The wind beneath my wings
I write for the people I love, and I write for me. I think of each blog as a small package of words, knitted together in the windows when I feel well. For others, a little gift in place of being the mother, partner, daughter, friend, sister, worker-bee, the person that I want to be, but can’t, right now. And this blog I dedicate to the lady-friends who have been the wind beneath my wings (hah!) for so long, and especially now.
Beaches is not my favourite film. The relationship between Bette Midler and the other one (let’s just call her wind¸ since she’s a largely forgettable plot device to showcase Bette’s glory) is such a depressing depiction of female friendship. All that attention-seeking, selfishness and martyrdom. Ick. You find a lot of that in contemporary novels, too. Poisonous relationships dressed up as friendship. Women being jealous, vindictive, man-stealing, nasty bullies to one another. Margaret Atwood must have had some real mean girls at her school to have inspired Cat’s Eye or The Robber Bride. In real life, though, I’ve found things are better than that, at least now I’m not 13. Back then, girl-girl friendships were indeed pretty gruesome things. I am still pained by the wound inflicted when Rosie went off with someone else. How cruelly I was cast aside on the long walk to school! I trailed behind them both for weeks like a sad Labrador. Mum used to say that we were ‘practising’ having adult relationships with one another, getting ready for love and all that (this observation, like most of her wisdom, was not welcomed by the mini-teen. I was the tragic heroine of my novella and my sorrows must not be belittled by her Psychologist’s explanations).
Exit the years of torment, and things improve. Friendships become less intense. I am nice to my friends, and they are nice to me. We grow up together, travel the world, experiment with ‘bold’ hairstyles, hold down crappy temping jobs, sleep with inappropriate men. Perhaps we are also better matched. At university I meet women I really get. Girls who had posters of William Shakespeare on their bedroom walls back home. Girls who know who Kant is, even if they pronounce his name cunt (the dangers of the autodidact). Girls who want something from the world and are unabashed in their efforts to get it. Then when I start work, there is a shortage of women who I want to be like when I grow up. The top of the civil service seems full of old men with dandruff, and politics only slightly better. But there are lots of women I want to be friends with. Whip smart, well dressed, brilliant women who I look at and think if this is the future, then we’re in good hands. Perhaps I’ve been just been lucky, but resplendent, remarkable women have kept on coming my way since then; thrown into my path as they shack up with my friends, or Billy’s; at work, whether in Africa, America or here; and at home.
Whilst other relationships might define us more – with our parents, partners, or children – for me female friendship has been the steady tick-tock of adult life, the oil in the engine, the ink in the pen, the wind in my sails: all those clichés and more. I’ve got men friends (well, a few), but my oiseaux are different, and, I’m afraid, just better overall. I find it hard to articulate why without sounding like I’ve drunk a bucket of warm white wine after work and am talking to my ver’bes’friend while she holds back my sick-covered hair. And that is precisely the kind of friendship I am not talking about. But I think conversation is at the heart of it, clichéd though it is. Women talking too much. Women talking about nothing. With my oiseaux, it is true that there is a lot of verbiage whether we are à deux or in a flock. And it is true that there are some themes which are rather ubiquitous, like a song we keep playing new versions of over the years. Our bodies, whether our thighs look like Newmarket sausages in leather(ette) leggings, how many percy pig sweeties have been consumed in the past 24 hour period, whether anyone can see the new-found hairs under our chinny-chin-chins. We peer into other people’s lives, and yes, we can still be mean girls when we do this. We talk about MEN, of course. Back in the day, is he into me? (Usually with an inverse relationship between how into you he was and how much you talked about him). Now, more mundane. How can I teach him to see dirt? Are farts MEANT to smell that bad? Whither the romantic mini-break of old? I find parents, and especially mothers, get a decent crack of the lady-chat whip. But I guess that is one big relationship to navigate. Children get a look in, too, but not till they are wanted or have arrived. To the outsider listening in, our world could appear limited, narrow, superficial. But listen more carefully. These discussions are just the bacon fat in the stew. They bring things together, keep the friendship well-lubricated, make everyday fodder tasty. But without the rest of the conversation that this intimacy permits – the big conversations about how to live – female friendship would be no more than dreadful pass-the-time chats had at the back of toddler groups.
Until recently, my fear had been that the really good times were over for these friendships. Thirtysomethings with children, jobs, and partners to attend to, we are no longer as available to one another as we used to be. While I wish we all lived in some kind of giant child-rearing commune, that isn’t the case. Friendships survive on scraps of time and emails, squeezed between the rest of life, and very often thousands of miles apart. We live off well-trodden stories, the space in our lives for making new memories mostly taken up by family and work, where the real drama happens. The odd dinner, more often a cup of tea wedged precariously over a babies’ head whilst we converse, but never, never enough time for the real stuff, or for new adventures together. I always hoped there would be time for that again, if only in the Home for Neglected Mothers of Sons where we would all end up in our dotage. But the Nuisance gives as well as takes – or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we take from it what we can, a collective FU to its insidious presence. Now I see more of my resplendent oiseaux around the world than I have for years. We have conversations which play in my mind for days afterwards. Interesting, funny, profound discussions about how to live, perhaps the sort only prompted by not knowing if you will. We make new memories; now in my back garden, but soon, we plan tentatively, AWAY in foreign places. I lean on them when I feel lonely and anxious about the future, and promise to do the same for them when they need it (because as one of them always says, paraphrasing Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”). This might not be how I planned my friendships to go, but it’s not so bad. So I’ll end with Yeats – though he probably wasn’t talking about the sisterhood, he’s dead right: “think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends”.