Familiarity and old friends

“Time means nothing to a ghost.”

Well, that’s not always strictly true. Sometimes life gets busy.

While we do not wish to set friends aside, even temporarily, sometimes we must do so in order to attend to other things. Still, the corridor remains, the long hallway of the familiar, punctuated by various doors and shadows. When we do walk it once again, it is like a field, different even while remaining the same.

Familiarity itself may not be a mytheme like a tree or a shadow, but in the vernacular, it is still a thing.

The familiar may be an old friend or even a group of friends, but it may also be much more than that. Friends tend to support one another as a wall does a vine.

Clematis on the wall. Author photo.

But familiarity itself is a presence, a being–something which is ‘there’ even when intangible. Familiarity’s quality may vary widely. Things, places, people, and sets of circumstances may be endearing, charming, cozy, and also eerie, unsettling, and terrifying.

Friends generally seem to follow certain guidelines. Friends often forgive unintentional (and sometimes intentional) faults and trespasses. Friends connect on a level closer to the bedrock of shared experience and human warmth. They may see each other as beautiful. Even one who embodies a mountain of neuroses or character flaws may become wonderful through the lens of friendship. Connection may be a perfect blend of creation and relation, curious and ever moving.

Friendship’s familiarity allows room, making space for otherness in its inclusion. We rally beneath humanity’s unified flag. “She may be x, but she’s our x!”

Friends share discoveries and secrets. Here, Hamlet unexpectedly meets his old university friend, Horatio, at Elsinore:

HORATIO Hail to your Lordship.
HAMLET I am glad to see you well.
Horatio—or I do forget myself!
The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.
Sir, my good friend. I’ll change that name with you.
And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio?—
MARCELLUS My good lord.
I am very glad to see you. To Barnardo. Good
even, sir.—
But what, in faith, make you from Wittenberg?
A truant disposition, good my lord.
I would not hear your enemy say so,
Nor shall you do my ear that violence
To make it truster of your own report
Against yourself. I know you are no truant.
But what is your affair in Elsinore?
We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart.
My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.
I prithee, do not mock me, fellow student.
I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.
Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.
Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!
My father—methinks I see my father.
Where, my lord?
HAMLET In my mind’s eye, Horatio.
I saw him once. He was a goodly king.
He was a man. Take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
My lord, I think I saw him yesternight.
HAMLET Saw who?
My lord, the King your father.
HAMLET The King my father?
Season your admiration for a while
With an attent ear, till I may deliver
Upon the witness of these gentlemen
This marvel to you.
HAMLET For God’s love, let me hear!

Hamlet 1.2.165-205

Horatio has come with the guards to tell Hamlet about his father’s ghost walking the battlements at night. The dialogue walks us through greeting, support, disclosure, the undertone suggesting the kind of quiet familiarity shared by friends. Hamlet protests against Horatio’s description of himself as “truant”. Horatio quietly agrees with Hamlet’s assessment of his own mother’s hasty wedding following his father’s death. “Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.” In friendship’s river, mutual regard flows through agreement and protective sentiment.

The dialogue builds to the revelations about Hamlet’s father while it also projects the ease between the two characters, reflecting the comfortable accord which so often exists between longtime friends.

Naturally, friends need not necessarily be ‘newsy’. Merely sitting in company, ‘being’ with each other may be enough. In friendship, familiarity may be marked by togetherness without expectation, without any need to fill voids with conversation. Such quiet community is part of human experience, often becoming central to the repository of our memories.

We sit on a bench surveying our surroundings. Hearing the birds. Seeing our own past.

Vast is the literature of memoir, which cannot help but veer into reminiscence. Frank Waters, the “Grandfather of Southwestern Literature” wrote his appropriately titled Of Time and Change about the Taos Art Colony. Many famous artists traveled to or through the area. People like Robinson Jeffers, Ansel Adams, H.D. Lawrence (who is buried on a mountainside outside of Taos), Willa Cather, and Aldous Huxley. Most haunting about Waters’ memoir, however, are his memories of his friends, Mabel Dodge Luhan and her fourth husband, Tony Luhan, and how they aged and changed as the Taos Colony times came to a close.

All of us who have been lucky enough to have friends know such moments. Sitting with friends, or sitting without them, and recalling them and others. Recalling what we did when and where and how it all was.

Shakespeare knew this too:

SHALLOW Ha, ’twas a merry night. And is Jane Nightwork
FALSTAFF She lives, Master Shallow.
SHALLOW She never could away with me.
FALSTAFF Never, never. She would always say she could
not abide Master Shallow.
SHALLOW By the Mass, I could anger her to th’ heart.
She was then a bona roba. Doth she hold her own
FALSTAFF Old, old, Master Shallow.
SHALLOW Nay, she must be old. She cannot choose but
be old. Certain, she’s old, and had Robin Nightwork
by old Nightwork before I came to Clement’s Inn.
SILENCE That’s fifty-five year ago.
SHALLOW Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that
that this knight and I have seen!—Ha, Sir John, said
I well?
FALSTAFF We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master
SHALLOW That we have, that we have, that we have. In
faith, Sir John, we have. Our watchword was “Hem,
boys.” Come, let’s to dinner, come, let’s to dinner.
Jesus, the days that we have seen! Come, come.

Henry IV, part 2, 3.2.204-26

Sometimes our old friends have become overfilled with themselves–the Zen teacup overflowing onto the saucer and then the floor. Still, we may indulge them, allowing them to speak on, whistling against the wind, to talk it out.

Old friends need not necessarily be human. Familiarity extends beyond the strictly human realm. Not only may objects be friends, but they may be amongst the most constant friends we have.

The old family teakettle. Author photo.

In many ways, objects may be more dependable than human friends. They may be more constant and more durable. The kettle never minds what kind of tea one makes. It never argues. It only sounds a whistle when the water’s ready.

Often, in human terms, the ‘auld lang syne’, the ‘old long since’, may be demons as much as angels. Lives are filled with vagaries and strangenesses. Annoying people. Inconstant. Traitors. Trespassers. The proud and sanctimonious. Why is pride the first sin? Because it defied the Lord in scripture? Or because the humans who deemed it so found it the most annoying sin of all. No one wants to listen to that guy who knows everything. (Take note you humans, and ye ghosts.)

Sometimes, like the great Ralph Stanley, one senses the inevitable lateness of the hour.

Ralph Stanley, O Death. Recorded in live performance.*

Death may be the greatest equalizer, the great peacemaker. The grave truly is a fine and private place, Mr. Marvell. Yet, death may also be, as Don Juan Matus supposedly said to Carlos Castañeda, “the only wise advisor that we have.”**

Perhaps fancy too. Sex going hand in hand along with death. The ever turning wheel of beginnings and endings.

Chloë No, it’s all because of sex.

Valentine Really?

Chloë That’s what I think. The universe is deterministic, all right, just like Newton said, I mean it’s trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be in that part of the plan.

Valentine Ah. The attraction that Newton left out. All the way back to the apple in the garden.***

There are those times in life when we return to old friends, old lovers, or old acquaintance for any number of reasons. To say something previously left unsaid. Voice a grievance. Apologize. Make peace.

Hannah What does it mean?

Valentine Not what you’d like it to.

Hannah Why not?

Valentine Well, for one thing, she’d be famous.

Hannah No, she wouldn’t. She was dead before she had time to be famous . . .****

Time always catches us. Old death may suddenly turn on the lights on the brim of his hat and show us the empty house with cold wind blowing through it. Sometimes we return too late. We miss the nick of time. It eludes us, and we founder. Then we listen to what Hugh Laurie describes as “the minor key”–which is death itself.

From A Celebration of New Orleans Blues by Hugh Laurie. 2012.

We always tell ourselves that we will call. We will bump into them. We will drop a line, a text, an email. Tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Well, you know the rest. We stand by the grave in solemn clothes while Hamlet jumps in. Ophelia has gone. Floated away, wreathed in blossoms singing snatches of old songs. In the end, Horatio alone is left to tell thee. Yet, even through time’s turn of the screw the familiar endures.

Strangely, oddly, peculiarly familiar. Familiarity wears any number of faces. It appears in any number of guises. It may arise in genuine friendships precipitated from an original enmity like the fox and the crow. They may be a familiarity of time, forged out of ancient recollection.


Up and down the high woods, up and down the low,  
Must ‘a’ gone a-hunting morts of years ago;  
When the beaver whistled, when the aurochs ran,  
Must ‘a’ been a-hunting when the world began.     

For I half remember (tusk on kingly tusk)  
How I’ve seen the mammoths moving through the dusk,  
Mammoths all a-marching, terrible to see,  
Through an awful oak-wood glooming ghoulishly.     

Shadows huge and hairy, as the day was done,  
Somehow I remember, walking one by one,  
Bulls grotesque and solemn pulling boughs in halves,  
Running ‘neath their mothers little idiot calves.     

Lumping through the oak-swamp, vast and dim and gray,  
I have watched the mammoths pass at dusk of day;  
Through the quaking hollow, through the tree-trunks stark,  
Gleams of mighty ivory breaking up the dark.     

That’s the way I dream it, that’s the way I know,  
Must ‘a’ gone a-hunting years and years ago,  
For I’ve seen the mammoths—‘tisn’t you that could—  
Moving like cathedrals through a dreadful wood.*****

Most often, friends are forged from communal experience. Shared sentiments and delight may bond us together. The weight of time may be ponderous. But it may also be lively and social. Time’s winged chariot may repeatedly offer us new wonders.


by Langdon Smith (1858-1908)

 When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
   In the Paleozoic time,
 And side by side on the ebbing tide
   We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
 Or skittered with many a caudal flip
   Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
 My heart was rife with the joy of life,
   For I loved you even then.

 Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
   And mindless at last we died;
 And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
   We slumbered side by side.
 The world turned on in the lathe of time,
   The hot lands heaved amain,
 Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
   And crept into life again.

 We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
   And drab as a dead man's hand;
 We coiled at ease 'neath the dripping trees
   Or trailed through the mud and sand.
 Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet
   Writing a language dumb,
 With never a spark in the empty dark
   To hint at a life to come.

 Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
   And happy we died once more;
 Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
   Of a Neocomian shore.
 The eons came and the eons fled
   And the sleep that wrapped us fast
 Was riven away in a newer day
   And the night of death was passed. 

 Then light and swift through the jungle trees
   We swung in our airy flights,
 Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
   In the hush of the moonless nights;
 And oh! what beautiful years were there
   When our hearts clung each to each;
 When life was filled and our senses thrilled
   In the first faint dawn of speech.

 Thus life by life and love by love
   We passed through the cycles strange,
 And breath by breath and death by death
   We followed the chain of change.
 Till there came a time in the law of life
   When over the nursing sod
 The shadows broke and the soul awoke
   In a strange, dim dream of God.

 I was thewed like an Auroch bull
   And tusked like the great cave bear;
 And you, my sweet, from head to feet
   Were gowned in your glorious hair.
 Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
   When the night fell o'er the plain
 And the moon hung red o'er the river bed
   We mumbled the bones of the slain.

 I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
   And shaped it with brutish craft;
 I broke a shank from the woodland lank
   And fitted it, head and haft;
 Than I hid me close to the reedy tarn,
   Where the mammoth came to drink;
 Through the brawn and bone I drove the stone
   And slew him upon the brink. 

 Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
   Loud answered our kith and kin;
 From west to east to the crimson feast
   The clan came tramping in.
 O'er joint and gristle and padded hoof
   We fought and clawed and tore,
 And cheek by jowl with many a growl
   We talked the marvel o'er.

 I carved that fight on a reindeer bone
   With rude and hairy hand;
 I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
   That men might understand.
 For we lived by blood and the right of might
   Ere human laws were drawn,
 And the age of sin did not begin
   Til our brutal tusks were gone.

 And that was a million years ago
   In a time that no man knows;
 Yet here tonight in the mellow light
   We sit at Delmonico's.
 Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
   Your hair is dark as jet,
 Your years are few, your life is new,
   Your soul untried, and yet --

 Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
   And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
 We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
   And deep in the Coralline crags;
 Our love is old, our lives are old,
   And death shall come amain;
 Should it come today, what man may say
   We shall not live again?

 God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
   And furnish’d them wings to fly;
 He sowed our spawn in the world's dim dawn,
   And I know that it shall not die,
 Though cities have sprung above the graves
   Where the crook-bone men made war
 And the ox-wain creaks o'er the buried caves
   Where the mummied mammoths are.

 Then as we linger at luncheon here
   O'er many a dainty dish,
 Let us drink anew to the time when you
   Were a tadpole and I was a fish.******

When we measure time on a geologic scale, it adds another dimension to our perspective.

While literature may be familiar, it may also be our friend. David Shields said, “Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this — which is what makes it essential.” True enough. Close friends may assuage our loneliness for a time. Horatios may discuss our defining moments with us, and their input may help refine our character. There is the old thought that if it weren’t for my friends who lend me character, I’d have no character at all. Perhaps that is true as well.

Old friends may take many forms. Favourite places, even when they may be gone from our lives, can be formative.

Paddlerest. Author photo.

Sometimes favourite conveyances–whether by land,

The Pashley. Author photo.

or by water.

Paddles at rest. Author photo.

An old volume may be dear because of content, because of sentimental association, or for both reasons.

Grandfather’s Shakespeare. Author photo.

To a cook, old friends may even take the form of a favourite kitchen tool or a favourite pan. A recipe, or even a seasoning blend–especially when it is one’s own.

Ghost blend. Author photo.

The field changes whilst remaining largely the same. We aren’t here all that long. Just a moment between sunrise and sunset. That incessant dying of the light.

Sunset field. Author photo.

We are a tide, our human experience marked with the ebb and flow of the familiar around us. We move and sow and reap, and we are sown and reaped in turn, the same old field yet ever changing. In the tide of time, we tread what water we can while constantly losing ground.

Sometimes life gets busy, and sometimes being in touch must be set aside for a time. Yet familiarity abides, as do old friends–and patient readers. That presence remains, not only being, but actually being there in life and at this point in time. We remain grateful for these markers in our lives upon this sea. For while it may be true that familiarity may breed contempt, it also, frequently, breeds content.

*American bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley started playing banjo when he was 19 years old, and invented his own style of banjo playing (Stanley style). His career had a revival later in his life with a resurgence in popularity for a number of his songs, including O Death, and Man of Constant Sorrow–which were featured on the soundtrack of the motion picture O Brother Where Art Thou. Stanley died in 2016.

**Castaneda, Carlos. Journey to Ixtlan: the Lessons of Don Juan. New York: Washington Square Books, 1991.

***Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. a Play. (2000 repr. with corr.). London – Boston: Faber and Faber, 1993, p.97.

****Ibid, p. 101.

*****Punch, 1914. Verse included here in dedication to RGL, who would know why.

******Yes, this has been quoted in previous posts. It is always worth quoting again in its entirety. Evolution is widely available online, and it is reprinted in many anthologies like The Best Loved Poems of the American People, Hazel Fellerman, ed. Doubleday, 1936.

One Reply to “Familiarity and old friends”

  1. “I count myself in nothing else so happy as in a soul remembering my good friends.” 🙌😊🍻

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