Changing The Rules
“The first step to the knowledge of the wonder and mystery of life is the recognition of the monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory, the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think they know how the universe could have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without death, are unfit for illumination.”
Often, I think of my life as pre-Laurie and post-Laurie – her impact was so significant and defining. I had, during those intense years I spent with her, become the person I saw reflected in Laurie’s eyes; what she expected and modeled. The inherent best of me was nurtured, helping to solidify my first sense of self.
Part of the grounding I received had to do with predictability; Laurie was always Laurie, her parents would envelop me into their family life, and I could count on all of that to continue. Now, at seventeen, I thought I understood the core of a true friendship; someone I could trust to be constant and reliable; to be whom I knew them to be. I assumed, when I acquired another close friend in the future, the rules and expectations would be the same.
With Diana, I learned otherwise.
When Laurie and I entered our freshman year at the university, she went directly to a sorority, I to a dorm. It was our first real separation in three years, and I missed her.
My roommate in the dorm and I were as mismatched a pair as one could conjure; she was painfully shy, highly religious and academic. I was a lackluster student, hoping to make new friends, learn how to smoke cigarettes, survive classes, and find a boy to love.
And though I missed Laurie, and would visit her often at the sorority, I was eager to bond with (my roommate being the exception) the twelve or so girls in the hallway of my dormitory.
This was 1967, and our country was about to be invaded by the ‘hippie’ movement, the Vietnam war, and drugs. But in Eastern Washington, campus life went on much as it had for decades. Girls wore skirts to class, sororities and fraternities were the social core. There was a purity about the place. One day, as I was walking across campus, I saw a boy carrying an umbrella upside down, looking up at the cloudless sky like a mime in training. It wasn’t raining – he was making a statement about something, and I recall feeling uneasy. Anything outside of my known was frightening.
The girls in the dorm were my first introduction to a bit of diversity. Many smoked, many drank. Some came from working class homes – a foreign entity on the island where I’d been living. Most intriguing, but also a cause for uneasiness, a few of the girls seemed knowledgeable about sex, and comfortable with casually peppering innuendos into their conversations. When I heard such references, I felt naïve and unsophisticated. I remember studying the duos from each room, trying to decode these exotic, foreign girls, so informed about aspects of life I hadn’t even considered.
I felt most comfortable with Diana, an olive skinned, dark-haired and beautiful girl with a quiet, cheerful countenance. She was from a small town outside of Seattle and dating a boy she’d known since junior high. Though I was curious about those wilder girls who taught me to smoke and introduced me to beer, Diana felt most like home. I suppose she was comfortable for me because she seemed so similar to Laurie; a nice girl from a solid, loving family.
The summer after our freshman year, Diana and I visited one another in our parent’s homes several times. Her mom and dad reminded me of Laurie’s parents, always making me feel welcomed. There was that same sense of a loving, light-hearted household. I came know Diana’s boyfriend Mark, a cute boy with a wicked sense of humor. And though I still spent most of that summer with Laurie, the matchup with Diana felt like, if not a substitute for my high school friend, a meaningful connection. I was clear that I now knew Diana, and she, me, and I found comfort in the alliance and its future.
Laurie, Diana and I were to return to campus in the fall. I would now join Laurie in the sorority, Diana would remain in the dorm, but I knew I would see her on a regular basis. Then, on a summer day shortly before returning for our sophomore year, I got a call. Afterward, the impact would be as memorable to me as the day in eighth grade when we heard over the loudspeaker at school that President Kennedy had been shot. This phone call from Diana wasn’t anything on a national level, of course, but it was important, and shocking, in the personal realm.
“I’m pregnant,” Diana said over the phone. “We’re getting married and having the baby.”
I was stunned. Firstly, because I wasn’t sexually active, and it hadn’t occurred to me that a good friend of mine would, or could, be. Diana was nineteen, pregnant, and soon to be married. This was not the standard of the times, or of the girls I’d known. Pregnancy wasn’t what happened to ‘good girls’, but Diana was a good girl. I was disappointed, then sad, but mainly bewildered. It was as if she’d announced she had enrolled in the Army and was going to war – that unexpected and out of character. By this time, she was one of my two emotional anchors – the girl I went to for fun, for comfort and advice. Now, she’d gone down a path so unexpected, I was unmoored.
The aftermath of that phone call and its consequences was that I learned, for the first time, that bad things, or at least very challenging things, happened to good people, people I knew and loved. Until then, I hadn’t observed my peers confronting a major life roadblock. It was difficult to fully comprehend, and my reaction to the situation was diametrically opposed to Diana’s. To me, someone hadn’t followed the rules, or at the very least, had not behaved as I had expected. To Diana, an unfortunate circumstance was met with, after the initial shock, positivity, and joy. She acknowledged that the detour was significant but met it with good cheer and resolve.
At nearly nineteen, everything that happened in my daily and weekly life, whatever occurred, was always framed in high drama. Boyfriend breakup? The end of the world. Continued issues with my family? Surely no one else had ever been so maligned. Not accepted into the school of my choice? I was the world’s worst failure. Now, here was a real problem that I couldn’t imagine facing, and furthermore, my friend wasn’t responding as I would have – in full catastrophe mode. To Diana, the pregnancy was simply an unfolding of an unexpected circumstance, something she handled with measured assurance. Part of her process was her strong faith, one that she and Mark shared. To her, God would show the path. Not having a religious background, that strategy seemed questionable to me.
Returning to campus that year after her daughter’s birth, Diana’s existence changed dramatically. Married student housing. Nursing a baby while her peers partied and dated. Adjustments had to be made to the timeline of her educational plan. Diana, strangely philosophical and cheerful, forged through it all.
Her experience provided me with an impactful life lesson. I understood now that, even with intimate friends, parallel life paths were not a given. Trajectories would change. Of course, that happens, developmentally, in ones’ twenties, but this was my first encounter with that particular reality – a bit early in the timeline. I had been so protected in the womb of Laurie and that of her family, I truly had assumed that life would follow a formula; one of my choosing.
Now, I understood I could no longer expect complete cohesiveness with the lives of chosen friends. When someone veered from the vision of what I had imagined for their life, or the role they would play in mine, I recognized the importance of being philosophical and empathetic, however perplexed I might be. The sky wasn’t falling; the landscape merely shifting. In modern parlance, everyone’s journey is their own. Diana, in her steadfast, capable way, modeled maturity and self-responsibility, two qualifiers I could not claim for myself at the time.
To this day, what would knock me to the ground gives Diana momentary pause. She has had many more devastating challenges, including a handicapped son and surviving cancer. Her spirit has weathered the loss of her husband of over fifty years. Throughout, when confronting major issues, she regards it as a situation where her faith and common sense calmly dictate her responses. There’s always a sweet calm in her eyes and voice. It’s like a crown, a mantle, of a woman who, in my eyes, despite the losses and heartbreaks, is a real-life queen – one who provided me a profound lesson, fully framed by grace, setting an example on how to meet the unexpected with strength and wisdom.
That pretty girl down the hallway in the dormitory turned out to be, not a disaster, not a failure, or disappointment, but a beacon.
Next: Sooz. Lighten up!
New to the series? Start with ‘Ellie‘, the first chapter in “Female Formed.”
Art by Lisa Jensen.
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