Friendships are Like Plants

Friendships during COVID have changed a lot. Almost every day a friend who I haven’t seen in a really long time pops into my head and I think, “I should reach out to her.” And then either I don’t reach out or I start a text thread that peters out after a few exchanges. So much time has gone by. I can’t quite remember what friends do. Sometimes I can’t even remember why we were friends in the first place.

I wonder if these friends feel the same way about me. Do they feel self-conscious and out of practice reaching out to me and other friends? Do they have the same trepidations about reigniting forgotten friendships?

Friendships are like plants. They need to be watered and they need sunlight. When they are deprived of either life force, they die. Some friendships are like orchids — sensitive, needing the perfect administration of water and the exact amount of indirect light. They need constant attention and communication. Other friendships are more like succulents. Almost anyone can grow a succulent. They seem to survive in any exposure, with erratic watering, or even neglect.

Last week at the exact moment I was thinking about one of my old friends who I haven’t seen in months, she texted me. “Thinking about you and wanted to say hi,” she wrote. Because there was magic in the synergy of our thoughts colliding at that exact moment, I wrote her back right away.

“I just quit my job. Do you want to go on a walk during your lunch break?” I bravely texted back, breaking through all of my built-up barriers like the Incredible Hulk crashing through a brick wall.

We made a plan for that Friday. It was pouring at my house when I got in the car to go downtown but I knew my friend would be prepared with a raincoat so I ran inside to get my rain jacket and threw it in the car. Miraculously the sun came out as soon as we started to walk and we didn’t need coats.

We marched through downtown, up and down hills in the sunshine, non-stop talking for the entire hour. There was no rain, but as we walked and caught up with each other, we were watering each other’s leaves, feeding each other’s roots. It felt nourishing and restorative. I had one less friend in the sad basement room of struggling plants.

I got in my car to go home and within five minutes it started hailing. The weather alone was telling me that this friendship date was surely meant to be. I was affirmed of my courageous social efforts and made a commitment to reconnect with more friends.

As I drove home in the hail I thought about how this particular friendship is like a succulent. It doesn’t need daily watering. A periodic infusion is enough for it to survive for many weeks, even months, or a whole year.

But I worry that some of my friendships have needed more constant care — weekly or even daily conversations. They have needed attention and focus like orchids need ice cubes and warm, humid rooms. Too much time may have passed and I fear the roots may be dead. I fear that I might not be able to resurrect these friendships and so I hesitate to reach out and connect.

My partner has shared this experience as well. Many of her friendships have stagnated, drying on the vine. It’s unclear what will happen when she tries to reconnect with them. I imagine, like me, many of her long-time friendships will reveal themselves to be more succulent and less orchid, coming back to life with just a little bit of sustenance.

It’s my daughter I worry about the most. She’s sixteen, at the heart of adolescent evolution. Teenage friendships are definitely orchids. They need constant attention. They are sensitive, temperamental, and moody. If too much time goes by without the right amount of water, some fertilizer, and the proper light, the petals of the orchid fall away and the lonely stem stands alone, dormant until ultimately it dies.

The gas that fuels the motor of adolescent friendships is the reliable and constant back and forth — eating lunch together at school, trading gossip, trying on clothes, helping each other with homework, sneaking White Claws at the park on the weekends. But during COVID my poor daughter and her peers have missed this daily interaction. School has been at home. Social activities have been severely curtailed. They have been deprived of the nourishment needed to feed each other’s roots and grow each other’s leaves.

Tonight my daughter finally had a social plan — to have a bonfire on the beach with a handful of friends. About two-thirds are fully vaccinated and they’ll be outdoors so their COVID risk is low to nil. I was so excited for my daughter to finally be having this opportunity, but a few hours before heading out, she collapsed in a dining room chair, lay her forehead on her stacked palms and rolled her forehead side to side as she dramatically whined, “I don’t want to goooooooo.” The coordination and anticipation of a social event — reuniting with friends in the way they used to gather — was overwhelming to her. I knew exactly how she felt.

In the end, she did go. She’s there now, hopefully sitting around a raging fire with long-lost friends — roasting s’mores, maybe sneaking a White Claw, probably laughing hysterically — drinking up the nutrients she needs to enliven her sad, dried-out friendships. Hopefully, many of the relationships will bounce back like succulents, springing to life with just a little bit of attention. But she might notice that others have withered and died, deprived of their essential sustenance for too long.

The reality is that we will all experience friendship casualties as a result of COVID. We will face change and loss that we didn’t expect as we creep closer to the normal we left over a year ago. Our friendships will never be exactly like we left them because every one of us has grown in our own way. But I think if we’re all brave and start to step out a little bit at a time we’ll find our way to a beautiful garden full of all kinds of plants from succulents to orchids and everything in between.

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