As friendships go, we all have diverse communities of them. I enjoy friendships in many spaces: family, university, chaplaincy, poetry clubs, former classmates, neighbors, musical groups, church family, work, and more. In complete honesty, there is one circle of friends I prefer over all others: my “French Salon”1 friends. Why? We are a small group of 10 women who have known each other from high school throughout college, grad school, professional work, personal joy, and loss—and we find a way to keep in touch and share life’s journey together while being in different geographical regions. Every week I receive a text from one or all of these beautiful friends. Sometimes the text is a link to an article, an e-card with a thought for the day created for me, or just a “check in” to see how I am doing. We meet online once a month to “catch up,” and always do so over tea and dessert (a habit we cultivated over many years to celebrate one another’s achievements).
Several months ago, one of my friends was working on a presentation titled “Love Languages” for a conference we were attending. While we do not belong to the same formal academic departments, we do participate in supporting individual presentations from someone in our friendship circle; we always take time to learn, listen, support (and critique) one another’s work.
Citing the work of Dr. Gary Chapman,2 my friend explored the way friendships thrived or died in an environment of growing isolation. The unique perspective was her focus on “single people” (i.e., all of us in this “French Salon”!). I was fascinated to see how she had crafted new ideas to the perspective of “shifts and emotional earthquakes” that have occurred in this popular, seemingly solid foundation of “love languages” as a result of our personal and social reaction to the pandemic.
How Do You Speak Love?
If you are not too familiar with the love-language content, Dr. Chapman has identified five love languages. This is, in essence, the way that we give and receive love in different relationships: friendships, children, work colleagues, marriage, family—social, personal, private. Identifying these love languages allows us to learn how to recognize them in others. The five isolated love languages are words of affirmation; acts of service; receiving/giving gifts; quality time; and physical touch.3
During our “French Salon” the discussion came down to a simple question: “What has happened to these during the pandemic?” As our friend needed quantitative data, everyone selected two of the languages that were easily observed in our field of work to put into practice before out next meeting. I chose receiving/giving gifts and physical touch.
Somehow, for all of us, the pandemic created a different interpretation for the project. It was not as “clear” as we all expected. I admit that receiving a “word of affirmation” from one of my friends (as part of the experiment) at 1:00 a.m. after wrapping up a 30-hour on-call chaplaincy shift at the hospital did not prove to elicit any appreciation from me: “Keep smiling and laugh with the sun!” Hardly affirmation and even less inspiration as it was dark, raining (I had no umbrella for the walk home), and the sunshine in the desert space I was working in would be a record 119 degrees.
I also learned my “giving gifts” gesture from my friend in Seattle (a small picture frame with little imprints of dog paws around it) arrived late and was a rather sad reminder for my friend, since on the day she received the gift, her dog, ill for a few months, had died.
Our friend in Maryland spent an entire day helping an elderly church couple clean the leaves out of the gutters in their home, only to have high winds uproot the neighbor’s tree from the yard. It landed on the couple’s roof, creating a huge hole (not to mention the leaves that repopulated the previously clean gutters).
All other efforts to collect data ended in counter-acts that defied reality. As we met online to discuss the events, we shared laughter about each failed attempt at “love language” display and agreed there was a rather unscientific earthquake for each one. Yet, as the conversation continued, something unexpected and beautiful began to accumulate in the space, and the writer in me saw the words hanging around us, waiting to be discovered as I listened to my dear friends share:
“Today I had to talk to one of my best professors about some student complaints, and we ended up talking for about an hour. The professor told me she’s going through a divorce, and I told her to take the week off, self-care. She is moving to a new home, and I am sending her some flowers to put on her new mantel for the weekend. Something beautiful.”
“That’s a good idea. You know, talking about hours of conversation, I finally caught up with my older brother, who has been traveling abroad. We talked about childhood pranks and eating ice cream on our porch. We were so poor. And he will be deployed again, but we connected with some beautiful memories, and I have decided to nurture that relationship more than ever. When we were about to hang up, he said: ‘Sis, you know I love you and you can always count on me for anything you need.’ And I said, ‘Me too, so let’s keep reminding each other of that. I love you.’ It was so special.”
“There must be something going on with this pandemic where people are just aware of things. Do you know that yesterday morning I woke up early to shovel my driveway before getting ready for my nursing shift, and when I went outside, someone had cleared the snow! It was 5 a.m. and I did not care; I yelled: “Thank you! God bless you!”
“Your driveway too? Is that not crazy? I came home yesterday and someone had written “Thank You” on my driveway with colored chalk! I have a picture of it; let me show you. Someone or more than someone took the time to draw that, and I thought: They know I am called at all hours to the hospital, and they must see me walking out. I am not quarantined!”
Words Speak Action
There they are, hovering over the room, bouncing from the corners of the ceiling, words that remind us of the language of love, the syntax of care, the linguistics of appreciation, the unplanned actions that change a day. That’s not quantitative research, that is an obvious whispering of the Holy Spirit, reminders from heaven to our hearts softly saying: You already know how to share My love with others.
We do. Why do we need to celebrate it in one day, when God has created an opportunity every day? I say: Fill up the calendar!
Apparently, my neighbor thought of that. That week, on the day I was to visit the nursing staff at a very empty Children’s Oncology Center, the doorbell rang, and there she stood: 77 years old; clean, pressed apron; light winter jacket; PPE; a hat; and a platter of cookies wrapped in pink plastic; her hands in blue gloves; a twinkle in her eyes. She baked these for the nurses. She remembered that I had mentioned that every two weeks I visited the children, and now without the children maybe the nurses would appreciate a vanilla cookie with a Hershey’s Kiss on it. I looked at the beautiful morsels. Some have the Hershey’s Kisses called “Hugs” (white and milk chocolate swirled together). She smiles and says: “Hugs and kisses!”
I stand in surprise wondering: Why? What? How could you remember when I had to double-check my own calendar? And then I realize this is a moment of receiving that should be more than appreciated; it should be celebrated in gracious gratitude because she did this without anyone asking her to give of her time or day.
I take the heavy, over-stacked platter and thank her. I see her nod. I remember her smile. I see her eyes smile back, and for some odd reason the exchange brings tears to my eyes. She looks at me and extends her hand, touches my shoulder, gently squeezes it, and whispers: “God is with us. You remind them, OK?” Her touch feels like a blessing because it is. Her words sound like an exhortation to spread good news because they are. The time she spent preparing was time set aside for strangers she knows need loving words—reminders of care—because we do. She is serving others in so many ways, and I am speechless. As tears run down my face into my PPE mask, I wonder what my tears demonstrate trapped in that mask: appreciation, sincere gratitude, surprise? Then I realize: This language is understood by God. My neighbor understands my silence.
Every day God gives me an opportunity to share a kind word, a gesture of good will, a moment of silence when my words want to run ahead, a touch of the hand, a smile, the opportunity to meet a need for a stranger such as a meal, a blanket, time. How fortunate we are to know that love is 24/7/365. Love one another. The first item on my “To Do” list, every day, as it should be.
1 This is a term used during the Age of Enlightenment in the early eighteenth century; a French Salon was a key institution in which women played a central role as presenters and collaborators of ideas and observations on topics. Salons provided a place for women and men to congregate for intellectual discourse.
2 Gary Chapman, The 5 Love Languages: Secrets to Love That Lasts (series), (Chicago, Ill.: Northfield Publishing, 2015).