When the good people at Mailchimp asked me to curate a series of essays for their Summer Reading Program, I jumped at the chance to elevate writers I love, collecting their stories in this time of isolation. The theme for this series is connection because we, the people, are irrevocably linked by our shared humanity. There is no getting away from one another. We can, however, tell each other the truth, and listen with open hearts when the truth is spoken. Or written. I curated a series of creative nonfiction essays because I wanted you to feel the bare-knuckle truth in the words of these writers. When they swing for you, I want the blow to connect. Contributing authors write about relationships to parents, spouses, children, homes, bodies, and self. They write about threads running through the veins of us all. They write about the way we are all subject to each other’s lives and decisions, offering themselves to reality instead of running from the inevitable pain of the world. I’m so grateful. Nothing about this project would be as powerful without the inclusion of each contribution from each artist. Well, you could have been anywhere on the internet, but you’re here with us, and I can’t thank you enough for that. I’m so excited for you to read these essays. My hope is when you do, you’ll feel a little tug on the threads in your own veins. I hope you follow them all the way to the end.
All my best, Ashley
Making new friends, and staying in touch with old friends, both seem to get more difficult as you get older. Friends move to different cities, take jobs that demand all of their time, get married to people you don’t know, and sometimes even have kids you’re not crazy about. But new friendships sometimes feel bewildering, too. You think you’re hitting it off and then you realize that there’s not enough mutuality -- your new friend does most of the talking while you listen. Or your rapport with your new friend seems to fade instead of growing over time. Or in spite of shared enthusiasm for hanging out, your busy careers and lives and other personal obligations keep getting in the way.
I’ve always thought I was good at friendships. I’m an extrovert, I have lots of old friends, and I make new friends easily. But over the course of this past year, I’ve slowly come to realize that for most of my adult life, I’ve been inconsistent about friendships at best, and avoidant and unreliable at worst. The truth is I lose the thread over and over again. I forget to call friends regularly. I let birthdays go by unacknowledged. I get busy and it’s almost like I forget I have friends at all. My intentions were always good, but I think I’ve tended to operate on some false assumption, generated from some murky soup of insecure attachments as a child, that I care more about my friends than they care about me.
In the past, whenever I met someone I liked a lot and admired, I was often too fearful to stick my neck out and assert my interest in becoming friends. I was sometimes paranoid about looking desperate or nerdy. I was worried I might seem too pushy or clingy or inappropriately enthusiastic, even though inappropriate enthusiasm is pretty much baked into my core personality. For decades, I’ve wanted to appear to have a full, satisfying social life.
But when I took an honest look at my social life, I realized it was never that full or that satisfying. It certainly didn’t help I’d been working from home since my mid-twenties. How had a social animal like me grown up to be such a shut-in?
February of this year, I committed to getting out of the house, seeing people, and starting new friendships with reckless abandon. I rented a desk in an office with a bunch of other writers so I could be around other people more often. I resolved to make more regular plans with friends, new and old, and be bold about introducing myself to new people. I told my husband I wanted to travel alone a few times a year, and he agreed it would be good for me. I decided to throw a big party on March 7th for writers and journalists and I invited over 60 people, many of whom were friends of friends I’d never met.
Then a global pandemic rolled into town.
I canceled my party. It looked like my new life was going to be on hold indefinitely. For a while, I went back to being my usual avoidant self -- slow to return texts, bad with email, shying away from Zoom calls.
And then, in the middle of a long-delayed call, an old friend of mine said, out of the blue, “When are you going to believe that your friends mean it when they say they love you?”
It’s strange how you have to be open to hearing the truth from people, before it will hit. When she said that to me, it was like there was an echo in the room: I realized she’d been saying the same thing to me since we were both 13 years old.
How had I heard the same words for so long without ever believing them or listening to them or feeling them?
The ground moved under my feet. Something big shifted.
I decided to let my friends love me – to open my eyes and see clearly that they loved me, and just let them, instead of constantly dodging and undermining their efforts. I decided to let new people into my life – even people that seemed a little better than me at first glance, or more confident, or more successful, or more relaxed. I had always been more comfortable around people who had some big, obvious problem, who couldn’t quite get out of their own way. I’m still good friends with many people like this. I am like this. But I decided it was also okay for me to love and admire new friends who weren’t clearly and obviously struggling, who didn’t speak about the future in negative terms, who didn’t seem to stumble nearly as much as I did.
And when these new friends didn’t have time for me, I decided not to take that personally. Didn’t I seem to have very little time for anyone for decades on end? Was it ever personal? Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t. So I decided even when it was personal – even when someone seemed not to love me all that much – I wouldn’t internalize that. I would let it go without overthinking it. There were more amazing people to know in the world.
And finally, I decided to stick my neck out, with new and old friends. I would tell people how I felt about them, early and often.
Over the past month, I’ve written more than one note to a relative stranger that stated, very clearly, “I think we should be friends.”
People don’t always respond to that kind of direct language. People sometimes disappear for a while, just to think through whether or not you’re a lunatic. As an avoidant person, I knew that would be a common experience. But I decided I didn’t care. I wanted to be clear, and show up, and engage, and I wanted to have a lot of friends of all different sorts, all over the place.
But also – and this is important – I decided I wouldn’t spend time with people who I wasn’t enthusiastic about. And I also wouldn’t engage in friendships out of obligation. I would follow my feelings instead. Even if someone was brave and wrote to me and said “Let’s be friends,” I wouldn’t feel guilty for not meeting them exactly where they were. It had to be okay for other people to say “No thanks” to me, either by ignoring my emails or texts or by typing out the words “No thanks,” so I had to extend the same rights to myself. If you don’t feel free to make choices that come from your heart, that clouds all of your relationships. You have to proceed based on some simple principles. It’s not your job to take care of people when you don’t feel it, and it’s not anyone else’s job to take care of you when they don’t feel it.
One month later, I have several new friendships and I’ve revived many of my old friendships. I often drop everything I’m doing to talk on the phone with my friends for hours at a time. (I am not that good at meeting deadlines in a timely fashion at the moment, not surprisingly.) I rearrange my plans to Zoom with friends at the last minute. I stay up late, writing long emails to my friends, new and old. Thanks to all of this social interaction with interesting people, I feel like I’m swimming through a whole new universe of ideas and emotions and experiences.
And for the first time in my life, I can feel the love I have for my friends, and I can feel the love they have for me, and it doesn’t feel confusing or upsetting or trivial or difficult at all. It just feels good.
This pandemic presents us all with a very rare and unexpected opportunity, because so many of us are trapped at home so much of the time. It’s terrible in so many ways. Many of us still have demanding jobs, and worse, many of us are unemployed and struggling like never before. But most of us are around, and most of us need more connection in their lives right now, not less. Reaching out without fear of rejection or judgment is something I didn’t do that easily for years, so I know how hard it is for other people, too. But connecting with people you love and admire without reservation is beyond worth it.
Friendships are hard. You have to work hard to have them. You have to put in the time and the effort. And most of all, you have to look at your friend with clear eyes, every day, and say to yourself: This person is my friend. We love each other. It’s important to say so. It’s important to notice how much this friendship matters to me.