When I was in Nagoya, I took a flower-arranging class with a group of other Americans. My host father had introduced me to ikebana years before in their living room. They had, for a family around Tokyo, a big garden spilling with summer flowers. He couldn’t really speak English and I couldn’t really speak Japanese. I guess it didn’t matter a lot as he taught me how to maneuver great armfuls of hydrangea into a pot. This wasn’t a class session, just two people piling hydrangea. I remember him talking, saying something about working in threes. Anyway, that was my introduction to ikebana, and it holds a warmth that no other “traditional Japanese art” has quite managed for me. I was fourteen, I think.
I had an emotion introduction to ikebana, but I would not have a technical introduction to it until Nagoya. I’ll never forget the first class. We had dishes filled with water, flower frogs (kenzan)which are spiky tools used to hold the flowers in place. We had clippers and flowers.
The teacher started by picking up a stem and stripping away the dead, crushed, or torn leaves. Then he deftly began clipping perfectly good stems.
Perfectly good flower buds.
As a flower head plopped on the table, the room let out a collective pitying noise. He gave us all a look, then continued with his pruning. I had grown up with a garden where we just dropped bundles of stems into vases and places fallen flower heads in dishes. The more flowers the better.
The instructor finished with his stems and began arranging them carefully. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the whole thing was a manipulation of space and the emptiness between the flowers—negative space—and creating the illusions of fullness without lots of flowers. The flowers that remained where given the ideal space to be enjoyed.
One of the odd things about adulthood is how strange and difficult friendship is. When you’re a kid, you are supposed to have lots of friends, be friends with everyone—give candy, have play dates, show kindness—and you can run around your classroom full of friends.
Childhood friendships are both easy and hard for a number of reasons, I think. They are easy because you are trapped in the prison of school, and there are so many hours to fill, and I guess you can bound in a soft version of prisoners, soldiers, or perhaps hookers. You occupy a space together. You have no choice. In addition, you are actively encouraged to have as many friends as possible. I wonder now if that was wishful thinking on the part of the adults in charge.
I say childhood, but really this extends all the way into college.
Adulthood is different. Unless you are friends with everyone from work—which is hard because work is hard and you often don’t like it, and there are bosses. You take orders. You make edits. It’s not like school, and when you leave, often you actually want to leave that place and those people behind. The work friends are work friends; you get drinks and hang out, but there’s an interesting limit on friendship within a job you have just to pay the rent.
Which brings us to the other friends. The friend friends. The hard thing is that there’s no time for them. Making them. Spending time with them, watering and feeding them. Friends are for outside the office. For brunch, for weekend hikes, for movies, pizza and Netflix, for moments you can snatch when you have the energy. The problem though is that being both bored or overworked is tiring, and making time is hard. You cannot physically have lots of friends. I mean, you can go on a hike with a crowd and call it friendship, but it’s hard to be adult friends with a crowd in the same childlike way you can be friends with a classroom.
You meet nice people as an adult. You move on, because pleasant isn’t good enough when you’re tired.
Wanting something takes time. Heart. Energy. It’s hitting an alarm clock and getting out of bed early when a paycheck isn’t on the line. It’s like writing.
It’s a strange, sad thing to be an adult and to want to be friends with someone who doesn’t want to be your friend. When I was learning how to bake sourdough bread, I practiced every day. I made a lot of loaves. Sometimes I’d pull them hot from the oven, cool the loaf, and then cut inside only to find that the crumb was a gooey mess. At first, it made me angry at all the wasted hours on this stupid loaf. Stupid bread. Stupid yeast and starter. Stupid me. Then, I reached a point where I wasn’t angry at the failure anymore. I analyzed the crumb, dumped it in the trash, and moved on to another loaf.
I wish I could feel the same way about friendship as I do about loaves.
That isn’t to say that you don’t have good friends. But it’s amazing how tenuous it all is. How you’re one incident, one move or wedding, one job away from losing each other and falling into that category of friend, where you meet once every year or so. That once in three years friend. That Facebook friend.
Where you meet and talk for hours playing catch-up, only to part. To not meet again. To wonder why you bothered. Why they bothered. What does this dance mean? What purpose does it serve? It’s like stepping around a piece of phantom furniture that’s no longer in the room, still buying the furniture polish even though there are three bottles still in the cupboard.
But, despite all this, the problems, the tiredness, and the tenuous nature of it all, you have to try. Meaningful friendship, not the passive kind, meaningful friendship where you can show up in the middle of the night, cry, drink, or carve soap animals. Where you know. Where you will fight and care. The hard thing, I suppose, is that the good friendship we all want thrives in a sort of negative space where the dead leaves are pruned out and even perfectly acceptable blossoms are cut away. Where the bowl is not a hapless jumble of whatever came your way. There is meaning in that. But it is not particularly beautiful.