“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” – spiritual teacher and clinical psychologist, Ram Dass.
“Family”, I whisper to myself as I sit here back home, eight metres away from them, as they fit in something to eat in-between boisterous laughter. There are my four cousins, my aunties and their girlfriends; Mumma is somewhere washing dishes and I’m waiting for the coffee to brew. I wonder if on this visit they’ll raise embarrassing childhood stories? Earnestly ask about my new home, or just make fun of me?”
My family is Latin and this may explain part of the reason why we have (not always want, but have) to spend so much time together. If we don’t, it’s just weird. How can you come together for one celebration and not spend the week leading up to it, and the week after it, together?
We will be preparing, gossiping, laughing, fighting, hugging and discussing everything together. Yes, we Latins aren’t exactly the cliché that we’re made out to be, but we’re quite close. We’re more complex than, and yet still similar to, the stereotypes. And, because this is my reality, it is the only place from which I can write — biased despite my desire to be impartial.
And I sit here, my usual weird self, eight metres away from them, enjoying their laughter almost as much as this tropical rain that parts us, the distance allowing me to write and be here in the moment by myself. I love my family, but oh I adore my alone time. So when I can have a bit of both, that is when holidays work out perfectly for me. Maybe I kind of embody the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule — but for me, 80% of my time needs to be spent alone: books, writing, walks, podcasts and black coffee.
It is hard coming back home and suddenly feeling like a teenager again. A period that for many of us is our worst, and probably most insecure, years. Since then, you’ve changed and reshaped your life at least twenty times over, but, nonetheless, everything here at home seems to be stuck in time. So, of course, you are the one who is different, ungrateful and changed. But aren’t we all changing? Isn’t change good? It is obviously scary.
As time passes, I’ve come to understand that this feeling is not inherently mine. I’ve come to learn how every one of us has a complicated, eccentric, unique family relationship. Each of us has found different ways to cope, love, be present and also allow alone time, rest and recharge time. Family, if we were a bit wiser and more eloquent, should be a concept with a thousand different words to explain it. Each definition could express a nuance in the meaning of family, similar to Inuits having so many words to describe snow. Maybe this idea could free us from fitting into a single familial arrangement or from feeling odd, left out and alone. We could choose a word to mean ‘helicopter-family’, ‘dysfunctional-family’, ‘happy-but-with-tendencies-to-depression-family’ or ‘overachieving-family’.
Maybe ‘family’ is a powerful word because it has no defined meaning, but is instead a moveable concept that depends on thousands of tiny circumstances that start shaping us from before we are born.
“Family”, I repeat to myself as I turn around to look at them. They’re all so different. I hold back from walking over to hug them. I can already feel a tumultuous array of emotions surging from deep within my body, crawling up and trying to get out. To say it all — to compress in a couple of words all the love I’ve ever felt for my family, but also all the fear, sadness and frustration that accompanies the love. It’s almost overwhelming.
Family celebrations and relationships are a tricky subject to write about because each experience is so different. There must be an awesome language in the world that has a word that means simultaneously loving and hating your family — longing to be with them, while dreading being there — in the same minute. Especially when you’re back for a major celebration and haven’t seen them in a while. A word for when you can look at everything you miss about them, but also what you’ve moved away from in order to become who you are now. If that concept existed, it would have been the title of this piece.
Celebrations with family
Family celebrations are more than a double-edged sword. They’re like ninja stars: sleek and beautiful, but also incredibly sharp and deadly.
I’ve always marvelled at the power the people closest to us exert upon us. They give us so much by shaping us, but they can also leave wounds that are difficult to heal.
I’ve grown surrounded by family celebrations — Sunday lunch with my grandparents and cousins, and summers spent in a full house 24/7. Now, I live 17,000 km away from them and often I wonder about the meaning of the oceans I’ve decided to put between us. I’ve been lucky and privileged to grow up in a ‘normal’ household, full of laughter, hugs, hard work and discipline (so much of it). And I can say, without having to lie, that I love my family deeply.
So here I am, back home for my parents’ 60th birthday and to visit most of my cousins. I’m here to enjoy being surrounded by them, but also show them who I have become (maybe you understand this too), to answer questions and try to clear their doubts. I am back as a self-assured, happy woman, and yet there can be hints of the same insecure girl that left those years ago. I am trying to prove myself, feeling an indecent need to convince everyone, especially myself, that I’m enough, that what I do is valid and that the life I’ve chosen is okay.
Between our conversations I can truly feel their care, but also their doubts. They remember my embarrassing childhood moments, but they don’t adhere to my current views of the world, nor do they want to sit down and discuss them.
It’s about being together. In trying to get closer to me, they might recommend new diets or new ways to approach my work. We are all trying to connect in our own awkward ways, the only ways we know. Trying to say “I love you” but utilising a million unnecessary words, we focus on things that are not even important. The fact that we are here, still enjoying being together, that we have a shared history and things that connect us in deeper ways than our jobs, hairstyles, gender preferences or any other visual superficialities that people can put so much weighting on, is paramount. Maybe that is the dream: that family is a place of solace, safety, love and acceptance. A dream that will start when someone decides to rise above and truly see the humans they have grown standing strong in their truths, having worked and discovered who they are and who they are becoming.
So maybe the gist to family celebrations, and family life in general, lies in us, the individual. In spending time with ourselves, truly nurturing the eighty per cent that we treasure so much. This allows us to get to know who we are. The time spent with ourselves, reaffirming our values, may allow us to come back to these people who saw us when we were at our worst — when were younger, but also full of compassion. It allows us to be soft enough to let everything that doesn’t serve us fall away, but compassionate enough to truly listen, and give them all that they have provided us (and more).
Family can be a tool for personal growth and deeper understanding. Maybe our family is a type of school for difference, acceptance and peace? Maybe, as it’s where everything starts, it is also where we can go back to learn, challenge ourselves and actually check how enlightened we have become… one family celebration at a time.