How does family happen? 

It's been a year since I finished up my time at Azusa Pacific University and came back to Maui. In that time, "What makes a family?" has been a central question. Biology is a contributing factor. There are people whose sheer genetics give me a sort of obligation to them. I attended a school with a high school population of around 30. We knew each other, and in some ways, we were a family and still are; we show up for each other, at least, some of us for some of us, and that is enough for everyone. For a myriad of reasons, I'm not emotionally or geographically close to most of my extended family. So, what makes family? 

Broadly speaking, humans are all family to each other, but for most of us, that isn't useful. Usually, it's unexpected: I find myself at the center of a friend-group that seemed insignificant until its been five years since it formed, and no one lives in the same town, and everyone is still in touch with the people who they loved then. Theatre makes families out of casts and then remakes them -- usually, the ones that stick go from show to show, finding their brothers and sisters. Shared faith makes a family. So does shared pain. Sometimes, memories are enough to keep these kinds of families together: something between "you know too much" and "I want you to know it all." The show I'm working on now deals almost exclusively with dysfunctional families (which I'm all too familiar with), and the small wonder I keep running into is how much the characters still love each other. We're all telling the same story: we wanted to love someone, and we found a way to do it. 

In Hawaii, there's this concept of hanai, which is (roughly speaking) the most official kind of adoption you can have without having a piece of paper. Growing up, I was surrounded by caring adults who filled in for extended family, hanai uncles and aunts and parents that stepped in where there was no one to stand. The other day, I asked a lady who helped raise me if I could borrow some fabric glue, because I'd given up on being able to hand-sew a tear along a seam of my shirt. Instead, she repaired it, sewed shut a hole I couldn't begin to patch. 

My mom had a devastating miscarriage when I was young, and old enough that I never forgot and never lost the sense of being an older sister, one who was missing my little sister. It was a story I could never tell right in music, that I avoided in poetry, that I ignored in my fiction. And this year, I realized that a girl I've known since I was fifteen (and she was seven) is, in the most real sense, my hanai sister. There was a tear and now there is a seam. It's the most everyday kind of miracle. 

I became a mentor, and in the months since, it's evolved. My kids are growing up and as they do, I am seeing the women they will be emerging every day. This year, I watched one become courageous, one learn to hope and to be, and one begin to learn how to put those long and tangled thoughts into words. After a year, I'm still the oldest, but also something else. Still the mentor, but also a friend. It’s something I wanted through my whole childhood. I begged to be allowed to have that kind of mentor. In a plot twist better than I could have asked for, I got to become one.

Whether by blood or by choice, families are made of the people who break your heart just by being alive: they can make the very center of your being ache with the knowledge that they are not going to be safe forever, that things will happen, that other people will hurt them, and badly. They are also the ones who make you know your heart is working: they are light and color and sound. They make sense of the noise and turn it into music. I wish that I could write less sincerely about this. Then again, life is too short to not remember what it's really made of: of music, of light, of dancing. 

It would be lovely if family was simple, but it isn’t.Thankfully, it’s better than simple. The right kind of family, whether biological or of the heart, is made entirely out of miracles. It’s been a year; it's been many years. I’m glad I’ve finally learned to see it.





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Photo by Lachlan Donald on Unsplash