On Friendship and Difference

winter iris final

i.m. A.H. – Frost Ferns and Winter Iris.

My intention this week was to write about language or more specifically the origins of it.  A subject in my mind not completely divorced from my musings last week on the way in which we categorise the world and the need to encourage ‘chaos thinking’.   Life, however, as it has a habit of doing, intervened.   This week my friend lost her battle with Motor Neurone disease.   A battle which she had no hope of winning but which she nevertheless embarked on with determination and humour.

By the hand of fate and the even more inscrutable workings of the college authorities she and I met on our first day at university.   We were allocated rooms next to each other on the same stair.   We had nothing in common.   Freshers are valence electrons in the atomic structure of college and in their excited state they make multiple collisions for a short period of time before losing energy and settling into their ground state.    I was no exception; I pinged about the University looking for my orbital.  Of the people I bumped up against in those first few weeks I remember nothing at all except that they were the gateways to the people with whom I settled into real friendship over the course of the next few years.  The exception was my neighbour on the stair; everything that I was not – an abstemious non-smoker even as a student, politically a conservative, a devout Christian with rigidly orthodox views on  sex, sexuality and gender,  not given to experimentation of any kind not even hypnosis let alone mind altering substances.   She regarded my hobby of rock climbing as proof of lunacy and she made the worst coffee in the history of the universe.

After University our lives followed very different trajectories and since in those dark days there was no such thing as Facebook, we exchanged occasional postcards and even more occasional letters and the odd phone call.   We met up at intervals, sometimes with years between them but unlike some people from University with whom I had perhaps more in common our friendship never dwindled to the point where we ceased to be in touch.   Whenever we did meet we simply picked up from where we’d left off as though we’d seen each other only yesterday.    That is the litmus test of a comfortable and enduring friendship.   I saw her a few weeks ago and we sat in her garden talking about this and that and she started making plans that we should visit our old college next year to celebrate fifty years since we met.   One of our many differences, she was a great one for college reunions whereas I tend to avoid them like the plague.   My feeling about them being that the sort of people who turn up for them are the ones you spent your time avoiding while you were an undergraduate so why inflict on yourself the pain of standing in a room pretending that it’s absolutely great to see them again and they haven’t changed a bit even though they have become rich and successful, lost their waistline, hair or teeth and are wearing garments made of crimplene with elasticated waists – (my partner has made a living will asking to be taken to the vets and put out of his misery if ever he starts wearing garments of this nature; but I digress)   My friend obviously reading all this in my carefully neutral expression hastened to say that she didn’t mean an official reunion, just a day out.   So we sat there having fun planning what we could do and see, despite the fact that both of us knew that if she was still alive the chances were that she would be too ill to go.

Well this all set me pondering on the reason why our friendship stuck.   To begin with it clearly came into the class of ‘friendship by circumstance’ of the sort you make with people such as work colleagues or in our case proximity and a shared kettle.   These friendships are genuine but rarely survive the change in circumstances.  Changing jobs or moving away, loosens the glue that holds them together and they gradually dwindle and fade.  That didn’t happen to us; despite our many differences we had a deep and abiding respect and liking for each other.  I realise that we shared one thing and that one thing was sufficient to overcome the multiplicity of things we didn’t have in common.  We shared the quality of tolerance, an acceptance or patience with the beliefs, opinions or practices of others;   a readiness to allow and embrace difference as a necessary part of being human.   Which I realise brings me by circuitous routes back to the idea explored in last week’s blog about labels and the bigger picture.   If we’d stuck to labels then we would never have become friends.

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