Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.
— C.S. Lewis
It describes a special type of interaction that often involves a shared activity that also can also be deemed solitary. Like art, something companionable is often hard to define, but I know it when I’m experiencing it.
I believe my wife defined the concept during our courtship. After spending a lazy afternoon together, each of us curled up with our own book but in the same cozy living room, she deemed the experience companionable. She was dead on and from then on the term entered our lexicon.
At its core, it’s nearly impossible to be companionable with someone who is not already a good friend. The communal nature of a companionable activity requires at least a modicum of understanding and respect shared. There also can be no chatter, no small talk, no leading questions during the companionable activity.
A first date, for example, can be many things – exciting, mysterious, horrifying – but it almost never is companionable.
You can never be companionable with someone who you can’t share silence with. If you have a friend or a family member who you can’t drive a hour with without saying a word or feeling like you need to say something to fill the lull in the conversation, well, you might love them, but you likely can’t be companionable with them.
Typically, to meet the Magsam definition, a companionable activity requires a shared experience but also requires an element of individuality. The aforementioned afternoon of reading, where the participants share the same general space and mood but are each lost in their own literary experience, is a prime example.
My daughter and I share a companionable time now and again with our respective art projects.
We’ve been know to spend hours together in our office that’s recently become an art room or at the kitchen table, her with her drawing, me with my models – each sharing the same space, listening to the same music in the background (always hers and often not too horrid) and each lost in our own creative worlds. Some short communication is allowed in companionable activity (Do you like the eyes on my cat drawing? Does this Space Marine’s armor look right?) but it’s short and to the point. It’s a far warmer feeling than when I work on a project alone. It feels cooperative and congenial without a lot of hubbub.
Sometimes the girl will use the word companionable as a bit of an accusation or a lure. Usually the tactic comes out when we Magsams, who are all typically grasshoppers, take on some ant-like activity, like say, cleaning the house or de-cluttering a room. Then the word comes out like the blackjack of a crooked cop in a gangster movie.
“I thought we were going to be companionable today,” she’ll say in a tone that’s half accusation but also a little wistful.
Ouch, nice try, now clean your room.
To be companionable, sometimes you just need to have the right relationship and to share the same relative space.
My business partner here at 12th Apostle, Greg, got me into mountain biking many years ago. Usually the first part of the ride, on an early Saturday or Sunday morning, we’d take city streets and paved paths and chat (yes, I know I said chatting isn’t part of the companionable equation but hang in there) on our way to the trails around Lake Fayetteville. Once at the mountain bike trails, we’d go at our own pace, sometimes Greg ahead sometimes with me in the lead, based on how we were feeling that day. Before too long we’d lose sight of each other, isolated by the twists and turns of the trail, but at the end we’d meet up sweaty and tired and compare notes. We shared the ride – shared the morning – shared the experience. It was the definition of companionable. We don’t do it anymore and I miss it.
If you’re doing it right, one of the most companionable activities in the world is fishing.
To achieve the proper mental zone, good fishing provides you have to have silence. Not because it scares the fish as the old adages go but because yackers are not your companions. Fishing buddies can chatter like a sewing circle in a truck ride to good water but once there they shut the heck up and get to fishing. Often the fishing happens within sight of each other, sometimes not. You meet up now and again to exchange a sentence or two. (Do any good? Nope. Are they biting? Yup. What fly are you using? Grasshopper. You can’t cast worth a crap. Get bent.) and then you drift on, leap-frogging each other as you work a stream or patch of water. A good fishing buddy is by definition, a solid companion.
It’s in the zen-like zone of true companionship that I’ve come to great realizations. I’ve sorted out a lot of my beliefs about God and our relationship during companionable experiences. I’ve considered God’s grace with a paintbrush in my hand; His creativity as I read a well-fashioned story; and His glory as I sang hymns between gasps of air as I zipped along wooded trails trying to catch up or stay ahead of my good friend.
Before we were married, Shan and I would often steal away to spend some time on the White River where it spills out below Beaver Dam here in Northwest Arkansas. I was in my fly fishing period and she loves being outside so it worked out nicely.
Shan fishes a little, like most good Southern girls but her true love is reading so these excursions would find me with my fly rod and her with a book. It was a perfect arrangement for both of us. One overcast and cold morning, I was wading in the White, the river was down and I was casting well. Shan was huddled on the nearby bank, bundled in a coat with her nose in her book. We had the river all to ourselves.
Then, a bald eagle came gliding along the river, looking for an easy meal. He ghosted over me, so low I felt like I could have reached out an touched him. He landed in a tree so close I could pick out all his details. He was a beautiful bird and looked magnificent. He stared out over the river in search of a trout. He didn’t even mark my presence. I felt invisible.
Afraid I’d spook him, I glanced over at Shan to see her still engrossed in her book.
I hissed and made several other oddball noises to get her attention but also not frighten the eagle away but none worked, the sounds being too soft to be heard over the river’s muttering. Finally, with one eye on the bird and the other on this woman reading a book, I risked a clipped “Shannon!”
The eagle didn’t stir. He sat on the branch like a sculpture. Shan looked up from her book, her gleaming blue eyes meeting mine. Moving like I was disarming a bomb, I slowly pointed up at the bird. Shan looked upward and saw what I was pointing at instantly. She has a country girl’s ability to unerringly spot wildlife.
I felt triumphant.
She smiled, looked back at me, and with no attempt to maintain the ninja-like mood I had created, stated the obvious in a voice that carried over the water seemingly like a gunshot: “Yes, it’s an eagle.”
Then she went straight back to her book.
I watched the bird for another 10 minutes or so, not daring to cast. The eagle eventually decided this bit of river wasn’t worth his trouble, spread his seemingly gigantic wings, and flapped away, winging downstream in search of lunch.
I started to cast again but it was casual, nothing intentional about it. I was watching the woman on the bank and her book. I was watching my companion. I wondered if she’d like to make it official.