I heard footsteps behind me. This was a first. Although there were twelve apartments in my complex that shared the common clothesline, I hadn’t seen anyone here since arriving in my new home several weeks ago. I peeked from behind the sheets and towels I was hanging and saw a woman about my mother’s age.
“Hello,” I ventured timidly. While not usually a shy person, I often become nervous around new people.
She seemed a bit surprised to see me but rewarded my efforts with a soft spoken, “Hello.”
I introduced myself, explaining that my husband and I had recently moved into the top right apartment. Her name was Elaine and, as it turned out, she and her husband lived in the apartment below.
“You don’t sound like you are from around here?” she asked me.
“No, I am from the States. My husband and I were recently married, and I just moved here,” I explained. I was done hanging my laundry and though anxious to talk more, I wasn’t sure what to say. I picked up my basket, “Well it was nice meeting you.”
“You too.” Elaine replied.
It was the end of January 2009, two months into my marriage, and one month and three weeks into life in a new country far from places and people that brought me comfort. Already I was learning an extremely valuable lesson about marriage and its limitations — that I could be sharing life with my best friend and yet I could still feel deep gut wrenching loneliness. Somehow being married didn’t fill all the empty places in my heart.
My married life in South Africa began in a rather melodramatic fashion. Thinking back on those early days, it seems as though it could be the plot line of some bad straight-to-DVD movie:
- No job (I didn’t have a work permit)
- No phone (it took about 3 months for the phone line to be connected after we requested it but thankfully there was a cell phone)
- No cell phone minutes (very expensive for the casual conversation, but at least I could reach my husband in the day and my mother could call me)
- No car (OK, there was a car, but I didn’t know how to drive it)
- No Internet and thus no email
- No television (which was a choice)
- Most importantly, no friends
Although I did have a friend or two outside of my husband, the no car and no phone made it very difficult to connect with them. The only thing that saved me from endless days without hearing the sound of another person’s voice was the radio.
Each morning when my husband left for work, I was confronted with another long day of silent thoughts and unexpressed words.
In that isolated state, I focused on nurturing my relationship with God, and I tried to be thankful for my lonely days because it gave me a real opportunity to depend on my Lord and be still before Him. I saw with even greater clarity how many blessings could not replace the true blessing of knowing my Lord.
Between my morning walks, the less than two hours it took me to clean our apartment and do the laundry, the time spent preparing dinner, the books I was quickly reading and my quiet time, the days still seemed long. I realized early on that I was craving human interaction as evidenced by my willingness to talk longer than normal with the check out girl at the grocery store or the random person who admired my American accent.
What I needed were friends, and I was unsure how to proceed with this. I recognized how friendships can start with a simple conversation with a stranger like Elaine, but it was not as clear to me how to nurture a budding friendship along. In the past, new friendships seemed to grow organically from being in a place where everyone was looking for a friend: first college and then later graduate school. Even at other lonely times of life, it was still easy to reach for the phone and speak with a familiar voice, so needing to know how to nurture new friendships seemed less important.
After that initial meeting over the laundry, I would periodically run into Elaine on the stairs, at the clothesline, or near the complex gate. We would exchange pleasantries, and I would leave the conversation wishing we had more of a reason to talk longer.
During a cherished cell phone call from my mother, I explained that I wanted to grow a friendship with Elaine, but I was not sure what to do. I wanted to ask her for tea, but I was worried that she might decline. My mother encouraged me out of her own experience — 35 years earlier she married and moved to Alaska from Jamaica, similarly to the way I had married and moved to South Africa from Alaska.
My mother told me that for every five initiations of friendship, you might gain one friend. The odds didn’t seem so great to me, but I was encouraged that a rejection of a tea invitation certainly didn’t mean I wasn’t able to nurture a friendship. So by the end of the week I gathered my courage and invited Elaine to my apartment for tea. I held my breath waiting for her reply.
To my delight, she said she would be happy to come!
I had a lovely time getting to know Elaine (and her husband who crashed the party). A few weeks later, they invited me for a morning drive to show me some of the highlights of Cape Town. A friendship had been initiated, but I realized nurturing the friendship would involve continuing to step out of my comfort zone and extend another invitation to Elaine.
Nervous feelings and pictures of rejection entered my mind again. To my delight, Elaine again accepted my invitation, this time to lunch. During that shared meal, I started to think that perhaps God had brought each of us into the others life because we both needed a friend.
Over the months I have had tea with Elaine and her husband several times, and they have had tea with me several times. I have brought them cookies or slices of cake that I baked, and Elaine has graciously offered to give me rides during the day if ever I needed one. We continue to meet on the stairs or at the clothesline, and I no longer wish the conversations were longer because I know that God has grown these chance meetings into a friendship and thus soon enough we will be getting together for tea.
God saw my lonely heart and used Elaine to show me how I can reach out and nurture new friendships with others. So while Elaine was the first friend I reached out to, God continues to bring new relationships into my life that can and have grown into friendships in much the same way as my friendship with Elaine has developed.
When I think about the friendships and acquaintances that God brought into my life since moving to South Africa, I see tangibly how God deeply cared about me in my lonely place. He gave me the confidence to nurture friendships because it brings Him joy. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 25:16-17:
Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart have multiplied; free me from my anguish.
The Lord answered my cries of loneliness and truly has been gracious to me by showing me how to nurture new relationships.
Even still with a wonderful husband and a growing circle of friends, after all this time I find myself experiencing occasional bouts of loneliness. For me it is a reminder that nothing but Jesus will ever satisfy or completely fix loneliness. I should not get so caught up in the gift of friendships that I lose sight of the Giver of friendships. As I have tea with my new friends, may I remember the importance of having tea with my Savior.