Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Transformation and Transcendence: The Power of Female Friendship

Read Emily Rapp's amazing essay, Transformation and Transcendence: The Power of Female Friendship.  I was working at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Chicago when Emily went to work in Geneva. I didn't know her - she was young - but I knew her mom, and I think I wrote to Jeanne congratulating her on her daughter's early success. I hope I wrote that letter; I meant to. The world has turned around many times since I was 45 and envying the opportunity afforded a 22-year-old.

There is more than enough pain. Emily points to one of the ways through: women's friendships. I pray that we all might have such friends. Thanks to Emily for exquisitely writing something I've always wanted to say.


Transformation and Transcendence: The Power of Female Friendship, by Emily Rapp
[Read the entire essay at the link above]

In 1997 I arrived in Geneva to work for a year at the headquarters of a relief organization. Feeling overwhelmed by my job and lonely in a city of overworked expats passing through for two to three year stints at the United Nations or other organizations with the rather nebulous goal of “changing the world,” I made friends with a group of women. I was 22, and all three women — one American, one German, and one Argentinian – were 30 years older than I and had worked for the same organization in various administrative capacities for the length of time I’d been alive. After one lengthy, boozy dinner of fondue and buckets of white wine, they quickly took me into their friendship fold and jokingly referred to themselves as “the Wrinklies.” We met once a week for dinner, and saw one another every day at the espresso machine in the hallway, in the fabulously lush cantina, on the expertly-tended grounds of our superluxe office building outside the city limits. We had inside jokes and secret looks. We gave each other little gifts: a cookie, a note, a bar of chocolate, a little token of affection spotted at a shop and slipped underneath an office door. 

All three women (and myself as well) were unmarried, living alone, and working to assist people in real need in countries around the world.  Despite the fact that I immediately felt accepted, supported, challenged and nurtured by each of them, when I first joined their weekly dinner group, I felt sorry for them. They weren’t married, they weren’t mothers – and at this time, and up until very recently, I clung to the belief that this constituted some failure on their part. They found me equally mystifying. Was I really worried about the size of my ass or trying to finagle a recent date with a man they thought (from my description) was boring and slightly odious? (He was.) Was it a good use of my time, they wondered, to hang out in bars getting smashed and looking to score and by doing this (they were rightfully doubtful) find “the love of my life” when I said I wanted to be a writer? Sure, sure, I said, but I dismissed their concerns, and mourned what I interpreted as their missed opportunities to have a real life, which I assumed would only start for me when I was married and a mother. I loved them, but in my mind I was remembering that old phrase I’d heard for most of my life, in hushed and shameful tones: old maid. I was also keen to make my life look “normal” and “acceptable” in some way because I have a disability; if I didn’t get the body part right, I reasoned (irrationally, although it seemed quite rational at the time), I could get the “what your life looks like” part right. While I was obsessing about how I looked and who would love me, these women were helping to save the world – not in a way that would win them accolades, certainly – but the work they were doing was important and life-giving. And there I sat, foolishly pitying them. 

One afternoon at work while I was chain-smoking through my open window into a cloudy sky, there was a flurry of activity in the hallway. A few harried shouts. Running feet. The quick shuffling of paper. Someone working in one of the countries was attempting to obtain medicine for a child who was sick with what appeared to be a form of strep (I’ve forgotten in which country or if it was indeed strep). The child’s mother, calling to ask for help from what was apparently a decrepit payphone, was trying to get the antibiotic medication from a corrupt doctor who demanded a bribe, an insane amount of money that this woman would never make or likely ever see in her lifetime. My three friends were literally running up and down the hallway, in and out of their offices on my floor, faxing and calling, shouting into the phone, trying to find another person to shout with more authority into the phone to try and help this desperate mother, this helpless child. The medicine was right there. For hours they labored, trying to find a way to make it right in a place where mail was sent in bags labeled only with numbers, and where children died frequently from diarrhea and the flu and the various effects of hideous wars and wrenching poverty. I think we’re going to get it, I think it’s going to be okay, one of my friends said through my open doorway as she sprinted off to the fax machine. But it was not okay. It was too late, perhaps it was always too late. The baby died. 
A year ago, when my then nine-month-old son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, an always-fatal illness that would land him in a vegetative state before his likely death before the age of three, the first person I called was a friend (my mom).
Read the entire esssay at this link.]

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