Internet and social media are strange beasts. It is a really wonderful thing to have friends from the far corners of the world – and to share our ideas and passions with people who have very different experiences and circumstances. But there is also an aspect which makes some, younger people especially, emotionally vulnerable. When the web becomes a place where we big-up, or try to look fake and fancy. This can end up making us feel lonely, even with all this contact. Too much fronting, too little sincerity.
There’s another version of this same false-note syndrome which afflicts broke creative types. Working as a tech in a busy music store, I can’t tell you how many naive people I heard talking about someone else’s obviously exaggerated boast of success, as if it was a fact and general condition (usually a business opportunity) which they felt they ought to be able to cash-in also. If only.
So I want to start off saying something important – I don’t ever talk about the great value of my friendships, my gratitude for them and how much I learn, because I want to seem fancy or ahead of anyone else. That isn’t how I see myself, or you. I just want to recommend the irreplaceable wealth of friendship to others, every chance I get. It is real and practical magic, and when we work at it and bother to show up for and nourish it, it makes our life better and richer in uncountable ways.
I knew a lot of poets as a kid, and writing poetry was as natural for me as drawing or writing stories. There were phases in my life when I was reading it without writing any, but most years I do both. I still adore Shelly – can recite Ozymandias by heart, thanks to setting it to music when I was a teenager, and I never tire of the compact wit of Ogden Nash, or the passion of Whitman. But the most nourishing source for my poetic thinking ever since I was a teenager, is the Sufi writing of antiquity.
I should stop to note something we often overlook here. We group the Sufi poets, the great Persian masters in particular, as if they are a single thing. But though they have a common wellspring and underlying spirit, their expressions are wonderfully diverse. Ghazali is sly, brilliant and forgiving like a smart wise uncle, where Hafiz is like the best friend who knows you almost too perfectly and always makes you laugh – even when you might otherwise cry or give up.
Rumi is by far the best known in the west – and his extraordinary poetic imagery and love-centred writing remains a valuable and excellent source of wisdom and inspiration for us to this day. He is also among those who were considered secret Christians within Islam by medieval scholars, and I have been delighted to hear Rumi quoted to me by strong Christians on several occasions.
Rumi didn’t just write the elegant poetry for which we know him so well. He also wrote weighty philosophical volumes like the Mathnawi (or Masnavi, depending on the translation) and “Fihi ma fihi” (“in it, what is in it” – truly fantastic title, right?) but these are extremely hard to find in modern English translation. Mostly, we must make do with teasing excerpts.
If you read a bunch of Rumi you will end up encountering Shams, his extraordinary friend, who entered his life when he was already a respected and established teacher, and proceeded to turn his entire world upside down, making everything a thrilling question once again. Shams even took Rumi’s most prized book of his father’s maarifa (wisdom) and threw it in a fountain!
Rumi was aghast until Shams demonstrated that the book was unharmed. But the point could not be clearer and more relevant. The true friend is the one who can challenge us to leave behind safety and pattern, and find the courage to seek new growth, learning and understanding.
And I will shoot you back
My friend Nada and I are different in a lot of ways. She comes from a very different culture, was educated as a physician and is also a brilliant computer coder. Me? You know the story – raised by wolves more or less, but in a well-stocked library, at least! ;o)
There are also a lot of things we have in common. I’ve only had one other friend in my life who enjoyed walking so far and fast – it is an exhilarating thing to remind yourself, even in your fifties, that you can really cover ground. We’re also fond of a lot of the same sort of literature, both nuts for science and we love a diverse range of art and music. Creativity itself, especially. Because of this combination and our shared open spirit, we find magic small and large, every single time we walk.
Catherine was her friend first, she worked with Nada for years and she knew that Nada and I would also make perfect friends. More than once she came home from work smiling, “She’s just like you.” I can’t help suspecting she was talking about the particular rare quality which Nada and I share most precisely. We both really really want to be useful and helpful. Contribute humbly to make things better, and help the people around us find more success and satisfaction from their efforts.
The very first day we went out walking – from Queens Quay to High Park and back (and talking our way across philosophy, art, politics, history and then all the way back around again to science), I watched her naturally spring to catch a line, and help draw a sailboat into a dock, even though this allowed the fugitive mink we were stalking for a photo, to escape. The second time we were out she grabbed me lightning-fast when I stumbled on a crowded sidewalk, and kept me out of the path of a speeding truck.
Whenever we meet artists, famous or amateur, she shares her honest enthusiasm with them generously – which I know from the other side is always welcome and energizing feedback. When we meet old or sick people on our journeys, she is immediately patient and kind, full of respect. When we meet dogs, they are her instant friends! And usually their owners are, too.
I understand much better now what Catherine was first talking about – and I have learned a lot about myself from the ways that Nada’s experience gives her ultra-simpatico heart so many different tools to work with, and angles to approach from, with help.
She has also pushed my old maarifa into the fountain more than once, and forced me to look and think again, instead of relying on old assumptions and patterns that felt safe and settled. Especially where those patterns were stressful and creatively disabling. As I said at the outset, I’m very aware of a number of problems built into social media – and as a first generation computer geek the privacy and manipulation issues are also important to me. But I let my excess paranoia on that side keep me away from broad electronic communication (that is, aside from lengthy emails) for far too many years.
Always making friends
In the other pan of that set of scales is the fact that I am pretty much made for this medium. There is no other form I know in which one can play with original images, writing and even sound real-time, and reach others so easily and inexpensively. Not only that, but broadening the range of people I’m writing to and for has made my writing better. By caring more widely, I am compelled to trade lazy bias and assumptions for active respect and gratitude, and thus I can address a far more complete humane audience.
Nada is a gifted photographer, and she also got me back into photography, which I more or less abandoned back in the still analog ’90s. Not only by making sure I had plenty to photograph on our excellent walks, but also by pitching-in with Catherine to get me a proper DSLR camera for my birthday a few years ago. And OMG is it ever fantastic to have one constant creative undercurrent in my life which doesn’t strain my back or carpals! Better still, when we start thinking in artistic or photographic terms, we begin to look more carefully at the world around us. We seek its beauty with more effort and we bother to appreciate it, even if we’ve left the camera at home that day.
Most of all though – by demonstrating open curiosity, enthusiasm and principled helpfulness without any of the cliche leftie dogma in which I’ve always soaked, Nada has helped me sort through the ideas in my head and better distinguish true gold from junk. Incalculably valuable for any artist, philosopher or essayist. Clean the lens, free up some memory and charge the batteries – and suddenly the world doesn’t look so bleak, used-up and hopeless anymore! As Rumi points out in poetic ways, when we fail to (or decide not to) see the fresh possibility before us, it is very easy for our treasured ideas to become our very own confining prison.
Before I close, I want to mention one other thing which I think is important and interesting. The very unusual teaching stories and writings of the Sufis have both easy surface wisdom and also deeper meanings, for those whose understanding can reach further. The Sufis often talked of love and devotion, including epic and life transforming friendships like that of Rumi and Shams, as an indirect way to discuss the relationship of the individual soul with the greater universal presence.
These beautiful subtle and incredibly rich writings were a key influence on early western writers like Chaucer and Cervantes – and through Spain (Andalus) especially, inspired many of our early ideas of chivalry, devotion, honour and love, as European culture gradually emerged from its ‘dark ages’.
Sometimes a friend is infinitely more than just a friend. Sometimes they help us discover what we are really here for, and then help us gather the strength to attempt it. Sometimes they are our bridge toward higher duty, and even contact with the divine.
It is a prize we can all of us win but none ever steal unearned. No other way to this sort of friendship than by surrendering to the true call of a great spirit, and giving of ourselves without reservation. They can’t shine their light into us, until we first dare open the door.
Call an old friend. Make a new one.
No better way to knock that stale old depressing junk out of your head and look up from all of the too-familiar sadness – to dream again.
Fun over focus – any day of the week!