roots, rocks, relatives

When I last left this blog, I was on my out of Madison, WI, headed toward the highest concentration of relatives I would see before hitting Oakland. Just like staying with friends in Toronto had felt like a warm blanket after Montreal, the thought of bunking at relatives houses seemed like a swan dive into comfort and relaxation. Even better, I would get to experience many of them for the first-time as an adult, and alone. And the interactions did not disappoint. I had a friend define a friend once as someone who "knows where you're from," and when I turn that idea over in my head every once and a while I'm always struck with its truth. Sometimes, the person literally grew up near where you grew up, and that single commonality serves as a rocky notch from which a friendship grows. Sometimes, that "knowing where you're from" is as simple as empathizing with your experience, a gesture that springs a lifetime of connection.

But with relatives, the realization of friendship is even more satisfying, I've found. Of course they know where I am from (in most cases, they had the distinct pleasure of changing my diapers!), and from their vantage they are able to perceive my life as a whole arc, a detail in only the latest few chapters of their lives. They love me as only an aunt or uncle can, but more, they are bound to me by blood; I will always be compelled to seek them out, no matter the passage of time.

When I visited them during this trip, that connection, as sturdy as it is potentially meaningless (as in, "why should I make an effort when we will ALWAYS be relatives?"), seemed to age in a most pleasing way. All of sudden (measured in the intervals of years, at least), conversations ran smoother and deeper, with real effort toward meaning from both parties. Toasts with drinks were mostly intimate affairs, but felt weighty. Visiting with my grandmothers were so fun, but also like an important ritual. I came away feeling totally charged, tied in with these people in new and dramatic ways.

My family stretches like a constellation over the Twin Cities, with nodes settling here and there and the distance between summarizing the entire area for me. Staying with various representatives throughout my life has given me the impression that I know the place in a way that I really don't. But this visit felt much different in that I was able to take in parts of the cities that filled in some of those gaps in a true way; maybe because I'm older, maybe because I came alone (without my family), or maybe because of what we actually did.

Eating steaks with my uncle, and staying up late playing pool with my aunt; taking a long drive with my grandmother, and then my uncle; playing cards with my aunt, and eating pizza with my teenage cousings; watching live opera with my great-aunt, and then sharing beers with my other cousin (who is taller than me now?!--damnit!); each part felt like a new edge to a sculpture that I have known my whole life. It made my roots feel living and real.

And it made me realize what this trip is doing to me. Moments are apt to slip by, as invested as we all are in the business of passing time and getting ahead. It felt like a shiny, green skill that I was exploring to try to hold a moment for long enough that I might drink it and remember. Those close to me, and those places that build the mosaic of my childhood travels, are so rarely the locus of my attention, and often in my rearview mirror. The challenge of presence and peace, with anyone, but with relatives especially seems like good, holistic work.

Then, in the early dark of last Monday morning, I swept into the airport and picked up my brother. He had offered to fly out and make the end of the drive with me, and the idea seemed like a once-in-a-few-decades opportunity. We pointed northwest, and leapt for the coast.