I was reading an amusing description the other day of John Betjeman, a man who became poet laureate of England in 1972. He must have been a fun guy to have been around judging from how a journalist once described him as a man who looked “like a highly intelligent muffin–a small, plump, rumpled man with luminous soft eyes, a chubby face topped with wisps of white hair and imparting a distinct air of absentmindedness.” Although I am not chubby or overly rumpled, I would be delighted for anyone to portray me in such an endearing way.
The description made me ponder how others view us, especially at a time when we are all getting older and rely more on our wits rather than our abs to make an impression. Fortunately, I am not particularly driven by the need to make an impression of any sort, but it would not be true to say that I don’t care how others see me. Like most people, I have some days when I’m more sociable and fun to be around than others. Since I suspect we all ride this same roller coaster of self-doubt, what especially intrigues me is what others have made of the ride. After all, we might all be on the same jaunt, but your ups and downs are yours, not mine. I would feel cheated, though, not to know what you saw or enjoyed that I might have missed and that we might have shared.
I have a wide range of friends and acquaintances of both genders who span several generations. At a certain time in my life, I woke up and said that I have only so many more gulps of breath left in me and see no point in continuing to clutter up those days by hanging out with undesirables. As time went by my wife and I simply became more and more selective in choosing our dinner partners. Why indulge the boor or the bigot when you can dance with some of life’s blithe spirits who can bring joy with them into the room.
Just recently I was in the company of a lady of a certain age who on first glimpse might be seen as a tragic victim of the infirmities that come with age. Although I am told her memory loss is subtle, I don’t see it and am charmed whenever I can spend a few moments with her. Her name is Jane, but not “plain Jane” as she is quick to note with a twinkle in her eye. She was a semi-pro tennis player in her youth and wears a baseball cap now as she gracefully moves about.
Then there’s Larry who was a master pianist in his prime but now is debilitated with an illness that has caused him to hunch over. At first glance, you might want to pass on through the lobby of the building where he lives without stopping. But when you do pause to chat, you find a delightful guy who is also a tad rumpled but always speaks from a witty vantage point about life as he sees it.
I find part of the charm of both of these people lies within themselves and how they are coping with what is happening to them. Neither ever mentions their aches nor pains nor how they deal with loneliness or the loss of friends. They just go on tapping their toes to the music, savoring their meals, laughing over stories, and smiling when sitting outdoors watching and identifying the late summer butterflies.
Another guy I know, Andy, is a painter who’s now learning to cut and assemble stained glass. He lost his wife a few years back and didn’t know what to do with the rest of his life. Up to then, he also enjoyed making music and was a pretty good guitarist who could sing ballads in a haunting sort of way. He’s still working and has learned to see the world afresh. Now with his glass cutting, he laughingly tells me he has learned to see the world through a new rose-tinted perspective.
Do I think of any of these people as special friends? Would I be devastated if I should hear that one of them had passed? Would my life be diminished if I lost contact with any of them? Of course. When I’m around them, I savor their company. Although I tell them how much they mean to me, I don’t think they fully appreciate what I walk away with.
There is obviously a line between your most intimate friends and those people who are part of your life but kind of on the periphery. I’m not sure, though, that we should keep such lines so well marked. As I grow older and more selective about the company I keep, I am happy to discover that my circle of friends is increasing, not shrinking. Although friendship can take considerable emotional energy and can be exhausting, it’s worth the effort since so many worthy and noble critters are out there just waiting for you ask them to dance.
People I run with are all open souls who are curious about others without being mean spirited. They have good stories to tell and know how love has touched them and how they have touched it back. They cross gender and age barriers. They don’t get hung up on race, politics, or religion. They welcome people from other lands. They are naturally curious and not just focused on themselves. They ask questions and are not reluctant to give up the microphone or let the light shine on someone else. They do their best not to be judgmental.
And most of all, they echo the words of my mother who tried to instill a sense of wonder in me and who often quoted from Hebrews 13:2, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”