Amicitia

“You did not just do that,” she said, with a force in her voice that I suspect was rarely challenged.

“Indeed I did. Host city rules,” came my reply.

Too familiar with the battle-for-the-bill I simply paid for lunch while my new acquaintance, now friend, slipped away to the ladies room. Seemed an easy way to bypass the annoying paper tug-of-war and, after all, my home was twenty minutes away, not a five-hour flight, so host city rules applied.

She smiled and after a thankfully brief discussion, said thank you, and we continued on with our previous conversation.

I met this woman when a story I submitted was accepted for publication on a website that supports and encourages positive social activism. I was at my twice-weekly physio getting my leg electrocuted when the story was posted. My therapy guru Byron hurried over to the chair I sat on and asked if I needed work on my jaw, worrying when he saw it had dropped to the floor. I showed him my phone and we watched the ‘likes’ and comments grow by the hundreds then thousands before our eyes.

“Holy crap,” he shouted, standing beside me, as dumbfounded as I was. But in hindsight, considering the American-based page has over three and a half million followers who are compassionate and responsive, I shouldn’t have been. Anyway, a few Canadians messaged me, many more asked to be Facebook friends, and one woman messaged me privately to say she’d be coming into town soon and would I like to meet for lunch. So we met today and she was as interesting and interested as her written comments suggested she might be.

I remain amazed, at this age—I’m not completely over the hill but I ain’t young— when a new friend enters my life so the least I could do to show my appreciation was pay for two measly salads.

By coincidence in my normally much less social calendar, yesterday I had lunch in the city with two dear writing friends. Both women have stories that are extraordinary; both are as interested in the stories of others as they are in their own, and both want to know everything that is going on that matters to you. I love that, and them.

Like today’s lunch, we could have sat there for hours catching up on lives we mostly know through our written words or occasional phone calls. We do not live near each other so meeting face-to-face was a rare pleasure and a major accomplishment given the coordination required to find available dates. Not to mention the where shall we go’ dilemma, which I complicated when the first suggestion was a spot with the promise of a spectacular view from the thirty-sixth floor. Sick at heart, I was forced to confess that elevators are, let’s just say, not my friend. Without blinking they suggested a lovely ground floor place and my shame and mortification sat invisibly beside me until these two kind souls shooed them away.

There’s something about how writers support each other that is motivating, particularly when you’re stalled, in the dumps or so lost in a story that you can no longer see or feel the words and any further editing is simply a useless effort that yields no reasonable revisions or insights. Sharing the process, its intimacy, its frustrations, often frees the words and stories resurface.

Our lunch ended, after the waiter prompted us to pay, politely clearing his throat and saying under his breath, “My shift is ending.” We all placed cards in the billfold he held out for an equally split bill. Civilized. With next to no farewell I dashed off to catch my train, rushing through the crush of people and traffic heading towards Union Station, all barriers to me making it in time. But I love the city, the crowds, urban walking and I was on a high from good conversation with good people.

I took the train into Toronto that morning, choosing to read rather than fight traffic. By the end of the train ride home, I had finished Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. My first Stegner. Not my last. One of Colleen’s favourite authors, in this book he wrote so eloquently about life, never over-stating its crises or understating his characters’ feelings. Mind you, if I got one quarter of his frequent literary references, I’ll eat my hat, which brought shame and mortification back in sight and reminded me of my humbling days as the self-appointed dunce of Trinity College where I studied English and French literature in the seventies.

As I read to the hypnotic, albeit uneven rhythm of the train wheels on the track, I found one passage particularly profound. Not a word wasted. The protagonist writes of the relationship between his wife, who is crippled (his unfortunate term, which I hate) from polio and her best friend, who is dying:

The cant word these days is “bonding.” I suppose some people see in a relationship like that signs of an unacknowledged lesbianism—the same people who probably speculate about the sex life of somebody like me, a perfectly healthy man with a crippled wife. I don’t care how they speculate, or what their answers are. We live as we can, we do what we must, and not everything goes by either Freudian or Victorian patterns. What I am sure of is that friendship—not love, friendship—is as possible between women as between men, and that in either case it is often stronger for not having to cross sexual picket lines. Sexuality and mistrust often go together, and both are incompatible with amicitia.

As I closed the cover of the book to absorb how perfectly those words fit together, I heard my station call, an automated mechanical voice, which hijacked my contemplation. But I love home so the switch from thought to movement took me towards what I love. I found my car and exited the parking lot quickly and thought again about Stegner’s words and amicitia, about the friends whose lives have enriched mine, about my gratitude for the life I have. My drive home returned me to the unexpected safe harbour in which I now live. Not a day goes by without a random moment where gratitude rises to the surface of conscious thought. Colleen or I look at the other and say we live here.

We really mean we live here together.

The protagonist of Stegner’s novel was a writer. He was asked by another character in the book to write a simple story where nothing really terrible or really wonderful happens; write, she suggested, an easy story about people with normal lives. I think Stenger wrapped that concept into the overall story but it struck me further that I agreed with that character, that not every story has to be big to matter, even if the events are. It doesn’t have to have ins and outs and hills and valleys that take the reader on a meandering journey. The story has to matter to the writer and then hopefully it might matter to the reader.

But then the question also struck me…is there really any such thing as a normal life? Big things do happen. We respond, survive, and carry on. Or not.

“The thing to do in life,” said one of my writerly friends over lunch as we other two listened, clinging to her every sincere word, “is to find the message in the mess.” This from a woman who has met every challenge thrown at her by three decades of life with her beautiful child who is on the spectrum. To say that she has raised others high by the example of her strength and forward-paying would be understating this observer’s truth. Someday her memoir will be published and her big story will reveal to countless readers the power in her amiciata.

Further adding to my social activity, the night before that luncheon, Colleen and I went to see Holly Near, renowned social activist singer-songwriter who played at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. Hugh’s is a famous listening room that just a few years ago rose from the ashes of bankruptcy, thanks to a go-fund-me campaign and a group of committed volunteers who kept it going as a non-profit. Hundreds, if not thousands of well-known and less-well-known musicians of diverse and eclectic genres have played the room and we joined thirty or so women from Colleen’s choir for an uplifting evening.

Uplifting is an understatement.

Hugh’s Room is intimate. Dinner tables edge the stage and we were right up there. Ms. Near, her extremely serious base player whose smile lit up the room when she allowed it out, and an extraordinary pianist whose jazz solos felt like a personal unzipping, played to the room like the down-to-earth masters they are. Near has shared the stage with the likes of Ronnie Gilbert, Seeger, Guthrie, Baez…the list goes on. For us, she sang old chestnuts and new work, moving us to tears, then laughter with only a key change as warning.

Colleen’s Choir, WomEnchant, sings for social justice. Their repertoire consists of femininst, earth-caring, love is love, #me too equality and their concerts are as moving as Holly Near was. They are, together and individually, the living embodiment of amicitia. When Holly ended the night with her anthem We are Gentle, Angry People, (famously sung onstage at the massive Washington Women’s March in 2004), the entire audience, led in particular by the women of WomEnchant sang with her. I am quite certain that I was the only one in the entire room that did not know the words. Little matter. Smiling at her adoring audience, Holly whispered them into the mic ahead of each line so I could fake it.

We were left wanting more, the best way to go out.

It was an unusually social week for me; a week in which I was reminded to participate in life; to remember the message in the mess and be socially active in darkening times. To stand tall and embrace the sisterhood and pay life’s bill forward. And then always, as still I rise, live more and repeat.

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