There's a new book out this week from bestselling memoirist and funny lady Julie Klam, and this one diverges a bit from her two recent books, You Had Me at Bark and Love at First Woof. For one, it's about human friendships, not interspecies ones. In particular, it's about those special human relationships we get to choose: not our families, not our children, not even our spouses or girlfriends or boyfriends, but our plain old yet very important friends. Interestingly, though it's a topic close to our lives, it's not a topic that's gotten a lot of love in recent years of publishing. Friendkeeping—subtitled "A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can't Live Without"—from Riverhead Books, was inspired by Klam's comparison of friendship to bridges, particularly the George Washington Bridge, which she was stopped on at the time the book idea came to her. The subtext is, if you don't take care of these things, they will fall down. She added, in a conversation with The Atlantic Wire, "I wanted to examine relationships with someone who doesn't pee on my rug." Now, at 46, she says, "I'm at this time in my life when my parents are getting older, and there are things that have gotten tougher. I really need my friends."
This is a sentiment that resonated strongly with me. While our friends are some of the most important people we have in our lives, our friends are also the ones we're always giving short shrift to. We have to work instead of meeting them for drinks; we postpone plans because we're tired or just don't feel up to it; we go on dates with relative strangers instead of dinners with them; we cancel over and over again, sometimes. While we manage to get up and go to our jobs and walk the dog or feed the cat every day, taking care of the daily business of life, we do not give the same time and energy to our friends. Would that we could, of course, but also, they understand, unlike children or bosses or our significant others. If they don't understand, often, we drop them. A recent piece in the New York Times addressed how hard it is to meet and make and keep new friends in middle age, and you could make the point that with everything else we have to manage as grown-up people, some bridges inevitably just aren't going to get tended. Klam explains, though, that without those bridges, we are sad folks indeed—going nowhere good, as it were.
Klam told me, "Friendships are in a category separate from our priorities: You have to work, you have to see your family, and the things that get shunted to the wayside are your friendships. I'm canceling plans because I'm too tired. But friendship really needs maintenance. I think of the bridges of New York that are going to fall down—hopefully not when we're on them—because they're not taking care of the infrastructure." To take the metaphor a step further, whether it's easy or hard to build those bridges, once they're built, you should probably have a pretty good reason for letting them fall into disrepair. "You're going to need a friend, you're going to want to celebrate with a friend, and you don't want those chunks of time to go by without nurturing your friendships," she says. It's not all roses and kittens and "the platitudes of the Hallmark cards," though; Klam addresses real relationships and the raw problems of human life in her book, feeling that the saccharine, meaningless "thinking of you" message didn't apply to what she was actually going through.
So in Friendkeeping she shares her personal, honest, funny, and poignant friend experiences: What happens when friends get sick and rely on you, unable to share the truth of their pain with their families, or when you get sick (Klam suffered preeclampsia when pregnant with her daughter) and need to rely on those friends? What should we know about that magical near-romance first bloom of friendship? And later, when friends grow distant through different life experiences (one has kids and the other doesn't, for instance), how do we find our way back together? Klam says the key is to keep working at your friendships, and to realize that sometimes friendship can in fact be work: "I think that there's a sense that because you've chosen your friends and you pick people you like, there shouldn't be any work in that, as opposed to your mother or your sister, but that's not true. You go though a lot of phases, and there are difficulties and ups and downs. You want to have tools to handle it."
Growing apart as friends doesn't mean you can't come back together, either. Klam told me, "With pretty much everyone I've been friends with, there's been a period of time when I lost them. We weren't in the same place at the same time, or something happened: They wanted to party all night; I wanted to go to bed at 9:30." But, on the bright side, "I've had the wonderful experience of almost everyone coming back." When they don't come back, she says philosophically, maybe "it's sort of meant to be. It's always sad," she added, laughing, but "I just assume if I lost them they must be crazy." There's also something to be said for friendships between people in different life stages. "I think it's key to your mental health to have friends from all different areas of life," says Klam. "I found it a great comfort when I had a small baby to talk to women friends who didn't have or care about babies. It reminded me that I had other parts of myself."
Of the idea that it's harder to meet people in middle age, Klam believes it's a matter of practicality—it's simply harder to meet people when you're not exposed to them in a college or working environment, or, possibly, the environment of your child's school. But, she added, "it's hard to meet people at any time who you really connect with. I've made a lot of really good friends in the last five years." Like anything else, you need time, time to court those people, time even to think about friendship. "That's one of those things friendships suffer the most from: We're busy, everyone's tired," she told me. "Tomorrow I have plans with a friend, and I can feel all the things that are coming that will make these plans impossible. The babysitter, my husband can't get home early ... it's just easy to say I'm sorry, and the friend's like, I know, and it takes two months." Klam reveals of one of her groups of friends, "We always have a date on the books, and if we change it, we need another date." But also, with her closest friends, she keeps an agreement that anybody can cancel for any reason. "You don't have to have an excuse," she says, which ends up meaning that you don't want to cancel.
Klam suggests that if there is a key to friendship, it's that you need to "take care of yourself ... don't let yourself get dry." That's because friendship is not just about your friends, it's about you, too: It's often one of the most mutual kind of relationships we can have, with nearly equal parts give and take. "I used to go to this doctor and she had five questions: How are you sleeping, how's your focus, how are you eating, how are you sleeping, and are you seeing friends?" she says. "That's a crucial focus for mental health, to be with people you can help and give back to. I feel very lucky that I've met and made so many really great friends who are worth keeping. I get so much joy and support and laughs and feeling I'm not alone in things because of my friendships. I think those relationships are crucial to our personal happiness."
But, seriously, who's better, dogs or friends? "Well, I always appreciate that my female friends don't chew on my shoes or eat tissues out of my garbage," says Klam. "But my dogs are never too busy to go out with me."