"We'll be Friends Forever, won't we, Pooh?" asked Piglet.
"Even longer," Pooh answered.
-- A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Two years ago last August my best friend, Terry Braunstein, and I traveled to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to celebrate our 50th anniversary of friendship. In this picturesque town of cobblestone streets, colorful Spanish-colonial architecture, wonderful restaurants, tempting shops and perpetual springlike weather, we held each other's arms to keep from slipping down the bumpy lanes, drank margaritas and ate chunky guacamole daily. As we took a hot-air balloon ride over the cloud-strewn hilltops, I couldn't stop marveling at how blessed we were to be best friends after all these years.
Terry and I were college roommates in Ann Arbor, both of us art students. I introduced her to her future husband, David, the first year she arrived, when my date called to find out if I knew a girl who might like to go out with his roommate. Little did I know what a tall, handsome dude that roommate would turn out to be. Terry took one look, and the rest was destiny.
Nonetheless, I bolted into marriage first, between my sophomore and junior year in college, and moved off campus. Three years and two children later my husband, who had earned his medical degree during the Vietnam War, was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Navy, and we were dispatched to a hospital ship in Southern California, effectively separating Terry and me for decades. And that's when Terry taught me about friendship: that it can only be nurtured by keeping in touch. We started by writing long, handwritten letters, as people once did. After Terry and David married and had children, we all became like family, despite the distance. They came out to see us at least once a year. We became godparents to each other's kids. We took road trips together in two vans up, down, and across the country.
After many visits and sheaves of letters, Terry and her husband moved to Southern California and we were reunited at last. Although we didn't live in the same city, and our lives were filled to the brim -- I was piecing together teaching and writing gigs, and Terry was a full-time artist -- we would carve out special days to spend together, as we still do -- days when we would do nothing but talk endlessly about life and art, kids and marriage, and all the changes we were going through, some of them exhilarating, others wrenching. We were there for each other when there was no one else to turn to, and became what long-term friends -- and especially women -- have been to each other from time immemorial: an essential support in times of pain and loss, a place of reflection for our hopes and dreams, and a cheering section for each other's successes.
Just as with family, Terry and I have had our share of crossed wires and disappointments. Whatever the problem was, however, neither of us would let the wound fester. We agreed early on to always take the time, as soon as possible after any sour note, to explore what caused the hurt and find a way to mend it.
From time to time, we would put our busy lives on pause and take off on a weekend getaway. Once a number of years ago, on a drive up to Santa Barbara, we saw a quaint little restaurant along the highway, where we located a cozy table on the patio and remarked on how we have always tended to stumble across the best spots when we're together. On that day we happened to notice two nicely dressed older women sitting a few tables away, sipping tea and happily chatting.
"Someday," I said to Terry, "we will be those little old ladies."
"Yes!" she replied enthusiastically, as if she just couldn't wait. "We will."
In some ways, we may be close to that vision already, having reached a place of gratitude that only time can grant, with a deep, joyful appreciation for our lasting friendship. One of the greatest bits of wisdom I have gained along the way is how essential and precious a long-term bond can be and how much poorer my life would have been without having shared it with my very best friend.
What you want is someone to hang with near where you live. Approach this scientifically. Having a friend who lives an hour's drive away will mean you won't see them as much as the person who lives closer. So think global, but stay local. That means your local coffee shop, the local branch of the public library, they local chapter of the Sierra Club, or the local college that offers evening courses.
If you play tennis, join a club or take a few lessons at the community center. If you like to throw parties, volunteer to run the annual fund-raiser at your synagogue or church; when the board thanks you publicly at the dinner, everyone will learn your name. If you hike, join the Sierra Club. If you bicycle, join a biking group or enter a race in your age category. Here's the one caveat about following your interests: Nobody ever met anyone while watching "American Idol" from the couch.
Be open to the idea that it's OK to have friends who are older or younger. The fact that they are in different stages in life just means they bring a different perspective to the table. While a 14-year-old won't be interested in socializing with a toddler, that 10-year age gap dissipates when they get older. Why not say yes to the 30-somethings who invite you to join them for drinks after work? Invite them over for dinner with their families and get to know their kids. Their views on the world may not match yours precisely, but variety is the spice of life.
If you are post 50 and uncoupled, you might find that traveling isn't as much fun. Call it the Noah's Ark theory, but in general, we like to go places paired up. There are services that will help you find a travel room-mate. Not only does this give you someone to talk to over dinner, it cuts down those single supplements that some tours and cruises charge. Friendly Planet runs one such pairing-up service. Road Scholar offers many active adult adventure vacations here -- offers to find you a roommate if you want. Their programs and generally educationally based and draw a well-heeled and educated crowd. Cruise ships do a pretty good job of making sure solo travelers find people to hang out with; group dining arrangements go a long way toward conversational icebreaking.
Even if you've never been a joiner, now may be the time to get yourself out there. Got a new puppy or an old dog who needs some new tricks? Find a community dog-training class. If you like to cook, take a cooking class. Participate in the 5K run for charity, even if you walk the final three.
Keep your smart phone with you and ask for numbers. Sure it may feel a little awkward to say to someone you just met "Hey, I really enjoyed talking to you on this Sierra Club hike but the next one isn't for two months. Would you like to get together for a hike before that?" Worst they can say is no.
With Skype and apps like FaceTime, it's easier than ever to have face-to-face visits. Don't assume your old friends are too busy to talk to you on the phone. Most cellphone plans include free long-distance calls and for those that don't, there's Skype. Invite friends who live a great distance to come and stay with you. Show them your city. Friendships are like gardens; it's often easier to tend to an existing one than grow a new one from seeds.
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