How many friends do I have? Quite a few I think, although I had never been in the habit of counting them until I went on Facebook. That was a few years ago when I wanted a way of tracking the progress of my globe-trotting sons but also wanted to prove my husband wrong when he said I had no friends.
I have never been one to have crowds of close friends. I grew up as a happily solitary only child, isolated further at primary school by the fact that my father was also my headmaster. My parents tried to remedy this situation when I changed schools by sending me to an establishment in a different town, rather than to the grammer school next door to my father's new school. I made a few close friends there but it was difficult to cultivate friendships outside school because of the distance involved.
However, when I make good friends I do try to keep them and am still in touch with two women I have known since I was 10, Fleur and Liz. At university, first in Oxford and then in Birmingham, I made more close friends and have kept up sporadically with a few of them. At Oxford I also met my closest friend, Chris, and eventually married him. I also acquired some of his friends too. I have made friends at work, some closer than others. I have also made friends of Friends in many different contexts, often by working and sometimes struggling together.
What do I mean by a friend? Well for me friendship involves sharing, giving and receiving confidences, honesty and loyal support. It is also about having things in common - a place, a way of life, even a favourite television programme - but not necessarily about always agreeing with each other. A valuable part of friendship for me is the ability to speak and hear uncomfortable things from time to time, although I admit that I almost lost one friendship through being afraid of confrontation.
But is it possible to have virtual friendships, only conducted online and never face to face? I think it is and I have discovered this through reading and writing blogs and through Facebook. Many of the bloggers I read are not known to me in person although we have a friendly relationship online. After all, I can hold a conversation with them through comments as they can with me and blogging is often about sharing one's life as one would with friends in the 'real' world.
At the last count I had 264 Facebook friends. Many of them I know personally and meet quite frequently, others I have met a few times, but some I only know online. Quite a few live in different countries which makes meeting face to face even more difficult. I am very grateful for the opportunity Facebook gives me to connect a little with all their lives. Then there are the reconnections, people I have known but may have lost touch with until an unexpected 'friend request' appears.
The other week I visited my friend James in Leeds. I met him in Birmingham 40 odd (sometimes very odd) years ago and we were close friends and housemates then. I had kept in touch sporadically and went to all three of his weddings but Facebook allowed us to connect on a more day to day level which made our face to face meeting more comfortable. I look forward to deepening this friendship when we eventually move Up North.
I know what Chris meant when he said I did not have any friends. At the time I was in danger of isolating myself from the day to day contact that nourishes friendship. I hope that I am working towards correcting that and Facebook and blogging have helped me keep in touch, not only with friends but with myself.