photo: Michelle standing in the forest
I adore my husband and know I am blessed to count him as my closest friend. Even with that gift in my life, I hunger for the friendship and support of other women.
My dear friend Michelle lives in Vancouver now and with me in Seattle, we have to be intentional about spending time together and nurturing our friendship. We met almost three years ago at a church young-adult Christmas party that we were both just about to leave. Somehow we got onto the subjects of Walter Brueggemann, Denise Levertov, and Mary Oliver within the first few minutes of our conversation and I was suddenly smitten. We ended up standing there, coats in hand, staying for quite a while longer than either of us expected. We still marvel at how either one of us could have left a few minutes sooner and we might not ever have met.
What followed were outings to dance performances, meeting for tea and theology talk, dinners at Ethiopian and Italian restaurants, walks to bunny hill, hearing Mary Oliver read at Town Hall, gathering in dream groups, sharing our mutual struggles with chronic illness and self-care, challenging and supporting each other to live more deeply into our callings.
Michelle is one of those rare gifts, a friend who can see into the heart of me with ease and grace. She recently appeared in a dream of mine, and when I was working with various dream symbols contemplating what part of me they might represent, I wrote next to her name "sees who I really am."
Michelle moved back up to Vancouver last year to follow where God was leading. We have discovered that we make great retreat partners, and so now spend time together periodically in a places of beauty and wildness. Reconnecting, renewing, sharing wisdom and laughter. Having soul friends is essential for my own creativity — to have a safe place to bring those seeds of new life to be gently witnessed and honored. Friends like this can often see the shape of what is growing within us before we can ourselves. Creativity thrives in spaces where we can be vulnerable and listen for what new thing is being birthed long before it can be named.
I am blessed with a circle of many wonderful friends. Making time to nurture these relationships is a priority in my life. Sometimes, in a moment of true clarity, I think that if all I do in my life is love as well as I can — which for me means listening, gently challenging, nurturing, and loving others into wholeness as well as allowing myself to be moved by others toward my own wholeness — then I will have fulfilled any calling that God might have for me.
Joan Chittister, in her book The Friendship of Women: The Hidden Traditions of the Bible, describes friendship as a sacrament, a gift from God to help us to become who we are meant to be: "The love of friendship is the love that holds no secrets, has no unasked questions, no unspoken thoughts, no unanswered concerns. Friendship extends us into places we have not gone before and cannot go alone."
I ran across this interesting article on a study by UCLA on friendship among women. I especially like this opening line: "They shape who we are and who we are yet to be." I know I have found this to be very true. The study also shows that friendship among women lowers stress (there is a measurable chemical response) and increases longevity and joy in life. Of course, I didn't need a study to tell me that either. I am curious about the experience of men's friendships.
Who are the true soul friends of your life? Is friendship a priority in your life? How do your friends help shape who you are and who you are yet to be?
-Christine Valters Paintner