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kottke.org posts about Jennifer Senior

“It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart”

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 09, 2022

Well, this article about the importance and difficulty of friendships as you grow older by Jennifer Senior just hit me squarely in the feels.

When you’re in middle age, which I am (mid-middle age, to be precise — I’m now 52), you start to realize how very much you need your friends. They’re the flora and fauna in a life that hasn’t had much diversity, because you’ve been so busy — so relentlessly, stupidly busy — with middle-age things: kids, house, spouse, or some modern-day version of Zorba’s full catastrophe. Then one day you look up and discover that the ambition monkey has fallen off your back; the children into whom you’ve pumped thousands of kilowatt-hours are no longer partial to your company; your partner may or may not still be by your side. And what, then, remains?

I’m 48 years old, divorced, introverted, with two kids in their tweens/teens. I haven’t had coworkers in more than 15 years (and have worked from home for the past 7 years) and moved away from many of my friends to a place where I didn’t know anyone almost 6 years ago. I feel, acutely, the desire for and the falling away of friendships in this weirdo phase of life, which is happening during the most societally destabilizing event many of us have ever lived through.1

Were friendships always so fragile? I suspect not. But we now live in an era of radical individual freedoms. All of us may begin at the same starting line as young adults, but as soon as the gun goes off, we’re all running in different directions; there’s little synchrony to our lives. We have kids at different rates (or not at all); we pair off at different rates (or not at all); we move for love, for work, for opportunity and adventure and more affordable real estate and healthier lifestyles and better weather.

Yet it’s precisely because of the atomized, customized nature of our lives that we rely on our friends so very much. We are recruiting them into the roles of people who once simply coexisted with us — parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, fellow parishioners, fellow union members, fellow Rotarians.

It’s not wholly natural, this business of making our own tribes. And it hardly seems conducive to human thriving. The percentage of Americans who say they don’t have a single close friend has quadrupled since 1990, according to the Survey Center on American Life.

One of those articles where I wanted to quote the whole thing…so just go read it.

  1. Am I referring to the pandemic or the gradual-then-sudden shift towards de facto fascist rule in the US we seem to be experiencing? Even I don’t actually know.

How One Family Grieves Their Son, 20 Years After 9/11

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2021

This is an extraordinary story by Jennifer Senior about the various ways in which members of a family grieved the death of a beloved son who died in NYC on 9/11: What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind.

Early on, the McIlvaines spoke to a therapist who warned them that each member of their family would grieve differently. Imagine that you’re all at the top of a mountain, she told them, but you all have broken bones, so you can’t help each other. You each have to find your own way down.

It was a helpful metaphor, one that may have saved the McIlvaines’ marriage. But when I mentioned it to Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at UC Irvine who’s spent a lifetime studying the effects of sudden, traumatic loss, she immediately spotted a problem with it: “That suggests everyone will make it down,” she told me. “Some people never get down the mountain at all.”

This is one of the many things you learn about mourning when examining it at close range: It’s idiosyncratic, anarchic, polychrome. A lot of the theories you read about grief are great, beautiful even, but they have a way of erasing individual experiences. Every mourner has a very different story to tell.

That therapist was certainly right, however, in the most crucial sense: After September 11, those who had been close to Bobby all spun off in very different directions. Helen stifled her grief, avoiding the same supermarket she’d shopped in for years so that no one would ask how she was. Jeff, Bobby’s lone sibling, had to force his way through the perdition of survivor’s guilt. Bob Sr. treated his son’s death as if it were an unsolved murder, a cover-up to be exposed. Something was fishy about 9/11.

I read parts of this with tears in my eyes because I have grief in my life right now. Many of us do, I think. Because of the pandemic — a big, mixed-up ball of emotional energy that can’t dissipate until, well, I don’t know when — because of past trauma kicking up dirt, because of the way we’ve treated others and ourselves, because we want to help others, especially our children, deal with their grief and big feelings more effectively. This piece was an urgent reminder of just how long grief can last and how many ways it can manifest in different people.