Monday, May 13, 2013

Friendship, Neurotic Shyness, Pink Plastic Barbells, and the Extrovert/Introvert Divide

I was pretend-exercising at my workplace gym the other day when a five-year old bearing pink plastic barbells and a tutu took a shine to me and proceeded to tell me all about her life, specifically about her friends: Her friend who just moved to Minnesota, her friend she rides the bus with, her friend whose house she can walk to with her dad, her friend who she shares her sandwich with. I listened with much interest, as I have been thinking about friends a lot lately. It occurred to me recently that if my fiendish plan goes as conceived, I shall soon be able to count four, whole entire women in my posse of official local friends. Since friendships are hard to come by in adulthood, and in Seattle in particular, and I am introverted and somewhat isolationist as it is, a big gaggle of garrulous girlfriends has never been in the cards for me. 

I have always admired people who can make friends easily—in other words, extroverts. The type who goes to the corner store for a bag of Pirate Booty and suddenly has seven new “friends” who they know everything about and who they invite to their next party because they’re all such a hoot, and they just know Sally will hit it off with JoJo, and they have this scarf they’ve been meaning to get rid of that will be perfect for Luanne, who lost one just like it in that terrible snowstorm when she was visiting her mother back East. You know, that dizzying but irresistible type of person without whom us introverted writerly types would never speak a word to another human. 

In fact, if you want an example of what a neurotically shy person I am, it took me a year…a year, mind you, to go up and voluntary say “hi” (just a simple, “hi”), to a woman at my public pool who always wears funny swim caps with colorful plastic daises, and walks back and forth, back and forth, in the shallow end for what seems like hours at a time. I liked her swim caps and I was intrigued by her exercise routine, but I figured she probably didn’t want to be bothered by people. That’s my immediate assumption about everyone—that they don’t want to be bothered by people. So after months of seeing her, week after week after week, one day it was just me and her in the water, and it felt really awkward to keep acting like we were total stranger. So I said, “Hi”, followed shortly by “Do you have aqua jogging shoes on? And why all the walking?” And she turned out to be super nice, and explained the walking thing to my great interest, and offered me her 20% off coupon to Sylvia’s Swimwear! I came home glowing with pride at my new-found ability to make acquaintances. 

I grew up in a military family, and I while we didn’t move as often as is typical of many military families, it was often enough that I sustained no childhood friendships into adulthood, and have little connection to any sense of place. I always thought that in some ways, this is a lucky thing. It means I am free from a past. Growing into adulthood with the same people may provide continuity, but it also causes irrevocable and often unwanted ties to identities that people need to outgrow in order to develop. Often, military children have a reluctance to foster friendships for fear of abandonment, but that was never a lesson I learned. I think that for me, the lesson was, “There’s always a fresh start, something will always happen anew, losing friendships is a natural part of life, and there’s always a new place with other people.” It can be easy to develop a sense of disposability in many things, and in friendships especially. But as I settle further and further into adulthood, I realize how deeply I care for the friends I have. How long it takes to truly form friendships. How much I value long-term, lasting, stable friends that I can trust and be trustworthy for. 

So I am grateful for my dear friend Frankie and our quasi-hippie past, and for my friend who is returning home to Seattle after a long time away, and for my burgeoning friendship with my non-daisy-swim-capped pool buddy, (if you’re reading, you know who you are), and for my friendship with my colleague “up the hill.” I may not be able to breeze into Bartell’s and walk out trailing ten new besties, but the friends I do have mean much to me, and I value them more and more through the lonely trials of adulthood in America.

--Kristen McHenry

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