It was a beautiful weekend in late October, when the rest of the country was already slipping toward winter. Fall lingers in North Carolina, though, so on Saturday afternoon some good friends and I sat outside for hours on the patio of a nearby winery, marveling at the colors cascading down the mountains.
I should probably call them old friends, based on the age of our friendship—though I fear that says something about my own age as well, a fear confirmed by the increasing number of gray hairs appearing at the edge of my forehead. These friends live halfway across the country now, but our friendship goes back to early college. They were in town for a conference, and tagged on a couple of days to visit us.
Our children—who had never met before—played together delightfully, while we sipped wine and caught up with each other, enjoying the scenery and the company and the antics of our kids. We laughed, easily and often, about things that happened yesterday or years ago. We talked about hard things, job changes and complicated families and deep sorrow. We told stories and reminisced, teased each other lightly, and reveled in the comfortable conversation of friends who know each other well.
It was a gem of a weekend, the kind that happens far too rarely these days. We moved away from most of our friends several years ago, following a call to a church in Virginia and then another in North Carolina, leaving those good friendships behind in the Midwest. Our family is spread out, too; we’ve got parents and siblings in four different states, all of them a plane ride or a long drive away. My husband works a Monday-through-Friday job, with reasonable but not overly generous vacation time. It’s a small company, and his presence is missed if he’s not there. He has to carefully negotiate time off with his co-workers. If we are going to travel, one of us has to take time off. I have four weeks of vacation, which means four Sundays, which really means that we can be away four weekends a year. Most of that is used to visit family; it doesn’t leave much time to spend time with friends.
But I am beginning to realize that I need those weekends with old friends and easy conversation. The truth is that I have had a hard time making friends here—at least the kind I can laugh so easily with—and new friendships these days always start with the fact that I am a minister. It is not a bad place to start, but it always seems to change the equation.
I love that conversations with my college friends don’t revolve completely around church, the way they do with my clergy friends (despite our best efforts to talk about something else); nor do my college friends ask curious questions about my vocation that make me feel like I am on display. They ask about my church, about how things are going, the same way I ask about their work—because they care about me and want to know about my life—but they were around before I went to seminary, walked with me through it (gently, from a distance), and came out the other side.
I love that I don’t have to explain myself to these friends. I didn’t have to worry if they thought my second beer at dinner Friday night was inappropriate. After all, these are the friends I first drank beer with at all, dancing at college parties and then at wedding after wedding of our friends. (Two beers is about my limit these days, and the songs we danced to are old now too.) These friends remind me that I was somebody before I was a minister, someone who danced and laughed a lot, and that somebody still exists.
So I need these weekends, to remember who I am.
After some encouragement from a few clergy colleagues, I talked about it with the chair of our personnel committee. Would it be possible for me to negotiate an extra vacation Sunday or two? I felt self-conscious even bringing it up. There are several members of my congregation who are out of work completely, and I am complaining about my four weeks of vacation? But it’s not, of course, the weeks that are the problem; I can take any Tuesday I want—it’s the Sundays that count.
I love it here, I told the personnel chair. I love this church and the work we are doing together, and I am coming to love North Carolina with its farmers’ markets and breathtaking autumn. But if I am going to make my life this far away from my family, I need to be able to visit them and make time for friendships, too. He responded with characteristic grace. “We’ll be a healthier church if you are healthy,” he said, and offered to talk about it further.
Our friends came to church with us that Sunday morning, despite our assurance that it would be okay if they wanted to do something else. But I was glad they came, all the more, perhaps, because they are not church people and their attendance was a kindness to me. The truth is that I am still that girl who used to dance at weddings, but I’m also now this woman in the robe who holds up the bread and cup asking God’s grace to rain down on these people. It means something to me for my friends to see me in that role, too.
We lingered over lunch on Sunday after church, my daughter munching on pita, their son nodding sweetly to sleep on his mother’s lap. I don’t remember now what we were talking about—it was nothing of consequence, I think—but I suddenly could see meals like this one five years from now, our kids in elementary school, or fifteen years from now, celebrating graduations or sending them off to college. These are the friends with whom I want to mark the passing years.
My parents have friends like these, friends they hung out with in college, who danced at their wedding, who visited from far away as I was growing up, who came to my wedding and still send cards on special occasions. I like hearing my parents talk about these friends, the way they too laugh easily and often when they are together. I want to have life-long friends like that—people I know well, who know me well, who I don’t have to explain anything to, who delight in my child and invite me to delight in theirs, who share in celebrations and sorrows, who remind me to laugh.
I don’t know what I’ll work out with my congregation for vacation next year. But even if I don’t have an extra Sunday, I’m going to spend one of my weekends laughing with friends.