I want to tell you a story. Stories are how we see the unseen. Truth is something that is written so deeply in our hearts that we have to carve away chunks of ourselves to find it. It is something that we often uncover much more effectively through living and storytelling than through logic or a well-turned argument.
This post is part one of a story about a collision of love and beliefs in my life. Please check back soon for part two, or click here to subscribe to the Trivial Circumstances email list to get a notification when I publish it.
I have a dear friend. A great friend. The older I get, the more I realize she is a once-in-a-lifetime friend. (And that’s only if you’re lucky enough to have a lifetime that includes a friend like her. Most people aren’t.)
Vicky and I spent our preschool years joined at the hip. She was born six months after I was. She came home from the hospital to the little brick cape cod house across the street from my family’s white cape cod house.
I don’t remember meeting her. She was just always there–since before the beginning of memory–to play dress-up, to swim, to watch movies, to share bath-time, to write stories with me.
She is still my best friend, even though today we live thousands of miles from each other on opposite coast, in Boston and in Anchorage. She is never not there. Right now, this year, we text pretty much every day. We send each other memes and news articles. We tell each other stories about our families and reminisce about past years. There have been years when we’ve talked less frequently. Growing up, we faced new communications challenges each time we moved farther apart. From our neighboring cape cod houses, she moved to the other side of town, then I moved to another town, then to Guatemala and back. This was back before the Internet, when long distance phone calls were charged per minute and our parents wisely decided not to leave it up to two chatty best friends to determine how long was a reasonable conversation. We wrote oodles of letters, on actual paper. Those letters are now our prized possessions. Vicky keeps her half of the letters in her freezer because it’s the safest place in case of a fire.
There have been years when we haven’t shared everything with one another as openly as we did as kids or as openly as we do now. Even though we were born neighbors, we were born into a divided country and into families at odds with each other politically. We joined the world a few short years after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision declared abortion legal. Her mother was an adamant and vocal supporter of abortion rights who volunteered at Planned Parenthood and at the Democratic Parthy. She inspired my mother to join the Pro-Life cause and to eventually found two pregnancy care centers focused on helping women find alternatives to abortion.
One moment in our childhood that our families still laugh over was me telling Vicky in 1984 (when we were 5), “It’s okay, maybe Mondale will win next time,” after he carried only one state out of 50 in his race against Ronad Reagan for the U.S. presidency. At 5, I couldn’t have known much about Democrats or Republicans or what they stood for, but I knew my best friend and I were at odds over something when we stood with our families.
We are from different religious backgrounds as well. She went to Catholic parochial school, my family had our butts in the pew of an evangelical church every Sunday morning and evening. Wednesdays, too, and often on vacation. I will never forget the look of horror on her face or my confusion when I grabbed her rosary for playing dress-up once. I never did it again. In a world where we are familiar with the ins and outs of so many religions all over the world, it’s hard to imagine the deep division we saw between Catholic and Evangelical in the 80s. It certainly wasn’t the level it was when wars were fought over it centuries earlier, but it was there. Many evangelical churches didn’t (and many still don’t) see Catholics as Christians.
We have both had our share of doubts over the years. How could we possibly have a friendship so close when our beliefs in the Things That Matter were so different?
This paradigm was reinforced by what I learned at church. As an evangelical Christian, the way to see the world around me had a clear division: people who knew Jesus, and everyone else (AKA my personal mission field). Everyone else, of course, included Catholics. We were built to go into the world and preach the gospel. The awesome responsibility of being saved was to help save other people.
I remember telling her at least one time (and I suspect it is more than once) that we couldn’t be TRUE best friends because we didn’t believe the same things. Jesus was my very best friend, and if you didn’t know him, how could you really know me? As a Christian, I knew the Truth in ways other people didn’t, and I was expected to fight for it. That was my Purpose. Other Christians shared that purpose. Close friendships with people who didn’t threatened to compromise my Purpose and Mission since they could not possibly understand or support my priorities. Worse, they might tempt me away from the Straight and Narrow path. We were called to love everyone, but friendship with people who also loved Jesus was what we aspired to most.
I bought into it, sometimes. But in a way that don’t think I could have articulated as a kid, that dichotomy always felt a bit uncomfortable for me. Here was someone I was close to, who I trusted with my life (and more importantly, my heart). Yet the main purpose of our presence in each others lives was for me to teach her, to help her understand what I already knew so well… It felt weird, but it was all I knew. Every so often I would attempt to convert her, to bridge that gap. I was elated when she came to my church’s week-long summer Bible school with me two summers in a row. Her mother was less thrilled when Vicky learned about hell there at six years old.
Eventually, it wasn’t just beliefs that were at stake. When we were eleven, Vicky’s parents divorced. It was heart-rending, and it happened while I was thousands of miles away, helpless not only to stop the divorce, but without any way to give my friend real consolation. I heard about her family falling apart from Central America, devastated for her but separated from her.
My parents credited their faith with the success of their marriage. They had obeyed the rules God set forth in his law. The law was like gravity: when you followed it, your life fell into rhythm with the universe. If you tried to go against it, chaos and misfortune ensued. Of course, we knew and believed that everyone sins. But part of our freedom in Christ was ever-increasing freedom from the inertial pull of sin in our lives. Even though I wasn’t comfortable with that us/them dichotomy that seemed to go against the grain of my friendship with Vic, here was the truth of it playing out right in front of me. Here was sin hurting one of the people I loved most in the world while my own family remained happy and intact. Jesus was the only solution I knew. I continued to try to win her in what I thought were subtle and casual ways, and her devastation after the divorce cemented my belief in the way that only hard life experience can.
Our friendship persisted, year after year, and our love and appreciation for each other grew out of childhood into adulthood. I went off to a college known for its political conservatism, left a graduate program to get married, and followed my husband to California to support his career. Vicky went to a renowned party school, partied less than I did at my strict college (which wasn’t much), discovered her own feminist voice, and got a job as a journalist in Virginia. Our lives couldn’t have been much farther apart, or more different. We saw each other and talked to each other less in those years. Our letter writing slowed, but it was never really replaced by email or phone calls, even though we finally paid our own long distance phone bills. Even so, our love for each other continued into our new adult lives and we saw each other when we could.
One day, Vicky came to visit me in California. I picked her up at her friends’ house in San Diego, and before we got back to my apartment, she hesitantly told me that her classmate Jess who had moved to Virginia with her was more than a friend.
I wasn’t really surprised. I’d kind of suspected for years, the way I’d suspected her mom’s long-term roommate after her parents’ divorce wasn’t just a roommate.
What came next, though, shocked me:
She asked if she was still welcome to stay in my home.
To this day, every time I think about that moment, tears come to my eyes. For all of our differences, for all that I tried to casually win her over to loving Jesus the way I did, for all of the wondering how we could possibly be friends when our beliefs were so different, there was no question in my mind that we WOULD be friends. I didn’t always understand how it could work, but what was even more inconceivable was a world without our friendship. It had existed since before our memories began. There was no decision required to continue it. And there was certainly no question in my mind that she would always and forever be welcome at my house. After all, her friendship was more of a home to me than any place I could rest my head.
I reassured her. Of course she was welcome at my house. We tried to brush it off. We enjoyed each others’ company despite the awkwardness—we were used to disagreeing, after all. Our friendship grew closer again now that she felt like she could be open with me. Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t ask what made her think she would not find a warm welcome at my home. But I didn’t. I just wondered. I assumed she misunderstood me. And I sat in the pain of that for years.
I stayed in that state of self pity over the misunderstanding until life circumstances and my friend pushed me to look outside of myself for a better answer…
Note: I am publishing this story with Vicky’s permission. Well, not just permission. She helped fact check it (her memory is so much better than mine). And she has helped edit this and much of my other writing. She has yet to give me hard time for my poor grammar, considering I was an English major, but she certainly could. Any errors are probably things I wrote after she looked at it.
Check back soon for the next installment of the story. Better yet, be lazy and subscribe to my email list. I’ll let you know when the next post is up.