Ben Rector came out with a song called “Old Friends” and it became a brief topic of conversation with a friend this summer. The song is catchy and provokes an immediate nostalgia within me. However, as I spoke with this friend, we talked about how we don’t have “old friends” and, as Ben Rector spends over four minutes articulating, you can’t make them now.
Granted, I have friends that I went to elementary, middle, and high school with, spending about twelve years in the same classrooms in my small rural public school in South Dakota. A few of them I even catch up with on occasion, but none of them know me through and through. I grew up out of town and my parents were careful not to play the chauffeur for my siblings and me. So I would see them at school, after school activities, and church if they were Catholic.
But we weren’t riding our bikes around town together in the summer or spending every waking minute swimming at the pool. For me, summers were spent at my parents’ farm, isolated from the rest of the town about five miles away. After school, I rode the bus home, preventing me from meeting someone up town at the popular hangout that served fried appetizers. Even when I did drive, I had a younger sister to provide transportation for and it was also generally assumed that I would head directly home after my extracurricular events concluded.
These aren’t bad things, per se, I just offer them to point to the fact that much of what Ben Rector sings about felt impossible for me to have experienced based on my situation. Most of my youthful memories are filled with my siblings. The past couple weeks were filled with pretty intense and intentional family togetherness time and when it ended, it caused me to feel that wave of nostalgia that reminded me of “Old Friends.”
My two older sisters are in religious life and the older one has an annual home visit for two weeks. As far as religious communities go, that is a generous amount of time yet it also constitutes the bulk of what our relationship looks like for the year. Short occasional phone calls and letters (which were non-existent on my part this year) aren’t the best ways to sustain a vibrant relationship. My other sister is a cloistered nun, meaning that she has answered God’s call to live as a hermit within community, essentially. My family visits her annually on a weekend when my other sister returns from the convent. While it varies year-to-year, this year I was able to have two hours alone with her to visit. As with the other sister, the bulk of my relationship is found in those brief moments.
After we had left the cloistered monastery and my other sister was dropped off at the airport, I felt a nostalgia for the past closeness of my youth. Naturally, as time passes, the family changes through new additions, losses, moves, and the like. When my brother married, his wife became an integral part of the family and my nephews and niece also changed the family dynamic. The vocation my older sisters have to religious life likewise shifts the family dynamic. While I am thankful for their vocations and the joy accompanying them, I still miss what could have been.
Going to get coffee with my younger sister isn’t that strange or wonderful of an adventure because we do it a decent amount. In the same way, it isn’t unusual for my younger sister and I to eat a meal alone together, go to Mass together, or chat on the phone. With my older sisters, those occasions are far more rare. Granted, when I walk with my oldest sister into a coffee shop, people generally turn and stare because of her Franciscan habit. When I had the unique privilege of helping the Carmelite sisters move to a new monastery they were founding, I was moved by the smallest things–my sister riding in the same vehicle as me, eating breakfast with my sister, and my sister stopping by a room I was working in for a quick chat.
This side of Heaven, I won’t have those normal sister relationships and while I am sad about it at times, I am no longer angry about it. Yet when we had left one sister and sent another to fly home, I was hit by the nostalgia for a time when being together was more common, for a time when it was seen as a routine matter. I almost felt like I used to when my parents would drop me off at college. While I enjoyed my time at school, the first few days of a semester were always the hardest. I missed home, but it was also closest to the time when I had been home. The change, something my melancholic heart often rails against, was difficult to embrace, even when I knew it would be good. I shed tears at school and I shed tears the other day when things were shifting back to the “normal” and yet I found myself longing for the past.
So I don’t exactly understand the relationships that Ben Rector speaks of in his song, but I understand that feeling of longing for something that is presently unattainable. My siblings know me in ways that my current friends don’t. Sometimes a story from my childhood will come up, but I have to be the one to share it and nobody is there to argue that my memory is biased or that events transpired in a different way. My friends and I have inside jokes and “history,” but a history that is relatively short even if it is soul-deep.
The appropriate response? I guess it must be gratitude. An indifferent, free gratitude that doesn’t envy the past for what it was or cling to what is no longer a reality. Thankfulness for what I was gifted with and thankfulness for what the Lord is choosing to gift me with in the present.
Can you take me back when we were just kids
Who weren’t scared of gettin’ older? (oooh)
‘Cause no one knows you like they know you
And no one probably ever will
You can grow up, make new ones
But the truth is
That we grow up, then wish we could go back then
There’s nothin’ like old friends
(Old Friends by Ben Rector)