Family Where It Can Be Found
“Family” can be a tough term to define. For some people, there’s an easy answer they can pull right off the shelf: blood relations. I’ll grant that blood kin have a leg up: they’ve known you longer and in some ways will always know you better. For me, however, “family” has come to mean something much more complex and elusive. Like any other human relationship, we choose to cultivate (or neglect) it with time, communication, shared experience, and trust. I’m getting married to an incredible woman next month, and thinking about how excited I am for our family and how it will develop over time. That has in turn had me reflecting a lot on what kinds of “family” I’ve experienced over the last few years, and where I’ve found traces of it when it seemed lost.
Winter of 2011 was a low point, to say the least. I like risks, and I enjoy adventure: the Viking raider remains a metaphor for the kind of man I want to be. But if we’re not careful, “exploits” can become an end in and of themselves. Adventure should be a fulfilling counterpoint to the small but meaningful ways we move our lives forward. When that movement is lacking, risk and adventure can become a dangerously tempting distraction from the void in our hearts. By the winter of early 2011, I had become reckless to the point of dangerous excess, and (with some help from good friends) came to the realization that it was time to pull the longship out of the water.
As if in accord with my life, my home in Tulsa was hit with a blizzard and a deep freeze, immobilizing large parts of the town for the better portion of two weeks. No school to teach and nowhere to go, personal life in shambles: what was left? My roommates and our little house were my chief companions when the time came to truly look in the mirror. And what roommates: I rented a 10×10 sun room from JC, a teaching friend of mine, out of her one bedroom house rental. It was cramped with her two dogs, but it got the job done. Then she invited her long distance boyfriend, Bret, to move in. To call their subsequent relationship tumultuous would be an understatement. Then he totaled his car. Then I smashed up my car. And we were stuck in the house all the time. It was the worst setup for a self-reflective rebuild imaginable.
Except it wasn’t.
It truly began, I think, with whiskey. There were preliminaries: you see somebody having a tough time, you give them a hug, for example. Family, however, is really in the things you choose to do together on a regular basis. I like whiskey, and I like my wind-down time at the end of the day. I began taking in twilight sitting on our front stoop with a glass, even in the late-February chill. Sipping and thinking was enough.
In time, however, Bret started joining me, at first just to share a bottle of George Dickel Tennessee he’d bought. Conversation ranged all over: our hometowns, food, Tulsa, the great railroads and the 19th century expansion of our country into the West, and so on. As the weather warmed, JC began to join us also, and time on our little concrete steps became something special.
Spring took hold, and in addition to our front steps fun, we joined an indoor soccer league together. I began to more greatly appreciate the handcrafted decorations JC placed everywhere to make the house our own. A wall-art tree, little paintings, abd even small touches like the large bottles of sun tea steeping in afternoons outside. On the odd weekend, we’d host a small number of people and she’d string the entire house with lights. Shared music and food we’d made would warm everybody up.
We were ridiculous, and we got even more so when our friend Lisa, looking suddenly and unexpectedly for a place to stay, couch-surfed at our place for several weeks. The adversity in our own lives hadn’t stopped by any means, either. Broken cars, deep personal troubles, mountains of bills, romantic strife, and uncertain professional futures hung over all of us. Every day brought problems that weren’t going to be resolved in any short or neat way. I almost never get sick unless I am deeply stressed and run-down at the same time; I was sick three or four times from January to June that year. All the while, four people and two dogs were crammed into about 800 square feet of space.
Yet I don’t remember much of that at all. When I think of that time, I think of everyone’s soccer gear lying on the porch mish-mash to dry out, giant pots of chili enjoyed over laughs, all of us training with my rusted weights in the backyard, or jogging a few blocks down the street to tackle hill-sprints on a steep incline. I think of absurd party outfits and stamping on the wood floors, and the sun going down behind the houses across the street while we all talked by the light of citronella candles. Stuck together in such a tight situation, with so many struggles, we did away with all pretense and saw each other clearly for who we really were. We understood each other exactly, and we pulled together. It’s amazing what can happen when adversity and the cold light of truth causes us to drop a lot of the stupid hangups we have and seek community with each other.
It took me awhile to notice it at the time, but by that May, I realized that I was experiencing the first real feeling of day-to-day family I’d had in years, and that it was something to be cherished in this culture of the rat-race and the next step up the ladder. If I had to go on living for years in that house exactly the way we had it, would it have been best? Definitely not. Could I have done it and still felt grateful for everything I had in life? Absolutely.
I didn’t go on to live for years in that house the way we had it, of course. By that time in May, I knew that our paths in life would shortly separate forever. JC and Bret were returning to Colorado, and their relationship wouldn’t survive the start of summer. Lisa was leaving for med school in Ohio. I certainly couldn’t carry the house rental by myself or even halfway, so it would shortly be time to say goodbye to the intangible things that in large part had held me together for the previous few months. Two weeks before the end, a massive storm system rolled into town, and I can recall the exact moment, with all of us standing in the front yard, staring up at the sky through the swirling winds and the sound of tornado sirens, that I thought to myself: “Goodbye, little family. I’ll miss you.”
The future went on to look a whole lot brighter, as it turned out. The many troubles I had slowly but surely evaporated, and I fell in love with an extraordinary woman. I moved to my favorite town and continue to get better in my favorite job. I was and remain a very lucky man. Down the road, I’ll have a house full of family with which to share the great events and stressful times of my life, but I’ll never forget the little house in Tulsa that reminded me in so many important ways about what the term “family” truly meant.
Music for humid sundowns and reflection: