My calendar notes several milestones this week — dates to remember those I have lost. Today marks 15 years since my dear friend Lynn died. She was one of the most vital people I knew, which makes her early passing doubly difficult. Lynn loved to dance, loved a party and had the gift of gab. She was fun to be with. There was rhythm in her soul. I was with her the night before she died. I knew as I said good night to her that it would likely be the last time I saw her. I could tell as I looked into her eyes that she was already leaving her body. She taught me to love life and to live in the moment and not to fear death. She lived life fully up until the moment that her body could no longer go on.
This Friday would have been my friend Heni’s 74th birthday. She didn’t make it. On April 18 her spirit left her body. She was ready to go. The last few months of her illness had taken its toll. We had been friends for close to 50 years. We met in the 70s when a few women in Park Slope started a Consciousness Raising group. Heni and I shared so many of life’s highs and lows over the years. Even after the group disbanded our bonds stayed strong. Her death leaves a huge hole in my heart.
I’ve lost most of my dearest women friends way too soon. Female best friends are so vital to a woman’s happiness. Are you ever ready to let your best friend go? Perhaps only when she is suffering too much to go on. June 8 is Best Friend’s Day. I no longer have a female Best Friend. I have female friends, but the “Best Friend” designation no longer applies. It’s a vacancy you can’t fill with a new friend. The history is just not there. So this year I will celebrate those best friends I have lost—Madeleine, Lynn and Heni—and toast their memories and the glorious days that we did have together.
We’ve often noted at Friendship Dialogues the value of best friends. For those of us fortunate enough to have a bestie, we know those dear friends bring joy and comfort to us throughout our lives. They share in our happiness and offer solace when life is troubled.
But now, new research has discovered something special about friends. According to an article in the New York Times, “Scientists have found that the brains of close friends respond in remarkably similar ways as they view a series of short videos: the same ebbs and swells of attention and distraction, the same peaking of reward processing here, boredom alerts there.” In fact, researchers could predict “the strength of two people’s social bond based on their brain scans alone.”
I wasn’t surprised to read this information since it is clear to me how closely aligned good friends are. So, if our emotions are in sync, and if our views of the world match up, then why not our brains?
Today is Friendship Day, which always makes me pause and think about all the dear friends who are no longer with me. I fear that the number of good friends I have lost may be longer than the number of good friends who remain. I don’t dare try to create those two lists since I dread the reality that they may reveal. But on Friendship Day I don’t want to dwell on the sadness. I want to celebrate the joy that friendship brings to our lives.
Yesterday I read Victoria Redel’s essay in the New York Timesabout Nance, her best friend since childhood. Nance was in the hospital being treated for lymphoma, and the two life-long friends found an activity to distract them: posting a profile on Match.com for Victoria with the hope that maybe now she could find her “big love.” The story has its joy and sadness. Victoria finds her man, but Nance succumbs to her illness.
Now while this story does have a sad theme running through it, it is also about the importance of love and living life to the fullest, even if the person you most want to share life’s ups and downs with is dying. As Victoria says at the end of her essay, “I would do anything for Nance, even make a life of true happiness without her there to share it.” Now that’s friendship!
I don’t know about you, but I just love Anne Lamott. I’ve read most of her books and have saved some of her most meaningful quotes so I can read them over and over. One of my favorites is this one:
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
I have learned to dance with the loss that broke my heart – the untimely death of my best friend Madeleine. It’s taken many years to reach this place and a lot of effort at finding joy again.
This week I picked up Anne’s latest book, “Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy.” As always, Anne’s wisdom fills my soul. One particular chapter in the book was filled with quotes to savor. There was this one about a friend and dealing with loss:
“Is there anything that can help at rock bottom? No. Only a friend….This is the greatest mercy I know, a loved one hearing and nodding, even if over the phone.”
How beautifully that captures the essence of friendship. A true golden friendship is one that is constant and never wavers in its constancy. Don’t confuse that with a Facebook friend or one of many women you know from the gym or the office that may be fun to be with but may not have your back when the going gets tough. A best friend is a lifetime friend and will always be there for you when you are at your lowest point.
Here’s to all the best friends out there. Cherish each other!
This past week I was deeply touched by a million plus acts of kindness that connected women with other women – total strangers. It started when my friend’s daughter told me about the handmade pink pussy hats that were given out to women without hats at the DC Women’s March. In addition to being able to pick the hat she and her girlfriend wanted, the one her friend selected had a note attached to it.
The note said: “Dear Wearer of this Hat, this hat was made by Delight Satter, tribal member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, OR. A woman’s issue I care about is Indigenous Rights including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Please post a pic of yourself to my Facebook page. Be Strong!”
I was inspired by this note and decided to track down Delight Satter and ask her about her hat. Well it turns out that she crocheted seven of them, since that was how much pink yarn she had left in her craft basket. She also made one for herself that she wore at the Atlanta Women’s March.
The craft movement that started this venture was the Pussyhat Project. It was launched over Thanksgiving weekend with the goal of “creating a sea of pink hats representing not only those at the march, but also the makers of these pink hats!” Not only did it achieve its goal it also succeeded in joining female strangers with these attached notes that encouraged communication between the wearer and the knitter.
What motivated Delight to take part in this movement? She said that she’s originally from the Northwest from a small tribe in Oregon. “It is part of the cultural practices in the Northwest to create small items to give away,” she said. So since the call to make 1.7 million hats brought together her native culture with her interest in women’s rights, she jumped right in. The sharing of hats touched Delight deeply. She said, “I was able to express traditional values through sharing and giving away items of the heart that I created with my own hands. It’s important for people to take action in small ways, it’s good for your health and well-being.”
And it looks like the making of hats is not about to end with the Women’s March. Delight told me another call has gone out to make “brain hats” for an upcoming science march. This group was started by knitting creator Kristen McDonnell of the YouTube channel Studio Knit. Looks like pink wool will be in great demand over the next four years.
I always gobble up anything that I find on the subject of friendship. So I was delighted when a friend sent me a link to an article at “brain pickings” by Maria Popova about the friendship between celebrated environmental author Rachel Carson and her neighbor Dorothy Freeman.
For those of us who have experienced a deep and loving friendship it is not surprising to read that when Rachel wrote to her best friend Dorothy she used the most tender of words, such as “my very own darling,” in her salutation. The friendship with Dorothy was essential to Rachel’s creative and emotional life. Rachel knew from the moment she met Dorothy in 1953 that their relationship was going to be special. After visiting the Freemans’ home and staying the night, Carson wrote to Dorothy, “I am certain, my dearest, that it will be forever a joy, of increasing loveliness with the years, and that in the intervals when being separated, we cannot have all the happiness of Wednesday, there will be, in each of our hearts, a little oasis of peace and ‘sweet dreams’ where the other is.”
The letters between the two friends can be found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952 – 1964 – The Story of a Remarkable Friendship, edited by Martha Freeman. I love the way Carson describes to Dorothy how their friendship filled the years they had together: “You have come to occupy a place in my life that no one else could fill, and it is strange now to contemplate all the empty years when you weren’t there. But perhaps we shouldn’t regret those years — perhaps instead we should just give ourselves over to wonder and gratitude that a friendship so satisfying and so full of joy and beauty could come to each of us in the middle years — when, perhaps, we needed it most!”
Is there a particular time in life when you need the joy of such a friendship? I don’t know if I’d pick one segment of my life for that. I was fortunate to have had my best friend Madeline for 40 years, up until I was 58, but now that I’ve turned 70, I fervently wish she was still here with me to help shore up the more difficult aging years.
A few weeks ago I hosted a meeting at my home of some of the women who had shared their stories of love and loss at Friendship Dialogues. I had been thinking about this get-together for a while and was looking forward to creating a Friendship Circle for women who had been through the very same life-altering experience as I had — the loss of their best female friend.
I thought a lot about how to organize the day and as is my tendency, I planned over a dozen questions to ask to start and keep the conversation going. Well, I quickly found out that when you get eight women together with a common bond you don’t have to work hard to create dialogue. For three hours we talked steadily, then we gathered for a meal and continued the conversation for a couple of hours more.
It’s hard to resurrect five hours of conversation, but what stays with me is the sense that a gathering like this provided a refuge in the common grief we shared. Despite the fact that most of us were strangers, there was a connection that the group shared that made it easy to talk openly, weep together and also laugh at the funny things we all had done with our best friends. One woman said she felt there were shards of her departed best friend in everyone. She also said, “Even though none of you knew her, all of us having that primary loss in common helped me reconnect with my grief.” Another woman found the experience too raw. She said, “It was like a scab had come off.” Listening to others express their more recent grief brought too much of the old pain back. She did say that writing down her story for the website was different. “The written word is immortal,” she added, and it gave her relief.
So while most of us got comfort from the Friendship Circle discussion, it can open up old wounds for some. Still, I would recommend grief gatherings where women can share their stories of friendship and also their pain when those precious friendships are taken away by death. There are many ways to get support when you lose a family member, but while friends can be as dear—or more dear—than family, there are no prescribed rituals for mourning this devastating loss. A Friendship Circle, I sincerely believe, is a good way to start. Writing your friendship story is another powerful way to deal with your loss and I encourage any woman who has a story to share about the loss of her best friend to do so at Friendship Dialogues.
How many people do you count as your true friends? Are they close friends that you trust and have regular contact with or are they social media relationships sans the intimacy of face-to-face interactions? In today’s New York Times, columnist David Brooks points to research that shows there has been a decline in the number of high-quality friendships in the past three decades as he pondered the role that social media might play in this drop.
Brooks notes that in a 1985 poll, most Americans said they had about three people with whom they could share everything. But now most people say they have about two. Likewise, Brooks explains, “In 1985, 10 percent of Americans said they had no one to fully confide in, but by the start of this century 25 percent of Americans said that.”
Opinions vary about the role of social media in changing our habits and our interactions with others. If you own a smartphone as nearly 2/3s of Americans and close to 2 billion people worldwide do, it probably won’t surprise you that a British study found we check our phones on average 221 times a day. I know that my habits have changed since I started using an iPhone two years ago. Now when I find myself alone at a restaurant I scroll through my email, read the news online and check Facebook. In the past I might have brought a book with me to read or glanced around the room and watched other diners eating their meals or even focused on what I was eating. When my husband and I watch television, if I find my attention wandering from what is playing on the TV screen, I pick up my smartphone and play Words With Friends with two of my friends who also play the game. This irritates my husband and I have made an effort to do it less often.
Now Words With Friends does let me interact with two close friends who I also make an effort to see in real time as often as possible. But I am aware that I have become more easily bored and with a smartphone always near, I tend to check what’s happening in the world throughout the day. Has this made me less interested in being with real people? Has it made me less likely to get together with friends? No. But I do worry about younger people who may not have cemented those tight friendships yet that make you want to pick up the phone and chat with your BFF or make a date to get together for lunch.
But perhaps technology is having other impacts on me that I don’t recognize. An article at The Conversation called “Virtual Distance: Technology is Rewriting the Rulebook for Human Interaction” by Karen Sobel-Lojeski and Martin Westwell explains that, “Virtual distance is a psychological and emotional sense of detachment that accumulates little by little, at the sub-conscious or unconscious level, as people trade-off time interacting with each other for time spent ‘screen skating’ (swiping, swishing, pinching, tapping, and so on).” This has unintended consequences. People can become distrustful of one another and be less likely to exhibit helping behaviors.
While I don’t think that has happened to me yet, I am aware that the additional time I spend on a screen means less time for other activities, even if it’s just staring into space, lost in thought. I know I have to pay attention to this, especially since technology keeps evolving and finding new and engaging ways to occupy our attention.
So I’m making a commitment to more people time and less screen time, more blog writing and less blog reading, more creative engagement and less picking up my iPhone if I’m bored, and more time being with a friend and less time playing Words With Friends. Well, I’m not so sure about that last pledge. I really do like playing Words With Friends.
“A woman of valor,” how often I’ve heard that phrase spoken at funerals and memorial services. Normally I assume it’s just one of those canned phrases people throw out without a lot of thought when memorializing a person who has died. But today when I attended the funeral of Lilo Leeds those words rang true.
I had the good fortune to work for Lilo and her husband Gerry for fifteen years at CMP, the publishing company they co-founded on Long Island. Lilo believed fervently in hiring and promoting women. In fact she insisted on it. In the late 70’s when the sales staff at CMP was all women, she encouraged the publishers to hire women. But after little progress in that regard she told them they couldn’t hire any sales staff until they hired a woman. The first woman hired didn’t work out well and so the publishers went back to Lilo and asked about hiring men again. Lilo stuck to her guns and suggested they just do a better job on the next female hire. The next time a woman was hired she turned out to be a huge success and eventually the sales force became about 70% women. She also insisted that more women be hired in managerial roles and did all she could to encourage and support the women at the company.
I joined CMP in 1983 and in 1985 was named the editor of VARBusiness, a new magazine started as a supplement to Computer Systems News. Lilo asked me to start a woman’s group at the company to help encourage and support women in managerial roles. I moved on to several different roles at the company over the years and in the early ’90s when the health publication I headed up was sold I attended a meeting with her and other top management where a discussion took place about the looming layoffs. As the discussion turned to the people who were now out of a job, Lilo said, “There will be no layoffs. We will find jobs for these people.”
A meeting was set up with all the top editors in the company. All of these editors headed up technology publications and I was charged with talking about the talents of my staff who were mostly experts in healthcare. Every individual on my staff was interviewed and every last one of them received a job offer. I never forgot that. Lilo showed me that a business could be very successful and still have heart. In fact, it was Lilo who was the heart of CMP.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Lilo was committed to far more than women in business. She and her husband were firm believers in public education, equal rights and justice. They fought in the courts to allow girls to play Little League hardball and won; they established the first on-site daycare program on Long Island at CMP; they launched the Institute for Student Achievement with their son Greg that set up tutoring in high schools in underserved districts; and later the Alliance for Excellent Education was formed to push for national policy that would make such successful public high schools available to all students. And that’s only part of the legacy of Lilo and Gerry. Both fought throughout their lives for equity and justice. After they sold CMP in the late ’90’s they could have rested on their laurels, but they didn’t. Their gift to their family, friends and employees was the example they set. Their gift to the world was the many causes they supported generously with their time and finances.
I hope Lilo will forgive me for writing about her. She was a very private person and didn’t seek the limelight. She only sought results. Rest in peace Lilo Leeds. You’ve earned it.
A few months ago I was browsing through an airport book shop and found my eye drawn to a book titled My Brilliant Friendby Elena Ferrante, the pen name of an Italian novelist. I flipped the book over to the back cover and found this praise from Emily Gould, author of Friendship, “The truest evocation of a complex and lifelong friendship between women I’ve ever read.”
I was immediately sold—Ferrante was writing about female best friends, my favorite subject. At that point in time I didn’t realize that this book was part of a four-book series called “The Neapolitan Novels” and that I was in for an intense and beautifully written saga about friendship, family, violence and the changing fortunes of Naples.
The four books chart the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo that began with their meeting in first grade. Elena writes the stories as an adult after she learns that Lila has disappeared. Each of the books charts a different period in their lives, starting with childhood and ending when they are in their sixties. Ferrante casts a magical spell and I was drawn into Elena and Lila’s intense relationship. Sometimes deeply connected and other times at odds and barely speaking, their friendship crests and ebbs through six decades.
At times it felt to me as if the feisty and unpredictable Lila had cast a spell over bookish Elena who was dependent on her friend for her inspiration, creativity and confidence. Yet it was often Elena who had to pull her friend out of her despondency as she suffers through a violent marriage, separation, economic insecurity and eventually the loss of her child. The fortunes of the two friends rise and fall, as if they were riding a seesaw.
I devoured these books. They were addictive and as I finished one I eagerly ordered the next. It has been a few months since I finished the last book and I find myself frequently thinking about the two women and their friendship. I didn’t admire their friendship. It often felt unequal and imbalanced. While real-life friendships do have ups and downs, this storybook one had too many gaps for me. It would leave me feeling unfulfilled. But while I wouldn’t want to trade my idea of friendship for the reality of theirs, I do highly recommend reading their story. It is haunting and it swept me away to a different time and place. There are many different kinds of friendship, but there is no doubt that the relationship between Elena and Lila was the pivotal bond in their lives. And that is something I can clearly relate to.