My oldest friend who I still know and stay in contact with is Kyle Brodie, whom I met in the second grade. We hit it off on the first day, not in class but on the bus ride home. We started having a conversation and we both found each other so mutually clever that we just knew we were totally going to be best friends. And we were, until he moved away, as people do. But we kept in touch here and there and have genuinely reconnected again in the last couple of years; he’s still as clever as ever and I’m delighted that 34 years ago I made the right decision to be his friend (and he to be mine).
The newest friend I have I made this last weekend; it’s Adrienne Kress, an author I met at SFContario 2 in Toronto, and much like Kyle in second grade, it was her humor and cleverness in conversation that made me feel like I could have a connection with her, and encouraged me to spend time with her over the course of the convention. It is of course far too early to know if this enjoyment of her company and liking her as a person is going to mean I’ll be friends with her as long as I’ve been with Kyle, and honestly, it would be totally unfair of me (as well as possibly creepy for her) if I had that expectation. And you know what? I don’t. We’ll see how it goes. But in the meantime, I’ll consider her a friend, and happily so.
In between Kyle and Adrienne are some hundreds of people over the course of my life with whom I have been fortunate enough to be friends, to a greater or lesser extent.
“Friend” is an imprecise term, mind you. Classifying someone as a “friend” is a little like classifying them as a “mammal” — it’s probably correct but it doesn’t actually tell you much. There are all sorts of different types of friends, from the sort of friend barely above the level of casual acquaintance to the sort of friend who, when they call and say “I have a problem, bring a shovel,” you bring a shovel and deal with the problem without so much as a second thought. The taxonomy of friendship is exhaustive and even then doesn’t take into consideration that nearly all friendships are in motion. Your best friend in sixth grade may be someone to whom you barely speak anymore, for no other reason than life happens. The person with whom you shared mostly only a friendly passing relationship for years may unexpectedly become one of your most important friends. Friends you may see in real life only once a year — if that — may share a bond with you of surprising warmth. Time and circumstance and the fact we are ourselves always changing means our friendships are always changing too. New ones are added. Old ones trail away. Sometimes they return. Sometimes they don’t.
It’s not easy to define what a “friend” is in any event. There’s a joking definition which gets somewhere in the neighborhood: “a friend is someone who knows the real you and likes you anyway.” I think it might be more accurate to say that that a friend is someone that helps you to be the person you are, and likes you anyway. But even that doesn’t get to it completely. I mean, hell, I have some friends that sometimes I don’t even like very much. That doesn’t stop them from being my friend, and sometimes even some of the best of my friends. It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and classify friendship in the same way Potter Stewart defined pornography: Hard to define but you know it when you see it.
Nevertheless, I’ll strive for a simple definition. I think at the end of the day, a friend is someone you emotionally want in your life, who wants you emotionally in theirs. Why do you want them in your life, and they in yours, and how much in it for both? That’s something for the two of you to work out, and when you can’t figure it out, or sometimes you end up wanting different things, that’s when the friendship changes or ends. It’s also possible that your friendship is not mutually graded: You may feel an intense attachment to a friend who feels less intensely about you, and vice-versa. This can sometimes lead to problems. And finally friendship is two people dealing with each other, and you know how people are. Sometimes no matter how much you want to be friends with someone, or how much other people think you should be friends (or on occasion how much you would like to be friends for the sake of a mutual friend), it just doesn’t work. Friendship isn’t actually easy. People aren’t easy.
But the reward is that you get to have friends. You have the people to whom you may vent, with whom you can laugh, who will support you when you need it and for whom you may be a shelter. People who are, as is often said, the “family of choice” — those with whom you may stand and face what the world sends your way. People who are a part of you, have helped you become you, and who might be a part of who you are moving forward.
I have been genuinely blessed with friendships of all sorts and have been thankful them all, from the most casual friendships to the ones that have lasted and grown all through my life. For each of these and in their way, I have tried to be a good friend in return, and worry that I haven’t been. I can be oddly bad at connection; e-mails slip past me, calls turn into week-long bouts of phone tag, I get wrapped up in my own head and I wander about in otherwise oblivious ways. Even friends who I consider to be best friends I can be out of communication with for months at a time. So I am likewise thankful that when I do once again get in contact, they are gracious to me and still friends. It means a lot to me, more than I can easily express here.
So, my friends: Thank you, each of you and all of you, from the ones I have known all my life to the ones I am just meeting. It’s a good life with you in it. I hope your life is better for me being in yours.