Before you read my post, you need to watch this. I know, I know. There are shiny blue shirts, way too much fringe and fiddles playing, but just humor me. (Start at 1:15.)
When I was in third grade we had to learn a square dance for music class. I had my eyes set on this handsome brunette boy to be my partner simply because I got to hold his hand. We got put together, and I got to hold his hand over and over again for a few glorious, sweaty-palmed minutes. It was as awkward and wonderful as third grade hand-holding should be. We learned which way to walk, how to switch partners in the right order and how to criss-cross between other couples to ultimately wind up back in our same spot. Oh, how I wanted to wear one of those insanely poofy skirts with the billion-layer petticoat and a shiny pair of bright white clogs! I don’t care who you are, you cannot deny the twirl-potential of these skirts:
In the past seven months I have had to say “see ya later” to six friends who have been transferred to new military bases (and will be saying it to another one tonight, sadly). This got me thinking about just how unique the friendship process is for military members and their families. Being a military brat myself, I sometimes forget how it is not quite “normal”. It is, essentially, exactly like a square dance. Sans the poofy shirt and shiny clogs, of course. (But if that’s your thing, you go right on with your bad self.)
If you are like me and need real, solid, genuine friendships in your life to function, moving every 2-4 years can make the idea of making friends daunting and a little terrifying. There are two main reasons for this:
1) The trust that is involved in cultivating strong relationships is normally earned over time, sometimes many years. The thought of having to do it quickly can be stressful and seem almost impossible.
2) Why even invest so much energy into a relationship when you know you that your time with that person will be cut short anyway?
There is one answer to both of these questions: because it is essential to the well being of everyone in a military household.
Military members and their dependents need hardcore friendships because there are aspects of this life that no one fully understands except for those knee-deep in it, such as (these are from a spouse’s point of view, but it is true for active duty members as well as children):
-Our active duty member may have an intense job that deals with very stressful situations or decisions, which can, and often does, inadvertently put stress on the rest of the household. Our mil friends understand this and are a huge source of support, allowing us to relieve some of that frustration, which, ultimately, helps out the entire family.
-Our active duty member may have an irregular schedule, which makes it difficult for family members to get out or do much. Odd or extended hours and inconsistent schedules are very common, and this can cause a lot of frustration for military families. Friends are a way to not only help lighten the load but also just a great support in general. When others are going through the same thing, there is a huge amount of empathy attached.
-Our military husband/wife is usually ripped out of our lives constantly, sometimes at a moment’s notice. Many times they cannot tell us where they are going or cannot communicate very often. And when they do get to communicate, it is in a different time zone or the connection is terrible, which is beyond disappointing. Not having a tribe to (sometimes literally) hold your hand through it all can be devastating for a mil spouse. My friends went with me to find out the sex of my firstborn because my husband was deployed at the time of the appointment. During a time that could’ve been very lonely, I was smiling because of my friends.
-We are nowhere near “home”. We are always away from family and close friends, so when something big occurs, such as a birth or even a holiday, your mil friends become your family for a little bit. They are the ones you cut the turkey with. They are the ones helping you through contractions while your spouse is deployed. What could potentially be a terribly isolating situation can turn out to be quite the opposite simply because of our friends.
Thankfully, the military knows this and is usually good about providing multiple opportunities to meet people, especially when overseas. Spouse groups, squadron functions and meet-ups, FB groups, playgroups and a myriad of other organizations have doors wide open for spouses. I’ve talked to many civilian friends and friends who are no longer military, and what I gather is that it is actually easier to form strong friendships in the military because of all of these opportunities. But even so, lifting that white clogged foot and taking the first step is not easy, especially when you don’t know any of your partners.
For newbies, this may take longer than those that have done this dance a time or two or ten. At the beginning it is actually kind of terrifying to throw yourself out there hoping that you might find some people who will be good partners to do-si-do with at your new base. But after doing it a few times, you learn that, as scary as it is, you just have to go for it if you don’t want to become a miserable hermit.
So you start to show interest and decide to try some groups out. You stand there in your big fluffy skirt and shiny clogs and take the step to join in a circle and do-si-do. You show them your style and technique. Maybe they smile at you, maybe they don’t. Maybe they don’t move to the beat as quickly, or maybe they move quicker. But you keep dancing, trying it out a few times to see how you fit. Then you clickity-clack your way across to another partner and do the same. You mingle in and out, extending your sweaty palms to others multiple times until you find a good fit. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, but after a few rounds the goodness sets in. All of a sudden you and your partners are moving in tandem, clogs working at the same speed; your promenades and courtesy turns perfectly on point. It just….works.
Sometimes your old partners find their own circles, and, on occasion, you join back together again with bells on. You are happy that they found their own circle of partners, even if it doesn’t involve you.
Sometimes, partners don’t work out, and that is okay. It can’t be perfect every time. You mourn the thought of how good things could’ve been and continue to dance. It’s just how it goes.
Sometimes you see a dancer far off on the other side of the dance floor, and you know without a shadow of a doubt they would be a perfect partner for you. You can feel it. But other circles or obstacles seem to get in the way, so you hesitantly let go. You realize that they have found their own circle, so you watch from afar and wave when they see you. They wave back and smile, but you can’t help but wonder, with a little bit of sadness, how the dance would’ve been different had they been your partner.
Sometimes you meet an amazing partner only moments before you have to leave the dance floor. As much as you want to stay, the square dance gods won’t allow it, and so you watch them twirl and twist with others so well, wishing with everything in you that you were still there with them.
And sometimes, it takes multiple rounds of practice to find that circle of partners that make the dance work seamlessly, sometimes not. But eventually, if you work hard enough, you will find them. And when you do, it will be everything you hoped for.
The square dance keeps on going, year after year, from one dance floor to another. Partners eventually twirl out and new partners twirl in; that is just the nature of the dance. But your feet keep moving, clicking and clacking hard on the ground, full of perseverance and moxie.
When I moved to Japan in 2006 I was both excited and terrified. New country, an opposite time zone from family and friends, extreme culture-shock, husband deployed all.the.time…how was I to deal with all of that on my own? Thankfully, a girl reached out her palm to many of us who had just moved there around the same time and asked us to dance. We brushed off our poofy skirts and got our feet moving. So how did that turn out?
I’d say pretty awesome.
Moving back stateside is a bit different because there is more to be involved in outside of your military life. But I did the same dance in various circles and found some amazing partners.
When I moved to Germany, I was greeted by more extended hands and shiny smiles. I felt so welcome, but many of those people were scheduled to switch dance floors soon after I arrived, so I straightened my backbone and invited a ton of new people to dance. People who would be here about as long as I would be. People from different military branches, backgrounds, colors, religions and ages. It was one helluva dance party, let me tell you. I met so many amazing people and, ultimately, my circle.
This is how you get through it, y’all.
At the moment I’m getting ready for move number five, and already my nerves are on edge at the thought of trying to make friends all over again. But as difficult as it may be, I will dust off my clogs and take that step out onto the dance floor once again because dancing is so much more fun than sitting in the audience.
So what are you waiting for? Put on your poofy skirt and ask someone to dance, dammit.