If I had to get something tattooed on my forehead to represent what I learned in 2016, it would be the phrase “both/and.”
The concept is straightforward: “both/and” is the inverse of “either/or,” which is used to signify a one-or-the-other, all-or-nothing perspective on decision making or awareness of complex situations. After hearing many mentors and supervisors say “both/and” throughout the year–which, I’ll admit, sounded idealistic and ungrounded at first–I couldn’t help but apply this empathetic, inclusive philosophy to my personal life.
At the time of this writing, I’m in a coffee shop in a small town in western Pennsylvania where both sides of my family live. My parents, though no longer together, were high school sweethearts in this town, and my grandparents’ houses are about a five-minute drive from one another. My mother has since moved back to town, and my siblings live an hour away in Pittsburgh. This geographic shift in the cast of my life has made me wonder if I’m missing out by choosing to live in Florida since Florida is home–or is it?
“Both/and” family realization #1: Both Florida and western Pennsylvania are my homes.
It sometimes feels odd to identify PA as a home. I’ve never held a mailing address here, I don’t have any friends here, and I only visit for two weeks of a calendar year–and yet during this visit, the first in which I’ve had my own car and needed to drive myself–I’ve never once needed a GPS to know where I’m going. After 25 years, my body has catalogued these routes and knows them by heart. Because my mother is one of 14 kids, many of whom still live in town, it’s not uncommon to see familiar faces everywhere I go. Even my aunt lives across the street from my dad’s parents. Mailing address or not, this town is the root of my family tree. Florida feels like home, but this town, with or without my permission, is home if I’m considering where family lives.
“Both/and” family realization #2: My mom’s family feels like home and my dad’s family feels like home and I am still homesick for the life I’ve created in Florida.
Identity politics mean a lot to me. Like many millennials, I simultaneously want to fit in and stand out. When visiting with my mom’s family, I see my irreverent sense of humor and banter emerge so effortlessly. The casual nature of conversation, storytelling, and a revolving door at my grandma’s house remind me of my most fond days with my friends in Florida. This place feels like me.
Then I make the drive to my dad’s family and see the mirror of my identity reflected. The humor is sharp and witty, the conversation ranges from silly scenarios to liberal politics, and my grandparents model what love and marriage, in an ideal world, mean to me. My grandfather, a former professor and author, has modeled the way for what humility in academia means to me.
Then I come to this coffee shop and think about my friends and my house and my dog and my job and see how I am just like my families of origin, but also entirely myself. I suppose my parents think the same thing about their relationship to their families. I see how I am a product of and a catalyst to these identities. But when I head home and get back to my reality of “normal,” my sense of self will code switch back to what I conceive to be the most authentic me–a person that is a carbon copy of neither families, yet surely an influence of them.
“Both/and” family realization #3: It’s okay to have moments of both easily identifying with my families and moments of un-identifying or confusion with these identities.
Being the lone Floridian sibling can be tough. For my mom and siblings, “home” is no longer a tension, as the family tree and the beds they sleep in are in the same place now. I don’t have significant relationships with many members of my extended family because I’m not really around, so I often feel the inadequacy of not knowing what’s going on or, in some cases, who some people even are (like I said, I have 14 aunts and uncles with cousins and second cousins and grandkids etc.–that’s a lot of people to know intimately).
And in many moments this week, sitting on a couch surrounded by food or drinking wine in a sea of barking dogs and screaming children, I felt I understood my roots in a meaningful way. In my moments of silent observation without physical or emotional distractions, I gained information and context to explain how the hell I came to be: the lives that created me, the lives that shaped me, the sidewalks I took first steps on, and evolving understanding of “home” as the place where the soul feels at rest.