You are your own worst critic, but friends can be a close second. They know you better than most, aside from parents but even that can be up for debate. Going through a particularly rough time as a post-grad living in a new city where I know practically no one, I picked up Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door (Graywolf Press, January 19, 2016), a memoir about two relationships: one romantic, the other platonic. Lisicky weaves the narratives of life as a writer alongside his good friend and colleague Denise Gess and his troubled relationship with his ex-husband, poet Mark Doty. I highly recommend this fabulous book that so genuinely depicts the trials and selfish tribulations friendships evoke in us.
Given my current loneliness, I thought it prudent to ask him a question that would serve as good advice for anyone in a similar situation. Here’s what Lisicky said in this latest installment of our ‘One Question and Answer’ series:
Question: The Narrow Door carries us through a volatile friendship, as many long term relationships are, with two opposites in an ebb and flow of losing and finding each other. So I ask you, because you and Denise had such a unique relationship you decided to write a book about it, what do you value most in a friendship?
Paul Lisicky: At one time I might have said a friend is someone who makes you feel safe in yourself, and in that safety you’re smarter, kinder, more spontaneous than you thought you were. You’re not standing outside yourself. You’re not expecting threat when you talk about that book, or this politician, or your dedication to animals. You can talk openly about that person who was unkind to you, without making a big show of your complicity. You trust your friend is with you, standing alongside you, even if you and your friend don’t necessarily agree all the time.
Then there’s laughter: what better sign that you’re a team? A way of seeing the world, a way of acknowledging your great moments together: remember the night we saw crazy Martin jump onto the roof? it always feels so good when the two of you are cracking each other up. It’s as if you’ve fallen into music, a house of it, and you just want to stay inside it a while longer.
But some friends move on, into different experiences. They want new things, and soon they’re simply just one more icon on the Facebook wall. Are ease and laughter enough? I tend to think not. The people who are my closest friends tend to let me into their inner lives. They’re not hiding or keeping secrets; they’re not afraid of sharing their frustration and joy. How does one stay alive over the course of a day? That’s the question that interests me most about another person. I want to know how someone else does it, and I want to feel free enough to give some of that candor back to my friend, as intimacy.
Of course it’s tough to keep any relationship in balance. One friend can want too much from the other—how hungry humans can be if we’re not paying attention. It seems to me that one of the great pleasures of friendship has to do with boundaries, attuning ourselves to where we begin and end. Maybe that’s at odds with what I just said about ease. But if we’re truly for someone then we’re paying attention to what our friend wants, not just verbally, but to her gestures, silences, facial reactions, body language. It’s no wonder that some of the most significant relationship of our lives are platonic. We love our friends because we sense we can’t take them for granted; bloodlines or signed contracts don’t hold it all together. It could all fall apart tomorrow over a careless, thoughtless remark. But that’s what makes friendship beautiful in the hall of human relationships. We like it because it takes work.