Friendship eludes simple definition, and yet impacts on every life in some way. Having, or not having, friends can shape our experiences, our expectations, whether life seems good or bad. Facebook and other social network sites have re-defined what friendship is; people who have – will never – meet or probably even communicate are termed as ‘friends’.
Friendship has always had the potential to ignore boundaries. The pen-friendships of my youth, with someone of like age in a far-away place, had a tinge of magic, of something rare and exotic, as photographs and words were exchanged with a tantalizing lapse in time. If English was the second language of the pen-friend, there was added excitement. But when there was little in common the friendship petered out. My short lived foray was with a boy in Sweden; the one sentence that has stuck in my mind from that ill-fated match was “I like swimming, girls and cars”, which was the beginning of the end.
The photo is a moment in Berlin, in summer, when the wall still stood as a reminder of the potency of hatred and war. Our lives intersected for varying times, and then we moved on. We each were born in a different land, and our native languages were varied: German, French, English. But for that space of time – perhaps just that day - we were friends, sharing laughter and silly times. Two of these women drifted out of my life, the other remains a friend in my heart, although communication is now rare.
Two days ago I re-connected with another old friend, who in fact, in a different time and place, also shared a friendship with me and someone in this photo; friendships collide and shift, re-forming the landscape of life. I had googled, then emailed, my friend, and within minutes she had responded, bringing great joy. It has been more than two decades since we have spoken with or seen each other. Many years, through which we each have lived and laughed and grieved; grown older, perhaps wiser.
My memory of her contains sharp snapshots of moments; she worked in a bookstore, I for the government, and we would meet some days in the city. She played violin with grace and inspiration, an instrument the sound of which I have always loved. I remember one day we piled into cars – a group of women, sunburned with summer, some of us hungover – and drove from the city, weaving on narrow roads through bushland, to an old dam in the midst of forest. We picnicked and played and swam and took photos. It was a day of laughter and friendship.
Now I write this, I think – was she there…I am sure – yet memory also reduces the past to a pastiche of what we perhaps imagined to be true. But I will place her there, for if she was not, she could well have been. No, I am sure she was, wearing black bathers like everyone else. It was days such as this that we knew together. For a while she lived in the house I shared with my partner and our several cats. Life had its ups and downs, but we were buoyant with youth and the potency of dreams.
My friend now lives in a nearby state, only a road drive away. The twenty year absence I hope one day will be resolved with a very short journey. Her life, she explained, contains much joy and pleasure, although she now lives with illness and pain that cuts very deep, and leaves her in bed many days.
She spoke of radical acceptance of her pain, as part of the life she is journeying on. This expression touched me deeply, and lead to contemplation about the capacity to radically accept where we are in our lives, and allow that – even if hardship – to form a foundation for movement, for growth, and even for joy. Her words were not heavy with suffering, in fact they sparkled, vibrant, suffused with an eagerness for life and the happiness it can bring. Her letter made me smile and rejoice, and imagine her in her beautiful, abundant garden, a reflection of inner qualities she has chosen to nurture – that of growth and love and an open mind.
Today’s Rigpa glimpse of the day echoed her words:
“The practice of mindfulness defuses our negativity, aggression, and turbulent emotions, which may have been gathering power over many lifetimes. Rather than suppressing emotions or indulging in them, here it is important to view them—your thoughts and whatever arises—with an acceptance and generosity that are as open and spacious as possible. Tibetan masters say that this wise generosity has the flavor of boundless space, so warm and cozy that you feel enveloped and protected by it, as if by a blanket of sunlight.”
Radical acceptance can be challenging, although my life contains no such extreme suffering as my friend’s. More often resistance, even to that which is known to be true, and needs to be accepted, leads to internal tension and anguish. What if each task, each experience, every shifting emotion was embraced fully with an open heart, with generosity : what a different world to experience! One of transformation, where dark becomes light, where flowers blossom in abundance, where deep happiness prevails. Where movement and growth, compassion and wisdom, are inevitable.
After more than 20 years, and without having even seen me, my friend unwittingly gave me a gift. Words can be harsh or gentle, they link us together in anger or in love. They are the foundation of friendship. The links of continuity that defy time and space. When she wrote of radical acceptance, she opened my heart a fraction more, to a possibility of living life so that the full richness of potential is not lost, but enjoyed.