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Old Friends

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"It takes a long time to grow an old friend." -- John Leonard

Regular readers know I am longtime fan of the music of Stephen Sondheim, and his take on life, love, memories, and what we lose along the way. Two weeks ago I made an impulsive decision to break up a working week in Manhattan to see a revival of Merrily We Roll Along at the refurbished City Center.

Nancy taught me that our instincts offer the wisest lessons and surprises. Listening deeply opens doors and windows to life. Right again, my love.

The performance was exceptional, but the real impact came less from its infectious score gleaming with promises you so hope would be fulfilled than that the story is told in reverse chronology. The protagonists' time travel moves from the awkward breakup of "old friends" (perhaps the show's famous song) in 1976 back through the years of broken friendships and promises to the awkward promise of first meetings in 1957. As an audience member, you are dragged from "not again" back to "why not."

When the lights came up at intermission, I was struck by the age of the New York audience. Most of us were 60 or older, seasoned by life's lessons and losses, and aware what it takes to stand tall in an off-center world. The small talk and the tears were about making moments count, and staying on guard for the little murders of daily life, the soft deceits and self-talk that gives us permission to be less honest and open with ourselves and those we love.

Merrily is all about dreams gone sour, broken hearts, and hopes tested by time, ambition, and fate. While not really depressing, I still wanted a little squirt of dopamine to hit my brain and lighten my spirits as I slipped from the cocoon of the warm theatre to the snowy streets.

Over the past three-and-a-half years, I have had to learn to live a solitary life. I am busy, productive, and spoiled by wonderful friends, adult children (and a new grandson), and my younger sister and brother-in-law who have come back into my busy life after years of living apart. I am more aware then ever of what focus and commitment it takes to shape and live an exceptional life, and frankly how easy, sometimes tempting, it is to miss a step and slip offstage and simply watch the performance.

I am aware of the seductions of social media, and the temptation to believe that to be "friended" on Facebook meant that you actually expanded your conversation with old and new pals. After finding myself with nearly 5,000 "friends" the New York Times asked how it "felt." I told them I preferred "scratch and sniff friends," and I do.

The growth of the social web and the increasing linkages to what some call "Web 4.0" will make sifting and sorting our time and attention for "real" friends more and more challenging. But it's worth it. Anais Nin put it beautifully when she said, "Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born."

I work hard to be a good friend, and since Nancy's death, I find time with my special friends to be deeper and more meaningful than ever. We get "real" fast, and we don't waste time doing things that we don't enjoy together. Mature friendships don't "have the time" for that. We watch out for one another, share and celebrate our minor victories, and love our way through the losses.

We also listen deeply to one another, and make our times together important in the small and large ways life offers up. Ed Cunningham reminded me that "Friends are those rare people who ask how we are and then wait to hear the answer."

It all starts with befriending yourself, because if you don't fully accept who you are (and aren't), how can you really be present with another? Most of us spent decades in competitive settings, so friends "helped" get bigger, taller, stronger, richer... or so we thought. Being present in who I am invites friendship without any agenda but what we might discover and nurture in one another.

Be a friend... first to yourself and then to the special people in your life who are ready to be in your life.

"A friend is one who walks in when others walk out" -- Walter Winchell

For more by Roger Fransecky, click here.

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