June 19, 2010


I’m sure being a lighthouse keeper ranks right up there with being a shepherd on the list of the world’s loneliest jobs, but writing is probably in the top ten. Even when a writer is in a crowd, a part of his brain functions as an observer. After all, he’s searching for insights. If he isn’t, why write?

This habit of being in the world and observing it at the same time can leave a writer a little schizophrenic. Sometimes it makes him too serious. Sometimes it may make him boring.     

A friend of many years showed her impatience with my schizophrenic outlook a while back. My fourth novel is about the spiritual aspects of the brain, and I was telling her about a scientific debate on why spirituality exists. Suddenly, she raised her hand to stop me.

        “I don’t much care for deep conversation,” she said.

Stunned, I made no reply but was hurt, of course. I had become boring in my exploration of the world. So I stopped sharing and allowed her to raise a companionable topic of her choosing. The conversation led, where it inevitably does, to talk of her grandchildren. We’d chatted for another hour but I left feeling lonely and isolated.

I suppose I could drop the relationship as I have no grandchildren and can’t share in her experience. But as one gets older, one doesn’t like to lose friends. Death is so efficient at eliminating them already. No, my view is that a friendship is a work in progress and I must struggle to keep it relevant. In my friend’s case, I could read a book on the cute things children say but as they won’t be the remarks of her grandchildren, I doubt she will be interested.

The sad truth is that sometimes keeping friendships alive isn’t possible. People drift apart.

I received a letter last week from a man I’ve known for 40 years. We write snail mail once or twice a year because he has no computer and refuses to buy one. He was responding to my announcement that I’d started a blog. I’d had the temerity to suggest he could look me up on the computer at his public library. The remark filled him with outrage. If I valued our friendship, he wrote, I must never pester him about computers again.

I have yet to respond to him as I know I must choose my words carefully. But what am I to say? I wrote him about my blog because I was happy. I wanted him to be happy for me. Instead, I made him insecure because I’m engaged in a world he’s chosen to shut out. So how do we go on after 40 years? Shall I apologize that my life has changed? Or should I do nothing and let silence bury the friendship? 

Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye” drops out of high school because he feels out of sync with his classmates. That feeling of alienation among young people as they struggle to discover themselves is a painful period in most of our memories. Few of us want to turn sixteen again. The joke is we don’t escape that pain as adults. It returns every time our lives alter. If we suffer from a serious illness, get a divorce, change or lose a job, or lose a child, people we’ve cherished become disoriented. They don’t know how to behave around us. Some figure it out; others don’t and drift away. My difficulty is in the letting go. 

In my 70’s, I’ve begun a new career. I’m aware that some of my friends hope I’ll come to my senses and that the phase will pass.  It won’t. I’m in the business of writing for the long haul. But I’m living like Holden Caulfield again, suffering the pangs of alienation. It’s the price each of us will pay if we wish to grow as we grow old.