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QUINTESSENCE

Relativity


WINTER QUIET
Limb to limb, mouth to mouth
with the bleached grass
silver mist lies upon the back yards
among the outhouses.
The dwarf trees
pirouette awkwardly to it -
whirling around on one toe;
the big tree smiles and glances upward!
Tense with suppressed excitement
the fences watch where the ground
has humped an aching shoulder for
the ecstasy.

- William Carlos Williams

The matter of relatives...

Interesting that my recent, rather euphoric posts, on friendships, families and weddings, have once again been diluted by the universe with a salty dose of reality. In the nineteen eighties self-help manuals used the vernacular of pop psychology to identify family drama-divas as "crazy makers." You and I might know these family hot spots as Uncle Ed, or your sibling with the clove cigarettes, Goth piercings and menacing one-liners, the girlfriend gramps brings to family events he is asked not to, the in-law exes that cannot go five minutes before reenacting their divorce. If not family drama, then it's the cold war. The issue is euphemistically what one might call "hoarding of information," an unwillingness to invite intimate family commentary into our lives. We remain mum with one another about everything from job changes to medical procedures. Finding out someone is engaged before knowing they were dating.

The obvious conclusion would be to assume families are comprised of wary, judgmental people taking cover from the bite of familial criticism, but I believe people are instead rather neurotically private, and in most situations completely unable to distinguish helpful bonding behavior from exclusion. One can probably lay part of the blame on the perpetuation in early childhood of old generational conflicts and habits, but relevant or not, there seems to be a stubborn pattern of defensive coil-and-sting behaviors wherever relatives gather. And for some of us, no matter how often the zingers occur, we never see them coming. The immediate sequel to the experience of emotional evisceration at the hands of a family member is to ask oneself, what is the best response? Both to maintain cordial relations, but also for one's own peace of mind? Do we cut the crazy makers from our "circle of trust" as psychologists frequently advise, or confront and "speak our truth" as others urge us to do? Or in keeping with modern psychoanalysis, feel the real awful, then forgive and grow a callus. Is family forever, or are we all entitled at some point to give up and step away?

Practically speaking, when months of silence settle over a family conflict, the persons involved do not usually come to their senses as one hopes and make an effort to forgive and reconstruct. People tend to dig in and resentment simmers. Get-togethers get more weird and uncomfortable and tense. Communication is reduced to the polite minimum and then you wake up one day to discover paroled Uncle Ed was arrested on gun charges in Scientology rehab with your name as "next of kin" on the back of a bail bondsman's card. A sibling needs a transplant but didn't list you on the possible donor list. Family betrayals, especially the more subtle "dis-inclusions," are ugly and hurtful. Shaming.

Can we change this? We can want to. We can suck it up and try again. As the old saying goes, "hold hands not grudges." But in middle-age, I'm inclined to give more credence to the effects of entropy in family relationships than I used to. Eventually connections just wear down if nothing builds them up. I consider myself to be in the family bridge-building business. Like you, I'm working on the family pothole crew. But what most of us want out of family life is genuine affection: true respect, and an appreciation and gratitude for the beautiful idea of family. In the aftermath of two graduations and three weddings, I can happily toast the amazing, giving, loving family members sharing in these celebrations together. And once again, wonder what any of us can do to improve what isn't so fabulous.

What has worked in your family interactions? Do you have any personal wisdom or insight to share?
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