Since 1993, my four girlfriends and I have met for a weekend in September. We make it a point to talk about politics and religion. No subject is off limits: careers, relationships, regrets, dreams.

I attended a small school. There were 42 in my graduating class. At our 25th reunion, 50 percent of the class showed up. During that reunion, a handful of us decided that we needed to get together on a regular basis. That fall we started a tradition we've kept alive for the past 14 years.

They come from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The first andquot;Girlfriends Weekendandquot; was in Bandon, Ore., in 1993. The next was in Port Townsend, Wash. We've traveled from Victoria, B.C., to Trinidad, and to a dozen places in between. We rent a house, stock up on groceries, cook and eat, talk and laughand cry a little too. Often we laugh until we cry. After 48 hours, we say good-bye, feeling at the same time emotionally full and depleted from the intensity of the experience.

The five of us, who are together as you read this, are not simply friends. We share histories. Our parents knew each other, we knew each others' siblings, spent the night at each others homes, did homework together, knew our boyfriends and our wardrobes. We have known each for more than 50 years. We are like sisters.

I've had people tell me how lucky I am to have kept old friends for so long. It is a privilege, but it does not come easy, and luck has nothing to do with it. You work at keeping friends over the long distance of miles and years. You write letters, call on the phone, send Christmas and birthday cards, send cards for no reason. You show up for eventsweddings, births, the loss of a family member. Most importantly you're honest about who you are. At our weekends, we have no time for pretense or mind games. We arrive on Friday and leave on Sunday, and in between we catch up on a year of our lives. We come to the table as we are, and depending on the circumstances of the last 12 months, we come to share our happiness and successes, or to share our burdens, challenges and concerns.

If you are reading this on Saturday morning, I am in Jacksonville, Ore., with Roseann, Jane, Denise and Shannon. Are you reading this with a cup of coffee? We're drinking coffee too, and eating toast with blackberry jam. We are still in our pajamas, sitting around the kitchen table of this large log home we've rented on 5 acres in the hills above Jacksonville, starting up our conversation from wherever we left off last night.

Soon we'll get dressed and go into town for some sightseeing and to get the groceries for tonight's meal. After dinner we'll exchange gifts, a tradition we started the first year and one we all look forward to. Usually we give each other one main gift and a few small ones, andquot;side barsandquot; we call them! I've gotten each of my friends a copy of andquot;Sentinel of the Sea,andquot; with a personal note inscribed to each of my friends from the author, Dennis Powers. My andquot;side barsandquot; are a book mark with a quote by Anais Nin and a lighthouse pin.

Next week, I can tell you what gifts they gave to me. Or I can tell you now: Understanding, acceptance, empathy, unconditional love and a connection to my past and my present that is so rich because them.

Reach Michele Thomas, The Daily Triplicate's publisher, at, 464-2141, or stop by 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.