birth families

Card Therapy (or Families: It’s All Relative!)

<March 24/10>


I just went shopping for a birthday card (yes, some environmental activists would no doubt frown on my “card habit.” It’s a fairly innocuous little addiction, seems to me, compared to some others I can think of).


I get a big kick out of looking at cards because I love laughing – & I came up with the phrase “card therapy” when I discovered some years ago now that I can cheer myself up lickety-split (& have a grand old time to boot) just spending 10 minutes looking at cards. My laughter generally even gets the store staff laughing too. (I’ve said it before & I’ll say it again – I’m a pretty cheap date!)


So, I found a card that made me laugh out loud, & then think some about families. Well. They sure do come in all shapes, sizes & kinds, don’t they?? Every one of them unique, every one of them almost certainly not at all what they appear to be from the outside, looking in.


My own “birth family” was a wee bit on the dysfunctional side. Of course they all are, as we understand now – but when I grew up in the 50’s & 60’s I laboured under the grand illusion that everyone else had it all together. I always felt like an outsider &, I suppose, an imposter – walking around acting as though everything was A-OK, meanwhile holding down the lid on the … confusion … that was my family’s life.


(I was fortunate enough to marry into a family that seemed to me like the very Waltons incarnate – really a very darn fine crowd of people! – & that was very nice & kind of a privilege for me for quite a few years there. Divorce took care of that, in time, although I can say with gratitude that I am still close to a number of very lovely individuals in that family.)


As a result of all this family-related…how shall we say, experience, all my adult life I’ve been a keen observer of this strange human animal called the “nuclear” family. Love & divorce & new relationships & friends’ families: one is endlessly being offered glimpses of the infinite variety of family configurations, our love (& hate) of them, their closeness (or lack thereof), their internal power dynamics… & the degree to which we can each probably be understood by others just by reciting a 5-minute snapshot or history of our childhood/family life.


My own birth family (which has always seemed to me to be pretty markedly dysfunctional, but which according to my sister was not a big deal at all. ?????) could be compared to some & seen as almost Waltonesque. (There are some pretty…hmmm….shall we say, off-the-charts families out there!) Compared to others, we look(ed) like full-on disaster. That of course is why I jokingly say it’s all relative. Pun intended…


I guess all this is what has made me crave all my life to be part of a (yes, fictional) “normal” family – one in which everyone gets together semi-frequently for birthdays & Mothers’ Days & Fathers’ Days & Thanksgivings & Christmases & Easters – & don’t all hate one another and, by golly, even mostly like (even love!!) one another.


I haven’t entirely lucked out in that department. Negotiating families of divorce can be quite challenging. Slight understatement here, hmmm? I’ve had more related experience in this regard than a person might strictly care to have had, but…perhaps the less said, the better.




The birthday card I came across that made me laugh right out loud said, “I was thinking about getting the whole family together to celebrate your birthday” – with a picture of a motley collection of people on the front of the card. You open it up & it says “But then I thought you might want to do something fun.”


It sure tickled my funny bone!!


Clearly, I am not the only person on the planet who doesn’t belong to that mythical “perfect” family, hmmm?


Well. I guess we all “wrestle” all our lives with the peculiarities & particular wounds of our own childhood & family, hmm? I know I continue to do so. I keep getting insights about myself – about my particular neuroses & idiosyncrasies – still! – & every time I get knocked on my butt by a new relationship drama, I learn yet a little more. (It seems a bit like an archaeological dig; one keeps on excavating unexpected things…)


One great lesson I’ve picked up along the way is that, while we don’t get to choose our family (on a conscious level, at least), we can find, & choose, a community – a tribe.


The big thinkers say alienation is the central bedeviling problem of the human race. The only way to beat that is to find a sense of belonging. Our families cannot guarantee us that, unfortunately. Once upon a time, each of us was born into a tribe. Belonging was our birthright in those days, I’m pretty sure.


While finding my own tribe was definitely something I did not set out to do by becoming involved in environmental work 20 years ago, that’s pretty much exactly what happened.


And as I write down that thought, it comes to me that I didn’t just sort of miraculously find the buried treasure under the spot marked X, I’ve been helping build the tribe to which I now so joyfully, gratefully & proudly belong.


I read in the Utne Reader some years ago this statement attributed to Kalle Lasn & Bruce Grierson:

“Two centuries of philosophers stand in opposition to the modern American recipe for happiness and fulfillment. You can’t buy your way in. You can’t amuse yourself in. You can’t even expect falling in love to deliver you. The most promising way to happiness is, perhaps, through creativity, through literally creating a fulfilling life for yourself by identifying some unique talent or passion and devoting a good part of your energy to it, forever.”


Helen Keller said, “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”


For me, for sure, “following my bliss” has really paid off!! The road has been full of potholes & detours & has even led me off a cliff or two…but hey!


Here I am, now, leading (& loving) this unexpected life – a full, never-dull life adventure for which I am wildly, wildly grateful.


I didn’t (& couldn’t, & can’t) re-create the Humpty Dumpty life I once had (that perfect family, perfect marriage I’d wanted so badly to last forever). Instead, I’ve become a member of a wonderful, wonderful ever-expanding tribe (with members, btw, who are often just as kooky & “dysfunctional” as everything & everyone else on the planet, myself included).


“Perfection” is just an illusion, hmmm?


I know what Kurt Vonnegut would say about it all: “If that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!”




‘Quote of the day’ with this post: “The return from your work must be the satisfaction that work brings you and the world’s need of that work. With this, life is heaven, or as near heaven as you can get.” – W.E.B. DuBois