Meditation on friendship

Close your eyes. Breathe calmly. You sit here alone, master of your own thoughts. Imagine I am talking to you. I want to know what friendship means. Quickly, construct a differentiation. Which opposite op ‘friend’ have you found? Mere acquaintance? Or: enemy? But what can we say about a thing of which we cannot determine the opposite? Try, then, to think of the similarities between your friends, the once that don’t seem to have anything else in common than being your friend. They are committed, I guess you said that? There is some mutual interest in each other’s life, some emotional investment.

Take a deeper breath. Investment, interest. We are using financial terminology. We describe friendship in terms of personal gain. Could it be otherwise? What if friendship is more fundamental and came logically ‘before’ our identity? The thought that the socialness of our being constitutes our identity is a common one. We are friends before we are persons. As toddlers, we refer to each other, we anticipate each other’s behavior, develop an emotional attitude to each other, all before we develop a sense of self. And children who grow up deprived of social connections make do with imaginary friends, because social behavior is hard-wired. Or at least, I say it’s worth thinking of it that way.

True friendship should escape a reduction to a mutually beneficial relation. That is another common thought. There is that special something that we can’t classify, a magical ingredient in our friendships. Smile. We could explain that irreducible quality from the horrors of its opposite, that can’t be understood in terms in interaction between discreet objects either. I mean the mental agony of loneliness. The deep eternity in which we become gradually aware of the absence of any other mind, while we exhaust our imagination until we can’t make the voice that talks back at us seem like anything else but ourselves. The point at which we ‘go crazy’.

Friendship is something we must celebrate. It is the essence of celebration itself. Breathe in deeply. Breathe out. Does friendship come before the friend? Are we imposing our preconceptions of what ‘friendship’ is supposed to be on our friends? Or can we learn about friendship from a friend? Don’t we need the first aspect in order to recognize someone as a friend, and the second one in order to treat someone as a friend?

Friendship is a role. But the rules and expections of that role can always be challenged between friends. Friends can break up, or grow closer because of this. Breathe some more. Let us understand the fragility of friendship and the vulnerability of our modest meditation on it.

Meditation on friendship was originally published on Meandering home

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Two Strangers

How much peace is in an evening walk
of two near strangers at the bay
when they hold hands and gently talk
even if their peace – has gone away

How much truth lies there, for a little while
when of human needs the most divine
between a thoughtful nod and then a smile
is shared by eyes like yours and mine

The sea is whispering quietly below
her waves are pushing light shadows ashore
we inspired each other – and smiled even more

Our shadows, let’s pick them up before we go
because the moonlight won’t restore
those shadows and this instant, never more

Two Strangers was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Impossible Friendships by Adam Zagajewski

Adam Zagajewski (b. 1945) is another famous Polish poet. Browsing his poetry, I found this endearing list of impossible friendships, and I quote:

Impossible friendships
For example, with someone who no longer is,
who exists only in yellowed letters.

Or long walks beside a stream,
whose depths hold hidden

porcelain cups—and the talks about philosophy
with a timid student or the postman.

A passerby with proud eyes
whom you’ll never know.

Friendship with this world, ever more perfect
(if not for the salty smell of blood).

The old man sipping coffee
in St.-Lazare, who reminds you of someone.

Faces flashing by
in local trains—

the happy faces of travelers headed perhaps
for a splendid ball, or a beheading.

And friendship with yourself
—since after all you don’t know who you are.

The first one, friendship with the dead, is obvious, though I have felt warm friendly feelings to some authors who died a century ago while flipping through their yellow pages, especially if they knew how to write. In English one might think of a Thoreau, Twain or Emerson.

How is a long walk beside a deep stream an impossible friendship, I don’t quite get, but I have had these philosophy conversations, how often was I the timid student listening to some postman who explained the universe and everything to me.

Sometimes, I see people passing by thinking I would love to strike up a conversation, but don’t have the time or temerity to go and tap them on a shoulder.

Okay, some sentimental stuff about the man in the Paris train station and how the world is almost perfect except it is not because of the blood. And all of a sudden travelers are perhaps headed for a beheading. What? Dafuck, in Internet parlance. Just silly word play or was Adam looking for a strong metaphor to express how other people’s intentions are difficult to guess and can be very different than what we assume?

Finally, you can’t be your own friend. But maybe that’s alright after all these tender miniatures of impossible friendships.

Reading: Impossible Friendships by Adam Zagajewski was originally published on Meandering home

Coffee

After the boil you wait. Then you pour.
Then you wait again. Three minutes.
And then you press down.
Slowly.

Each morning, I serve myself
a cup of coffee. I smile for my master
who is so free, almost like me

We both saw a full moon last night
and she turned us into a long shadow
so beautiful that I wanted
to dance for it

My master told me: No.
But I danced. Slowly.
It felt like coffee.

Coffee was originally published on Meandering home

On people who live on in our dreams

I dreamt that the late British American public intellectual Christopher Hitchens was walking next to me. He was bald, like in the last months of his life when he underwent chemotherapy, but appeared in excellent health and was obviously not aware of his impending death. The image was so vivid that I could see the pores of the man’s skin and the gentle swaying of his untrimmed nasal fur. In my dream, I had recreated him in my image, that is my interpretation of the fragments I have read and listened to. But there he was, as real as any other human primate, as sharp and witty as ever, bounded only by the limitations of my own brain, that staged this exclusive (I am not saying solipsist) show. It was awe-inspiring.

“You know dear Christopher”, I told him. “When I speak in English there is some compelling force within me that makes me mimic your rhythm, your accent and your choice of words.”
“That’s the power of rhetoric” he smiled. “It is in the ardor – I should not say fanatiticism – with which we rationally defend our innermost ethical convictions that we are at our best – that we are most alive. And I think we wouldn’t be too far off when I say that where we feel most alive, we leave the most lasting impression on our fellow man.”
“You are spot-on” I replied. At that point I felt deep empathy for my imaginary friend, being painfully aware that his quest, his life’s work had been about freeing humanity from the the shackles that had hold it back for so long, namely religion, yet here he stood next to me, arguably the greatest master of eloquence of our time, and I was his puppet master. Full disclosure was out of the question, because it could have hurt him too much. I was overcome by a numbing feeling of embarrassment and so we continued walking in silence, me thinking how I would brag about our brief exchange of words to all of my friends and some of my enemies.

We were crossing a street. I remembered that what brought me into the reality of this dream had been several hours of televised debate in which Christopher demonstrated his brilliancy in polite yet devastating rebuttals. I wondered, walking there, in that very moment, next to the man who ironically had become a demigod to many, what would his reaction be when I would break the news that I made his acquaintance vicariously, through his written words and the video recordings of his addresses and debates – that I read after he died?

Perhaps he would not feel offended but look curiously at the man from the future, and muster his verbal strength to tell me that Cassandra should never have access to a time travel machine. I would nod, hoping he wouldn’t notice the tears flowing down my cheek. I decide there and then that I will not tell Christopher about cancer of the esophagus, the horrible death sentence that will kill him in December 2011. I will not tell him about the brilliant final tribute to life and language entitled ‘Mortality’ that he would write ‘from the country of the ill’. Silently we continued walking; he was going back to his hotel to prepare for yet another round of defense of humanism, freedom and rationality against the dangers of dogmatism. Soon, his contours were swallowed by the thick shadows cast by the tall buildings.

I woke up bathing in sweat and intrigued by what my brain had just done. The Seneca of our century had been so alive, so present. Living on in other people’s minds, my friends, is more than a commonplace consolation in the face of the horror that is death. It is a very real thing if you will accept the idea that these arguments, these endlessly expressive phrases are not a bulwark protecting an innermost ‘you’ against infidel invaders, but constitutes itself your innermost being. To these specific – not to all – intents and purposes, Christopher is alive and will remain so for years to come.

On people who live on in our dreams was originally published on Meandering home

July 14.

What is friendship? This entry will take us to the height of theoretical considerations, to a summit where icy winds blow large snowflakes against our reasoning skin, where big halcyonic birds spread their giant wings to cast a mighty shadow upon our theories, where you can look to all directions without seeing anything. Who knows what friendship is? We gather in a big circle, fire in the center, the sound of cracking pinecones, dark orange spouting sparks, we all stare into the fire and then we write our answers on a piece of paper, wrap it around a small pinecone and trow it into the fire. Friendship is sharing the thoughts that are really important for you. Friendship means giving without expecting anything back. Friendship means you define your being essentially in relation to your friend. Friendship is sharing a drop of water and a cask of wine. Friendship is being inseparable in the dark. Friendship is forgiving before your friend has done anything wrong. Friendship is a cat and a dog playing badminton. Friendship is holding your breath until your friend spits out the olive seed. And so on… the gathering continues, we get tired. The fire dies out, it gets cold. Next morning the police finds us scattered around a pile of embers, ashes and little pieces of paper with the definition of friendship on them blown all over the place, and wakes us up. It is forbidden to make a fire here and don’t you know that. No, we don’t know that but from that moment on we know something else. We know that we are friends.

July 14.

What is friendship? This entry will take us to the height of theoretical considerations, to a summit where icy winds blow large snowflakes against our reasoning skin, where big halcyonic birds spread their giant wings to cast a mighty shadow upon our theories, where you can look to all directions without seeing anything. Who knows what friendship is? We gather in a big circle, fire in the center, the sound of cracking pinecones, dark orange spouting sparks, we all stare into the fire and then we write our answers on a piece of paper, wrap it around a small pinecone and trow it into the fire. Friendship is sharing the thoughts that are really important for you. Friendship means giving without expecting anything back. Friendship means you define your being essentially in relation to your friend. Friendship is sharing a drop of water and a cask of wine. Friendship is being inseparable in the dark. Friendship is forgiving before your friend has done anything wrong. Friendship is a cat and a dog playing badminton. Friendship is holding your breath until your friend spits out the olive seed. And so on… the gathering continues, we get tired. The fire dies out, it gets cold. Next morning the police finds us scattered around a pile of embers, ashes and little pieces of paper with the definition of friendship on them blown all over the place, and wakes us up. It is forbidden to make a fire here and don’t you know that. No, we don’t know that but from that moment on we know something else. We know that we are friends.