Thursday, 4 September 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 15

This time I want to talk about friends.

Since Emma left for Canada I've been pleased to discover how many I seem to have. I still find it hard to believe. I don't really trust anyone - or rather - I'm perhaps too trusting when I'm actually with making friends but always ready for things to turn sour somehow, as I described last time in connection with 'the workplace'. Sometimes I just think I'll say something inappropriate and people will be going 'What was that all about?' 'What do you think he meant by that?' and people will decide they've had enough, or sometimes I can get quite intense, talking about this sort of stuff - how I feel etc, or get into some sort of debate and things will start to go wrong. I feel I have two options - to stay quiet and out of the way or to be 'Me' and be outspoken. The former is unfulfilling - even pointless, the latter regularly makes me cringe. The third option - what most people seem to go for - is various sorts of small talk, chit chat, banter, and I've always wished I could do that, but like holding down a steady job, it seems beyond me. Maybe it is why I can't hold down a steady job. Most relationships, personal or professional are based on a certain amount of empty talk. I'm not putting it down - I think it has a very valuable function as a kind of social cement. Without it there is awkward silence or the Deep-and-Meaningfuls, or just no connection at all.

I think, being such a loner as a child I probably grew up with this unrealistic dream of what having friends would mean. I like that phrase - 'just hanging out'. I like the aimless comments, the dumb jokes, the light flirtation, the casual affection and companionable mickey-taking, but I don't think I've ever actually been able to do it for very long. I've always felt the need to talk about things, otherwise it can feel like a waste of time. After all - my head is so full of stuff - and not just hard heavy stuff - there are stories, images, dreams, fantasies, characters. Why can't people talk about that stuff instead of just this small talk? Why not talk about ideas and imaginings? Books and music and life and... But I've tried and people don't want to. People get intimidated or competitive. Witty banter is the best alternative but it can get boring if one person is holding forth, or uncomfortable if it gets spiteful. Good banter is far rarer in real life than on the box and I think I got a lot of my idea of what being with friends would be like from The Monkees, MASH and Happy Days than from any actual people I knew. I can imagine loners these days growing up thinking being friends would be like being in Friends and growing up feeling they were missing out on something. Life is elsewhere, as they say.
The best I've known, interestingly, has been sharing a house, where we just coexist, maybe do The Big Shop together, watch telly, or go to our rooms and spend time alone. Sometimes we even sat and talked about stuff, if we happened to be in the kitchen at the same time perhaps, but there was no pressure. It wasn't a social occasion. We didn't have to say anything. I had something that with Z and O until we all parted company a week or two back. No pressure. Silly jokes and household business, comments in passing. Nothing heavy. I miss that.
Women too, I've always found it easy to be friends with, and not because there was no sexual frisson. Looking back there probably was and maybe it was good because I tended to assume nothing was going to happen (when actually, looking back, that might have been my own low self-esteem. Actually quite often, something might have happened, I just didn't really believe it at the time.) Actually if I'm honest I suspect I benefited from the fact that feminism has not completely expunged women's deference to men and they were more willing to listen to a man, and less likely to get competitive. No doubt that will change, as it should. Anyway, being friends with a woman can change the power relation and that makes things easier.
Perhaps too easy. A recurring theme is that most of my long-term girlfriends, though excellent people - warm and generous and intelligent and funny - really should have been best friends because I did not really want them sexually. But I was too needy and I got too involved (and, initially at least, too sexually frustrated) and I allowed it to become a long term relationship. But you see at the time I feared no one else would have me, and the more passionate and sexual relationships I did find imploded pretty quickly (mostly due to my insecurity), and I fell back on settling for a warm and caring but sexless relationship (with a scattering of infidelity). This was unfair to them who should have been looking for someone to really love them, and to me who should have had more faith in his own desirability.
My feelings of undesirability didn't leave me until I was in my early forties when I suddenly realised two things - that I'd had quite a lot of sex with women who I did desire along the way and that those women I had had longer times with, who truly loved me and were perfectly desirable too - just not to me. Suddenly I realised I was as desirable as anyone and everything changed. Suddenly I realised I was ok on my own, and that's a good place to be when a real relationship comes along.

So at the moment, as I say, I feel pretty good about the way things are. The nursery actually has given me more of a sense of being a part of a wider scene than I think I've ever known at any other time in my life. It has to do with feeling competent and confident in what I do. I can go to some of the plant fairs (yes there are such things) around the country and people seem impressed with what I do, or I can go on line and find that what I do is of interest and my knowledge is respected and I can be friendly and confident in a way I don't remember being at any other time in my life. I've also found other, non-horticultural friends - old friends who know me well and still seem to want to spend time, and new friends I've met on line, and frankly I'm slightly amazed. And I have a wife who I genuinely (mostly) believe loves me, even though she's moved to Toronto and who I trust, as much as I trust anyone. And her kids and I are close and their dad and his partner are good friends too (It's all very Modern Family). And my brother is about as close to a best friend as I've ever had. And I call on my mum now when I'm in trouble, like this week, when I've been sick, and Sam, one of Emma's friends is doing some shopping for me and Richard who helps me with the nursery has gone to do the watering. Finally there's Miss Green who pays me well for my gardening expertise despite my not being the most punctual or biddable of employees and has also supported the nursery.

I've had so many 'friends' over the years that were frankly a struggle to relate to somehow - people more like me probably, who I shared a lot more tastes and interests with, but I've come away feeling always that I've done something wrong (me, not them), that I've been too intense or inappropriate in some way. Somehow I've always blamed myself, because although they have perhaps been sarcastic or competitive, judgemental or arrogant, I've always thought I deserved it, or I shouldn't be so sensitive. I've never, oddly, ever been a misanthropist or curmudgeon because I always give people the benefit of the doubt but never myself. Everyone else is somehow more grown-up than I am, more socially acceptable, more worldly, so even when they behave badly it is me that is at fault because I don't handle it well. I should know better. I shouldn't be so soft.
Very occasionally I come across someone who seems even more socially inept than I am and I am sad to say I have found myself treating them with the same disregard. This is the hard truth in all this - that the victim becomes the perpetrator and back again, Child and Parent, we inherit both sides. As I said before I was both the young boy cowed by his elders and the parent glowering at O, and when I have met men (and it is always men) who seem weaker than I am, I can be the patronising and overbearing one.
This doesn't make it alright - quite the opposite. I don't want to be dominant or submissive. I dearly want to be more or less equal, or at least comfortable. I'm not interested in competition, not because I have no competitive side to me but because it feels ugly. I never feel it makes a good basis for a relationship. Some do I know, but I think it throws up barriers. Even in good natured exchanges I don't like to be always thinking about how I can get one over on the other. It's not a good feeling. And yet I love the debate...

Always I fear things falling apart. At the moment I am marvelling at the number of people I seem to have as friends and I am ignoring that fear. I live optimistically. (I can't be accused of not enjoying the moment.) Maybe this time it won't happen - I won't feel myself getting further and further away from them as the inappropriate reactions and uncomfortable moments begin to pile up. I'm ignoring it for now. I don't want to think about it. I'm not letting it cross my amygdala and thus it remains a theoretical issue rather than a worry - what my mum would call sticking my head in the sand. Maybe that is the best way to cope with life, but as usual I can't seem to help wishing I could make it different next time. That's what I'm here for - writing this - trying to find a way to make it different next time.

to be continued...


Vincent said...

I’m beginning to see that early life can leave us with scars, or more serious damage, that will never heal. But a built-in adaptablity offers the chance that they may be turned to advantage, honed into capabilities which may find a unique niche, flourish there and give value to the whole.

I was going to say “human adaptability” till I realized that though it is true epigenetically for our species, it is also true phylogenetically for every species, being the driver for all evolution.

In particular I’m currently seeing it in the life of Karen Armstrong, via her memoir The Spiral Staircase and her YouTube lectures on religion, which wrecked her mentally and physically when she spent 7 years training as a nun. Then she sought a niche as an academic scholar, and failed there too. Her life has been lonely and dispiriting with breakdowns & epilepsy, but she's written books of world-wide significance and given talks to world leaders.

So what I'm trying to say is there's hope for us yet, and there is no need to judge ourselves by anyone else's standards, let alone "official targets". Luck helps.

Steve Law said...

Thanks for this.
I am hopeful - this whole series of essays is written in hope.

"and there is no need to judge ourselves by anyone else's standards"
Weirdly I've sought to live by that all my life - more probably than most people I know, and yet...

Steve Law said...

ps. I have added some bits to this one today