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  • How to Save a Friendship With Confrontation

    cherylsuchorsguestToday we have a guest post from one of the contributors to My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends. Cheryl Suchors‘ essay for My Other Ex is called “Going Without Sugar.”  It’s about the painful and confusing end to a long friendship. Her guest post today is about what happens when we put the spotlight on a friendship and confront the issues in this relationship. 

    Linda had disappeared. From my life, I mean. She didn’t call or email anymore. She had no time to get together when I asked. She and her husband were going through a rough patch and I knew work kept her busy. But I wasn’t happy. Tired of waiting for things to improve, I found myself in that place where the hurt of missing her had morphed into being angry enough that I began to back away from the relationship myself. Perhaps you’ve been there, too?

    But good friendships take years to develop, and I didn’t want to lose this one. Rather than slink away, I decided to step up. Which meant saying something to Linda despite the fact that I’d rather get a pap smear than confront a friend.

    It took a couple of weeks, but I called her, my opening lines in hand. First, I listened—quietly but not patiently—to her grumble through the latest marriage grievances. When she finally paused for breath, I jumped in. “So what’s happening with our relationship anyway?”

    My heart skittered. “From my point of view,”—I carefully acknowledged mine wasn’t the only point of view—“it feels like you’ve dropped out of our friendship because of work and things with Donald. You’ve become unavailable.” I made myself say this matter-of-factly, with no heat, despite my leaping pulse.

    She surprised me. “That’s true! It’s true. And it makes no sense. Right now I need more connections because he’s my best girlfriend and all my eggs are in one basket.” She went on, giving me time to breathe, and to figure out what to say next.

    I said we should each figure out what we wanted from our relationship. “Let’s think about it and then we can have another conversation.” This is going well, I told myself. We’ll meet a few weeks from now so I can hang up soon and go inhale some ice cream.

    She surprised me again. “Let’s do it tomorrow.”

    We met for lunch. As soon as we’d ordered our grilled fish, she began. “I don’t like walks where you’re time-bound because you have to pick up your kid. And walks with your little doggie, despite how cute she is, are not my idea of walks. Your attention is too diverted. It’s like having a little kid along and then all the dog people stop and talk.”

    Well, how was I supposed to get the dog walked if I didn’t bring her with me? Who could not love Juniper? And Linda chatted more with the dog people than I did. Besides, this wasn’t what we agreed to talk about anyway. Was it?

    Not that it was easy, but I reined in my defensiveness. “Okay. It saves time for me to walk with Juniper and you together, but I can see what you mean.”

    Linda nodded, pleased.

    My turn. If she could raise annoying habits, so could I. “Often when we talk, it’s as if everything is of equal importance to you—the seed in your birdfeeder, my surgery, the conversation you had standing in line at the Post Office, your mother. I don’t like spending so much time focusing on trivia. And I feel like I have to work to squeeze my topics into the conversation.”

    She looked straight at me. “Oh, you’re very good at taking care of yourself.”

    “What’s that supposed to mean?” I refolded my napkin. Thought about throwing it at her. Took a few breaths. “Let me ask you something. When you tell me things, do you feel heard?”

    She considered. “Not always. Sometimes I feel like you’re not . . . attending.”

    I had to laugh. “You feel like I squeeze my stuff in all right but don’t really pay attention to you and your stuff?” She nodded. I leaned back in my chair, grinning, and threw up my hands. “I feel exactly the same!”

    Linda found this pretty funny, too. Friendships, we decided, must follow a universal formula. We each want to be, as Linda had put it, attended to. And we want it in the exact proportion to which we feel we are giving it to our friend who doesn’t, not nearly enough anyway, return our generosity.

    I wasn’t finished. “Listening to you I often feel myself being sucked down this giant rat hole. I have no idea why we’re going there, I just know it’s not where I want to go and I can’t see how it’s meaningful to either of us.”

    “You’re so busy all the time whirring around, so tight on time with so many balls in the air, you never have enough time. I have an associative thinking style and you have a more curt—”

    “Linear!”

    “Okay. Where’s the waitress anyway? I never got my cranberry juice.”

    We paused to regain our equilibrium. I suggested we create a code word, something each of us could use to signal the other was doing the thing that drove her crazy.

    “’Rat hole’,” I offered.

    “No way. Too pejorative. Plus it only describes my end of the issue.” She thought some more. “How about ‘time/object’?”

    “What on earth does that mean?”

    We ping-ponged suggestions back and forth until dessert arrived. “I’ve got it!” Linda cried. Her eyebrows lifted and her eyes opened wide. “Rat-whirr!”

    I tried it out. “’Rat-whirr. ‘Rat’ for you and ‘whirr’ for me. Rat-whirrrr. I love it!

    But is it a verb? You’re rat-whirring again?”

    Linda guffawed. I howled. “Or, no, a noun. ‘Help! I’m the victim of a ratwhirr!” We doubled over, pounding the tablecloth. “Then there’s the adjectival form. ‘This has degenerated into a most ratwhirrish conversation!”

    From then on, our negotiations flowed. I agreed to leave Juniper at home on our walks. Linda agreed to keep our phone conversations shorter and more to the point. She would call more often. I would attend better when she did.

    Working hard at being clear but not angry or defensive, restating the other’s position and using humor had brought us back together. “I think we’ve done a damn fine job on this friendship business,” I said. “To us!” I clinked my water glass against her juice.

    “Compared to what I’m going through with el husbando, this was cake,” Linda said.

    I smiled. I didn’t mention her tap-dancing right foot.

    CherylsuchorCheryl Suchors came to writing after a career in business, and her work has mostly appeared in literary journals. At age forty-eight, she decided to climb forty-eight mountains. Her nearly finished memoir (surprisingly titled 48 Mountains) describes how hiking sustained her through cancer and the death of her hiking buddy. She lives with her husband and plants near Boston and visits her daughter, out on her own in Washington, DC, as often as possible. Cheryl posts about hiking, writing, nature and life on her blog, Go For It: One Approach to Living.

     

  • My Reader, My Friend

    One of the joys of blogging for me has been finding online communities and friends who grow to understand my writing. Online friends — as Stephanie and I know particularly well! — can become your best and most valuable critics, supporters, listeners, and collaborators. When you find that special writing friend, as our HerStories Project contributor Lauren Apfel of Omnimom has, that relationship can help your writing grow.

    FInd a reader new.jpg

    Find a reader, who is also a friend. This is the best advice about writing I have. Every book on the craft makes it plain. Without somebody to wade through the murky waters of your first drafts, somebody who understands your compulsive overuse of the conjunction but loves you anyway, the process of writing is a less fertile affair. It is a lonelier one too.

    My friendship with Denitza is filtered almost exclusively through the written word. Emails, texts, comments, corrections, a seemingly endless cycle. If we lived at a another time, we would be called pen-pals. I can see us there, in a bygone age. I can see us in stiff petticoats, quills poised, spilling our innermost thoughts onto paper the color of fresh cream. I can see how the beauty of waiting for the post to be delivered would suit us more than the instant gratification of the internet. And yet, ours is a digital story through and through.

    I hear Dentiza’s voice in my head sometimes, but only as a sound byte from the past. I know her emoticons and her preferences for the comma better than I do her inflections. We’ve seen each other a few times in the fourteen years since graduating college together, thanks to the strange coincidence that she married a man who grew up very near to where I did. The face-to-face is incidental: modern technology has built us a stronger bridge.

    Denitza works full-time as a doctor and I am a stay-at-home mom. We both write non-fiction around the edges of our main commitments. I am trying to shift the balance of my commitments, though, to become a writer and not merely someone who writes. This isn’t straightforward. Writing, like any art, is as soul-crushing as it is soul-enhancing. Especially when you want to transform it, abracadabra, into more than a hobby. My writing has begun to bloom recently, but only through the cracks of my existence as a mother. And it was motherhood that led me back to Denitza in the first place.

    We met again on Facebook, a re-kindling cliche for two people in their thirties. I found out she was pregnant from a mutual acquaintance and I emailed her because I was in the throes of new motherhood myself. It started slowly, our friendship, tentatively. There was something kindred between us, so much was obvious, not that we are similar people. What explains us best, rather, is what we share: an obsession with both parenting and writing. Even more binding is that we share a style of communicating about those obsessions: frequently, intensively, with no excuses.

    No matter how hectic the week gets, we can always locate each other, physically as well as emotionally. Even when there is no time, there is time for this. In-between diapers, in-between patients, we tip-tap back and forth on our devices. We live our lives seven hours apart, but the time difference is a quiet advantage. I write in the mornings and then I wait for Denitza to wake up. My day starts again when the sun rises in Salt Lake City, though it is fast approaching tea time in Glasgow. My day starts again when she has read my latest draft and I can take the next steps to making it right.

    Together we stepped into the blogosphere. I started a blog about parenting and Denitza started one about medicine. Self-publication, we learned all too quickly, is the easy part. It’s the attempt to break into the wider world that tests you. It’s the waiting for an answer and the wondering if you are good enough and the peeling yourself off of the floor when this magazine or that editor says you aren’t.

    Some days we have “races to rejection.” We’ve both put the finishing touches on a piece and, hand in virtual hand, we fire them off into the ether. Then we wait to see who gets the first “best of luck placing it elsewhere.” What better way to scream into the wind of the New York Times submission process than to stand with somebody screaming next to you? What better way to take the sting from the “I’ll pass” email than to forward it on to your friend, who replies almost instantly with a “their loss”? And on the occasion of a hit, when the pickaxe strikes gold amidst the bedrock, the prize is parcelled out between us. We celebrate with each other the small victories. The rejection that came with a compliment. The one that came with an encouragement to submit again.

    “Write without pay until somebody offers to pay you,” Mark Twain once said. “If nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” Two years down and I am not going back to the woodpile. Denitza wouldn’t let me. She has become a true partner in my effort to avoid this fate. She is more than a cheerleader and more than a second set of eyes. There is a joint ownership over our essays; we are like co-parents. One of us is the primary caregiver, but the other nurtures it just as much, feels just as invested in the topic, the theme, the construction, even if it means only getting home in time for the evening bath.

    We are different kinds of parents, as many couples are. Denitza writes in a style she describes delicately as “vomiting on the page.” She is seized by an idea and the sentences erupt from her like lava, hot and messy and overly-long in their stream-of-consciousness. After the night she spends on-call at the hospital, I will wake to three or four essays stacked in my inbox. Or there will be none at all, she doesn’t do half measures. And then I will put on my heat-resistant gloves and begin the task of making them tidier.

    My process is almost the reverse of hers. My essays start as a chunk of clay, thick and shapeless, which I whittle away at over time, as if I am sculpting a face. Different features are clear to me at different sittings: the curve of the jaw, for instance, or the set of the eyes; the punch of the last sentence or the perfectly illustrative anecdote. I write in short bursts and then I come back to tinker. Add a comma here, choose a better expression there. Denitza indulges my micro-management of the words, but she also challenges me on the big ideas. She saves me from indiscretions. Her praise is what I aim for. Her criticisms don’t make me feel less talented.

    We parent the essays together and Friday is our well-deserved “date” night, because we both have the same chunk of free time. For me, it is after the kids are in bed. For her, it is after she has been on-call. I sit perched on the couch with my phone on my lap, waiting for it to buzz to attention. She texts me as soon as she gets to the French cafe downtown, a double espresso in one hand and my steady stream of messages in the other. We try not to talk about our “children,” the literary ones that is, but inevitably we do.

    The funny thing is we weren’t good friends in college. We were thrown together in the first year, not in the same room but in the same suite, and we had people in common more than a relationship ourselves. Recently she reminded me of the summer after our sophomore year, of the hand-written letters that winged their way between Japan, where she had an internship, and New York, where I was killing time. Our first correspondence, the seeds were planted, but I don’t remember it. I am freezed by this fact. I was a different person back then, more selfish, more closed-off, a person who could write words that meant something to someone else and forget they had been written at all.

    What did I ask, I wonder, what did she answer? There is no hope of re-discovery. As with so much else from those days, the paper trail has long since been lost.

    Now there is a folder in my inbox with Denitza’s name on it, which holds the weight of all of the precious words from this incarnation of our friendship, those that have gone on to be published and those that will remain written, and read, simply for us. Every writer has what Stephen King calls an “Ideal Reader.” Someone who lives in your head. Someone who is the litmus test of what is clever or funny or interesting. Someone whose opinion matters more than anybody else’s. Denitza is my perfect reader. But she is also my midwife. Writing is like giving birth, Anne Lamott says. Theoretically you could do it alone, but it sure makes it easier to have a friend helping.

    Lauren ApfelLauren Apfel is originally from New York, but now lives in Glasgow, Scotland. A classicist turned stay-at-home mom of four (including twins), she writes regularly at omnimom.net. She is the debate editor and a contributing blogger for Brain, Child Magazine. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

  • When Friendships and Book Clubs Do Not Mix

    FULL RES - Badzin-03 copy-1This week we’re thrilled to publish a guest post by HerStories Project contributor Nina Badzin. Lots of women are enthusiastic members of their book clubs, but it’s also true that not every woman is looking for the same thing when she joins one. Have you ever been a “mismatch” with a book club that you’ve joined? Read Nina’s experience with trying to combine friendship and book clubs:

    bookclubcurse

    I always wanted to be part of a book club.

    My initial desire started young when I observed my mom’s enthusiastic participation in one. However, I didn’t realize as a kid that my mom and her fellow book club members were brought together through a shared love of reading and nothing more. They were certainly very friendly on account of the book club, but they didn’t create the book club because they were close friends. The difference is significant, which took several failed book clubs for me to understand.

    I started my first book club in the summer of 2000. I was twenty-three and had recently moved to Minneapolis where I knew my husband’s (then fiance’s) family and not another soul. In my fantasy of young almost-married life, I had to be part of a book club. Aside from the model of my mom’s club, I also had Oprah. The summer of 2000 was the heyday of Oprah’s book club. People were reading the same books all over the country, discussing them in cozy groups while sipping wine in well-designed living rooms. I wanted in! More than anything though, I wanted to make friends.

    I created a book club as soon as I’d made two friends, and they invited others they knew. I remember not liking some of the novels we chose, but like my mother, I always finished so I could participate. My frustration when others didn’t finish or when we didn’t really discuss the book was palpable. Let’s just say I wasn’t the most popular woman in the group and instead of making new friends, I made people mad. Eventually I quit, which made me look like a snob (according to the unsolicited feedback that came back to me later). The experience was a disaster both from a book lover’s point of view, and as someone trying to make new friends in a new city.

    I tried another group with some different friends the next year, but the same thing happened. We’d rarely discuss the book because not everyone had read it. Now before you think I’m completely anti-social, let me say that I do love hearing about everyone’s lives, catching up, and simply hanging out. But I longed for a book club where the women wanted to talk about the books. I mean really discuss them–like speaking over each other and having to eventually cut off the conversation when it gets too late kind of discussing. I was also a ninth grade English teacher then, which meant I already spent time forcing a discussion about a book as a job. I didn’t want to do that in my free time too!

    Fast forward a few years. A friend of mine invited me into a book club with some women she’d known in high school. This book club didn’t work out for me either because those of us who read the book weren’t supposed to “ruin” the ending for the others. When I accidentally broke that rule, the group’s unofficial leader sent a scathing email to the entire group reminding us how “unfair” it was to spoil the ending. Any book lover will understand why I left that group immediately. I also realized that I didn’t want to be in a book club with a group of old friends–my friends or anyone’s.

    Since then I’d been invited into other groups, but I’d always decline. In a smaller community like Minneapolis, I didn’t think I could afford to make any more bad impressions with people based on my desires to discuss the dang book.

    However, two neighbors I was friendly with insisted many times that I try the neighborhood club. They promised that everyone in the group was an enthusiastic participator. And they were right! I’ve been in that group for two years now, and I finally found the club where I belong. The women range in age from 35 to 65, which helps keep conversation from lingering too long on subjects like potty training or even college visits. We are all at different points in our lives and come from a variety of backgrounds, but what we all have in common in any particular month is the book we read. Our differences bring layers to the discussion and bring up issues from the book that hadn’t occurred to me on my own.

    As for friendship, of course after two years we’ve developed a friendliness above and beyond “fellow book club member.” I was incredibly touched when some of the women from the group carpooled to see me in the Listen to Your Mother show last year. And when an interesting author comes to town we have tried to make an outing of that, too. We’ve arranged for author visits as well either in person or via Skype. I must say it’s the perfect book club (for me) made even more wonderful by each host living no more than five minutes from my house. Luckily this book club saga had a happy ending!

    Have you been able to create a successful book club with close friends or has your experience been more like mine?

  • College Friends, Forever Friends

    My college friends will always hold a special place in my heart. There’s something about growing up together — the metamorphosis  from a freshman dropped off in the family car to a “real” adult worried about careers, apartment rents, and car payments — that bonds us so completely to our college tribe. Our HerStories Project book contributor Samantha Brinn Merel captures this unique bond in this guest post. – Jessica

     

    Thirty-one doesn’t need a lot of fanfare. It just wants dinner in Manhattan, an amazing dessert, a fun drink or two, and my very best friends all sitting around the same table. It is realizing for what feels like the millionth time that these people I call friends are really my family, and that this path I walk would be impassable without them.”

     

    Samantha's birthday dinner with her best college friends
    Samantha’s birthday dinner with her best college friends

    I wrote these words last Friday on my thirty-first birthday. Sitting around the table the next night for the aforementioned Manhattan dinner, looking into the faces of my very best friends – my college friends – it hit me how true they really are. And it hit me that this coming May an anniversary is on the horizon. Nine years since our graduation from Brandeis University, our safe haven in the tiny town of Waltham, Massachusetts, nine miles outside of Boston.

    In the world of higher education, where reunions are routinely marked every five years, nine is not a particularly momentous number. Almost four years since our fifth reunion. A little more than one year until our tenth. But something about this nine year mark struck me. Maybe because there have been so many changes, both good and bad, since we gathered on campus almost four years ago for our fifth reunion. Or maybe because nine years seem to have passed both slowly and so very, very quickly. Or most likely because, looking around that table into the faces of the women who are like sisters to me, I was struck again by the fact that a mere twist of fate sent me to Brandeis, and to them. And in that moment, I was just so damn grateful for them, and for us, and for the miracle that brought us to each other.

    On the way home from dinner that night, I found myself on my phone, flipping through pictures of our graduation day. And suddenly, I was not in a car driving up the West Side Highway towards home, but back at Brandeis in May of 2005. Lining up to march on a gloomy Sunday morning amid a sea of black caps and gowns. Hoods no one could quite figure out how to attach. A speaker we were too preoccupied to hear. A shower of blue and white balloons. Cameras snapping. Laughs. Smiles. Tears. Excitement over what was to come. Wishing badly for just one more year – or two, or four – in the warm embrace of the campus that had become our home.

    We met as Freshman. Wide-eyed and new. We were finally there. College. A land filled with unknown places and faces, just waiting to be discovered. And in all that vast and unknown territory, we met each other. Together we twirled and navigated our way through those crazy beautiful college days. We learned, and loved, and grew. We laughed until our sides hurt, and we cried ourselves dry. We accomplished and we stumbled in equal measure. We had fun. Huge sunbursts of fun.

    We lived together and studied together. Drank vast amounts of coffee and ate late night junk food together. We analyzed everything in that beautifully complex way that only college girls can. We learned about each other and about ourselves. And we planned for the great unknown future. And hoped that we would still be together.

    Those pictures took me back. And when I looked back I saw us then. Gathering in a freshman common room on that first, terrifying night. Piling into booths in Sherman Dining Hall. Trudging up the Rabb Steps in blinding snow and unbearable heat. Navigating move-in days and frantic housing lottery weeks. Filling Ziv common rooms on Friday nights. Going back to our freshman quad during senior week; walking the halls where our journey began. Staring at those falling balloons on graduation day with a mixture of awe and dread. Coming back to campus five years later for three incredible days to relive it all.

    And sitting around that table celebrating my thirty-first birthday I looked at us now. At all we have accomplished. At our good lives. And I feel so incredibly lucky. Lucky to have had the four years that preceded graduation day; the years that made an indelible mark on who I was and the person I have become. To have the friendships forged during those years. To know that I always will. To have stood for these women at their weddings, and them for mine. To have cuddled their babies and watched them grow. To have celebrated new apartments and new jobs. New houses and new homes. To have laughed together and dried each other’s tears. To have been silly and serious and everything in between.

    And I wondered. I wonder what we will think when we look back on today, many years from now. I hope we’ll feel the same way. Nostalgic for the past. Happy about the now. Excited for all that still lies ahead. Lucky to still have each other.

    As the car turned into our driveway I made a silent toast, the last of my birthday weekend. To the girls we were then. To the women we are now. And to the path we still walk.

    Together.

    Do you still keep in touch with your college friends? How often do you see them? Is your bond still there? 

    Samantha Brinn MerelSamantha is a lawyer, runner, writer and pop-culture junkie living in the suburbs of New York City. Samantha writes at her blog, This Heart of Mine, and was a contributor to our book, The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendship.