“ On that dear Frame the Years had worn/ Yet precious as the House/ In which We first experienced Light”
Dickinson makes our histories’ frame – works tattered, and without real utility, presents us with her customary preternatural insight, the tension that lives between the past and the present. I’d like to direct this tension towards our conceptions of family. A few weeks into the semester, let us mourn the stark absence of our parents and siblings, but also critically recognise it for what it means, and what family is. An anomaly, I think, would serve as a great point of departure for this analysis. If our relationships were what we imagined, temporally and spatially dislocated as we are, then why is it we constantly come out of the holidays bickering with our loved ones and or missing our days at school? I’m not satisfied by that fisherman’s platitude the grass is always greener on the other side, and I hope you are not either.
So, I ask, what is a family and what does it mean for us, as sons and daughters? I’d say a family is a nucleus of routine with a subtle, but powerful hold on us. Stepping away from names, a family consistently works in the same way. Without distinction or choice, and with nothing thicker than blood, we are contracted into a collective. Some are healthier than others, but family is a collective all the same. A family puts great demand on our emotional space and what our values should be. There are two options when it comes to this structural, or familial, authority: submit or rebel. I’m sure we’ve all chosen both at various points in time.
Power by itself does not define family. We were raised in our collective and thus in many ways are validated by it; whether through approval or disapproval, our individuality was created there and so is inextricably linked to that family group. Thus we negotiated our social spaces and our routines, and we found what defined us. Over the years we’ve produced and reproduced these identity patterns through our family. Of course, exceptions exist to this mould of mine. I speak widely in hopes I will be challenged.
“Man hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf.”
In, “This Be The Verse”, Larkin writes the seminal piece on angry perceptions of parenthood. His tragic vision isolates the negative and fails to recognise that misery, in what is I admit a very Nietzschean way, defines meaning. Further than that, his imagery is strong and conveys the notion, through his deepening coastal shelf – a natural, inescapable process – that the power of family structure simply cannot be helped. His advice is that we “get out as early as we can” to avoid inheriting the vices of family. But what of the positives? Our nostalgia for the past or “homesick – ness” certainly shows that there are good things for even the most troubled families.
Collectives and routines indiscriminately hammer our impressions to the point of ideational reification (fly away from this!). So we believe mother is mother, that she is not a human (with flaws and strengths and failures and successes). She is simply mother. But, I would say, we mustn’t allow family to so easily take a hold of our faculties. And they don’t, most of the time. After we are out of their care, we change our perceptions of our families, our pasts. But why? It’s not as if your loved one has suddenly pulled a Jekyll and Hyde. Perhaps, it is distance that forces this concept. As we leave the collective and enter university – unless you were the lucky soul who already knew someone here – we are without the safety of everything that a family provides. We become individuals within a new structure, where we can and do respond to things differently. As humans, we crave an old, familiar structure – at the fraternity-like tradition of academic parents can attest – but with a new environment, and fresh minds as your compatriots, we can, and ought to, become something new. No longer dominated by our family’s wishes, we have clean eyes that can finally see the world with “unchecked original energy.”
In conclusion, we narrate our nostalgia, or our trauma, of family to ourselves and to others to try and explain where we came from. We use distance as a tool with which to re-examine our connections to the past. Identity inevitably recreates it – self, so let’s push it along. See a mother as a friend, not just as comfort – technology has made her two minutes away. Family is just family, it is beyond good or evil, it is just another part of life. she speaks of is no longer necessary, at least until you go home and become the same person you were last summer.