I think I'm getting ruminative in my menopausal fugue -- solidly on the other side of divorce, career reinvention, and starting over in a new place with a new love. I have almost all new friends now, at 51. The ones I spent so many years with -- bound together by our children's friendships and lots of school potlucks -- scattered like dandelion seeds to the wind when my first marriage ended. Only Ebola instills more fear of contagion than the divorce of a friend whose marriage seemed perfect.
That's in the past now. My present and future friendships must have different foundations, ones that are built upon who we are together, not what we do together. It can't be about raising kids anymore -- the kids have fledged, and I don't even know why I left friendship to convenience the way I did back then, except that perhaps in those crazy years of early motherhood and full-time work, I appreciated easy comforts.
I don't need a lot of friends, but I need a few who have genuine personal depth and will let me see it. My patience for shallowness is drying up faster than the Sacramento River. Like most introverts, I don't suffer small talk lightly, but I can do it. There's a dial on my chest that I turn on when I need to, and chit-chat away. Then, I turn it off when I don't need it anymore, and do the things that nourish my soul. When I find someone who understands me, it's something I really notice. When I give that understanding to someone else, if they notice it too, that's like the gravy I grew up eating on biscuits and chicken fried steak down south, and let me tell you, that is some really good gravy.
I've had a lot of personal and professional loss lately and with each successive setback, my resilience for the next one has eroded. It's an emotional pyramid scheme in collapse. But I know who my true friends are, and I'm not sure I could have said that 10 years ago. Situational friendships didn't make us kindred spirits, and the closest thing I had to that were work colleagues, truth be told.
Working in the same school, we at least shared a passion for education and a penchant for intellectual conversation about things that really mattered because we were, after all, providing stewardship for the next generation. My colleagues were paying close attention not only to what was happening on our campus, but to the world outside our campus and our town -- the world our students would one day enter. The friendships were diverse and not based on being the same age or having kids the same age. I discovered the benefits of having friends who were much older or much younger than me, and I enjoyed being friends with people from all kinds of backgrounds -- something that would not otherwise have fallen into my lap. When I left that job and moved away, I realized what I'd lost. The circumstances of my leaving were painful and made maintaining my friendships complicated, and I basically failed at overcoming that.
About a month ago, my beloved 15-year-old cat named Fog died, and it happened soon after one of my closest friends, Michele, lost two dogs in a short period of time. Long after the "acceptable" mourning period had expired, we were both still devastated. Devastated. My husband has been exquisitely supportive, as he always is, but I didn't want to tell him every single time I saw Fog in a sunbeam or found myself suddenly choked up in the middle of a workday thinking about her. Whether he did or did not, I assumed he needed a break from me during some of these moments, and I could call Michele, a thousand miles away in Georgia, and say I was having a hard time. A few days ago I got a Facebook private message from her that said simply: "I am aching today for my babies. For Hendrix and Sula. Still hurts. I am holding back tears. Just had to tell someone." Being that someone is everything.
Sometimes I have to look a little hard to find the things I like about this stage of life. It requires a few recitations of the Serenity Prayer per week, because there's something about rounding the corner past 50 that is like a road sign asking you to get in the right lane, and it is shocking to the core. Even so, I feel so firmly grounded in who I am now. Perhaps there are many roads that lead to this place, but age and wisdom are a common one, and I love this about being in my 50s. It's a no-bullshit phase of life. I say what I mean and mean what I say, and my friends who have truly left high school behind them are on this journey with me.
I'd like to form a few more lasting friendships around shared world views. I can't develop friendships around shopping or discussions about where the hip restaurants are or who gives a great manicure. Hell, I've never even had a manicure. Not that I judge people who do! I just personally prefer talking about thousands of other things besides that. The horizon of what remains of my life is broad and deep and timeless, because whether I leave this world today or next year or when I'm 90, I've got to make the most of it while it lasts.
My best friend is my husband, and I mean that like I mean it when I say that I want to swim with the manatees. Anyone who knows me knows that no one wants to swim with the manatees more than I do. I can even tell my husband how much I want to swim with the manatees and he'll say, "Let's do it!" But then I'll say, "No. Have you seen all those jerks who are doing it? The poor things are being petted to within an inch of their lives and people are straddling them. I can't be part of that problem." And he'll laugh because he knows exactly what I'm talking about, and also that it's about more than manatees. Not being part of the problem is a defining raison d'être for us both.
Friendship is something I obviously think a lot about these days. I really never used to. When I was younger I collected friends effortlessly, just by being a mom and working in schools and being drafted onto nonprofit boards, as if my expertise were sincerely wanted. Now that I'm an older self-employed empty nester in a new town, finding friendship is an utterly deliberate act, and one that seems to require more creativity and risk taking, not to mention less introversion.
That last bit is the toughest, but I do love a challenge.
Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, and speaks on the topic of raising confident girls in today's marketing and media culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.