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On the Messy Beauty of Childhood Friendship
And why messiness is maybe actually the best part.
I had a best friend growing up.
Not just the kind of best friend you’re thinking of. I had the immersive kind, the sister kind, the kind of friendship that was absolutely magical and also maybe exhausted people—parents, teachers, other kids, even ourselves sometimes.
Dana lived a two minute drive or ten minute walk away from me. We met when we were three and in the same preschool, and the connection was instant. We were cut from the same cloth in so many ways—natural theatre kids with big personalities and loud, fast voices. A little too smart for our years, precocious, quick to laughter and sometimes to anger, looking for friendship, the deep kind, in maybe ways that other three year olds weren’t.
The friendship lasted. Not just through preschool and elementary school but (spoiler alert!) to today, where we are approaching 40 and living in different cities but still finding our way towards each other through that familiar rhythm, those shared memories and values and ways of being in the world and something else too—safety.
I want to talk about safety, which is different than ease or smoothness or perfection. Safety is the thing before ease. Safety, I think we forget, is borne of wildness. Safety has to do with acceptance, which is made from ugliness. Safety is the thing that happens when you have been cutting or mean or grumpy or insecure or a side of yourself that others might not like. Safety is what happens after, when you are still friends, when the closeness doesn’t vanish, because of all that went wrong, but deepens. Safety is the place where you get to be yourself, even if the other person doesn’t like it sometimes.
I always had a fixation with sisters, I think because the relationship felt synonymous with safety to me. A sister, surely, was a person you could scream at and then moments later curl into bed with. A sister was someone who you could be your basest self with and then, also, your best self. I didn’t have a sister, but also I did, because I had Dana.
In elementary school, we fought so often that we had a hand signal specifically designed to officially initiate a fight, and one designed to officially signify that we were making up. In the safety of that friendship, we were allowed both rage and forgiveness, fighting and finding one another. Maybe it looked exhausting, from the outside, but from the inside, I can report, it was glorious. It was loving all the same shops at the mall and watching Drop Dead Fred one billion times and counting down to Christmas together and convincing our moms to let us have more and more and more sleepovers. It was friendship in the absolute truest, purest sense. It was one of the best parts of my entire childhood.
My kid has a preschool best friend too, an awesome one named, for the purposes of this piece, Mae. A great deal of the time, Fia and Mae are laughing together, telling poop jokes (sigh), playing dress up, practicing dances for their wedding, telling elaborate stories on a certain stoop on our walk home from school where they make each other crack up as they insist that we pay full attention their production.
Sometimes, this sweetness turns. Mae wants space and Fia doesn’t want to give it to her. Fia wants to talk and Mae refuses to. It is too hard to share the princess crown, the biggest strawberries in the Tupperware container, the purple marker, the last available swing at the neighborhood playground.
The friendship, right now, is not always perfect. It is, however, a magical thing to watch. And it is safe. They reject one another, and then come back together. They fight, and then it is a new day, and there they are again, looking for one another at school, at the playground, on the street, everywhere.
Sometimes, I worry. Sometimes, I want the friendship to be perfect. I want Fia to be a perfect friend who always shares and never shoves or grabs and who always gives Mae space when she asks for it. That would be nice, but I’m not sure it would do much, to grow Fia into a person who knows how to find, and stay in friendship.
Dana and I are both women with happy lives. Not perfect ones, but full ones, with daughters and dreams and reality TV obsessions and kind husbands and, yep, friendships. Female friendships. Strong, solid ones. Lots of them.
Maybe it’s coincidence that she and I both ended up in lives filled with strong. lasting friendships. Maybe it’s coincidence that ours lasted, too. We are both outgoing former theatre kids living in big cities, after all. Maybe it means nothing, that we ended up this way.
But I don’t know. I watch Fia and Mae fight and make up, fight and make up. And I sometimes feel an impulse to keep them away from each other, because it would be easier that way, to avoid the chaos. But the chaos is the figuring out of friendship. The chaos is the building of safety. The chaos is the thing that happens, so that you know you can be yourself and still be loved by this person who saw you being unkind or boy-crazy or selfish or obsessive or sad or lost or angry. I have written a dozen books rejecting the idea of perfection. Why am I looking for it in these sweet, smart, funny, exuberant little girls?
Dana and I were girls born in the 80s. There weren’t many places it was okay to be an angry, sad, complicated or not-always-nice girl. There weren’t many places where it was truly okay to be our fullest, biggest, boldest selves. There wasn’t always a great deal of safety, even in our safe, safe little suburban town.
How lucky were we, actually, to have years and years of fighting and making up, abandoning and re-finding one another, playing out everything beautiful and ugly in ourselves, before we had to learn to be people in the bigger world outside our little one, created from playground promises and impromptu fashion shows and snow days and beach days and science fair drama and three-way phone calls and plans to get boyfriends and lists of who was pretty and who was mean and who was our best friend.
The real world was harsher than the safe one that Dana and I made together.
But we helped make each other ready for it. And we understood what it was we needed, to get through it.
So I will watch while Fia and Mae fight over the sparkliest dress or the sturdiest water-squirter or the biggest shovel for digging in the dirt that I’m not even entirely sure they’re allowed to be digging in. And I will watch as they let those things go, in order to hide under bedsheets or hug so hard they might fall over or share a single sippy cup of milk, making a game of drinking and dribbling and spilling and delighting in a mess that makes them laugh so hard they can barely walk, for the joy of it all.
This is how you figure it out, this is how you build a friendship, this is how you learn how to build a dozen more friendships, this is what safety looks like.
Dana is not the person I see the most or tell everything to first or know every single daily-life type of thing about. But. When I see her or talk to her, there is a relaxing within me. A rush of endorphins from the pleasure of so many shared memories. A grounding. A reflection of ah yes, there I am because there you are. There is a feeling of something that changes but doesn’t go away. A reminder of who I am, not on the surface, but way down at the core. And a knowledge that that way down core self is okay, because once upon a time, Dana said it was.
And in every friendship I build, now, have built, over the 35-plus years that Dana and I have known each other, I feel the memories of what we worked so hard to create. I feel the DNA of that primary friendship, the one that let me fail, the one where I could let loose and be my most complicated self, the one that taught me how to make all the others, the one that still, today, feels a little like home.
There’s not much in the way of writing news, except that, as you might have guessed, my current projects are all about friendship. So I’ve been deeply thinking about friendship and what it means.
If you want a throwback book of mine about friendship, This one is my middle-grade ode to friendship that came out in 2017. I pitched it as MY GIRL with magic, so if you’ve never read it, maybe now’s the time! More middle grade friendship novels will be coming your way soon I hope, and maybe even in some other spaces, too!
Have a kid? Need storage? This piece of furniture has changed our life. It’s compact but also holds a ton of stuff in a way that really appeals both aesthetically and functionally.
I recently finished this book, a sort of layered Sliding Doors look at the choice around becoming a parent or not, and I really enjoyed it. I think it will appeal to people making all kinds of choices, and reveals what it is to be at the age where the question of “is this the road you are taking?” becomes one that you get asked, maybe within yourself and also by the outside world.
Have I already sung the praises of this co-wash for curly-haired pals? Oh well, if I have, here I am doing it again. I use this to “wash” my hair every 2-4 days and I am in LOVE with it. If you are new to a shampoo-free or mostly-free life, it might take some time for your hair to adjust, but I’m 10 months in, and my hair loves this product and I rarely need to use anything else to wash it!