Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter

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With her first book, A SLANT OF SUN, Beth Kephart wrote about parenting and drew us, in the words of the National Book Award jurors, “into a world of timeless and universal themes: the art of mothering, the cost of difference, and the difference one individual can make.” In her second work of nonfiction, she again explores something we often take for granted—friendship—and invites us to see it as if for the first time.
Beginning with the rediscovery of a long-lost best friend, ...

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Overview

With her first book, A SLANT OF SUN, Beth Kephart wrote about parenting and drew us, in the words of the National Book Award jurors, “into a world of timeless and universal themes: the art of mothering, the cost of difference, and the difference one individual can make.” In her second work of nonfiction, she again explores something we often take for granted—friendship—and invites us to see it as if for the first time.
Beginning with the rediscovery of a long-lost best friend, INTO THE TANGLE OF FRIENDSHIP follows the intertwining stories of a cast of characters for whom friendship is a saving grace. We meet a next-door neighbor facing the death of a spouse, watch two young boys learn what it means to be friends, and feel the heartache of a professional caregiver whose compassion and dedication ultimately come up short. Kephart is concerned with the haphazard ways we find one another, the tragedy, boredom, and sheer carelessness that break us apart, the myriad reasons people stay together and grow. What is friendship, and what is its secret calculus? Telling stories to illuminate this question, she also engages us in an essential dialogue about what it means to be fully alive.
Profound, original, and exquisitely written, INTO THE TANGLE OF FRIENDSHIP is a hymn to the intimate realities of our lives and what makes those lives not only worth living but magical. It will resonate with anyone who has ever had a friend, or lost one.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Beth Kephart is my friend. After reading her soaring meditation on friendship, I have come to understand the vast extent of my good fortune. For Beth, friendship is more than casual sociability: it's a gift, it's an art form, it's a righteous cause, and it's civilization's unifying force. She writes with winning passion; her sentences are crafted from measured complements of love and intelligence."—Ken Kalfus

"Beth Kephart's flawless, tensile prose speaks to us with immediacy and grace."—Jayne Anne Phillips, author of MotherKind

"Beth Kephart's writing is dazzling, her reflections restorative."—Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here

"Kephart...lyrically and poignantly explores the dimensions of friendship."—Lucille M. Boone Library Journal

"With grace and quiet wisdom, with lyrical prose and astonishing insight, Beth Kephart...embarks on a journey..."—Jan Winburn The Baltimore Sun

"Kephart's meditation will trigger poignant memories in her readers, who may feel moved to find a lost friend..."—Donna Seaman Booklist, ALA

"Invigorating...earnest and endearing. Kephart succeeds at drawing a stirring picture of our humanity through the prism of her... relationships." Salon

"Kephart is nothing short of a virtuoso when it comes to dissecting the many friendships people experience."—Doris Bloodworth Orlando Sentinel

"Kephart's writing is luminous, filled with phrases so precise that they are worth committing to memory." Publishers Weekly, Starred

From The Critics
It's difficult to read this collection of reflections on friendship without immediately evaluating the status of relationships in one's own life. Perhaps this is exactly what Kephart meant to achieve with her second book. Here the author ruminates on her personal alliances, ultimately proving that it's not possible to overexamine friendship. Rather than a self-involved retrospective, Kephart's follow-up to A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage, which was nominated for the National Book Award, is probing, personal and inclusive. A twenty-year estrangement from a close friend followed by a tentative, and later joyous, reunion was the catalyst for this book. The author delivers each tale, revelation and anecdote with dignity and humor, and the result is personal and true. Like a thoughtful hand-written note slipped into your pocket, this book provides a meditative, intimate examination of life's most important human connections.
—Stacy Schnellenbach Bogle

Library Journal
Kephart, a National Book Award finalist for A Slant of Sun, meditates on circumstances that promote and encourage friends to find each other, stay together, or drift apart, beginning with observation of her son interacting on a playgound: "Friendship is a benefaction and a weight?an instruction and a tool, a risk, a therapeutic, a happenstance, a philosophy. I must find the words to teach my son." Inspired by memories of childhood friends who opened her up to experiences beyond her family and neighborhood, she renews old bonds amuses no their meaning. As she relates details of her own intercultural romance and marriage, Kephart discusses friendships across cultural, ethnic, and language barriers. Remembering a former neighbor's encouragement early in her writing career, Kephart, painfully aware that she can never fully reciprocate this past kindness, offers support when this woman's husband is dying overseas. Unlike Ellen Goodman and Patricia O'Brien's I Know Just What You Mean (LJ 5/1/00), in which women share stories of friendship, Kephart in a single voice, lyrically and poignantly explores the dimensions of friendship. Recommended for public libraries. Kephart, a National Book Award finalist for A Slant of Sun, meditates on circumstances that promote and encourage friends to find each other, stay together, or drift apart, beginning with observation of her son interacting on a playgound: "Friendship is a benefaction and a weight?an instruction and a tool, a risk, a therapeutic, a happenstance, a philosophy. I must find the words to teach my son." Inspired by memories of childhood friends who opened her up to experiences beyond her family and neighborhood, she renews old bonds amuses no their meaning. As she relates details of her own intercultural romance and marriage, Kephart discusses friendships across cultural, ethnic, and language barriers. Remembering a former neighbor's encouragement early in her writing career, Kephart, painfully aware that she can never fully reciprocate this past kindness, offers support when this woman's husband is dying overseas. Unlike Ellen Goodman and Patricia O'Brien's I Know Just What You Mean (LJ 5/1/00), in which women share stories of friendship, Kephart in a single voice, lyrically and poignantly explores the dimensions of friendship. Recommended for public libraries.
Jan Winburn
With grace and quiet wisdom, with lyrical prose and astonishing insight, Beth Kephart...embarks on a journey...
— Baltimore Sun
Megan Harlan
Her lyrical yet conversational prose neatly evokes friendship's delicate balancing act.
— New York Times Review of Books
Salon
Invigorating...earnest and endearing. Kephart succeeds at drawing a stirring picture of our humanity through the prism of her... relationships.
Lucille M. Boone
Kephart...lyrically and poignantly explores the dimensions of friendship.
— Library Journal
Doris Bloodworth
Kephart is nothing short of a virtuoso when it comes to dissecting the many friendships people experience.
— Orlando Sentinel
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618033874
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/28/2000
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Beth Kephart

Beth Kephart was nominated for a National Book Award for her memoir A Slant of Sun. Her first novel for teens, Undercover, received four starred reviews and was named a Best Book by Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and Amazon.com. In 2005 Beth was awarded the Speakeasy Poetry Prize.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Call the wooden climber in the center the seat of power. Call the sandbox and the swings and the splintered tables the hearts of commerce; the shade beneath the oaks, the church; the ravaged muddy creek beyond, this country's borderlands. It is spring a puckering day. The kids alone, in pairs, afraid, delighted, in cars, on foot, in a parade of rusty wagons, on the verge of brave entanglements have finally come.

Out on the playground's edge, the sun at my back, I sit and wait and wonder. I watch. I know that the coming hours will shape the children's view of friendship and, consequently, their view of themselves. I know that there will be struggles, winners, losers, so many one-act plays, mysteries and parables. Who is the leader here, and who the disciple? Who will betray, who can be trusted? Who will be drawn in, who locked out? How will passions coalesce, what will be talked about, who will care? When will the accretion of events, hopes, revelations, gifts, become the stuff of memory and faith, a durable philosophy of friendship?

The playground bristles. The kids keep coming. A red-cheeked boy with banged-up knees ascends the climber and declares himself king. Below him, in the pit of oyster-colored sand, an artist marvels at his own crystalline creation, then guards its sanctity from the others. Blond and uncompromising, plastic molds and shovels at his feet, he attracts a gaggle of little girls and boys, beguiles them with the magic of the sand. One or two watch in reverent awe: obedient, an audience. The others grow rowdy, impatient, seize the artist's tools, plot a sandbox revolution. A tussle over ownership and rules ensues until some kids run off and some decide to stay, and the morning readjusts to new rhythms and old patterns. Soon boys are dissecting bugs beneath a tree, kids are fishing for algae in the creek, girls are scraping bare toes against the sun as mothers, fathers, nannies, siblings push them higher on the swings.

Amid all of this, one child stands forlorn on the fringe a boy without a place to play in this prolific spring. His bucket dangling over his wrist like a bracelet, his hair rolled up like SpaghettiOs beneath a cap, he has come too late, or too timid, and he has come alone. Sitting where I am, the sun now warmer at my back, I imagine how his mind is working, how his heart is feeling, how heavy his bucket feels across his wrist. I imagine that I know him, and in some ways, I'm sure I do. For I too have come alone. I mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend wait here, on the brink.

Watching the boy in the baseball cap, watching the others in their silliness and seriousness, their clear unrivaled laughter, I am taken back to years ago when I chose my friends, then they chose me. Friendship, from the very start, was both exotic and pragmatic, a roughing up and a letting down. It was the way I shared what I loved and discovered what was worth sharing; the way I wasted the day, or fractions of day; the way I knew how big or strong or good or protected or likable I for that small instant was. Friendship happened in neighborhoods and classrooms, and lasted for seconds and years. It turned trees into castles and marbles into coins, the streamers on a tricycle into wings of plastic glory.

This story, I know, is everybody's story, for the capacity and desire for friendship are scripted right into our genes. Rous-seau's lonely heroes notwithstanding, we are intrinsically social creatures, our very survival inextricably linked to the fabrics we weave ourselves into. Six billion people now throb upon our planet; six billion people must somehow daily get along organize resources, divvy up jewels, agree to certain customs, share the wonder of a baby's face or an aurora borealis. Sometimes the entanglements leave us with bruises, sometimes with friendships, and at times, of course, friendships leave us hurting, and we start all over again. Friendship isn't merely the province of photo albums and light romance; it should not, as it so often is, be taken for granted, a random given. Sociability and, by extension, friendship is, as poet and social philosopher Terrence Des Pres once noted, the by-product of the self-preserving forces of evolution. Look at the boy in his crumpled baseball cap. Look at how he stands: a muted wanting, his bucket empty.

Throughout our lives, friends enclose us, like pairs of parentheses. They shift our boundaries, crater our terrain. They fume through the cracks of our tentative houses, and parts of them always remain. They are the antidote not to our aloneness, but to our loneliness. I think of someone sliding over on a bench. A chair being added to a circle. A letter sent for no good reason. A joke only two people understand. I think of the way an oak's roots hunger after water, suck life into the tree, anchor the pith, the heartwood, the windshake, the phloem, and keep the branches in their leaves. I think of someone looking up and saying, Hey, I'm glad to see you. Someone indulging in the mathematics of plurals and finding more than expected in the sum. Friendship asks and wants, hollows and fills, ages with us and we through it, cradles us, finally, like family. It is ecology and mystery and language, all three. Fantastic, sustaining, bewildering, it requires us to explore and respect its multiplicity of forms and to teach our children its many lessons. To visit playgrounds where it all begins and wait and watch and remember. I want to know what friendship is because I am a woman, nearly forty. I want to know because I am a wife, fifteen years married. I want to know because an old best friend has found her way back to my life, like a leaf on the wind, like a cure, and because some friends have gone missing, and others are in pain, and others give me gifts so large I cannot reciprocate. I want to know what friendship is because I am the mother of a boy of grace and humor, a storyteller, a listener, a kid who is happily, confidently off on his own at school, messing around with his own band of friends, knocking soccer goals home at recess, settling down to a geography test and getting everything, save one trick spelling, correct. I am the mother of a boy named Jeremy who is deep in his own becoming, standing on the precipice of time. What do I teach him about friendship? What do I know? What can I remember and elucidate and put upon this page that will help him build a life through friendship, stretch his living across its poles? What do any of us know about friendship, isn't that the question here? What can we make of how it changes over time, how it is about wonder at first, then self-definition, then survival, how it is always about comfort, about simply being here, alive? How do we come to terms with the responsibilities and limitations, the possibility of schisms and despair? Because isn't it true that the more we let others into our lives, the safer we become and also the more endangered. Isn't it worth it nonetheless? Friendships matter; they rebut death, they tie us to this earth, and, when we're gone, they keep us here; our friends remember us. Looking back and looking forward we see that this is true: friendship stands as both a scaffolding and a bridge.

The boy with the baseball cap is standing before me. He is a lonely alone, his curls spiraling out in all directions. The artist and his fans have settled in. The king now has a queen and two loud princes. The boys beneath the tree have given up on their disassembled bug. The bouncy horses bounce and bounce, the swings draw arcs through the air, and down the slope by the creek, algae hangs like a bright flag on a stick.

"Hey," I say to the boy with the cap. "Hey. How about we build us a village?" "Yeah?" he says, startled. He had not noticed me before. "Yeah," I offer. "A village. Right here. In our private corner of the sand." "Sure, yeah," he says. "Whatever," his voice wincing and grateful. Dropping to his knees, a shy, heavy gesture, he scoops his hands into the sand and starts prodding, poking, plunging. Beside him, I too drop to my knees and steep my hands, pull the sand up into my cupped fingers and let it sift through; pull it up again, watch the grains fleck with light and filter, fall. I am remembering, making sense of things, remembering. My hands pull the sand up, let it go, plow deeper and deeper into the earth. Friendship is a benefaction and a weight. It is an instruction and a tool, a risk, a therapeutic, a happenstance, a philosophy. I must find the words to teach my son. Digging for water, digging for roots, I listen to the soft susurrus of earth hitting earth, then hear a burst of laughter nearby. It's the boy beside me, elbow-deep in the sand. The kid with the cap and a bucket full of sand, who is, for now, not lonely.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Beth Kephart. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

Contents Prologue · xi 1. Looping Back In · 1 2. Among Friends · 15 3. Reaching Out · 30 4. Rescue · 43 5. After Thoughts · 51 6. Nesting · 64 7. Back Home · 75 8. She Was There All Along · 91 9. Top of the World · 100 10. A Sudden Turn of Events · 111 11. Being There · 120 12. Snapping · 135 13. Perfect Strangers · 154 14. From Silence Grows · 162 15. Correspondence · 170 16. FAITH · 172 17. Passing Away · 180 18. River Wise · 187 19. Rendezvous · 194

Acknowledgments · 203

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2000

    A no-holds-barred look at the ups and downs of adult friendship

    Who would have expected a memoir about friendship to be as compelling as a good novel? I could not wait to pass this book on to my own friends--and then to meet for coffee to talk about it. Beth Kephart is a gorgeous writer--and a very brave one too. Her unflinching honesty--in describing her own fears and insecurities--helped me admit to some of my own. In fact, this extraordinary book compelled me to make contact with a long-lost friend from my own childhood, and to clear the air between us after many years. If you have ever made a friend, or lost one, please read this book. I am going to recommend it to my book group, too--the discussion will surely give rise to lots of secrets and revelations. A great book to read and to give.

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