9 July

Chronicles Of Friendship. It Came As A Surprise

by Jon Katz

A few months ago, I wrote that I was giving up on my old ideas about friendship,  I seemed to have one failure after another, many painful and unsettling, and I was beginning to accept the idea that I was not suited for friendship, there were just too many misfires and misperceptions.

I was finally letting go of the idea of having friendships, at least in the way I had always seem then. It just hadn’t worked for me, there was perhaps always too much stuff going on in my head.

Some friendships melted away, two ended in suicide, some seemed unhealthy to me, and I walked away from them, I’m sure some people decided the same thing about me.

Life being what it is, the minute I wrote that post I began making friendships without even realizing that I was redefining what friendship was for me and what it meant. I think in letting go of my old ideas, I had opened the door to friendship, just as my giving up on love a decade ago somehow made it possible for me to find it.

I made it so complicated, but I am discovering that it can really  be quite simple.

I’d like to go over that scenario with Freud, but in his absence I can only think that letting go of something quite often means a beginning, not an end. By clinging to unrealistic and even unhealthy ideas about friends I was making sure I wouldn’t have any.

I have several strong and deep new relationships that feel nourishing and healthy, perhaps because there is some distance between me and all of these people, a kind of safety zone or boundary. Or maybe I have just learned what I needed to learn.

I am not trying to save any of them, and they are not trying to save me.

I don’t give my friends too much and they don’t take too much. They are all strong people with full and demanding lives, I am one thing in their lives, there are many other things that mean as much or more as I do.

Today, I had breakfast with my friend Ron Dotson,  a lay pastor from a small town in Ohio, as unlike me as almost anyone I might meet. I see him once a year – some years not at all. We have lunch or breakfast. Ron is slightly older than me, he wears his veteran and marine vests and hats and pins quite proudly. As we sit in  restaurants and cafes, Big men come up to him, offer him their hands and say “semper fi.” He smiles and says “semper fi” right back, naturally and with conviction.

The marines looked at me as if to say, “what you doing with him!,” perhaps I am projecting that. I thought of saying “semper fi,” and holding out my hand, but that would not have flown.

I fought to stay out of the Vietnam War, Ron fought to get in and while there. He fought in the very notorious battle of Khe Sanh, the longest, deadliest and most controversial of the Vietnam War.
Of his 150 person marine unit, 100 were either killed or wounded. He was a medical corpsman, a favorite target of the Viet Cong, the corpsman were always out on the firing line looking to help casualties.

Ron was shot in the leg and spent the next six months in hospitals back in the United States. Ron never complaints about his service, he believes God put him where he wanted him to be. He does think the politicians prevented his precious marines from winning.

Ron is a deeply religious, politically conservative evangelical, also on his second marriage. He believes in the Christian idea of service to the needy and the vulnerable, he visits assisted care and nursing home facilities, prays with the residents, mentors and comforts them. He does not mix religion with politics.

Until a few years ago, he refused to wear pins or clothes that identified him as a veteran, he decided he needed to come out, and talk about Khe Sahn. We did  talk about this famous battle this time, more than we have. Somehow, Ron decided to lift the veil.

I met Ron eight or nine years ago, he vacations every year in a Vermont town near me (he has relatives there). He read my blog,  came to an Open House and then ran into me in a restaurant. We talked and connected to one another. We traded e-mails and stayed in touch.

I was struck by the gentleness of this man, his humility, his ideas of service and his passion for helping others.

I usually only hear from Ron a few days before he comes East, we have lunch, and then breakfast a few days later. The talk is easy and warm. Because we don’t see each other often, we gave a lot to say to each other. One problem I have with friendships that occur online is that I never get to tell anybody. The always know what I’m doing before I do, or just seconds after. Most stories and reports end with “I know, I read your blog.”

He always slips comfortably into my life, I doubt I will ever get to Middletown, Ohio to see his world. I don’t have relatives out there with houses. Ron and Robin, our friend and waitress at Jean’s, just took to each other, as I have to this restaurant, which is somehow much more than a restaurant.

Ron felt that as I did, and also felt the love and generous spirit of Robin, the waitress who has worked for Jean’s for more than 22 years.

When people tell me they know what I am saying they read, my blog it ends up being a conversation killer. People who think they know me from my blog, don’t really know me, they just know my blog. Real humans are different, no matter  how open or honest they are. Friends, by definition, must know and accept the real me, not just the public one.

Ron understands that he and I are quite different, yet we are very connected in some ways. We see faith and doing good as central tenets of our lives. His faith – evangelical Christianity – is clearer and more focused than mine. We trust each other and can and do talk about anything – politics, marriage, religion, aging.

This is not my traditional idea of friendship, which included drama, intensity, sacrifice and frequent contact, much like the cheapest soaps.

Yet I see it is a real friendship, and I treasure it. I think I am learning what a real friendship is. It’s not a matter of time, it’s a much more chemical thing.

I see that I have also become  friends with Sue Silverstein, the art and theology teacher at Bishop Maginn High School in Albany. Like Ron, Sue and I are different, yet somehow, not different. We talk by e-mail, text and once every week or so on the phone. She and I are both working with refugee children, there is much to talk about.

I so respect the way she teaches, with her heart and soul as well as her body.

I trust her, speak openly and honest with her about my life. Sue, like Ron, has a rich and engaging life, that is in itself one of the healthiest of boundaries.

But the friendship comes from a deeper place, a shared view of life, a shared kind of empathy, a determination to find ways to do good. You really can’t pick your friends, it seems, or maybe it’s that I can’t pick mine. We just stumble across each other.

I feel the same away about Micheal Tolan, the principal of BMHS. We too are different, yet we seem to share a value system and a passion for being direct and open. I believe he is becoming a friend, I don’t know other men like him.

We both share a love for Marvel Comics, Bruce Springsteen,  Thomas Merton,  Hunter Thompson and the Jersey Shore. I don’t see how we wouldn’t become friends.

I think I need my friends, but my new friendships are not born out of need or dependent on need. Need is my sinkhole, on both ends.

I realize now what I missed before:

Eve Marko, the writer and social activist and blogger and I have become friends, I love this brilliant, slightly neurotic and relentlessly intellectual writer and social activist, next week she is off to the heartland to visit Native Americans and look for ways to support them.

I didn’t think of us as friends until she told me one night she wanted to be friends. So did I.  And I agreed. So we are friends. Was it always as easy as that, I wondered?

I can’t be friends with people who are unhealthy. Or who lie to themselves. Or who tell me one thing and do another. Or are lazy or sloppy about their work. I trust these friendships, I believe they will last.

It was much more simple than I thought.

Eve’s husband Bernie died last year, and Eve is working through the stages of grief. I often go to places and meet people who never ask me a single question about myself, they are so preoccupied with themselves they can’t stop talking about themselves.

She is one of the few bloggers I read faithfully, her writing about grief and loss and change are brilliant and powerful. I love talking with her, I sometimes feel she is the reincarnation of the moral philosopher Hannah Arendt.

Our talks are like vitamins, for me, fuel for the brain.

Eve always wants to know about me, and we try to catch up. But we usually talk every few months, and see each other two or three times a year.

I am learning to take care of myself, my friends also want to take care of themselves.  I am learning to tell myself the truth about me, my friends are without pretension or posturing. I don’t talk to these new and wonderful friends every day, but when either of us pauses and takes the time to catch-up and reconnect.

I never leave the phone or walk away from them wondering what happened. I always know.

Friendships out to be nourishing, not fraught. Uplifting, not draining. Easy, not hard. Good friends recognize one another, I’m convinced they transfer energy from one to the other.

After breakfast this morning, (I fought for the bill and won, thanks to Robin the waitperson) Ron and I shook hands and then hugged. I asked him to say a prayer for me, and I know he will. I will say a prayer for him. You do that for friends, I think, I doubt I will hear from him for another year.

Those Marines are tough.

So a new era for me when it comes to friendship. Perhaps less is more, says the cynic in me. Perhaps more is more, I always reply.


  1. “The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

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