In My Imaginary World, Family Lives Right Next Door

I began watching Parenthood for the first time with my younger daughter last night. Those familiar with the show will know it is a television series about extended family – parents, their four adult children, and their children’s families. They all live in Berkeley, California and life is sometimes simple and sometimes desperately complicated.

My daughter remarked several times during the evening “I wish we lived like that. I wish we were all in the same area.” ‘We’ being her siblings, her dad, and me.

After watching three episodes I had to agree. Because in this fictitious show, in a fictitious neighborhood, they live out what it is to be ‘family.’ Family through the messy, hard, mean, glorious life that we all lead. When you live in close proximity you are forced to work through some of the stuff that comes up from different personalities, different life choices, and crises that come your way. When you see each other regularly you rarely make the uncomfortable choice to not communicate, choosing instead to interact with the different people who belong to your extended family.

And in choosing to do that you create belonging. You create home and a place.

So in my imaginary world, family is right next door. 

This is one of the things that we who live a mobile life give up. We give up family. To be sure, family arises in different ways, community is born out of need and desperation and it’s good community. It’s necessary. But we give up extended family and that is not easy. We give up grandparents who speak regularly into our children’s lives and teach them what it is to grow old. We give up aunts and uncles who, crazy as they may be, each come with their particular gifts and idiosyncrasies; with a collective wisdom born of good and bad choices. We give up the spiritual dimensions of lives lived well in the realm of faith, we give up family dinners, we give up family fights and the subsequent forgiveness and making up. When we live a mobile life it is really easy to decide we won’t work through the hard, instead choosing to ignore people and not reconcile our differences and our hurts.

Family is not, and never has been, easy. In a piece I wrote last year called “Five Things I Remembered from Bowling with Family” I said this: “I have no illusions about my nuclear family, my extended family, or anyone else’s family. We’re part of a broken world and nothing shows this like family. But the glory in this is that family is a unit that God uses to show redemption in a powerful way. What is broken can be fixed, what is cracked can be restored, what is lost can be redeemed. And sometimes we see this through activities as common as sharing a meal, or in our case — bowling.”

I believe that those of us who live a mobile life, those of us who are global nomads, can work through this and end up with family ties that are stronger than ever. But I don’t think it is simple. I think we have to do a couple of things:

1. Recognize reconnecting pains. As much as we may hate it, with many family members we feel reconnecting pains. While excited to see them, we know we’ve lived a lot of life away from them and those initial moments and days of reconnecting are going to have some angst. My tendency is to want to force things, force time together and that rarely works. Giving my kids and other family a bit of space is critical to connecting. It’s a paradox, but if I let things flow than usually our time together ends up being far sweeter.

2. Understand that everyone doesn’t love family as much as I do. This is so hard for me. I think family is the best thing since sliced bread. But everyone in my extended family doesn’t agree. And I have to accept that. Best if I don’t criticize and accuse, but simply make family so appealing that they have no choice but to join in. And yes, I say that partly tongue in cheek. Because what is appealing to me may not be to others.

3. Accept that there will be reconnecting pains between our children and their grandparents. When we would come back from Pakistan or Egypt, I desperately wanted my kids to immediately reconnect with my parents. But it didn’t always happen. They all have their own personalities and my relationship with my parents is not going to be the same as theirs.

4. Connecting sometimes happens when you least expect it. And there are times when you don’t find out until way after the event. Being fully present and being real are ways that can foster those connections.

5. Don’t compare. Do not, do not, do not compare your family to others. This is a losing battle. There will always be a family that seems more together, more spiritual, better looking, far more talented, and closer than yours. There will always be a family that takes better pictures, that color-coordinates their outfits for the annual family picture. Comparison kills what you have and heaps discontent across an already complicated mobile life.

There’s far more that I could probably say, but the reality is, I am no expert and I write this because I’m no expert. I’ll close with the same words I used when I talked about bowling with family:

None of this is easy – family isn’t easy. We have enough ‘stuff’ in our family to last to eternity and beyond without grace, and to eternity with grace. But I believe in it. And I believe it’s worth fighting for…. Because ultimately God uses family to remind us who we are, to remind us that we belong, to work out the miracle of redemption and leave us with our mouths open and our lips proclaiming praise.

What about you? What do you think about family? 

We Said Goodbye

It’s my daughter’s birthday today. Way before 9/11 happened it was Annie’s Birthday. For years we had a dilemma – we wanted to celebrate Annie even as it was fitting to commemorate the losses on that day. But we wanted to celebrate her and rightly so. Why does evil get to win? Why can evil co-opt a day forever? Annie isn’t the only one who has a birthday that day – others do as well and babies will be born in the future. Because that is life in its complexity and paradox. 

Today we celebrate her a thousand miles away as we said goodbye to her a few weeks ago. So today I write, not about her birthday, but about saying goodbye.


She came in September and we said goodbye in late August, when the long summer nights begin to grow cooler and daylight no longer stretches for hours.

Two years ago we said hello at the international terminal at Logan International Airport, the arrival area thick with people all straining to see those they loved. She had her two signature, hard-back suitcases and her cat, a black, white, and orange kitty who she lovingly rescued from the garbage in Cairo.

She left a world of activists, artists, journalists, and humanitarian workers where long nights were spent discussing things as important as Egyptian politics, the latest news, and who would be meeting at Stella bar for drinks the next day. She left a community that loved her, and one she loved back and entered into life in the chilly North East where it can take years to connect with people and winters can stretch on as vast and cold as the Egyptian sky is blue and hot.

And then we said goodbye. She’s moving on to another city and a new stage in her life. As I typed this piece, boxes were everywhere, some completely packed, others waiting for those last items.

We are doing the dance of parenthood: that dance that moves back and forth like slow jazz, one moment being too bossy, the next moment keeping our noses out of her stuff.

We said goodbye in the early morning cool, beside a van packed tight with all her earthly goods, save the American Girl Dolls.

We said goodbye with lumps in our throats, brushing away tears as though they were annoying bugs, instead of the healing fluid of the heart.

We said goodbye to having her in our daily life, an unexpected gift, and all the things that are her — both amazing and annoying. The books, the dishes, the cat, the cat fur, the clothes, the smiles, the extreme laughter, the talk, the butt jokes, the tears.

We said goodbye to two years of God-given time that we never expected.

And with the goodbye, we raised our glasses to this first-born daughter – resilient, beautiful, talented, funny, irritating, brave, engaging, and lover of all things champagne on a beer-budget.

And we went back in the apartment and shouted loudly “We’re empty nesters! We’re empty nesters”, the parental dance changing in an instant.

My oldest brother says that now that I’ve written a book I am allowed to quote myself so here goes. “All the world feels caught in these goodbyes, goodbyes that bruise and hurt but remind us that our hearts are still soft and alive. For a dead heart doesn’t hurt with a goodbye, only a heart alive to others feels the pain of that goodbye, the difficulty of leaving….” From the Goodbye section of Between Worlds page 202

Goodbye Annie Rebekah Gardner – God be with you.