Dear Sister. Comma.

I still remember the day we first met. The night before I was strangely nervous, wondering what you would think of me. Had you heard enough stories to have any expectations? Did you want to like me too?

We met in the cafeteria of a Smithsonian, which was then more your home territory than mine. I don’t remember which one, or what we ate, or even anything about my brother besides that he was there. Mostly when I left I felt relieved. I didn’t know if he would marry you, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hate you if he did. Selfishly, my first criteria had been whether you were one of the impossibly polished girls who made me feel like I’d failed Glamour 101. You looked like you could be our normal, which wasn’t actually very normal at all.

Later I visited the two of you on the hillside campus where you went to school. Then I thought that I could talk with you and laugh with you. Those were big pluses, too. And then I found out you didn’t have pierced ears either.

By the time he called, one hot July night, to tell the story of how he asked and you said yes, I was glad for more than just his sake. But I don’t think I grasped that summer, or even for years afterward, just how glad I was.

Maybe the first time I realized for sure was when you and he showed up together, met me, laughing, at my car when I arrived to a family function to show me the card that I’d filled out at your wedding. I gotten down a “dear” and then your names and then a comma. Nothing more. Distracted by something in the rush of the pre-wedding morning, I’d stuffed the card in an envelope and given it to you anyway. This belonging together started working itself out then; you forgave me, laughed, and will never let the story die.

Flash forward a few years. There is one awful Christmas full of funerals and car accidents and snow that keeps coming and coming. We are together in a car going to one of the family events where there will be tears and food and another step through weariness and toward an attempted Christmas. Suddenly, the wind shifts and heavy snow becomes an unyielding wall of white. The car is surrounded. I yell, I can’t see anything. You say, I know, me either. There is time enough for ripples of fear and then it clears and we go on.

Then this fall. My semester schedule means I probably won’t come home till Thanksgiving. Over the phone you say, aww, you should come back before the semester is really busy. We want to see you before then. I take the we as more than polite syntactical maneuvering. The two of you want to surprise me with long-awaited news, but the fact of mutual company is so established it doesn’t occur to me to be suspicious.

See when he married you, you were then part of my life too. I realized this in theory, but not in fact. As the years go, we move, sometimes with hesitation but always forward, into this fact. And so from strangers to sisters, part of always there.

Verona

You found that you slept in later in Verona. Perhaps it was the soft, November light, filtering through a sky that was not sunny nor cloudy but simply grey.  Perhaps it was the coziness of blankets and the coldness of tile floors, or the way your friend left so quietly without waking you and there were no sounds of conversation or traffic to let you know it was morning.

But eventually you did wake up and then there was rich espresso in a tiny mug and a slice of a traditional Christmas cake for breakfast and time for reading and time for prayer and when that was done a city to explore. You had your own key and turned it four times in the lock and walked down the stairs and onto the street which was old and led across the bridge to the medieval church and from there opened into other narrow, cobbled streets between ancient buildings past frescoed chiesas and through crowded piazzas where street vendors sold roasted chestnuts and cups of fruit and cheesy souvenirs of Romeo e Giulietta.  And in the morning it was fine to be surrounded by the people you could not talk to and to listen to the flow of a language you did not understand, and eventually to make your way to a coffee shop and shyly order a ciocolato calde.  Then you were overwhelmed by the barista offering flavor options in Italian and you ordered caramello not because you love caramel, but because you understood the word, and when you shyly asked “e panna, por favore?” you were relieved, when you got the steaming mug, that it did come with a generous serving of whipped cream. 

But when you were done with your thick chocolate you began to feel a little lonely in the crowds of strangers and then it was good to walk home and to find, when you turned your key in the lock that someone was already opening the door from the other side, and there was your old friend to welcome you back and years of conversation and silence to catch up on.  Long ago, you had lived together in a crowded dorm with many other girls and the conversations and pranks and tears and whispers had been taken for granted. Now you each lived on your own in quiet apartments that were sometimes wonderful and sometimes lonely and for this week you were both glad to have a roommate again. 

In the afternoon you wandered out together through the city and now you were not lonely in the busy streets because you had a friend and because your friend was also your bridge to the rest of the people. She could explain to the man behind the counter that you were Americans and where you were from and could translate for you the flavors of gelato or the items on a menu and would order for you when you were not sure what to say. And when you were tired in the evening you would wander home together and sip tea or Prosecco and nibble on dark chocolate as you read together silently and companionably, but then again the silence never lasted long, because what you were reading would remind you of something and you would read it aloud and then you would be an hour into a conversation that had meandered across years and continents and subjects. And sometimes you would have no response and the conversation would fade to silence and other times you interrupted her and other times she interrupted you but that was okay because the interruptions were as good as the silence and the silence as comfortable as an answer.  And around midnight you would go to bed and whisper together a bit more before you fell asleep, like children at a slumber party, and then you would say goodnight and sweet dreams and she would say sognid‘oro and you would sleep well and soundly and wake up the next morning to begin again.

The Poets

A few years ago I was at my parents’ house, helping my mom sort through childhood treasures for what I wanted to keep, what she wanted to keep, and what we could agree to throw away. At the bottom of a box found in the back a closet was a notebook with the word POETRY scribbled across the front in the thick lines of a Crayola marker. The book was nearly full of nonsensical limericks and indecipherable illustrations and childish stories. Turning the pages, I smiled; any meaning, expression, or plot had been sacrificed to the gods of rhyme and rhythm. What was left were nursery rhymes in every sense.

I remembered how we would sit together on my bed, or on a picnic blanket out-of-doors, heads bent over the notebook crossing out words and rewriting lines, bickering over choices, laughing with delight when the other found a word that had been eluding her. We were six years old, our vocabularies limited, our spelling unformed.  For first-graders we knew quite a lot of words, but as I read over our writings two decades later, I admitted there were no signs of prodigy – or even particular gifting – in any of our work.

For all of that, there is something wonderful, even now, about the little notebook, the collaborative effort of two little girls just beginning to discover the wonder of language.  I remembered our delight in realizing that words could be shaped, not merely to ask questions or exchange information but to create beauty or laughter.

As children, we shared two passions: language and theology (in the best sense of the word – the pursuit of the knowledge of God).  The two were, and are, related, language allowing theology to be a journey in communion, so different from the lonely faith I would later find described by Kierkegaard and others.

I have that notebook of our first foray into language.  No such record exists of our first forays into theology; our passionate late-night discussions, our prayers, our loving but intense arguments. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to listen in on such strange conversations between two little girls. No doubt, like the poetry, it would seem childish  – revealing no great insight or piety. But like the poetry, perhaps it would also reveal the first flushed excitement of something that would bring us back together however often life moved us apart over the next twenty years. We are neither of us poets or theologians, but we are both women whose lives are shaped by poetry and theology, friends whose relationship is forged by the written word.

Last week she wrote, “On the subject of trust in God in and of itself, I could practically write volumes if I had the time.  That’s the sort of thing it would be nice to talk about together. Is that a completely crazy idea, that you would come to visit?”  And the joy of her letter and the joy of possibly seeing her is as fresh and exciting as the joy we shared at six years old, crafting our book of poems.

Part II

Sometimes there are long stories, stories that go on for nearly your whole life. And sometimes there are short stories, an afternoon, an exchange. But I’m particularly attached to the ones that begin again after years in between, joyously finding again at 30 what was there at 10.

It is this city that is the catalyst, though I think both of us were mostly unaware of it as children, at least as a destination. But here it is, with its traffic, population, and, most significantly, government and university jobs. And, with nearly 50 years of education between us (we counted the other night), here we are.

It is odd sometimes, to have this life re-merge with an older one. The details of what we know of each other are still there, known in some ways much better than someone who has spent much time out of the last five years with either of us. Perhaps this is because the essential core of a person is present in childhood, not yet refined into the presentation of self in adulthood, which is both deeper and modified by social acceptability.

Both of us were nerdy children, certainly not among the cool or popular girls. Makeup, now mastered when necessary, was a foreign topic. Although we could do just fine in the academic world, that hardly earned you points in middle school. She was athletic, though, and I, timid and easily frustrated by my own clumsiness, was not. Despite this, I was never left behind. Even now, I feel safer in her presence, it matters a little less whether the rest of the world dismisses me.

Nearly all of my best friends all through life have turned out to be the sort of people who deliberately push me to be stronger and braver than I ever would have been on my own. Then it was trying volleyball. Now it is finishing the dissertation that is the barrier to my joining her as a “Dr.” Still the best might be playing games and eating cupcakes and laughing at the pictures of our old selves which seem to invoke our childish spirits, bidding them to rejoin their bodies: “Don’t worry. You turned out ok. And I still like you.”

First floor, door on the right

There are two flags hanging on the inside of our front door because two decades ago, on opposite sides of the world, two little girls were learning to love reading and realizing they were pretty good at school. Fast forward to 2013 and we are both here, in this city, wandering between the third floor of Marist Hall and this apartment, exploring our campus and the world as we go.

We both keep late and somewhat irregular hours–the lights are likely to be on at 1 am with no one stirring at 7 (or 8). This means she is usually around when my life gets suddenly complicated, whether that means deciding if these boots go with this dress, figuring out exactly what it might have meant when this guy said this thing, or getting reassurance that giving a C for missing that point was justified, really, and, no, contrary to the claims of pushy, late night emails, I didn’t just ruin that student’s life.

Through links sent without comment from opposite ends of the apartment, we explore the far reaches of the internet together, the beautiful, curious, strange oddities of human life on this planet.

She is funnier than I am and braver.  I do know how to fix a blown fuse (our finicky kitchen dislikes having too many things plugged in at once) and can at least confirm that the American tax system is incredibly complicated, even if I don’t know what to do about it.

We survived taking our comprehensive exams in the same semester, although the tiny dining room of our apartment was overwhelmed by books and late night laughter. Now we are pushing each other through the long marathon of dissertation writing, one ordinary, awesome day after another. At the end I am sure there will be hundreds of pages of amazing scholarship between us and also defeated mice, washed dishes, late nights, venison and seaweed, snow storms, beach trips, conversations, and friendship.

The Brain Trust (A Tribute)

I have a confession.  I hate Federal Holidays.  Not because I don’t get them off, but because the other girls do.  It’s selfish of course (but then it would hardly be a confession if it wasn’t).

The thing is, I don’t miss them until they’re gone.  Each day, when I get to work, fix my coffee and open my gmail, I take it for granted that even if my inbox is full of google alterts and church newsletters and follow-ups on editing projects, I can count on them to remind me I am loved.

I look, immediately for that email.  The one with a subject line that reads “Another question for the brain trust” or  “Did you know?” or “I need to conquere something” (with conquer misspelled and everything).  It’s the email that already has seven or eight responses (morning comes earlier to the east coast) by the time I log in, that may already have covered a range of subjects from weather, to sex, to travel, to prayer. Each email is three or four lines at most.  Usually nonsense, occasionally painfully serious.

If one of us is working on an essay or email for work and struggling to come up with an elegant sentence, she has six excellent writers to call on.  If she can’t quite track down the statistic she’s looking for, she has six other researchers.  There’s rarely a work-related question that can’t be answered within five minutes by the help of the brain trust.

We represent four time zones and two continents and haven’t been all together in half-a-decade.  We are mothers (well, so far only one mother) and wives and single women, professionals and academics. We’ve talked each other through wedding preparations, health crisis, breakups and interviews.  Together (because we are together even when we’re separated by 3,000 or 5,000 miles) we’ve faced personal crisis and global crisis.

In some ways it would be hard to find seven more different people (though in other ways we are very much the same).  We have strong disagreements and moments of mutual incomprehension – which can be almost as heated when we’re talking about abstaining from coffee as when we’re talking about the moral status of sexual orientations.  But there is a safety in knowing that even when, as one of the girls recently admitted to me, “the email chain can be the most exasperating thing ever,” it will still be there the next day, with all seven of us contributing.

Except on those pesky Federal holidays, when most of the group is off and I find my quiet office a little lonelier.

Friendship and Frozen Yogurt

There’s something about self-serve frozen yogurt.  A feeling of decadence as you fill your bowl and pile topping upon topping, knowing each luxury is adding to the total of your bill but unable to resist taking just a little more.  I add gummy bears.  She adds a spoonful of brightly colored cereal.  We both add sprinkles.  I grin, “Glad to see someone else who makes non-grown-up yougurt.”  She nods knowingly, “Its gotta look like a party in your cup.”

We make our way to a tall table by the window and settle into dessert and conversation.  The later comes suprisingly easily considering differences in age and interests and the infrequency of our visits.  Perhaps, in a way, those things even contribute to a spirit of easy confidence.  We share lessons learned and still being taught, anxiety over plans (or lack of plans) for the future, silly stories about friends and family the other has never met.

She is very much a new friend; we met just over a year ago and can still count on our fingers (certainly, at least, on our combined fingers) the number of hours we’ve spent togther.  We have few mutual acquaintances.  We know few of the same places. After tonight, we will say goodbye not knowing when we’ll find ourselves in the same place again.  We have no way of knowing whether the coming months and years will foster friendhip or whether the circumstances of life will carry us on and apart.

I first encountered such uncertainty in college, as I drifted away from highschool friends and made new acquaintances.  I remember, at first, recoiling from the discovery that in the early days of friendship I could have no way of knowing which would last and which would fade.

But I’m learning to treasure this as well – discovering that love and friendship are no less precious because they may prove impermanent.  There is something exciting even in the not-knowing.  Years from now will we sit together and say remember that one time we got frozen yogurt and had so much fun – we had no idea how close we would become?  Or, long after we’ve lost touch, will I see someone with children’s cereal on her sundae and remember my friend, and wonder where she might be, and for just a moment, feel that familiar pang of longing for the day when neither death nor distance will separate us from those we love here on earth?