Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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I have two younger half-sisters whom I have come to like well enough over the years to call “sisters.” It is convenient nomenclature, avoiding, as it does, the occasional wise guy who can add: “You mean you have one whole sister . . . ha-ha.” Since my sisters live with their families outside Boston and I live in New York, our connections are sporadic and possibly more friendly because of distance. We share a deceased father and a secret willingness to forgive most, if not all, of what needs forgiving among us.
Over the past 10 years we have become closer, I think. Time smooths.
During these same 10 years, when my sisters were busy with the creations of marriage and children, I have been interested in so-called spiritual life. Zen practice is not for everyone and certainly not, as yet, for my sisters. But through that practice, perhaps, I have found what I consider most valuable about “brothers” and “sisters.”
As one who gags mentally at the inaccuracies of sentimentality (oleaginous trumpetings of words like “love” and “understanding” and “sharing” and “oneness” minus the effort to discover what these things are and are not), still I have found many brothers and sisters to whom I am deeply connected. How “connected” I don’t know. Perhaps as the air is connected to the air or water to water. We can be named separately or we can be named as one, but still we really are connected. Like the sun: even though I say it comes up in the morning, it really does come up. Even though I do not always like these brothers and sisters of mine, I cannot help but love them. I do not believe in this love, in this connection, any more than I believe in my nose. Why pretend something is real when it already is real?
To those whom society has dubbed my “half-sisters” and I have renamed “sisters,” I do not speak of such things. Neither do they ask. They are involved in admirable practicalities: children, households, work. As am I. After all, when the sun comes up, it really is time to feed the kids. It really is time to light incense.
New York, New York
We move around so much, we Americans — shucking cars, homes, lifestyles, lovers, furniture, all things disposable as pampers — that I am not sure we know much, anymore, about brothers and sisters. Yet sometimes you can feel it, that special pull and singing in the blood. A Lebanese intellectual once told me the heart of the factional conflict in his country is not religion but families and bloodlines, hereditary connections which stretch through the entire economic strata from top to bottom. We’ve lost that passionate blood connection, most of us, and at best it’s a mixed blessing.
Of course we all are brothers and sisters, all of the same blood of the human family with probably the same grand great parents. And, of course, living in the disposable culture, we’ve learned to make our friends brother and sister substitutes, and to do that quickly. Yet what we’re learning, as we grow older, is that the best friendships are slow building over time, and, even when we succeed in building such friendships, remaining in a single place long enough for the maturing and bonding to occur, these special friendships which can lead you to say “brother” and “sister” are not the same as the blood-singing connection, the sharing of parents, the sharing of growing up.
As a college English teacher I read the journals of college freshmen, more than a hundred a semester, and what encourages me that men and women, after the wars, will find some peaceable king-queendom, is the loving way these 18-year-olds talk about their brothers and sisters. I think we may learn as much about the opposite sex from our brothers and sisters as we do from our parents. I’ve known extremely militant lesbian feminists, distinct from many of their “sisters” in the lack of male sex-hate, and have found it due, in two instances, to close loving contact with brothers.
My sister came to see me in Texas this year during Thanksgiving; I had been up to her wedding in Boston not eight months earlier, selling my old grey pickup to get together the bus fare for my wife and me. Before that it had been six years — can you imagine! What this alien industrial, technoculture does to us, to families! — since I’d seen Betsy. Of course she had aged (so had I), and I was amazed how she was beginning to look like my mother. And yet, she was so beautiful to me, and I loved her so and enjoyed her presence, even though we were often without words, because talk has never come easily in our family. I knew, when she left, that this life, as we live it in disposable America, is at times an exciting, adventurous journey but as we grow old and move to the harbor of the soul, we will draw closer together, she and I, and our whole blood family.
Hindu reincarnation and Buddhist “becoming the Buddha” put such emphasis on singularity. I give the Mormons credit (they pretend to be Christians, wily as they are) for their Mother and Father God couple pair in heaven and the union of families that happens there. A lot of your indigenous earth religions also emphasize ancestors and clan connections. We need that in our spirituality. Images of not only God the Father and God the Mother, but brother and sister gods! Something concrete to symbolize that connection across the sexes that lies under and is more primary than sexuality. Yes, men and women can be long-term friends without sex entering in; they can be attracted to one another, like, yes, brothers and sisters. We need that archetype; we need to be with our brothers and sisters!
I saw my sister last week — she and her husband and I had dinner at my parents’ house. It was an uncomfortable dinner. My father, for some reason, chose not to speak, and the rest of us spent some time trying to figure out what was wrong.
Afterwards, my sister and I did the dishes and talked. I asked her about school. (She’s almost finished with a Master’s in Public Administration.) She said she met with Dad a few days before to talk about computers, and asked me if I’d like to see her printouts.
We went into the bedroom and looked at a list of every hospital in New York City — the number of staff, the number of beds, the number of babies born each year, the average expense for each patient. We tried to figure out which was the worst hospital. Sure enough, it was a Veteran’s Hospital in Brooklyn.
When we finished, Anna sat back and said, “I have important news.” It seemed like an odd thing for her to say.
“I might be pregnant.” We were both silent. “We’re going Monday for an examination. But don’t tell anybody.” She looked at me hard.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “You can trust me.” Anna looked doubtful.
She said she wanted to have the baby with a midwife at a birthing center — a townhouse in the East 80’s. She’d worked for a while in obstetrics, and most of the people there were pretty mean. At St. Luke’s she saw them tie down a woman, put her feet in stirrups, and the doctor yell at her, “Push, dammit!” The woman was black and the doctor was white.
I told her it was exciting about her baby.
A couple of days later I told my mother I felt nervous around Anna’s friends — I felt like they thought I was weird. (I meant because they work on Wall Street and I’m a vegetarian yogi.) Mom said that was silly, I was intelligent and expressed myself well in conversation.
“Besides, your sister thinks the world of you. She’s always defending you.”
“Against what?” I asked, so suspiciously that we both laughed.
“Oh, when I say you should cut your hair.”
I visited Anna two weeks ago on a Saturday night. I was in her neighborhood so I stopped by. We ended up in a big sort of argument about the movie Gandhi. She loved it and thought I should see it, and I started criticizing civil disobedience (even though I’ve been arrested several times for engaging in it). I said it’s good for achieving political victories — desegregation of the South and Indian independence — but it doesn’t change the economic structure of society. That’s why Southern blacks are still economically oppressed and India is desperately poor. The people who control the wealth won’t surrender it to sweet petitions.
What I said is true, but it wasn’t very charitable. Anna was trying to tell me that she’d seen something that reminded her of me and had liked it, and I said, “No, that’s not me at all.”
From Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges:
“I had read about a theologian called Damian, or some such name, [who] thought that all things were possible to God except to undo the past, and then Oscar Wilde said that Christianity made that possible because if a man forgave another he was undoing the past.”
If only I could do this! If only I could bless her with forgiveness.
New York, New York
I don’t remember who it was that wrote that one’s True Family may not be one’s biological family. I was a teenager when I first took that for truth, wanting to trade in parents and brothers and sister, wanting likewise to trade in teenager-ness for the glamor (I thought) of adulthood.
I was married with a member of my True Family a few years back. I married my “sister.” A seer told us we had been together in many lives before, but this was the first time as lovers. Some law of nature exclaims: marrying brothers and sisters dispenses provisions to the dark. Can that law extend beyond biological family to include True Family?
This “sister” is just as close to me as my brother. My brother Pete was only 16 when I dedicated my first collection of poems to him. The dedication read: “To my brother Peter who first showed me the meaning of unconditional love.” Sentimental. But it reflects the underlying respect I had for him as my teacher and healer. He enters my dreams for days before a letter arrives from him. When we meet, his dry blue eyes work magic on me. He went to jail trying to heal. He’d been before the police a couple of times before he was 18. He instinctively moved toward the people struggling the hardest. He spent ten more years learning that clearing his own space first was a prerequisite to healing others: knowing his own truth, relating directly with the God of his heart, trusting in gold energy — Christ energy. Peter’s spirit and mine are connected. We the two halves of a ball, still one after countless spins and bouncings.
I’ve met two other brothers of my True Family and another sister. The concept of True Family is part of a few cosmologies but most often it is coupled in people’s minds with hocus-pocus and errant philosophies. I don’t know what to say to that. I’m not sure how I know when I’ve met a true sister or brother except that mutual respect and joy in each other’s life characterize the relationship. It’s always a free will relationship bound against the deterioration of time. I feel respect for these kindred souls even before I know the specifics of their life. I am joyfully interested in their unfoldings and manifestations. These are the brothers and sisters of my True Family. They bless me daily and join me in my dreams.
Surely most of us entertain a notion of brothers and sisters that goes beyond our immediate siblings. Such concepts of brotherhood inevitably wear thin as well-meaning albeit unrealistic idealism. Nevertheless, I think that there is a case to be made for a general idea of brotherhood. In a family brothers and sisters share a common environment and agenda of growth. There are no methods, only relationships: and our relationship with our siblings was where we found our relationship to become. As we grew older most of us left the family to some degree or another. I, for example, see my brother and sister maybe once or twice a year. The encounters are pleasant and looked forward to, but my brother and sister are no longer a significant part of my growth environment and agenda.
I like to think of those who are a part of my current growth as my brothers and sisters. They include far more than just my friends. Anyone who is involved in the daily playing out of my life can be my brother and sister if I use them for growth and healing. As children we have very little choice in the matter. Our brothers and sisters are a given quantity, and growth is an assumed imperative. As an adult I can choose how I will perceive those around me. Will they be brothers to aid in my maturing? Or will I instead allow them to be only strangers or attackers? Merely feeling that fraternal bond and extending it goes a long way in making the concept of brotherhood less abstract and more immediately helpful.
Our need for brothers and sisters is great. I will be forever grateful to my siblings for being a realistic mirror in which I could examine myself. If left alone I could rationalize my self-image until very little of it matched the true reality. Even though their motives may not have been the highest, my brother and sister were always adept at bursting the bubbles of self-deluded illusions. The result was growth — painful when I preferred the illusions to the truth, a joyful relief when they were finally released. I allowed my brother and sister to bring the truth to me then because I had little choice. My ego often wished to have been born an only child, but now I can only be grateful. The need for brothers and sisters is no less today. Only today, it is far easier to retreat from my brothers and sisters than when I lived in my parents’ house. So, let’s embrace the fact that others have become surrogate brothers and sisters. They will undo many of the false ideas we have added to ourselves if we love them and are open to the lessons they are here to teach.