⠀Shall We Begin?
Last month, as a guest on the podcast Death, Sex, and Money, I was asked interesting questions that people don’t usually ask me—not about sex and romance, but about the importance of friendship.
I spoke about my models of friendship: how my parents emphasized hospitality and how friendship was a necessity because our extended family had all been killed during WWII. How my move to New York City in my twenties reinforced the importance of community. As a young, undocumented immigrant, I was grateful to be able to cultivate friendships with older people who became like surrogate parents. As I grew, so did my circle.
Recently, I was invited to speak at the Vivid Ideas festival in Australia to talk about relationships in the digital age, the great paradox of which is that technology makes it both easier to connect with people all over the world and to disconnect from the people right in front of us.
Australia. The first time I heard that word I was six. My father took me to the harbor in Antwerp to pick up a friend arriving by ship from Australia. He had been at sea for three weeks. He may as well have come from another planet. It was the first time I saw how friendships can be picked up later in life in a completely different context than how they began. And Australia has continued to pop up in my life that way. When I was thirty, my family and I visited the places where my parents were from in Poland. There, I met Helen Gory, also a daughter of holocaust survivors living in, of all places, Australia. She and her father were on a similar trip. We bonded over tragedy—and then over vodka. Children of families who have experienced dislocation, psychosocial trauma, and the tribulation of migration have a way of skipping small talk. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in Belgium or Melbourne, you have the same stories in your veins, the same osmosis of the lived-in experiences of your parents.
Finally, last month, it was my turn to go to Australia. When I told Helen I would be coming, she said “you’re staying with me and I’m picking you up at the airport,” and so it was.
Hospitality has remained essential to my family’s lifestyle. Friends and their children often stay with us and we stay with them. I can now help young friends the way I was once cared for, and that intravenous of youth teaches me about where the world is going. Great friendships have enabled me to be the recipient of that transmission of experience, just as they have encouraged me to be the conferrer of such benefits.
Last year, my husband, Jack Saul, organized a 60th birthday gathering. As Priya Parker explained to us then: when people gather, they are there for you, but they are also there for themselves. For when we know that we matter to others, it gives us a significance. Many of you have heard me explain how, today, we turn to one person, our partner, to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. Today, I am meditating on the importance of the village: how I have built my village and how you can build and maintain yours. Remember: it is the quality of our relationships that determines the quality of our lives.