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The Comfort of Friends

A Circle of Women Sustains Her, Protecting Her Like a Quilt on a Cold Winter Night.

March 02, 1997|Anna Quindlen | Anna Quindlen, who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1992, is the author of six books, including "Object Lessons." She lives in Hoboken, N.J

I collect quilts not only because of their beauty but because of their history, or what I imagine their history to be. There is one here, lying on the couch, a satin crazy quilt with spiky silken stitches holding its parts together. In one corner is a flower and the initials EK in purple embroidery floss, in another a whimsical owl done in green crewel work, in another the name Sara in silky red script. When I look at it, I see a circle of women, building it bit by bit, block by block, and as they do so, talking to one another, about their days and their disappointments, their husbands and their children, the food they cook and the houses they furnish and the dreams they dream. There is a kind of quilt called a friendship quilt, but I imagine all of mine, no matter what their pattern, are emblems of female friendship, that essential thread that has so often kept the pieces of my own life together and from time to time kept me from falling apart.

I can imagine my own circle in these pieces of bright fabric. The striped patches are the West Coast friend who called today to ask about my work and to tell me about hers, to compare notes on our adolescent sons and our burgeoning books. The bits of deep purple represent the Washington friend who danced at my wedding and held my babies, as I did hers, and with whom I can always pick up as though we talk every day instead of every other month. That patch of bright color is my closest friend in elementary school, and that one my matron of honor, and another is my doctor friend, who checks in from her car phone, static punctuating our plans. And all through is my closest friend, to whom I talk every day. "Where were you?" she says if she gets my machine, and "Where were you?" I say if I get hers, and when we find one another, we move on to gossip and news, soul-searching and support. I can tell her anything, and she me, but most of the time we don't have to. Most of the time we already know everything we need to know.

"Write about what you and your friends are talking about on the telephone," an editor told me when I was given the assignment of writing a personal column a decade ago. That wasn't all I wrote about over the years, but I probably could have gotten a column out of nearly every phone conversation. On the other hand, if my husband had to rely on his phone conversations with friends for column ideas--well, you finish the sentence. Whenever I've used that particular comparison, whether I was talking to female friends at lunch or speaking to a group of women in public, they've always burst out laughing before I got to the end of the subordinate clause. It was an immediate, visceral recognition of what seems to be a central fact of human attachment: that what men call friendship is often skin deep, while what we women make of it is something probing and intimate, an emotional undressing, something akin to an essay every time we sit down to lunch or pick up the phone. As Anais Nin wrote, "Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born."

Simple gender distinctions are probably too broad a brush for these more egalitarian days, in which more men have intimate friendships, more women have less time for them, and more men and women have relationships that transcend both sex and romance. But the truth is that most of the women I know, in the midst of hectic, confusing and sometimes disappointing lives, find one of their greatest sources of strength in a circle of female friends. It's why the movies "Waiting To Exhale" and "The First Wives Club" did so well at the box office--not because they were about women trashing men but because they were about women finding their greatest solace in the love and support of other women.

Harvard professor Carol Gilligan, an authority on the behavior of girls, says that the emotional connections that make intimate friendship possible begin early. "People used to look out on the playground and say that the boys were playing soccer and the girls were doing nothing," Gilligan says. "But the girls weren't doing nothing--they were talking. They were talking about the world to one another. And they became very expert about that in a way the boys did not."

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