Come Thanksgiving, I will have been in Vermont for three years. As you will recall, I decided to make a change in my life to choose health and wellbeing over the cultural and economic riches of New York City. Although I loved the city with the passion of an addict, living there was beginning to damage my health. So I packed up my belongings, my good big dogs, and my negotiated severance check and moved to Vermont.
Many people hate to move; more are afraid to try it, often because of losing friends or even of the effort required—and the risk—in making new ones. Having moved several times, I think moving or not moving is pretty much a matter of taste. There are downsides, sure, like the risk of ending up in a rigid, insular backwater like Chattanooga, but mostly it has been a lot of fun to move around and try new places, new projects, and even new people. The rule of thumb—I don’t think I made it up—is that it takes three years to feel at home in a new place.
Do you lose friends? Sure. People lose track when they don’t fall over each other every day, and some have the skills to forge new ties when the old ones fail, some care enough to do it, and some don’t. After years of living among judgmental people, I have come to believe it is mostly a matter first of skill and second of negotiated expectations.
Skill. If we are lucky, we learn the skills and techniques of friendship early before we even recognize them as such. We learn to treat each other with respect, to anticipate that another person may see the world differently, to communicate with words instead of fists and teeth, to reach out with a smile, a word, a note, even an e-mail or a blog. We learn that others cannot read our minds and that it is only the overt action that strengthens ties. The thought may count, but the act counts ten times over.
Communications theorists remind us that for a message to penetrate the bony human consciousness, it needs to be repeated several times, but somehow in dealing with our loved ones, we expect them to take our unexpressed care as a given. What’s up with that? Disinterested love is a great thing, but it is a rare experience here on earth. Not impossible, but rare. Active, committed love based on tangible interaction is a gift we can all give each other, and the key is improving our connecting skills.
Negotiated expectations. Between friends, boundaries are as important as connection mechanisms. If I don’t have space and time to myself (inside the boundaries) I don’t know who I am and what I bring to the friendship. But the drive to connect is the countervailing vector—we all want our friends to know us, to appreciate us, and to be there to share our experience. It’s our old enemies time and space that create the problem—I want to talk when you don’t, you have a problem you want to share at the same time I have my own pressing concerns.
So we build rules for our interaction, some personal guidelines (“Please don’t talk to me on Tuesdays, because I have a lot of commitments that day”), some which rise to the level of social norms, and some in the spectrum in between (“Our family doesn’t take phone calls after ten o’clock” or “Vermonters only dance with their spouses.”). We each of us get it wrong sometimes. We forget that we have to explain our personal sets of rule to new people. Blinded by our own private concerns, we blunder over the sore spots of those we love, then shake our heads as we realize we have offended.
Remember that old line, “But enough about you. Let’s talk more about me.” We all have friends who pull that nonsense from time to time, and if they are real friends we can call them on it. Sometimes. I have a friend who offended me yesterday, but the specifics don't really matter.
I try to think of what my friend N would do, N who has the greatest gift for friendship of anyone that I know. She has mastered the skills of keeping a large number of friends from childhood forward informed and connected. She has, as near as I can see, no expectations of her friends but that they talk to her from time to time, have lunch with her, spend time with her, introduce their kids to her, and make her part of their life, as time and circumstances permit. And I don’t know anyone who isn’t willing to spend time with such an interesting, well-rounded, thoughtful person. She throws the occasional dinner party, but the real effort she expends in maintaining connections is on the phone. She calls several friends a week, just to catch up. She has a deep, rich understanding of human nature, and she knows when to leave something alone.
I think N would advise me to leave yesterday's incident alone. My hurt feelings, well, those will have to be my problem. In a separete incident yesterday, I know I needed my friends. After a terrible, terrible weekend, we went to the vet who advised cortisone or a much more dramatic series of neurological evaluations and procedures. We will try the cortisone for a week, then reassess, but I have taken the extreme measures off the table. Max seems a little more cheerful this morning, possibly only from the delight of yesterday’s outing to the vet where everyone admired him and cried over him.
Forced to rely on other people yesterday—I am a very, very private person and only rely on others when circumstances force me to—I found that I have a much more robust network of friends than I had realized.
Three years. Right on schedule and just in time.