The weather’s colder. “It’s the Holiday Season!” messaging infiltrates my media searches, daily travels, and streaming. Never mind that we’re as far away from any kind of normalcy as we can be. The pandemic lurks over us all like the Grinch. Still, just like every year before this one, I respond. Not as a consumer so much, but from a feeling-place. My mind and heart reflect on Family: what I have and don’t have in my sense of belonging; protection; unconditional love; nurturing. My tribe. I’ve had plenty of lessons over the years: ‘family’ can pop up anywhere and anytime. Friends. Fur-faces (pets). Traveling soulmates. Still, my immediate family, my actual relatives, are where my heart turns right now.
Rod McKuen (an OG poet who combined reading his words aloud with soft music) wrote: “The heart builds on memory”. As I think about family members – now gone – that have had the strongest influence on me, my heart aches to have them back. I kick myself for not appreciating their presence and influence in my life and thanking them, while they were still around.
But I also think about the ‘family’ – still here on earth – that I have no ‘relationship’ with at all. Someone said or did something to offend. The walls went up. All communication ceased. My heart (“building on memory”) still feels that link. The invisible connection of ‘family’. I have a bouquet, a peace-offering of blooms in my hand, but no one wants them.
It wasn’t always so. Back when my biological tribe was larger and still (sometimes grudgingly) attending holiday gatherings together, I was oblivious to the flip-side of families when they fracture. As my friend and colleague Sarah (about ten years my senior) and I were exchanging little trinkets before our winter-break from work, the topic of ‘family’ and ‘gatherings’ came up. Sarah, from a really big family, said, “I have no idea what they’ll be doing; I haven’t seen them in years.”
I was astonished, and I pried. I wanted to know ‘what happened’ and how my friend was coping, having been banished from her own family. Turns out, somebody said something, did something, ‘sides’ were taken. Sarah no longer had any contact with her nine siblings and spouses. Even the grandchildren – the smallest, anyway – were not allowed contact with Grandma. Harsh. My thought: How can family do that to one another?” Quite a few years later, I learned the answer to my own question.
There’s a unique kind of heartache that comes from feeling separated from, or even rejected by one’s own family. The older you are, the more you miss – especially during the holidays – the backdrop of a crowded table with smiling faces. Whether or not that’s even a real or attainable scene is irrelevant. “The heart builds on memory”. My own heart’s also very susceptible to the notion of an “ideal” family unit and scenarios. It’s one thing to miss my grandparents, their love, wisdom and guidance. It’s another thing entirely to have to ask WTF?, when family members turn really mean. Even abusive.
In Season 4, Episode 2 of “The Crown”, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (a brilliant Gillian Anderson) recites “No Enemies”, by Charles McKay. Poem: No Enemies by Charles Mackay (poetrynook.com)The poem’s not about malicious family members exactly, but, more expansively, about how important our reactions are, when we feel wounded by what others say or do. The badge of honor that comes from surviving hardship and trauma. Finding that all-important inner guidance and strength. Living bravely.
I think about my own losses (my mother’s suicide at age 11), despite the luxury of being born into an intact family. I also think about my fellow humans – some of whom are drifting through life without ever having had any sense of family connection. Since birth (more kids than my mind and heart can stand to embrace are born without being wanted, let alone loved).
I think it all comes down to our ability to create our own sense of safety and protection. To learn to nurture ourselves. And, if necessary, to devise and live out our own definitions of ‘Family’ by creating the most ideal and beautiful spaces and places in our hearts and personal environments. Whoever, and whatever we choose to bring into those loving spaces, they are our chosen family.