The hardest thing about this period has been losing contact with friends.
Today a friend of mine emailed to let me know how her novel was going (which was well, mostly). It was wonderful to hear from her. More than anything else, I hate losing touch with people, and I have recently.
That reminds me of what the fox says in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Do you remember the story? I first read it when I was a teenager, and then I read it again in French when I was studying for my language exam. (For the PhD, I had to show proficiency in two foreign languages. I chose French and Latin.)
The little prince has left his planet and the rose he cared for. He’s traveled to a number of other planets, and finally he comes to earth. While traveling on this planet, he finds a rose garden and realizes that his rose, the rose he treasured, is just a common, ordinary rose, like any other. He falls down weeping. And that’s when he meets the fox.
He asks the fox to come play with him. “I cannot play with you,” the fox replies. “I am not tamed.” The little prince asks what he means by the word “tamed.”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”
“To establish ties?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . .”
The fox asks the little prince to tame him, and the little prince says that he doesn’t have time, he needs to discover things, find friends. But the fox tells him, “One only understands the things that one tames.” He says, “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends anymore. If you want a friend, tame me . . .”
The little prince asks him how, and the fox explains that they should meet in that meadow every day and sit close to one another, a little closer every day. So the next day, the little prince comes back.
“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you came at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites . . .”
So the little prince tames the fox. When it’s time for the little prince to leave, the fox is sad, and the little prince says, “Then it has done you no good at all!” But the fox says that it has done him good. “Go and look again at the roses,” he tells the little prince. “You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world.”
The little prince does go back to the roses, and tells them, “You are not at all like my rose. As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one. You are like my fox when I first knew him. He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.” And he remembers the rose back on his planet. “To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you – the rose that belongs to me.” But, he tells them, she is more important than any other rose because of the care he has taken of her, because of their companionship. Because “she is my rose.” That has made her unique.
He goes back to the fox, who makes him a present of a secret: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
I think that’s my favorite description of friendship. It’s something that needs to be cultivated, that takes time. And I haven’t had much time lately, have I? More than anything else, I hate losing contact. And so it’s time to start working on my own roses, my own foxes. (To actually return emails about how people’s novels are going, for example.)
Because it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, and what is essential (like friendship) is invisible . . .
(Rosa gallica regalis, by Pierre Joseph Redouté. This is very much how the little prince’s rose is described. Multi-petalled, heavily scented, with thorns.)