Oprah Winfrey and I celebrate our birthdays just a few days apart. She has zillions in the bank and can spend her special day anywhere on the planet with 200 of her favorite people in tow. I have, well, less money in the bank and often spend my birthdays with a handful of friends in or around my neighborhood. But Oprah’s incredible wealth, access and adventures are not what make me jealous of her.
Nope, it’s the fact that she has a best friend named Gayle King whom she calls every day. From what I can tell, Gayle and Oprah do pretty much every meaningful thing together and rehash it on the phone.
I often wish I had a Gayle King.
As a little girl, I lived next door to my best friend Lisa. We hung out in each other’s homes making Easy Bake Oven cakes, watching Mr. Rogers, and playing dress up. We also spent hours setting up elaborate apartment complexes for Barbie, Ken, assorted doll friends, and my brother’s GI Joe (for added intrigue). Often, just as we put the last piece of cardboard furniture in place, one of our moms would disrupt the whole scene by shouting, “Dinner!” We didn’t really care, though, because we just loved being together.
A few years later, my dad moved our family to another state and I tearfully said goodbye to Lisa. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a pattern.
At this point in my life I’ve moved about eight times and moved on from several jobs, leaving countless friends and communities behind. I tried to stay connected to high school and college friends, but those ties weakened as our careers and lives blossomed in different cities. In my 30s I lived my own version of Sex and the City with gal pals Julie, Alice, and Liz amid cocktails, cigarettes and debauched nights in Manhattan. When that lifestyle took its toll, I left my party pals to reclaim my soul in a yoga ashram. Two years later I moved to Boston.
And so it went for decades, these departures that left me with dear friends in faraway places. I, too, have been left behind by girlfriends who’ve been called elsewhere. Despite our good intentions, months and years can pass without a call or visit, and so Facebook is where we end up hanging out. I have 600 friends on Facebook and, while they give me a much-needed sense of community at times, I’d trade most of them for a nearby BFF.
Which is why I’m in awe of Oprah and Gayle who, after three decades, seem closer than sisters (something else I don’t have). I’d love regular check-ins with a girlfriend like that to relay the fascinating details of my fascinating life. I used to pay my therapist for this privilege and now I force my husband to listen, but it’s really not his forte. While he’s loving and devoted and willingly does the dishes, he rarely asks about the right details or wants to hear about my feeelings the way girlfriends do.
People like John Gray warned me about the whole Mars/Venus thing.
A friend of mine jokes that she processes her day with her cats each night. While my cat is a really good listener, she rarely gives feedback, poses leading questions or affirms my fabulousness. Except when she wants something.
I know that I’m not unique in wanting more meaningful and consistent relationships in my life, and I sometimes wonder if loneliness is an American epidemic, despite all the tweeting and texting. A yoga student of mine confesses that her loneliness sends her to the kitchen for beloved companions like Godiva chocolates and Ben and Jerry. The problem is, they don’t really love her back.
My husband is from Senegal, where people hang out together all the time and steady human companionship is a given. His favorite American TV show is Seinfeld, because Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer remind him of his mates back home and make him laugh after a day of commuting and working alongside New Englanders who avoid eye contact.
“I’m used to it,” he says, about the isolation he feels in this culture, and that makes me sad.
It takes real effort and determination to maintain friendships in this age of transience, social fragmentation, and over committed lives.
Proximity helps, too.
As I write I’m heating up a pot of homemade lentil soup, thanks to my neighbor Ellen, who supplied the recipe after I enjoyed some at her house. Ellen and I are cultivating a friendship via email, Facebook, phone calls and, yes, face-to-face visits, and “Hey, got any bay leaves?” moments across the fence. It’s the perfect fusion of modern and old-fashioned relating, and it makes my world feel cozier.
I just hope neither one of us moves anytime soon.