Friends of the heart

A couple of years ago, I parted ways with a friend who meant rather a lot to me over what you might call irreconcilable differences. We’re not in touch anymore, but now and then I check her Facebook page to see that she’s doing okay.

Recently, she posted the following video of two old circus elephants who were finally reunited at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee after more than 20 years, with the message, “If only we knew love like this….”

These two animals obviously recognize each other, value each other, and want to be together. Clearly, they are not and cannot be mates. But just as clearly, they are the very closest of friends and companions. It might not even be going too far to say that they love each other, although with animals, who really knows what they feel?

Human beings do feel love for one another, though, and we can know love like this. But like these elephants, first we have to be set free to do so—free from the chains we lash around our hearts and our minds about what “love” is, how much of it we deserve, and who is “acceptable” to love, as well as who is not. I tend to think that the only limits on love are the ones we impose on it and on ourselves in an attempt to manage our own small fears: fear of connecting, fear of loss, fear of getting hurt, fear of change, fear of ourselves, fear of others. Everyone’s afraid of something, and nothing calls out the really deep, dark fears quite so strongly as emotional intimacy with another person.


They say, “an elephant never forgets.” I am not an elephant, obviously, but I am a Taurus, and that’s practically the same thing in terms of never forgetting. I can’t let go of every old hurt and hard time and bad scene I’ve ever known, but I also never forget anyone I’ve ever loved. I always tried to give my best to each of them. Whether I succeeded or failed in this endeavor, I cannot say. I know only that I tried.


I know that I gave the very best of myself to that friend I no longer have, and I regret the way things went between us because for about a minute out of our whole lives, we did have a love like that—not mates, but true friends of the heart.

Maybe 20 years from now, or someday, when we’ve both slipped our chains of convention and conditioning, we’ll meet and recognize each other as friends again.



Lost and found

More than half my lifetime ago, when I was a senior in college, I met a woman with whom I frequently rode the same bus in the evenings. We got to talking, and both were delighted to find another person who shared our erudite vocabulary and unabashed love of the English language. She was so smart, so funny, so delightfully conversational (and I’m sure she thought the same of me) that we both said “we really must be friends.” So that’s what we became, in that easy way people do when they’re young and life is uncomplicated.

The course of our friendship never did run smooth, though, as we navigated the labyrinths of our own developing identities and awkwardly, painfully negotiated the terms of our interaction as we gradually discovered how we felt about and what we meant to each other. Impeding our efforts, ironically enough, was language itself and the yawning gulf between her interpretation of it and mine. Language was the glue that held us together as much as it was the club we used to slug each other with when we were frustrated and confused. We certainly both knew how to kick on the rhetorical afterburners and turn the killing phrase.

When I graduated and moved away, we took the first of what would be several long hiatuses from each other. But one day an unfamiliar letter arrived in my mailbox, and there she was again. So began our correspondence, which has been one of the masterworks of my life. We would pour ourselves into thousands of words a week, sometimes taking the letter straight from the mailbox to the desk to begin composing a response “before the chill of the mailbox had passed from the pages” of the letter just received. We discussed and debated and confided and told each other our stories.

Along the way, though, there were misunderstandings and arguments and smoke as well as fire struck from the sparks generated by this correspondence. For all that we communicated, there remained huge gaps in our knowledge of each other as well as of ourselves. This was a relationship unlike any I have ever had in its intensity, complexity and depth, as well as both its creative and its destructive potential. At one point my mother said we were “poison pen pals” because I would get so upset over things my friend would write.

For all the energy and time we devoted to this friendship, we always struggled to find a peaceful common emotional ground. Over the years, our conflicts accumulated and I think we both created something of a caricature of the other person in our minds that bore little resemblance to our true selves. Finally the day came when yet another conflict finally overran the tolerances of affection and long acquaintance, and our correspondence ended in anger.

During the silent years that followed, I thought of her often–sometimes with relief, sometimes with anger, sometimes with sadness. I wondered–we both wondered–what we could have said or done differently to have created a happier outcome. There was never any doubt that we did and do care about each other deeply. But without a common language, there can be no shared heart.

Two years ago, I started looking for her on Google because she is a writer and I wanted to read her words again, even if the words were not addressed to me. She has a talent like no other. I missed it. I missed her.

I’d get the occasional weak hit on something that she might have written, but I couldn’t be sure from her name alone (which is not quite so common as my own but is not unique, either). I kept looking. Finally, I got a solid hit on, of all things, a classified ad for a Pilates class she was teaching. In Portugal. It included an email address, so I sent her my first message in more than a decade: “Google tells me you live in Portugal now. Is it true? Is it you?” And it was.

She was happy to hear from me, and we joyfully resumed our erudite, polysyllabic, absurdly voluminous correspondence across the Atlantic, which lasted for a few months before foundering yet again on the rocky shoals of language. What does the word love mean? How many different varieties and shades of it are there? Which one applies to my feelings for her and her feelings for me? It seemed so important to me that we resolve the precise meaning of that word that I could not continue on until we did. But we didn’t, so again the thread was lost. I really did not think we could or would ever find each other again. It’s a long way from where I live to Portugal in more ways than one.

But I am nothing if not a stubborn woman, and I persist at certain things (like, relationships) long after the smart money says I should bow out and go home. I anonymously read my friend’s writing online for several months, and allowed my appreciation for her particular gifts to override my frustration that she and I did not see exactly eye to eye on one or two issues that matter quite a lot to me. Finally I contacted her one more time, and said I wanted to resume an occasional light correspondence in small doses if that was cool with her. She has a big heart and a forgiving nature, so she said yes, and we began writing to each other again. I think we’ve been at it long enough now that I can say for sure that we have found that peaceful common emotional ground because there are no sparks, no smoke and no fire in our words anymore, just stories and understanding and a sense of finally working in tandem rather than competing. At least that is how it feels to me. I hope she feels that way also.

All of this is merely prologue, though, to telling you that when the hard drive on my laptop failed last weekend, our entire correspondence of the past two years was lost because I am not too smart about backing up my data. I had my documents and pictures and so forth backed up on a thumb drive, but I don’t know how to archive emails (you can be darn sure I’m going to figure out how, though). Part of my inability to write a post last night was my despair … yes, despair is not too strong a word … that this body of work was gone forever. My PC guy said the hard drive was toast and he doubted anything could be salvaged from it, let alone the Outlook data file. He took it back to his office to work on and I didn’t hear from him, so I figured there was no hope.


He called today and said his phone had died so he couldn’t call me sooner, but that he had been able to recover my data. He wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be scrambled, but he transferred it over to the new laptop and we both held our breath as Outlook opened.

And there they were again, intact, all the nearly 450 messages between me and my best correspondent. I don’t mind telling you, I cried with relief and embarrassed the PC guy, who couldn’t imagine that anything sent by email could really be that important. He has no idea.

I know you’re going to read this at some point, my friend. It’s not enough to say in a private message how glad I am to have your words back again, so I’m saying it on the internet where god and everybody can read it, too.

I appreciate you


With all my heart

The last item on my daily to-do list is to read the day’s meditation from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo. He is a teacher and a poet who has distilled the wisdom he’s gleaned from living with and nearly dying of cancer into a 365 short essays that explore every facet of human life and the human heart.

Today’s essay is titled “Unconditional Love,” and it has illuminated for me a concept that has always been dear to my own heart but that, I now realize, I’ve never fully understood.

In truth, unconditional love does not require a passive acceptance of whatever happens in the name of love. Rather, in the real spaces of our daily relationships, it means maintaining a commitment that no condition will keep us from bringing all of who we are to each other honestly.

I have always thought it meant putting up with the most outrageous mistreatment from others and perpetually turning the other cheek, but Nepo clarifies that, in fact, “Unconditional love is not a hole in us that receives the dirt, but the sun within that never stops shining.”

Unconditional love is not so much about how we receive and endure each other, as it is about the deep vow to never, under any condition, stop bringing the flawed truth of who we are to each other.

I wish I could have offered this kind of love to every friend and lover I’ve ever had–and if any of them are reading this, I apologize for being too afraid and too dishonest with myself to be able to give it to you. Had I known better, I would have done better.

I did get it right, though, once in my life. I once had a friend with whom I shared a complete and uncompromising trust, which meant we were in the business of full disclosure: how we felt about ourselves, how we felt about each other, how we felt about our relationship, what we wanted, what we needed, who we were beneath all our layers of imitation and artifice. I have never had another friend with whom I have been so emotionally honest, and who not only reciprocated that honesty but also allowed me to love her to the fullest capacity of my heart. As it turned out, that was quite a lot. Unfortunately, she had no love for herself and therefore nowhere to receive my affections past a certain point. Loving someone who doesn’t love herself is a trail of tears that ends in loss, and inevitably she sent me down that trail and through a shattering series of losses because she was too afraid both to feel what she felt and to receive how I felt.

But for that brief, shining moment when I stood with another human being inside the same circle of trust, I was able finally to see clearly who I am and what I was made for. I had always camouflaged myself and my most tender feelings for fear of scaring others away, which is what usually happened anyway, but this friend would not be scared away no matter how much I revealed to her. I thought–we both thought–that ours was a friendship for life that would illuminate all our days going forward with joyful warmth. I have never looked forward more eagerly to anything in my life than what I believed would be this long walk together.

Nepo has another meditation for late November that describes perfectly what happened between me and my friend:

When we can look into each other, however briefly, without any agenda or scheme of desire or need, something indescribable and essential makes us more than we are by ourselves. … It seems the angel of relationship can only appear when our hearts pump our eyes open. It is such a powerful feeling that many things can go wrong. I can feel an aliveness that I think is only in you because it has been awakened between us. So I might only want to be with you and thus abandon myself. Or you, feeling stirred way down in your depth, might be frightened by such a feeling, and thinking it is I who poked you there, you might run from the most beautiful thing to come your way.

We did indeed summon the angel of relationship and it folded its wings around us for a short time in which, I believe, we both experienced a profound healing of places broken deep inside. I will always be grateful for that time and for that healing. I was not frightened by it, and I never wanted to abandon either myself or her. I wanted to live in that feeling for the rest of my life.

What I think happened–although I will never know for sure because my friend would never tell me–is that the angel stirred something down in her depth that she did not want to see or face, and out of that stirring arose a lie that, once spoken, had to be defended. The defensiveness soon turned to hostility that shattered our circle of trust and sent the angel of relationship away. The loss we have both suffered cannot be counted; our hearts will always bear the scars of the choices we made in our ignorance, our pain, our anger and our fear. There is no going back now to the place where only truth lives.

The gift I have received from this heartbreak is the knowledge that what I was with her, I can be again with others: open, honest, fully transparent, and committed to bringing all of myself to my relationships each day. Loving another person with all my heart was the best gift I have ever had the grace to give or to receive.

My hope is that I will, in time, transcend this loss and rebuild the circle of trust within myself from which my light and warmth can shine into the world. The angel of relationship demands nothing less.