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Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2004 / 11 Shevat 5764

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Renewing ourselves: Time with friends should be a source of emotional and spiritual sustenance | LAURIE, Mo. — Winter rain, inhospitable and cruelly indifferent to where it lands, has been falling for two days, sometimes hard, sometimes like a soft, wet gauze.

But none of us staying in this house cares. We are old friends, together once more to celebrate getting even older - four of the six of us, anyway, who have birthdays within a few days of each other. We collect here in this lake house each year to commemorate our maturity (together we account for almost 350 years).

So unless the weather would prevent us from getting here to the Lake of the Ozarks, it really doesn't matter. What matters, instead, is being together, catching up on our lives, processing the connections among us, the values, the photos, the stories.

And laughing. For instance, one of the women, who was reading Outside, a magazine I had never heard of, ran across information about a spa that featured "purified nightingale droppings" that its professionals apparently use as a skin treatment. It's impossible not to laugh at some of the more outrageous elements of our pretentious culture. The first person in our group to have the treatment will become the victim of our endless and witty barbs.

All three couples now are grandparents. So part of our time is spent telling lovely tales about how magnificent our children's children are. As usual, the first liar never has a chance. And, of course, we pass around pictures of our children and grandchildren and recount the developments in their lives.

We also bring good food. Food is sacramental. It's useful not just for nutrition. It also gives us an entry into each other's psyches and souls. It speaks to us of sustenance just as our being together helps to sustain us for another year.

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Frederick Buechner, the magnificent spiritual author from Vermont, once described bread this way: "Man does not live by bread alone, but he also does not live long without it. To eat is to acknowledge our dependence - both on food and on each other. It also reminds us of other kinds of emptiness that not even the Blue Plate Special can touch."

The rhythm of weekends like this finds its source in natural things. There is a television in the house, but it's behind the closed doors of a cabinet and it doesn't work anyway. There is a telephone that almost never rings. We rise when we're ready in the morning and we sleep when we're tired - no matter what time of day it is.

And we talk and talk and talk. Sometimes, after exhausting a topic, we simply marinate in the silence, waiting for another topic to suggest itself. In the silences, if we're not reading whatever book we brought along, we sometimes just stare out the windows at the cold lake, watching birds float on the purled water or on the air currents.

Last year we spotted a magnificent eagle over the lake. We walked the few yards from the house to the shore and simply watched the great bird. One year when we were here, the lake was frozen over, and we studied the odd patterns that had formed on the surface as the water puckered into ice.

We are out of touch with the normal, often frenzied pace of our lives here, but we aren't isolated. If we need another loaf of bread or a morning newspaper, a store is less than 10 minutes away. And a journey of 20 minutes or so brings us to a place where we can buy a pair of shoes or something for the grandchildren.

But mostly we come simply to be. And to be with each other.

Cicero, more than 2,000 years ago, described a friend as "a second self." I think he got that wrong. I don't want a second self. On some days, one of me is way more than enough.

Rather, I want someone who respects me and wants to be with me but who also cares enough about me to challenge me on some things and to offer me new ways of seeing things, ideas I hadn't come up with on my own. And, beyond that, someone who can communicate such things with gentle conviction, not with righteous and annoying insistence.

One night we played a silly parlor game called "True Colors." Through the use of colored cards and questions, it tests players' view of themselves by requiring others to make judgments about each player. It's mostly a mindless game, but it opened more discussion about our core values. It's that kind of talk that leads to deepening friendships.

A weather front arrived on our last night and cleared away the dank clouds. We awoke to sun and cold. Which was fine, but it didn't matter, either. Not much else does matter when friends are filling up their emotional and spiritual reservoirs together.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved