“Dime con quien and as y te diré quien eres. Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are” - Mexican saying
I have a picture crystallised in my mind. I am 18 years old. I am circled by my dearest friends. I have a friend sitting on my lap, my arm was draped around another friend, and we are all laughing at something. It’s the kind of wheezing, belly aching laughter where you start laughing and you laugh so much you end up crying. We are young, restless with light and hope and the kind of brittle, glittering energy that fuels youth. We were at a barbecue hosted by a friend in her family’s house. I remember looking around at my beautiful, beautiful friends and remember radiating joy and contentment. I remember dreaming about the road trips, the overseas trips, the sleepovers, the dinners, the meetups we were yet to have. The memories that awaited us. I remember thinking confidently that no matter what life threw at us, we would have us. That this ‘us’ was strong enough to withstand whatever uncertainty came ahead.
Thanks for reading A Life of Saturdays! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
That was one of the last nights we would all spend together – especially shot through with this colour of friendship – before university, life and work ripped the friend web we had woven for over a decade. Perhaps we didn't put in the care that was needed to nurture these friendships as we shifted and grew. Perhaps we outgrew each other. Perhaps there are invisible fault lines which harden after you leave school, wrenched out of the cocoon of manufactured sameness. Maybe things like road trips are easier with a smaller group. I have mulled over why this group cracked wide open multiple times. I think a lot about this final fleeting image of this friend group and often feel an irrational grief for the trips that never happened, the sleepovers, the rituals needed for friendships to grow that never came to fruition. This friend group shattered into smaller islands. We now get updates about one another mediated through a screen and curated by social media. Sometimes bits and pieces about weddings and deaths and promotions and life upheavals come our way through third parties. Sometimes some of us would meet. More often we promise to, and we don’t.
Friendships offer welcome reprieve from patriarchal institutions and codified relationships. We are the sum of all the people we have met along the way. It's only natural that friendships play vital roles in our lives. It is welcome to see a larger cultural emphasis on friendships and community in recent years. The stifling over-emphasis on romantic relationships, on family and formal structures can be isolating for many.
In Hanya Yanagihara's divisive novel A Little Life, what stayed with me (...apart from what a reviewer referred to as the “operatic trauma”) was the friendship that marked the group. I do not know if my expectations for a friendship are too vast, too ambitious. I do not know if I know how to be a good enough friend at times and I am still learning, but I did not have a template for the kind of close kinship that existed within the fictional group she wrote about and I remember sharply yearning after it. It is a book about many things but it is also a book about friendships in a tumultuous, anxious world.
In Big Friendship Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow lay their friendship out for scrutiny and unpack what it means to be a friend and what merits a ‘big friendship’. The friendships they refer to as ‘big friendships’ are friendships which go beyond casual friendships and are built through ‘intimacy hours’, rituals. They are spaces to stumble, heal, be yourself and ultimately feel a profound sense of safety with one another. They write: “As humans, we are all thoroughly shaped by the people we know and love. Day to day, our friends influence our tastes and our moods. Long term, they can also affect how we feel about our bodies, how we spend our money, and the political views we hold. We grow in response to each other, in ways both intentional and subconscious.”
They also speak about the limits of vocabulary in describing the difficult parts of friendship: “At a cultural level there is a lot of lip service about friendship being wonderful and important, but not a lot of social support for protecting what’s precious about it. Even deep, lasting friendships [...] need protection – and, sometimes, repair.”
Friedman and Sow also approach the hard bits of friendship which are often glossed over. Friendships, they note, are an emotional risk. Everyone wants #squadgoals and #BFFs but rarely speak about friendship breakups or the friend that got away.
“Big friendships don't feel easy all the time. “And when it’s hard, the only way for a Big Friendship to survive is for both people to decide it’s going to. Showing up, in good times and in bad, is the only way to stay in it.” “For a Big Friendship to survive, it has to adapt,” they write. “In a Big Friendship, both people make a conscious decision, often over and over again, that they’re going to stretch toward each other. They might feel challenged but decide not to walk away. In fact, they will likely come to see their stretching as a necessary part of being in the friendship, a way of adapting to the inevitable changes that life contains.”
Droves have left Sri Lanka in recent months. A cursory scan of the newspapers provides reports of how Sri Lanka’s medical industry is facing a vacuum, how specific medical professionals are needed for vital surgeries, how companies are struggling to fill the gaps. and are trying to incentivize their employees to stay. Frequently, I violently come up against loneliness and grief when I realise how my support systems and friend circles have shifted because of this mass migration both now and over the course of two decades. I feel the loss of a large friend group sometimes and no longer have a group to do things with. I feel the loss of some of my friends.
Sometimes I have the kind of day where I'd usually reach out to a particular friend for an impromptu walk, beach outing or a meal to decompress. She has since migrated and I feel the serrated edges of her absence. On paper, we did not make sense together. But moulded over the years and thrown together by circumstance, ours became an easy friendship where we did not have to think twice about meeting, did not have to worry about awkward silences, and knew each other well enough to sense when to stay close and when to give distance. One of my favourite trips was also with her. We bookended the end of a tumultuous year for both of us and went down south and paddled in lazy turquoise seas and swam and ate and swam some more. It has been a year since she left and while we keep in touch, on many days I feel the indentations of where this friendship was once in my daily life.
While we talk about brain drain and economic crises, there are other losses which are unquantifiable and which we lack the vocabulary to speak about. These losses will never be in official reports but will shape our lives. What is the word for friendships that have been wrenched apart because of borders? How do you quantify the loss of community? What is the word for the nostalgia-grief-sadness-loneliness that haunts you when a friendship evaporates over time like a saucer of water in the sun?
Friend, how do you make friends? I envy the ease with which children make friends, don’t you? Making a friend was as easy as going up to a person and saying I like you, let's be friends. As you get older, it feels as though friendships are sculpted by social rites you have to abide by. For those of us who are a little shy and introverted, the process of making friends is harder. The meme about being adopted by an extrovert rings true for many of my friendships. And perhaps this is only my experience, but very rarely do established friend groups welcome newcomers.
I’m also interested in how different friendships bring out different versions of ourselves. In my school friendships, I find myself regressing into a dated school girl vocabulary. In one group, my old stammer returns. In another, I’m the raucous one and in yet another I am the quiet, calm one. Relationship dynamics thickened by technology is another facet – following one another on social media is an invitation that you're interested in their world. Tagging one another in posts are a public signalling to the world that you know one another and are acquaintances or friends. I'm a little ashamed to say that swapping memes has rapidly become a substitute for keeping in touch with many friends instead of taking the time to text or call, but it is also a social media shorthand for hey I remembered you when I saw this and wanted to say hi.
I admit I have become weary of coffee shop meetups, where a meeting is corralled by time and place, marked by a meal prepared by strangers. I've yearned for some of my friendships to graduate beyond a polite meet-up and in many instances try and prompt something else in place of an eating meeting: a walk, a trip, the beach, cooking together, a play, a movie, an event.
Julie Beck, who spent three years interviewing 100 people on friendship, writes that there are six forces that help form and maintain friendship: accumulation, attention, intention, ritual, imagination, and grace. Friendships are built in blank spaces, unstructured time, activities, through travel, in the intimacy that can only come through time and through regular rituals. For many who do not have their own space, who live with family or who live in cities which do not privilege sites of space for community, the kind of space that is needed to cultivate friendship intimacy is scarce. But there are other ways.
Anne Helen Peterson writes of the "errand friend" and how the possibilities which unstructured time holds is useful to strengthen relationships. She writes: "I love being by myself, and will always need to find time for it. I feel like my weirdest, most purest self when I’m alone, but I’m my most relaxed, softest self when I’m with my Errand Friends, talking about nothing and everything, living the un-Instagrammable parts of our lives. My memories of Errand Time always blur. But the feel of it is stronger than any special or scheduled event."
The years we lost to the pandemic changed me, changed the way I socialise and also changed the nature of many of my friendships. I realised I wasn’t alone in this while listening to Mona Chalebi’s podcast on friendship where she maps out the many gradients of friendships in her life and unpacks quantitative and qualitative data behind friendships. (“the research shows that you need to invest around 200 hours over a three-month period to turn a “just friend” into one of those “good friends””.)
I also think of bell hooks’ words often: “Deep, abiding friendships are the place where many women know lasting love”.
In All About Love, hooks has a chapter about love in the context of community and writes that for many who do not experience love in their first site of community (their families of origin), friendships offer care, respect, knowledge and nurturance of growth that many don’t find in family. She writes how a love ethic which pervades friendship can be transformative and affect all our relationships.
“There is no special love exclusively reserved for romantic partners. Genuine love is the foundation of our engagement with ourselves, with family, with friends, with partners, with everyone we choose to love. While we will necessarily behave differently depending on the nature of a relationship, or have varying degrees of commitment, the values that inform our behaviour, when rooted in a love ethic, are always the same for any interaction,” she notes.
bell hooks writes: “Many of us learn as children that friendship should never be seen as just as important as family ties. However, friendship is the place in which a majority of us have our first glimpse of redemptive love and caring community. Learning to love in friendships empowers us in ways that enable us to bring this love to other interactions with family or with romantic bonds.”
Friend, I have another picture newly crystallised in my mind from a few months ago. I am sitting in my living room, there is a lady carefully applying a mehendi design on my hands. There is loud Bollywood music playing. There is a table filled with food that people had pooled together and bought: aduku roti, prawn pastries, butter cookies with royal icing piped into delicate filigree designs, Bombay sweets, puddings, rolls and a chaat station tucked away in another corner complete with paapdi, boiled and mashed potato filling, sev and tamarind and coriander chutneys. There is laughter, so much laughter. The living room is teeming with women. Just in front of me is another lady, applying mehendi on a friend.
That day, the girl gang I exchange memes with stepped out of our WhatsApp group, marched into my house and took charge of the place chasing me upstairs to go and rest and change. I was tired, was in no mood to organise anything celebratory and they recognized that and took charge of things so that all I had to do was show up. When I went down, I came to find that our small living room was transformed. Furniture had been pushed aside to make room for dancing. There were marigold garlands, lights, candles, shawls draped all over the room. I remember my heart feeling very full and was so touched by their kindness and love, by the obvious work and coordination that had gone into organising all of it.
I’ve been holding this picture with me of late. For every friendship loss, there has been a softening, a palliative, an unexpected overture, a deepening of existing community. And for this, I am grateful. You see, it is a hard, weird world. We get by with a little help from our friends.
Thanks for reading A Life of Saturdays! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.