Today is my birthday. Another year. Another wrinkle in time, face and place.
My eight-year-old friend, whose birthday was yesterday, gave me his youthful advice. I can celebrate as many days as my years. Hooray! I’ve got more than two months to kick up my heels.
My longtime friends are raising my spirits with texts rolling in on my iPhone. Messages of love and emojis loading up on Facebook. Even a couple of birthday cards via snail mail. These are the tokens of friendships that have prevailed since college days. “The older we get, the more we need our friends – and the harder it is to keep them,” writes Jennifer Senior in The Atlantic. “You lose friends to success, to failure, to flukish strokes of good or ill luck.” And, inevitably and unfortunately, we lose friends to death.
I’ve aged out of the friendship-collecting stage of my life, according to Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. The idea makes me pause. I reflect back on those halcyon college days when, as dormmates and roommates, my friends and I discovered adulthood together in round-the-clock conversations. Exploring world philosophies. Experimenting in drama and verse play. Opening up to each other and our imaginations. We saw ourselves forever young ala Joan Baez.
“May God’s blessing keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay
Were we idealistic? Yes. After a classmate flew to Mexico for a botched abortion, we marched for Roe v. Wade. And, believed that the Supreme Court’s landmark decision would protect a pregnant woman’s rights for our lifetime and beyond.
Were we political? Yes. We sat beside our male classmates as random numbers, based on birthdates, were called. We wept for our brothers and boyfriends who, by bad luck of the draw, had been involuntarily drafted into active duty. Had I been born male, my number of 14 would have been a dangerously low double digit.
Were we adventurous? Yes, we thought so. The day after graduation ceremonies, my roadtrip buddy and I loaded up her convertible with camping gear and a bare minimum of necessities. We drove over the Mackinac Bridge, across Michigan to the Badlands, and westward to the Pacific Ocean. Leaving Harry Nilsson’s lyrics floating overhead in our wake. Disturbing the peace of less-traveled highways.
“Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of my mind
I’m going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes
Banking off of the northeast winds
Sailing on a summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone”
So, yes. We were inexperienced and worldly-unwise. Our substance still unproven. Our mettle not yet tested. And now, in homage to John Lennon, I count my age by friends, not years. I count my life by smiles, not tears. I’m fully in the friendship-enjoying stage of life. Treasuring the relationships that have survived the years of achieving and accumulating: marrying or partnering, parenting or not, moving or staying put, divorcing or restructuring the marriage model.
Senior (how apt the author’s name for this topic) suggests that friends in our youth influenced our fundamental 5 Ws: Who to listen to; what to read; when to take action; where to go; and the why of existence. To be or not to be. She goes on to say, “But these days, many [of our longtime friends] are showing us how to think, how to live.” This is an imperative because we’re time-stamped. Despite knowing better, we tend to overlook the fragility of our bodies, our lives, our time together. We can fritter away moments and let meaningful relationships fade unless we make an effort to stay connected. Claim a ritual to honor.
That’s why my group of girlfriends are getting ready for a post-Covid reunion. After a hiatus of three years, we’re congregating in Michigan. Smitten by the mitten, we’ll hike nature tails, beach comb and stargaze in out-of-the-way places. Off the beaten track where no one is bothered by our raucous laughter or our silly ways. Where nature restores. Where camaraderie renews the rules of friendship.
Carstensen repurposed the term, “unconditional positive regard” to describe the benefit of relationships built on friendship. That’s my experience, too. True friends bring out the best in me. Where strangers might see a flock of 10 gray- and white-haired women as unusual, even odd. Clumsily climbing mountainous sand dunes on all fours (girded in titanium) and sliding down on our slightly saggy butts. Amusing, possibly laughable. But, I see the resilience and verve of women who have survived. A tribe of wise sages, who continue to ride the rollercoaster of life. Fall off, get back on. Ride with hilarity to the end of the line.