An Open Letter to a Friend

Hello there…

Last weekend we both came face to face with something that we have both tried to ignore, tried to pretend wasn’t going to happen. We’ve philosophized about friendship, we’ve hung out as friends, we’ve talked openly and honestly as friends, I have celebrated our friendship repeatedly on my blog. And yet, we both knew, I think, that at some far-distant point, we would have to face the fact that you are a guy and I am a girl, and that our friendship had, despite our attempts to say otherwise, remained open to the possibility of another type of relationship. We couldn’t escape that door; we could super-glue it shut, but the creature imprisoned behind it was alive, and would need to be dealt with, whether through befriending it or putting it to death.

On Saturday, in the gentlest way possible, you told me “that we needed to put a period after the word ‘friends.'” That it wasn’t my fault, but just wasn’t going to become that other kind of relationship. And, oddly, as much as I care for you, I agreed with you. Deep in my soul, I knew you were right. Besides, I trust you.

It was right, but I am sad. I am sad because I cannot be certain that I will ever meet someone with the same qualities I so admire in you. I am also sad because, for very good reasons, we will not be getting together every week or so to watch a movie and talk about fictional characters and fuss about the people we love and our personal struggles. I will miss those things very much. Your friendship, over the past six months or so, has given me strength and support to deal with some very difficult events and issues, and I will miss getting all the texts and seeing you smile and feeling your hugs. I will miss you .

But I don’t want you to feel bad. In fact, that’s one reason I’m writing this. Because you should not feel guilty for being honest, not any more than I should for caring for you. I do not blame you; I do not blame me; the sadness is natural. It makes sense, anyway. People our age are looking for a life partner, and toward that end we make friendships, we have crushes, we fall in love, and then we evaluate the relationship and ask ourselves: is this the one? And, no matter how much we love that person, if that person is NOT the one, we’d better just admit it. Things like this just happen. They stink, but they are not wrong. They are, in fact, part of life.

Actually, I want to thank you. I have been in your place before, having to tell someone who liked me that it wasn’t going to work out. And he took it very badly. You know all about that story. I didn’t want to have to do that again. I would have felt so guilty if you had not spoken up, if you had left it up to me to call this relationship-thing what it was. Thank you beyond words for having the courage and forthrightness to bring it up. Thank you for “being the man” about it, if you will.

Also, thank you beyond words for doing it gently. I did not feel cheapened or devalued by the manner in which you did it. You, in fact, said that you didn’t want to keep me waiting, that you wanted to step aside so someone even better could come. You said that your reasons had nothing to do with my personal qualities, and, in fact, praised me. That’s not to say that I haven’t since struggled with self-worth, but it’s more “No one else will be okay with strange little me” than “He didn’t want strange little me.” Thank you for making me feel like a queen (if a lonely one), instead of something cheap. Thank you.

Because you were so very decent about all of it, you have given me a wonderful gift. Despite a sense of loss and the questions about what’s ahead now, there is no anger and hardly any hurt associated with my memories of our friendship. I have no guilt, no regrets, no hard feelings.

I will always be able to look back on our movie-and-dinner nights with a smile. When I watch Guardians of the Galaxy or I, Robot or all of Doctor Who season 8, I will smile remembering the fun of watching them first with you. When I eat quiche I will remember making it for you and then learning how much you disliked cheese. Or brownies! Heaven help me. I want to laugh just thinking of how you praised them so much out of politeness, so I kept making them even though you couldn’t stand them. When I put on my long coat, I will remember wearing it in the corn maze and wearing it to go see Dracula, and how you thought it was cool, not ridiculous. When I listen to that Anna Nalick album you showed me, I’ll remember our crazy Half Price Books day, when we ate a picnic on a narrow strip of grass beside a busy street in the middle of Lynnwood. When I am struggling to be strong, I will remember that you believed I was.

So much good. So much happiness. So many beautiful memories.

And thank you for being a good friend. For listening when I needed to talk. For being a guy with whom I could feel completely safe. For treating me, not like something “other,” but as an equal. Thank you for all the goodness you blessed me with.

We knew we’d have to figure out what it was someday. Thank you for bringing it up and for doing it in a way that left all the happiness and beauty untouched.

Things have changed. We can’t kid ourselves; it can’t be what it was, even if neither of us are quite sure what that even was. But I wanted you to know that, in the words of the Doctor, “you added to my pile of good things.” And those good things are precious and will never go away.

Again, from the bottom of my heart, I say, Thank you.

I Don’t Want to Be Independent (You Read That Right)

“Help!” I frantically texted my computer-savvy friend Jacob last night. “My laptop’s touchpad suddenly decided not to work!”

“Is there a button that turns it off and on?”

“Already tried it.”

“Did you try restarting it?”

“Yes. I even took out the battery.” (I’m beginning to panic at this point. I had a writing day planned for tomorrow and a talent show to make programs for this weekend, and just way too much of my life on that rebellious machine.) “I know it’s a huge favor to ask, but if it’s still not behaving tomorrow, could you meet me after work and take a look at it?”

“No problem!”

You guessed it.

I met up with Jacob, and he fixed the problem with… I kid you not… ONE TOUCH. More like two little taps at the upper corner of my touch pad, but still, the idea of it. Apparently my taps of the night before had been too violent. “It’s not pressure, it’s contact it responds to,” he explained, leaving me to laugh at my forcefulness with the thing and groan about the fact that I’d asked him to come thirty minutes out of his way to touch my computer.

It was the sort of thing that could potentially deeply embarrass a girl who likes to think of herself as an independent, twenty-first century woman who can handle things herself.

But the fact is, it wasn’t nearly as embarrassing as it should have been. We had chosen a little restaurant as the site of the computer’s examination, and we proceeded to order large breakfasts-for-dinner and visit merrily for over two hours, laughing so hard at times that the deaf elderly couple at the table next to us made grinning comments about us having too much fun.

A lonely evening had been turned into a delightful outing. Bless the stupid computer and my ineptitude. And bless my gracious friend.

In moments like those, I look at my independent ideals and wonder just how sustainable they actually are. What, indeed, am I trying to accomplish? What exactly is it that I am trying to prove to the world? That I don’t need people to survive? That I can take care of myself? That I am a world unto myself? And who, exactly, am I kidding?

I need people. I need friends to fix my computer. I need the man at the repair shop to fix my car. I need the people at the grocery store to sell me the food I so proudly cook for myself. I need the farmers who grew that food. I need my students to keep me laughing and living and believing in making a difference. I need people to take care of and I need people to take care of me.

I begin to wonder if this elusive independence I am constantly striving for is really what I want. Maybe what I really want is respect… respect and trust. I want people like my parents and supervisors and the parents of my students to truly respect me as an individual and, in turn, trust me. I think it’s validation I’m striving for, not independence. Because real independence, freedom from needing others and having others need me, not only sounds utterly impossible, but it sounds utterly miserable.

So, thank you, Jacob, for fixing my computer. I’m not going to let myself be too embarrassed about needing help there. Because I really didn’t know what to do with the thing–and now I can work on my story tomorrow. And also because, let’s face it, I will never be really independent. And that is actually a very good thing.

In Which I Discover that “Just Friends” May Actually Be a Higher Order of Relationship than Dating

Confession time: I have a friend who is a guy. We have been purposefully spending time together for about four months now. We give each other hugs and we talk honestly about what really matters to us.

And we are “just friends.”

Before you laugh at me and tell me I am setting myself up for heartbreak and failure, hear me out. Believe me, I have undergone all manner of agony of the heart over the last several weeks as I have tried to sort out my emotions and my better judgment, my thoughts and my feelings, and which of them are beyond my control and which ones I should listen to and which ones I should act in spite of. It has not been fun, comfortable, or settling. I have passed from attraction and a desire for a relationship, to panic and the desire to back out of said relationship before it got dangerous.

None of those options are what’s happening right now. You see, my friend and I have had several honest heart-to-heart talks in which we have concluded that what both of us really want, at least for the time being, is to remain “just friends.”

But there’s a little problem. Several months ago, as soon as we really began hanging out, I began to see this friendship as having the potential for “something more.” And along with that thought came the inevitable CHECKLIST. You know, that list of qualities that you want to find in a future mate.

I think that most girls… or most single people, for that matter, have a sort of CHECKLIST. My CHECKLIST today is vastly different than it was when I was fourteen; back then, brown hair and brown eyes were near the top of the list, after, of course, “Christian.” As of this summer, heading the list (after the inevitable “Christian”) was something along the lines of respecting my independence, seeing me as an equal and a friend instead of a prize to be won.

So when my friend and I went to see Taming of the Shrew in late August, and he surprised me with his displeasure at the “taming” of Kate, saying she was beautiful when she was herself and shouldn’t have to be changed, I was shocked and deeply pleased. On the way home, we skipped small talk and had a deep discussion about women’s roles in society. I am ashamed to say that a checkmark appeared atop my CHECKLIST.

Another of those items on the new and improved CHECKLIST was that I would end up with someone who was a friend before he was anything else to me… a good friend. Just so happens that I’ve known this friend over five years now. And neither of us called what we were doing “dating” nor did we really consider it such. Another check on the CHECKLIST.

So I checked off items on the CHECKLIST and frowned over other items that weren’t there, not realizing till last night that all the while a more sinister side of the CHECKLIST was emerging.

For one thing, the very fact that I was using my CHECKLIST proved that this was no “friendship” to me. Because, you see, my version of friendship does not include a CHECKLIST. Ever.

To me, friendship starts in a couple of ways. It usually starts with mutual interests. But it grows from there. It grows with trust, with confiding in each other, with shared experiences and emotions (be they laughter or tears, over real-life struggles or characters in a movie). And, for me, a friendship is on its way to being truly deep and lasting when my friend needs me, comes to me, and lets me help them. The friendship is solidified further when I choose to turn to that friend in a time of personal distress, when I am the one in need.

It’s as simple (or complex) as that. There is no CHECKLIST involved. I have friends with deep emotional needs. I have friends with criminal histories. I have friends with very different moral codes and different beliefs than me. I have friends who drink now and then and friends who believe that even cooking with alcohol is a sin. The only thing that has ever made me turn away from a friend was the horrific realization that they were not my friend in return and that the relationship was in fact damaging me in ways that I needed to stop. If I have any “friend CHECKLIST,” that, or the lack thereof, is the only item on it.

The result is that I try my best to love my true friends as unconditionally as I possibly can.

And the problem with a CHECKLIST is that it is conditional.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that one should enter into a serious romantic relationship without deeply evaluating the other. I believe that a lasting, strong marriage (which after all is where a serious romantic relationship leads, at least in my thinking) is not entered into lightly or without seriously considering how well the two people actually “work” together. A lifelong partnership is serious business and demands deep evaluation of oneself and the other.

I am, however, saying that calling a relationship “just a friendship” while at the same time subjecting it to the rigors of the CHECKLIST is living a lie and being vastly unfair to the other party.

It’s also making friendship conditional and imposing the CHECKLIST on something it was never meant to evaluate.

When I realized last night that this was what I was doing, I realized why “just friends” was beginning to feel so uncomfortable. I also found myself at a standstill, staring down at two separate forks in the road.

If I took the “just-friends” path, as we’d discussed, I would need to set my CHECKLIST aside. I would need to commit to the ultimate vulnerability: care for another, allowing him to care, allowing us to continue to talk about what really mattered to us without immediately passing judgment on each other. Taking this path would mean, for the moment, setting aside even the consideration of a romantic relationship. Yet a large part of me, the part of me that created the CHECKLIST to begin with, fears where this path may lead: that my affection for this person, deepened by friendship, might accidentally lead me into a relationship that wouldn’t work because of our differences (the differences highlighted by the items not checked off on the CHECKLIST). It sounds like a path for a naive, foolish, optimistic person, exactly the person I am trying my hardest not to be these days. I am afraid of the pain that could lie at the end of that path.

The other path involves continuing the friendship, with the goal of, at some point in the future, determining whether or not a relationship will work. This path sounds wise, until I realize that it implies the continued use of the CHECKLIST. I may try my very hardest not to use it, but with such a goal, the CHECKLIST will always remain in my subconscious.

The first involves a staggering, ridiculous kind of trust, as well as a turning away from something I deeply want.

The second involves violating one of the deepest principles of my being. Furthermore, it involves a kind of lie. On this path, my mouth is telling the person something different than my heart is inevitably doing.

Hmm.

As difficult as the decision is, I’m sure you can tell which path I took by the very words I am using to describe them. And I will tell you what led me to choose the “friends” path.

It is because I truly care about this person.

I care about keeping my word to this person. I care about telling him the truth when I tell him that he can talk to me about anything. I care about meaning what I say when I say he is my friend. I care about his questions and his needs and his heart. And I don’t want to damage those by saying one thing and really doing another. I want to really care, with no reservations. I want to be his friend. And I think I want to be his friend much more than I want to be his girlfriend.

I cannot be his friend if I am constantly holding him up to a CHECKLIST. It just doesn’t work that way.

There may come a day when the two paths cross. There may come a day when evaluation is once again necessary. Maybe, if that day comes, we will both have changed to fit each others’ CHECKLISTS. Maybe we will evaluate each other and realize together that anything other than friendship just won’t happen. The paths may cross, but I am not counting on it.

Wish me luck. It’s going to be an adventure, and we all know that they are nasty, uncomfortable things, that make you late for dinner.

But if Bilbo’s example is any good, they can also be an opportunity to be completely transformed, to have rough edges knocked off one’s soul, for the friction and trouble to polish one until one gleams. Adventures are good things.

And I’m up for one called friendship.

Like Cold Water

I didn’t realize just how intensely the events of last week (narrated earlier) had affected me until Friday night, when I went over to my friend Nicole’s house to chat and watch a movie. During a time we’d have normally been relaxing and chatting, she was relaxing and chatting, and I was answering in monosyllables. I felt like I could hardly move; I stared straight ahead; and, most telling of all, I’d drawn my legs up instead of stretching out on the recliner.

That moment when I feel safest when I’m as compact as I can make my nearly 6’frame– that moment, my friends, is a dangerous moment. Because, if you poke me with a stick, there is no telling whether I will run screaming from the room, run screaming at you, or just stare blankly at you and the stick as if I’ve never seen such a thing before.

What proceeded, though, over the next few days, was nothing short of astounding.

It’s hard to say at what point it started. But somewhere back toward the middle of that week, I kept getting texts. And messages. And little comments from people who I didn’t think even noticed that all was not all right. One of my students texted me a link to a song that spoke directly to where I was at. I got to spend a portion of Saturday with a dear friend who not only gave me hugs but also washed the dinner dishes for me and shared a Doctor Who episode that specifically addressed finding hope at the point where there seemed to be none (the 50th anniversary special, in case anyone was wondering). I mean, there were lines in that episode that seemed eerily written for me. A favorite Facebook page posted a meme with one of my favorite quotes from Lord of the Rings: that moment when Aragorn looks in hopeless eyes at Helm’s Deep and reminds the fighters, “There is always hope.” Friends– friends whom I usually looked after, not the other way around– were checking in with me because they were worried about me.

I didn’t understand it. On one hand, I was downright uncomfortable with all the attention. On the other hand, I was beginning to have no delusions about my own weakness and the fact that these people were actually helping.

But it all reached a head on Sunday.

I was on my way to church, and I got a text message. I checked it, and it was my mentor from student teaching last year– a woman I literally have not seen in months. “You are especially in our prayers this morning,” it read. WHAT. This was going beyond “I have a problem that people must be able to see.” This was getting downright weird.

But things didn’t get better. They got worse. Anyone who’s dealt with something similar will understand what I mean when I say that sometimes, when I am low like this, waves of inner blackness will come, for no explainable reason, and fighting them off is exhausting if not impossible. I don’t think I could tell you much about the church service, honestly, because it was mostly engulfed in one such wave. I made it home, though, things a little abated although not necessarily better.

Shortly thereafter, my phone rang. It was one of my best friends, whom I was more or less expecting. We talk most Sunday afternoons. Our conversations are usually a glorious mix of elaborate story crafting, sci-fi-tinged theological wonderings, rants about the world’s stupidity, and the occasional Hannibal joke.

I hate it when, instead, they turn into me sobbing my heart out into my friend’s ear. Never mind that she’s done that a few times, too. It just feels wrong, coming from me. It’s not who I want to be. It’s not who I’m supposed to be.

But there we were. And then something happened that I very much hope I will never forget. I don’t see how I ever could, anyway.

“You know, Erika,” she said. “I was thinking about you this week, and about all the stuff that’s been happening the last year or so. I was thinking about it, and I actually wrote some stuff about it.” She sounded embarrassed. “I wrote a poem, actually. And I won’t read it to you. I won’t read it to anyone, but let me see if I can just tell you the gist of what I was thinking. You’re going to make it. It will all be okay.”

“Well, of course I will,” I said. “If we look to eternity, we’ve all got a happy ending.”

“I had that one thrown in my face a few too many times to find it comforting. But you can think it if it helps; it’s true. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you, in this life, in this situation. It will be okay.”

Before I go any further, one fact requires explanation. My friend just doesn’t say this sort of thing. Any cynicism I may display, I learned from her. She is one of the most cynical, pessimistic people I know–and what makes her pessimism stick in one’s mind is that it’s based on cold, hard, indisputable facts. She’s had more than the usual human share of grief and maltreatment, herself. Her outlook on life and humanity is bleak but justifiably so. She is, in fact, so consistently right about impending disaster that I have taken to just taking her at her word, no questions asked.

This, then, was the person who 1) wrote a poem about MY situation and 2) was now telling me that things were going to work out with the school. It was almost too much for me to process.

“Why do you say that?” I finally managed, quietly.

“Because I know you,” she said. “Because of who you are.”

I wanted to argue, to protest, to demand an explanation. But really, I knew what she was saying. It didn’t require an explanation. I just didn’t believe it. It seemed like such a strange reason to hope, a reason grounded in the one thing I really had no confidence whatsoever in, in the thing I felt was crumbling. Because of who I was?

“I watched a movie last week that you should watch,” she was continuing. “A Western. Tombstone. The best part of the movie was Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday character. I’ll send it to you. You should see it. He reminds me of you.”

The movie arrived at the speed of a digital document, and I watched it almost as soon as it arrived. And without spoiling a rather excellent piece of filmmaking for those who haven’t seen it, Doc Holliday was easily the coolest character in the whole story. He’s a drunkard and a gambler, but he’s got this sense of humor that stuns his enemies, and, even better, he’s casually deadly with a gun and has no objections to shooting up anyone or anything that gets in his way. All the while, might I add, he is suffering from a worsening lung disease.

I was enjoying his character immensely, but having some difficulty understanding my friend’s comparison until a scene where another character demands, incredulously, to know why he just keeps fighting. “Because Wyatt Earp is my friend!” he declares.

Nice one. I get it now, I thought.

But it didn’t end there. No spoilers, but that character just kept on going. He kept on fighting. It was ridiculous. It was beautiful. And by the time the movie was over, I was so overwhelmed at being compared to this character that I felt the need to call my friend and just sort it out.

At this point, I should probably mention that my student decided to come back to the school. The initial source of panic, the tipping point, was unexpectedly resolved Sunday night. I got a text from her simply saying that she would be back in school on Monday.

I could almost taste my relief. And I recalled my post about the scarcity of miracles, and I smiled. Take that, odds. Maybe you are in my favor.

I would love to say that life swung upward permanently. But the fact is that by the time I actually got to talk to my friend again about the movie, I had had another very difficult day, and what I had hoped would be an enjoyable discussion of the movie turned into another impassioned round of tears. It took an Evanescence sing-along and a long Facebook chat with another friend before I was at peace enough to sleep that night. No, I would not say that things have gotten easier, even though that particular hurdle has been crossed.

But I know one thing. I know that, no matter how close to exploding or getting engulfed I might feel, it will work out. My pessimistic friend told me so. And she is always right.

The moral of the story: A pessimist wields a power of comfort that an optimist can’t even touch. Optimists, at their best, are relying on an unquenchable scaly hope. An honest pessimist, on the other hand, cannot help but say what they see. And if they see hope, hope there must really be indeed.

So, keep that in mind, pessimists. Your day may come to do what no optimist can. Because, like cold water in a dry and weary land is optimism from a pessimist.

For the Love of Lost Kittens

I may have accidentally adopted a stray cat.

Well, maybe it was only halfway accidental. I was the one who went and made friends with it and then opened the door to see if it would come in. But it’s all-the-way stray. Half-grown, lean, with a little chunk out of the tip of one of its big ears. Male or female? I don’t know yet. Hence, it still doesn’t have a name. Besides, I feel that naming it crosses the point of no return. And, unfortunately, I don’t know whether or not I can keep it. Not only is one of my best friends allergic, but there is no way I can afford my apartment complex’s pet fee. At the moment, I’m trying to see if they will waive the pet fee if I take the cat off their hands. It is, after all, living under their apartment complex, a most undesirable thing even in a small town like Oak Harbor.

I know, I know… I should never have let it inside.

It’s part of a running problem I have. My other best friend Mary (who, as far as I know, is not allergic to cats) called it my “lost kitten” problem long before it extended to literal lost kittens. You see, I collect lonely souls and befriend them—now and then, against their will or at least against social custom. I then look after them until their circumstances become less dire, at which point they graduate into a certain irretrievable state of being forever cherished. Granted, over the years, there have been one or two “kittens” who turned around and scratched me badly, and have had to go for the good of all considered. But, by and large, my arsenal of dear friends is now largely composed of former “kittens.”

I was chatting with Kristina (the friend who is allergic to cats) today, and suggested that maybe this particular kitten smelled something on me that told him I couldn’t refuse him. As cats go, this is the kind I’d end up with. Is it the aloof, distant kind who can trace her lineage directly to Egyptian goddesses? No. It’s a scrap-eared waif who, if he were a person, would definitely be called “needy”—who feels the need to follow me around so closely I trip over him.

But the good thing about needy kitties is that they’ll do what this one is doing right now—when you’re feeling lonely because it’s a cold, dark fall night and you’re alone (again) for the evening, the kitty will curl up on your lap and purr like a little machine, keeping you warm and not quite so alone.

Can I keep it? I don’t know yet. But I do know one thing—I will take the “lost kitten” over the pet store cat any day. I like my kitties needy.