Friday, January 04, 2008

Reconnecting with Siblings

Entry for 29 December 2007:

Our vacations in America are as much about recontacting the different bases of our lives as anything else. We go back to the familiar places, our other homes, the places that define us by virtue of where we come from, both constituting us and renewing us: Toledo, where we have lived from almost 30 years, and where part of us still lives; Pleasanton, where Diane grew to adulthood and where her mother still lives; Murray Creek, where my parents escaped after I had gone away to college, but which feels like a spiritual home to me, with its ancient, moss-covered oaks and seven-circuit Cretan labyrinth,... and my mom. These places provide an anchor for our new life in Glasgow, grounding us by giving us a place that we come from and regularly go back to. An important part of that reconnecting is catching up with my brothers and sisters. I missed Joseph, my youngest brother this time, but I did manage to catch up with the other four:

I’d missed seeing my two sisters last time we were in Murray Creek, so we made a point of arranging to spend time with them on this trip. Anna is an infection control nurse by training who has gone free lance as a consultant on disaster/pandemic readiness planning and lives in Paso Robles, in the California coast range several hours south of San Francisco. Anna is multi-talented, with many interests, including lace, stained glass, and high-tech gadgets (she also has an advanced degree in bioinformatics). She is an expert candy-maker: her almond roca is legendary in the family, and this year she has added expertise in spicy pistachios and her own version of butterscotch, which she developed a passion for last February during her time with us in Scotland.

Louisa lives a couple of hours north of Murray Creek, in Auburn, a suburb of Sacramento. She is also multi-talented, with a degree in fashion design and an MBA. She is the only one of the six of us who has any kind of fashion sense (also business sense), but in recent years she has spent much of her time exploring alternative medicine, including vibrational medicine, magnet therapy, past life therapy, various nutritional supplements and so on. Some of this used to bother me and we had a period where we used to get into unpleasant and pointless arguments over what I took to be unsound claims about nutrition. Of all my family members Louisa is the one most likely to Be Into Something Flaky in classic California fashion. I used to think that our arguments were about Science vs. Folly, but over the years I have come to see that they were more about Robert Being Right (RBR). RBR comes from being the oldest of six and was long overdue for retirement as a mode of relating to my younger siblings, but the habit dies hard and I still have to catch myself, especially when I feel my sibs encroaching on subjects I consider myself to be an expert on. It was really good to spend some time catching up with her.

I also saw two of my brothers on this trip. Willy, three years younger than I am, runs Second Harvest Food Bank for Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties (go to:, a large regional food bank in Watsonville, which collects surplus food for distribution to local food banks for the Santa Cruz area. Willy started interested in urban planning, went to France to study, dropped out, and hitch-hiked around the country for a while (this was in the ‘70’s), came back, worked in a belt factory until he got fired for organizing the workers, and finally fell into driving a truck for the local meals-on-wheels. One thing led to another, and here he is 30 years later head honcho for Second Harvest, hanging out with corporate types who he’s hitting up for donations and beginning to talk about succession planning. I’m pretty proud of him, actually.

After our father died, things were a bit strained between my next younger brother, Conal, and me. Conal has a PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon and worked for Sun and then Microsoft during the first internet boom in the 1990’s. He and I had always been the two academic-scientist types in the family and had a good connection around that. However, after leaving Microsoft and getting divorced, he had gotten into Nonviolent Communication (NVC). If I’m honest with myself I have admit that I had been feeling a bit threatened by what I took to be him setting himself up as an expert in communication, which I have always considered to be my territory in the family. As a result, I behaved in a somewhat dismissive manner, trying to pick an argument with him about NVC in the days after my dad died, during a time when we were all feeling fragile. Things felt a bit tense with him for a year or so after that, as we both moved on with our lives.

Finally, last April he and his new partner Holly moved down from Seattle to Murray Creek, where years earlier he’d purchased a house just up the valley from my mom. When we were back last August, I was finally able to begin to reconnect with him. He seemed to have gotten unstuck from whatever process he’d been in and was getting back into his computer science work again after a long hiatus. I’d spent a year at Strathclyde absorbing the person-centred atmosphere out of which NVC emerged (late Rogers peacework in particular) and was/am generally in a more grounded place in my life as well. Then, too, he and Holly have been enormously helpful to our mom, for which I’m really grateful. In August, we had discussed the possibility that Diane and I might stay there when we came at Christmas, and so when Conal and Holly renewed the offered we were pleased to take them up.

One of the things that Conal and I share is a distrust for ordinary ways of doing things and a desire to work on the edge of what is emerging. During our stay with him and Holly, we had several intriguing conversations, which are worth blog entries of their own. In the end, we ran out of time just as we reached the point of realizing how much more there was to discuss. I left feeling that I had my brother back, and looking forward to further, deeper discussions. There is much that we likely don’t agree about, but now it looks to me like the effort to spin out the points of agreement and disagreement will be well worth it.

All this feels like getting pieces of myself back and getting better grounded in my family. It's something I tend to neglect, so I will have to watch that in future.

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