I am writing this column while sitting on an upstairs deck of a house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, looking at the ocean. The scene is glorious in its variety: The sun slides in and out of luxuriant clouds; the surf crashes against the shore in riotous white frills, then recedes into glittering streaks as far as the horizon; families venture out into a new day, toting toddlers and paraphernalia to the beach. There are sounds, too: the constant and lulling surf, staccato chirps and prolonged songs of birds, and, most beautiful of all, the voices of my friends, bustling about downstairs. They are my chosen family.
Many years ago, my uncle, who was a Catholic parish priest, Father Thomas James O’Keefe, shared some sage advice with me. “You are born into one family,” he said. “but you also make a family of friends.” His father died when he was ten years old, and his mother babysat other people’s children in the parish to make ends meet. His sisters, including my mother, were, well, they had what today we call “issues,” and competed with one another. Tom was destined for the priesthood at an early age and boarded at a pre-seminary high school in Rochester, NY. He made a family of his friends.
I make lifelong friends. They include people I met in kindergarten and high school, cousins and their children, a former boyfriend and his children. True friendship is precious. Its beginning can be spontaneous; its longevity is hard won.
The friends who became my family are the ones I lived with in college and their spouses. It makes sense developmentally: We were all adolescents, some separated from our families for the first time, liberated from inherited identities and eager to make new ones. Communication was rustic back then: my family and I wrote letters. I felt that my parents didn’t understand me; these friends did – and still do. Over many years, we have been steadfast in our love for, and support of, one another. Through marriages and divorce, births of children and deaths of parents, we are always there.
This vacation, months in the planning, is bittersweet because one member of this extended family died a few years ago. Her husband has recently found love again, and we delight in their happiness. Together we are making new memories and planning future adventures. Just as we did in college, we slip in and out of the circle during the day to bask in the sun, play golf, hike, ride bikes, shop, and form different configurations of conversation. We all gather for an evening meal – sometimes at a local restaurant, other times homecooked – to reconnect and commune.
It is my fervent hope that everyone could experience the love and support of family and friends. For some, alas, it seems hopeless. Too many people are born and raised in environments that stifle healthy physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual development. Too many governments fail to recognize their responsibility to provide care and nurturing to the most vulnerable. Too many people reserve their concern for those within their tribes and no others.
We must choose hope and work for it. Hope is created, not found, and it lives and breathes in every friendship we make. At their best, Ethical Societies teach hope. We know the world is far from perfect but we choose not to despair. We learn about that world and what we can do to make it better for everyone. We hold ourselves accountable for our behavior and commit ourselves to learning how to act more ethically. We are far from perfect, but perfection should never be our goal. It should be, as Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler put it, “striving for the good.”
Goodness is what my circle of friends-made-family mean to me. It is deep and abiding, tender and fierce. And it is playful. Today is, after all, a summer day full of fun possibilities. Although the playlist in the background harks back to our shared adolescence, I have been humming a song that I heard on the radio at home when I was a child: Nat King Cole singing “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.” The lyrics are dated, but the refrain rings true: “You’ll wish that summer could always be here.”
I know that this summer week that I have spent basking in unconditional love will always be here. I wish that for all of you, too.