What would you think if I sang out of tune? / Would you stand up and walk out me?/ Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song/ And I’ll try not to sing out of key. Oh I get by with a little help from friends…
You will often hear that second only to its ideal climate, the ease with which one meets other expats and collects a burgeoning list of social contacts is one of San Miguel’s main attractions as a retirement destination.
It’s true: During the ten years we’ve lived here Stew and I have met more people than we knew in Chicago after thirty years. Every week we go out for dinner, church or other occasions; others we know immerse themselves in volunteer activities that soon become almost the equivalent of full-time employment, except for the pay.
As my late mom used to say, finding ways to “pass the time” is important when you retire to a blank agenda.
But I wonder about the distinction between acquaintances and social contacts that keep us occupied and friendships, that far rarer and more precious commodity that is a blessing indeed, particularly when physical distances and the passage of time have frayed family ties and other connections.
For one thing, friends are steadfast, acquaintances more transitory. In San Miguel acquaintances from church or other places will rush in to the side of someone seriously ill—unquestionably a welcome gesture—but almost as fast the flow of visitors and the phone calls will ebb, especially if it looks as if the crisis is going to require a sustained commitment of time and help, or when someone else in need summons for help.
Friends stick around. I
can think of three Chicago friends with whom Stew and I stayed in contact—literally for decades—through the roller coasters of each other’s lives: successes and failures, career gains and losses, economic ups and downs, or health crises.
Friends might counsel but don’t condemn. We can always talk openly with these friends, with no tsk-tsk’s, aha’s or I-told-you-so’s or recrimination, much less fear that something we say might endanger our affection for one another.
ickie was such a friend. Stew and I knew her for nearly as long as we have been together, from our first jobs out of graduate school, right through numerous and embarrassing career, personal and romantic fumbles, right up to the end, earlier this year, when she died following a relatively brief but harrowing battle with pancreatic cancer.
We visited her and her husband in New York a couple of times and gossipped about old friends and joked awkwardly about her “jaunty” post-chemo buzz cut. Though there were periods over the years when we didn’t communicate much, our friendship survived to the end.
In three weeks we’ll be visiting two long-time Chicago friends, who met us in New York in December to help celebrate my seventieth birthday. We dined, we went to Broadway plays and reminisced. This time, no doubt we will again talk endlessly about our lives and concerns, sometimes singing out of tune but with no worries that anyone is going to walk out on anyone.
What sustains acquaintances over the years so they eventually become friendships? What’s the glue that holds them together? I have no answers except, maybe, those unknowable energies called “love” and “affection.” Whatever it is, it’s a precious gift that one instinctively clutches close to the heart.
In his first epistle to the fractious church at Corinth, the apostle Paul offers a definition of love that also describes the concept of friendship if one just substitutes a few words:
[Friends] are patient, friends are kind. Friendship does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Friendship does not delight in evil but rejoices with the the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
I’m not so cynical as to dismiss acquaintances with whom we spend good times and whose company we enjoy in San Miguel but I wanted to specifically honor the handful of true friends that Stew and I have here and at home, and express how much they mean to us.
Lyrics from “With a little help from our friends,” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney (1967)
First Corinthians 13:4-7