Exploring Family

Posted on March 7, 2010 by

Author: Chris Roth
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #146

Questions from the Hopi

“Where’s your family?” This was the most common question I was asked as a white person living and working on a pueblo reservation in northern Arizona, 2,250 miles from the New York suburb where I’d grown up. The Hopi have occupied their traditional villages for nearly a millennium, with familial and inter-familial ties spanning generations. Each Hopi family is known and connected in some way to every other Hopi family; each clan has a memory going back as far as memory will reach, explaining each individual’s place in the intricately woven fabric of the family, clan, village, and tribe. The question might as well have been “Where is your community?,” because, for Hopis, family, extended family, and community are so intertwined as to be virtually inseparable.

My nuclear family of birth—meaning my father, mother, and brother—lived back in New York at the time, although my brother spent much of the year at college in Ohio (where my parents were to move years later, although by that time my brother was back in our home town, later to move into the city). My only surviving grandparent lived in upstate New York. My uncles, aunts, and cousins lived in various locations up and down the East Coast and Midwest (later to extend to the West Coast). Except for those still living with their parents, I believe no two siblings within this family (at least what I knew of it) lived in the same state, let alone the same town.

I actually experienced more rootedness and family in my life than many of my peers did. I had grown up in the same home town until I left for college. Our family spent lots of time together as a unit, including on every school vacation. My parents usually worked within a half-mile of our house (my father even bicycled home daily for lunch, weather permitting), and were present every day for their two children. My maternal grandmother lived in the same town until my teenage years; she was our most frequent babysitter and a major presence in all of our lives. We stayed in touch with immediate relatives (including far-flung ones) and were part of a relatively close-knit church community as well. Although some of my friends left my home town part way through my childhood (their parents’ careers taking them elsewhere), others stayed until high school graduation (almost all then dispersed). Unlike many of my peers’ parents, mine stayed married (for 50 years as of 2009, and counting).

And yet here I was, more than 2000 miles from where I’d grown up—something that would have been unthinkable to any Hopi—seeking a new way of life and new “community” for myself—which would have been unnecessary for any Hopi. For a person from my background, however, the unusual thing would have been to stay with my family, even if I could find more than one or two of them in a single location. Coming from a dominant culture based not on inherited traditions and principles of ecological and social sustainability, but instead on a process of nearly constant change, progress, and reinvention, I was naturally seeking to figure out how to reinvent my own life as made best sense to me—how to choose among the seemingly endless choices of how to be. (In my case, “progress” meant moving back closer to the earth rather than into ever-more-advanced technological civilization.)

That this path led me there might have been somewhat comical and counterintuitive to the Hopi, as many of them had learned to aspire to elements of the life I’d left behind. However, despite encroaching modernization and western culture, family and community still held central places in their lives, and were not fading away any time soon. As examples of people who have found ways to live together and “stay together” in place, the Hopis have few rivals.

“Do you think you might meet some nice Hopi girl?,” I was also asked occasionally. (I was not only the sole white person in my workplace, but one of the few male employees there, and an eligible bacheler in my early 20s.) Inevitably, I was embarrassed and didn’t answer. I was not looking for a Hopi bride, or any bride (although, in retrospect, I sometimes have to ask myself, “What was I thinking?,” before I remember). I wanted to find harmony within myself, with the earth, and with people who knew how to live on the earth. A “relationship” would be a distraction. My “family” was everyone.

But why wasn’t I married?

On Marriage and John Keats

I’ve never been married. I’ve never even really been close to it, nor to starting a family. In my approach to and history of romantic relationships, I seem to have much more in common with Romantic poet John Keats (moviegoers, see “Bright Star”) than with Casanova or others who, for better or worse, seem to have had no problem living in the moment sexually with whoever was in front of them.

However, I’m also different from Keats: I failed to die of tuberculosis at the age of 25, and therefore have had the opportunity to be inspired by several muses (not just one) over my lifetime, virtually all of them (like Keats’) solely platonic friendships, never “consummated” in the conventional sense. As a result of my greater comfort with platonic rather than sexual relationships, and the generally deeper, more long-lasting connections I’ve felt in friendship in general, uncomplicated by sex, I have never been part of a biological family except my family of birth—and may never be.

To be fair, Keats was planning to marry Fanny Brawne when he was inconveniently written out of life’s script—and they might well have started a family (albeit probably a tubercular one). Furthermore, I’ve deliberately steered my romantic impulses away from the kind of sexual tension that made Keats’ unconsummated relationship so cinema-worthy—and, after a brief, frustrating, imagined career as a tormented writer, I also stopped attempting to write poetry that is “half in love with easeful Death.” I know through experience that I am fully capable of feeling tortured by longing for a person who embodies life’s beauty and mystery for me (and simultaneously thwarted by—well, I’m not sure what), but I’ve generally tried to redirect my energies in ways that eluded or were simply not available to Keats—who also left no offspring, although he left some terrific poetry.

In my closest brush with a Keatsian relationship, near the end of high school, I finally overcame my shyness enough to establish a real friendship with the person in question (or allow it to be established by not running the other way). (The previous time I’d fallen hopelessly in love, in first grade, had caused me to become mute in the presence of the object of my devotion for the next eight years, so our imagined engagement and wedding never happened.) But this time, for one poetry-filled summer, and for much of the next year, I felt that someone else could perhaps supply everything that was missing from my life, a feeling that had some basis in my own experience.

But although the “myth of romantic love” (as a substitute for everything else) dies hard, it almost inevitably dies, and it did for me. My soulmate ended up in and out of mental institutions, and I myself barely escaped what I realize in retrospect was a loony bin itself, my college, after what I self-diagnosed as a very quiet mental breakdown. Although I was better at recognizing my mental patterns in the “illnesses” section of a psychology textbook than I was at identifying my actual feelings, I see now that underneath it all, I was feeling depressed, adrift, and unconnected to others or to my life source. This was not the stuff of which happily-ever-after dreams—nor families—are made.

Nor, in truth, is tuberculosis. Keats was obviously not one to emulate too closely.

Missing: Family

I wanted a way back into the feeling of connection I’d had as a child. Although I’d grown up in a tight nuclear family, and with some sense of extended family (both related and unrelated to me biologically), I seemed to have grown apart from them through my process of education. Seen from one perspective, my high school had taken in a human being and spit out an over-intellectualized super-student with a gnawing feeling of emptiness and almost no time (or even skills) to cultivate relationships with others. (High school also taught me to edit, so depending on your opinion of this magazine it may not have been a total disaster.) I’d grown apart from most of my peers, who tended to be into all the teenage things that I was not. Henry David Thoreau spoke my mind more than anyone I knew personally or witnessed in popular culture. While others drove, drank, and dated and dumped one another, I got my fulfillment through long-distance running, bicycling, taking a very full course load, and holing myself up with books and a typewriter. This seemed to work at least tolerably well as long as I was surrounded by family and the larger community in which I’d grown up (even if I was ignoring them, preoccupied with schoolwork and running).

But gaining and then “losing” a soulmate, being separated for the first time from my family and home town, and having my self-story crumble midway through college, left me seeking the connection to others that was now so obviously missing. This process helped launch my involvement in community (described in more detail in “How Ecology Led Me to Community,” issue #143—I won’t repeat the entire story here).

Nuclear family did not seem like the answer to me, and was not what I aspired to. For better or worse, owing to reasons I understand and reasons I don’t (including my previous experiences, my sense of broader connection, my upbringing by parents who modeled concern for others over self-interest, and my particular mix of personal strengths and insecurities), my interpersonal energy usually goes towards a number of people—both close and casual friends—rather than just one, and toward the non-human world too, not strictly the human.

Family in Community

I’ve lived in community for most of my adult life—when not in a formal intentional community, then on a farm or at an educational center in which people live and work together. My sense of family has broadened to encompass many hundreds of people by now—people with whom I’ve lived and worked closely, shared meals, good times, hard times, honest conversations, music-making, gardening, dreams, disappointments, joys, traumatic events, humor, “tempests in teapots,” transformative moments, and everything in between. I can’t imagine not having these things in my life, nor people to share them with.

That sense of extended family endures even with people who are no longer my community-mates. In fact, most people who feel like family to me fit into that category now, owing to high rates of residential, membership, and staff turnover in the places I’ve resided. In my most recent community, I’ve stayed about twice as long (a dozen years) as anyone else who lives here now, and the second-longest of anyone who’s ever lived here. After all that time, and all the change that’s occurred during it, I’m recognizing that my need for family is still just as strong as it was early in my life, and that I want to explore some other ways of meeting it. By the time you read this, I will have started that exploration.

One advantage of finding “family” in community is the ability to be part of many families. I’ve spent more than a decade in a usually child-friendly community in which I’ve been able to enjoy the presence of children, be one of many adults in their lives, provide whatever guidance, modeling, cultural enrichment, or at least child-friendly verbal banter I feel capable of, play catch, read books, and make sure they don’t fall off stone walls.

At the same time, none of these children were mine, and all of them (except the most recent arrivals) have left. A disadvantage of finding extended family in a high-turnover community is that the people in your life can be here one day, gone the next—gone forever, because busy lives mean you may not stay in touch. That doesn’t happen with biological family—even with physical separation, that kind of family seems (at least to me) as if it’s for life. I expect to stay in touch with some of my ex-community-mates for life as well, but probably not with many of the children (for whom we were once surrogate aunts and uncles), especially if they were very young when in community. I know that blood ties would add a different dimension to our ongoing commitments and connection.

I wonder: Who is family for each of us?


I am walking away from a place I love—from people, animals, land, and weather I love. I am leaving home. The first time this happened was the most difficult moment of my life. I was leaving behind family to join people unknown to me (who, that first time, never ended up seeming like family). The second time was easier. Eventually I came to see that even when I stay in one place—as I have for more than a decade—people, animals, weather, landscapes change. My adopted, extended family changes, leaves, lives in flux—sometimes almost as much as if I myself were the one who’d left and arrived somewhere new.

When I move on, I am no longer just leaving family—I am going towards family. I am reuniting with family from whom I’ve been separated by distance, and I am discovering new family. I am sorry to leave behind all the non-human family, especially plants and birds, who, in many ways, have been more steady companions than the ever-changing human population here. They are as big a part of my ongoing daily experience, and in some ways as connected to my heart and my being, as all but the closest human friends. But I know that wherever I go, I will find their relatives. And while my sense of tribe is quite different from that of the Hopis, less rooted in bloodline and tradition, I do experience it, and it is not limited geographically. My contribution to it seems not necessarily to be as one who’s adding to the gene pool or helping the population rise—but I do feel I have a role to play.

What motivated John Keats moves me as well: No matter how many well-reasoned lists I might make balancing pros and cons of various life choices, ultimately it is my heart that draws me anywhere. It is a sense of connection and strange familiarity, even when this family I’ve discovered is new to me. It is the beauty and mystery of life reasserting themselves, pushing aside distractions and fears. When I am in touch with these truths, separation from “family” no longer provokes anxiety, and the world becomes again a place of wonder, existing in the moment, ever-new yet more familiar than my own experience of time would seem to account for. Whether involving individuals, groups, or places, these feelings of family never fail to remind me of the value of gratitude and the cyclical, ancient-feeling newness of every day…as if I had discovered an unknown, long-lost sister; a bunch of siblings, elders, nieces, and nephews that inadvertently got erased from my family tree; a piece of ground I know from a dream; a sacred spot on the earth. Few statements are indisputable, but I think this one may be: we are all more related than we can comprehend.

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