Friend.ship. A ship of friends?  Ship of fools? Bateau d’amis ou de fous?

Pronounced: frend-ship.

Two short vowel sounds. “e” like feather or let or Jeff. “i” like lip or listen or whither.

When do we know we are friends with someone? Can we still ask that question when the word “friend” itself is both noun and verb? (My greatest bone to pick with one Mr. Zuckerberg is not about the sudden and neverending changes to his social networking site, but rather to his contribution to the addition of the ugly term “friended” – while most other natural shifts in language amuse me, this one just aggravates.) One does not befriend someone anymore — or at least not in the traditional use of the word to evoke a sense of accidentally happening upon or intentionally pursuing someone’s connection to your life. One such on-screen instance of befriending comes to mind, perhaps because of this nostalgic time of year: The way Nickie Ferrante sidled up to Terry McKay to strike up a conversation aboard a cruise ship, in part, I like to think, because he saw a glimpse of something familiar he recognized in her (and not just because he recognized his cigarette case), and likewise, she in him; a glimpse that blossomed when Terry met his grandmother, Janou. [If I’m very good, and finish my other work in time, I just may allow myself to take advantage of the instant play version on Netflix.]

“I want you to be my friend,” an eight-year-old may to another eight-year-old. And so it is decided. But are they friends? How long does this last? Is friendship a discursive declaration? A felt sense? An inclination?  Once friend, always friend? Perhaps. Not.

There are people — and I am thinking of three in particular right now — with whom I haven’t been in regular, that is to say weekly, monthly, or even yearly — contact for close to two decades. Yet each interaction, however sporadic, accidental or intentional, feels meaningful. purpose-full. joyous. There are others with whom friendship has taken on a veneer of obligation. Perhaps we sat near each other in elementary school and memorized one another’s breathing patterns or the backs of each other’s heads. Or maybe our families were friendly once and to discontinue this trend in a next generation would be anathema, not because one’s companionship is missed, but instead because it is what is expected.

Who could be a fan of the obligatory friendship? Friendship with too many rules offends my sensibilities. And yet this is the fodder of many films about school, adolescence, and life, itself – in this way, friendship is perhaps more insidious than peer pressure. Yet, I also hold close Clarence’s words of wisdom that he shared with George Bailey; “No man is a failure who has friends.” (And at the same time I think of conversations I have had with young men who were incarcerated who were forced to confront an often cruel realization that friends who were numerous “on the outside” numbered quite few when they went to jail or prison.)

Happily, the past few weeks have been spent time in the company of friends who raise questions, allow the space to wonder, give hugs (literal and metaphorical), and feed the soul. We who have friends amongst whom we move and live and dance and play are fortunate indeed. (One unexpected challenge of sabbatical — particularly if one leaves the geography of one’s friends — is having sounding boards and comrades at the ready; thus, these moments become just as precious as the time that time away affords.) Given the possibility of this tenor of friendship, the bad behaviors of individuals who perform the most wicked form of friendship of all, that which is laced with false humility and conducted behind the backs of their “friends,” is especially disappointing.

How might a tendency toward the prudent, then – that is, toward erring on the side of fewer rather than many whom we call “friends” – fit with previous musings on living with an eye toward the possibility that anyone, any stranger, may become a friend. Is it cautious optimism? Measured citizenship? And what to make of work that is borne in friendship, and friendship that is borne through work?

Confucius — “To have friends coming from distant places, surely that is delightful?”

It is, indeed, delightful. Leaving all involved full of delight. Friends who emerge from unlikely moments, the seeds of whose friendship were planted ages ago, even if they’ve only just sprouted.

Apparently it all boils down to seeds and sprouts.

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