Friday, November 18, 2005

Between Us All

Growing up in a southern ethnic family, I thought everyone had as many aunts and cousins as I did. I can’t recall when I first realized my family was large, yet it was probably when we received a plaque at church on family day. My grandmother had eleven children, nine girls, two boys. They in turn had twenty-two children. The grandchildren have thus had thirty-three children.

It wasn’t difficult to establish territory in my family, but it took maneuvering to create physical and emotional space. I’d sit in a corner in my grandmother’s living room while voices bellowed –my family’s normal indoor pitch would rival trained singers at the Met Opera House, without enhancement. There’s inherent pressure, judgment, and competition in most families.

Birthday parties at Granny’s house required traffic control because of those not a member of the family. Neighborhood kids, school classmates, and their parents didn’t know the inner workings of our clan. Social gatherings would bring out the best in my family, which wasn’t unusual, but a rarity among the strong-willed and boisterous women. Flanked by family and strangers in photos at the age of three, four, or eleven, I had no desire to leave that type of life. Twenty years later, there are pictures of me blowing out birthday candles in New York, surrounded by friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.

My family wasn’t one for social politics and ladder climbing. The contradiction for my young mind back then was wondering how my aunts and mother could rip each other apart through plotting and petty competition, and as soon as an external threat would manifest, they’d unite to thwart the intruder. In the space of my family, I learned different lessons. Men are different from women beyond the obvious physical. Women are nurturers and men are wanderers. Women are intuitive and men are spontaneous. I gleaned these lessons shielded by the number of family members around me at any given time that enabled careful observation and study. I don’t think if my family were smaller, more intimate, I’d be who I am today. In the space of a large family, there are several influences and role models within the bloodline, in-laws, and romantic suitors who ingratiated themselves into the protective fold. There were times I wished for less noise, competition, and internal strife, but then that wouldn’t be my family. I had to learn to navigate within the boundaries of personalities, agendas, and misplaced ideals.

I learned not to take things personally. My aunts or cousins loved to tease and taunt, in jest and out of malice. Whenever I felt at odds at with my family, I had surrogate family members in the form of classmates, teachers, or mentors at school. I’ve always been in a group, for better or worse, from my earliest memories. When I wasn’t at my grandmother’s house with my enormous family, I was a member of several extracurricular activities. The group format is second nature to me. I didn’t examine my participation in the school glee club or student government as an extension of my family, I accepted it. There are expected roles in families and groups. In my immediate family, I’m the oldest of three sons, and in the extended family, I was the extrovert who participated in theatre, out-of-town debates and competitions, and read scriptures in church. That was my world, the life of an artist. I didn’t have to wait for hand-me-downs from older cousins or deceased uncles. I had first choice of roles in school plays, emceeing school pageants and sorority debutante balls, or reading stirring passages from the Bible.

The weak of heart might be overwhelmed in large families or groups. I escaped through the characters I played on stage, in commercials, or the offices I held in after school activities. I had to carve out an existence within my family, learn who I was when with them, and develop an identity without their clannish protection. I don’t think my family enabled me in any way, yet it took me a few years to break out of that large clan mentality when I relocated to the east coast. When I look back on my early years in New York, I realize that I tried to recreate the comforts of southern-style family living and relationships. I ended up in more precarious situations than I care to remember trying to transport that way of thinking to the metro area. I would have been better off calling my younger brothers and reestablishing our damaged relationship or flying to Houston to visit my family instead of taking in a roommate or trying to fix or counsel a friend.

I think I’m getting closer to finding mutually beneficial groups. A few years ago, I happened upon roller-skaters and in-line skaters who dance-skate to house and disco music in the spring and summer in a makeshift outdoor rink in Central Park. I lower inhibitions and work off steam while skating, and get a great workout in the process. When I want to lose myself in a crowd, I dance with African and Caribbean drummers in Central Park. These two communities allow me to tap into different parts of my personality without judgment. I don’t have to play a part or feel obligated to attend and participate as I had to as a child and young adult with my family. I can be invisible or blend into the scenery in Central Park if I so choose. I can sit and listen to the music without ridicule for hanging out on the sidelines.

There’s a trait that’s either natural or conditioned that causes me to reach out and build surrogate families or extended communities. I formed and moderate biweekly fiction and screenwriting critique groups. I’m still in a similar role of big brother, but there’s a give-and-take of support, encouragement, motivation, and information sharing without the familial guilt or feelings of obligation. We convene because we want to improve as writers, and in the meantime, enhance each other’s lives. What better gift to give to each other?

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