Megan Nicol Reed is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

Megan Nicol Reed: The art of non-competitive friendship

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You can have different friends for different things, that it's not necessary to rank them, that it's not a case of either/or. Photo / 123RF
You can have different friends for different things, that it's not necessary to rank them, that it's not a case of either/or. Photo / 123RF

It's called the twittering of the sparrows. I learnt that last week at my initiation into mahjong. It's a kind of collaborative shuffling, with all four players placing their hands on the small, lovely tiles and sweeping them around the centre of the table. The gentle noise when they collide is said to be bird-like.

I was with a group of women, some I've known more than half my lifetime, others only more recently, and it felt like the beginning of something new, something promising. A game we can play when old and ailing. I was seduced by the poetry of it. The symbolism.

It put me in mind, too, of my young daughter; the school year just two weeks in, and like those small and lovely tiles, she and her friends are busy reasserting themselves after the break, jostling for position, reassessing old bonds, forging fresh alliances.

Who's your BFF, she comes home asking. Well, I say, I have lots of wonderful friends, some dearer than others, but not a best friend.

She looks at me disbelievingly.

No, c'mon, she says. Is it ...? Or is it ...? And I ready myself for another discussion about how it's possible to have many friends, important, in fact. That you can have different friends for different things, that it's not necessary to rank them, that it's not a case of either/or.

And even as the words slip from my mouth I can see they fall on deaf ears. That though I wish I could save her from the inevitable heartache it is a lesson she will have to figure out for herself. A lesson I can only hope she will figure out. Because some people never do.

I met an older woman recently. We had someone in common, and although I feel sure I gave her no cause to believe I thought it a competition, she spent our entire conversation at pains to establish that she had known our mutual friend for longer, and thereby knew her better. In her eyes there was evidently a claim to be made, and she was determined to stake it.

While admittedly it took me years of tears, whole soap operas worth of dramas, to realise you don't own your friends, I marvelled that at her age she still hadn't cottoned on to this.

When my daughter comes home, a funny mix of hurt and outrage, and reports her friends didn't sit with her to eat their lunch, I tell her I know how she feels. I tell her how just the other day I wasn't invited to a lunch most of my friends were at. That I had felt so left out I could have cried. I offer this to her as a comfort, but I suspect it has the reverse effect.

I can still remember how unsettled I felt when once in my late teens, my father, who must have been nearing 50, confessed to me his sadness that some old friends with whom he had recently crossed paths again had not reciprocated his various overtures.

You tend to assume those older than you are immune to the concerns that plague you, and while for most of us, thankfully, they diminish, who, in all honesty, can claim to be so well adjusted as to not be crushed by the party invitation that never arrives, the friend who spurns you for a more exciting offer.

When my daughter's friendships become too intense, too hard, I tell her to try playing with someone else. However, I add, it's important to be mindful of old allegiances, to respect the sense of history two people may have, to try not to tread on any toes. But, she says, you said friends don't own each other. I sigh. It's a fine line, I say.

Following on:

Julie says she will be giving a copy of last week's column on the changing nature of sex in a relationship to each of her three married children because it showed there is something "special in every ordinary moment shared".

Graeme, though, hopes his daughter, juggling, a career, children and husband, won't read it because it implied it's okay "for the romance to disappear out of a relationship and it to become quite transactional".

John, "80, going on 100, and comfortably impotent", believes "35 to 40 years of tupping should be ample for one lifetime!"

- Canvas

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Megan Nicol Reed is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

There were many things Megan Nicol Reed imagined she would do in her journalism career. She ticked off feature writer, editor and columnist. She never envisaged agony aunt. Now, when she isn't trying to sort out her own life, she's trying to sort yours. And when she's not doing that she is writing her first novel. In her downtime you'll find her mothering, cooking, running, cleaning and reading. Needless to say she spends much of her life in activewear.

Read more by Megan Nicol Reed

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