For the heart with no companion
For the soul without a king
For the prima ballerina
Who cannot dance to anything
— Leonard Cohen
It’s a weekday night in very late autumn / early winter (the boundaries are blurred) in Berlin. It’s just past 10pm, the temperature outside is 6°C, and it’s been raining a lot today. It’s still raining right now.
And then there’s the darkness. Sunrise today was at 7:30am, sunset just past 4pm, which makes for not even nine hours of daylight.
On this very day, I almost canceled on a friend. It had been an exhausting day in an exhausting month in an exhausting year. This friend and I meet every week, always on the same day, always at the same place. When they texted me earlier whether we were going to meet, I wrote them that it’d been an exhausting day, how tired I was from thinking and talking, how stressed out I was about all my tasks I’d still need to take care of right now, about how I’d urgently need to get groceries, and that I’d like to see them, but just couldn’t tonight. I ended my message on the question what they’d think about meeting me on the weekend.
Before I hit the send button, I looked at what I wrote again. And deleted it. Instead, I suggested a time for us to meet.
A few minutes later, I was already happy about this decision.
A few hours later, it got me thinking about friendship.
When I’d changed my mind about the plans for tonight, I’d reckoned that it might be wise for me to spend some time with someone who I love and who I know, with someone who cares about me, and who I care about. It turned out to be a wonderful evening. On the subway on my way home, I contacted a few other friends about possibly meeting them at some point in the next weeks. As I got off at my last stop and walked home through the rain, I realised how lucky and grateful I am for having these people in my life. – Because it’s not always been like this for me.
For a very, very long time in my life (more than half of it), I had many great, close friends. And then came a point where all these friends were gone. None of this was anyone’s fault, my choice, or due to anything within my control. But it still happened.
And it took me many, many years to build new friendships. It took me a long time to understand that it takes lots of dedication and care to build and maintain them – and that one of the biggest keys to growing such friendships is giving them time, so that trust can grow within them. It took me even longer to understand that I’m not as much of an introvert as I’d been thinking for a long time. And that there’s a difference between being by myself – and being alone.
I always understood the value of friendship at a rational level (there are too many songs, books, movies about it, this is basically unavoidable). But, for a long time, I didn’t entirely get it emotionally.
This year was the year I finally understood.
This year, my life started at an all-time low (or at least at a very low point that was similar to others I’ve only reached very few times). I went through many significant changes this year, and reached a few more low points again over the course of it. Throughout this time, and unlike many times before, there were people who were by my side as I went through them: who met me for coffee, food, table tennis, drinks; who looked up puppy GIFs for me, listened to my stories, hugged me, sent me heart Emoji, carried stuff home with me through the pouring rain, and bought bike parts with me. Who sat with me under trees in back yards, in basements, on armchairs, who met me in between roads and parks, or replied to my most desperate tweets. People I only know from Direct Messages on Twitter, or from a few video calls. People who read early versions of my talks, and people who knew that I’m an awful bag of nervousness before I give a presentation, and who kept a distance, but who were still there (and got me post-talk coffee). People who sat outside of my favourite places in this town with me, and who took turns in being with me, to make sure I wasn’t by myself. People who had been acquaintances and colleagues, and who became friends over a habit that we share and over the hours we sat on wooden benches, looking at the dogs trotting by, and talking about everything. And people who couldn’t spend time with me, but sent me texts saying that everything was going to be okay.
People who told me I was going to make it when I wasn’t sure about that anymore.
This is the part that’s about being cared for. And then there’s the very important and great part about caring for these people.
Just seeing all these relationships evolve over months and years has been amazing – and getting to be one part of this has just been incredible. It stuns me to think back to when I met all these people for the first time, and to see how our conversations got deeper, more personal, how trust built over time; to see how I ended up longing to see them, because they’ve become so important to me. I can hardly find the words to describe how grateful I am for these friendships – even more so because I remember very well what my life was like without them.
It’s also been fascinating to see how different all these friendships look in practice. – Even with my very best friends, this friendship doesn’t always mean we know everything that’s going on in our everyday lives. Some of my best friends I rarely get to see in person, because we live in different places, or because we lead very different lives.
But then, again, there’s this beautiful thing about trust: that I know them, and us, and what we have in our friendships. That I know all of this well enough: Well enough to know that they’ll always be there – and that I’ll always be there. Well enough to know that, as long as we all want and life doesn’t get in the way: we will be there.
With all the love that’s in my heart: to you.