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Essential Love

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.


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Finding Solace in a Friendship Circle

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.

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What Do Two Friends Laughing Sound Like?

One of the happiest sounds I know is the laughter of two friends – the full-bellied, all-out, uncontrollable variety that brings tears of joy to your eyes. Have you had moments like this? I sure have. I can recall gasping for air when my best friend Madeleine and I were well into a full-blown laughing fit. When she laughed her whole face got into the act. Her eyes crinkled up and her mouth opened wide while her head tilted slightly back. While I don’t have a photo of her with me in full laugh mode I do have one that captured her laughing broadly at something her husband Scott said to her at my wedding to Jonathan.

She’s been gone for 13 years now, but I can still conjure up the sound and sight of her laughing. So when I read about a study on laughter that demonstrated relationship status I was intrigued. The research was conducted by UCLA professor Greg Bryant and 32 global collaborators, including Daniel Fessler, a UCLA professor and Riccardo Fusaroli, an assistant professor in Denmark. The study aimed to find out if listeners to audio clips of two people laughing could distinguish whether they were friends or strangers.

The results showed that 61% of the time listeners could identify the relationship correctly. But the scenario that they were best able to judge was when two women friends were laughing together. They got this right more than 80% of the time. Regardless of the listener’s cultural background, said Bryant, they presumed that co-laughter between women meant they were friends. “People from around the world assume that when two females are laughing together that they are friends,” he added.

The study suggests that laughter between friends is more spontaneous and has greater irregularities in pitch and loudness, and also has faster bursts of sound. That sounds right to me. If you want to check it out for yourself, you can at UCLA’s Newsroom where you can hear two clips of females laughing (one between friends and the other strangers).

The article

Friendship: What Works Best, a Twosome or Threesome?

It was a slow Saturday night and my husband and I were watching one of life’s guilty pleasures – Naked and Afraid XL. The premise of the reality TV show is that a dozen survivalists are dropped into the Columbian jungle without food, water or clothes and they have to find a way to survive 40 days and nights. The show we were watching was one of the last in the 2015 series and there was much squabbling going on. Two of the men had moved away from the group, figuring they’d do better as a duo. The seven remaining starving and dirty men and women had ganged up on one of the women who they felt wasn’t a team player.

It was interesting to watch the dynamics even though I don’t trust any reality show to be about reality. What I zeroed in on were the two men who had teamed up. There was no squabbling between them and they were able to divvy up their survival responsibilities based on their individual skills. I couldn’t help but wonder if three of them had partitioned off instead of two, would the camaraderie have been as strong?

In my own experiences – with food, shelter and clothes – I’ve found that among female friends a twosome generally works a lot better than a threesome. With three friends there is always the likelihood that one will feel left out when two agree about something or laugh together or get together when the third member of the group isn’t there. When two women are best friends there is trust and support. I think it’s a lot harder for three women to be best friends. I’m not sure what happens if the friends in question are men. What about two women and a man or two men and a woman, can friendships like that be as close as two peas in a pod.

What do you think? What has been your experience?

The article

Shocking News About Friendship

This week the Today show is running a series on “The New Middle Age” with journalist Joan Lunden doing the segments. One of the segments was on the importance of friendship in middle age. To demonstrate the value of friendship, Joan and her friend of 15 years, Louise, took part in a neuroscience experiment.

Louise was put in an MRI machine where she would be given cues that would indicate whether or not she might get an electric shock to her ankle. The test was designed to create anxiety. The experiment was conducted three ways: Louise alone in the scanner; with a stranger holding her hand; and with her friend Joan holding her hand. The purpose of the experiment was to evaluate how people regulate anxiety in these three different circumstances.

Not surprisingly, the brain scans showed blood activity to the brain when Louise was alone or when a stranger held her hand, but when Joan was with Louise, those areas of her brain were quiet. Said Louise of the experience, when Joan walked in, “I felt she had my back.”

Many of us are familiar with the experience of relaxing when you hear your friend’s voice, feel her touch or look into her eyes. Close friends soothe. They comfort. They let you know you are not alone.

In fact, research shows that people with a large network of friends live longer and are healthier. But U.S. census bureau data from 2013 shows a disturbing trend: people ages 45 to 64 were 29% more likely to live alone than they were 10 years ago. So more than ever before it is important that we make time for friends and cherish the ones we have.

The article

Dancing the Blues Away

I have been feeling blue lately. A very dear friend of mine has lung cancer. It was discovered a year ago and she’s had chemo, radiation and surgery to address it. She was healing from the treatments and had gotten strong again when she discovered that the cancer is back. She is about to start immunotherapy and possibly chemo along with it.

Her struggle has brought back all the pain of losing my best friend Madeleine 13 years ago. It’s not that there haven’t been other losses in the last 13 years, but I had allowed myself to get really close to this dear friend. We’ve known each other for close to 45 years, but the friendship has truly blossomed in the last 10 years after we retired and got to spend more time with each other.

She’s a person with a great appetite for life. She sparkles. She shines. We both have houses in the Hamptons and love sitting in the sun, listening to the birds, enjoying nature and the bounty that sun, water and earth provide. She’s well grounded in her life. And now this. She is about to undergo more devastating treatments, right before the summer. Her favorite season. It breaks my heart.

I feel guilty too for my sadness. What right do I have to be down? My health is good. I’m not enduring one brutal cancer treatment after another. But even as I tell myself that my heart feels heavy. I don’t want to share my sorrow with my friend. She doesn’t need to hear about how her crisis is affecting me. I was saddened too to realize that I didn’t have anyone to share my sorrow with who offered me the same comfort that I used to get from Madeleine. She was my soul mate and her comfort brought me solace.

So I decided to write to the two-dozen women I interviewed for Friendship Dialogues to find out if they have had a particularly hard time dealing with the illness and potential loss of another friend after having suffered the wrenching loss of their best friend. I got back a flood of email messages, so many wise and stirring notes from these women that offered me enormous comfort. I realized that in my desire to share my story about Madeleine and to tell the stories of other women who have also lost their female best friends has led me to create a friendship support group. These women that I have not met have been so giving of their time, support and advice. The email dialogue that we created together these last few days has been uplifting for me and, I believe, to all of them as well.

So I want to thank them for their wisdom and generosity. And once again I encourage you to read the stories at Friendship Dialogues and get to know these amazing women who have endured a deep and painful loss but have learned to live with it and keep going.

I’ll close this post with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. She inspires me to accept loss as part of life even if it leaves me limping along.

“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.”





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Friend Dating

Two months ago I wrote about the power of connection with others and its value in living a good life. But what happens when you lose close friends later in life when it’s harder to meet new people? Friend dating, as Lindsay Kavet, one of the Friendship Dialogues storytellers, realized, can be essential to moving on after the loss of a lifelong best friend. In Lindsay’s case, her best friend of 11 years Polly Mae Tolonen died in a car accident in 2008.

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article called “The Science of Making Friends.” The author, Elizabeth Bernstein, noted that she’d been going on friend dates recently and offered some words of advice that I think are worth repeating.

First of all you can’t be casual about this, you need to go about finding new friends with intention. Bernstein says, “Just as you would when looking for a mate, you need to look for someone who has something in common with you, and who is emotionally available.”

Bernstein offers a number of nuggets of wisdom about finding a friend:

  • Don’t expect too much too soon
  • Look broadly
  • Share something of yourself emotionally
  • Follow your interests
  • Be consistent
  • Consider rekindling an old friendship

It’s been awhile since I’ve intentionally gone out to make new friends. It’s not easy to do this. Your circle of opportunity narrows as you get older and you are less likely to meet new people. So it may mean joining new groups with which you have shared interests. Sometimes it means working harder on relationships you already have, to deepen the ties.

Have you made new friends recently? What’s worked for you?

The article

Friendship — What a Lovely Thing

My 11-year old granddaughter Maya had a language arts homework assignment recently. She chose to write a poem on Friendship. I was particularly moved by the last sentence. Here’s her poem:


Friendship by Maya Terry

Friendship what a lovely thing

It’s as bright and shiny as a diamond ring

I see friendships everywhere

in the streets, on the sidewalks and even in the square

People talking, laughing and holding hands

They even play in some bands

We have our disagreements every once in a while

But when we make up we always smile

We share all our secrets

but only our friend finds the deepest


With the insight of a wise crone, she uncovered one of the essential features of a powerful friendship: a best friend understands you so well that they can delve into the treasure trove of secrets you share with them and know which is the most consequential one.

It pleases me that Maya, who was named for my best friend Madeleine, has such a profound understanding of the meaning of friendship. My 40-year friendship with Madeleine involved the sharing of many secrets. Madeleine knew me so well, she knew when I needed to talk and understood when I was removed from my emotions and needed her to draw my feelings out.

Have you read anything on friendship that touched you?

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The Power of Connection

Friendship Dialogues Founder, Ellen Pearlman

What is it, do you think, that makes for a good life? Riches? Fame? Business success? Actually the answer is none of the above. A long-term Harvard University study of Adult Development has come up with a different conclusion. The study tracked 724 men from the Boston area for 75 years, an unusual amount of time for one study to last. Some of the men became lawyers, bricklayers and doctors and one, John F. Kennedy, even became President of the U.S. The study, which is still going on, has also tracked the wives and more than 2000 children of these men. The 4th study director, Robert Waldinger said in a Ted Talk the clearest message from the reams of data they’ve collected is “good relationships keep us happier and healthier.” Social connection is good for us while “loneliness kills,” he said. The brain function of those in the study who were isolated actually declined sooner than those who were connected with others. And it’s not the number of friends one has that matters, it’s the quality of the close relationships that matter. Good relationships, it turns out, protect our brains and our health. If you have people you can count on you stay sharper longer.

So what does that data mean for us? We need to “lean in” to relationships with family, friends and community,” said Waldinger. That’s a lesson that I’ve learned too from interviewing more than two-dozen women for Friendship Dialogues. The women I talked to were nurtured by the relationships they had with their female best friends. When that friend died they knew they could not replace the treasured friendship, but they also knew they had to make an effort to avoid loneliness. They understood they needed connection with others.

One of the women, Lindsay Kavet, said she had an epiphany after her best friend Polly Mae Tolonen died in a car accident that she had to start “friend dating.” Lindsay was building a community called Expressing Motherhood and was listening to people share their stories, but she had been keeping her distance, not talking to the performers. But after she realized she had to connect more with others, she started to seek some of them out, sharing her points about their readings. That led to her texting some of them and even asking some of the women to go out with her to an event. All of this was out of her comfort zone, but it led to her making some new friends and that has been a comfort to her.

When my best friend Madeleine was in intensive care for four months, another friend invited me to join her book club. I didn’t really feel that I had the time or the desire to do that, but I knew that Madeleine was deathly ill and her time was limited. I knew how lonely I would be without her and so I joined the group knowing that getting out once a month with other women was a positive step to take. It was an affirmation of life. It would foster a connection with others. It was an acknowledgement that I would have to go on without Madeleine and needed social connection with others to serve as a small cushion after she was gone.

So that’s my message: Small steps are necessary when we experience loss. Loneliness is deadly and we need to be proactive in seeking out people and interests in our lives that can make us feel connected again.