Spectrum: What Is Friendship?

My ideal in-person friendship works like this: Every three weeks or once a month, my friend and I meet on a weekday afternoon for tea or coffee at a café, preferably one where we can sit in a bright garden or cozy indoor corner facing the door. My friend shares their current interest, talking without interruption for as long as they want. I don’t have to ask questions–I just listen and respond, drawing connections between what my friend says and my current thoughts and observations about life. Then it’s my turn, and I get to talk without interruption–even for ten minutes, if I want to–about my current special interest, and after I’ve said all that’s begged to be said, my friend can ask me questions and draw connections. And then, we can talk more, or, better yet, sit in companionable silence while the birds sing around us and the sun shines and the light bathes our eyes and quiets our minds.

I had a friendship like that! It lasted for about three years. During that time, my current topics of interest were cello, gardening, and life-patterns in romantic relationships (and the intersects of those three interests) and those topics engaged my friend’s attention. Then, my special interest shifted to the Sims, artificial intelligence, and SimLit, and my friend grew restless. I have a dread fear of boring people, and I learned in early childhood that it’s not always possible to talk about special interests with others because they find the topics boring and the details overwhelming. So, I made the effort to talk about things of mutual interest, and so, while it doesn’t fit my rather high and specific ideal, this friendship still offers me enjoyment. I’m used to keeping my special interests to myself.

For my friend, though, this friendship doesn’t come close to her ideal or her expectations. Its limitations frustrate her, and she’s in the process of letting it go. She would like a friendship that fits her expectations for the “normal” progression of a friendship: Meeting each other’s partners; having meals at each other’s houses; doing things together on weekends.

Those requirements don’t work for me. I become confused and overwhelmed when I’m with my boyfriend and another that I’m close to: there’s just too much for me to process, and I don’t enjoy it. I don’t want to have others over. My home’s my sanctuary, and I count on being able to keep the space filled with only the feelings and thoughts of my boyfriend and myself. And my weekends are taken with restoring my energy from the busy week, doing my online teaching activities, taking care of all the household tasks that wait for the weekend, and playing (which means, cello, writing, gardening, video games, and daydreaming).

What I liked about our friendship was that it didn’t fit “normal” expectations: it was special, and it fit me, and for a while, it fit both of us.

My coworkers spend time in the evenings and on weekends with their friends. Since I know that work takes as much of their capacity as it does mine (around 90-100%, more, if they are mothers of young children), I wonder how they are able to manage this. From what I gather, it’s because, for the most part, their time with their friends in leisure hours refreshes, fulfills, and engages them. It’s not a hardship or sacrifice: it’s a treat. In a few cases, some may get together with friends because it’s expected, and then regret it later because they’re tired and drained–but for the most part, they seem to enjoy it and it adds something to their lives.

I’ve tried this–honestly, earnestly, sincerely, arduously, and prodigiously. I’ve had times when I’ve invited people over for supper or afternoon tea, held small house parties, tried to get together with others for hikes or outings (which, somehow, I’ve never been able to find takers for), and even accepted a few of the few-and-far-between invitations I’ve received. It’s left me exhausted and more than unhappy.

The requirements for this type of “normal” friendship do not fit me and detract from my ability to function, handle all the aspects of my life, and be happy.

Friendship has been a life-long puzzle for me. My mom tells a story about my social interactions in preschool: I would welcome every new child, showing them around the room, explaining when we could use the toys, describing the schedule, letting them know some of the less obvious rules, enthusing about the delicious graham crackers and warning about the overly sweet apple juice. The new children would think that, in me, they had found their new best friend. After showing them around, I would head off alone for one my favorite activities (either painting on the easel or working on the tracks for the train set). My mom said that this behavior confused the children, who expected that I would play with them. When I first heard this story and reflected on my own thoughts and feelings during those times, I remember feeling that we were a community. In my mind, we were all friends, and I wanted everyone to belong. And once everyone felt welcome, then I wanted us to be free to do what we wanted to do. And what I wanted to do was to paint, without interruption and without having to talk.

I had friends in kindergarten and first grade whom I played with and walked home from school with. After we moved to a new town when I was in second grade, I could never figure out the social rules and remained on the outside until I made few good friends in junior high and high school. During those lonely days in elementary school, I thought about friendship a lot. I studied Joan Walsh Anglund’s book A Friend is Someone Who Likes You. The only part of it that really made sense to me was the part about how sometimes a tree could be your friend; for all of my life, trees have been some of my best friends.

I didn’t, and still don’t, equate “someone who likes you” with friendship. Yes, I want my friends to like me. But not everyone who likes me is my friend. I have had former bosses and retired coworkers come up to me and say, “You are one of my favorite people!” It has always puzzled me, as much as it’s gratified me. If I’m a favorite person of theirs, why aren’t we friends?

I have “friendliness” down: It’s how I treat everyone, and this brings me great happiness. I am still much like that child in preschool who wants everyone–literally everyone and every living thing on the planet–to feel that they belong, they are valued, they are part of the community.

Friendship, I’m still learning about.

There was a time last year, after a few intensive years of striving to find an approach towards developing and maintaining friendship that fit me, when I decided “I don’t do friendship.” I do friendliness. I had read an article from the New York Times called “Friendship’s Dark Side: ‘We Need a Common Enemy” which reviewed studies on friendship, emphasizing its exclusive nature. During the time I read it, I was in the process of being excluded in the office. Early morning gossip, before I arrived, drew together some of the coworkers at the expense of leaving me outside the circle. One of my coworkers, who’d been a close work partner for over ten years, stopped initiating greetings and conversations. I still greeted her–because of my commitment to friendliness and cordiality, but as the lines of connection between her and another coworker grew taut, those between the two of us were snipped.

It’s possible to see this almost physically. When I walk into a gossip session happening in the office across the hall, I can see lines of light and energy stretched tight between the circle of gossipers. It shimmers and glows the more energetically they talk about someone else, actually feeding off of the energy of meanness and exclusion. This brings them closer.

I’m not willing to engage in that, though I can see how much pleasure and emotional satisfaction it brings them, like a feel-good drug for their brains and a social cement for their relationships.

For me, that’s not friendship. Or if it might be called that, I’m not willing to pay the price.

So what is friendship?

One of my online friends, Mike (@Shishwik at ESO), shared this definition with me:

“Friendship is a quest, a goal, and a lifelong commitment. For me it begins when I desire to know someone, for whatever reason. If the feeling is mutual then I willingly learn about that person, the whys and hows if you will. Once I know the person I can begin to understand the reasons behind the whys and hows. Once understanding is attained, love happens. Through love we become better people and closer to our true purpose here on Earth in my opinion: Truth, Beauty, and Kindness. What is brotherly love if not friendship? “

–Mike/@Shishwik

Substitute “sibling love” for “brotherly love”, and most of this definition works for me! I don’t expect or require my friends to make a lifelong commitment: I realize that circumstances, needs, and life-demands change, and so I am happy to let go of the friendship when the other person realizes that it no longer fits or satisfies them. However, when I examine my own feelings, I realize that I do make a lifelong commitment towards my friends. I’d welcome back any of the friends who were once, but are no longer, in my life, and, in fact, I still count erstwhile friends as friends.

The part of the definition which resonates most strongly with me is that it rests on understanding and the feelings of goodwill–the love–that flow from that. This love is caritas, αγάπη, core to the type of friendliness which welcomes others into the circle. This inclusive friendship views the world and the cosmos as one community, of which we are all parts. There is always room for one more.

This is friendship. One of the aspects I love most about this definition is that it leaves room for online friendships to qualify–and that’s a subject for a future post!

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Spectrum: Yellow Flags across the Finish Line

photo of CT standing by flags

What I’m Trying Not to Do Here

I’m not writing these entries to complain, and I’m not soliciting sympathy or attention. I’m well aware of my privilege: I’ve been able to craft a successful, fulfilled, rich life largely because I’ve started out high up the ladder. My family, like most American families, is mixed-race; but for the past hundred years, we’ve been perceived as white. (It was only recently that a cousin’s DNA test revealed our African heritage–not all members of our extended family are aware of or acknowledge our ancestry.) During my childhood, we were lower middle-class, and money was very tight, but we had a home with wildlands across the street, and we never had to skip a meal. We lived in a culturally rich area, and my well-educated parents, both teachers, valued the arts, reading, music, nature, and physical activity,  so we went to museums, concerts, and plays. We hiked, swam, camped, and skied. It was a rich upbringing that gave me, maybe, my best possible start. 

So, I’m not complaining. I’m not looking for pity, and I’m certainly not trying to make it out like I’ve had it tough or that life has somehow wronged me. I’m not broken: I’m blessed.

 What I am Trying to Do Here

This is a very personal project, undertaken for a very personal goal: The reclamation of those bits and pieces of me that I shoved into the seamless pocket because they didn’t fit the profile of a neurotypical person. Many of these pieces are wrapped in layers of pain, shame, or humiliation, so while I unwrap them, it’s likely that my hurt will come through my words. 

This isn’t a cry for sympathy. It’s a laying-out in the sunshine, so that these pieces can sparkle again before I stitch them back into the quilt that is me.

Dreaming of the Race

Before dawn this morning, I dreamt that I was in a race with four others. Two started before me, and two after. I didn’t know the rules of the competition–I wasn’t given the rulebook, and if anyone explained them to us, I neither heard nor comprehended. I was simply expected to compete and to do my best, figuring it out as I went along.

We were to race every day for five days, though I didn’t know that until the end of the event. 

On the first day, I just ran, watching, and seeing what was expected.

At the end of the race, we were served lunch with all the other participants. Those in my group were given something different than the others, but it was OK because we liked the food.

After a few days, I began to figure out the rules. Apparently, I was supposed to pick up sticks that the others dropped. They each dropped two sticks, so I was supposed to pick up eight. And finish first.

By the fifth day, I was ready. I knew the rules and what was expected. I’d worked out my strategy. I was ready to compete. 

But on this day, the two participants slated to start before me decided not to race. They’d already won, so they didn’t need to take part. This meant that there wouldn’t be enough sticks for me to pick up. But one of the participants who started behind me said that he would drop extra sticks, and I could find the remainder scattered about the dirt track. It meant that I’d need to let the boy behind me get ahead, but if I were smart, fast, and clever, I could do that and still meet the expectations of me. I had to be creative and strategic, but I managed to succeed, thanks to the help from my friend. Yet this race didn’t count because the other two hadn’t participated.

That day, after the competition, our group wasn’t served lunch. The three of us stood in line, but there was no food for us. The servers whispered to each other, and one of them went back to talk with the manager, and the three of us were directed to sit at a long table with the diners. No one explained why we weren’t served food, though there was a lot of gesturing towards us and a lot of whispers. Eventually, one of the supervisors came to say that the three of us wouldn’t be eating that day.

By now, outside of the dream, it was nearly time for me to wake and begin preparing our breakfast, so I was hungry! In the dream, I left the dining hall, realizing I needed to be responsible for meeting my needs and caring for my two friends. I walked outside, through the alleys, to the food court, where too many stalls sold too much food and too many scents of cinnamon, fried meat, fried dough, coffee, and fruit filled the air, the air particles jostling with the sound–so much sound of talking, shouting, brass instruments, a trolley car, a bongo drum, the hum of electric fans, the honking of horns. With all the focus I could muster, I screened out the extra stimulation, and zeroed in on my task: Buy something I could eat. Buy something my two group-mates would like. Across the crowded food court, I spied a rack of cinnamon empanadas. Those would do.

When I woke, I realized this dream represents my experience of what it’s like to live as a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical world: I’m expected to compete in a social and professional world for which I haven’t been given the rulebook, and by the time I’ve figured out the rules, the conditions have changed, others have moved on, and I need to rely on the help of those who remain, combined with my own creative and strategic skills, to finish the event. And by then, it’s the last day and the results don’t count, anyway.

About fifteen years ago, after a successful performance evaluation, I asked my supervisor, whom I really liked and admired, what specific skills I should work on. She said that for my current position, there was nothing to improve: keep doing what I was doing, learning and growing. However, if I had my eye on her position, if I wanted to take over as the school district’s IT director in a few years, after she retired, she could make some suggestions for what I might learn. I felt flattered that she thought, with a few more skills, I could be a candidate for her position. I also knew, without needing a moment to consider, that this was not a career move I was interested in. It required more of a trade-off than I was willing to make, and I’d be left with no time or energy for my own personal creative endeavors. Later, as I mentioned my supervisor’s comment to a counselor, I felt a twinge of sadness–not exactly regret, but grief. I couldn’t, then, place its source. But I know now: It’s because I realized, on some level, that I lacked the capacity for that position. Sure, it was the best decision to maintain life-balance not to pursue such a demanding career. But I think I knew, too, that I didn’t have the capacity to manage a large staff, to coordinate complicated plans involving the labor of hundreds of people and impacting tens of thousands (it’s a very large school district), and to interact regularly with a fractious board. I knew this task was beyond me.

I’ve stayed at the same position I held then. It’s been… close to perfect. I love my tasks, which are detail-oriented, regular with a few interesting changes, sometimes challenging, generally fun, and which serve a purpose I can support. I’m the web editor for the school district’s website and Intranet. I’ve been able to create my own work schedule, reducing my hours to 30 per week, in order to enjoy long quiet mornings, each day, before I head into the office. Sometimes, the conditions change, and I’m left scrambling for a few weeks or a month to locate and decipher the new rulebook, but generally, the same old rules come back into play, and I’ve got teammates who will drop a few extra sticks for me. I try to look out for them, too.

It’s possible to thrive as a neurodivergent in a neurotypical world. For me, it takes using my creative and strategic thinking–and it also requires that I don’t allow myself to fall into societal expectations. I need to learn to define success my own way. For me personally and individually, being a web editor is far more successful than being an IT director. You know, I might complete the race and then have to go find my own empanadas. And maybe the race won’t count to anyone but me and a few others, those who look out for me and whom I look after in return. But I think, maybe, I like it that way. I kinda like inventing my own success as I go along. 

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