Friday, September 26, 2014

Nurturing the Tree of Friendship (n.)

"Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more."  
—The Fox in The Little Prince1
Think for a moment of the most famous friendships in history and literature. What names come to mind? For me it is always King David and Jonathan; Frodo and Samwise; and Anne and Diana. In my own life there are nearly a dozen soul-knit friends, kindred spirits, whom God has seen fit to bring into the dark places when all other lights go out. Usually they come singly, but sometimes in pairs. Always they bring friendship in their hand like a gift
In Western culture we use the word "friend" to mean a number of relationships, from an acquaintance to a friend so close that our souls really do seem knit together, as the Scriptures say of David and Jonathan. My Kasey-friend is vastly more dear to me than my friend John, who happens to be our mailman at work. In a way, I am friends with both, and I am friendly towards both, but one can read my soul, be part of my soul, the other has no idea what the shape of my soul is. Beyond a sliding scale of what friendship means, we have social media influencing our understanding of "friends"—making a noun into a verb, and making you feel like you know a person because they update their status bar every day or every ten minutes. If I know what someone made for breakfast, the song they are listening to, and the quotation they re-posted, I still do not know their essence, their ousia, via their social media site. I know their being by living with them, working with them, arguing with them, getting sick of them, and still wanting to be around that person the very next hour or day. We learn someone's quirks, endearing habits, turns of phrase, and morals by living with them in the daily—at school, work, or home. I cannot "unfriend" my neighbour, I live with her. I cannot decide I only want to be friends when it is convenient, nor would I want my friends to treat me that way. Friendship is time-consuming and takes hard work. It is also gloriously fun, deeply personal, and enriching to one’s soul. Thus, I rebel at the co-opting of the word "friend" in social media, when its etymology is much richer: dear, beloved, to love, to woo.2 A friend is one who walks with us to Mordor, in spite of the deadly peril, believing always that we will return home together...Yet even if they lose hope that we will live beyond Mount Doom, they would never dream of leaving our side, choosing rather to carry us—and die with us if need be. A friend helps us to dream again when all our hopes have crashed to the ground. A real friend speaks truth to us when we are being snippy, selfish, or unrealistic—even at the cost of our annoyance or anger toward them at hearing that truth. We return friendship when we receive rebuke, shine the spotlight on our friend’s accomplishments—rather than seeking our own glory or downplaying theirs—and walk through the valley of the shadow in silence, hope, and companionship with them.
Said more succinctly and wisely, Friendship is an obstetric art; it draws out our richest and deepest resources; it unfolds the wings of our dreams and hidden indeterminate thoughts; it serves as a check on our judgements, tries out our new ideas, keeps up our ardor, and inflames our enthusiasm.”3
Friendship indeed does all these things and more. Surely only a handful of these infinitely valuable and intimate are ever granted in one whole lifetime. In ninety-nine out of one hundred cases I would say that is true; but sometimes that one hundredth person is given extra gifts. I am one who has been given an abundance of these gift-friendships. I could never earn them—and I certainly do not deserve them—but I do cherish them. It is sometimes difficult for me to make enough time to maintain all of these friendships, but none of us seem to mind when there is a gap of time between calls, walks, or letters. We pick up where we left off and begin to share our hearts at some point. This does not leave much room in my life for casual “friends”—whom I would call acquaintances. Yet every now and again, I have dinner or coffee with an acquaintance because they are still a valuable person, even if I cannot invest more time with them.
What I have discerned in our culture is that many persons seem to devote much of their time to their acquaintances, leaving themselves little or no time to invest in one of those Samwise and Frodo friendships. No wonder the most common answer I receive to “How are you?” anymore is not “fine” but “busy.” Work, meetings, coffee dates, and various events—along with films, television, and internet browsing—fill up all of our waking moments until we hide beneath the covers at night.
I purposely have to pick one to two evenings a week where I have no plans, where I am not scheduled to make dinner for anyone besides myself, drive somewhere, or run errands. Mostly I end up washing dishes, writing, reading, or going for walks on these evenings. If I am free, I am able to attend to my neighbour when she has had a bad day; or call one of my friends around the country to hear about their souls. To foster intertwining, deep friendships, we must be available. We will have to attend. We must learn to see beyond the surface, seeking to know not simply “How was your day?” but “What made it good or hard?” and “How are you?” as well. We have to listen to the answer, not merely hear it.

To cultivate rich friendship, like husbanding a vineyard, there are times when we have to cut off sucker shoots. Activities, the number of acquaintances we spend time with weekly or monthly, and having our computer or phone on can be sucker shoots. It is hard work to figure out which friendships one ought to pour into. Goodness knows I have invested heavily in some unwise acquaintanceships and too long ignored some close friends. My real friends have been gracious to receive me back again, even as my heart recovers from overextending myself in short-lived comradeship.

That said, it is worth taking the risk of being friends, being vulnerable, being loyal to someone. You should be able to tell a person’s character fairly early on if you spend much time around them. Likewise, they should be able to tell if you are trustworthy and faithful. Will you keep their secrets, or will you gossip? Will you hold them when they cry? Will you share your hard moments with them? Will you drop by unexpectedly and not care if their hair is a mess and they are in their comfy clothes with holes in them? Will you let them do the same with you? Do they bring strength and beauty into your life? Do you build them up behind their backs, before their peers, and in a whisper for their ear alone? Do they make you live in reality, yet encourage you to dream? Does your soul thrill at their hopes?

Friendship is a give and take, not using someone or smothering them with affection. Friendship is made of mundane things like grocery shopping and folding laundry. It is made of looking at sunsets and stars and sharing hopes and fears. There is camaraderie in drinking tea—or coffee, if you must—and just looking at the world together, not saying much. Friendship is indeed an art, a way of life, a choice, a gift. Like all gardens and fruit trees, some friendships have their seasons and then comes the Autumn. Let them go. Cherish the friendships that are like apple trees, blossoming in Spring, green in Summer, bearing fruit in Autumn, and bare in Winter … Yet blossoming in Spring again. Cultivate those, for friendship is the tree itself. 

~ Johanna

* I am writing above about same gender friendships. Male/female friendships do not work quite the same, unless it is within the bounds or marriage. Then it is even closer and richer than anything I have known or described. It is important to have friends of both sexes, but male/female friendships outside of marriage cannot share in the same depth as male/male or female/female friendships.

** Cross-posted at Conciliar Post


1. de Saint-Exupery, Antoine The Little Prince (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971) 67
2. Friend (n.) Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001-2014 Douglas Harper
3. Sertillanges, A. G. The Intellectual Life (Washington D. C., Catholic University of America Press, 1998) 56

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Being Italian for a Day

Today I stepped back in time and took life at a slower pace. For nearly seven hours I was given the gift of being Italian. 

It all began about a year ago when our (then) new accountant kept telling those of us in the office about "tomato day". She and her husband would go to the fields and pick bushels of tomatoes. They would save them for a week to make sure they were really ripe. Then began the process of turning those tomatoes into a year's worth of pasta sauce. Many a time I have sampled minestrone, Italian vegetable soup, and so forth imbued in the goodness of this homemade sauce. Today I was given the opportunity to join in the labour of the fruits.

Three of us from the village arrived at Sue and Blake's house around nine in the morning. We petted the dog, washed our hands, met some family, and jumped in to the fray. Soon we were slicing onions in great big quarter chunks and learning how to peel garlic by shaking it inside two metal bowls (this actually works, you should try it). I also encountered a wooden spoon longer than my leg, which is impressive, because my legs are the longest part of me. When all was said, sliced, and done, we had four bushels of tomatoes, six onions, two bulbs of garlic, and two large containers of basil simmering over the camp stove in a collective eighty quarts. If you have never seen a twenty quart pot, you may not realise how massive it is compared to whatever normal persons use for cooking. However, the twenty quart pot was significantly dwarfed by the sixty quart pot and the spoon the size of Reepicheep's coracle paddle. Perhaps a photo will help illustrate my point:

See, doesn't the twenty quart pot look like your everyday sort of soup pot? Unless you normally feed an army, however, that pot was by no means everyday-ish. 

We stirred and squashed tomatoes for a few hours. We ate lunch. We petted Verona some more. Finally, the tomatoes began to boil into a rich red, aromatic fervour. We washed our hands, set up the press, gathered pots and buckets, and formed an assembly-line. Blake said "go!" and we began. Amanda poured the boiling hot tomato mixture into the wide funnel, I pressed it down with the plunger, and Sue cleared the skins and debris as they filled the flat "catcher". Those skins and onions and basil leaves went back into the press's funnel—we wanted all that flavour! Then they were removed to the rubbish. Various splatterings and eruptions left us with orangey splotches on our arms, feet, jeans, and shirts. Blake kept bringing pots and pans to catch the juices and thick sauce. We filled four different containers with that crimson, delicious-smelling sauce. Then back into those huge pots it went for an hour to boil out any bacteria. 

We stirred continuously to prevent burning the sauce. We set up the table with jar after jar—over sixty of them. Blake boiled the lids to ensure a good seal. Sue took soundings with the thermometer—we had to hit 180ยบ. We let the sauce "percolate" there for about half an hour. Out came the silver funnel for filling small mouth jars. Out came ladles and glass measuring cups with pour spouts. Next came the empty boxes to put the finished jars in for safe-keeping. Over came the neighbour girl to help wipe around the jar tops to make sure they sealed well. All was set... Then Blake said, "Go!" and we were in full swing. Clear jar after clear jar was filled with hot, pungent, tomato sauce. Red jar after red jar was passed to me to put in the empty boxes. In a matter of minutes sixty-two empty jars were full and sitting in their cardboard casings on the counter.

The dishes were washed and drip-drying; the delightful "pop!" of the seals was beginning; and four tired persons were grinning at the success of the day. We had made legitimate Sicilian tomato sauce with a recipe and process passed down from Blake's grandparents. We had been swashed in hot red juices and remained standing. We had picked up nearly all the parts and pieces... And it wasn't even four o'clock yet.

It felt good to stir hot sauce on a cool Autumn day. It was rewarding to slow down and make the year's supply of sauce, rather than buying that processed stuff from the grocery. I was reminded of all those times growing up when my mother, sisters, and I cut, cooked, mashed,  pressed, and strained apples for applesauce. I remember crisp days, sweet smells, and very tired arms from hand cranking that machine. But the satisfaction at the end of the day in making one's own food with one's own produce and labours was just the same. There is something to be said for making things rather than buying them.

There is a sweet satisfaction a a job well-done. There is camaraderie, fellowship, and working together in the process. You get to know stories you might never have heard were you not using an oar to paddle red sauce over open flames. You learn more about your friends and family, your skills and others', by working together. And you have to take life slowly when you're watching a sixty quart pot of tomatoes boiling. I'm glad I was allowed to be Italian for the day.

~ Johanna