I’ve been running a new route these days, not because I want to, but because my typical trail is closed due to construction. The bridge that spans the trail I usually run has been demolished and is being reconstructed.
I don’t like my new route. For starters, it’s longer. And it also includes the addition of two hills, whereas the trail I usually run is completely flat. Plus I’m forced to run along the road now, jumping on and off curbs, navigating a sidewalk that’s full of potholes, cracks and fissures. I miss the familiar, smooth path through the quiet woods that I know so well, I could almost run it blindfolded.
Progress on the new bridge is slow. Yesterday morning I stood behind the orange striped blockade and surveyed the construction, bulldozers lumbering up mountains of gravel, men in dirty jeans and hard hats yelling orders over the roar of machines. I noticed that after three months, the new bridge is still barely a scaffold. I wondered if the bridge would be done by the end of the year. I wondered if it would ever be done.
My friend Deidra and I first met five or six years ago. We became acquainted online first, tiptoeing our first tentative steps toward one another in the blog comment box. A couple months later on a frigid winter night we recognized each other at a local coffee shop, just from our tiny profile pictures on our blogs. A few weeks (or maybe it was months?) after that we met for lunch. I was early; she was a few minutes late. As I sat on a bench in the restaurant’s foyer I worried that she’d had second thoughts. Later, over our sandwiches and salads, she peppered me with questions, like an interview. I think we were both a little bit nervous.
I was unsure of myself in this new friendship. In a lot of ways forging a new friendship is like dating. You want to make a good impression, woo the person. And in this case, with Deidra and me, it felt a little bit trickier, because I am white and she is black, and for me, this was new ground.
I’m embarrassed to admit that Deidra is my first black friend. I don’t even like the way that sounds, but frankly, after typing and deleting, typing and deleting, I don’t know how else to say it. I’ve been acquainted with people of color here and there throughout my life, but friends? The kind of friend who knows you inside and out — your secrets, your flaws, your gifts, your fears? Never. It seems, for someone who is 45 years old, for someone who graduated from a university with 26,000 students, for someone who calls herself liberal, progressive, open-minded, that this shouldn’t be the case. But it is. And so for me, this new friendship was something different; it was new terrain, a new path. It felt a little bit like building a brand-new bridge.
I’ve made a few blunders along the way, like the fact that I’d assumed Deidra was white when I first “met” her online – I thought she was Italian, from what I could tell from her tiny blog profile picture. Years later, when I finally got up the courage to admit this out loud to Deidra, she acknowledged it without judgment and with so much grace.
I’ve made other assumptions that have all turned out to be wrong, as assumptions usually do. The first time I visited her church (Baptist), I assumed there’d be lots of Amen-ing out loud and hand-raising and ladies bedecked in fancy Sunday hats. Apparently, at least with regard to fashion, I conflated Baptists and the Kentucky Derby.
I’ve also said the wrong things from time to time; I know I’ve questioned, “Should I have said that?” I know I’ve hesitated, second-guessed things I’ve written in emails or said out loud. I’ve stumbled through voicemails and Voxer messages, stuttering and stammering and then hanging up and thinking, “Well that was exactly not what I wanted to say.” It hasn’t always been pretty and neat, at least on my end.
In the early months and years of our friendship Deidra and I stayed on safe, neutral ground. We talked about blogging, writing, shoes, books, kids, food, sometimes about faith. As the years have passed we’ve eased into conversations about race and other more challenging topics slowly, little by little, over time. These conversations have gotten easier, more natural and comfortable as we’ve built this bridge bit by bit on a foundation of mutual respect, trust and love, on a foundation of real friendship.
Building bridges in relationships (especially with those you might consider different from you), just like building actual bridges, takes time. It’s slow work. Sometimes it’s hard and a little bit gritty. Sometimes you might even have to take a detour, the longer route full of cracks and fissures and potholes. For a long time, you might wonder, as you look at the heaps of dirt, the foundation of the bridge barely laid, if there’s been any progress at all. You might wonder, as you stand there surveying the scene, if the bridge is really ever going to be finished, if the two sides will ever really connect.
Yesterday morning I stood behind the construction sign and observed the concrete, the steel girders, pilings and beams, the rebar that will lay hidden beneath the pavement, a tapestry of metal that will hold the whole structure of the bridge in place. I watched the crane and the bulldozer, saw the dirt, mud and dust, the piles of debris. It didn’t look like much yet, but the longer I stood there, the more I knew, the more I could see what it was all becoming.
As I stood behind the construction sign with my hands on my hips, I saw the beginnings of a bridge that will span a gap. I saw the future. I saw what the slow but steady progress and the hard work will build. I saw that two sides will come together, the gap will be bridged, and what is created in that process will be strong, stable, beautiful and new.