jokes in the lunch line.

I remember being outgoing, once upon a time. I remember making friends easily, talking to new people as if it were nothing, being dropped in social situations and thriving.

An illustration: I went to a United Methodist camp every summer. One year, when I was about eleven, all the other girls at the camp went to the same church and so they all knew each other, while I was all alone, the girls from my church having gone to Camp Ginger Cascades with the Girl Scouts. By the end of the week, however, I belonged, and all those girls were my friends. I got home and told my mom all about it. She told me that a similar thing had happened to my older sister when she was little, and by the week's end, she had been in tears from the misery of it, having made no new friends at all. I'm sure if you check the comments she'll have an updated version of this story, but that's how my mom told it and that's how it's useful for me right now.

I even remember discussing the topic of being outgoing with my older brother, who was (is) introverted. He thought it was odd that I was so extroverted, when most everyone else in the family was pretty much the opposite. He had another illustration. During his senior year of college, he was walking across campus with his sister-in-law, who was a freshman. As they walked, she waved or said hello to half a dozen people that she knew, while he didn't see anyone at all that he was acquainted with well enough to even wave. How had she already built such a wide circle after only six months there while he was in his fourth year?

I told him that making friends was easy. You just talk to someone. There's always something going on around you that could be the spark of a conversation with a new friend, no matter where you are. Say something funny, I told him, which is pretty much my advice for everything. He took it all in with a thoughtful nod, as if I were giving him sage advice. How many times am I going to look back at a childhood memory and wonder if my siblings were just making fun of me all the time?

But I was sincere, as though my brother's problem was just that he couldn't come up with any good jokes. When I was twelve, I went to a retreat with my church youth group. There were lots of other church groups there, all staying in a camp-like setting. I knew the people in my group, of course, but I frequently felt like the odd person out. So I decided to make my own group. I used my failsafe technique of telling a joke in the lunch line, and I made a new friend. And then I couldn't get rid of her for the rest of the weekend. Apparently, she had trouble making friends, too. The moment I told a joke to her in the lunch line must have been the highlight of her weekend.

And then somehow, I don't know when, talking to strangers became really, really hard. Well, not actually difficult, it just didn't come naturally to me anymore. I would guess that it started in high school, got worse in college, and then in the real world, I finally completed my thick shell. It's actually quite nice, really, I'm thinking of putting in a sky light.

I confess that I did not notice it at first. Some people make friends easily because they can't stand to be alone. The thought of being by themselves is scarier than any social situation. I have my own opinions about people like that, but for now, we'll just say that I am good at solitude. I totally rock at it. Not only is my tolerance for solitude very high, I have a strong need for it. I used to come home from waiting tables and barricade myself in my room hiding from my roommates. Then I would sneak out to dinner and a movie alone, because I was so tired of having to talk to people. I know there are many who would be horrified at the thought of going out to eat or see a movie alone, but to me it was like therapy. I needed that time to myself.

That wasn't so much an issue once I left school and started programming for a living. The thing about school is that friends are sort of built in. You are constantly surrounded by people your own age with whom you are bound to have several things in common. I did not find that to be the case once I left college. My coworkers have always been mostly married men with children. We are friends at work, but we don't really see each other outside of the office. But the socialization at work was enough for me, for a long time. And then at some point I looked around and realized that I had been living in a town for two years, and I didn't have any friends. I'm not sure if I had been lonely for a while and not noticed it, or the realization of my friendlessness made me feel that way.

And then once I realized that I was lonely, I really felt it. I had friends, but they were vestigial friends from school that now lived in other cities or states or countries. I thought it would be nice to have someone I could see a movie with that didn't require air transit. I would see women my age and if they looked like interesting people, I would want desperately to go talk to them. But despite what a twelve-year-old Sandra once told her brother, I could never come up with anything that I would say other than "Will you be my friend?" which sometimes seemed bold and honest, but usually sounded pathetic in my own head. I felt like the girl in the lunch line, waiting for some extrovert to tell me a joke. That never happened. I told myself some good ones, though.

It's not as if I didn't have opportunities. People have reached out to me, and I have kept my distance, maybe spending the time putting up pretty wallpaper on the interior of my shell instead. Because even after I discovered that I had no friends, I wanted to be picky about it. Maybe it was the lesson I'd taken from the girl in the lunch line. She turned out to be kind of boring and clingy and I realized soon enough that I would rather be alone than hang out with her. Is that a high tolerance for solitude or arrogance? I can't even tell anymore. So when some well-meaning person tried to be my friend, they had a very short amount of time to impress me or I'd write them off (okay, that is probably arrogance). It wasn't even for good reasons. Sometimes just because we didn't click. I didn't feel like I could really get close to the person, and so I didn't see the point. I didn't want just any old friends. I wanted BFFAAs, though I would settle for plain old BFFs. I was like those girls who ask how many children a man wants to have on the first date.

So I did what any person in my position would do. I lowered my standards. Which usually is a bad thing, I suppose, so maybe that's not the right way to put it. What happened is I determined that I needed to get over myself: be less quick to judge and stop thinking that everyone either had to be a bosom companion or nothing. There's a lot of room for middle ground. Just because I may never tell late-night sleepover secrets to someone doesn't mean that I can't gain something from a relationship with them. This seems like a lesson I should have learned a long time ago. Sometimes I feel like a very unfinished person for being twenty-seven years old.

In an effort to make myself a better person, preferably one with friends, I am making myself socialize. It is hard, but not for the reason I expected. I had come to believe that since I often chose not to be social, that meant that I wasn't any good at it. Actually, I can talk pretty easily to people. I can make a joke, listen to a story, even do small talk. But it's not my default state. Without forcing myself to socialize, I tend to go alone on my way, never noticing until much later that if pressed to come up with bridesmaid candidates, I'd struggle to name one. Whatever I might have been when I was younger, I am pretty classicly introverted now.

Since approaching strangers in stores and asking to join their Friends and Family plan seemed sad and likely ineffective, I turned to the internet. There is a web site called Meetup.com where you can join an online group. The online group is full of actual people, who organize evensts that you can then show up for in the actual, non-internet world. I'm sure I found it by Googling phrases like "How do I make friends" or "tired of drinking alone" or "Please, Google, I am so lonely." And so a couple of weeks ago, I went to the house of a complete stranger with a bottle of Petite Syrah and a bowl of black bean and corn salad, ready to meet ten more wine-bearing strangers. I was nervous, but oddly, not as nervous as I expected to be. I knew I could do this. It was awkward at first, and then again some in the middle, and just a little bit at the last. I did not make any instant BFFAAs. But I had fun, and so I signed up for a dinner and a trip to the roller derby. It's awkward, and it makes me feel sort of stretched emotionally. Whether any bosom companions will come out of it, I do not know. But I'm trying. I am back in the lunch line, telling jokes.

1 comment:

Carla said...

That's basically how it went. All the other girls knew each other and went to the same school or church or something. There was one girl named Angela who knew the other girls but seemed to be the low chick on the totem pole. She was sorta nice to me but she left after a couple of days and so I spent the rest of the week being ignored (at best) or ridiculed (at worst). I was determined not to tell Mama how terrible it had been since she had paid money for me to go, but as soon as I got in the car and she asked me how it went, I just broke down in tears. That was the 2nd (and last) year I went to Carolwood. The year before I had had an absolute blast.

I saw several of those girls at a basketball game in Hickory in high school a few years later.