Multifaceted, multiple forms of, idealised, theorised about, sustained, rejected, government supported, imposed upon, threatened, painfully recalled, unknown, fragmented, rejoiced in, pretend, genetic, abandoned, migrated, ruined or cherished. You can be a family of one or have a family tree so large and convoluted that it threatens to form a small village and in some countries, often does.

Families – their relationships, organisation, patterns, links of obligation, meanings, structures and activities form the basis of the study of kinship in anthropology, but the fleshed out, lived experience of family life is so much more than anything a genogram can suggest. How do you really represent a relationship between a child and their aunties and uncles in Australian Indigenous communities, a link that may not be close blood, but is based on longstanding tradition and complex webs of understanding and reciprocity? How do the links of families withstand the pressures of enforced migration? And when you visit a cemetery to leave flowers and shed tears for deceased love ones, the office staff will tell you quite plainly that families only come to pay respects for a maximum of three generations, so what does this tell us about families?

Your perspective on families changes as you grow. As a baby, you’re totally dependent, as a child you see other families and wonder, and as you get older you realise that families can be totally individual in their makeup, responses and experiences. Families are the EPITOME OF CHANGE. They change as we change, and as we age our role and place marker in our own families changes too. In middle age, I’m now an orphan, but still remain the daughter of my now recently deceased mother and long dead (and long gone) father.

Do you love your family? All of them? Or hate them? Or hate some of them? We can truly only personally love and hate those we know and this points to the heightened tensions associated with intense personal relationships, their formation, existence and endings. Life is a journey and those related by blood, or spiritual kin or friends who form the nexus of your family life, these people are the ones who accompany us, sometimes only for a time, through our life. It’s often this reality that eludes us, that puzzles us as we often seek permanence, seek concreteness in our existence when none really exists. The bonds of blood (or the spirit if you’re a church goer) often constitute the closest that we really experience of that which is permanent in life. Nothing is permanent though, because even family come and go.

It is with this knowledge that I sometimes look at the faces of my children and yearn to forget that truth of life: that life is temporary, that even while our bonds are strong, resolute, unbreakable, based on the act, spirit and corporeal reality of love, that even these bonds are not strong enough to maintain an unending life. ‘This too shall pass’ I told my daughter today as she worried about going away with the school, worried about going to sleep at night away from her bed, her home, her pet, her routines and her people. ‘This too shall pass’ reminds us of the transience of life, and of the necessity for us to grab it now and live it, whatever that reality is, knowing that its shimmer of impermanence will fade too, and that much like old photos age we too shall fade…

Families can have divergent meanings for us, a truth we recognise as we move through the roles ascribed to us from when we joined them. Individual members may provide the source of much angst at various times, however, we all have a commonality that we share in our families of origin, whether they’re known or not. What is your story? What is your family? How do you epitomise your journey through life with these people? Would you even like them if they weren’t related to you? And what do you make of traditions, of family traditions? Are they part of your life? Do you continue these or remake them afresh? What are your thoughts about continuity and change? What are the values that your family and you uphold, maintain or even reject?
And what about my family? Well, I make it up as I go along – partnering, parenting, being a ‘role model’ and all that, mostly because I didn’t have any of the normal ones when I grew up. My role as a mother and wife I can create, I can carve out that story, inscribe my kind of experiences on that. But my family of origin? That’s a mixed bag; that story is coloured with migration, madness, separation, divorce, extended family life, highly problematic relations and trauma. Hence the blog.

This blog entry has come about partly in response to the lovely Blacklight Candelabra’s https://blacklightcandelabra.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/divergent-meanings/ ongoing and very entertaining attempts at roping people in to write about themes (a much admired effort I have to say), and partly because I received a message on my phone today that said: “Family Picnic in one month’s time at a park near the city. BYO everything. We’ll have a BBQ, see you then”. My heart sank as I began to envisage excuses to not go. We may go, but why bother? I feel that by attending I’m only really there to provide completeness to my extended family’s version of that which constitutes ‘our family’. If I’m not there, and my husband and children aren’t there, there’ll be a gap. OK, only a gap of four, but a gap nevertheless that, like all family stories if not inscribed by truth will have to made up, imagined, alluded to, supposed about and decided on in my absence because it will have to be filled one way or another. This is because of the nature of families: families are fulsome things and cannot tolerate a void.

Families also don’t get mobile technology: the message came through from someone who had clearly forgotten that all the text messages that I’d received from her over the past few years were still on my phone (and probably a trail of these not-so-cute messages in clouds existed on her phone too). All it takes is a little scroll to remember the recent past, remember the last time we’d had contact and all that was said, or written. Oh, families can make your blood boil.

But that’s only when you look backwards. It’s true that it can also happen when you look forwards, but when you look to your own partner, your own children and your life in your own family, in your own (or at least the bank’s) home, you get to have a lot more say about what happens, where you go, who you see, what you do, and what happens to your own body. You can invent, create and carve out your own future in a way that the nearly dead, asphyxiating, hardened, gossiping, entrenched attitudes that came into existence and killed off your opportunities in life before you even entered the room can never do. Families can be a source of love, but they can also be a million other things that affect who you are and how you live right into the future. However one thing remains the same, the word remains loaded and while common meanings may attach themselves t the word, our experiences of families depends on our place in the queue, our perspective and our experences.


Into the Woods (and out again)

Like many people, I recently saw this at the movies and was transformed both by the power of storytelling and the mythic construction of the woods as a powerful symbol within our culture. This post is not so much a movie review but a reflection on storytelling and the marvellous back drop that the woods play not only in this movie but in our lives, in our psyches and in various cultural contexts. In our own culture we have turns of phrase that are heavily symbolic that reflect on this, for example where we are warned about the woods and travelling there: “[Don’t go] into the woods” “We’re not out of the woods yet” “You can’t see the wood for the trees” and of course, “If you go down to the woods today, be sure and not go alone…”
We have to ask ourselves a number of questions: what is it that the woods really represent? What purpose does this serve? What tensions (if any) are resolved by our journeying into, through and out of the woods? And what happens if we get lost or stuck there?

I think that the woods are a symbolic space upon which we project many of the emotional tensions that we experience in our lives. This is also represented in many cultural contexts where different tensions are portrayed using the woods as well. In some parts of Asia the woods represent the playground of the gods, a place into which you would venture if you wished to meet with a deity to tap into the power of the gods to effect a transformation in your life, hence the woods are dangerous and powerful. In other parts of Asia, the forests house spiritual leaders, hermit monks who draw a following. And the woods are the place to which people flee when they go mad, only to return transformed by their encounters in the woods which empowers them and allow them to become healing practitioners or powerful spirit mediums.

In Christian Europe the woods represent the wildness and untamed nature of the psyche, a place which Christianity has not yet colonised but pre Christian demons, nymphs, naiads and nature spirits reside. The ordering power of Christianity with its roadside shrines to local saints, location of churches and monasteries in high places and control of people’s movements within ordered, structured and sacralised regimes of worship exists as a counterpoint to the woods. Christianity represents culture in opposition to the wildness of nature which is a powerful, ever-changing original force full of chaos and dynamism.

The woods are depicted too not as a destination but as a place through which one must travel through. Hence the woods are heavily symbolic of the emotional turbulence that we experience. If we have a problem in life, we always symbolically travel through the woods, through the dense, thick undergrowth [irrational fears, unacknowledged feelings], with an inability to see far ahead as we attempt to meet the challenges of our changing situations, meeting creatures [strong feelings such as love, fear and hate] who may be dangerous, ferocious and fearful to deal with. These are our bears. These are our wolves. And we are all dressed in red capes symbolising our innocence as we travel to meet adult emotions.

The woods are also depicted as a site which we must attempt to avoid, we are warned against travel there, about the dangers of the inhabitants of the woods, which fits in perfectly with storytelling. Using the woods as a place of danger fits in perfectly with the storytelling form. We use stories to teach children about how to live, what to strive for, how to achieve as well as the underside of life: what to fear, what to hate and how to deal with strong emotions. The woods with their universal trope of denseness, growth, varied light and shade, home of creatures big and small, and serving as a site in which to harbour, to hide, to shelter or flee are a perfect setting against which we can play out our own canvass of emotions.

In storytelling when we think of the woods, we think of the vulnerability of children: of Hansel and Gretel, of Little Red Riding Hood and other daughters too. We think of and fear evil preying on them personified in children’s stories by witches and wild beasts. But what are these forms of evil telling us? In the movie it became patently clear that Rapunzel’s mother was an evil witch because she did not want her daughter to grow up, to become an adult, to LEAVE HER. The witch was a personification of all the fears that parents harbour but cannot make explicit as she warned against the dangers and evils of the world. The witch herself became those dangers, those very dangers that she warned her daughter about. This speaks to ALL MOTHERS, to all our fears of fading beauty, waning fertility, shrivelling fecundity and oncoming death. In letting go of our daughters and casting them into the world, we let go of that bit of ourselves that was mirrored in our children as we are forced to acknowledge the change of status that this entails.

That’s just one part of one story, but there are many more. This is why stories from ages ago still speak to modern children, to modern audiences and are so amenable to interpretation and understanding across time. As I’m not a literary critic or analyst I offer this perspective (which is probably not original) because I was so struck by the representation of the human condition and our emotional and existential plight that I saw depicted on the screen and I wondered why it had taken me so long to recognise that I too was still in the dark, still in the woods so to speak about such a culturally resplendent, powerful yet simple way to transfer knowledge of emotions between the generations.

Seeing these stories depicted in books, in film or on the stage allows us to work through (a hackneyed phrase I know, but in this context so good) challenging emotions, challenging ideas: what if we went broke and had to sell everything? What if the person or people who cared for me died? If I couldn’t have children, what would that mean for my life? What would I become? What if a promise were broken? What if I got eaten up by … death?  Stories allow us to address these universal themes and offer a way for us to talk to and teach our children about them too.

Now, let’s get started on another one: how about keeping the wolf from the door?