what I am learning about friendship

In my narrative class with minority scholars last week, we were writing about the happiest moments in our lives and noting why we selected those moments as the happiest. And then we wrote about the moment.

The story that came out of the moment I wrote about surprised me. Initially, I listed several moments and chose to write about riding bikes to the honeysuckle vines because it was a time I'd never felt more free. And there was something in my memory of that time I wanted to capture. However, when I started writing about it, I discovered something else. Here's what I wrote:

When I lived on Darby Street, the neighborhood was mostly made up of boys. The one girl closest to my age with whom I was friends was Heather. Heather loved two things with deep obsessive possession: Michael Jackson and Barbie. I remember dancing in her playhouse to "Billie Jean" and watching the "Thriller" video her brother recorded from TV. I'm confident we looked ridiculous but we were young and free and Michael Jackson was cool, even if we were not.

Heather's love for Michael Jackson was matched only for her love for Barbie. Though I had quite a few Barbies, I was only really interested in dressing them in outfits and doing stuff to their hair. Heather built scenarios and dialogue. I played along because I was her friend and she never complained when I suggested we play something. For some reason I convinced her to let me makeover her Barbie, which consisted of me cutting Barbie's hair and coloring it green with magic marker. I vaguely remember coloring makeup on Barbie's face as well. Heather was very upset and burst into tears at the exact moment her mother walked into the room to see if we wanted a snack. Her mother saw the Barbie, Heather's crying and me, holding the marker or scissors I'm sure. I don't remember what she said to me but I remember Heather drying her tears and insisting that I not get in trouble that she'd agreed to let me do a makeover and she was upset because she didn't realize how bad it would look. I doubt her mother believed me but it was enough that Heather stuck up for me. I was sent home, feeling so guilty that by the time I'd walked the path behind Heather's house to mine, I was crying. I tried explaining to my mother what happened but all she really understood was that I had upset my friend and destroyed her doll. To make up for it, she suggested I take my allowance and other money I'd saved and buy Heather a new Barbie with it. So, I did. And perhaps in doing so, I repaired my friendship with her. I don't know how long we would have stayed friends if I'd continued living in that small Alabama town. If I had, I'm sure there would have been a number of emotional wounds we'd have inflicted upon one another that couldn't be solved with buying a new Barbie.

Because really, women are often really horrible to one another. We're competitive and cruel and sometimes take pleasure in one another's misfortunes because it makes us feel better about our own lives. I've never been very good at being friends with girls. I always hated the drama of it all, the secrets, the ganging up on someone just because you could. I preferred instead to sit with the boys in their flatbed trucks and talk about music or movies or how much we couldn't wait to get out of __insert small town name here___.

The first week in college, I met a girl who was completely cool. She seemed relaxed, confident, so sure of herself. I was floundering in doubt and as her friend, I felt a little bit better about fitting in. I spent a lot of time with her and her roommate as well as with the guy she was dating and his best friend. The guy she dated was a local musician, which meant I ended up going to a lot of shows. At some point, the girl ended up falling for her guy's best friend. (I had no idea this was happening, at all, though looking back I remember how much time they started spending together). We were supposed to go to a show one night and she called me and said she wasn't going. I debated going by myself, but ultimately, I stayed home. The next day on campus I ran into the musician boyfriend who told me he missed me at the show and wondered why I wasn't with the girl who actually did go. I was devastated that she'd lied to me, but then I thought perhaps she'd planned not to go and then went at the last minute. So then I was upset that she'd forgotten about me but I could get over that. After all, she was one of my first good friends at college; I was willing to overlook my hurt feelings. But you know what happened?: she stopped calling me altogether. I tried calling her a few times but after about two weeks of not calling me back; I got the message. Later, I heard she and the best friend were dating. I saw them out one night, years afterward, and I went and hid in the bathroom.

I was wary, after that, of girls as friends. But it happens, like it always does, that you meet someone you just can't NOT be friends with. One of my closest friends from undergrad used to make plans with me and then never call me because she got busy and forgot. I would cry, sometimes, about how lonely I felt. I'd just moved to Mobile and hadn't made many friends at school. I was still trying to find my way and she was one of those people who always had something going on in her life. In fact, she is still kind of like that. I think she loves the highs and lows of the drama. I learned quickly that I had to call her or go to her house or make some kind of effort to be involved. I had a few friends like that who also ultimately, taught me about friendship, about the kind of friend I wanted to be. And as I became more involved in my major, my friendships grew beyond the classes I shared. I learned to appreciate all kinds of friendships and understood the need for a lot of different kinds of personalities in my life. I learned to be assertive as a friend and began to define myself not simply through the people with whom I hung out. (Though, I certainly think they helped me to see myself in particular ways which I, in turn, chose to develop).

My last years in college as an undergrad I was rich with friendship. I still consider people I met during that time as some of my closest friends. The same is true of my Master's and eventually, Ph.D. programs. When I look back though, my female friends are a smaller number in relation to my male friends. As I get older, it's starting to change a bit. I certainly don't think it's easy to be friends with women, but I do think it can be rewarding. I think it's important for women to cultivate friendships, to share secrets and stories and themselves with one another. The female friends I have now are amazing. I feel incredibly lucky that I've met them at conferences, through M, in school, at work. It's becoming more and more important to me that I have women in my life who are powerful, who make me feel empowered, who help me just by being in my life.

My concepts of friendship have evolved as I've gotten older but Heather's example of friendship sticks with me now. Here is what I learned upon reflecting on that moment:

We should stick up for our friends, even when they do something that hurts us or with which we don't agree. We should be honest about how we feel but love them anyway. We should accept our friends and appreciate how they are different from us and celebrate that. And we should forgive them. We make mistakes. We give in to our judgmental selves and we become weak and petty. We are selfish and forget that perhaps, not all of our friends want to do the same things we do. We're human and with our great capacity to love comes the ability to screw up relationships because we can't get out of our own way. But given that, we need one another. I have this sign that M put in her office at work. It says, "Life is not about finding yourself; it's about creating yourself." And part of creating yourself is developing relationships to other people.

I know it's harder now. The stakes are higher, our feelings, in many ways, more fragile; our hearts more vulnerable. But I have seen through my recent participation in women's blog communities how much difference a sense of belonging and togetherness and community makes. And if someone is genuinely our friend, shouldn't we offer the same kind of support and compassion we seek?

What I've learned about relationships after all this time is that sometimes it's as simple as showing that you understand and sometimes that means replacing a Barbie and sometimes it means a lot more.