Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you’re all having a happy, warm, and healthy Christmas. Or, for those of you having a tough time, I hope everything eases. During hard times (many years ago), someone once said to me, “Sometimes things get better quicker than you expect.” I clung to those words.
The other thing that helped was simple warmth. During a difficult 2016, the person who helped me most simply showed warmth and sympathy at the right time. Didn’t say much, didn’t gush, take charge or inflate the drama, just shared a private moment of trust and humanity that sustained me for a year and earned them my undying loyalty.
We all have hard times, and Christmas, when we’re “expected” to be happy, can feel especially isolating. Unlike in fiction, when we’re suffering in real life, we can’t guarantee a happy ending or step away unscathed from a sad one. It hurts, it’s not what we dreamed of – and nor is it what our parents hoped for us. There are times when misery can, on top of everything else, feel like failing.
I saw someone yesterday, eaten up with loneliness. Coming from my warm and vibrant home, I felt the sadness emanating from his house; that empty, post-loss pain that can drag through old age, in this case exacerbated by an aggressive form of dementia that makes him hard to handle (or help) around children. I slid a card in through his door and stepped back into the darkness. I had other cards to deliver, other people to care for today, I told myself. I saw someone else, whose face was etched with loss. I knew they were struggling, did say hi and did ask, but couldn’t help. Sometimes the hard times just steamroller over us and there’s nothing we can do until time has passed: one way or another, it’s our time to be squashed. I know several people who are having a hard time through bereavement or separation this year.
All we can do is try to be the people whose presence helps others through. I have a handful of people whose presence helps me — incredible, ordinary people who just help by existing (or having existed). Family members. The memory of a stranger who once gave me money for a phone call. A relatively new friend whom I’m yet to know well but whose presence makes me feel that there are decent people in the world. I try not to lean on these people — since my earliest memories, I’ve drawn my energy from the earth and the sea; I rest my sanity on escaping into the wind and staring at the sky. I don’t need bolstering and I don’t need practical help. I don’t need them to do anything other than be. But their existence makes me feel better.
It’s not said often enough: some people are deeply good.
Some people look out at the world with their eyes open, and try to do the right thing. I don’t mean the ones who cling to a worthy job title and tell of how “worthwhile” their efforts feel. (Pass the smug bucket.) I’m talking about the ones who stand in quiet dignity, who look you in the eye and offer a cup of tea. The ones who are never “out there” with their desire to please because they don’t desire to “please”. Nor the ones who laud those whom they wish to impress, because they’re not trying to impress, either.
I mean the ones who are so engrossed in others that they barely seem to notice themselves. The ones putting themselves quietly on the line. These are the people whose elemental kindness sustains the lonely, whose humanity consoles the grief-stricken, whose vulnerability gives hope to the frightened. The real-life, perfectly flawed Skelligs or Nanny McPhees that we need so desperately but struggle to believe in as adults. These people are quiet, but recognisable if we look closely at their actions rather than waiting for words that might never come. They’re the guardians of something noble and human and special and just as they were the best part of my 2017, they will be the best part of 2018.
Recently I read a 2012 NYT article by Alex Williams, which states that we find it hard to make really good friends later in life (defined as after 30); that our best friends are made in our twenties:
“…the period for making B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) — for now.”
I beg to differ.
I still have an open mind, an open heart, and I’m happy to love new friends. Yes, as we age we focus on our families, our work, and no, we don’t have so much spare time. Coffee? Um, next Tuesday…? But if I’m brutally honest, some of the “situational” or other friends I made as a younger woman — the ones who shared my college years or baby classes — have grown into people with whom I share an enormous history but whom I don’t actually like that much. I’ve sat at parties listening to them talk about their money, houses, careers, inheritance prospects, and so on, and have realised that we have little or nothing of value in common any more.
I’d love to live another 40 years or more. If I do, new friends will soon be old friends – but only if I say yes to them now.
On the other hand, I’ve met new people who inspire me, whose kindness and fairness have engendered real respect. People I would’ve wanted as best friends if I’d met them as a young woman and whom I’d still love to call real friends now. Sure, in these busy times, to add new people to my friendship group now — even assuming they want me to — means change; readjusting my diary and priorities. But when did we become so weak that we weren’t prepared to take a chance on people? I didn’t. That never happened.
There are people out there waiting to be loved and valued, just for being really cool and funny and great. I want to sit with them at a party, ask how they’re doing with genuine interest, and talk about legacy instead of inheritance, or dreams instead of job titles. Types of whiskey instead of mortgages. Or maybe we could just go running, or get drunk and laugh about nothing.
Maybe one day, as old friends, I could thank them for being there — literally just being — when I needed them most. Although by then, with any luck, they’ll already know.