Archives for posts with tag: relationships

human pyramid
This piece was first published in the Spring 2010 edition of Slingshot! It also exists here. At the time, I was thinking a lot about relationships, sexual and otherwise, and identified as someone who was not in or looking for a single, primary partnership.

 

BEYOND EMOTIONAL EXCLUSIVITY
Resist the Monogcore!
by Kermit

Figuring out how to be in relationship with another human being is complicated, it is a process of continued engagement. Any structure that encourages us to check out of that engagement – to deny emotional truths or the extent to which possibilities for connecting to one another exist – impoverishes our lives. Material conditions and channels of power that force us to focus on our survival within a system are certainly examples of this kind of structure, but even when our needs for material safety and well-being are more or less met, the ways that we are expected to engage with people is often circumscribed by established stories about what is socially and emotionally acceptable. Monogamy is the centerpiece to a network of stories that we are told about the way that intimate human relationships are supposed to function.

When I say that I am against monogamy, I am not talking about being against people who are choosing to have sex with one partner at a time, or even people who are choosing to settle down with one person for a lifetime. Relationships are complicated and no one should feel bad about trying to engage in whatever kind of emotionally consensual relationship meets their needs. What I am against is the hegemonic system that views this form of relationship (two people being each other’s exclusive sexual partners and principal support system) as the best way to be in the world, as the only way that can bring someone a full and happy life, and as the way that all other people are ideally expected to conduct their sexual relationships and build family structures. Several of my friends use the word monogcore to describe any social experience or cultural form that reinforces the dominance of this system.

For some people, beginning to consider non-monogamous models grows out of being in monogamous relationships that do not work for them either sexually or emotionally. For me, being critical of hegemonic monogamy is informed most by not having been in sexual relationships for the bulk of my adult life. When I was younger, accepting the ubiquitous narrative about happiness and human relationships often meant painting myself into a corner where I could never be fully present or alive without telling myself that I was building to a point where I would be part of a monogamous coupling. In this mental trap, the thought that I might never find a sexual partner to be monogamous with was enough to send me spiraling into despair; to turn myself into a person I did not want to be, into someone who bored me.

At some point, I made a decision to reject the idea that my life was empty if it did not involve significant monogamous sexual relationships because I did not want to become a person who was shaped so wholly by the presence or absence of that element. As a consequence, the whole way that I thought about the possibilities of friendship and the level of intimacy that I was interested in exploring in my friendships shifted. Coming out was not only a process of acknowledging that I like to have sex with men, but also a process of letting go of the idea that I had to find a monogamous partner in order to be happy and build relationships with people that I could call family.

• • •

Monogamy serves as a major theme in stories about how adults seek intimacy with other, unrelated adults and what the rules and limits of that intimacy are. Non-familial relationships are fit into a framework and hierarchy in which sexually monogamous partnership occupies the apex. Other relationships are necessarily subordinated to this one relationship and are only allowed to grow in specific ways and to certain limits. Many of our most powerful words are affected. The way that we commonly talk about family, honor, fidelity, happiness, betrayal, intimacy, integrity, love and commitment are all tied up with this idea.

The story that monogamy tells about itself is one that puts an enormous amount of pressure on a single axis. It declares that each person should find one other person and that those two people should make each other responsible for meeting the bulk of their emotional and all of their sexual needs, to consider each other as the only avenue to build family and have a complete life. Living inside of this story can force you to become engaged in emotional drama and participate in conversations and dilemmas that are not your own; not necessarily connected to the stories you want to be telling, or that the people you are engaged with want to be telling about themselves. There are of course many people who do not end up in monogamous situations, but their lives are often either invisible or seen as inferior, as obviously less ideal than those bound by ‘normal’ sexual practices and ‘traditional’ families. One of the reasons I find it difficult to have much enthusiasm for gay marriage  is because of the way that the rhetoric around it relies so heavily on the power of this story.

For people involved in a monogamous relationship that does not do all of the things it has promised, staying faithful necessitates the scrupulous building of a grand lie. A lie about how the meaning of a relationship is obvious, self-evident and solid, a lie that makes it impossible to talk about the ways that the significance of their relationship to each other might be evolving, echoing as it does through the different geographies of their individual lives and experiences. One of the more heartbreaking aspects of monogamy as it is generally practiced is the way that its emotional exclusivity is so serial. The expectation that the person you are sleeping with is the one that you share the most emotional intimacy with leads to the idea that you should have very little emotional contact with former lovers and means that many people find themselves cut off from those who they have been closest to in life.

In a patriarchal and hetero-normative context, monogamy is a tool that severely limits the way that women are allowed to be in relationships with men (and men with women) who are not their lovers or family members. The fact that one’s reputation hinges on their adherence to these rules means that all sexual energy existing outside the context of monogamous coupledom or potentially monogamous coupledom is viewed as threatening. People often feel compelled, either explicitly or implicitly, to police social interactions under the presumption of defending monogamy. This dynamic has frustrated my desire to have relationships with people that are intimate and life enlarging even when there is no explicitly sexual motive. I have often felt pressure to alter my behavior, by either curbing my friendliness or making myself more visibly queer, in order to have interactions with women that are not viewed as inappropriate by someone in the room.

• • •

I resent the way in which stories about intimacy that hinge on monogamy restrict our language, limiting the words we use to describe our relationships to one another. I want words to describe what it feels like to have a platonic romance – to become best friends with someone in a matter of weeks. Words to describe my relationship to a person who I meet only once, but who changes my life forever or for the person who I see at a distance everyday for years and who knows things about me that no one else does; for trysts that I have with authors who are long dead and for rituals that commit me to people that I have no intention of marrying, or even necessarily sleeping with.

Finding ways to build our own definitions of these things as we go along which more accurately reflect our experiences with and desires for each other is certainly more complicated than accepting the definitions we have been given, but it expands the ways in which we are able to talk about living with each other in the world. Certainly there are constraints in every relationship and these constraints can be vital to the emotional health and well being of the people involved. But, wherever possible, they should be constraints that have been chosen by those involved according to their own particular emotional truth, rather than obligations wholly unconnected to the people making them.

There are, of course, people who are already doing this; people who are opting for polyamory because it makes the most sense for them, having sex with multiple partners in a variety of ways. People who are choosing to be exclusive sexual partners with each other for their own reasons, and are not threatened when other people make different choices. There are people who build families with people who are not responsible for meeting their sexual needs and people who have sex with people who are not responsible for meeting their needs for family. There are those who, for various reasons, choose not to have sexual relationships at all and people who are doing several (or all) of these things at different points in their lives.

Imagine what the world would be like if the terms of our relationships with each other were negotiated in every possible instance by the people involved and not by some abstract ideal about what people should be to one another. What grand possibilities would present themselves? How would the difficulties involved speak more directly to the problems we want to be tackling? I believe that our relationships are more meaningful when we are openly engaged in the process of negotiating them; when we open ourselves to the range of ways that it is possible to connect.

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huge ice cream sundae

unreasonable.

This essay was written for and appears in Rad Dad 23: Making Family. Writing it last summer helped me realize that raising ‘my own’ children is not a priority for me.

 

MAKING COMMITMENTS TO OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN
Building Intimacy with Parents and Kids
by Kermit Playfoot

I am not a parent and am not planning to be in the near future. I have read and thought a lot about parenting though because many of the people I am committed to are parents and children. It has been great getting to know other people’s kids, to be an adult friend in their community who can hold a hand, read a story, change a diaper, or provide childcare for an afternoon. Often, I have done these things to support friends who are parents; but very quickly, I also develop independent relationships with their kids. Irrationally, I become committed to these creatures without knowing anything about the kind of people they will become.

In the last year and a half, at least half a dozen good friends have taken concrete steps towards having kids, gotten pregnant, or given birth, including my sister and two of my housemates. This has prompted me to think more about my own relationship to parenting and to come to a more concrete realization about the fact that I will probably not be a parent myself. Figuring out how to connect with children and support friends who are parents, however, has helped me know myself better, expand my understanding of the world and strengthen my feelings of connectedness to the intimate life of my community.

As a teenager and young adult, I didn’t really know any young children or anyone I considered a peer who had children. About a year and a half after I moved to Berkeley, a 9 month old baby and his mama moved into my collective house. Oliver was the first baby I knew as an adult. His direct eye contact and the way he felt emotions intensely and expressed them immediately were both appealing and a little bit scary. It took me a while to be relaxed hanging out with him, but once I did, it was great to be able to crawl around and laugh with him, to feel comfortable picking him up and giving him hugs.

In a way, building intimacy is simply the process of letting someone know and care about your experience of the world while you get to know and care about theirs. All of my friendships enrich my life in part because they allow me to understand the world from a different point of view.  Becoming friends with Oliver while he lived with me taught me a lot about what it was like for him to be a baby and toddler, things I used to know but had forgotten and things I never knew.

It was also great getting to know Crystal, both as Oliver’s mama, and as a fabulous friend and person in the world. Living a meaningful life is essentially about finding significant projects, connecting with people in powerful and intimate ways, and inhabiting our bodies as much as possible. For all of my friends who are parents, their kids are both one of their central projects and some of their most important intimate relationships. When two people are paired as intensely as a parent and young child, it can be difficult to figure out how to think of and get to know them separately. I strongly feel, however, that beyond doing actual childcare and being friends to their kids, supporting parents means being willing to view them as whole people, as people who have many interests outside of their own children; to hold and respect the individual humanity of the parent and the child while at the same time acknowledging the importance of the bond they have with each other. To deny their separate identities would mean seeing them more as archetypes than as real human beings struggling to live in the world, to create emotional distance rather than supportive intimacy.

I have managed to see more and less of Crystal and Oliver [who is now six and a half] at different moments since they moved out three years ago, but I remain committed to being someone who cares about what happens to them and a friend who can be called for support when needed. Last spring, I was able to have a regular afternoon play date with Oliver, which allowed us to reconnect with each other a bit. I enjoyed playing with him, negotiating what we were going to do together, asking him questions about his life, hearing him talk about his latest enthusiasms, listening to the way he made sense of his world and sharing the pieces of myself with him that seemed relevant or relatable.

Oliver is able to create stories and express his desires fairly well but gets frustrated when he is not able to do the things he wants to do. One of the challenges of being an anarchist who also has relationships with children is that I find myself sympathetic to the frustration Oliver has about not having control over his life, but I can’t let him do whatever he wants when we hang out. I often have to establish explicit limits around how I want to be treated or what is a reasonable serving of ice cream, to make decisions about the structure of our play that are not negotiable, or are only negotiable within certain limits.

Figuring out ways to set rules and say no to kids while at the same time trying to respect their power and desires and avoid recreating relationships that echo the domination of the system is not a question of either honoring a child’s autonomy or providing structural frameworks but about trying to do both at the same time. Adults have generally figured out how to regulate their emotions, respect their own personal boundaries and those of the people around them. With my friends who are kids, I have to be aware of and responsible about the fact that they are still growing; still figuring out how to exist in the world, socially and emotionally. Treating children like I would treat an adult is as inappropriate as treating them as inferiors or people whose ideas and desires don’t matter.

About a year ago, my sister gave birth to the first baby in our family in almost 18 years. My niece Sophia is pretty great. I have experienced extreme physical joy playing with her, talking back and forth with her without using fully formed words, making her laugh and holding her hand when she was learning to walk – testing the limits of her own autonomy. I feel committed to being in her life in important ways, which will take effort because we live several thousand miles apart. Our connection has been formed primarily during two trips back east in the last year and I am not likely to see Sophia more frequently in the near future. I am motivated to find ways to maintain intimacy from a distance and make the time I do spend with her and her parents count.

I was talking to a friend the other day who mentioned that having his [proverbial] tubes tied had allowed him to be a lot more pro-child. I never really considered myself anti-child and I haven’t had a vasectomy, but I do understand how letting go of the idea that I will have my own kids has allowed me to be more open emotionally with and willing to make some level of commitment to other people’s children. As an uncle, housemate or friend, I have to find ways to negotiate my own beliefs and personality with the way each of my young friends is being parented; to respect the decisions that my friends who are parents have made and be authentically myself. Because I am not trying to practice for my own parenthood when I interact with kids, I don’t need to compare my commitment to my newborn housemate, my one year old niece, or my six year old friend to any sort of ideal parent-child relationship. I think this helps me to have a perspective that it might be harder to cultivate or maintain if I was expecting to be responsible for feeding, clothing, raising and housing a child every day. Bringing this perspective to the collective life of my community hopefully helps to support everyone in it, including parents, children and other people without kids.

picture of a compass

This piece was first published in the Spring 2009 edition of Slingshot! It also exists here. It developed out of thinking about the way in which judgment around subcultural aesthetic conventions gets confused with what we actually value, which prompted me to try to articulate my own values  in a clear way.

 

ENGAGING OUR VALUES, CHOOSING OUR FREEDOM
by Kermit

I spend a lot of time thinking about the things that I choose to value and what those values actually look like as they interact with each other in my life. Ideally, the things I believe in are not like objects that I acquire, and set on a shelf, but things that I continue to pick up, turn over in my hands and engage with in some meaningful way.

Too often it seems like shared aesthetic tastes become a kind of shorthand for shared values. Rather than getting to know the people that we interact with, we rely on superficial codes to identify allies. The world that we want to live in often becomes defined as one that looks like our vision, rather than one that feels like our truth. It is easy to understand the appeal. When we express ourselves with the same language and interact in a similar cultural mode it is easier to avoid conflict on the surface of things. This is helpful on days when it is all we can do to put one foot in front of the other. The problem is that it is also easier to avoid the passion and processing that is attached to conflict, to decide that it is not possible to find a point of connection with those whose words and actions trigger us.

When we assume that someone else’s truth should look like ours, we become grotesque — we begin to build a system of morality that separates ‘right thinking’ people from ‘wrong headed’ ones and inhibits our ability to understand people who are not like us. This is true among conservatives and reactionaries, but it is also true in radical circles. The vast majority of mass social movements, whether political or religious, have worked to deny or minimize facts that don’t conform to their Truth. The channels of power put in place to do this, no matter how well intentioned, almost always lead to abuse and the dehumanization of people defined as enemies. When we state, as radicals or anarchists, that we want to create a better world, free from domination, and begin to build an aesthetic vision of what that world looks like, we run the risk of falling into the same trap.

If everyone in the world decided to become like-minded in regard to revolution, or pacifism, or anarchy, or whatever else is held up as ‘the way’, but the quality of their relationships and the way that they interact with and use power in their daily lives remained the same, the world would only be made duller and more grey. Trying to think intentionally about the essential elements of my values while continuing to grapple with and reassess them as I grow helps me focus on my goals and build relationships and structures in my life to support those goals in ways that are not loaded with aesthetic judgment.

Freedom
One of the values that I think about a lot is freedom. So many people use this word in so many different ways that its meaning tends to fall apart when you look at it directly. One of the ways that I think about freedom is in terms of the autonomy each individual should have to construct/conduct their life as they see fit; that there is no right way to be in the world and that no person’s reality is more valid than anyone else’s. The implication of this statement is anarchy — it is what gives people the strength to cast off the bonds of received knowledge and defy power hierarchies that do not acknowledge their own humanity. It also means that I am not able to stand unreservedly behind a unified vision of a revolutionary society. If I believe that there is no one right way to be in the world, then no program or plan can be applied to all people.

Another definition of freedom that I find compelling is the existentialist view of freedom as an internal process connected to choice, responsibility and passionate engagement. Choice, here, is not the choice between products or political leaders, but choosing how we react emotionally to the world. We exercise our freedom when we choose how we are going to react to and be a part of the situations that occur in our lives, most of which lie outside our ability to control. This allows one to claim their freedom and embody it as they negotiate and create systems of meaning in the world, rather than to view freedom as a state that is to be achieved only in some distant future, after irksome struggles. Taking responsibility for these choices makes one aware of their own power. It is not something that can be done for the sake of others, or for all time, but that must be claimed and maintained by each person as they make their way through the world.

The ramifications of radical autonomy are not safe or easy, they are at the heart of what people fear about anarchy. Without rules and powerful hierarchies looking out for society, what prevents everything from just falling apart? What compels people to recognize any responsibility to themselves and others? For me, the answer is obvious, and grows out of the way that I think about the nature of my relationships.

Relationships
At the heart of feeling alive and engaged with the world is feeling connected to oneself and to others. When I decided to become a radical and build my life in an unconventional way in order to escape the quiet desperation that I associated with a conventional life, I thought, on some unconscious level, that changing what my life physically looked like was equivalent to changing the way that I emotionally engaged with the world. What I discovered was that even though I had found people whose lives more or less matched the broad strokes in my mind, I was still aching for a life I was not living. What I ached for was easy intimacy and shared trust, the ability for two people to expose a bit of their vulnerability to each other and come away stronger from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I love living in a community with other wingnuts and radicals, and sometimes a similar aesthetic can lubricate the process of building intimacy, it’s just that the emotional work of building sustainable intimate relationships is hard, even with people who dress and act and talk like me, and it is possible, even with people who don’t.

Often, political identities encourage people to ignore the health of their relationships. By shifting our focus to things very large and removed from our reality, political discourse runs the risk of allowing us an excuse to neglect the responsibility we have to be present in our own lives. If we are constantly aware of the abuse of governmental power but are unable to approach or confront the way that power operates in our relationships with the people we love, how are we ever going to be able to create beautiful realities in the lives we have been given? If people you know and are connected to began to heal themselves and learned how to talk to each other — about power and pain, passion and death — and became confident and aware of the ways in which their words, actions, and relationships shape the world they end up living in, how much more vibrant and less despairing would your existence be?

The charm of authoritarian systems is often in their ability to act as a surrogate for real connectedness. They pacify people by giving them simple answers and something they can easily hold on to. The ugliness of these systems is that they require shutting down our ability to recognize the humanity of people whose truth differs from the one we have connected ourselves to. Building substantial relationships in our lives that are based on trust and maintained through a mutual understanding of each other’s particular truth gives people a sense of security that is certainly more appealing to me than anything authoritarianism has to offer.

Conclusion
Having a sense of yourself and your own power, as well as the ways that you depend, in so many ways, on your connections to others is not about the music you listen to, the food you eat, how you dress, or how you dress your children. I believe that people best relate to one another when they can see their own humanity reflected in the other person. This is not saying that everybody is really the same, but that no one is wholly ‘other’. A direct implication of this is that I put much more stock into trying to understand how another person sees their world than I do in categorizing people. I deeply question whether the model of identity is the best way for people to talk about their differences and similarities; it can often obscure more than it clarifies. Only by placing ourselves firmly in our bodies right now and taking responsibility for our power and our freedom, even when that process is painful, or seems impossible, are we ever going to create engaged communities of strong and beautiful people who are connected to each other in healthy ways. The trick, for me, is figuring out how to be in deeply intimate networks of relationships with people while still maintaining an individual sense of freedom, finding a way to hold autonomy and mutual aid in my hands at the same time without reeling from the cognitive dissonance.

cousins

One of the things that I reflect on a lot is the power and importance of stories both the kind that inspire wonder and the kind that frame our experience of the world – I am especially interested in the power we all have to shape the stories that define and enrich our lives.

Here are five very short stories built off of real memories I have about my cousins, my sister and me. They were composed as a gift of stories for the five of us in December 2012.

Alison

When I was seven or eight, I went with my parents and sister to Michigan to visit our Gramma and Grampa. My cousin Alison was there when we arrived, having been deposited by her parents several weeks before and it had been decided that we were going to bring her back to Massachusetts at the end of our trip. The distance between Ypsilanti and Boston is 750 miles; cutting through Pittsburgh to visit a great Aunt brings it up to 850.  My later self would probably have attempted it in one stretch.  For my two parents with three young children it took substantially longer, at least three nights on the road.

Having cousin Ali along, who was three years older than either me or my sister was exciting. I’m sure she changed the family dynamic in many ways that I did not appreciate at the time – cementing the three of us kids together into an amiable gang and dispelling the sort of energy that was likely to lead to the two of us siblings bickering – but the contribution that I remember most distinctly, over twenty years later, is the stories that she told us.

It is possible that the storytelling began at Gramma and Grampa’s house, or perhaps in the car on our first day in order to avoid a fight, but by the end of the trip the numbered installments reached well into the twenties or thirties and a dull road trip became an experience of anticipation and wonder. The three days we spent together seem to stretch into weeks in my memory as the stories, which were really one large and connected story, wound their way through our imaginations.

What I do not remember clearly at all are specific details of plot, though it seems as though the narrative centered on a set of twins, one girl and one boy, who habitually stumbled out of their garden gate and down rabbit holes into other worlds. These worlds of flight and fancy, of underwater kingdoms and other distant lands were incredible. Every sort of exciting thing came alive as the two of us hung on Ali’s words, each new segment starting off fast paced and ending in a cliffhanger that kept us asking to hear what happened next. The story continued as we huddled around campfires, sipped juice boxes by the side of the road in the middle of the day or walked along the banks of a campground pond, carefully avoiding assertive geese and their numerous droppings.

As the story progressed, marvelous details from earlier segments began to blend together in my head, several times I remember stepping back from the tale determined to write some of it down, but I never did. I’m sure, now, that a child’s story to her young cousins could not possibly hit my thirty year old ears with the same force and intensity that it had for my seven year old self.  Ali was still a kid, had the credibility of a kid, but was old enough to be able to create a narrative that I could not imagine thinking up by myself and it was this brilliant realization that seemed so amazing. What stays with me today are not the garden gates and rabbit holes, but the sense that a story, well told, can bind us together and utterly transform the way that we experience our lives. It is at the core of my belief in a certain kind of magic.

Joy

When I was thirteen years old, my cousin Joy graduated from college. She was the first of us kids to leave home and we had gone down to see her at school several times; but though my sister had spent weekends there unescorted, I had always visited in the context of parental family.

There was quite a contingent in Providence that day, my parents, Joy’s parents, my sister, her sister, her brother, her sister’s boyfriend and me. It was decided that the grown-ups would share a hotel room and the rest of us would crash on the floor of Joy’s room. Joy’s off campus apartment was impressive, a first floor flat in an old building with high ceilings and lots of light. It was so cool to think about what her life must have been like there – away from parents and suburban home towns, seemingly able to do whatever she wanted. I remember her saying how much she loved a framed photograph my aunt took of her old Raggedy-Ann doll, hanging on a clothesline. It seemed like such a mature way to be reminded of the beloved things of childhood; one that fit tastefully into her new surroundings and was a bridge between the accomplished woman she was becoming and the Punky Brewster fanatic she had been.

After the grownups retired, the rest of us walked around the neighborhood and through campus in the warm spring evening air. I learned that Portuguese bakeries had really good sweet breads, and that drinking a cup of something called apple cider vinegar, heated with local honey, every morning was good for your health. I don’t remember everything we talked about as we wandered, but it was the first time I can recall being with my cousins and feeling that we were not defined by our identity as children.

As the sun went down and twinkling lights of outdoor festivities illuminated the tree lined quads and paths of the campus, we headed back to the apartment, passed around a couple of beers and hung out with each other, eventually crashing in some sort of tetris pattern on the floor of Joy’s room. I don’t actually remember anything about the graduation itself. It’s possible that there were not enough tickets for my sister and me to attend; if I did go, it was not the ceremony, but our time together and my impression of her college life that has stayed with me.

Joy was planning to go to Haiti with her best friend after graduation to work for a charity there for a year; after that, she wasn’t sure, but she wanted to be a writer. One book about lesbian sex on her bookshelf was the only evidence I remember of her dating life. She had come out to the family a few years earlier, but I still had another decade in the closet ahead of me. Those hours of mature friendship between us cousins were a revelation and brought home to me the fact that Joy had already moved into a wider, more textured world toward which the rest of us were inevitably drifting.

Reese

We had taken the train to Marseille the night before, bought a bag of black cherries and walked along the Mediterranean Sea eating them before retiring to a room in the cheapest hotel we could find. The dark juice stained our fingers and caused Reese’s mouth to itch. This trip was our dream trip, a tour of Europe in two weeks with each other, cousins and best friends. For a sentimental history nerd like me, it was a chance to see some of the many things I had read about in books; the monuments of Paris, canals of Venice and castles of Bavaria. For Reese, it was a chance to prove to himself that, two years after knee surgery, he could, in fact, carry a backpack across Europe.

So far the trip had been good, moments like the cherry stained walk in Marseille and a similar meandering tour of Versailles had allowed us to catch up on each other’s lives in a deep and meaningful way. We were both in college and Reese had recently fallen in love with a woman who was flying to meet us in Florence in a couple of days.

We woke up early that morning, strapped our packs on and staggered out into the Provençal sun on our way to the train station. I should probably stop here to tell you that, for some reason, we had withdrawn all of the money we had budgeted for the trip ahead of time. This inexplicable act was made lucky, in a way, when I managed to leave my ATM card at home the day we flew out of Logan. These two facts meant that, at that moment, that morning in Marseille, my travel wallet contained not only my passport and Eurorail pass (Reese was keeping my return plane ticket), but all of the money I was going to have any access to for the next week and a half.

The streets were relatively empty and the sun was glaring in its ascent. A young man came up to the two of us rather desperately, trying to relay a story and ask for help.  In French accented with pantomime, he began to describe how he had been attacked. At one point, as he stepped away from me, I noticed the lanyard of my wallet moving behind his back. I grabbed his wrist and yelled.

Immediately Reese pivoted, pinning the stranger’s arms behind him and putting a scarred knee into his back. I should mention that I am over six feet tall and weighed well over three hundred pounds that day; Reese on the other hand is quite a bit smaller than me and, on that day, was also a girl with rather long blond hair. While it was no surprise to the two of us that he was quite capable of protecting his ‘little’ cousin, it was quite a surprise to our would-be thief. My wallet was dropped and Reese let the man go so he could run away. A few observers laughed from the patio of a nearby café and we made our way to the train station.

“Let’s not talk about that until we are safely home” suggested Reese as we waited for our train; we had been pretty silent in the hour since our mugging. I, too, was alarmed by the magnitude of what almost happened and exhilarated by the way that we had averted disaster. My wallet was now safely around my neck and tucked under my shirt. Our thief had not gotten away with any cash, but he had robbed us of our naïve saunter and filled our world with new potential predators.

The trainride from Marseille to Milan is beautiful, it passes through Nice and along the Côte d’Azur before heading inland. As we sat, looking out, the shock of the morning began to fade and the pleasure of being halfway around the world on a train by the sea mellowed our mood. There were four Italian passengers sitting opposite us; a married couple in middle age and another woman with her aging mother. We each began, passively, to listen to the conversation they were having, appreciating the friendly tenor without understanding any of the words.

At one point, the three women began talking about food, arguing over regional and family recipes, suddenly the vocabulary was familiar and Reese and I shared a secret smile. Soon after, we became the topic of interest and were asked where we were going and where we had been. The lack of a common tongue meant that the conversation was fairly basic and involved a lot of place names and exclamations of “bella!” The good will and friendly manner, however, communicated much more. As we approached Milan the train was running late and we readied ourselves to transfer quickly to the train to Florence. Our Italian friends smiled warmly and anxiously hoped that we would be able to make it. We burst out of the car and into the crowded station riding a wave of goodwill from people we would never see again.

As we waited in a line to reserve new tickets for a later train, I reflected on how we had felt so supported by the same universe that had seemed so hostile mere hours before, the amazing way we had been reminded, so abruptly, about the menace and kindness of strangers.

Leona

Once upon a time there were two little kids, a girl named Leona and her brother, and they were wild children. They ran around the house naked, turning rocking chairs and couch cushions into elaborate forts and working together to evade bath time.  With the help of their father, they traveled to Narnia and Wonderland and a secret garden in the moors of Britain. On other days they found the silky nightgowns of their mother and became fairies. Leona was a fairy princess with some sort of sleeping disorder and the little boy, a fairy godmother who would wake the princess up and get her ready for the ball. Still other days they were cowboys or adventurers, or two little runaway children making their way defiantly through the back yard with nothing but packed lunches and a radio flyer wagon. Through it all, they laughed heartily, the screams and giggles of childish joy.

Over time, the wild and fantastic play of the children declined as they found other friends to have adventures with. The boy decided that little sisters were meant to be picked on and left out and Leona decided that neurotic brothers should be poked and aggravated. In place of their creative play, the two children discovered new ways to tease and torture one another. They still ran through the house loudly, but their noises were uglier noises, the whining cries and angry yelling of discord. They fought so much that their parents brought them to a special place where they played with dolls and talked to a nice lady about each other. In time, they screamed at each other less, but had forgotten how to connect.

During this period of strained relations, Leona and her brother stopped being little children and became adolescents and their exterior social world became marked with all the trappings and complications of adolescence. Leona became friends with people who felt more connected to ‘reality’ and made her family feel like a place she belonged to less and less. Her brother became introspective and solitary, filled with anxiety; he began to wonder if he was ever going to be comfortable in social situations again.

But as these things happen, the intensity of this disconnection ebbed and the siblings began to see one another again, to tentatively smile across the neutral zone between their rooms. Leona began to trust her brother with some of the secrets and stresses of her new life and her brother was able to keep those secrets and learn, from her perspective, about the world. As they entered High School, Leona and her brother began to share some friends and, through these friends, became better friends again. Joint sleepovers and a growing ability to manage their frustrations without taking them out on each other led to new possibilities for laughter, comfort and commiseration. They were no longer the same two children they had been, but they were people who trusted each other and knew how to recognize and respect one another; how to laugh heartily late into the night, not without conflict, but through it.

One last story.

The five of us sat together in the living room of my cousins’ house. It was dark, possibly raining, and the warmth and light of the familiar house were a comfort. In another room, the adults were fighting after carefully smiling though decades of building tension that amounted to a very civil war. My mother and her sister were perhaps months to a year away from a period of icy estrangement which would last through two years of separate holidays and radio silence, only thawing with the death of our grandfather and the breakup of my aunt and uncle’s marriage.

Joy was back from college with a shaved green head and a brand new lesbian identity, Ali was in for the night, choosing to spend the evening with us, rather than with her boyfriend and busy social circle. Reese (still years away from becoming Reese, proper), Leona and I were there in part because we were still too young to have made other plans. We had all, finally, passed through adolescence and were well suited to be painfully aware of all of our parents’ flaws and shortcomings.

And we realized that we liked what we had with each other; that we had known one another forever and liked our particular feeling of family; that we didn’t want to drift apart or turn into our parents who spoke without the ability to be unguarded and emotionally present with each other. We knew on some level we were all becoming adults and that our relationships with each other were changing and swiftly becoming dependent on our own will, rather than filial obligation but we didn’t know what that would mean in practical terms.

I don’t recall who pulled out the piece of paper, or first suggested drafting a statement, but soon we were all engaged in creating the document, a declaration of our commitment to each other. We agreed to meet together at least once, every year – and to want to see each other, and to not let things come between us like they had come between our parents. I remember a boyfriend/girlfriend clause was very contentious, others felt that future partners should be invited to our gatherings while I was less convinced. I’m glad now that the motion passed.

We were old enough to see everything that was wrong about the adult world ahead of us but too young to appreciate the complex situations that lead people to mask their feelings, or have strained relationships. We knew that we loved each other and were naïve enough to believe that that should be enough, that a lack of love must be what had come between our mothers. I don’t know who has kept their copy of the document, it has been over a decade since I’ve seen mine. But it is probably safe to say that we have all struggled at times to keep up our end of the bargain.

What I didn’t understand then, but have a better handle on now is that intimacy and emotional closeness is not the same as a relationship without conflict; that it was likely the lack of tools our mothers had to be in conflict with each other openly and lovingly that allowed feelings of frustration to build and become unmanageable; that the quality of our time together is not related to the quantity or specific form of that time and our ability to remain close is not measured by whether or not we manage to get together at some sort of idyllic family picnic every year. What I hope is still clear so many years later, is how much we love each other and want to be in relationship with each other, despite the different ways we conduct our lives, or relate to ourselves and our past.

Anyway, that night, the five children who were becoming adults finished the document over which they had been laboring, the strained conversation of their parents broke apart and my sister and I were collected for the return trip home. As I lay in my bed that night, I felt the warmth of family in a new way; new because I was aware of the extent to which it was something I was actively choosing to create. And sleep came for all of the cousins one after another and they were in each other’s lives forever after.