I taught the last of my Spring semester classes on Thursday, so yesterday I took a break from my grading piles to meet A (not her real initial) at a mall cineplex to see Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which was as good as the book we both grew up on.

A and I have been celebrating the almost-end of semesters with root beer for more than fifteen years, at least. This tradition is so entrenched, we selected a movie venue not because it is equidistant between us, but because it’s about twenty minutes from our regular purveyor of fried seafood and ice cream.

The movie was wonderful, and equally so was the conversation A and I had afterward. Are You There God is about many things: periods and boys and bras, for sure, and spiritual quests as well…but both the book and movie are also about female friendship.

The movie more than the book depicts the frustrations of Margaret’s mother, Barbara, who quits her teaching job when the family moves to the suburbs, and it also highlights the loneliness of Margaret’s grandmother Sylvia, who in one heartbreaking scene quietly crosses “solve crossword puzzle” from a daily to-do list whose only other item is “dust.”

Happily, by movie’s end Margaret learns the value of true rather than fake friendship, and both Barbara and Sylvia find new passions: Sylvia by saying “yes” to new love, and Barbara by (eventually) saying “no” to soul-crushing PTA tasks.

My favorite aspect of the film is that it both begins and ends with scenes of spontaneous girlhood joy. Much of becoming a woman is, frankly, a hassle, as Margaret learns when she tries on her first bra then admits she can’t wait to take it off. (“Welcome to womanhood,” Barbara knowingly intones.) But among the headache and hassle, there are moments of sweetness, whether that involves jumping into a pond at summer camp or driving an hour or more for lunch and a movie with your bestie.

Two lilies

I recently started reading Jeffrey Cramer’s Solid Seasons: The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. One benefit of 19th century literary friendships is the wealth of written evidence they leave behind. Future biographers researching friendships between modern-day writers will have to pore over emails, texts, and tweets rather than the letters and journal entries Cramer read in writing his book.

Asiatic dayflower

Both Thoreau and Emerson kept journals and maintained voluminous correspondence, albeit not always with one another. In the portion of Cramer’s book I’ve read so far, Thoreau is more emotionally intimate with Emerson’s wife, Lidian, than with Emerson himself, sending her letters that could pass as journal entries, so intricately do they chronicle his thoughts.

Front yard ferns

The problem with writerly friendships–especially friendships between two journal-keepers–is that writers are very good at talking to themselves. Isn’t a journal entry nothing more than a letter to an anonymous audience that is never sent? When you are accustomed to pouring your heart on paper for an audience of none, it’s easy to think–erroneously and egotistically–that anyone willing to receive and read such correspondence actually understands and empathizes with you.

But while the blank page has no desires or concerns of its own, friends are not blank pages. There is a very real way that two friends who are also writers can correspond at cross-purposes, even when communicating face-to-face. Each person wants their own needs met–each speaker longs to be listened to–and these desires can clash rather than finding a complement.


In a radio interview about his book, Cramer said Emerson and Thoreau had contrasting views of friendship. Emerson had many friends and drew different things from each, but Thoreau had few friends and strove (unsuccessfully) to have all his social and emotional needs met by one. This difference is a recipe for relational disaster, perhaps, and it helps explain the tense complications of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s friendship. What started as a conventional mentorship between an established writer and an idealistic protege deteriorated as it became clear that Thoreau would always be his own man, a nonconformist who marched to a different drum.

Enchanter's nightshade

But longevity is not the only (or best) way to judge a friendship. Although their relationship would ultimately grow strained, both Emerson and Thoreau were forever influenced by the insights of the other. In a passage Cramer quotes near the beginning of his book, Thoreau compares long-time friends to two trees who stand apart but whose roots intermingle. Above ground, two venerable trunks might seem distant and disconnected, but beneath the surface, they take sustenance from the same soil.

You can almost hear them saying "Carpe diem."

Today Leslee and I drove to Palmer, Massachusetts to meet A (not her real initial) for lunch, cocktails, and a belated celebration of both Christmas and my birthday. The restaurant we went to–Steaming Tender, a railroad-themed pub in a restored H.H. Richardson train depot at the center of town–was still decorated for the holidays, so we could almost imagine we weren’t weeks behind with our celebration.

Festive libations, with @insta_leslee

We’d chosen to meet in Palmer because it’s halfway between the Boston suburbs where Leslee and I live and the western Massachusetts town where A lives. In summer, the three of us alternate between meeting in Northampton, which is closer to A, and the Tower Hill Botanic Garden, which is closer to Leslee and me. But during winter months when the days are short, it’s nice to meet halfway, eat lunch, and be home before it gets dark.

Leslee, A, and I have been celebrating holidays and birthdays over food and cocktails for more than a decade. Originally, I lived in Keene, Leslee lived in Grafton, and A lived in Chelmsford: over the years our addresses have changed, but our friendship continues.

Green pokeweed fruit

Today I’m having lunch with my friend B. I see B almost every time I go to the Cambridge Zen Center, which means I don’t see her often enough. Often, B is leaving the Zen Center just as I’m arriving, so we have five minute chats that always end with some version of “We should do lunch sometime soon.” We’re both perpetually busy: B has her work at the Zen Center, and her teaching, and the demands of living in a full house. I have my teaching, and a fiancee, and the demands of living in two states. It’s not that B and I want to procrastinate our friendship: it’s just that “Sometime Soon” is a slippery thing.


Last night, I reached the chapter in Karen Maezen Miller’s Hand Wash Cold where her daughter, Georgia, asks “What day is tomorrow?” It’s a brilliant question, even if it initially inspires a “who’s on first” kind of misunderstanding. Young Georgia isn’t looking for the name of the day that comes after Thursday; she wants to know when at long last the Promised Land of “Tomorrow” will bring all the things the grown up world has been putting off. If “Tomorrow” (or “Sometime Soon,” or “Maybe, Eventually”) is when we’ll have ice cream, or feed the ducks at the lake, or get a puppy, or go to Disneyland, when indeed will this promised “Tomorrow” ever arrive?

“We should do lunch sometime soon” is a sad-sounding promise, like something from the song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” which always chokes me up whenever I hear it. The father in the song isn’t a bad dad: he doesn’t neglect his son because he’s out drinking, womanizing, or causing trouble. It’s tough to support a family: there’s never enough time. It’s easy enough to talk about keeping one’s priorities straight, but life perpetually gets in the way: jobs are always a hassle, kids always have the flu, and Time is always elusive. It’s easy to be so busy making a living, you forget to live a little.

Flowers to fruit

Today my friend B and I are having lunch: at long last, “Sometime soon” has become today. When I asked B where she’d like to go, she mentioned a restaurant she’s been meaning to try, which offers grilled food served hot on their patio, weather permitting. “Maybe it’s too fancy,” B immediately second-guessed, “or maybe too hot.” How easy it is to talk oneself out of doing that thing you’ve been meaning to try!

“Fancy is perfect,” I responded, and so is Too Hot: if Someday Soon arrives at long last during the summertime, you just have to weather the heat. I’ll wear a sundress just in case the patio is both fancy and hot, and both B and I will enjoy the chance to sit down over a meal, finally at long last.

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Blah blah blah!

Last Wednesday night, I took the T to the Cambridge Zen Center, where I was a guest-teacher for a meditation class taught by a long-time friend. It was good to my friend again–she, like my friend Jen, is one of those old Zen buddies I see infrequently but who always seems familiar and comfortable, like a favorite pair of shoes. You get the sense with a friend like this that you can pick up exactly where you left off the last time you saw her, and the intervening years and life-changes don’t seem to matter because of the long history you’ve shared.


This friend of mine is married now–she’s been married for several years now–and she spotted my engagement ring from across the room as I was teaching, fixating on the question of whether I had remarried without her knowing it. After class, we talked briefly about this: yes, I’m engaged; yes, I’m getting married in August; no, I hadn’t shared the happy news the various times we’ve chatted recently. I experienced a strange sort of relief to see how happy she was at the news, as if she was absolving me from the obligations of my first marriage by acknowledging that yes, it’s time for me to let that stage of my life go.

Speak softly and carry a big...pencil

This particular friend knew me when I was married; she was probably closer to my ex-husband than she was to me since she is a musician, and my then-husband had played drums on one of her albums. If anyone were to choose “his” side over “mine,” it would have been this friend…but she didn’t choose sides. She and I have remained friends–albeit friends who go far too long without seeing one another–in the face of these life changes. We don’t see one another often, but when we do see one another, there’s an abiding sense we really “know” one another.

I think I’m more nervous about sharing the news of my engagement with folks who knew me when I was married–especially with folks who knew my ex-husband–than I am with newer friends who know only my now without having known my then. With old friends, I feel a bit shy about the news; there’s a subconscious fear they won’t approve my remarrying, as if this marriage is a betrayal of that one. But this fear has no basis in reality; it’s based upon my own self-judgment and self-doubt. My oldest friends have been the most accepting and joyful in the face of my engagement; having seen me struggle through all that, they more than any of my newer friends can truly appreciate the miraculous wonder of new beginnings. My oldest friends are the ones who are happiest that my life is officially moving on; it’s my own insecurity that occasionally wonders whether moving on is a kind of abandonment.


It’s interesting that my fear and doubt are completely self-created; it’s interesting that I judge myself far more harshly than any friend or even acquaintance ever would. It’s downright cruel to assume that because my first marriage failed, I don’t “deserve” the happiness of a second chance–that’s an judgment I wouldn’t pass on even my worst enemy–and yet that seems to be the unspoken assumption behind my barely conscious fear. Although I can smile upon other people’s second chances, there’s some hidden part of me that seems reluctant to forgive myself for past failures.

My relative reluctance to absolve myself from the obligations of my first marriage is even more interesting when I consider how it follows a curious pattern I’ve seen repeated among the women I know, both family and friends. My ex-husband remarried years ago and has started a family, fully immersing himself into a new life with a woman he met a few months after our divorce, but I’ve waited nearly six years to remarry. Time and again I see this pattern among the women I know, where the man remarries soon after divorce while the woman lingers alone for years, serving as a kind of solitary sentinel commemorating a relationship that once was.

Damian and Violet

There are reasons for this pattern (which of course has its exceptions). If a woman has sole or primary custody of her children, she often devotes herself to their care rather than her own love-life; her ex-husband, on the other hand, is largely alone when his children aren’t visiting, so he has more time (and perhaps more reason) to date. Whereas men, I think, often crave the emotional input of a significant woman–wife, girlfriend, or mother–I find women typically rely upon themselves and their network of female friends to make sense of their emotional life. If you’re a divorced woman raising a child or children, a boyfriend is one more obligation you don’t have time for; if you’re a divorced man who sees his kids every other weekend, you have plenty of time to contemplate (and lament) your loneliness. As one of Mary Austin’s memorable characters once said, “A man…must have a woman, but a woman who has a child will do very well.”

It’s one thing to observe a pattern; it’s an entirely different matter to see that pattern as a prescription. Just because many of my phoenix friends have risen from the ashes of divorce and then waited years before remarrying doesn’t mean women “should” be expected to wait a prescribed amount of time before moving on. During the more than three years I’ve been dating J, I haven’t felt guilty about “moving on” from my first marriage: given that my ex-husband has long since remarried, what exactly am I moving on from? That’s what makes it all the more surprising that I felt so relieved to have an old friend smile and congratulate me, genuinely, on my engagement. Apparently her gentle absolution is exactly the kind I’ve been withholding from myself for all these years.

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Ca$h for your Warhol

In trying economic times, you don’t have to be a starving artist to be on the lookout for an alternate source of income. This offer of cash for your Warhol is a not-so-gentle jab at Brandeis University, whose doomed decision earlier this year to bolster their budget by selling the school’s art collection turned out to be a public relations disaster, earning them nothing but ridicule.

Fresh paint

In the aftermath of my friend JW’s death last week, I’ve experienced a new appreciation for the intangible wealth that is friendship. I shot these photos on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center for a Dharma teachers’ meeting this past weekend, and it was like stumbling onto treasure to see my long-time friends Jen and Jody there. “Make new friends but keep the old,” an old song advises. “One is silver and the other gold.” Old friends are as precious as gold because they’ve seen you–and loved you–through years of changes and challenges. Seeing Jen pregnant with her second child, I remember the joy I felt when we spent some time alone together during her first pregnancy and the happiness of her double baby shower with another long-time friend, Stella. I knew Jen before she was pregnant, before she was married, and before either of us grew into our long Dharma teacher robes. Jody, too, has been a friend through many changes: a musician who once collaborated with my ex-husband, she’s stuck around while he hasn’t. It’s wonderful to spend even a short time with someone who knew you when you were one half of a couple and still loves you after the dust of divorce and heartache has settled.

Fresh paint

In the aftermath of loss, being able to come together with old friends to commiserate a shared loss is invaluable. Last night, I made a two-hour drive to Rhode Island and back to attend JW’s seven-day Buddhist memorial ceremony at the Providence Zen Center. One of the three jewels in Buddhist practice is the community called sangha, and to me it was worth a four-hour round-trip to hug a handful of friends after having chanted, shared stories, and wept in a Dharma room packed with fellow mourners. JW himself was a treasure: a man whose kindness, loyalty, and good humor helped Zen practitioners all over the world for the 20 years he worked for the Kwan Um School of Zen and its international sangha. Approaching PZC last night, I felt a twinge of emptiness knowing JW wouldn’t be there, omnipresent clipboard in hand, to greet guests and see to their needs. That emptiness melted, though, when I heard a Dharma room of people, all gathered in JW’s memory, who were already there chanting for him. Make new friends, and keep the old, even if some of your golden friends have left this suffering world behind. The memories and love you carry in your heart are priceless indeed.

Goldenstash = stash o' gold

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Wealth. Originally, I had intended to end with this “pot of gold”-themed photo of Goldenstash, which I spotted on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center this weekend, but I got sidetracked by another, more intangible sort of wealth. It’s all good.