On Friday night I decided to make a list of all the friends in my life I could remember. I started in nursery school and logged up to the present day. I came up with 95 names. After I listed them I went back and wrote the approximate year that I started being friends with each person. A few people had multiple years. I cycled in and out of friendship with them. They entered my life first in childhood, again in high school or college, and again in adulthood but most of the friendships occupied just a short period, maybe 5–10 years, and they have not resurfaced.
Since making that list a few nights ago I’ve had flashes of other friends that I hadn’t put on the list but by the time I get to my list to write down their names I’ve already forgotten the name. I wonder if it’s possible to actually come up with a truly exhaustive list. Can my brain possibly remember every single person? Just now I remembered Lily Chang who I was good friends with in fourth grade. Does it count if we were only friends for one year? Who qualifies as a friend? And what about a friend who is no longer a friend? What do you call that person?
I’m fifty-two years old and I have a current group of very good friends. I think they will be my friends into old age. They are my present friends, my front-on-mind, everyday friends. But people live long lives these days and maybe some of these people will fade into the distance, taking on different friendship positions as we age.
Thinking about these different friendship levels, I decided that I needed some kind of system to classify my friendships. I created a letter code to organize my list. There are four categories:
A: All-Time Friends
A is the list of people who come in and out throughout your life. They are there all the time, even if only as a shadow for some years. They have been with you at at least a few milestone moments of your life — graduations, break-ups, childbirth, deaths, marriages, divorces. They know some of your deep secrets and probably know your parents. Even if the A friend disappears for a year or two, at some point they come back and it’s like no time has passed.
B is for the people who were very good friends for a time, the people you thought would be lifelong friends, but somehow you drifted apart and now they are on the periphery. It would be possible to call and catch up but not like with your A Friends. You can’t recreate that deep, rich engagement that you had during the time you thought you’d be lifelong friends. People on this list might be childhood friends. Your parents might still be friends and you might have overlap in that way but time has diluted the intensity of the closeness of your early years. These friends likely know your parents.
C is the list of people who you hung out with a lot during a specific period of your history; they were part of your regular social scene but you never hung out one-on-one very much. You were friends en masse with other friends— in college or at work or as part of a sports team, maybe as part of a couple. You never had late night existential conversations with these friends. They don’t know your deep dark secrets and probably don’t know your parents.
D is the list of current friends. These are the people that you see on the daily right now. They are the current dinner party friends, family vacation friends, holiday function friends. Some of these friends are also (or will become) A or B friends and some of these people are or will become C friends. We are all now our parents.
I went back through my list and added my letter codes to my list. As I did this I realized that I yearned to see a lot of people on my list. Many of the people on my B list could have become A list friends if I’d only stayed in touch. And I have a feeling that if I reached out maybe we could try to rekindle something, start anew.
Maybe it’s my age, this middle-life passage, that’s inspiring this friendship inventory project. Maybe I’m more in touch with my own mortality and I want to create a record of the important people in my life.
I think what I’ve learned from this list is that it’s stupid. Organizing my friends this way doesn’t make sense because friendships aren’t linear and life isn’t static. This list has helped me activate my memories of people in my history. It’s inspired me to reconnect with some of the people I’ve lost along the way. The letter I’ve given them isn’t the end of the story. It’s just the beginning.