Love comes quietly,
about me, on me
in the old ways.
What did I know
able to go
alone all the way. (Robert Creeley)
So . . . . Easter will mark two years since this short column, this vagrant child, was born. I have typically written what, over coffee, on any Saturday morning, comes to mind with no view to any particular theme or coherence. But I hope I have hailed two things: the majesties of fantasy––as if life has a cover with the lost astral queen of Ur-Eolonium on the front––and the joys of kinship.
Friendship is one of a handful of things that matter most to me––love, creativity, health being some others. It’s virtues are, yes, superficially wonderful but are also much more complex, and at times, more dark than those of blithe pleasure and comradeship. More than once, heartbreak has been part of friendship.
I have talked a lot about conversation. Perhaps I have talked too much about talk as the great medicinal patch. If only we could sit down together and talk, I’d understand why you don’t like abstract art? Why you do like Mitch McConnell? We may never agree, but just that humane poise of hearing each other may be agreement enough. The great rub there, as the internet illustrates so gravely, is that we talk to people with whom we already agree. It’s like playing baseball without an opposing team.
This piece could be only about words and friendship, about how friendship alters and enlarges words, in a spirit of trust or play or concentration that draws out shadows and counterpoints to be found only in a voice that you love, a resonance you trust. Last week I heard a word, just one word, uttered by a friend that, before it dissolved, meant something I had never known it to mean before. A priest may make ordinary words holy; a friend may do the same.
One dynamic of friendship, of course, is improvisation. A note is struck, and off you go, like jazz musicians who know each other like brothers. At other times, more quietly, we need to see through another’s eyes, to feel through another’s heart. In his new book, Consolations, the poet David Whyte says: An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die. The word that Edmund de Waal uses––kindness.
Can one speak of friendship, finally, without mention of vulnerability? And here, perhaps, is friendship’s most beguiling, hesitant, frustrating gift. Dissension arises––tell me it ain’t so––and as in marriage, you can’t just flip the dissension switch off. Here’s a fable to learn, a maxim to ingest, a peace to make, afforded by someone you love but now for a moment can barely stand. As it always does, intimacy just exacerbates the hurt. Or is that the point of intimacy? A gift not only meant to cloak us in delight, but to make its lessons deep enough that their unanesthetized scalpel touches the soul. Back to Whyte and back to ‘conversation’: Love is the conversation between possible, searing disappointment and a profoundly imagined sense of arrival and fulfillment.
I walk along the river. A friend, masked and distanced, is to my right. He’s waving his hands, he’s making some point. I can’t quite focus on what he is saying. His words tumble out and blur with the river. It’s calm, it’s evening, it’s all a fabulous psalm.
–––Painting above: Annunciation by Andrea del Sarto in the church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence, where, in the adjacent cloister, Leonardo da Vinci once lived and worked with his flamboyant entourage. One of my favorite poems, in fact, is called 'Andrea del Sarto' by Robert Browning. You likely read it in high school.