I have a friend who wants me to join Voxer. From what I understand, Voxer is a service that allows you to leave a message for someone, like a voicemail, and then when that person wants to, she’ll leave a message back. My friend, who I will call Grace, texts me every so often and asks if I’ll join, and I always say, “Absolutely. I absolutely will.” And then I don’t.
The first time I met Grace, I heard her read from her writing at a performance in Washington DC. I put on a dress, threw my wallet and a book in my purse, and rode the Metro downtown on a day in May when the sun breathes life onto bare arms and flip-flopped feet.
“You might not like me for saying this,” Grace began, “but I’ve been mad at my mom lately.” She spoke quietly, but not hesitantly. She told her story slowly, but she wasn’t afraid. She was carefully unpacking her tale, holding up each detail so everyone could see it.
Grace had on a blue top, and a turquoise necklace that popped against the dark stage. She wore red lipstick – something I’ve always wished I had the nerve to rock – and her hair was in a sort of hipster mohawk. Maybe it was her storytelling, or maybe it was the way she was dressed and how she did her hair and make-up (or a combination of both), but that day I believed that if Grace and I spoke to each other, we would become the best of friends immediately.
After the show, a bunch of us met up with the cast for drinks. The bar was fancy and lively, a beautiful volume of music and continued storytelling. Many of us gathered around those who read, and said, “I love your story. It reminds me of…” I’ve always thought this sort of reciprocity was a wonderful side effect for those who tell stories; stories seem to breathe life into other stories.
I took note of where Grace was all night, hoping that I would get the nerve to tell her how much I loved her story, and also would she be willing to help me pick out a shade of red lipstick? The place was small, and Grace was about ten feet away from me, but I never spoke to her.
Instead, I went home, looked her up on Facebook, and asked her to be my friend. Because that’s how it works on Facebook – you don’t follow people, you request their friendship with the click of a button, and if they accept, you’re friends. Done.
When Grace accepted, I sent her a message telling her how much I loved her writing. I followed her blog, and Grace began reading mine. We left comments on each other’s posts, shared each other’s writing, and soon, we were emailing each other long messages about writing, motherhood, faith, and, yes, what kind of red lipstick is the right shade for a woman in her forties. Grace and I became friends through social media, and while I mock Facebook’s way of connecting people, I can confidently say Grace is my friend. I worry that I’m hurting her feelings because I haven’t joined Voxer.
When she brings it up, she tells me it would be so much easier just to talk about all the things we want to say instead of sitting down and writing. And she has a point. I think about joining Voxer every day when I’m driving home from work to pick up my kids from school. That hour is the most difficult for me, because it is the hour when, despite everything I do to push through it, everything within me – my body, my heart, my soul – begins to acknowledge that I am lonely. I walk slower, and my workbag feels heavier as I think about which kid needs to go where, what needs to get done when I get home, when to pack lunches and whether outfits are ironed. I feel an ache when I watch mothers pick up their kids together from the school I am leaving, coffee cups in hand and laughing. “It would be so good to have a friend to talk to,” I think, turning on my car. And every day, after that thought, I think of my friend Janel.
Janel and I taught in the same school in Mishawaka, Indiana. She and I could talk for hours. We’d meet sometimes on Saturday mornings and it would be one or two in the afternoon before I got home. In those days (I can’t believe I’m writing, “in those days,” but that’s what they were – days from a different time) our school sold Entertainment books for a fundraiser – those thick books filled with coupons for Blimpie subs and fifty cents off Dairy Queen blizzards. Each year, Janel and I would split one and use as many coupons as we could. It’s how we explored South Bend, Indiana, together and it’s how our friendship was formed.
We sat on the curb of a 7-11, on a break from setting up our classrooms a few days before school started, sipping extra-large Slurpees – mine was a mixture of cherry and Coke flavor, the best. We drank lattes in pint glasses in a place called Molly Maguires, a bar that got into trouble serving underage Notre Damers and turned into a coffee shop, but refused to change the aesthetics, including the pint glasses they now served coffee in. Janel and I had lunch at Heavenly Ham, where old ladies serving us would spread the best, most spicy mustard on our sandwiches, and packed giant, chocolate chip cookies in our box lunches. Once, we took coupons to an Indiana beauty school for a ridiculous rate on a haircut or manicure. We both decided it would be less risky to get a manicure from someone who was learning the trade, and sat next to each other while students slathered hot pink polish on our nails.
I don’t have a clue what Janel and I talked about. It was everything and anything, and I always felt happy and energized after spending time with her. Janel was my first new friend after I’d gotten married, started my first teaching job, and moved to a brand new town. She helped me navigate adulthood.
When she and her husband moved away, Janel and I wrote letters to each other. Once a month for years, I would get a hand-written letter from her, the titles of books she’d read and was recommending to me underlined, and news of what life was like in Kentucky.
And once a month, I wrote back. I’d go to the Hammes Bookstore on Notre Dame’s campus to write to her. It became a ritual. I’d walk passed “The Visitation,” a sculpture by Father Anthony Lauck, C.S.C. where Mary and Elizabeth are embracing each other after learning both of them will soon have babies. It was difficult to tell where one woman ended and another began, and before I entered the bookstore, I would stand for a moment, and look at the two of them. It made me happy looking at this shared joyous moment between girlfriends. I’d smile at Mary and Elizabeth, then I’d open the doors to the bookstore, order a mocha, sit down and take out a stack of stationery. I’d write Janel for hours, well after my mocha cup was empty. I wrote about the church we had both attended, what it was like teaching in public school (I’d left the school where Janel and I first taught), and I told her about books I was reading, also underlining their titles, as good teachers do.
Then Facebook happened.
I’m a fan of Facebook. I’m a fan of Instagram and blogging, too. But their existence has altered how I present myself in real life. I’m not talking about how I look, but more how I use my words. I’m painfully shy, and I worry about saying the right thing when I’m in front of others. Blogging and social media have allowed me the luxury of taking my time to pick the right words to express how I feel, or tell a joke, or describe the slow chirp the crickets make outside my bedroom window in the evening, as though they can’t decide if it’s summer or fall, so they may as well keep singing until they can’t anymore.
But I also understand the habit I’ve fallen into: instead of telling the barista in the coffee house about how perfect the latte he just made for me is, I’ll take a picture of it, post it on Instagram, and tag the coffee house. Instead of getting out of my car at the carpool line to chat with other parents, I text them. Instead of telling Grace at the bar how much I loved her performance that night, and how much I think it helped me with my own storytelling, I do it on Facebook. Talking “IRL” makes me too anxious and perhaps it always has, but I never had the option to do anything else. And while social media allows me a voice, I realize I’ve let it keep me from doing things that are hard. It’s allowed me to define myself by how shy I am. I’m not happy about that. I don’t like being defined by what it is I think I cannot do.
I know Grace well enough to know that she could care less if I’m articulate if I left her a message on Voxer. She could care less if I rambled on and on. If Grace and I had known each other in the late 90s or early 00s, we probably would’ve had a friendship like Janel and I had.
Or maybe not. When I met her, I lived in Maryland, and Grace lived in Virginia. That distance doesn’t seem too far, but throw in DC traffic, and responsibilities of motherhood and work, and the time it would take to “just grab a cup of coffee” is significant. Now that I’m in Michigan, sitting across from one another in a coffee shop or wine bar is impossible.
Grace and I have remained friends because of social media, and because of our writing. I know how much she loves to swim, how she tends to her garden; I even know and care about Grace’s neighbors because of her writing. Grace writes so that it is like I am swimming in the ocean with her, in her backyard digging in the dirt with her, having coffee with the lady across the street in Grace’s kitchen. Every time I read something of hers, I remember the first time I met her. Her words harken back to the slow, steady craftsmanship she used to tell that first story I heard, and I remember why I felt in my bones we would be great friends. Maybe Voxer could be one more way to stay connected, and to learn a little more about Grace.
Besides, I think it’s time I buy some red lipstick. I know just the person to ask.
Words by Callie Feyen.