by mai doan, SAFIRE youth organizer
What does family look like? What does it feel like in your body? What are its colors, textures, smells?
These were the questions I asked during a guided meditation for an art workshop I led this past week for LYRIC youth. The theme was family acceptance/holiday blues and I had come in to teach altar-making as a tool for manifesting our visions for home and family.
Following the guided meditation, I had each person pick an object that most accurately resonated with what came up for them when asked about their given family: Family is a porous black vase, something that drains whatever is put in it and never really hold us in our entirety. Family is a large rock, something heavy, grey, difficult to carry but with many different sides to it. Family is a braid of sweet grass, something we are so deeply interwoven with that is difficult to know how or when to break away. Family is a mirror, when we look at it, we see ourselves reflected back at us and vice versa.
Whether we are talking about the families we were given or the families we choose, the word family has the power to pull forth our most tender wounds; it can make our chest tighten, throat swell up and back ache with both bitterness and longing. Going into the planning of this workshop, I was excited to share the growth I had made in my relationship with my immigrant family as a young queer person thus far. I was excited to share my healing. But the reality is that family is still a hard word.
The disconnection between queerness and family is not new to me but when it comes up it catches me off guard nonetheless. The day before the workshop, I was forced to (re)confront the ways that love and understanding fall short when it comes to my desire to share my most important relationships with my family. I cannot spend any more time wondering why some relationships are celebrated and others need permission. This is the black vase.
When negotiating my relationship to my family, I always get stuck when I try to parse out what is respectful to my elders and what is respectful to myself; what is because of our history and trauma and what is because of personalities, what do I accept and what to I stand up against? I never know the answers but I play with the possibilities until it gets too heavy and I retreat back into the teenage wallflower that is simply angry and too tired to step past that. This is the rock.
I don’t know how to move beyond all of this, but I worry that if I become a wallflower again that I will lose everything—my family’s stories, struggle, and love. If I take my family for what it is without doing the difficult working of filling its gaps with my own courageous and unconditional love for myself as well as them, then I will be left alone; they may never walk back towards me and we might be split apart forever. This is the sweet grass.
Through the altar-making workshop, we explored our power to reinvent what family can look and feel like. By imagining and honoring our queered desires for love, connection, and wholeness, we enable ourselves to breathe them into reality. This is the mirror where I look at my family and see myself reflected back at me.