I’ve moved 22 times. I’ve lived in Madison, South Dakota, Calgary, Alberta in two separate stints, Sterling Heights, Michigan, Bismarck, North Dakota, Edmonton, Alberta, and Lethbridge, Alberta. This includes moving between abodes in the same city. I’ve lived in houses owned, rented and those of relatives, a condo, a few apartments, a college dorm, and rooms in two generous pastor’s basements. I moved five times in the first 14 years of my life, across country, once by train, mostly by car. All this moving has shaped me, especially my ability to form relationships, an essential skill for a meaningful, happy life.
I was born on December 21 to a Baptist Pastor and his wife and came home on Christmas Eve in a red velvet stocking. That very night, a Lutheran Pastor visited, held me in his arms and blessed me, singing “Silent Night”. His presence was a harbinger of my future. I would be surrounded by people for as long as my father remained a pastor. They came to our home for meals, bible studies, and parties. You’d think with all the people around, I’d have grown quickly comfortable with them, but I was a shy child often clinging to my mother’s skirt in the church foyer.
In Michigan, we lived on an isolated street, between a field and a couple of baseball diamonds, populated by families with boys. There were no girls in the vicinity my age. In early elementary school, I wailed at my mother out of loneliness. My brother included me with his friends, but sometimes I wanted to play with Barbies rather than Hot Wheels. My mother tried to help me by setting up play dates and sleepovers, but I was anxious at other people’s homes. There was a birthday party where I bawled until the birthday girl’s mother called my mother to come and get me. When I was old enough, I even called her myself, begging to come home and my mom was kind enough to make up some excuse and retrieve me. To this day, I have to push myself to leave my house.
In elementary school, I had one or maybe two friends, but if those relationships imploded I was left to wander the playground in search of a new pal. As I continued to move and change schools, I became more possessive of that one friend. In grade six, I attended a slumber party where my closest friend introduced me to her bestie who had moved away and, oh goody, was now moving back. I undoubtedly ruined her birthday by holing up in her bedroom bemoaning the fact that I was surely losing my only friend. At another slumber party, I deliberately went outside for a while to see if anyone would miss me. No one did. I know. I was a weird, insecure kid.
The thing is I learned early on, the first move I can remember was in grade one, to let go of people I cared about. Every time we moved, I felt a wistful sadness watching those places disappear from view, knowing I would probably never live there again and that my friendships were done for. I had one friend in Michigan who was most dear to me. When we moved to North Dakota, we tried writing letters, but that tapered off as school became more demanding. We visited a couple of summers in a row, but it wasn’t enough to revive a relationship ruptured by too much space and time.
I moved to Edmonton when I was in junior high and never returned to the United States. I spent hours by myself, reading, watching TV, and going for bike rides. I got good at being alone. It was simpler and less painful. I found my one friend, but did not initiate getting together outside of school. My friendships seemed to happen more by association than intention. My brother, a gregarious, funny, charitable boy, would drag me along with his friends, much like he did on Defour Drive in Michigan. He was the catalyst needed to crack open my cocoon. When I had my first real boyfriend in college, my relationships with my girlfriends lapsed and I regret my neglect of those two gals to this day. I didn’t seem capable of juggling more than one or two relationships. It was a deeply entrenched rut of relating that I’m only now starting to veer away from.
Upon moving to Calgary for the second time after 26 years in Edmonton, I was challenged by my tweenage daughter. Our children watch us and it was obvious to her that I had no friends. She knew instinctively what I wasn’t willing to affirm at the time; that we were meant to live in community and prolonged, intentional isolation is unhealthy. I left Calgary with one friend and it was none of my doing, but a kind gift from the God who loves me. This woman trained me for a job I eventually quit and shortly thereafter I discovered she lived down the street and we had much in common, not the least of which was our faith. We were able to forge a solid bond before I left Cowtown for the windy city.
I don’t want you to think that I’ve lived my life in a melancholy haze longing for the past, coping with the present, and dreading the future. I could always see the positives of moving. Exploring a new place and meeting new people is exciting. It broadens a person’s point of view, being exposed to the many ways people live. It also produced a skill that I might not have if I’d have stayed in one place. I was forced to learn how to make friends.
People who never move, like my husband growing up, make friends and keep them. Logging years of togetherness, they get close and relax into these relationships like a comfy couch. This is a beautiful thing, something I’m unfamiliar with. However, the tendency then is to become a couch potato or a clique potato, to be more exact. Long-time friends can form a circle of exclusivity that is impenetrable. I’ve seen this in the many churches I’ve attended and people leave churches for this very reason, the difficulty they experience trying to make friends.
In my current location, the city of Lethbridge, we chose a church and were introduced to a friendly couple on the first Sunday we were in attendance. A week later, they called to invite us to their small group bible study. I was amazed. I’ve never been invited in so quickly. It has been a doorway to that one friend, plus a few more, but something is changing in me. Maybe it’s because I hit 50 this year. Maybe it’s because, for the last four years, I’ve been working with seniors and I’ve seen loneliness cling to some like a ratty, old sweater. Maybe I finally believe God when he says in 2 Timothy 1:7 that he has not given us “a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.” I used to tally up my family, my few friends, my co-workers, and the random people who served me in public places and believe I was full, that my people quota had been reached and exceeded. Now, I think that I was just full of myself, justifying my need to hide in my house instead of being open to the friendships God has for me. By keeping to myself, I have kept myself small. God is growing a desire in me, enlarging my heart, to make more friends.
Since leaving Calgary, I’ve made an effort to stay connected with my lady there. I’m reaching out to my one friend here with regularity and gusto and we’re becoming family. I even approached someone who I hadn’t been introduced to, but noticed her unique style and was so intrigued I asked her to meet and we’re getting to know each other on morning walks. I’ve been kindly included in a trio of ladies from the choir who meet at a local coffee shop about once a month. I also recently sat across from a new friend at lunch; she invited me and at the conclusion I realized I wasn’t able to ask her all the questions I hoped to ask. This is a happy circumstance, indeed, because it means she wanted to know me.
Usually, when I encounter someone I don’t know, I pepper them with questions, like a reporter trying to get a story. I have general questions I ask regarding age, family, birthplace, education, occupation, etc. and these questions and their answers lead to more specific questions. People love to talk about themselves. If you don’t like awkward silence, keep asking questions. This practice has led to my involvement in many one-sided conversations. I come away with a basic understanding of who a person is and that person is lucky to know my name. These conversations are fine, but there’s no real connection; it’s more like a fact finding mission. When someone wants to know you, there is reciprocity. You ask and they ask, a delightful volley between two engaged parties occurs and that’s exactly what I experienced with my new friend. There’s no greater compliment than when someone bothers to ask who you are, when someone wastes their precious time on you, when someone wants to be with you, even more than once.
Do you need friends? I’ll tell you what I’ve learned. I’ll tell you I’m still learning. First off, you can’t make friends unless you go where people are. Judging from what you just read, you know I know it’s scary. This past year, I went to a meeting of a community writing group. Of course, as is my way, I announced it. The truth is, I went one time and couldn’t make myself go back. I couldn’t stand the discomfort of being in a room full of strangers. Strangers. Such a wrong sounding word, even though strange can mean unfamiliar. There was nothing wrong with the people. They were welcoming and talented. So, I’m weak and I failed this time, but when, in the past, I’ve been brave enough to get out of my house, invest in people, and let them into my life, I’ve been rewarded. Find a place to get involved preferably doing something you’re passionate about. When you love what you’re doing, your eyes will shine, you’ll be animated, and people will be drawn to you.
Don’t judge someone on externals. When I go shopping for a top, I try on everything that is remotely attractive and am often surprised at what looks good on me. Don’t miss out on a remarkable person because they’re markedly different from you.
Expect reciprocity. If it’s always you doing the asking and there’s apathy or resistance on the part of your friend, maybe that person is not your friend. You’re not going to be friends with everyone. I believe there are certain people that were made for you. You just have to find them.
Your closest friends will be those who know you in your home environment, those who see you weary, frazzled, sick, sad, silly, and overjoyed, those who are present at your holiday celebrations, birthday parties, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, and funerals. If you have people who will stick with you through the colorful, cascading days and short, turbulent years of this life, be grateful and be sure to cherish them. For many individuals, their closest friends are family members. For those of you in this category, I implore you to include someone from outside your circle. Make room for people like me who are new and feeling shy and lonely. If you already do this, I commend you. For those of you who are like me and find yourself in another new town, look for new people or people who don’t seem well connected. Fill a need and allow someone to fill your need rather than trying to force your way into a closed group.
Last of all, have people in. I admit to not being very good at this. I don’t like cooking, I don’t think I’m good at it, and would never make another meal if I didn’t have to. For this reason, I feel vulnerable cooking for people outside my immediate family, but there are other options to having people in for supper. We have a fire pit in our backyard and wiener roasts put the onus on each guest to prepare their own meat. Throw some buns, condiments, pickles, and store bought potato salad on the table and you have a recipe for cozy friend-making. Don’t have a fire pit? A good friend of mine in Edmonton, someone who I admire for the gracious way she lives, said something that I’ve never forgotten. When commenting on the subject of entertaining she said, “Just throw a package of cookies on the table.” She’s right. It’s not about the ambiance created or the fancy food artfully arranged, it’s about the relationships. That’s what life is about. So often we let things on the periphery clutter our vision, but our priority must be people. We were made by God for a purpose; to love him and love each other and when we love each other well, we are also fulfilling the first command. What does it say about God that he commands us to be friends with all the love, joy, and fun that entails? We would do well to follow his plan for our lives, to follow him into friendship and so know the blessing that follows for those who do his will.