This Saturday, I’ll be singing “Happy Birthday, dear Nancy” to my BFF. Today I’m saying thank you to her and to Beth, Anne, Peggy, Sheron, Martha, and dear Micki (who left us last year); to Mary, Sandy, Linda, Trisha, Judy, Marty, Kay, Claudia, Rachels, Shannon, Mary Anne, Sylvia, and Wilma (RIP); to Elizabeth, Beth F., Effie, and Marge; to Linda, Bette, Joanne, Pat, Lane, and Janet; to Dana, Brenda, the Pats, Patsy, and Bonita; to the Bon Bons, the Vanettes, and my Safe Zone sisters; and to others too numerous to name. I am indeed blessed to call you all friend.
Friday, January 27, 2012
I will be celebrating my BFF’s birthday Saturday. We go back a long way, more than half a century, to a time when two four-year-olds, one with dimples and dark curls and one with stick-straight blonde hair and a too-wide mouth, shared a consuming desire to play tambourine in the kindergarten rhythm band. “Cool” wasn’t in our vocabularies yet, but we knew the six five-year-old girls who played the tambourines were the ones who got the attention and the praise. They were who we wanted to be. We learned a lot of things that year—how to tell right from left, how to print our names, and how to please the teacher. The latter skill helped us move from lowly rhythm-stick players to the coveted tambourine positions the next year. But the most important thing we learned was that best friends were for sharing books, telling stories, giggling over boys, and keeping secrets.
All these years later, after decades of sharing triumphs and trip-ups, births, and deaths, a lifetime of laughter and more tears that we could have dreamed of at four, we still understand the role of best friend. We are very different women who have led very different lives. We disagree about religion, politics, hairstyles, music, and who Lynn H. really liked best in second grade. But we never run out of things to talk about, we can finish each other’s sentences, and we know with absolute certainty that the place we hold in one another’s heart, like the place we hold in one another’s history, is large and sure.
College, grad school, teaching years—at every stage of my life there have been women friends who added color and meaning to my life. Some of my closest friends now are women whom I’ve never met face-to-face, but with whom I exchange emails, share dreams, and rant and rave about the disasters and delights of our reading, our writing, and our lives.
The summer of 2010, I went to a reunion. Not a class reunion--this one was much smaller. It was a reunion of a small group with whom I shared a big part of my life from elementary school through high school. Most of us attended the same church and our parents were friends. We grew up feeling at home in one another’s houses, being disciplined and comforted by one another’s parents, sharing tea parties and softball, football games and barefoot dancing at the swimming pool, hugs and heartbreaks. After high school, we kept in touch, although more and more sporadically as our lives moved in different directions.
But occasional lunches when everyone was in town, Christmas letters, and church homecomings kept us part of one another’s lives. That summer gathering was golden, hours and hours of talking and laughing and looking at photographs of the girls we were and the women we had become. Husbands and SOs joined in. There were no awkward silences or uncomfortable moments, just old friends enjoying one another. Of the five married couples in the group, three got together during those halcyon days and still have the kind of relationship that had them exchanging glances across the room and dancing in the moonlight. How wonderful to be reminded that HEAs do happen in real life too. Another, who was widowed, had just returned from her honeymoon, a motorcycle trip to Las Vegas. I’m going to use her in a book one day.
Friends not only make us happier; they also make us healthier. Studies have shown that, for women, talk and touch release the hormone oxytocin (the same hormone that initiates labor in pregnant women). Oxytocin reduces stresss, calming both mind and body. Hugs and chats really are good for you. Spending time with our girlfriends also fosters the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps combat depression and can create a general feeling of well being. A Dove study suggested that women friends also increase our self-esteem. Among the women in the study, 75 percent felt prettier because of other women. Yet another study reported that the more friends a woman has, the less likely she is to develop physical impairments as she ages. Some experts suggest that women who lack these close friendships are placing themselves at a risk for health problems equal to that of smoking.
In real life and in online communication, I spend a lot of time laughing with my friends. For me, shared laughter is an essential part of intimacy. I can’t imagine a close relationship that didn’t include laughter. Did you know that the benefits of laughter are similar to the benefits of exercise? One study found that over the course of a year, laughter increased levels of good HDL cholesterol by 26 percent and decreased C-reactive proteins, a measure of inflammation linked to both heart disease and diabetes risk by 66 percent. And while some people claim that the internet is a threat to friendship, research indicates that, especially for women, online friendships after a year become comparable in quality to real-life friendships. Self-disclosure rather than face time seems to be the key to quality friendships.
So if you’re feeling good, have a healthy self-esteem, and are looking forward to more happy years, take time to say thanks to your girlfriends. You owe some of that health and happiness to them.
Friends, I will remember you,
think of you, pray for you,
and when another day is through,
I'll still be friends with you.
How important do you consider friends in your life? What do you think are the most essential qualities of friendship?