Until this month, the last time my friend Jen Marvelous and I had a long, uninterrupted visit was Jan. 5, 1994.
I met Jen in a plant pathology class at OSU’s College of Agriculture. She and I alone seemed to notice that the professor’s solution to all plant problems was to hit them with chemicals. At our request, he let us co-teach a class on sustainable agriculture.
Jen moved to Kansas to work at the Land Institute after graduation, but always stopped by when she was back in Ohio. After lunch that winter’s day in ’94, we sat down in my living room with mugs of tea. I suddenly felt a hot wetness spread across my legs — my water had broken.
Our lunch visit lasted more than 24 hours as Jen stayed and helped with the home birth of my first child, Claude.
The second and third time I gave birth, again Jen was there. And when she had her second baby in 2003, I went to her house in Philadelphia to help care for her oldest daughter. Sasha and my third son, Jules, were both 3, so I took him along, too.
For decades, Jen and I have regularly gotten together whenever she visits her parents in Painesville. With kids in tow, we’ve been to parks and museums together across Northeast Ohio.
For several years, we’ve tried getting away together without our kids, but with nine of them between us, it’s hard. Now, however, our kids are older and more self-reliant. So when Jen recently accepted a new position at the University of Pennsylvania, she purposely gave herself two weeks between jobs.
We each bought cheap flights to Florida, rented an economy car and toured the lower half of the peninsula together. We stayed with friends and at Airbnbs. We talked leisurely and at length for seven glorious days.
It was one of the best things I’ve done for myself in a long time.
Lately, reports about the importance of a variety of relationships are in the news. Evidence indicates that being lonely can have the same negative effect on health as smoking and obesity.
Furthermore, couples that have been together for a long time find they feel more romantic with one another after spending time socializing with another couple than after a clichéd candlelight dinner for two. Socializing is the “spice of happiness,” according to social psychologists.
I’ve only recently focused on the importance of friendships for adults. But I have long thought about it for my kids.
In the 1970s, when I was a girl, nobody worried about finding friends for their kids. The streets were choked with children tossed outside until the streetlights came on. Stay-at-home moms were still common. If you wiped out on your banana-seat bicycle as I often did, in all likelihood a mom would come outside to wipe away your tears and blood.
Today, parents are often their kids’ social secretaries — regularly organizing supervised play dates. Yeah, that’s not me, but my first three boys, who are each three years apart, had built-in playmates. Still, they didn’t roam the neighborhood with other kids like I did.
Currently, there are no children in any of the homes near ours. Leif has Lyra, and they play together, but it’s not the same as it was for the older boys. We’ve had over several of Leif’s classmates, but it’s not regular time outside of school with friends. We’ve decided to sign him up for Boy Scouts and hope it will be just the ticket.
Alone in technology
Changes in child rearing are compounded by technology, another major culprit in loneliness. Children don’t learn appropriate social interaction when they communicate using devices rather than in person.
Technology exacerbating loneliness is not limited to kids. It makes people of all ages seem connected when, in fact, they are not.
Exhibit A: Me. I make most of my money sitting alone in front of a computer. I check my email and Facebook while I work. But clicking “like” for someone’s picture of their dog/kid/dinner is not the same as socializing.
Five years ago, I picked up a part-time job in a store. My time there is an energizing social outlet, where I interact and have relationships with my co-workers and the customers.
Some friends are lost when the commonality is gone — co-workers at a previous job, people whose kids went to school with yours, neighbors who move. Other people are just not value added. With more days behind me than ahead, I find it better to wish those folks well and move on.
I treasure all my close friends, yet there is something deeply rewarding about those friendships cultivated before parenthood, marriage or even adulthood. Friends who have seen each other develop and age yet who also recognize how much of who we are now was always there.
A poignancy of middle age is realizing “one day” may easily never arrive. In 1990, I studied for several months in France. I loved the country and the French people (they are chronic interrupters, just like me) and considered staying. But I was only two terms away from receiving my bachelor’s degree.
I returned to the U.S. promising myself I’d move to France soon after graduation. I have yet to step on French soil in the nearly 28 intervening years.
My friend Sam and I regularly promised to meet each other in Columbus. Like the lead vest dentists place on your chest before taking X-rays, I have been cloaked in a weighted pall since Sam was killed last month.
I can give you many reasons why we never had our date in Columbus, but because our one day will now never arrive for Sam and me, those reasons are as irrelevant to me as how many drops of rain fell today.
With the people you cherish, those who invigorate your days on this planet, do not count on one day getting together with them. Move around what are really just errata on your calendar, pick up the phone and make plans with those friends right now.
I am so glad Jen and I did.
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 25, 2018