Monday, 28 November 2011

A Nice Bunch of Flowers

Oh poppets, I have been looking at a lovely bouquet of flowers all weekend. They did not come from B.A. but from a friend whose thesis I had a look at before he handed it in. How very nice that in all the fuss around his degree ceremony he thought of little me.

And this reminds me of how important it is to have all kinds of relationships and how terribly we overlook and undervalue them. In A Whole Woman, Germaine Greer suggests that we have grossly undervalued even motherhood and that the be-all and end-all identity of woman is now Wife.

But there is something else going on in English-speaking societies, and it is the devaluation of the different degrees of friendship. I suppose the biggest example of what I mean is "Facebook" where a list of all the individuals who have full access to your page are called "Friends." However, I very much doubt all those people are your friends. Most of them are probably Acquaintances, and there is nothing wrong with that. It's good to have a wide range of acquaintances. You just shouldn't act like they are your friends.

Aristotle was very strict on the concept of friends. He thought that only men of excellent character could be true friends, and then only to their social equals. He didn't think men and women could be friends because they were not social equals. Ancient Roman aristocrats, however, did not agree with Aristotle on this one, and as a matter of fact very often the only person a Roman aristocrat trusted was his wife. In an intensely competitive and violent society, his best interests were her best interests, and they both knew it.

But let's get away from marriage, although not before I say that what holds marriage together is not romance, which is its agreeable starting point, but friendship with various benefits. Marriage is something very odd, for something so ancient and universal, and I am not going to write about it. Instead I will hint about the different kinds of friendship and acquaintance there are.

First of all, as hipped as we are on the idea of loyalty and fidelity, various people have waxing and waning importance in our lives. Christmas card and wedding invitation lists are very sweet for they honour not only those who are most important NOW but those who were most important THEN. Meanwhile, I think fondly of various women in various offices I have worked in, but I don't think of them as friends, past or present. They were good colleagues and made boring jobs more enjoyable. But we have passed completely from each other's lives.

This suggests that you, too, will have waxing and waning importance in the lives of others. I was a tremendous social asset in my Canadian theological school; I threw myself into the life of the school and achieved a kind of local fame. Various people told me how much I would be missed. My most heartfelt ambition was to return as a professor and continue on where I left off, but this was not to be. Now as far as 99% of the school is concerned I am just a photo on the wall. But this is okay, for I have new roles now, including Safe Grown-Up To Whom To Appeal in Emergency.

Second, it is okay not to be everyone's best friend. Heavens. The idea. But it is pleasant to have people with whom you meet up for the occasional coffee, and people with whom you meet up for the occasional drink, and people whom you invite for dinner, and people with whom you go on holiday. Social life seems to me to be a series of rings, and people move into the inner rings or out into the outer rings, depending on what happens in your life.

Third, we don't have to be so serious all the time. When I am sixty, I will probably be telling good-humoured young men that it is a terrible shame that we were born forty years apart. They will agree, and we will all know that we are lying, but we will also know that it is amusing to say things like that.

What everyone who met her apparently loved about the Queen Mother is that she gave everyone the impression that she really was interested in him/her and what he/she had to say, quite as if she had come there on purpose to see him/her and him/her alone. This was not fakery but charm. I think the only way to master such a wonderful skill is to practice.

I am very sorry to say this, for I married so late, but I did not become such a marvellous flirt until I was safely married. Now I can say outrageous things from the ramparts of my fortress of marriage, and am thus popular with the sort of men of whom I used to be afraid. If B.A. should shuffle off this mortal coil, however, I fear there would be a general stampede out of town, but oh well. I might not want to see them anyway. B.A. is unlikely to shuffle off until I am old, and perhaps by then I will not at all be interested in men but only in television and sweets.

Fourth, it is good to exchange greetings and remarks with simply everyone in your life, including bus drivers and assistants in the butcher shop, so as to fight against the forces of loneliness: not just your loneliness, but the loneliness of the bus driver and of the assistant in the butcher shop. When I worked as a teenager in a cafe, working before and after school, I very much enjoyed greeting all the regulars, for they livened up a lonely time in my life, and some very much enjoyed being greeted by Seraphic, age 17.

When news that I was leaving reached the regulars, one wrote me a letter. Apparently he had been suffering the end of his marriage, and the one thing that got him to work in the morning was the fact that someone was happy to see him, said "Good morning" like she meant it and remembered his usual order. So you never know how much good you can do just by smiling and saying good morning. "Favourite Cafe Waitress" was for one person the most important role I played in life, and by saying thank you, he now stands out in my mind as "Favourite Cafe Patron."


berenike said...


It's the talents: we have so many talents/chances to Spread teh Supernach'r'l Lurv and so many of them are just smiling at someone or making friendly noises in a queue or whatever. Most of us don't get talents of the saving-hundreds-of-Calcutta-beggars kind, you'd think we'd be all the more zealous to multiply the talents we do get!

margaret said...

Yes, it is very, very important to smile and make small talk with people when we can. We don't know – we can't know – what someone might be going through and how important our smile might be. I talk all the time to old people, mostly ladies but not always, who are lonely and say that when they get out they increasingly notice how cold people have become. One told me last week that of six people at a bus stop no-one would talk to her and another that she sat beside a lady on the bus for half an hour and all her attempts at chat ignored. For some old people (as well as others) small talk at bus stops or in cafes or wherever might be the only conversation they get and they live in dread of the day they can't get out to even that. Something I've noticed myself is in the city people no longer say 'Happy Christmas' or 'Happy New Year' to strangers and it's not so long ago that everyone did; it would have been unthinkable to pass someone on Christmas Eve and not wish them a Happy Christmas. Small towns are better, I go to church in a small town and everyone I meet between the railway station and the church says good morning to me. It always happens in small towns the length of the UK and I thought it was the habit but other people have the same experience.

As my once Anglican spiritual director used to say, “The image of God in you wants to acknowledge the image of God in others and stifling it is always at the prompt of the old killjoy downstairs.” He is an RC Monsignor now and tells me that in Italy lonely people go to buy stamps because you can talk to anyone about anything in the extremely long queues in the Post Office!

theobromophile said...

One of my alma maters had a speaking tradition: every time you passed someone, you would smile and say hello (or just nod). Unless you locked yourself in your home, you couldn't go a day without someone acknowledging your existence.

And this reminds me of how important it is to have all kinds of relationships and how terribly we overlook and undervalue them.

One of your commenters, Kim P, said in her guest-post that her love allowed her to put her other relationships in their proper place. It wasn't that she - or any sociable woman who has true friendships (rather than just using women as an entourage until Prince Charming shows up) - undervalued her woman friends or her family, but that she - and us - feel that we need too much from them.

I'm thirty. It seems bizarre to call my parents for emotional support (which seemed really normal at 20 or even 25), but I'm not sure who else can/should put up with it. It's not that I don't value them enough, it's that I feel like I need them more than I should/would if there were a husband in the picture. (To clarify, since you are a believer that men aren't women: I'm referring to situations involving serious illness, death, or other loss, not "Stacy said something mean to me at work today and now Janice is also being catty." Hurtful, yes, but not guy stuff.)