Pattiann Rogers’ poem that I read earlier came to mind a little over a week ago when I got some good one-on-one time with Lucille, newly born daughter of our daughter and son-in-law, Anna and Langdon, and our second grandchild. Langdon was off to work, and Anna was getting ready to drive their older daughter, Eliza, to day care. So, I stopped by as one of a rotating corps of volunteers to watch the baby for about a half hour so that Anna could take Eliza without having to pack up the baby for the trip.
As a father of three and grandfather, now, of two, I’ve come to take real delight in having some time with an infant, but it had been a while, and there was much that I had forgotten. I had forgotten how at first when you hold them they’re inclined to hunch their backs and pull their knees up close to their bodies – still not quite fully unfolded from the womb, how much of their time in those early days is spent in a sort of semi-consciousness between sleep and waking with the first hints of a smile playing across their lips.
But most of all, I had forgotten the almost visceral way that they seem to drink you in. As she cuddled against me, I felt her reaching, trying me out in some elemental way, before sound or speech or visual perception, a kind of bodily communication that I seemed to have forgotten I was capable of, but that I suddenly found myself slipping into.
Her: I’m here. Who are you? Me: I’m here. I love you.
One of those old, enduring connections found in all flesh, the finding of family. None of us can know for sure how, where or from whom we will get it – life is complicated out there – but we can’t do without it. Family: something deeper than the channeling wires and threads, the veins, ligaments, filaments and fibers that are our biological heritage to each other.
Rabindranath Tagore captured it with the verse in his poem that we sang earlier. Looking out on “insects, birds, and beasts and common weeds, the grass and clouds have fullest wealth of awe,” but it is family that “gives meaning to the stars.” It is establishes our roots; it centers our identity. It is what makes possible what Pattiann Rogers calls “the grip of voice on presence, the grasp of self on place.”
And so we were introduced to each other, Lucille and I, the first of our interactions and one of many connections she will be making in the world. But, of course, we all know that it’s not long before the reality of family changes and becomes more like the picture my sister, Lisa, paints: scrambling to keep get going in the morning, beating ourselves up for the chaos we find in our lives and hardly present to each other at all, scattered to our various obligations – school, work, and so on – and reconnecting only in passing.
It’s part of a natural drift that seems to have become the norm in the frenetic pace of this busy world. “Things to do, places to be” usually translates as anything but family. At its best family seems to act as a kind of charging station that we return to after our energy winds down, a place of shelter and renewal.
But too often it is the place where we play out the frustrations and unhappiness that build up over the course of our daily lives, a place quickly taken for granted or resented, whose its imperfect denizens, we feel, never quite appreciate what it is that WE need. And for some it can be a depository for shame or a sense of inadequacy, leaving us feeling harried and alone.
But, as my wise sister, Lisa, remarked in her Mother’s Day sermon of several years ago, it doesn’t have to be that way. “We can honor our responsibilities, nurture others and include ourselves in the midst of it,” she said.
For her, the key was offered by a couple of encounters she had with spiritual advisors she had sought out over the course of a year or so. She was looking for help in reflecting on how in her busy life where at times she felt whipsawed by the responsibilities of parenting she might cultivate a deeper sense of spirituality. Unbeknownst to what the other had said, each offered similar advice: your children are your practice.
What she heard them to say was that attention to the daily rituals of family life was a discipline in itself. In raising her children she was not simply providing care that they needed, she was, in her words, “dwelling deep in interdependence.” She was learning what a spiritual practice gives you, which is to see from a larger perspective, to find in the giving to another an avenue to maintaining a centered sense of self.
This doesn’t mean somehow using own children for our own ends. It means seeing in that role a path for growth for parent and child. The discipline entails accepting the role of parent without judgment and acknowledging its power and the duties it entails as lessons for one’s life.
As Lisa observed, “the chaos that children bring invites us to steady our sense of self and find our footing. We are echoed, challenged, mimicked, defied, sought after and sent packing. We are put on pedestals and used as furniture, we are intensely visible and not even there. This is all the stuff we need to practice acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, creativity and trust. This is all the stuff we need to enter life fully.”
And it occurs to me that the same observation applies to our larger family roles, too, though with a little less intensity. Grandfather, sister, nephew, aunt: we are given these roles, and most of us are not really sure what to do with them. For some, they are mantles we don grudgingly at dreaded family gatherings, but it need not be that way.
These relationships, too, can and do have power in our lives and consequences for each of us. In that way they are also reminders of a deeper way of living available to us. They are reminders that the life of wholeness and integrity that we each seek doesn’t just happen. It is built brick by brick by each encounter we have, and we don’t get it right from the get-go. We are awkward and uncertain at first, and so it takes rehearsing. It takes practice.
And, it’s important to remember that the fact of family is not limited to those of blood relations, nor does blood relationship necessarily result in these kinds of family ties. Again, life is complicated and circumstances can set people against and apart from each other. Some rifts can be repaired, but others yawn too wide to be bridged. And so we are left sometimes to find family where we can.
I know of people in this congregation who have set about creating family ties with others where no blood relation exists but where they have found or made a connection of caring. In the end, we find family where we make family, where we can give ourselves to others with love and intention and are received with reciprocal care.
This Mother’s Day brings to mind how such a connection happened a generation earlier in my family. My mother, Cynthia, a member of this congregation living in Brooks Howell Home, was only four years old when her mother, Alice, died.
It was, you can imagine, a hard time, and the family struggled for some years – my grandfather a newspaper editor trying to raise three girls on his own with the help of some family. Then, came the day several years later when a new woman entered his life, a phys ed teacher with an unquenchable spirit whose name happened to be Lucille. When she and my grandfather married, the kids weren’t sure what to make of her, but she swept into their lives in those Depression Era days and made a home for them.
Truth be told, when I was growing up Lucille was probably my favorite grandparent. She was a “pahk the cah in the Hahvad Yahd” Yankee who saw to it on our trips to visit her that we saw all the sights of her home town of Boston. I remember that she always took intent interest in us and sent faithful birthday cards with cheery notes.
Unlike Billy Collins, I can’t remember having sent her anything even as unimpressive as a lanyard as a gift, but I will always remember her as a loving soul who helped weave strength into our family. As I take my place in the grandparent generation I would say it is Lucille’s example, Lucille’s practice that stands before me. For she was one who chose to give her heart to those she chose to name as family: something I never had cause to doubt as long as I knew her.
Family, after all, is made in many ways: whether the result of blood ties or circumstances, its central components are the same: love and intention – love, that elemental gift of our very essence, the hope that we live when we are guided by the best that is in us; and intention, the practice of directing our thoughts, our actions, our will to something or someone that we deem worthy.
It isn’t easy work. As Pattiann Rogers notes, there is “seminal to all kin” the open mouth seeking to take and take – You mothers know, right? – and the “pervasive clasping common to the clan” clinging tight like limpets, like the hard nails of lichen, fingers around fingers and the grasp of self on place, and then the snorts, the whinnies, the shimmers of self declaration.
Oh, we weavers, reachers, winders and connivers, pumpers, runners, air and bubble riders, rock-sitters, wave gliders, wire-wobblers, soothers, flagellators –
Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, uncles and nieces and third cousins twice removed, stepmoms and foster dads, peace parents and godparents and every stripe of relation there is or can be.
All part of the crazy jumble that is family, blessed family, the great, old, enduring connections that are ours to find and ours to make, a practice that warms us and fills us and that in time and with intention might overflow to a hurting world.