"I feel like it's always raining in our songs, that bittersweetness. . . . We surrender too easily to the blues. We, if we're not careful, are bleeding all over the world."
Like A Song: Cedarwood Road
October 14, 2015
[Ed. note: This is the 94th in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
The meaning of the word “friend” has changed in the digital age. What once was a noun that meant a person to whom you felt emotionally connected is now a verb, something you do if you recognize a person’s name online. You might not even know them. To “friend” is not the same as to “be a friend.” It’s no longer a relationship with give and take, but a thing that you “follow” or “like.” Growing up in Pittsburgh, we had the patron saint of kindness, Mr. Rogers, to teach us what it meant to be a true friend. It's a simple message that we took to heart at a very young age.
“Cedarwood Road” describes a similar old-fashioned kind of friendship built on a lifetime of shared experiences, and accepting people for who they are.
I was running down the road
I was a shy and isolated kid, partly because I felt so different from everyone else. I lived in a house full of immigrants, and none of our neighbors spoke our language or ate the foods we did. Also, my father was tough on me, keeping a tight grip on his only girl while my three brothers (even the younger ones) could come and go as they pleased. My older brother made a "no girls allowed" rule that kept me out of any games going on out in the back alley where everyone played. There were no other girls my age in the neighborhood. It was like growing up in jail. I spent most of my time alone, with books as my only escape.
When I went to kindergarten, I met the 40 or so children I'd spend my days with for the rest of my elementary school years. I wasn’t terribly close with anyone early on. It was more of a working relationship: We all went to the same building and spent the majority of our day together, but the evenings and weekends were spent on your own street with your neighbor friends. There were a couple of kids, however, who helped drag me out of jail, even if they had no idea they were doing it.
In kindergarten, I met Vee, a girl who doodled on everything, and her mom, who wore blue eye shadow, which was the most exotic thing my 5-year-old eyeballs had ever seen. In the fifth grade, I would walk home with PK, who lived a block over from me, and as long as I got home before my dad did, I was allowed to hang out at her house after school. In seventh grade, a new kid came to our school, and although Elle stayed only for a year, we bonded over our shared heritage. We hung out with another boy from our school who lived across the alley from her. He had a wicked sense of humor, and still does. These people were the first ones to help me expand my tiny universe and teach me how to be a friend. They had their work cut out for them.
Sleepwalking down the road
Things changed when we went to high school. I didn't see PK anymore because she took a different track of classes from the ones Vee and I were in, and we lost track of each other. Elle skipped eighth grade and went straight to an all girls' Catholic high school after her one year at our elementary school, but we stayed close. Vee and I tackled high school together, a couple of familiar faces in a sea of humanity in our new, huge building.
Terrorism was not a word we used back then, nor did we experience it in the way that most people would describe it now, but the high school years can be horrifying and even deadly for some kids. We had our share of terror that came from bullies, or bad boyfriends, or family members who felt the need to inflict corporal punishment for whatever perceived indiscretion you might have committed against them. We lost friends in car accidents and mourned their young lives and the potential they would never get to explore.
We didn't know how to protect each other from the outside forces that hurt us, especially while we were in the middle of it. All we could do was try to stay out of their path and cling to each other as best we could, deflecting the pain with our music, poems, art and humor.
Human beings are a naturally migratory species and one of the hazards of our biology is that we leave behind other humans who choose not to go anywhere. Families are split and friends are lost to the promise of a new life somewhere else. Sometimes they come back (around here, we call them "boomerangs"), sometimes they don't, but our connections to each other are disrupted by our movement. It's not always a death knell but it can be if the relationships were fragile to begin with. I've had many friends come and go over the years. Sometimes a move to a new neighborhood was enough to end things, but with some of my friends, thousands of miles couldn't tear us apart.
As much as I resist it, social media has been a wonderful way to reconnect with friends I'd long since lost track of. We may not be as close as we once were, but I do enjoy seeing how everyone has fared over the years. Watching their children and grandchildren add that extra layer of love to their lives makes it seem like all the angst and worry over our teenage love lives was somehow worth it.
I see my children cultivating long friendships, some long-distance with the help of technology. Maybe they'll never know a time when losing track of a friend was a very real possibility.
There's a special feeling that comes when you're with old friends. They've read your book. No explanations are necessary because they've seen you at your best and most likely at your very worst, and still they come back no matter how stupid you've been. I love the conversations that start with "Remember that time ...?" not because I'm sentimental but because I know it means that any minute, I'm going to bust a gut from laughing so hard. I love the fact that I can say things to my friends that I would never utter out loud in my office or around people who didn't know us. They'd never believe a word of it, anyway.
I didn't plan to, but I've lived on the same street for most of my life. First, in the house where I grew up with my parents, grandparents and brothers. In my early 20s I had an apartment with Vee, two blocks from her family's house where we spent a good bit of our high school years, under century-old sycamore trees that dropped something on us every season of the year: leaves, bark, sap, seeds, dead branches, and whatever the birds and squirrels couldn't use for their nests. I'm still here on the very last block of the street, in a small house where I've raised my children. My kids and their friends are now the ones riding their bikes on the same streets I did, playing in the same park where we logged miles, talking, trying to figure out what it meant to be alive.
My doodling kindergarten friend Vee grew up to be an artist but instead of using pen and paper, she paints her world with tiny pieces of colored glass. While the shape of our fears has changed, we still rely on each other to get through the scarier bits. I had major surgery last summer, and during my recovery she came over several times a week to bring me Thai food and bubble tea. We sat on my porch and watched a mother robin feeding her babies in a nest under the eaves day after day, until they were big enough to fly off on their own. It felt so luxurious to sit unmolested for hours and reminisce about our lives and our own children who are in various stages of leaving the nest.
There are not too many people my age who can say they've had a friend since they were 5 years old. We are still at it, that deep vein of friendship coursing through our changing lives. We still enjoy each other's company, we still laugh at the dumbest things, and we still question and probe everything we think we know. Forty-five years later, we have yet to run out of things to talk about.
And a heart that is broken
The people I've been friends with all these years have definitively shaped the person I am today. They have taught me to open myself up to new ideas and possibilities, and I continue to be drawn to people who are smarter than me so I can grow and learn from those I am privileged enough to call my friends. They are teachers and nurses, musicians, artists and writers. Some are changing the world with their political work both at home and abroad, working in some of the most dangerous places in the world to help bring lasting peace where it's needed most. A lot of them are raising smart, conscientious children who will carry the mantle once we're gone.
My heart is bursting with love and admiration for my dear, dear friends, the old, the new, and the ones I've yet to meet.
(c) @U2/Maione, 2015