I have just finished Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which has impressed me more than any novel I have read in years. It seemed on every page there was some line about which I could write a whole essay. One of them was this concept (somewhere around page 197 in the edition I was reading):
Every single one of us is a little civizilation build on the ruins of any number of preceding civizilations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because thos around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.
I have had thoughts somewhat like this before, though not expressed so elegantly. When I get annoyed at colleagues who routinely ignore messages, who prefer to remain ignorant of points of view other than their own, who walk into an emotional firestorm rather than unwind the tangled strands of motivation and passion—and this is in the professional world!—then sometimes I am able to see that I operate by a different set of rules than they do.
Professionally speaking, I was raised in a world that prized both conflict and courtesy. It is conflict that gives rise to new ideas, to advancement of group thinking in service of whatever ideal we may wish to serve. It is courtesy that allows for the fact that someone else’s idea may have more value than we see at first. And it is courtesy that keeps us from killing each other. Recognizing that I may be operating by unconscious rules that the other players don’t even know has made it possible for me to learn better negotiation skills.
In the personal world, too, I have recently come to recognize the need to explain the rules of my world. Most member of my immediate family (that is to say mom and siblings) are on maintenance contact right now. A variety of perfectly reasonable other issues in life—divorce, illness, joblessness, moving, and just living with small children—have caused family relationships—at least the ones with me—to fall away until there is really not a lot of interaction.
Do I believe they care about me? I guess. At least they would show up at my funeral. But like my colleagues, they don’t answer e-mails. My mother reads my blog, but I don’t think anyone else does. And the truth is that the blog was started, as was the group e-mail that preceded the blog, as a way to reach out, to help them know me a little better.
The truth is that they don’t know me as a person, and apparently don’t care to. I get birthday cards and Christmas presents and an occasional visit from one or another. I feel obligated to send Christmas presents and the occasional birthday card and—for some reason I have been the one to visit, more often than not. I send recipes from time to time, or a quick e-mail to say “I saw this and thought of you.” Most do not get replies.
I am careful to be as positive as I can be about each and every interaction, sending thank yous and reinforcing invitations. I even went on a group trip to Disney World, which was about as far from my idea of a dream vacation as it is possible to go. But I did it for the sake of growing connections.
What I get back from most of these relationships, most of the time, is slim pickings. I don’t get thank yous for Christmas presents. And last year one sibling sent me What Not to Wear, with a long and flowery note explaining that this was not a comment on my dress sense, just something to enjoy. It would have made a fine Christmas present if not for the fact that the previous year’s present was the identical book with an almost identical note.
Maybe it is time I get more explicit about my rules for dealing with family members. None of this represents any threat in any sense. How can you threaten people with the withdrawal of your attention and affection when those very things have so little value to them? And I know that as life happens, what we each need, every one of us, is more opportunities to continue to connect, not lines drawn in the sand. Still, almost everyone—there is an exception or maybe two—is on the maintenance plan right now.
To my family. Not to worry. You will still get Christmas presents, the occasional birthday card (somehow I have trouble remembering those), e-mails from time to time, and so on. At least you will get them as long as I have addresses for you.
Every year one sibling—whose sole idea for maintaining contact is to have children scrawl their names on a card—almost goes off the Christmas list completely. And every year, at the last minute, I can’t do it. Because I do value my family. And because no matter how serious the parent’s neglect of the gentle obligation to keep in touch, I want there to be options for the children.
I want the door always to be open. Open for what? Well might you ask. If the price of greater interaction with family members is that I need to take sides against other family members, that is simply not on. If the price is settling in for a cozy chat about how awful somebody’s spouse or ex-spouse is, I am not interested. I will not trade one family member for another. And if the price is giving up my own needs for a little quiet time during a visit, that won’t work, either. I am an introvert, you know! Or maybe you don’t.
I will still make the effort to visit down South once a year or maybe once every two years, if I am invited. But having noticed that the total of all the visits I have received over the last thirty years since I left the South is some fraction of all the visits I have made—for a lot of perfectly sound reasons, but still we are all adults now and all have engaging lives—I am unlikely to make more of an effort. I have come to realize that no matter how often I visit or how many ways I come up with to maintain contact, there simply is not much interest.
I suspect that if anyone in my family does read this, the first reaction will be to call and explain that I got it all wrong. Please don't. I know all about the press of daily life; I have one, too. I believe that people vote with their feet, not with their intentions. If you want the situation to be different, just act differently.
This state of affairs no longer offends, no longer hurts my feelings, but it does baffle. I think I am a pretty interesting person. The blog I started in part as a way to reach out to geographically and socially distant family members has blessed me with a new surprise. Apparently there are many people in the world who do find me interesting. In this day of internet and e-mail, we find our opportunities to connect no longer limited by distance. What a blessing that is!