Family of Choice
Borrowing relatives from other families.
Posted Nov 30, 2017
Linda: I grew up in the South and my only living grandparents lived in New York City. Except for occasional visits up North, I rarely saw them. I remember having a deep longing to be close to a sweet grandmother, someone who was wise and loving, with twinkling eyes. I used to pretend that she looked like the author of my mom’s Settlement Cookbook, whose photograph graced the front of the book. She had a kind and intelligent face. I loved her thick wavy silver hair, the laugh wrinkles around her eyes, and the delicate smile on her lips. I used to pretend that she taught me to cook, never scolded me, loved me dearly and was proud of me. I was proud of her too. I saw her as a strong, capable woman who touched a lot of people’s lives with her delicious, nutritious recipes.
This habit of borrowing wise and loving relatives from other people’s families continued beyond my childhood into adulthood and I’ve accumulated quite a vast collection of mentors and teachers. One of the most impactful person over the years, has been Stephen Levine. His book, Who Dies? opened me up to a life of spirit that I had never known before. In his style of teaching, he revealed many personal details of his life: his struggles, mistakes, confusion and breakthroughs to greater understanding. He inspired me to adopt a similar style of teaching in my own career, demonstrating the power of sharing my own personal experience and not hiding behind a facade of “professionalism.”
Stephen’s teachings permeate all of the work I do, and it’s a rare day that I don’t reference one of his wise sayings.
“The mind creates the abyss and the heart crosses over it.”
“Practice on the little pains.”
“Keep your heart open in hell.”
‘Relationship is the ultimate danger sport.”
“Swimming in the reservoir of grief.”
“You might not be ready to forgive.”
"Forgiveness is not excusing bad behavior"
“Relationship are not business transactions.”
“Lessons in patience, lessons in generosity.”
“Our partner holds our self esteem in the palm of their hand.”
“Would you sell your death?”
I have supplemented my literal blood family by borrowing relatives from other peoples’ families for years. Sylvia and Seymour Boorstein are my honorary great aunt and uncle. Jack Kornfield, Robert Bly, Marrion Woodman, Ram Dass, Clarrissa Pinkola Estes, Joyce & Barry Vissell, and Ondrea Levine are all honorary cousins. They aren’t the kind of family members that you call up on the phone, spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with, or party with. They are more like beloved relatives who live far away, for whom you feel deep affection and admiration. Even though you may only see each other infrequently, their presence in your heart is so powerful, that your life can be strongly impacted by them on a daily basis. They live within you even if they are no longer actually alive. These are people who have helped to shape me into becoming who I am today.
My biological family wasn’t always able to provide the kind of modeling that I needed to become a more conscious and loving person, so I decided to supplement them with members of my family of choice, a collection of surrogate relatives. To call them my teachers, or models, seems too distant and cool a characterization to describe my relationship to them. I have a great appreciation for the way they have informed and enlivened my life. Devoted family members give each other the very best wisdom that they have, to assist each other to enjoy life to the fullest. In my life and my work, I have attempted to pass on to others the richness that has been given to me by these generous, loving beings. I honor what they have passed to me by passing their practical wisdom on to others. And I pause for a moment to say from the bottom of my heart: “Thank you.”