It's a matter of public record that my godmother, who happens to also be a bestselling author-artist named SARK, is totally awesome. You can go to Planet Sark to figure out why, if you're not already sure.
But I'm not writing today about her career, which is impressive and exciting and inspiring. I'm thinking about the incredible value of having her around to mentor me through life changes, like the one I'm careening towards right now. I'm thinking about how sad it is that our culture seems suspicious of mentors, if they exist outside of academia or professional spheres.
I spent my young childhood in Berkeley, California, surrounded by both single adults and families. I wasn't deeply invested in the nuclear family as a goal to shoot for in my own life, because I had divorced parents who had mastered the art of creating separate and equally loving homes. I bounced around. At Mom's house, we lived with the same two other roommates for nine years. Sandy and Kaki (yes, me and big sis made up the second nickname) were single female friends in their thirties who had moved in together to save money. They worked in interesting fields, played generously with Erica and I, had "family dinners" with us at night, and never, in my memory, presented with anxieties about being single. We had various other people live with us, and we moved a few times, but even when we moved away from Sandy and Kaki because of my mother's remarriage, I considered them part of a certain stable family unit. I still see them, and will always love them. In a very concrete way, living with them taught me that mentoring friendships, relationships between adults and younger people outside their family, matter.
I met SARK when I was 11. This story is also a matter of public record, since I must have told it at least 75 times. We met at the San Francisco Book Festival. She called me an "angel," and told me to write to her. I didn't. I was too intimidated. At the same Festival the following year, she remembered me, and asked why I hadn't written. I lied, and claimed my letter "must have been lost in the mail." (Ten years later, when I finally admitted this, to shocked laughter, she held a glass of water over my head for a second, so, so tempted to tip it...) I was buying the same posters I'd bought from her the year before, because my belongings had been destroyed in a house fire. She clucked, "Well, I'm going to give you some presents," and loaded me up with books, posters, SARK stationary, and asked me again to write.
This time I did. She invited me to visit her at her Magic Cottage in San Francisco, and the story keeps going from there. In a nutshell: we became friends, in a beautifully unique way, which had some precedent in my life, but none in my culture at large, that I know of.
When I was 23, and had planned my trip to Thailand, SARK (now Susan) and I were out to dinner in Santa Barbara. She expressed some sadness that she had not been included in my emails to family about the trip. "I'd like some more rights," she said, smiling. "I want to be one of the people who hears things right away." She suggested that I become a godchild. We'd been in a deeply intimate mentoring friendship for ten years, and it finally had a name that made sense to the rest of the world. It also makes very good sense to us--there's nothing Catholic about the designation. Susan was already bound to me by spiritual contract, and now we've got some external agreements, too.
Last week I called her and requested a half-hour of her time to help me with some life-decisions. I didn't expect her to be "objective," but to be able to ask me questions that would elicit more of my own desires and fears about moving back to California, or staying in Boston another year. There are many factors to consider here: job offer, relationship, where to live, financial issues, writing my novel, and so on. We talked for 40 minutes. I came away with valuable clarity. I also came away with the deeply grounding feeling of her love for me, her unflappable belief in my right to a creative life, and her utter calm in the face of issues that had been causing me some real anxiety.
I wonder if one of the reasons our bond grew so strong is that we chose each other. This is the main difference between us and other godparent relationships: my parents had very little to do with it. They didn't choose Susan for me. They weren't friends with her first. They supported my growing friendship with Susan, helped me visit her, asked friendly, interested questions about her, and developed their own connections with her. When I was fourteen they helped me travel to the Bahamas, on my own, to celebrate Susan's 40th birthday with a group of people all older than me. I never felt my parents were attempting to intrude or regulate what happened when Susan and I were together. They trusted me, consciously or not, to pursue that friendship out of a desire for growth, not out of an insecurity about my own family. They never insulated me from other adults, for which I will always be slightly amazed and totally reverent.
I worry about the American suspicion of adults who care for children. It seems that adults who enjoy children, or who have particular children with whom they bond, are only the subject of scandal. Unless you are already a parent, or a teacher, somehow you are supposed to stay respectfully clear of the developing young minds around you. Without parental control, or the credentials of an official mentoring program, you have no right to have your own friendship with a young person. I feel especially sad for young men, who can't even babysit without suspicion. American movies that involve some kind of non-academic mentoring from an unafilliated adult rarely depict something healthy. I'd be so grateful if you came up with rebuttals here. I'm also looking for films or texts from other cultures that include mentoring, of any kind. I know that the trope of the sexual mentor has been played out many times--and I'll check those out too, but I'm looking more for friendships between older and younger people that are depicted as loving, fruitful, having some longevity, and existing outside a familial, professional, or sexual structure. I'd love to hear personal stories, if you've got them.
My friendship with Susan changes as we age. There are new arenas of exciting collaboration opening up now, and shifts in our roles in each others' lives. The layers of intimacy keep peeling back and folding in, and I'm so, so grateful, and so glad.