This first appeared as a guest post on Megan Cyrulewski's blog, 29 August, 2014.
Many thanks Megan for inviting me to guest on your blog today. My name is Martin Baker — Marty, please — and I'm co-author with Fran Houston of Gum on My Shoe: One Step at a Time with My Bipolar Best Friend (currently seeking an agent).
Since Megan invited me I've been pondering a suitable topic for this blog. Several suggested themselves but none felt quite right. Then, a few days ago, I found myself sitting in a coffee bar with a new friend, discussing the nature of friendship and how my relationship to people has changed over the years. My friend seemed to find it of interest (perhaps she was being kind — she seems kind) and I thought others might find it interesting too. Fingers crossed!
Years ago, my model of people and relationships looked something like this:
My world comprised an Inner Circle of "Special People" (immediate family and close friends, most of whom I'd known for years) and "everybody else". The model had served me for many years. My special people — the relationships I had with them — appeared to satisfy all my needs, so I felt no need to engage meaningfully with anyone else. The model, and my life, was stable — and stale, although I couldn't see that at the time.
And then, one of my Special People died.
I'd imagined myself supported by the relationships I had with my Special People. One of those relationships had come to an end but the others would surely readjust to keep me — to keep each other — supported. Except they didn't. That's not to criticise my friends: good people, all. But the relationships had faded over the years. I take my share of responsibility for that. Relationships need tending and caring for and I'd become lazy. I just hadn't seen what was happening until it was too late. About that time, my world looked something like this:
I had my immediate family — and pretty much no one else. I had never felt more alone.
I needed more people in my life but I had no idea how to go about it, how to "do the people thing". In particular, I'd never understood the day-to-day conversations that others seemed to handle effortlessly: holidays, family stuff, sports, music. I'd never seen the point of that kind of conversation, or of investing energy in people I scarcely knew. But something had to change, and I set about learning. I began passing the time of day with people. Colleagues. Shop assistants. Neighbours. Anyone and everyone.
For the longest time it felt completely unnatural to me, but I persevered ("fake it until you make it," as they say). And to my surprise I discovered there was pleasure to be found in such exchanges. More importantly, I began to "get it". I got that the "point" of talking about holidays and sports and each other's kids and the other things people talk about at bus stops or at the water cooler isn't those things at all, but the simple human connection that such conversation recognises and honours.
I still struggled, because I remained commited to my old model. For a time I found myself trying to repopulate my collection of "Special People", but that placed a terrible strain on myself and others, as I tried to decide whether my new (or newly developing) relationship with this person or that person was "special" enough to be promoted to the Inner Circle. I confused several people in the process and deeply hurt at least one. It's not something I am proud of.
But, finally I got it. I dissolved the model and replaced it with another.
Pretty, isn't it?! In my world now there is no Inner Circle: just me and — everybody else! Of course, some people are closer to me than others, some relationships are stronger than others, but there is no circle, no event horizon. It's been a revelation. Everything is dynamic, rich, colourful. And I feel free. I am free.
I'm free to strike up a conversation one day with someone at the next table to me in a cafe, who seems to be having a rough time. I'm free to chat holiday plans with a couple I bump into most weekends. I'm free to sign up for a course without stressing that I won't know anyone or whether I will be able to engage. I'm free to meet a new friend for coffee, to enjoy her company and the conversation, and for us to part without needing to know when we will next get together.
I am free to enjoy each friend for who they are, and each relationship for what it is.
I am free to be myself.