When I first met Y, who was born in Soviet Russia, she said, “In grade school, I wasn’t very good at shooting guns, but I was great—and I mean great—in hand grenade class.” (And never mind that this gem followed a discussion of the best Eres bikinis.) Obviously, she and I were going to be friends.
Y’s story is an inspirational one: in 1989, she convinced her parents and sister that they needed to move to the U.S. After a stopover in a refugee camp, they settled in New York City and have been here ever since. In many ways, she lives the quintessential American dream; she put herself through medical school and now has a thriving practice and, most importantly, a meaningful life.
It’s easy to take American citizenship for granted. I have always said, “As a woman, I’m so glad that I was born in the U.S.” But, the value of freedom far exceeds gender, and sometimes, I admit, I forget. At a New Year’s celebration Y hosted years back—the instruction on the evening’s dress was “glitter,” so every inch of my skin was awash in gold dust—she asked her guests to stand up and say what it is they were grateful for. When it was my turn, before I spoke, Y said, gesturing to her other guests, “You are an example of why we all came to this country.” I looked at her confused, and slightly embarrassed. At the time, I was dwelling on what hadn’t gone right, in my career and personal life, too. What was she talking about? “No, really,” she said. “You are a woman who lives a self-determined life…” She went on to list accomplishments that, once again, I had overlooked because I was too busy striving. I have no idea what I said in response, but I do know that I was left with a feeling of deep appreciation. True friends remind us to celebrate our lives, deeply, in the moment—and with sparkles.
This year, for Y’s birthday, her desire was to shoot clay traps. So we corralled a group (girls’ gun day?), had brunch in Soho and then drove upstate to a shooting school, located on picturesque tract of land, with cornfields and a pond. Prior to the outing, I told my sister about our plans, and her response was, “Did you hear about the eleven-year-old girl who shot and killed her gun instructor?” (I hadn’t. She then added jokingly, “Watch out for the children.”) The night before, I woke up in the middle of the night, slayed by insomnia, remembering what my sister had said. I thought, Is this really a good idea?
Well, yes. It definitely was. With the guidance of two instructors, we learned how to hold a shotgun, how to load and unload the gun and how to aim. Not only was the competitive aspect of shooting targets energizing, but the actual firing of the gun was, surprisingly, relaxing. (The instructor said this is because shooting requires intense focus.) The best shot among us was A, a slim, fifty-five-year-old woman, who nailed nearly every clay target. (And if only I had recorded the glee—our glee, not A’s—that followed. Lots of clapping, and lots of cheers. The instructors loved us, I’m sure.) I hit a few, which felt immensely satisfying. Anyone who happened to text me during our lesson got a video in response, of me firing four shots. (One friend wrote back, Your hair looks good.) When it came time to pack it up, everyone agreed: that was perfect.
Our post-shooting plan included a picnic, underneath the covering of the porch. Despite the drizzle, we set up a feast of farmer’s market cheeses and homemade soppressata from Sicily (made by L’s grandmother). Y’s sister baked an apple pie from scratch. I lit a candle in a delicately patterned votive and unwrapped tarot cards, which I carry in a silk scarf. I’m pretty sure that, as far as the types of gatherings this shooting school has seen, this was a first.
As we were eating, talking and laughing, a cigar-smoking man in a bright orange shirt came over. “Whose birthday is it?” he asked. Before long, he pulled up a chair and joined in the festivities. He blended in seamlessly, like he was just one of the girls. Y even interrogated him on his skin care regimen. Then the time came for me to read Y an astrological interpretation of her year ahead (an annual tradition—last year the reading took place on a Roberto Cavalli tablecloth, spread on her living room floor, with lobster rolls and New England clam chowder). When I pulled out a stack of silver cards, on which I had written out the reading, L said, “That’s friendship.” (The dude then chimed in, “Actually, that’s love.”)
He had offered to leave for the reading, but Y insisted, “No! You are family now. Stay, stay.” A Turkish jewelry designer had once said to me when I mentioned sun signs and god knows what else, “Suzanne, this is not man talk”—which, frankly, one could guess. There’s such a thing as knowing your audience. During the reading, when it came to the parts of the chart that deal with soul-stirring sex and full-throttle romance, I turned and saw our new friend blushing, hard. “Sorry!” I said. “It’s almost over.” But Y laughed and said, “What? It’s not even that bad.” To which I replied, repeating a line I’d written, “Give your all and then some?”
When our friend finally excused himself, Y called out, “Thank you for bringing some testosterone to our party!” He yelled back, “Don’t think you needed it!”
The whole afternoon was, in a word, hilarious.
On the way home, after a day of celebrating life, we talked death (which is, truly, the same thing as talking about life). Protocols that don’t mean much. Protocols that do. I told them something a dear friend of mine had shared with me; when her husband was dying, he said to her, “My life, it exceeded my expectations.” When she told me this, she had tears in her eyes. As I shared this, I realized that it’s a feeling I want not only for myself, but for those I love, too. I get excited just thinking about all the ways we can—and do—embrace life. There are so many gorgeous, wacky ways to get from point A to point B.
A had a dear friend who, close to death, said, “I don’t want to leave life. I just don’t.” We agreed: it is a beautiful sentiment, to live and love life so fully as to cling to existence, in the best, most affirming way possible.
I was seventeen when my dear aunt passed away. Recently, when writing about this period, I couldn’t recall having cried (save for whenever this song came on the radio, and then I dissolved—thanks a lot, Interview with a Vampire). Perhaps this is because the thought of her inspired so much love and appreciation—still does—that I had room for nothing else. Incredibly warm, Ellen had a real gift for making people feel special, whether by picking up the phone just to chat (which was heaven to this phone-obsessed teenager) or sending thoughtful, out-of-the-blue missives on delicate gold leaf cards. She was sunshine, always. It’s jaw-dropping, to think of the genuine interest she took in my life and to then multiply this by a hundred; not only we are a big Irish Catholic family—and this is in addition to her own children and husband—but Ellen, naturally, also had no shortage of friends. This summer, her daughter told me that nearly everyone who showed up at Ellen’s funeral claimed her as best friend. A life well-lived, indeed.
Rumi wrote, “Don’t grieve/whatever you lose comes ‘round in another form.” And this is true. In fact, it’s truer than true; it’s the very air we breathe, as change (chapters ending, chapters beginning) is constant. Yet the appreciation for our experiences, especially, if we have the presence of mind to be grateful, can feel eternal. How amazing is that?
The night of our shooting expedition, after a stopover at Y’s place, where we ate more soppressata and sipped a special blend of herbal tea, I went home, wrapped in bone-deep happiness. How many days have I experienced heaven on earth? (Many, thankfully.) The happiness would bleed into the next day, and the next and the next, too. To appreciate life is to acknowledge an ever-present force of light. It is, above all, a beautiful force.