I’ve been thinking a lot about friends this week. Ever since I read an article on friendship in Haley Nahman’s Maybe Baby newsletter. About what guest writer Mallory Rice calls her “friends recession.”
In her post, Rice talks about the so-called “social recession” defined in this 2020 article in The Atlantic where two doctors discuss loneliness and the pandemic. These two experts believe that the “social recession” they say was initially precipitated by technology and social media was exacerbated by the enforced isolation of the pandemic. Rice goes on to relate the story of her own “sort of imposed social recession,” when she moved from New York to Montana. And how she coped living in a new place when her friends and family lived elsewhere.
So I’ve been thinking about friendship, and about my friends. And how over the years, as one moves from one place to another, from one job to another, or from one phase of life to another, one’s pool of friends changes and morphs. Friends come and go, some stay for a while, some stay for a very long time. And some morph from one thing into another. Is this a “social recession?” A “friends recession”? Well, I guess that depends.
I’ve been really lucky in my life to have made and kept close a few good friends for a very long time. I’ve written before about my old friend Debbie. That’s us above ages 13, 25, 50, and 65. Debbie and I met in grade one, graduated high school together, and shared an apartment for several years in Fredericton and again in Ottawa. Debbie left Ottawa back in the eighties, but we’ve never lost touch, and never lost our sense of the other as a true kindred spirit. And now that she and her husband have moved back to Fredericton, we see each other more than we have in years.
Similarly my old friend Colleen. That’s us below in 1969 and 2016 (I think.) Colleen and I haven’t known each other as long as Debbie and I have. We only met in grade two. Ha. And we don’t see each other as much as we’d like. But I know if I were in trouble, just like in the Carole King song, I’d only have to call and she’d be there. I know that because I have, and she was. I think I told you in a previous post about that hilarious, and slightly precarious, drive from Ottawa home to New Brunswick back in 1983, in Colleen’s old car with most of my worldly goods crammed into the backseat.
Sometimes friends that we assume have moved out of our lives forever move right back in again. That’s me, below, and a group of girls I went through elementary school with, and for the most part never saw after high school. Until our 40th high school reunion in 2014, where a few of us decided to plan another reunion, a smaller one for the kids we went to school with from grade one through nine. Oh my goodness. That was a wonderful night.
And now a few of us still see each other thanks to my friend Edie. That’s her in the black and white sweater, below. Edie sends out emails to all of us and plans regular meet-ups for coffee. Of course I’m only able to attend when I’m home. But what a hoot we had in December when I was in Fredericton. The most hilarious topic of conversation being an old friend who shall remain nameless, but about whom Debbie and I had a big stash of stories. And about our respective mums. Also hilarious. It’s amazing how the stress one feels when caring for an elderly parent melts into hilarity when the experience is shared by your friends.
But you know, as lucky as I am to have so many good friends from my youth, sadly (for me) most of them still live in New Brunswick. And I don’t. So I’ve also been thinking of that this week. And how retirement changed my pool of friends. And, for a time, forced me into a sort of social recession. A “friends recession” as Mallory Rice calls it.
Now that I’m retired I can more easily travel down east and see my old friends. Now I can. But back in January of 2013, when I first retired, that was not the case. And the “friends recession” precipitated by my retirement and exacerbated by Hubby’s illness that winter ten years ago made me quite lonely for a while.
Many of my friends at the time were still working. So I lost the casual, daily interactions with colleagues who were friends. And also with colleagues who weren’t friends but with whom I enjoyed working, planning, joking, venting, problem-solving. Whatever. Of course I still saw my friends from work outside of work for dinners or planned events. But I lost all the other stuff. The daily banter. The light-hearted teasing. The chorus of cheers when I entered the teacher workroom one frosty morning after sliding, knees bent and arms (laden with a bag of marking and my lunch) outstretched for balance, down the ice-covered hill from the parking lot to the door of the school without falling and in full view of my colleagues through the workroom window. That memory still makes me smile.
For quite a while after I retired I cast about for something to fill the gap left by, what seemed to me to be, a catastrophic friends recession.
Of course it wasn’t in retrospect that catastrophic. Part of my loneliness was because it was such a stressful time. Hubby was suddenly and unexpectedly ill and needed a heart operation. And other than phone calls with my sister, it felt as if I really had no one to talk to about him, no one on whom I could unload my worry and fear.
My working friends were, well, working. And busy. And my older friends who had been retired for some time were all busy with their own lives. My assumption of waltzing into their already organized retirement activities came to naught. I had to craft my own retired life and not count on piggy-backing on theirs.
So that’s what I did.
Once Hubby was over the worst, I began to do what I had always done when I was working. I organized the “girls” from work for nights out, planned restaurant meet-ups, invited my work friends to my house for potluck, just like I used to do when I was still working. Except this was no department meeting. I expanded my list to include my favourite people from other departments. And favourite people who had moved to other schools. I decided that I was not going to let these people disappear from my life.
I contacted a couple of people from my school who had retired shortly before me and shortly after. We began to meet for coffee. Then we started skating once a week. In the spring this morphed into a walking group. This group is still going although the faces have changed. We lost two ladies who became too busy. And gained my friend Marina who retired a couple of years after me. And then Linsey, with whom Marina and I chatted at a retired teachers’ breakfast one day and invited along on our walk.
Now Marina and Linsey and I are veteran walkers-together. We have hoofed it through snow, and heat, and through the entire pandemic in our masks. Sometimes we decamp to a coffee shop afterwards. Sometimes we go for lunch. And one week during lockdown we brought a winter picnic and had our coffee and treats at a snow-covered picnic table.
And here’s the really cool thing. These two women have become valued friends to me. Marina and I have been friends for a long time. But our friendship is much stronger now than it was when we were working together. And we are both glad to count Linsey, with whom we worked for years, as a friend. Our relationships have morphed. And isn’t that a wonderful thing?
Recently we’ve added a new friend. Karen worked with us as well and retired a couple of years ago. Once our colleague, a person with whom we were friendly, but not necessarily friends, is now a friend. I love that.
So, what’s my point? Well, I have several.
The first is that we should all be cognizant of the possibility of an unexpected friends recession in our lives. I was not ready for the loneliness that retirement precipitated. As much as I thought I was ready for retirement, I wasn’t ready for that. And sitting at home feeling sorry for myself because all my friends had seemingly forgotten me got me nowhere. Well, nowhere that I wanted to be. So I took the initiative. I was the one who reached out. And I am so, so glad I did.
And the second point is that retirement might close a few doors with respect to friendship, but it opens a plethora of other doors. Old acquaintances can morph into friends. Old friends might reappear because you both have more time in your lives. You might meet entirely new friends. You never know.
And finally, with regards to all the experts who say that technology and social media can create social recession… I say… bah humbug.
I’m not talking about teenagers and young adults whose over-use of social media can have devastating effects on them. I know how difficult it can be to try to teach young people to safely navigate the online world. I’m talking here about older adults, old people, retired people… like us. Social media can be a boon to us.
Think of all the people who comment on this blog or on other blogs. I know we don’t necessarily know each other in real life. But we can still have wonderful conversations. And during the pandemic that helped us a lot. Reaching out to share our experiences, to express fellow feeling, or to support those who are in pain… that’s amazing. Of course online friends can’t take the place of real life friends and family. But it’s not nothing. If you’ll pardon the double negative.
Especially when you finally get to meet those online friends in real life.
So yeah, over the course of our lives friends come and go. We meet people, we become friends, and they become part of our lives. Sometimes they stick around, and sometimes they move on and others take their place. And I guess it depends on us whether or not this ebb and flow of friendships over time becomes a friends recession. I guess if friendship is important to us we should be willing to reach out to save old friendships or to make new ones.
So tell me my much valued online friends, do you think you’re in a social recession? A friends recession?