I spent the first years of my life in a large vertical village called an apartment house. The summer I turned five we moved to the suburbs, where I encountered a whole new kid culture, with songs and games that were very different from what I learned in the city. Friendless, shy, I watched the kid clan around me, which inhabited an area two blocks long and up and down two perpendicular streets. You could recognize anyone in that clan because they called the last large undeveloped parcel of land “the back woods,” and the smaller lot around the corner “the side woods.” The kids who lived as far up the street or around the corners as I was allowed to go called the side woods “the front woods,” and lived too far from the back woods to be allowed to play there.
Those kids spent lots of time in shifting groups, wandering from house to house, yard to yard, woods to woods. They dared each other to break into the abandoned farmhouse on the far side of the back woods, which everyone but grownups knew was haunted. And played street games in the firefly evenings, like Ring-O-Levio, (a word I’ve never seen written, so I’m not even sure how to spell it.) They all had friends, and best friends. If two boys really liked each other, even more than even being best friends, they went out in the back woods with a pin, pricked the tip of their index fingers and mixed their blood together, which made them blood brothers — for life.
Being new to the area, and coming from a kid culture where such things did not exist, it took a while before I found out about blood brothers, and then I wanted one. I was slowly getting friendly with two boys on my block, but they were already each other’s blood brother. I spent more time with the twins, who by virtue of birth were already bonded. I tried to befriend some other boys in the neighborhood, but even at five they knew that I was “different.” The only one who wanted to do it with me was my new friend, Janie. She had never heard of two girls doing it, or a boy and a girl, but one of us stole a pin from our mother’s sewing basket, and we went out to the back woods. “You go first.” “No, you.” “I’ll do it if you do it.” In the end we spit on our fingers, mashed our saliva together, and decided that counted.
That’s the only friendship ritual I know. Sadly, blood is now dangerous to share, and even if it wasn’t, we live in a culture that has a wide range of rituals for dating, lovers, domestic partners, married couples, and everything in between, but views friendship as a second class affair. Occasionally I read an obituary that says, “Raul is survived by his French bulldogs and a loving circle of friends that include Tashi, Walid, Pat, and Marisa.” But most often we read, “Bob is survived by his husband Marco and their Jack Russell terriers.” If you go to the cemetery fifty years from now you will find Bob and Marco buried side by side. But what about Raul and his circle of friends? Will there be any monument to the way they supported each other during Walid’s long journey with HIV, Pat going back to college at age fifty, Marisa’s house burning down, or all the years they co-parented Tashi’s three children?
It amazed me when I lived in Jerusalem to see men walking in the street arm in arm, hand in hand, both Arab and Israeli. They had a different idea of friendship than we do. This is the case in many other cultures, and I’m sure that there are places where friendships are celebrated ritually. But here, weddings cost tens of thousands of dollars, and we gay people are working hard to secure the right to legally marry for ourselves. Sadly, this emphasis on marriage perpetuates the lie that we are not whole unless we are partnered, and that if we can’t be partnered we ought to at least be sexual. Times, in my singlehood, I have to stop and remind myself that I still have friends from high school, am close to two professors from college, and that two of my most beloved friends, Steve and Michael, are men I roomed with in college more than thirty years ago.
On and off for three decades I had a friend who was sometimes a lover. At a shifting point in our relationship one of us turned to the other and asked, “How do you consummate a friendship?” We can’t remember who said it, but it remains a great question, impossibly koan-ish in its implications. Why do so many of us take our friendships for granted, stop calling our friends the moment we’re in love, and only remember them when our relationship is in trouble or ended? Photo albums and videos from weddings, commitment ceremonies, and anniversary parties abound. How do we remember our friends? Sometimes it’s only on the refrigerator. With a post card Molly sent, faded, that’s been up there for years? Or the picture of you and Harold standing side by side on the beach in Maui, the time you went there with your soon-to-be ex-boyfriends, two years before he died? Do you remember your friends on Valentine’s Day? Do you fill each other’s houses on Passover, Pride Weekend, and Christmas? Do you tell stories about how you met your friends, the way we tell coming out stories and stories of how we met our lovers?
I mourn the lack of friendship rituals. In kindergarten I married Anne in her parents living room. Her mother played the piano. Her little sister was the flower girl. When I was in high school boys gave girls their ID bracelets when they were going steady. I never gave mine to anyone. It was way too soon to invite another boy to the prom. But in seventh grade a girl who liked me borrowed a bracelet from a boy named Andy who lived in the next town, and told people it was mine. I don’t know what teens do now, but I’m sure they do something. Tattoo their lover’s name on their perineum. Get a new piercing in their honor. There are engagement rings and wedding rings. “How about necklaces for friends?” I once thought. Then I realized it could become a competition. “I have more necklaces than you!” “Yeah, but yours are plastic and look like Mardi Gras leftovers, while mine are rose quartz, turquoise, and amethyst.” No, it’s probably a good thing we don’t have friendship tokens. Many of us will not have, by this society’s standards, “successful long-term relationships.” Yet we will have decades-long rich and enduring friendships that may or may not ever be celebrated. So I invite you to examine your life, to look deep into your heart for a few moments, and ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the place of friendship in my life?
- How do I consummate a friendship?
- Do I recognize and celebrate my friends, or do I take them for granted?
- What rituals or ceremonies might I create to consecrate my friendships?
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Andrew Ramer, author of the classic Two Flutes Playing (available from White Crane Books). Praxis is a regular feature in each issue of White Crane.