A Friend for Life, and After


Today is, or would have been, my friend Tsafi's birthday.

After six years, I no longer almost pick up the phone to call her. I don't think anymore, "Oh, I need to tell Tsafi this" before remembering I can't. I don’t cry anymore. But I still miss her. I still want to tell her things, and sometimes I do—talking into an empty room, no one around to hear me ramble, the walls echoing back my words—but not very often anymore.

Sometimes I think about what I want people to remember about me after I am gone, and I think about her, how she left her mark in me and her other good friends and her daughter, forever and for the better.

In honor of her memory, I want to post an excerpt from my memoir of a conversation we had long ago that helped steer the course of my life:

Preston and I ended up together in large part because of Tsafi, who had twelve more years of wisdom than I did. When Preston and I had just started dating, I began anticipating why we would not work. This is what a person does who abhors loss, who is in her late thirties and divorced, who wants to suss out any barbed truth before getting tangled in it.

First, it was that he lived too far—four hours away, in Tennessee—from Chapel Hill. “I don’t do well in long-distance relationships,” I said.

“Just see what happens,” Tsafi told me. “Be open.”

Then it was: “He’ll want children, and I don’t want them.” I had decided in my twenties that raising children was a weight too heavy for me to bear, that too many things could go wrong, could flail out of my control. “What are the chances he won’t want children? Every guy seems to want children.” I was good at having conversations with myself, a morose account of how things would break and crumble. “I need to ask him about this. Might as well bring it up now before we go any further.”

“Stop it,” Tsafi interrupted. “Are you going to end this relationship before it’s really begun?”

“Well, it’s more that—”

“You’re not going to ask him anything about kids right now.”

“But Tsafi—”

“No. You need to just get to know each other right now, let yourself see what is possible. That’s it. Do not bring up children unless he asks you about it. Just be for a while.”

(In case it isn’t obvious, I did take her advice, for a while at least. Long enough to realize she was right.) Sometimes our friends know what we need better than we do. Tsafi was that kind of friend.

I am still trying to figure out how to just be, but some days I get it right. I hope she knows that all those years ago, I was listening, I was paying attention. I still am.

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(photo by Elijah Macleod)

From Thirteen Until Now: A Story of Endurance


When you are thirteen and living in a teeny town, you go where the people are or risk standing alone. In eighth grade, I joined the track team, not because I loved running but because my friends had joined. With my not-so-long legs, I ran too slowly to sprint the 400, and I could handle that better than the mile, so the coach stuck me in the 800-meter race because so few people wanted to run it. I don’t remember ever placing first, second, or even third, and though I would never join the track team in high school, that season in eighth grade gave me a better prize, something I would carry through the decades.

I ran my sophomore year in high school to lose weight, and then to keep the weight off. I ran my senior year in that teeny town when some of the most popular other options were drinking, smoking, having sex (yes, I was square). I ran in college during the early morning hours to prepare my mind for classes, the rhythm of my shoes thumping against the sidewalk, smoothing out the rumples of my worries.

In my twenties, when I taught in Mexico, I ran even though I was the only woman in shorts looping around the park a half-mile from my tia’s house. I grew accustomed to glances and stares and standing out. I let the silence protect me.

In my thirties I ran to sort out my new marriage, to remind myself I could still do things solo, and when we got divorced, I ran faster and harder, the air thick in my lungs. When I wanted to scream until I lost my voice, when I wanted to get in my car and drive a thousand miles away, when I wanted to become someone else or make time pass me by, I ran, and running became a reverse magic trick, a way to stop myself from disappearing.

Years later, when I met the man who would later become my second husband, he told me he wanted to run with me, and that bloomed more beautifully than a bouquet of flowers, which always wilt and never last. Running could endure, and it gave me hope that we would, too.

In my forties, on the days that followed the one when I was diagnosed and told the things I would have to lose to stay alive, I had to work up my nerve, and I laced up my shoes and told my husband I needed to run alone: I took to the streets and ran until I understood how fast I could go, until my legs ached more than my fear, until I remembered how strong I was.

A few years ago, I ran my first and only 5K and placed first in my age group, second overall for women. The award felt good, but the reward of running—of feeling alive—still overshadows any contest and propels me to wake up even when the light is still a milky gray, even when I am tired, and to step out the door and into the world and find my center. I run just for myself and sometimes by myself and do not use a timer. I run to calm down. I run to stay young. I run to grow wiser. 

I am slow some days, nearly all days, but I do not care. It only matters that I am still moving, grateful for the prize I won in eighth grade of learning how to keep on, this lifelong gift, and surprised this running thing and I are still together, and happy, after all of these years.

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Photo of road by Patrick Fore from Unsplash.com.

Knowing the People Next Door


When I lived in an apartment in another town in another state, I knew none of my neighbors. I can actually think of three places I lived in which I knew no one next door or even in the building. I saw people come and go. One neighbor had a car filled with papers and junk—he was a hoarder, but I didn’t know him or even his name or what apartment he lived in. In one place, I often heard the couple next door argue—the walls thin between us, their voices loud and charged—but I never met them. I’m not even sure I ever saw them. I already felt lonely in these places, and not knowing the people around me made me feel more isolated. 

Finally, in my thirties, I moved into a condominium complex with my then-husband, and we met the neighbors: the couple next door moved in the same day we did. All four of us adapted to the place—the bus system, the school calendar, the best grocery store in the vicinity. They taught me how to arrange plants in a container garden. They gave me a book for my birthday. When my then-husband and I split up, they were surprised. After all, there’s what you know about your neighbors, and there’s what you don’t know. After the divorce, and after I decided to keep the condo, one of them would always come over and help when I found a roach and was too freaked out to get near it. When I was scared at night, alone, I took comfort in the fact that they were right on the other side of the wall if I needed them.

Later, they got divorced, and I was surprised. I knew they were going through some tough times, but there’s what I knew about their issues, and there’s what I didn’t know.

Now I live in a house with my second (and wonderful) husband. He bought our home from his grandfather, and when I first moved in a decade ago, just after we married, I loved that most of the people around us had lived here when his grandparents had, too. These neighbors welcomed me, made me feel like I belonged. Today, I know the names of all the people in the houses right next door, and I know many people on our street. My neighbors bring me bread, and they give me flowers cut from their yard. They tell me when we have left a light on in the car in the driveway, they offer tomatoes from their garden, they pick up our mail when we go out of town. I do things for them, too—I get their mail when they leave town, I let out their dog at lunch when they are gone all day, I offer vegetables from our garden. We wave hello, we ask how each other is doing, we hug when one of us has experienced a hard day, or, worse, a loss. 

I feel safer knowing the people around me. I am comforted by their kindness. When I am lonely, I take a walk, and more often than not, I run into someone I know. The talking, the how-are-you-doing, cheers me. In recent weeks, I have met four more neighbors—people I had passed by but never stopped and talked to. One family a few doors down has a dog, and that day the pup had been fixed. As the dog ambled around the front yard, my neighbor and I talked about that, we talked about the dog I grew up with, we talked about the dog she got when she was single, we talked about having to let each of them go when they got old. Another evening, a young couple was out taking a walk, pushing a stroller with their new(ish) baby while my dog and I were out in our front yard. I walked to the street and introduced myself. I walked with them for a block or two. I wanted to know them, but I also wanted them to know me, to know that if they needed someone, I was here.

Sometimes when I think about our moving to a different house, I think, “But what about our neighbors?” I hope I have made a positive impact on them, too, just as they have for me.

There are a lot of lonely people in the world. Are you one? Do you know someone who is? Meet your neighbors. Say hello. Wave at them and smile when they pass by.

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Photo of flowers and house by Valentina Locatelli from Unsplash.com