Foxhole Friends

Homewall. My unyielding source of stock photography.

Whenever I’m particularly nostalgic, I like to think back to exactly how many people I have claimed to, or who have claimed to me, that we would be friends forever. I usually stop when the list grows too naively, foolishly long. I forgive myself those who I claimed life-long allegiance to from Kindergarten until about mid-high school, as friendships that last more than a year through schooling basically count as a lifetime friendship, anyway. But even as I’ve grown older, I seem to be perfectly confident of the longevity of the friendships I adopt, only to see them evaporate once the situation no longer holds us in one another’s company.

Part of this has to do with where you pick up your friends. In certain scarring and high-pressure situations (wars, competitive work environments, high school), you are smooshed together with people. You come in close contact, and you are held there by the invisible force of the situation and made to spend a lot of time together. You can do away with a lot of the first clutching awkwardnesses of forming a new relationship, because the situation compels you to get some confidants, and fast, lest you be devoured by the social hierarchy and spat out an isolate. Intimacy blooms out of necessity, and friendships suddenly become tight and irreplaceable in days.

In high school, like in war, you band together against common enemies. The people who become your closest are special, they’re not like those other guys, who are jerks. You close ranks, and spend all your time with one another. You develop group-think, and your own vernacular, and you have all the same inside jokes. Like couples who have been together for too long, you develop overlapping interests, and begin to resemble one another, as though disparate cells re-fusing in antimitosis. You develop the same style, and if anyone tried to pick you out of a line-up that included your close friends, it would be a strain.

When I was in high school, I was part of the people who liked to fancy themselves as daring outcasts (just like everybody else). We weren’t like all those other posers (back then, I would have spelled it with a horrific, douchebaggily superfluous ‘u’). Our individual identities evolved largely out of who we were not–namely, those other jerkwads . Together in our outcastedness, our friendship forged like wrought iron, and we were certain we would be friends forever. How could bonds so deep, so strong, and so based as they were on mutual interest in indie rock and Saddle Creek records, ever splinter?

And then we graduated.

Some of my high school friends are still in my life, and indeed some are important. The vast majority, the teeming hordes of individuals I encountered from ages 13-17, are now ciphers. They are personalities with mystery years and dozens of unread chapters, accruing life stories and experiences and growth that I neither know about nor desire to learn. They are detritus on my facebook page, lingering remnants in times of nostalgia, people I’m too wobbly to ever fully delete, despite having no concrete desire to ever contact them again. Occasionally I hear about them: who got pregnant, who got arrested, who got into med school. With years and miles and oceans between us, I can barely muster the righteous upraised fists that these sorts of futures would have brought to a 16-year-old me. They’re barely real to me anymore.

Okay, everyone! Together forever! Or at least 9-10 months.

In teacher’s college, another crucible of pressure and desperation, I grew close with a greater number of people. With no legitimate common enemy apparent, we elected an arbitrary one (an opposing class of other primary/junior teacher candidates, who we had never met, became the target of our directionless and fervent ire. Crosstown!!!). We closed ranks and became friends, because we saw each other day, and experienced the same mind-bending lectures, the same reflection exercises, the same Mystery Box Feelings Controversy (teacher’s college was weird sometimes). We all faced the same crushing reality of the teaching job market. We would surely be connected forever, unified as we were by profession, and university, and passion.

Again, a few individuals have become embedded into my actual life, some of whom are even in Korea now. Some are lifelong pho-buddies, others I meet in bars for cake and discussions of pedagogy, others live in far-flung countries, people who I still nurse hopes of visiting and seeing again. And still others are life fodder, finitely bookended relationships that simply withered and blew away in a stiff wind once convenience no longer put us in the same sharing circle, the same shape group, the same drumming class (I told you).

Teaching. Frosting. It's how we do.

Sometimes I worried about these lost connections. Was it healthy to let so many people go, so easily? I didn’t extend the effort, and neither did they, and just like that, suddenly dozens of people had all but vanished, drifting off on their separate orbits now that our brief tangent had passed. Was I just lazy, or incapable of maintaining healthy bonds?

The worry became still greater in Korea. Under the weight of culture shock and being so far from our supports, gaining friends was a crucial survival strategy. We each needed a system of sane, likewisely foreign individuals who naturally understood every frustration, every want, every longing. But with this greater understanding also came greater risk: I’ve become closer to people, and faster, but these are people from different countries, from different continents and hemispheres. We converged on a similar point in Korea, but when they go home, and indeed the go home time for many is soon, their home will not be my own. If I can’t manage to keep a friendship going across a few streets, how am I likely to manage across an ocean?

Every graduation, every end-of-year party, every final get-together holds a sense of finality. You’re closing out your years of study, or work, or drinking adjacent to libraries, but you’re also saying goodbye. They’re about new beginnings, but also about closing off most of the old beginnings. Each of these days sees promises: held hands under bright June skies, promises of the long years of connection to come. Constant hearkening to the first meetings, and to the many meetings yet to be had. Only when the situation no longer calls for your connections to be reinforced does their tenuousness become obvious, and people simply slip away from you.

But as this moment has come closer and closer for me in Korea, I’ve tried to find ways to make peace with it. For one, you can’t stay friends with everyone you’ve ever met, simply as a matter of time management. And people grow, and change, and move, and become jerks or get married or join cults or get new jobs and haircuts and cars and hobbies. And so do you, and so do I. And the place that you were, and the person you used to be, are no longer the same, and to try and force the puzzle to fit again won’t work if each of the pieces is still mutating.

And some friendships and connections aren’t supposed to last forever. Some are supposed to grow out of a situation, to help lead you through it, to provide you the support and the like-minds to get you over a hurdle, and then they can break. And I think I’m adjusting to the idea that this is okay, that not every bond I make is a forever one, that sometimes we’re not going to totally talk to each other after graduation, or that I’ll totally make the trip down to bumfuck wherever-in-the-world. Sometimes, friendships are supposed to have definite ends. This doesn’t make the bond less important, or less meaningful, just because you won’t be picking out matching coffins and trading quips in the retirement home, it just means that the time actually spent together should be cherished for what it is, and the time after shouldn’t be one of longing, or nostalgia, but one of fond recollection. Not regret for what is now gone, but thankfulness for what was then gained.

I've got at least another year with these dorks.

15 thoughts on “Foxhole Friends

  1. Someone once said (you – my much smarter brother- probably know who, I was too lazy to look it up ) friends are here for a reason, a season or a lifetime, and how true it is. You have realized much earlier what some never do, and put it so eloquently. I’m just glad we’re related, you can’t get rid of me that easily 🙂

    Love you,
    Your sister

  2. Nice post.

    I recently re-connected with a friend from high school, for the first time since 1975! It was great, but maybe because we’re both journalists so have shared experiences and reference points and because all the things we appreciated in one another then have not changed…

    I think this initial desire to hang onto friendships is distinctly Canadian. I am still friends with a few people there after 30 or more years, even if they have kids (I do not) and they are in Canada (and I am in the U.S. now) — while my American “friends” cycle through like crazy. I have lost three friends here I thought were very close and long-term through confrontations (while my Canadian friends have been willing and able to openly discuss and resolve a conflict). What’s up with that? If all you are supposed to do with a friend is woo-hoo and high-five them, no loss in my book…I find it very odd. Friendship, to me, is lifelong (at best), and a rare and lovely thing.

    I made three new friends in the past few years, and it’s much harder once you’re out of shared experiences and settings like the same school or office…

    • I think outside of the shared-experience pressure cooker, you have to go through a lot of beginner steps. Having the shared experience allows you to toss out a lot of this stuff, because you don’t have to ask them about their job, or their interests, or what they’re studying, because that’s pretty obvious.

      I thought about including confrontations in this too: some friendships are just wrought a little tougher, and made to withstand some rough patches. Others are just not as strong, and they’ll crack if the right problem comes up.

  3. Nicely put. I think I actually have 1 friend out my my high school group who I’ve been friends with since Kindergarten and am still friends with. 1 from that group that I probably met in grade 1. The other 4 or 5 I met in middle or high school, and even though we are globe-trotting, getting married, living further than 15 minutes from each other, and actually have vastly different interests/fields of study, we still manage to get together a few times a year as a group. Some have drifted apart more than others and for some it makes me sad, others I’m not stressing over it.

    It’s actually funny that in high school of the two different social groups I was a part of, I remain connected more with the one in which we all are doing extremely different things with out lives. Whereas, the ‘music group’ people (who share an intense interest in my chosen field of study), I don’t actually see/talk with any of the anywhere other than Facebook and that is still rare. I never even really hung out with my university friends outside of school. I’ve just graduated and left the country, so I haven’t had much of a chance to hang out with them so far. I’m hoping I will, with some at least.

    By the way, if you don’t mind me asking (I seem to ask a lot), which teacher’s college did you go to? And in which province?

    • Yeah, the people you get as lifers are not always who you expect. You’re certain that you’re going to stay connected to some people forever, and then suddenly you’re still close friends with completely different people, years after. Most of my university friends are also long gone (I commuted), but teacher’s college kept us together almost every single day when I was there, so I became a lot closer with people from there.

      I attended the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), the ed. faculty at University of Toronto.

  4. Wow. This is so completely well put. I have a problem of feeling guilty that I haven’t kept in touch with people. And I recently cleaned the “detritus” of my facebook page. I really enjoy your writing and look forward to following you through your next year in Korea! I am considering applying myself.

    • I’ve tried to get over the guilt, at this point, because there’s simply too many people I’ve lost contact with. As with this post, I’m trying to reframe it in my mind and not get too bummed.

      Thank you! By all means, check through the archives, I’ve already written a stupid amount about what I do here, and there is always more to come.

  5. You have your grandmothers gift of writing. Your aunt is one of my best friends and your mom went to school with my sister. I am enjoying your posts. Enjoy yourself.

  6. Michael, you definitely struck a cord with this post and it is something we all contemplate at some point in our lives – who are our friends and what does friendship mean. As your sister put it, a reason, a season, a lifetime; sometimes these come together. A pen-pal of mine Tony from the 1960’s England is now your Uncle and his children are your cousins. And when you wrote this post, I was in Scotland with yet another friend who I met through Tony 41 years ago when I was hitch-hiking through Europe (yes you really could hitch-hike in those days). Anyway, a wise person once said to me that if you can count your true friends and fill one had you are a very rich person; I have always been fortunate to fill two hands without question. To top it off, you and I share some 40-50 immediate family members! I grew up in a time before e-mail and Blogs; I have often wondered if my list of lifelong friends might not have been even greater?


    • I think we’re from different generations in terms of use of e-mails and blogs. While I’m probably comparatively more plugged in, the social networking and emailing ends up being just a large, expansive network of acquaintances, and then later, people I’ve been too lazy to delete, or people I regret not emailing more frequently. There are some people definitely drifting into the lifelong column, but there’s a lot of friends I connect with through the internet that are very surfacey relationships.

      And you’re right, in that I can’t underestimate the value of family friendships in here. At the very least, most of them will never be able to get away.

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