Saturday, September 29, 2012

A meditation on family

It's easy for me to fall into romantic, maudlin moods when I can't sleep. The mood is why I find myself at my computer at almost 1 am, thinking (and writing) about my family, instead of dead to the world, beside my husband in our warm bed, where I should, and would rather, be after such a long work week.

I seem to think of my family a lot these days, now that they seem so far away. My parents recently emigrated to a small, wealthy nation on the other side of the planet. It makes the--what's the right noun?--the estrangement of our relationship easier to bear, knowing that there's an ocean and 1.5 continents between us, depending on which way the transcontinental jet flies. I wonder about them; until it happened, I never thought my parents, two people staid in their Midwestern, middle-American cautious and unadventurous lives, would ever have the courage or the willingness to relocate so profoundly and so thoroughly. As impossible as it is right now for us to treat each other in a way that is healthy and positive for all of us, I wonder about them. I dream about my parents a lot. I've been dreaming about them for months, years it feels like. They show up as themselves now; before they were archetypes: raccoons that were trying to destroy a puppy; disembodied voices; locked in the bodies of other authority figures. But I guess at this point I've done enough processing that when they show up, they look the way I remember them. My mother: large, surprisingly (to some, although she never sees it herself) attractive, profoundly impenetrable in her portrayal of a woman who has it all together. My father: stoic and silent, enigmatic; the same glasses and mustache; a voice that is both soft and terrifying when full of anger. I wonder what will become of the three of us.

I think about my cousin, a woman in her early twenties serving her country and stationed somewhere she shouldn't be. A stunner with an education who was raised in a military family: I admire her courage and commitment to serving. She is doing something I cannot conceive of doing, something I wouldn't have thought of at her age, and something I could not do at my age. I wonder about what made her decide to serve. I remember buying her a swanky black purse after she graduated from college, and now I imagine what a crummy gift it must have been: did she open it and think, "Jeez, Jess, you really don't know me at all?" I wonder what it is like to stand on a wall; I wonder what it is like to fire a weapon, and to practice so that if and when you have to, you can take someone's life with your shot. How does she do that? I am proud of her discipline and dedication. I'm also scared of what she has had to become to serve in the military. I wonder if she has ever had to ward off any unwelcome advances from senior officers; I wonder if she has succeeded.

I think about my grandmothers, one of whom seems to lose touch a little every day, the other who has buried two husbands and now lives alone downstate. She has a boyfriend, they keep good company. Do they think of their kids, grandkids, great-grandkids? Are they lonely? Are they scared? What does aging feel like, and does it have any dignity, or is it as undignified and shameful as it seems?

I think about another cousin, a man in his twenties, on an aircraft carrier somewhere. He has a wife. A child on the way. Another cousin in Michigan with a med school wife and a son he is determined to make a carbon copy of himself. I wonder about that boy, Junior, and I pray that he can be a version of himself that will make him happy, and not just satisfy his parents' wishes. Uncles and aunts cast to the wind like seeds, living their own lives, people with whom I share name, bloodline, genetic makeup. It all seems so remote now. Relationships are difficult (for me) to maintain even in the best of circumstances. Putting hundreds of miles, states, time zones, nations, between us makes it even harder. What do I not know about life there, or there?

What is this word, family? Is it people with whom you share blood? People who were there when you started your period, or graduated from high school, who held you, shaking, after your first car accident? Is it people who sit up with you when you can't sleep? People who respect your boundaries? People who tell you what  you want to hear, or people who fault you for not telling them what they want to hear?

I don't know what the word means right now. I know it's loaded. I'm in communities that use it, and frankly, it doesn't make me feel safe. It makes me feel primed to be used and taken advantage of. It makes me feel needed in a gross, phlegmy way. I know it is a word that means people who have your back, who you can count on, who insert positive platitude here. But sometimes that just feels like bullshit. It's hard to accept it from people who've known you three years or less, just like it's hard to accept it from people who've known you all your life.

I think I need family to mean listening. If there were anything I could ask for, if there is one thing I long for from those who call me family, it is listening. I feel so often our tiny brains and short attention spans and our need for things to just feel okay, drive us to fill up the space with noise, so that we can drown out the silence, or the wail of anguish. Just listen. Listen.


On a silent night in the center of Chicago, I know there is much to be grateful for: at the top of the list is the fact that in the other room there is someone who, through his love, made me feel like a real and valued human being. He never asked me to do better, to clean up, to act right or to hurry up. His love was like light, like a great warm light that shined on a shadow of myself that was covered in ash and soot. There is something in me that is beginning to grow again, and his love is the reason why. I'm grateful that he is my family.

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