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On her way out my front door my friend turned back and said, “Take care.”

I use that phrase all the time.

Sometimes it is a caution, meaning be careful, drive safely, don’t do anything foolish.

Sometimes it is a wish, may things go well for you.

Sometimes it means be good to yourself.

Often it’s a sign off, goodbye, tata, see ya later.

But this time, when my friend turned back and said, “Take care,” I heard the phrase in a new and powerful way.

It happened earlier this month. I had just returned from an unexpected three days in our local hospital. I had received blood transfusions, tests, and excellent nursing skills for what I was told was “life-threatening anemia,” a reprise of my longer hospital stay in March. (Cause so-far undetermined.)

My friend had stopped by the day I got home to assure herself that I was okay, to hear my story and keep me company for half an hour, and to leave prepared food for my supper.

And when she left, saying, “take care,” I heard it as a reminder to me to TAKE all the care I was being offered. This was not a time for me to be heroic or stoic, not a time to think I can do it all by myself. This was not a time to judge myself as being weak or whiney or unworthy.

This was a member of my circle of chosen friends, a part of my village, telling me, “We are here for you. Whatever you need, we will try to provide it. We are all grown-ups, and we will tell you if we can’t manage what you ask, but please ASK, and please be willing to RECEIVE. You’ll have your chance to reciprocate when you are well. So TAKE care.”

I am so very blessed, and so very grateful.

And to you, reading this, I offer the phrase, complete with its expanded meaning: whenever you are in need, reach out; and TAKE CARE.

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Dad was a painfully private man, especially in his later years, after Mother was in the nursing home across the street and he lived in their apartment alone. I was visiting him one day when there was a knock on his door. He unlocked (but did not unchain) the door, peeked through the narrow opening, said, “No. I don’t want any. No,” and closed the door again.

“Who was it, Dad?”

“Oh, that old woman down the hall. She’s such a busybody.” He snorted, “I can’t stand her.”

“What did she want?”

“She had some pie, but I don’t want anything from her.” Then he proceeded to harangue against busybodies, gossips, scandalmongers, and (because he had been a journalist) even muckrakers (though he’d conveniently forgotten the proud history of that label).

I’d known Betty, “that old woman down the hall,” since I was three, when my family moved into a small Indiana village nestled in the sand dunes on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. For all my life I’d heard Dad’s assessment of her as “nosy”; I’d seen his discrete but dismissive grimace whenever she was near.

But as I grew up I became aware of a different aspect of Betty, one that changed my perception of who she was, what “gossip” is, and what intimate news might mean to a community.

Betty was a village story-carrier, not of rumor but of news – there is an important difference here. Rumor is interpretation that doesn’t need much basis in fact; news (as even my father knew) is verifiable events. Betty maintained the village “grapevine” through which we heard the news of who was sick, who was on vacation in Canada for two weeks, who needed help, who was available to help. Dad hated that invasion into the privacy of the village, and into his privacy in particular.

On a daily basis village both news and rumors were shared through our community’s switchboard, where (I’ve forgotten her name, but I’ll call her . . .) “Sadie” reigned over the connections of hand-cranked phones, each to the other. In an emergency she knew where the village doctor was at that minute; she knew how to alert the volunteer firemen (though on weekdays it was usually women) when there was a threatening autumn grass fire sweeping up the dunes toward our homes. Sadie also listened in on many conversations, but that was accepted as part of the cost of her services and, interestingly, she seldom disclosed anything she heard.

But the part of Sadie’s work that affected me most, and that I found out about only years after the fact, was the freedom she enabled for us kids as she kept track of where we were playing during the day. Our mothers could turn us loose after breakfast and not worry about us until dinner time because of Sadie. If we had stopped at Mandy’s house for a toilet break and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk, within five minutes after we’d left, Mandy’s mom would have alerted Sadie, and Sadie would be letting all the mothers know that our gang of kids were safe and on our way to explore the pollywogs in the pond between the sand dunes. Was that gossip? Rumor? Small but important news?

I believe that Sadie and Betty and Mandy’s mom and other village “yentas” were the lifeblood of our village. Yes, there were some who engaged in what I now call “recreational sniping,” spreading negative rumors and taking smug pleasure in a temporary one-up position when they knew something and were the first to pass along that something to the next person. But (despite Dad’s opinion) these were few. Most of the story-carriers were benign and caring, and performed a valuable service for us all.

The word “gossip” derives from an Old English word, “godsibb,” meaning godparent. Betty took her gossip seriously. She kept in touch with the teens of our village as we became college students, found jobs and spouses, became parents, had teens and successes and tragedies of our own. Through her passing along of this information, I’m quite certain that she, who was also the village’s church organist, saw that we were surrounded in a cloud of protective prayer and concern far more often than we ever knew. And if any of us wondered, twenty or thirty years later, “What ever happened to Jean and Bobby?” it was certain that Betty would know, and probably had received a postcard from them just last week.

I have come to see that Betty was the keeper of a web of connections that was strong when we lived in our small, close-knit village. Were it not for her after we left, those strands would quickly have become fragile and, in the time long before Facebook, would have broken within a few years. But through Betty, maintaining her post at the center of the web even decades later in her retirement apartment with the seldom-closed and never-locked door, we were always connected to each other, and to a sense of “home.”

In the midst of our contemporary world of Twitter, People Magazine, and the endless supply of scandal and misinformation in online gossip blogs, I have a serious personal and professional reason for considering whether gossip has value. As a medical advocate, as a participant in several prayer chains, and, often, as a bedside caregiver for ill and dying people, I have to be exquisitely cautious about confidentiality. I have constantly to assess the quality and the motivation behind any news that I may be tempted to pass along to the small island community in which I now live.

However, though I sometimes get annoyed by it (I do have some of my father’s genes), I think I’d not like a world devoid of benevolent community gossip. I hope not to die the way Dad did. Ironically, in the end it was Betty, who had known him and cared about him and his family for thirty-five years, it was Betty, “that old woman down the hall,” with her yenta instincts, who alerted their building maintenance man that something was amiss. The man broke through the defenses of Dad’s apartment and found him, behind his locked and chained door, lying between the couch and the coffee table. Dead. Alone.





1538953234_59b4799eab_m_frankensteinA dinner guest the other night (this photo is not she!) said that she wished she had more friends. Our lively group around the table grabbed that word, and we were off, launched into yet another interesting conversation for the evening.


My contribution to our talk was that “friend” has a particular meaning for me; I consider very few people to be my friends. Someone said, “I hope you consider me to be one of your friends.” There was a too-long moment of hesitation, after which I replied, “Well, actually . . . no.  I have only three, or maybe four people that I call ‘friend.’”


And now we got into the heart of the matter – how does each of us – even Dr. Frankenstein’s monster –  define “friend”?


I have many acquaintances, and it’s a pity that word seems and sounds so awkward, or it would solve my dilemma. But “friend” is easier to use. So much easier, in fact, that all you have to do is hit a button on Facebook in order to become a friend. Because of social media, “friend” has even become a verb in the past ten years, and “friend” as a noun has become seriously devalued when one can have hundreds, even thousands of “friends” online. Another media diminishment of the word “friend” is in contrast with “lover,” usually paired in a script or manuscript with the word “just,” as in “can’t we be just friends” or “I want to be more than just your friend.”


I guess I need to accept that changes in the word “friend” are part of the ongoing evolution of American English words. And in that spirit I have now chosen a new word for the special category that my “three, or perhaps four” friends comprise. Philosopher/poet John O’Donohue chose anam cara, meaning soul friend, and that sounds right. (Some online discussions among Celts declare that anamcharae is the plural, should one be blessed with more than one.) That leaves me free to use “friend” much more liberally.


The ones who are my anamcharae seem to have appeared in my life and resonated in a soul-deep way that has increased over time rather than fading away again.


But I’m impatient, and I can’t expect any one person (even, and perhaps especially, a life-partner or a soul friend) to expand to meet all my needs. So the variety of gaps in my life that yearn for the energy of another person must be filled by a variety of people: my friends. I need a community of friends, and that doesn’t just happen – I have to go about creating it deliberately.


First I need to name what my yearnings are: do I need more humor in my life? Do I need a sympathetic ear? Do I want someone to embolden me into adventure, or into traveling when I might not go solo? Or someone with whom to share the pleasure of a hobby or movie-going/popcorn-eating or writing poetry or tasting wine or attending the ballet? Once I know what I want, then I can ask specific people to fill those gaps and bring me closer to living a well-rounded and satisfying life.


I’ve made a list of whom I need in my community of friends. Understanding that each person may fit into more than one category, I need:


Confidants – non-judgmental, non-advice-giving listeners who can hold me, either in person or from a distance whenever I call on them – this might be a wearying position, so I try to have at least three confidants.

Intellect-Stretchers – people who think differently from me, who are curious about things I never thought to wonder about, who can bring me up short in my assumptions about “how things work.” I want at least two of these, each quite different from the other.

Playmates – these are friends who are always ready to have fun, always aware of opportunities for play: going to movies or concerts, packing spontaneous picnics, cooking from an exotic new cookbook, taking a day trip, staying at a funky B&B, trying out a new skill that neither of us has ever done before.

Prayer Partners – I always have at least one reliable person who, when they say, “I’ll be praying for you,” will actually DO it. This person is preferably connected to a prayer chain, to get more bang for their prayer buck.

Chicken-Soup People – these are the ones who, when they find out I have a cold, or am just feeling morose, will show up at my door with whatever they know feels like “love” to me: chicken soup, or chocolate, a CD of gypsy jazz, a twisty new murder mystery, a bowl of mac and cheese, or a bottle of wine. It’s good to have two of these friends.




Sometimes it’s hard to ask for this help, but most of my friends, and my anamcharae too, are delighted when I specifically ask them to fill one of these special roles in my life, when I ask them to be aware of connecting with me in these ways that meet my needs. In your own life, most likely you’ll find other, different categories that you yearn to have filled by friends. That’s good. It means you’re thinking about what you really need.



In the coming year, may you listen to your needs.


May you become convinced that you are worthy of having them met.


And may you have the courage to create a community of friends whom you can ask for what you need.


“Friend, good!”