once when, hitchhiking through Scotland, I ran out of money and had no place to stay. I called my mother, as one does, and she told me there was a letter waiting for me from Sarah. I asked her to read it to me over the phone, and soon I was herding goats with Sarah in France.
Another time Zoe, back in Pennsylvania from the life she’d found in Australia, walked with me through cow pastures and balanced on trees over the Brandywine. I’d just returned from the Middle East and was brimful of self-righteous politics. Zoe was sitting on a fence post as we watched the sun set over a field near her mother’s home. She stretched languidly and said “Lissa, for a pacifist you sure fight yourself a lot.”
I held on to that beautiful bit of insight for a long, long time. Old friends, the real ones who know you through and through—they say hard things some times. At times it feels easier not to be around them. When I was barely holding on in California, when my marriage was falling apart and my life felt so constricted that it was hard even to draw breath, I cut off my family and friends. I stopped returning Sarah’s calls and Zoe’s letters. But they never stopped calling and writing. They each found ways to show up at my door, all the way across the country. And they continued to hold a mirror up to my life, much as I did not want to look.
Four years ago we decided–I forget how, it must have been divine inspiration!–to gather at Sarah’s family property in upstate New York. We built wood-fired saunas and cooked elaborate feasts and swam in the lakes and sunned along the rivers, drank wine and laughed and wrote and reunited. I remembered how large life is. We all wrote about that experience on Sarah’s wonderful blog The Perspective Project.
We’ve met each year since. Each year felt different–one year, we were hosted by a dear friend on Nantucket in a palatial guest house, taken for ornate dinners and given free run of a jaw-droppingly well-supplied art studio. We were all knee-deep in our own painful crises that year. To be so well taken care of felt like a drink of cool water in the midst of a punishing marathon.
Another time we gathered at Zoe’s place in Boston. We made paper and kombucha and body butter and lip balm. We sang karaoke in a tiny Japanese bar. And we laughed. There is always so much laughter.
This year, Sarah and Zoe came to Boone. We had all reached a place of relative equilibrium. The arc of this friendship covers so much–at first you do not notice the changes, but then suddenly here is Zoe, the freespirited poet and world traveler, opening her own acupuncture and shiatsu practice. And Sarah, artist/writer/wit/cartwheel turner, a college professor. Both here, in my world, thickening the thin places, weaving the loose ends back in.
We have all changed. But when we are together, the thirteen-year-olds are here too. And the seventeen-year-olds. And, I think, the seventy-year-olds. The past overflows into the present, and the present feels velvety with depth.
We sat on my sunny porch and did Johari Windows together, and enneagram tests. One of the questions was this: does your life feel permeated by a sense of longing? Unequivocally yes, we answered. And thinking about this, it became clear to me: this life has been so full. Each of us has traveled so far, been so many things to so many people, tried on so many roles and languages and ways of being. No one place can hold us anymore. No matter where we are, there will be a longing for some aspect of our Self that cannot be held by that moment.
And yet, when we three are together, there is a broadness greater than the sum of our individual selves. When we are together, there is no part of me that is not fed. We are big enough to hold it all.
I look at my changing friends—the laughter lines (so much laughter!), the odd gray hairs, the incremental and transcendently lovely beginnings of self-acceptance—and I see myself. That mirror is held up yet again and, seeing my friends, I see myself. I see how brokenness heals, how some things remain immutable and some shift endlessly. I see how age brings rare joy and wisdom as well as heartbreak. I see how large this life is.
Being loved like this, by old friends, there is nothing like it. Sometimes I wish they did not know me so well, it’s true, sometimes I feel called onto the carpet by issues I thought I’d resolved with puberty. But until I am surrounded by old friends I forget how much energy I spend each day trying to be acceptable, trying to be liked. With Sarah and Zoe, there is no question of being acceptable or liked–that question was settled long ago. All of that energy is released outward, sizzling into art, and dance, and life, and laughter. Dear friends. New friends teach me how much I can expand, the beautiful and haunting potential held by this life. But the old ones—ahh, the old ones remember what I AM. What WE ARE. What we have always been. And that is big enough to hold everything.
this is a poem i wrote after the visit of another old friend (rob, your time is coming!!)–but it seems to fit here.
an old friend’s visit
continuing: remaining seen
there was a thread undone,
now woven in
and there is freedom here,
in being known
a freedom anonymity can’t own
continuing a thing!
o it is strange
that there is one who calls me by my name