Friends are reflections of life we’ve lived and ways we’ve loved

About four years ago, I got into a car with a woman I’d never met for a three-hour drive to the mountains.

It was my friend Shannon’s birthday and she had decided that she wanted to spend her birthday weekend in a cabin in the woods, eating junk food, watching movies and hiking with some of her best friends. While she piled into her car with her new rescue puppy, Sophie, her friend, Jen, who I also was to meet for the first time, and their collection of travel gear, groceries and DVDs, I agreed to meet Barbara at a Starbucks in Plymouth Meeting, where we would then follow Shannon up to Sylvania Tree Farm, a 1,200-acre estate running along the Upper Delaware River in Lackawaxen, Pike County.

I never expected not  to like Barbara, but I knew the drive came with the risk of awkward silences and maybe even the occasional blunder as we bridged the unknown between us. Yet less than 20 minutes into the trip, we were gabbing like old friends, caught up in a stream of chatter that would wind its way effortlessly through the revelatory and the more mundane, through precious memories and nurtured passions, all interspersed with ample laughter, while a mutual admiration took root.

By the end of the weekend, after getting to know Jen as well, I knew that I had made two new friends for life. But while over time I would come to appreciate even more Barbara’s easy affection, good humor and generosity — a year after meeting her, she offered the use of her house for a party in honor of my ordination — it wasn’t until I sat at her 60th birthday brunch last weekend that I got a sense of the full measure of this phenomenal woman and realized just how lucky I am to be able to call her friend.

On the eve of turning 60, Barbara decided to throw herself a brunch to celebrate, she said, the many friendships she’s made over her lifetime. And while not every invited woman could make it to the Fort Washington restaurant where we gathered, those who did certainly represented that entire span, from women she’d known since her childhood and teenage years to those she’d met in more recent decades, including as late as last year. There were friends with whom she shared a history dense with hopes and joys and heartbreak, and those who had only the pleasure of being enfolded in her warmth. There were many who could spill naughty secrets, recall uproarious incidents and paint her in wild and vibrant hues, while still attesting to her resilience and grace, her wisdom and benevolence.

While most had become entwined with her life through more traditional means, more than a few had been befriended from her favorite perch at InFusion Coffee & Tea in Mt. Airy, where she can often be found knitting or happily instructing other patrons in the craft.

And as I beheld the remarkable diversity in the room, of faces young and old, with women from every imaginable background — and her husband Bill as the sole male in attendance — I was repeatedly struck by what a profound gift genuine friendship can be, and how it is our connection to the people we hold dear that brings meaning and fulfillment to our lives.

These women, to me, represented so much more than friendship. As they shared their birthday wishes for Barbara and traded fond memories, both on the spot and via a video collage created by her daughter and a family friend, they appeared to be reflections of a life well lived and a heart well used.

It was no wonder that Barbara approached 60 feeling the happiest, healthiest and most energized she’s felt in a long time.

Recently, I read of a lecture at Stanford University in which the head of psychiatry there reported that one of the best things a man can do for his health is to be married while one of the optimal things a woman can do is to nurture her relationships with her girlfriends. The myriad ways in which we connect with each other and naturally provide a system of support in difficult times as well as the ease with which we share our feelings all boost levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter known to help combat depression and foster general feelings of well-being. The lecturer even indicated that the failure to create and sustain meaningful personal relationships is as hazardous to one’s physical health as smoking.

I didn’t necessarily need that information to realize the value of the friendships I’ve formed throughout my life, some going back as far as middle school, a few from college and the majority comprised of women I’ve met while further along my path. But it did reinforce for me why time with my girlfriends is one of the most enlivening gifts I can give myself, whether we happen to be championing each other’s dreams, supporting each other through life’s difficult passages, or simply settling into the easy comfort of each other’s presence.

Just last year when I was visiting my dad in St. Lucia, he expressed that he’d expected me to be further along in my career by now, meaning that I’d perhaps have my master’s degree or even be working toward a Ph.D., have a byline in a nationally recognized newspaper, maybe even a book. … I do have ambitions and goals, and plenty of them, but my greatest source of pride remains the relationships I’ve cultivated that have come to define who I am. If he could see my friends, I thought, he’d have such a deeper insight into all that I have accomplished.

For just as Barbara was able to measure her life by the presence of so many bright and caring souls on her birthday — and I’m sure she’ll be gathering even more such friends in the decades to come — I, too, would like my friendships to one day be testament to the following: She lived with a joyful spirit and loved from an open heart.

Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times