Friday, July 17, 2015

Family with a capital F

My extended family life is a mess.

I'm not going to sugar coat it. I'm not going to pretend I'm not a mess, myself, either.

When it comes to "my side of the family," as it were, we are a collective Mess-with-a-capital-M and I'm only just now, at age 40, realizing there isn't ever going to be some poignant moment when we get it together, mend all the broken fences, and start channeling the Waltons or the Cleavers or even the Bundys. We're always going to be more like the Bluths, and maybe in our more colorful moments, something out of the next Wes Anderson movie.

I'm not ashamed to own this mess, though, because I know I'm not alone. I know that if you are reading these words, you're a person (unless you're a spambot or an FBI surveillance program), and if you're a person, you've lived through a mess or two or twenty, too. You have messy moments. You've had messy family problems. You've experienced loss, change and drama, the extent of which could easily enthrall a nation, if you let an unscrupulous television network document it all. You have a distant or not-so-distant relative who has dealt with Problems-with-a-capital-P and you aren't sure how to reconcile your desire to both help them and shield yourself from the collateral damage of their own mess. Maybe you're the one with the capital-P problem. Your family, too, is probably a mess, at least sometimes.

Life is a mess. It's not even one of those so-called beautiful messes most of the time.

Yet here we are. We're a mess, and here we are. Take it or leave it; like or lump it. Embrace it or reject it - if you're reading these words, you are here - inhaling, exhaling, loving, grieving, hoping, worrying, working, breaking cycles and starting new ones, just trying to get home again at the end of each day.  This is the stuff of life - the constants, anyway.

In my family, we get it wrong sometimes. We're really bad at reading cues sometimes. We even hurt each other sometimes, and on an individual level, we take turns feeling forgotten or ignored or misunderstood. Our familial experiences are shared but they are also uniquely, painfully individual depending on our roles in a given situation. It's all but impossible to recognize how the same experiences have affected us each so differently. And so a familiar cycle continues - blame, shame and remorse. Again and again. It's wearying.

Sometimes I want to pile up the mess of this family, pour gasoline over it and toss in the match as I walk away (cue an appropriate soundtrack - maybe REM's "Bang and Blame?" ). But I never do. I never could.

We're bound by ancestry, by the messy, sticky blood that courses through our veins. And we're bound by the shared experience of surviving this mess together.

And sometimes, we manage to get it right. We remember the good memories more often than the bad ones. We know each other in ways no one else will ever really get because we lived through things together that won't ever happen again. When we're angry at each other, that anger is usually borne out of concern, out of love. Sometimes it takes time, but a hopeful glimmer of forgiveness remains.

So no, my family is unlikely to inspire a heartwarming sitcom any time soon. But you know what? As much as I've loved every "Richie Cunningham" who has crossed the battle-strewn path of my imperfect life, Happy Days was never much of a cliffhanger. I'd gladly take a punch to the jaw for these people if it came down to it.

I don't know how or why we manage to keep this mess (kind of) together, but I think it's probably because we're always going to need each other. We're always going to need to know the people who get why sometimes, something that looks like an unfixable mess is actually Family-with-a-capital-F.

It's as easy and as complicated as that.

Put that in your Christmas newsletter.