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What Makes "Close" Friends "Close"? Friendship and Distance

Can your close friends live far away? Do you need to see people to be intimate?

My husband and I were watching a documentary about super-max prisons and I started missing my friends.

Let me explain.

It’s not that my old pals are in Leavenworth, Folsom or the Metro State Prison for Women. They’re not (and they insisted I insert a statement to that effect in the column).

But realizing that perhaps the worst part of the punishment for those incarcerated was being separated from meaningful connection to other human beings gave me pause.

What was the most terrible of all pronouncements in ancient times, a verdict considered worse than death?

Exile. Banishment. Denied the right to return to the familiarity of one’s homeland combined with the eternal loss of the pleasure and comfort of being with those you love was right up there with hanging.

Not to overdo it or anything, but I have a lot of friends and family who live far away.

It’s not that I don’t understand that having to spend four hours on Southwest, six hours on Amtrak or twelve hours in a car isn’t exactly the same as Napoleon’s being confined to Elba, but distance from your friends can sometimes take on the patina of punishment.

I learned to value my friends, to nurture and regularly replenish those relationships, because my mother had almost no one in her life (apart from my brother, my father and me) with whom she shared any part of her life.

Where other moms had signs saying “Bless This Mess,” we had a quotation from Ezra Pound: “Take thought. I have weathered the storm. I have beaten out my exile.”

My mother, who left school after the 8th grade, was a great reader and this line was the only thing on our fridge. The irony was that my mom never beat her exile. After moving to Brooklyn to marry my father, she discovered an unexpected longing for home. She was only twelve hours away from Quebec City, but we were poor and she rarely made the trip. She had sisters I’d met only once or twice in my life.

Raising her children in her non-mother tongue sharpened her sense of separateness and loneliness. She rarely saw her family and made very few friends.

Even as a child, I knew I didn’t want to be like my mother. I wanted friends and having made them, I almost never let them go. I speak regularly with girls, now women in their sixties, who I met in junior high. We’ll still talk on the phone the way we did when we were baby-sitting, late at night after everybody else has gone to sleep.

As good as those conversations are, they are not as nourishing as being in the same room. What is it about sitting within literal reach of someone that’s essential to a relationship? What can’t be replaced by Skype or texting or those late-night phone calls? My friend, novelist Jim Carpenter, calls the very question into question: “Their touch and smell and the way they lean into you matters, as does that tic only you can recognize that says they're distressed. What matters is the way they change the light in the room.”

As connoisseurs of life’s pleasures, we know that the luxury of having a quiet cup of coffee at a creaky kitchen table with someone we care about is better than dining in the most elegant restaurant with a dull and distant acquaintance. Handmade truffles can’t make up for wasted time.

And nothing, not even a 1990 bottle of Dom Perignon, is better than one of those really good hugs (the ones that come unbidden at just the right moment) from somebody you love. Be assured, as a lover of champagne, that this is not a statement I make casually.

Time with our friends is sacred. I suspect this is why we plan much of the free time we have around it. Hours or days with those for whom we care transform ordinary time into remarkable time; official holidays are often just an excuse to ink dates into the calendar.

We call our close friends “close” for a reason: when we need them, not only are they in our hearts—if we’re lucky, they’re by our side.