Reimagining Family

There’s a quiet antidote to loneliness that lives just outside the dictionary definition of family.

Family, I used to think, was a strictly literal concept: the people I’m related to by blood, adoption, marriage, legal arrangement. I could prove family in a court of law.

And I’m not alone. Plenty of us ask, at weddings, showers, funerals, “How are you related to Ruthie?” “She’s my father’s cousin’s daughter’s niece. No, wait. She’s my father’s cousin’s niece’s daughter.” We go to exacting degrees of specificity to show family.

In college, I began working with a community of musicians in northwestern India. And in this community, countless aunties came by for chai and older men were called uncle. Kids brought cousin after cousin over to play.

At first, I’d ask, “Is Moti your father’s sister’s son or your mother’s?” And I’d get these odd looks. Slowly, what became clear was that their definition of family was more generous and less literal than mine. Family wasn’t a legal construct; it was a loving one. Individuals were held up, cared for, kept by a whole community of hands.

And this has spilled beautifully over into my life. I call some friends sister, some aunt; you’re family to me, I’ve said more and more. It comes without obligation or expectation. And when someone says I’m an aunt to their children or like a niece or sister to them, I get a tender sense of connection.

Out beyond formal, literal ideas of family, there’s the chance for abundant community. And it holds a truth easily forgotten in our individualist culture: we belong to each other.

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