Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The meaning of the word

Always a week or two into the school year, the question. “Have you made any friends?” Honestly! I had thought they were sending me to school to learn, something that mattered. I was never exactly sure what the question meant or why people found it important. When the teacher asked us to draw it, I made a ship, the S.S. Friend. Everyone else got the problem wrong. I saw their representations of smiling children in pairs or in larger groups. In the playground I saw them, too, the boys playing ball or roughhousing, the girls jumping rope or gossiping. I saw nothing there that I needed. I walked the edges of the property, collected rocks, touched the bark of a certain tree I’d grown fond of. Yes, I felt the thing called loneliness, but it wasn’t for what I saw of friendship. Something else I couldn’t define.

Until I was around twelve, the word “friend” had no meaning to me. At that age, my parents were still arranging “play dates” with the children of their own acquaintances (friends?) I didn’t even suspect what they were up to until the day I was forbidden to take a book along while visiting. So that’s it, I thought. Friends are to keep you from thinking. I worked out a theory for how that might make people happy. There was some logic to it, a way of staying busy while reinforcing one’s own beliefs. This was not a thought much appreciated by my exasperated mother. “When we get there,” she said, “say hello to Robby and Melody.” “Hello to Robby and Melody,” I repeated, laughing. And then what? Nobody ever explained.

A big part of what was going on was that nobody knew me. I’ve always defined myself mostly as my thoughts, which I’ve never found a way to express very well or accurately, except through writing. I’m still not sure how other people define the thing called “self” or if most people think about it much. Maybe it’s one of those things like eye contact and small talk, assumed not to need thinking about, I don’t know.

From that bookless day in the car on the way to Robby and Melody’s house (hello!) the meaning of friendship changed. Now it was not with indifference but with shame I viewed my aloneness. I started to notice that nobody sat next to me, that this was the case wherever I went. I’d always been glad of it before, but now it meant something was wrong. Now I was broken.

Then it was time for a new school and I found myself with a “friend” or two, the others who didn’t quite fit anywhere else. It didn’t feel any different really, but it calmed down my parents and teachers, and that was good. I even talked on the phone with one of them. We were best friends for the next four years. I explained myself to her with books and with movies and songs. Read this, I would say; sometimes she would. Do you get it? Do you see me now?

It was after high school when I made my first real friends, two of them, almost simultaneously. We talked, or they did anyway, but we also wrote letters. Finally, there were people who knew me. I started to understand friendship then, it began to make sense. It opened a place in my heart that had always been waiting. It turned out to be a Pandora’s Box of need and anxiety that would take many years to settle down. Now instead of nothing, I wanted everything of friends. But that’s another story.

If I had to do grade school over, I might do it differently now. Knowing what I now know, I might arrive with a typed resume or brief statement of purpose. Approaching an unsuspecting peer at recess, I’d offer it like a map to buried treasure. Patiently I would wait for the answer. Friends? Are we friends? Do you think we should be? Repeating the word until it lost its meaning.


  1. I am going to build you a ship.

  2. Oh those books! I too always had a book in hand during all social occasions and lunch breaks! Who would have thought that a child reading books could become something so annoying to your parents?

  3. This is a very powerful post. Frienship is something I worry about a lot when it comes to M. So...maybe I should just chill and not worry so much?

  4. I think the friendship resume is a great idea. Maybe that's why my only friends as an adult have been online to start. Reading someone's thoughts on a message board and on a blog are like a resume of sorts.

    Aside: I came from a secular family but went to a religious school. I thought the "worship" of God was the "warship" of God, and that must be why we were told to "fear" God. Course you fear him! Dude has a warship!

  5. This is *so* similar to me. Even down to just about the exact same ages. No friends nor desire for friends until about 12, but knew that i was "supposed" to have friends from about... 8 or so, i think. Then one friend, who i loved so obsessively practically everyone, even my parents, thought it was sexual, from about 12 to about 15... then i started having more than one friend at once, even though most of those friendships managed to screw up or fall apart in one way or another. The person who has been my closest friend for the last 4-5 years is actually probably the longest-running close friend i've ever had, altho i have another 3 or 4 of nearly the same level and over 2 years duration now. Feels weird to try to quantify them like that.

    One odd thing i've noticed is that i started developing a desire for friendship at nearly exactly the same age that most of my NT peers developed a sexuality, and non-sexual friendship held the same level of obsessive importance for me at the same ages that sexuality did for them. My actual sexuality didn't start to develop until i was around 15-16, and now at 25 i think i have the sexuality of an average 16 year old.

    There *needs* to be more written and analysed/discussed about these sort of topics IMO...

    LOL at the "warship". Reminds me of "Our Father with chart in heaven" (his big chart with marks for good deeds and bad ones)...

  6. I really like this post. It reminds me of my own childhood and teen years always with a book in hand or eating lunch by myself. I still don't know the difference between an acquaintance seen on a semi regular bases (like at work or at a weekly community band practice) and a friend. Close friends (or in my case, the singular form of the word) do not mystify me but any change in their behavior almost scares me. And I remember my mother telling me to ask people at recess if they would like to be my friend. Sorry for such a long comment. Again, great post.


  7. *nodding* Little Miss is in third grade this year and the first thing they ALWAYS want to talk about at IEP meetings is her socialization. She's not mean to anyone. She doesn't act out. She doesn't hit people, even if they pester her. But she's just not "social." Little Miss is also not obsessed by fashion or Hannah Montana or makeup or boys, like her peers.
    But she's happy.
    As a divorce attorney, I deal with so many people who can't be alone. They make bad choice after bad choice because they consistently have to be "with" someone. Honestly, I think my daughter's headed in a much healthier direction, and I wish they'd just leave her the hell alone.

  8. When I was in elementary school, I would sometimes invite friends over just because I knew it was expected of me. Every so often I got a craving to spend time with a particular other person, the same way I would get a craving to read a particular book, but for the most part the people around me cared about me having friends a lot more than I cared about having friends.

    Shiva - I developed in much the same way. Obsessive friendship at around 13, no real sexual feelings until around 15 or 16. I did have friends before then, but they didn't matter to me nearly as much as what was going on in my head did.

  9. When I was a kid, I learned about friends mainly from reading books. I thought friends were supposed to be companions in adventure, like Nancy Drew's "chums." So I would dream up all sorts of wild adventures and try to persuade other kids to be my sidekicks. But usually they weren't interested, alas, so I just went back to reading books and collecting sparkly rocks.

    It was great fun when someone actually understood what I was talking about, though.

  10. Brilliant, Bev. "Now it was not with indifference but with shame I viewed my aloneness. I started to notice that nobody sat next to me, that this was the case wherever I went. I’d always been glad of it before, but now it meant something was wrong. Now I was broken." [wow]
    My mom never arranged playdates for me, but I found out much later that she "wished" I had friends, and that she is so pleased that I have them on the internet, if not in real life.

  11. An intersting and thought provoking read.

  12. It is very intersting and thought provoking topic. When I was a kid, I enjoyed to play with nighborhood kids and most was nice to me, but some are consider a friend. But at shcool, I did have have some friend, until I moved to another school there are alot of kids that are being so nasty to me and refuse to near me nor wanted to be friend to me just because I was different (talk about having an aloneness movement, that is really sucks to experence that), but I did have some that are thought to be friends and there are only one who only a ture friend. In my Juior High year, it was very diffcult. I was repeaty teesed and bullied by people who thought to be a friend. They repeaty thareting to beat me up, take advintence of me, and making fun of my autism, (think goodness that nobody that I was autistic).
    I did stay with them, because of fear of being alone, are still a repeated cycle of them teesing and bullying until I relized that those people are not an good example of me and relized that is really who they are, and I stop haying out with them, and moved on. In High School, I wanted to friend with someone and was rejected by them. I still have some who I thought to be a friend, but I drop them like a habbit, (I don't wanted to be a repeated expenence I have in Junior High). I did have an acquaintance, but I rejected her and I regreted by it. Today, I have no friends and now I am learning the matakes that I have and learn that not everyone will going to be nice to me. I still wanted to make friends, but I learn that it will takes time to created a long time friendship. Now, I don't feel the loneniess of not having frieds because the only ones that was there with me is my family and what matters most is family and should be to top prority in everyone's lives.

  13. I was taking the kids for a walk through the woods yesterday when we strolled past a tree overflowing with a posse of children. Why don't you go and see what they're doing, I suggested to J. OK, he shrugged. He pottered off to join them just as they got bored and charged off to jump in puddles.

    I felt sad. It seemed poignant, full of pathos, suggestive of a lonely life to come. J wasn't sad. He seemed relieved.

    He was sad two minutes later when he fell out of the tree and dropped his plastic ring with the swirly pattern.

    Ten desperate minutes later, with the tears becoming more urgent, I found the ring. "Thanks, Dad." He beamed at me. Best mates.

  14. Humans are herd animals. Most of us feel more secure in groups. There are few things as satisfying as sharing an enjoyable experience with a congenial person, or group of people.
    That being said, as an only child of older parents, I always preferred being with just one or two companions at a time. Large groups make me nervous. I have a hard time concentrating on what everyone is saying and I never know where to look when I am speaking to the whole group at once.
    Anyway having a few good friends who share memories going back more than 20 years is great. And so are books. I really enjoy reading your blog Please keep it up. Your honesty is refreshing.

  15. That was a fascinating story. I kept thinking how similar it was to my own experience, but my skill is in noting subtle differences (nitpicking, some people call it). The difference was: I had the same "problem" of being more into my books and games than people, but I decided one day to stop letting those same people I can barely stand to be around define my terms. I have [a few] friends because I say they are, and I keep in mind that I cannot with 100% certainty say that they feel equally bonded. I'm content with highly probable, and this serenity had been the answer to quite a few dilemmas over the years. Everyone else is just a 'friendly acquaintance' unless they choose to antagonize me--or conversely, pursue a friendlier relationship.


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