Balloon Friends

For February, I want to unpack what a friend really means. Let’s start with a beautiful metaphor. Friends are like balloons, hot air balloons. They light up our sky. This brilliance is only possible because behind the incredible show of light and color, someone worked very hard on this balloon. Read more on this balloon metaphor in the Artist’s Note (for mobile view just scroll down).

I hadn’t seen my college friend, E, for years. She’d battled darkness to recover her mental health and had recently come back from the brink. We sipped our warm soup and looked out over the Squamscott River. It was January and we had walked over from my home to the Green Bean of Exeter. One of those rare days of reprieve from mask mandates, so we could enjoy everyone’s faces. 

As we caught up and watched the river slipping over its frozen dams, we delved deeper into the pain of depression.

“Do you have any friends who really know what’s been going on with you these last years?” I asked E. 

“I have a lot of acquaintances,” she said carefully. “People I go golfing with or meet for lunch at work. But no friends . . . except, my mom, and you.”

E and I were roommates in college. We kept in touch as acquaintances, sent Christmas cards and about 5 years ago I took a trip out to see her on Martha’s Vineyard. Other than a few phone calls, we have not kept in touch, until last winter.  E sought me out to be more than another acquaintance. E is sharp, she works as a lawyer in Boston and she is a whiz at solving problems. She understands what Facebook and our American culture has done to the word “friend.” And yet, tenaciously, she returns to the meaning of the word. A friend loves at all times (Proverbs 17:17) This is what pulls a friend away from the pack: we show up and we know what’s going on in all times. That is how we know how to love.

Friend used to be a word reserved for the closest, the dearest. It was a word that set people apart. In the collected correspondence between John and Abigail Adams, they open their letters simply with, “My friend.” It meant you had been chosen for the most sacred secrets, sorted closest to the heart, singled out as the most significant confidant. When E asked if she could drive an hour to see me, I knew I had been chosen. 

Sometimes the ubiquitous appearance of “friend” can confuse us to think we have as many friends as we have “friends” on Facebook. But, a friend is more than that. A friend is not content to skim the social media headlines. A friend is one who knows the deeper story than our Instagram pics tell. A friend knows what painful places we’ve walked and they press in there. Where acquaintances don’t have time or imagine we are always this witty, this well-scrubbed, this finely coiffed, a friend knows how much work it was for us to show up.

A friend knows before Facebook knows, a friend knows how many important discussions are silenced or canceled by big tech. And because of that knowledge, a friend will press into knowing beyond social media. A friend uses social media as a springboard, not a platform. So, a question for you:

How are you a friend beyond the social media machine? A friend will read something on social media and realize she wants to know more, she will text or call knowing how much is left unsaid. And unless you know how to interact off of social, you do not know the depths of friendship. 

Maybe you don’t agree. But consider, some of the most beautiful and tender things cannot be revealed online. All intimacy must have privacy to grow. None of us can reveal and confess as friends must, with an online audience watching. None of us are designed to be constantly “paparazzing” the friendships of our lives: the humorous, witty or picture-worthy moments. When we reduce our lives to headlines, we fail to know ourselves. In fact, my grandest moments of triumph, personal growth and pain are never suited for online consumption. Even on Facebook Messenger or private chat on Instagram, there are people watching. The army of big tech employees have access to everything you write on What’s App, Messenger, PM. Privacy is fast becoming the most obsolete luxury. But it’s available to anyone willing to patiently grow a friendship. All you need is paper and pen, or an email address.📫

That’s why old fashioned letter writing, new fashioned perusal email, and face-to-face, real life connecting (not just video conferencing) is necessary to grow friendship. We must carve out the time for just them, make the journey, drive the distance, book the hotel, spend time looking at our friend, noticing their face, watching them talk and listen. 

Years ago, I flew to Martha’s Vineyard with my boys. It was tedious and not exactly the dreamy trip I was hoping. E wasn’t quite ready to return my friendship that summer. So I re-sorted her, as I’ve shared, to protect myself and her from further disappointment. 

But now she is ready. And I’ve sorted again.  And E now meets me, driving the distance to connect in person. This in-person knowing is what makes the difference.

An acquaintance will settle for a ❤️ on social. A friend will not.  A friend knows what it took for that post. A friend knows why we shine and where we falter. A friend knows the darkness and the light in our lives. These “balloon friendships” are so powerful, fragile and beautiful. Find them, grow them. It makes life worth living. 

The Friendship Posts


Expecting Better Friendships: Friendship Fountain, Sorting Friendships, Downsizing Friendships
What is a Friend: Balloon Friends, Companions, It is Good You Exist
The Pace of Friendship: Walk with Me, Return the Volley, Trains and Rollercoasters
Growing Friendships: Friends and Flowers, Growing a Friendship, Weeding a Friendship
Healing a Friendship: Forgiveness, The Work of Healing, The Crucial Question 


Every February, Steamboat Springs holds a Balloon Glow Rodeo where hot air balloons gather against the night sky. The first year, I missed the event, but Dale took our boys and grabbed this amazing picture. I painted it on the plane ride back home from an artist’s workshop. Eventually I turned that little study into a larger painting, and then an even larger painting. You can see the process in these pics. I particularly like the one of my boys painting with me.

Against a grey, cold landscape, like this mountain in winter, the balloons shine brighter because they’re all together. When you’re dealing with mental illness and you want connection, there’s something about these balloons that reminded me how friendship glows.

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A friend uses Social Media as a Springboard, not a platform. Please explain the analogy.

I think it means the Friend wants to know more.

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