In the Boat

This is an excerpt from Shelter in Place season 2, episode 3. Listen to full story above.


In his essay, “The Blessing of Friends Who Weather the Storm With Us, Omid Safi writes “We learn a lot about the people who stay in our boat during the storm. Sometimes it’s exactly who you expect. Sometimes there are those whom we expect to be in our boat, and at the moment of deepest
crisis, they go missing.”

Going into this school year, there was one friend in particular who I was sure would be in my boat. Ruth lives just a few blocks away. Her kids are the same ages as our kids, and they’ve all gone to school together since they were toddlers. Ruth’s family is one of the few families in our neighborhood who share our faith. We’ve shared a lot of life, too. We’ve carpooled to school, dropped off dinner for each other weekly, shared countless meals, swapped keys to each other’s houses. We were each other’s emergency contacts. For years Ruth’s house had been the place my kids felt safest outside their own home.

But a couple of weeks before school started Ruth and I had coffee in her backyard, and she told me she’d formed a distance learning pod with another family from our school. They were going to hire a tutor, and the tutor wasn’t comfortable taking on any more kids.

I tried not to feel stung, but as I walked home from her house that day, I realized I’d taken it for granted that Ruth and I were in each other’s boat. Now I began to doubt not just that assumption, but our friendship.

A couple of days later, Ruth reached out again. She gave me the names of several parents she knew who might be interested in teaming up with me, but she also wanted to check in to make sure we were okay.

It was a watershed moment in our friendship, and it says a lot about what a good friend Ruth is that she invited that conversation. It wasn’t easy for either of us. For the first time we peeled back the layers of our friendship, revealing unspoken expectations. Ruth and I had been in each other’s lives daily for years. In the absence of family nearby, I’d thought of Ruth and her family as our substitute family. It had never occurred to me that with their own parents in the same state, Ruth and her family didn’t have the same expectations for us.

And that’s the thing about friendship. There are no written codes or contracts. Most of the time, we don’t even realize what we expect of our friends until a particular situation reveals it.

Safi says when you turn around and the friends you thought would be in your boat aren’t there, don’t assume the worst. He writes, “Maybe they were trying to survive in their own boat. It’s been said before, whenever
possible. Be kind. You never know what battles others are fighting.”

Ruth confessed her own weariness. She’s a frontline essential worker. Parenting during the pandemic had been hard. She’d often felt like she wanted to be there for me, but she was so exhausted that she didn’t have the energy.

“You do so much,” Ruth said. “Your tolerance for chaos is so high. Sometimes, I just don’t want to get swept up in the tornado.”

Later she said she regretted that comment. She worried that it came off as overly harsh. But her words rang true. I don’t want to be the tornado family–I long for us not to be–but the amount of chaos and disorder in our life during this pandemic in particular has felt torrential. Part of that was circumstantial. Our family has dealt with a massive amount of change in 2020. We’re still dealing with it.

“Most of the time, we don’t even realize what we expect of our friends until a particular situation reveals it.”

Part of it was personality. Ruth had often told me that her central need in life is to preserve harmony in her environment. I like peace. I even long for it. But if given the choice in relationships, I’ll choose intimacy over ease every single time.

When I stepped away from the emotion of the situation, the feeling that Ruth wasn’t in my boat, I could see that what I was asking of Ruth was more than any of my friends could give me, especially in a time when we were all just trying to survive and keep our own boats afloat. No one is able to be in our boat all the time. Not substitute family. Not actual family. Not the best of friends. The trick is learning to appreciate who is in your boat–even if it’s not who you thought it would be, or if their shift is brief, because they’ve got to tend to their own crew. It’s learning to be in other people’s boats, too.

This is an excerpt from Shelter in Place’s season 2 episode 3: In the Boat. Read the full transcript here.

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