Walden Pond, photo by Richard Lenat
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

The Near Occasions of Friendship

The Baltimore Catechism is a summary of Catholic dogma in question-and-answer form. The complete edition has 1400 questions; a smaller children’s edition, once used by millions of Catholic kids preparing for Confirmation, contains 420. I was one of those kids. You had to memorize the answers in the event that the confirming bishop asked you a question during the ritual for receiving the sacrament. It was a kind of prep sheet for a driving license for Catholicism.

I don’t remember many of the questions, though like the opening dialogue I learned in French class—Maman, dinons-nous en ville ce soir?—I remember the ones at the beginning: Who made us? (God. Easy). Who is God?  (not a trick question). Why did God make us? (only after one has crossed the threshold of adolescence does this become problematic).

One of the questions, however, that stuck with me throughout my life, had to do with Confession. According to the catechism, in the prayer—the Act of Contrition—that one murmurs after having confessed the number and nature of sins you committed since your last confession, you resolve not only not to commit your sins again but also to avoid its near occasions. As a child, and even now decades later, I found the phrase intriguing. Near occasions. The catechism enumerates various kinds of such occasions: the near, the remote, the voluntary and involuntary. But they all amount to the same thing: “the persons, places and things that may easily lead us into sin” (Question 771). And to remove any doubt about what these might be, the Catechism goes on to list them: bad people, low theaters, liquor saloons, “amusements’, and “bad books, indecent pictures, songs, jokes.”

I hope Eric will forgive me for taking so long before talking about him. But I think he would have appreciated the detour. He had a wonderful, irreverent sense of humor. And if I began with the catechism it’s because it gives me a metaphor to talk about him, even if I have to turn it on its head. You see, Eric had this amazing capacity for friendship. He not only “committed” innumerable acts of friendship, he deliberately sought out its near occasions. He had a talent for transforming even those activities we normally think of as solitary into opportunities for deepening friendship. He was a gifted harpsichordist, but his passion was really for chamber music, which was an opportunity to make music with friends and I think just as importantly, to spend time with afterwards over wine and cheese. Given my utter lack of musical gifts I was not part of his musical company, but we did lots of other things together. Like cooking. One usually thinks of cooking as a solo performance, even if others are watching. But Eric made it a joint creative happening. We must have cooked thousands of meals together during the time I shared his and Janet’s house in Lexington. He was a marvelous cook and though he could have easily commandeered the whole meal, he gave me room to take on one of the dishes, engaging me in debate, say, about the merits of adding fresh tarragon to a dish of sautéed chicken breast or gently suggesting that the sauté I was preparing could benefit from a splash of vermouth, encouraging me to be a bit daring but schooling me in the basic techniques of reducing a sauce or poking a filet to see how far it was cooked. I suppose psychologists would say he was good at empowering other people. I just knew that he made me feel good about cooking. And all the while we talked. About our day and what was in the news, about the guy I had met at the pool or the sermon we had heard preached at Emmanuel Church in Boston. Or a thousand other things.

We swam together, too. He wasn’t much of a swimmer before he met me. But he took it up as a way to expand the territory of our relationship, again a near occasion of friendship. He had a very unusual stroke, a combination of freestyle and breaststroke that he had read about somewhere, apparently a very energy-efficient stroke that he said could take him for miles. He didn’t swim fast, but then again, shaving minutes off his Walden time wasn’t at all a priority for him: he was happy gliding through the water scanning the bottom of the pond for fish. Although somewhat overweight he cut a impressively graceful figure as he sliced his way through the water with his idiosyncratic stroke. (I’m sorry I never told him that.) He would drive me and Janet after work to Walden Pond, where after swimming the perimeter of the pond we would laze awhile on a tiny patch of beach in the late afternoon summer sun before heading off to a country farm to pick up a bushel of freshly picked sweet corn. He took me to nearly every one of the marathon swim races I swam in, rooting for me at the finish line where he waited with a towel and congratulations.

We even shared reading, among the most solitary of acts. One of the first books we read together was Eliot’s Middlemarch, one of the great novels of friendship. No, we didn’t read to each other. Instead we read an agreed-on number of chapters over a period of several days and then talked about the book. And dreams. We would sit over breakfast of fruit, cheese and home-baked bread (his, of course—one of the few culinary pursuits he conducted entirely on his own) and recount our dreams, which, like our books, were simply a trigger to talk about our fathers, falling in love, manhood, the quest for truth, kindness, faith…

I moved to Greece, Eric and Janet got divorced and Eric eventually met and fell in love with Dick. We lost touch for years, but not before he had the chance to tell me how much he still loved Janet and how much he loved Dick. His love for both was so bounteous that he couldn’t imagine how either could ever doubt the depth and truth of his feelings. He wanted them to become friends. I though this was probably asking too much, but then again Eric had an overwhelming desire to connect the people in his life. This, too, was part of his talent for friendship—for him friendship was never something proprietary, never something that he wanted to keep all to himself. In the end, Janet and Dick did become friends.

Eric had called me last year to arrange for us to meet in Munich, but work commitments kept me from making the trip. I regret that now. Now that I will never have the chance to see him again, to tell him how much I treasure the years we lived together, our swims and talks and Sunday brunches, how much I am indebted to him for being there for me when I came out to my parent, for teaching me how to cook and listen to a string quartet and most of all how to be a better friend. I will miss him.

-/-

Image: WaldenPond, photo by Richard Lenat

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