Water, food, air: these are the essentials of existence. But for many, family—however we define it—is as central to our experience of life, and our sense of self. Whether we define ourselves in terms of or in opposition to our families of origin; whether the families we build and seek out appear traditional or unconventional; whether family represents a source of stability and community or of tension and loneliness: family—that inner circle in which we find ourselves supported and challenged, embraced or painfully invisible—is the site of so much of the drama, intrigue, romance, tragedy, and comedy of our lives.
Society now more or less embraces a wider than ever umbrella over the term “family”: there’s room for the family we’re born into, and the family we choose; room for nuclear and non-nuclear structures. As the pieces here reflect, the full range of human emotion—from love to antipathy, attachment to despair—can be found in any family arrangement. But while ideas about what a family can be or look like have developed and expanded, the same platitudes about what it should signify and how we should feel about it persist. However flexibly family might be constituted, we’re still told it’s the locus of “values,” that it “comes first” and is “forever.” Cliches these may be, but they have the power to reveal something about what we’re insisting family is, or should be: a kind of bedrock stability. And while some may be fortunate enough to find resonance in these decor-ready slogans, for many others such exalted expectations only deepen the loneliness and alienation of having a more complicated experience. Why are we still tormenting ourselves with the same rigid ideals of perfection?
We reflexively seek to understand our families via the same complex mechanism that works relentlessly to make sense of life: storytelling. But as the constituent parts of each family change over the years, so must we continuously revise our stories.
Always get the last word.
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Families are composed of people—and thus the elemental building blocks of the structure are inherently flawed and fallible. Family is subject to issues well beyond its control, and socio-economic forces bring their pressure to bear here as they do anywhere else. Family cannot exist in a vacuum, or resist entropy. How can we expect it to function as an eternal and fixed point of navigation?
The character of a family, and who we are within that constellation, is more like the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope. Sometimes the changes are imperceptible—until suddenly the pattern has reconfigured completely, with just the ghost of the previous design underlying the current arrangement of personalities, needs, and desires.
Laced throughout the stories and poems of this themed issue are all the pathos one might expect: tensions and resentments, affection and loyalty, doubt and fear. Concern for the past, and for the future. What I find inspirational and grounding is how consistently these works—in their own ways, whether with humor or anguish—insist on a direct and clear-eyed engagement with actuality, rather than ideals.
Some pieces reveal that the smooth function and, indeed, identity of a family hinges on the labor and sacrifice of those outside the family unit. Many times, we meet the characters of these pieces as they confront a moment of acutely uncomfortable transformation.
Sometimes those changes deepen relationships and expand families; other times, change brings a period of apparent closeness and harmony to an end, or reveals long-festering subterranean fractures—which can be a source of profound disorientation and loss.
If nothing else, we might ease such painful feelings of alienation and loss by releasing sanctimonious expectations about what these relationships and structures should be, and meeting our families and ourselves where we actually are, now.