"EVERY TIME I WENT, I FELT BETTER," says Andrea Preziotti, describing her membership in Gilda's Club, a support community for cancer patients and caretakers founded in honor of the late comedienne Gilda Radner. Ironically, she joined the club with great reluctance after her mother took ill. "I was 28 at the time and most of the members were older women--I thought I wouldn't be able to relate to them. But I found it healing to be with people brought together by a common experience," recalls Preziotti, a sales assistant at GQ magazine in New York City. "You work through things like anger and guilt you just can't handle on your own. Also, women have a certain nurturing quality I wasn't getting at home, so for me it was really important to have the group."
Five years later, she's still in touch with many club members; one just invited Preziotti to her wedding. "If I feel like I'm having 'a moment,' I know I can call them and they'll explain to me what to expect because they've been there," she says.
The comfort Preziotti draws from the group might even extend her own lifespan. Emotionally satisfying friendships are especially potent palliatives for women, and are critical for well-being and longevity. One recent study, funded by the National Cancer Institute and reported in the journal Cancer, found that social support was associated with lower levels of the protein interleukin 6, a prognostic marker for ovarian cancer. Other research has indicated that a strong support system is protective against depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, high blood pressure, and recurrence of heart failure.
A propensity for healing relationships seems to be part of female genetic wiring; it maybe related to the hormone oxytocin, which is released during childbirth and also when women interact socially. Whatever the reason, women need women," declares Christine Hassler, author of 20-Something, 20-Everything: A Quarter-Life Woman's Guide to Balance and Direction. "We need them to guide Us, to be resources, and to celebrate with."
Still, putting together a circle of friends can be difficult in our peripatetic society. While e-mail is better than no contact at all with far-flung family and childhood friends, it's important to form supportive communities where,we are. A camera-phone photo can't replace a compassionate hug or a shared meal. The very technology that keeps people in touch can also be isolating when virtual experiences replace visceral ones. Similarly, when you're looking to expand your social horizons, let the Internet be a vehicle, not a destination.
new ways to play
THE BEST ADVICE is the simplest: Get out and play. "When you're doing things that bring you joy, there will be people around who are like-minded," says Hassler, "and it's important to have a support system that's like-minded." Become involved in activities that offer opportunities to interact, and then be proactive about organizing get-togethers.
"Michelle and I have overnight adventures where we get together for a mini-retreat and work on our goals," says life coach Ann Leach, who co-authored Goal Sisters: Live the Life You Want With a Little Help From Your Friends with her goal sister Michelle Beaulieu Pillen, Ph.D. "But the key is that we can be in the hotel pool swimming and splashing while talking about our health objectives--it's an active, supportive, and fun process." Leach and Pillen talk about financial aspirations while window-shopping, and encourage each other to make healthy menu choices when eating out; their Web site (goalsisters.com) offers suggestions and informative links.
Don't think you have to formalize every gathering. With the right person or group, every experience offers ways to develop rewarding relationships. Here are five ideas to get you started, whether you need to form new connections or enrich the ones you have.
1. form a circle
Women of previous generations often bonded together in sewing or quilting circles. Today's homespun options include crafts like knitting, crocheting, or scrapbooking.
You may prefer to make your circle meditative and spiritual in nature. It only takes a comfortable, quiet place for all to sit, and someone to be a timekeeper. Enhance the experience with music, candles, and calming aromatherapy scents like lavender and chamomile. Meditation groups can be nondenominational or drawn from specific world traditions, and focused on relaxation, mindfulness, or lovingkindness. If you're not experienced in the practice, guided meditations are available on CD, at alternative bookstores, or from soundstrue.com; one excellent resource is Three Meditations to Live By, a CD by yogi Rod Stryker (order it at pureyoga.com). For a better connection; Have your circle work together for a common good. Knit baby blankets for a children's hospital, bake cookies for a fundraiser, or help nursing-home residents organize their memorabilia. A meditation group can also be a prayer circle to express care for individuals or causes.
Variation on the theme: Tap into an even older tradition by creating or joining a drumming circle. A report in Alternative Therapies showed that group drumming reduced stress and boosted the immune system. There are a variety of styles and intentions; find additional information at rhythmweb.com/circle. More informally, you can make simple percussion instruments and invite friends to play together; consult the book Rhythm Play! by Kenya S. Masala ($17; rhythmoflifedrumming.com), which comes with a CD to help keep you on the beat. "Women's drumming circles are a way to ignite passion, to empower the heartbeat of the community, and to connect nonverbally," says Masala.
2. join a book club
Since Oprah turned reading groups into a national craze, it's become fairly easy to find one. If your library or independent bookstore doesn't offer a group, it might have a notice board where you can post an enquiry about starting your own. Or ask the community relations manager at your local Barnes & Noble.
If you're intimidated about leading a book discussion, Reading Group Guides provides templates for bestsellers and classics (readinggroup guides.com). Publishers often do the same; check company Web sites.
Once the discussion starts, be flexible. "Allow for tangents," says Sarah Gardner, author of Read It and Eat. "It's okay to ask questions like, 'If you were this character, what would you do?' It's the silly, funny questions that allow people to bond and keep them laughing."
For a better connection: Food and drink provide a social lubricant, so combine your book club with a dinner club. (Gardner's book offers menu and theme ideas.) Also, make time to discuss the way the books you read reflect the lives of each member of your group.
Variation on the theme: Don't think you have to stick to fiction. If any health-based or spirituality text has inspired you in some way, invite friends to read and discuss its principles. For example, there are "wisdom groups" that consider the work of Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements; find out more at sixth sunfoundation.org. Readers of Cheryl Richardson's Life Makeovers have started groups around the country; go to cherylrichardson.com/community.
Other appealing self-improvement options to consider are Spontaneous Healing by Andrew Weil, M.D., The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Songyal Rinpoche, The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar, Anatomy of the Spirit by Caroline Myss, and Positive Energy by Judith Orloff, M.D.
3. have a clothing swap
Selling them on eBay is one way to get rid of clothes you've outgrown (literally or figuratively), but a clothing swap is a lot more fun. Throw a party where your friends and their friends bring unwanted garments to trade. Who can resist purging her closet and restocking it for free?
You can hang everything neatly, but simply piling up the clothes and letting everyone dig in can lead to more merriment. Make sure you have at least one full-length mirror, and offer your bedroom for those too modest to change in public. If two people want the same garment, have both model it and let the group vote.
For a better connection: Invite guests to tell a story about an item they're letting go, e.g., a special occasion when they wore it. You'll be surprised how much you can learn about someone via an argyle sweater vest.
Variation on the theme: Combine your clothing swap with a spa day by having everyone bring a favorite natural-beauty concoction to share. If you need inspiration, you'll find dozens of recipes at spaindex.com (scroll down to "Spa at Home"). Its popular Chocolate Facial Mask is an excellent moisturizer for normal skin: Mix 1/3 cup cocoa, 3 tablespoons heavy cream, 2 teaspoons cottage cheese, 1/4 cup honey, and 3 teaspoons oatmeal powder; smooth onto face, relax for 10 minutes, then rinse with warm water. Everyone will go home with fresh complexions as well as a refreshed wardrobe.
4. play a game
Watching poker on TV has become a national pastime, but it's far more engaging to host your own low- or no-stakes game. If cards don't suit you, make it Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, backgammon, or mahjongg. If you'd rather be up and about, try billiards or outdoor activities like horseshoes, Bocce ball, badminton, or croquet. Have a rule book handy to settle disputes. If there's more than one game, rotate players so everyone can interact.
For a better connection: Form a tournament team. You'll develop tighter ties with your teammates and expand your circle. Libraries and bars hold trivia nights, and bookstores often host Scrabble contests. Almost every game has an online association that can direct you to events in your neighborhood.
Variation on the theme: Play a game that sparks conversation, awareness, and understanding. Check out a classic like Scruples, or make up your own versions of "What if ... ?" or "Have you ever ... ?" Or deal yourself a hand of inspiration with SARK's Creative Dream Game, which offers questions such as "What stops you?" and "What starts you?" in categories like "Time" and "Positive Challenges"; order it at planetsarle.com.
5. take a hike
Joining a gym puts you among people with similar interests, but usually you just do your workout and head for home. Hiking en masse, on the other hand, offers chances to chat on the trail and fosters interdependence. Some groups share meals after or arrange weekend getaways. The Sierra Club conducts outings nationwide, or visit hikingandbackpacking.com to find hiking clubs for photographers, birders, flower lovers, etc.
For a better connection: Head into the wilderness to celebrate special occasions, or to observe a full moon, solstice, eclipse, or meteor shower. At the turnaround point, engage in a ritual such as meditation or chanting.
Variation on the theme: Look for hikes where you can learn about native medicinal plants. Search online for your state's native plant society; you can also find out about healing-botanicals events from the National Parks Service at nps.gov/plants/medicinal.
find your tribe
Got a problem? Make it part of the solution by joining a support group. Forced to cut many foods from her diet due to celiac disease, Joelle Dobrow, a Los Angeles-based producer, found socializing problematic. Then she joined the Celiac Disease Foundation. "When you're in it together, the dynamics become so relaxing," Dobrow says. "Suddenly, there's a level of safety and comfort you've really never had before."
No matter how off-beat your interests, chances are someone else shares them. In his book, Think You're the Only One? Oddball Groups Where Outsiders Fit In, Seth Brown identifies where like-minded souls go to play left-handed golf, rock climb for Jesus, or share an interest in squirrels, among other things. There are resources for optimists, pessimists, and even procrastinators.
"If you're a bit out of the norm, you can end up trying to be something you're not just to have company," says Brown. But if you embrace your quirks, sympathetic souls will accept you for who you are, and your life will be enriched.
your cast of friends
"It's better to have one friendship that's built on truth and love than to have five friends with whom you don't quite know where you stand," says Christine Hassler, author of 20-Something, 20-Everything. Nonetheless, Rachel had to have Monica and Phoebe in her life. Do you need to add the following compatriots to your entourage?
The proxy parent. She doesn't have to be "of a certain age," just someone with maternal vibes: the colleague who bakes you a birthday cake, the neighbor who picks up your prescription, or the friend's mother who opens her home to you for the holidays. Accept the nurturing with gratitude because it's often family without the feuding--mothering without the smothering. Count on her to say: "Let me give you a hug."
The goal sister. "She's a blend of cheerleader, muse, and encourager," says Ann Leach, co-author of Goal Sisters. "She is aware of your aspirations for your finances, health, relationships, and career, and holds you gently accountable for seeing that they happen." You, in turn, do the same for her. Meet once a month to report on and refresh your goals. Count on her to say: "How many times did you go to yoga class this week?"
The mentor. Hassler defines mentors as people you come to respect by asking them questions and getting to know them, as opposed to "delivered" role models like family members or people in the public spotlight. "When we're seeking personal advice, whether it's spiritual, business, or even as a mother, it's often important that [the person we turn to] be someone whose life experience will lend appropriate and objective wisdom," she says. "A family member may be more emotionally involved with us, which makes it more difficult to be objective." Count on her to say: "Here's what I would do."
The devil on your shoulder. Who else can you count on to drag you out on Saturday night when you're clinging to the sofa? She knows all the latest gossip and doesn't hold back, will encourage you to shorten your skirt and to splurge a bit after eating healthy all week. Even if she doesn't succeed in involving you in some escapade, you can live vicariously through her exploits.
Count on her to say: "Sure, we can."
COPYRIGHT 2005 Weider Publications
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group