Make new friends, but keep the old
One is silver, the other gold.
A circle is round, it has no end
That’s how long, I will be your friend.
When I was a child, my mother taught me this old friendship round that she had learned in Girl Scouts, and we would sing it together. When I was older, Mom, who was something of a Latin scholar in high school, introduced me to Cicero. I never got to be the Latinist she was, but I, too, came to love Cicero, although I read him in translation rather than stumble through the original, and I preferred his essay On Friendship (De Amicitia) to the Orations Against Cataline. In college, I discovered mediaeval history, and some of the wonderful writing on friendship by people such as Aelred of Rievaulx and the vexing Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who could write so beautifully and be so beastly.
Perhaps because I had no friends until I was five, friendship has always been important to me, and in recent months, that old round has been running through my head – ever since this fall, actually, because in September and November old friends who have long lived outside of New York City were here to visit. It was so very good to share time with them again, and so hard when they returned to their present homes.
There’s nothing quite like being with old friends – it’s like taking off your dress shoes and slipping into your oldest, most comfortable slippers: it says you’re home. It’s not that the old and familiar can’t occasionally surprise, but that’s part of the delight of old friendships: You like that, too? How did I never know that? What fun!
But every new discovery is undergirded with the deep richness and inexpressible comfort of shared history – all of those “remember when”s that bind us, because no one else could understand: the difficult times we got through because we had each other, the knowledge of which makes us stronger even now, years later; the adventures that turned out just fine – or made good stories for telling after the dust settled; the funny stories, the memory of which can still make us laugh, over and over, sometimes when we need it most. An old friendship is a treasure trove that never runs out, always there with what we need, when we need it.
Old friends are the ones who’ve shared the most with us, the ones with whom no explanations are necessary, with whom, as one dear friend once said to me, “We know each other’s stories.” At the time, I couldn’t get that sentence out of my head, until it grew into a poem – one I’m glad I got a chance to show her before she died. And, while one friendship may have generated it, it is true of a precious few others that go back so many years now.
Each Other’s Stories
“We know each other’s stories,” she said,
Sending my mind scuttling backwards
down pathways that ran parallel,
if not always together.
We know each other’s stories—
The histories blending into myths that families tell each other
around holiday tables, and at wakes.
We know each other’s stories, too,
As the women we became
through the years that separated—
the girls who first saw something that
was not “other” in another’s eyes.
Artist and writer, tellers of stories both,
We know their power, ancient and new,
gnostic alchemy, turning friendship living gold.
“Yes,” I said, “We know each other’s stories.”