Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with two friends who have been texting each other a haiku every day during the pandemic. They say that the practice has kept them connected and helped them to live in the moment. They discuss how structure helps maintain friendships, explain the coincidence that brought them back together after falling out of touch for years, and share some of their haikus.
Judy Coltman, 63, a retired engineer who lives in Reading, Massachusetts Lisa Kent, 63, an artist who lives in Shelburne, Vermont
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: How did you meet and become friends?
Judy Coltman: We were best friends in first grade. We were in Brownies together. My mother was the troop leader. I remember going to birthday parties, things like that. Then I moved away when we were in fourth grade, and we didn’t really keep in touch.
Lisa Kent: We knew each other’s families really well. My father is a retired humor columnist and newspaper editor, and at the time, when I was hanging out with Judy, I had a skin condition where my fingers would peel. So my dad said this little poem, and he still says it to this day: When you play with Judy Neely / Your hands get peely. [Neely is Judy’s maiden name].
Beck: So poetry was part of the friendship from the very beginning.
Lisa: Fast-forward to college. I went to Smith and Judy went to Mount Holyoke, which are quite close together in western Massachusetts. We hadn’t been in touch in years. During our junior year of college, we both took advantage of an exchange program and ended up going to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, for a year. Most of the exchange folks lived in the same dorm. And Judy was right next door.
Judy: I remember the day we moved in, I asked Lisa where she was from, and she said, “Oh, just a little town in Massachusetts.” I pressed some more, and then she said, “West Boylston.” Then we realized we were reuniting after all those years.
We became good friends right away during that year at Bowdoin. When we went back to our respective colleges, we were so close physically that we could see each other a lot. I got to know her friends. She got to know my friends. After senior year, we moved in together in the Boston area and lived together for the next six years, with various roommates.
And we got married in the same year, in ’86. Our husbands are now good friends, and we visit when we can—but we can’t visit now, with COVID. That’s why the haiku project got launched, because we knew we were going to be isolated.
Beck: Whose idea was the haiku project? How did it start?
Judy: At the beginning of the pandemic, Lisa tried poetry email chains several times—where you find a poem and send it to five people and ask them to pass it on. I was like, “I am not doing this.” I am not going to find a poem, not going to write a poem, none of that. That went on for a month. And then Lisa suggests, “Well, would you at least just do a haiku with me?”
I find haiku hard.
But for you, I will try it.
—Judy’s first haiku
Lisa: I felt like I needed some sort of grounding each morning. And I remembered that a woman I met probably 25 years ago at our children’s soccer game told me that she was in the midst of a year-long project, where she wrote a haiku every day. And it always has stuck with me.
I just thought, Wouldn’t that be fun to do during this very challenging time, to help us zoom in on the beauty? I asked Judy about it, and she said, “Oh no, I wouldn’t be good at that. I’ve got a different kind of brain.” She needed some convincing, but she did agree to it. We got started, and it became very addictive.
Judy: Haikus are so number oriented. It’s three lines, and then five, seven, five syllables. It’s very concise. It fit my engineering-type brain. I think that’s why it worked for me better than “Let’s just write a poem every day.”
Beck: So you’ve been doing this every single day for six, seven months now?
Judy: Yeah. You get in the mode. If I’m out for a walk or a hike and I see things, I start thinking in haikus. Lisa does it too. We might send three in a day as opposed to just one.
Beck: Could you read me the ones you wrote today?
Judy: Mine was:
What is that I hear?
Sounds like water on the roof
And the plants singing.
We’re both gardeners. We both love plants.
This is Lisa’s. They’re so similar today, but we didn’t see each other’s before we sent them.
The earth is still pleased,
Steady rain all day and night,
Much needed moisture.
The brilliant orange tree,
Shines brightly for us.
Beck: A lot of the conversations I’ve been having during the pandemic for The Friendship Files have been about different rituals that people have come up with to keep in touch. Because now it’s a lot harder to let the friendship naturally happen. With the haiku project, but also more broadly, have you found that the structure of your relationships with people you don’t live with has required a bit more planning?
Lisa: For me there is more planning, and it has to do with outdoor activities. Planning to take a walk with someone you normally wouldn’t take a walk with, or playing tennis.
Judy: My focus in life has been more day to day. I can’t plan a vacation. I can’t look ahead. I can’t plan anything at all in the future. There’s today, tomorrow, and that’s about all.
Beck: Do you think that lends itself to the haikus? That you’re paying more attention to the present moment?
Judy: Definitely. If I’m looking at a flower or a tree, I get so absorbed in it just for that moment. The haikus helped me to focus on that, as opposed to just, Oh, that’s pretty. Or not even seeing it.
Lisa: My husband and I, and one of our sons who’s at home with us, we’re taking an online course at Yale about happiness. One of the points they made was that if you want to feel more content, you need to savor things.
The instructor gave the example of taking a photo of what you’re studying. Previously I might have thought, You should really just look at the thing and forget about your phone. But during this haiku project, I really did love taking photos, considering what I was looking at, and then writing the haiku. It was a great way to start my day.
Bright pink peonies,
Verdant greens and birch tree whites.
This morning’s delight.
Beck: Do you usually send them in the morning?
Lisa: Almost always in the morning.
Judy: Mine come at various times during the day.
Lisa: I have a routine. It’s getting my first cup of coffee, grabbing my little dog—who’s a great loyal companion—and going out onto my property, and we roam around. I have a lot of gardens, and we live in the woods. It’s a very, very peaceful, quiet place. And I find something [to write a haiku about]. Sometimes it’s hard to choose, because there are a lot of great things to look at.
Judy: When I get her haikus, I wish I was living in the country.
Beck: What has writing and reading these poems added to your life during the pandemic?
Lisa: It’s a structure. It’s a way to appreciate the moment and maybe feel some gratitude for whatever I’m looking at. And then when I get Judy’s haiku, it happens all over again.
Judy: It’s also the sharing. Even if the haiku’s not about something personal, I know if Lisa’s at peace or not. I get a glimmer as to what she’s feeling right then, and it also gives me a way to share how I’m feeling with her.
Time spent with a child
Is precious and fulfilling.
COVID makes it rare.
Beck: You have been friends over many seasons of life—from first grade to college, living together as roommates, and now long distance during the pandemic. I’m curious what you’ve learned about what makes for a lifelong friendship. And have you learned anything new during the pandemic?
Lisa: For a lifelong friendship, you need to keep in touch on some sort of a regular basis, but it doesn’t have to be weekly or monthly. It just has to be enough that you can keep up with what’s going on in that person’s life. More important is being there for the person when things are rough. During the pandemic we’ve learned [the importance of being] honest about how you are feeling. I often feel like I’m surrounded by acquaintances who just want to make it seem like everything’s okay, even though maybe they don’t feel that way.
Judy: This haiku project gives us a way to be in touch without having to say too much. You don’t have to have a whole long conversation, but you touched the other person that day.
If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at email@example.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.