It's easy to forget from the vantage point of my coastal elitism: most of America is built this way. Or at least, the rural and suburban part of America that is lucky enough to be moderately comfortable and middle class.
This weekend, I skipped out on some family events in favor of getting my head on straight for springtime, exercising and creating some new health and writing goals. I felt more relief than guilt, a true accomplishment for a veteran of 13 years of Catholic school.
My favorite cousin, a sweet 41-year-old man with two kids, was in town from Washington state. His little brother, a self-righteous Christian who is difficult to be around, came along too. Families and girlfriends stayed at home so Thursday night, Sonia and I had dinner with the two cousins on their way to my aunt's house.
They drove their rental car our house and we walked to a nearby gastropub. I apologized for and tried to explain city life. My favorite cousin recounted a story from when we were little.
"You had this little pink mirror with a handle," he said. "I looked into it and said, 'I'm in the mirror!' and handed it to you to prove it. 'No, I'm in the mirror!' you said. You were so confused. We went on that way for a long time."
"Did you try that with your daughter when she was that age?" I asked.
"Absolutely," he said. "It's a classic. You find a classic, you stick with it."
I can't explain my love for this cousin except that we were the two oldest, so right around the time I was starting to be aware of the world, he was there, five years older than me and awesome. He's also got a way of breaking the ice.
In another moment, we were explaining the structure of high schools in Philadelphia and Sonia's school pride came out, a little more aggressively than usual. I was worried that she sounded a little racist, which she is not.
"Honey," I said. "Watch it. You're sounding a little elitist."
The favorite cousin was quick on the draw. "You would be too," he said, "If you went to Central!"
It was great to see him. Even the Christian cousin and I tolerated each other, as he engaged us in stories about his new hobby: deep-water diving.
That was Thursday night. Saturday, we were invited to may aunt's for all-day conversations and meals. Tonight, about a dozen family members are doing the same thing at my parents' house. We declined both invitations.
It's true that Sonia and I are trying to say "yes" more often than we say "no" to family, but I live in the city for a more engaging job (which I love), for a chosen family (which we are building) and for the opportunity to write about where I come from (which requires distance).
Looking back on my past few blog posts, I feel like a pendulum. My boss and Sonia have a related observation about me that drives me nuts. They both claim that I can have very passionate, completely opposing views on a topic two days in a row. They're not wrong.
At work it looks like this:
- Monday: So-and-so isn't working hard at all. We should give them a warning because they're not meeting expectations.
- Tuesday: The same person is amazing! They really stepped up today and it's so clear that they're putting in more of an effort.
Both of these things can be true, but few people would make such a quick shift. I think it means I'm always open to being proven wrong. I want to believe in people.
At home it looks like this:
- Monday: I haven't heard from the cousins who are coming to visit, so we can skip seeing them this time.
- Tuesday: I heard from them! We have to change all of our plans so we can see them in the three-hour window they gave me for a dinner together.
When it comes to writing, this tendency leaves me a little schizophrenic-feeling. I want to write about family and belief and happiness, but my ideas about these topics are constantly shifting and internally contradictory.
This blog is an opportunity to build a body of memior-style vignettes, to note themes as they evolve over time and to nail down a story about family that feels fresh enough to turn into a book. To do all that, sometimes requires a break from said family.