The doorbell rang and I ran down the two flights of stairs in our old North Oxford student house to let in Alan, the last arrival to our dinner party.  His cheeks were pink from the walk through the cool fall night, he’d donned a decent jacket, and he held a bottle of Single Malt Scotch in one hand and a bottle of Bailey’s in the other.  Whisky!  Bailey’s!  This was a luxury of almost unbelievable proportions:  to say that we were broke would be an understatement.  Alan’s gift created quite a stir among the six of us gathered for dinner, not because we were short of alcohol (we had plenty of bottles of £6 wine), or because we wanted to get soused.  The magic in it was this:  we were just at the start of the year, all students just getting to know each other.  Alan’s gesture told us in a flash that he had an extravagant and spontaneous spirit, and that he was both willing and happy to reveal this to us.  His openness called forth something reciprocal in the rest of us, and, no doubt helped along by that cheap wine and fine whisky, the evening fizzed with laughter and possibility.

Which led to mischief.  We ate salads and humous, swapped stories about our home countries (South Africa, Canada, the UK, Malaysia), and were consumed by intensifying fits of the giggles.  Eventually, the little bedroom in which we were all crammed to eat was too small to contain our spirits and someone (there’s even a possibility it was me) suggested that we go play Frisbee.  In the dark.  And cold.  We grabbed our coats, the Frisbee and those magnificent, talismanic bottles of whisky and Bailey’s, and off we went.

Now, something about Oxford:  it has splendid sprawling parks and college grounds, but all of them are private and locked up like secrets at night.  Still learning the town, we want from likely spot to likely spot, only to find them closed for play.  Once we realized this was a pattern, we decided that high walls and locked gates were no deterrent and simply hopped over the wall of a particularly lovely looking playing field.  Unknown to us innocents, we had actually broken into the grounds of an extremely posh British public school.  Tradition.  Respectability.  Rules.  Groundskeepers.

But the dark grass underfoot was luxurious and tempting.  The field had a sense of depth and expansiveness.  Our strapping South African friend threw the Frisbee deep into the darkness of the field and we pursued it pell-mell.  There was little attempt actually to catch it – the fun was in just finding the damn thing.  We hollered.  We ran.  We had a blast.  I have one vivid flash photo of the night, with a friend from Malaysia laughing in the foreground, an English friend on the lawn, clutching the Bailey’s, and a South African friend hanging from the field’s goal posts.  I don’t think we were ever drunk (although my friends might correct me), but we didn’t need to be.

Then, right in the midst of a spectacular tackle to get the Frisbee, we heard another voice.  A very, very angry one.  It was the Groundskeeper!  Clearly he’d heard us, and he was coming for us, armed with a great advantage, a flashlight (and in my memory, a pitchfork, but I suspect I’m getting a bit carried away there).  We ran for our lives, visions of expulsion and disgrace in our heads.  One, two, three, four, five, six…we all just made it over the gate, and then raced away down the narrow English lanes, until, safe, we finally caught our breath.  We could haven’t felt naughtier if we’d broken into one of the local churches and started playing Bach on the organ, or stolen a punt and tried to head for London.  We were delighted with ourselves.

Our crazy Frisbee game took place sixteen years ago, and though I’ve lost touch with most of the people at the dinner party, I’m still friends with Alan, and have become friends with his beautiful and talented wife too.  I think, after all this time, they qualify as old friends.

Tonight is a night to remember old friends:  if New Year’s Eve isn’t enough to prompt you naturally, Robbie Burns calls us to it with Auld Lang Syne.  Old friends are perhaps one of the greatest delights of life.  My friends and I can reduce each other to tears of mirth in about ten minutes flat just by recalling our adventures (and misadventures) along life’s path.  Shared experiences are a big part of friends’ appeal, of course.  But I think old friends are special because they really know us.  One of the things that I found early on in this research project is that people find it incredibly uplifting to be known in a context of love and trust.  We love being teased for our foibles, admired for our strengths, and forgiven for our weaknesses.  As we get older and take on more official “roles”, especially the serious ones like parent or employee/employer, it feels like we’re increasingly required to highlight certain characteristics and minimize others.  The television show Modern Family touched on this last season when the mother, Claire, didn’t want to admit to her daughter that she’d occasionally been a “bad” girl in her youth.  But of course, her old friends would have known all about it and loved her for it.  They would know her full potential for caring and for mischief, and remind Claire of the same.

And, of course, it’s wonderful to know others.  We remember the times our friends have been especially witty, or scandalous, or looked glamorous, or been gentle and kind.  We remember the time they made an extravagant gesture with bottles of whisky and Bailey’s.  We know them to be extravagant, kind, spontaneous, playful, smart and more, not just because of what they said last night, but because of our deep history with them. We see the full person in them and love them for it.

So take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.  If you’re lucky, Alan’s brought the whisky.

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