Rachel Sauls, a UNC senior, is our Anita McLeod intern this spring. Like most college students around the country, Rachel is finishing her semester remotely, and she continues to work for RCWMS remotely as well.
From the time I was three months old until I was four years old, a local mom cared for me in her home while my parents worked. Her daughter, who was one grade older than me, taught me simple and yet exhilarating games that I quickly adored. I cannot remember most of the games we played together, but I do remember Hot or Cold. My friend would hide an object while I covered my eyes, and then she would eagerly peel my palms from my face so I could embark on a reckless pursuit for whatever she tasked me with finding.
Despite our different roles in the game, I was never alone in my searching. When I stepped toward the hidden item, she would squeal warmer! with great delight. When I took a step in the wrong direction, she would caution me with a gentle yet assertive colder. No matter how long it took me to rediscover the object, she always seemed absolutely thrilled to celebrate the accomplishment with me.
I do not play Hot or Cold much these days, but I do still consider her my first friend. During the years I spent scampering around her house as a toddler, I had no idea that the fundamental, lifelong joy of friendship was blossoming in my own life. I did know that I loved my friend and that we had each other’s backs. I knew that even when I could not find what I was looking for, she was right behind me, nudging me toward the best path.
The unfolding of my first friendship seems like a typical childhood experience, but the ordinariness of friendship does not diminish its extraordinary qualities. In fact, cultural values and assumptions systematically threaten the ability of friendships to thrive in contemporary society. Many of the structures engrained in the cultural ideals of white Americans trivialize friendship. Idolizing the nuclear family deems friendships supplemental and even problematic distractions from marriage and parenthood. Suburban life exalts privacy and glorifies loneliness as a marker of success. The fewer people you see from your window, the better.
Despite our society’s devaluation of friendship, women and non-binary folks have persisted in our commitments to care for one another and remain present in each other’s lives. We know that friends make difficult moments less lonely, and transform mundane moments into holy encounters. The presence of a friend can spark laughter during a needle prick and create an adventure our of a trip to the grocery store. At its best, friendship offers us models of what creative, compassionate, and consensual relationships look like. Friendships become sites of struggle, solidarity, and delight. We experience love that holds us accountable and sets us free.
During my time at the Resource Center this semester, I have had the privilege of forming friendships with women in the office and at events, while also exploring the field of amity studies to better understand what friendship is and how it functions. (Yes, you can study friendship! So far, I have enjoyed Mary E. Hunt’s Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship and Robin Whitaker’s The Politics of Friendship in Feminist Anthropology.) RCWMS creates spaces in which deep friendships grow, nurtured by the understanding that the work of “weaving friendship and spirituality into a vision of justice for the world” is an ongoing, communal project. Our care for one another is not an unintentional consequence of our proximity or our shared work, but rather a lived expression of our collective imaginings of a more just world.
In the midst of a pandemic, it is easy to feel like friendships have been placed on pause, or that spending time with friends was merely a luxury confined to better times. However, the work of showing up in one another’s lives continues on with a bit of creativity. The Resource Center is currently creating ways for us to remain connected during this time of social distancing. While the reality of our global health emergency keeps us physically separated, I trust that friendships will flourish as we navigate frightening uncertainties together.
I have no idea what the Divine looks like, but I do know that when I am in the presence of my friends, whether in person or through a screen, I feel her gently whispering warmer.