If friendship needs to be seen afresh in our time as an intimate love in its own right, distinct from the love of spouses or romantic partners, then we need stories of friendship that show us how its rediscovery is possible. I’m always on the lookout for such stories, and I just finished reading one of the best I’ve encountered in some time, Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship.
Published a couple of years ago, Caldwell’s book narrates her friendship with a fellow writer, Caroline Knapp. The two women met in middle age, both of them unmarried at the time. They quickly discovered they both shared love of dogs and the outdoors, and some of the most artful prose of the book describes Caldwell and Knapp’s frequent rowing on a lake near their respective homes and their walks in the adjacent woods. Eventually, their friendship led to deeper intimacies and a mutual disclosure of their drinking histories. Both women were sober when they became friends, but their past addictions cemented their sense of solidarity with one another. (Caldwell’s description of the spiral into addiction is unblinking and one of the real gifts of this book.)
Much of this memoir is taken up with the story of Knapp’s death from cancer, making this story another illustration of what Eve Tushnet has called “the death-haunted art of friendship,” the tendency of literary portrayals of friendship to be overshadowed by friendship’s loss. It’s Knapp’s dying that clarified for Caldwell the depth of the love she had. At first she tried denying that depth, but eventually losing Knapp forced Caldwell to own up to how central Knapp’s love had been in her life:
I found myself doubting or dismissing the intensity of our friendship, as though I could discard the love and therefore skip the pain. This worked for about twenty minutes, or until I would say to someone we both knew, “Oh well, maybe we weren’t that close,” and the listener would burst out laughing.
The book is filled with glimpses of specific habits, routines, and gestures Caldwell prized in the friendship, and these were among the most memorable parts for me. After a long day of exploring with the dogs, for instance, they’d take the scenic route home. “At the end of the drive, with Clementine snoring softly in the back seat, we would sit outside the house of whoever was being dropped off, and keep talking. Then we would go inside our respective houses and call each other on the phone.” She describes Knapp stepping into her life at the time when she realized most of her friends “belonged in the second circle of intimacy—the people you’d call when you were hit by a bus, but not necessarily if you’d merely sprained an ankle.” Knapp became a call-at-an-ankle-sprain sort of friend to Caldwell.
In order to inhabit friendship in a rich, robust way today, we need to ponder these kind of mundane scenarios. How do we build loyalty and intimacy from the nitty-gritty of dog walks and car rides and canoe trips and phone calls? Many young Christians, particularly, are wondering about the practicalities of forming lasting, sacrificial friendships. How do we actually do it, in day to day life? Reading Caldwell’s book wouldn’t be a bad place to start looking answers to that question.