"One day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand."
–Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
The reason this footprint came as such an exceeding surprise to Robinson Crusoe is because he was terribly alone. You don't have to be shipwrecked to understand this fundamental fact about being human — we are, all of us, essentially alone. Of the many ways we console ourselves in the face of that brutal truth, being in the company of our friends is one of the finest.
Early on, our great friends come to us almost purely through chance — it's breathtaking, when you think about it, how easily we could have missed making these vital connections. Had you chosen to play on the softball team instead of doing the school play, had you worked at Dairy Queen instead of Jack in the Box, you might never have met the Friend Friday you remember with a regularity that would be more surprising if you were more aware of it.
When I write about the things I love, there is one friend in particular who comes to mind. It has taken me almost thirty years to see clearly the quality I am about to describe. Perhaps I missed this particular quality because there are so many obviously lovely things about her: she is smart, and she has a sunny outlook, she laughs at your jokes, she remembers the lines of poems and lyrics to songs and the best dialog in old movies, she is up for an adventure, and she knows a lot about the natural world. She regularly points out how good a corner of the world smells.
We met when we were both studying literature, she with more rigor than I, although you wouldn't have known that when you talked to her because she isn't a boastful person. I somehow discovered a paper she'd written; maybe she'd left it in my dorm room. It was a graceful piece of work, insightful and smooth, like nothing I could have written. At the top of my pantheon of heroes then were writers — poets first, fiction writers a close second. And so I asked her what her plans were with her gift, was she going to write stories, or poems?
She looked at me with surprise and said no, she did not want to be a writer. She was, she said, an appreciator. She wanted to look at life and see it for what was wonderful about it and stay there, and revel in it. At the time I thought this showed a lack of ambition and I was disappointed that she was not going to exploit her talent. But my friend understood at eighteen something I am only coming to see — much happiness comes from observing and finding pleasure in what lies right in front of you. It is also true that the flat page was not the right canvas for her — she's a textile artist, working in a form that suits her good eye, her love of the natural world and her amazing imagination.
My friend has the great gift of understanding and practicing this kind of close attention to what is around her, which is one way to soothe the sting of knowing we live fleeting lives. This thing she knows so well is echoed by something Virginia Woolf observed in a diary after an autumn of "tremendous revelation," a "season of intoxicating exhiliration." Woolf reminds herself that she need not pay for this "with the usual black despair. " Instead, she says:
"I intend to circumvent that supervening ghost — that which always trails its damp wings behind my glories. I shall be very wary. To suppress oneself and run freely out in joy — such is the perfectly infallible and simple prescription. And to use one's hands and eyes; to talk to people; to be a straw on the river, now and then — passive, not striving to say this is this. If one does not lie back and sum up and say to the moment, this very moment, Stay you are so fair, what will be one's gain, dying? No: stay, this moment. No one ever says that enough."
Thinking about this friend this morning, I realized that most of the people I count as friends share this quality. Were we to be shipwrecked, they would be the ones who point out how good the island smells in certain spots. They would be the ones who remember the lyrics to the theme song from Gilligan's Island. In a pinch, they could construct a blanket out of palm fronds. And they are the ones who would make me see that I am not as alone as I sometimes suspect, and that I live in a world teeming with beauty.