Walk #31: Sal

With: Sal (born 1978)

Date: 3 September 2016

Where: Richmond to Surbiton, Greater London

Sal and I have been friends since University. Since leaving the UK the summer of 2015 I hadn't heard from Sal, so I was really pleased when she agreed to meet up this summer for a walk and catch-up. We met at Tide Tables cafe under the bridge at Richmond and it felt really great to hug Sal and see her face. We had a coffee and I reminded Sal she was the person who first introduced me to the concept of a 'flat white', in Australia during her soya milk phase (2005).

It was a nice fine day, perfect for walking - for the second time I think - this gorgeous stretch of the Thames together. I share a lot more on Facebook* than Sal does so there's sometimes a sense (as with several other friends) of there being more for me to catch up on than the other way around. [*for me it's a good, low-intensity medium for letting a lot of people know I'm alright and vice versa]

We got talking about families. Anyone reading this series of walks has hopefully grasped by now that I try to convey an essence of each conversation without compromising anyone's privacy. One way I've found to do this is to include some third-party quotes relating to the topic of conversation. Sal's used to me geeking out about relationship self-help books, so she probably wasn't surprised when I talked a lot about Harriet Lerner's 'The Dance of Connection', which I'd recently finished reading:

'Some of us need to practice voicing our strength. Some of us need to practice voicing vulnerability... Over time, our self-regard and our ability to be intimate suffer when we are unable to put forth both competence and vulnerability in a balanced way... It takes courage to ask for help... especially eldest daughters who learned growing up that they could not rely on a parent to be competent and nurturing. In this common circumstance, a woman may possess a towering competence but have enormous difficulty in putting forth the more sensitive, vulnerable parts of herself.'

Sal and I are both eldest daughters. In fact, almost all of my closest friends are eldest siblings, I recently realised.

We also caught up about Sal's work in the prison service, which I find endlessly fascinating to hear about.

At the end of our walk we found a pub in Surbiton for lunch. Though I'm writing this up after a three-month delay I'm pretty sure I had cauliflower cheese, or maybe it was macaroni cheese with cauliflower, and a bottle of Becks Blue. Pretty sure Sal had tuna.

I said at the start of this account I hadn't heard from Sal during the year I'd been travelling. In the run-up to meeting her for this walk I'd talked with various people about whether to risk bringing attention to 'the elephant in the room'. Towards the end of our lunch I realised I had to make a choice: say nothing and act like nothing had happened, or be the one to initiate a potentially difficult conversation. One of my favourite Harriet Lerner quotes is this from 'The Dance of Intimacy':

'An intimate relationship is (defined as) one in which neither party silences, sacrifices, or betrays the self and each party expresses strength and vulnerability in a balanced way.'

In recent years I've been working to achieve this kind of intimacy with many of my friends. In almost 20 years of friendship Sal and I had never had an argument or a difficult conversation that I can recall. So, I'll be honest, my heart was racing and I had no idea how the conversation would go. But I remembered another Lerner quote ['We will always come from a more solid place if we speak to preserve our own well-being and integrity and refuse to be silenced by fear - not because we need a genuine apology from the other person or expect to have our reality validated'], took a deep breath and started the conversation.

Harriet Lerner also says:

'Overfunctioning, underfunctioning, fighting, pursuing, distancing, and child-focus (or other-focus) are normal, patterned ways to manage anxiety. One way is not better or more virtuous than another... When intensity is high, we react (rather than observe and think), we overfocus on the other (rather than on the self), and we find ourselves in polarised positions where we are unable to see more than one side of an issue and find new ways to move differently... Substantive change in important relationships rarely comes about through intense confrontation. Rather, it more frequently results from careful thinking and from planning for small, manageable moves based on a solid understanding of the problem, including our own part in it.'

I'm really glad Sal and I had the conversation we did, in which we both were able to acknowledge our part in the problem and to be vulnerable in a spirit of mutual understanding and affection. I really hope if new problems arise in the future we won't wait a year before we talk about them.

After sending this account to Sal I remembered the one occasion in my twenties when I drank so much lager I wet the bed. Sal's bed. While she was in it. The following morning, horribly hungover, I was so certain a logical explanation for the giant wet patch on my side of the bed would emerge into consciousness later in the day I did not mention it to Sal immediately. In fact I didn't mention it until the afternoon when I got back to London and had to call her. She was great, of course, but that was a difficult conversation to be sure! When I asked Sal if I could add this anecdote here she said 'Your message about 'that' difficult conversation made me think about the adventures we have been on...'

Thank you Sal for this walk, and all those adventures. As we approach the 20 year anniversary of our friendship it's my sincere hope we'll be friends for 40 more. P.S. People in their forties can still have adventures, y'know...