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Suddenly it’s dark before it’s even afternoon. The light cuts out of the sky. The day ends abruptly, like a practical joke. It is a disgustingly metaphorical time of year. The season of 5pm darkness is the season of family. It’s the time to once again prove that you have people, that you have as many someones as possible who love you and want to share a warm meal with you. The end of the year can feel as though we are all being graded on our ability to gather warmth and accumulate family. We prepare to go home, or not to go home. We consider where we are from, what we have managed to keep close, and what we have lost. The new cold and darkness, all holidays and parties, all obligation and tables and lights, is a referendum on who loves us, on what family we have managed to create for ourselves.
As a teenager and even for a while after, I was deeply invested in the idea of a chosen family, a family collaged out of people not my own blood relatives. I wanted to believe that closeness, and loyalty, and family -- in whatever both capacious and stringent thing the word meant -- could all be determined simply by whom one loved the most. This concept neatly reverse-engineers the real process of family, in which we are thrown together with people and then by virtue of their random proximity asked to at least attempt to love them. Chosen family flips this around; we decide people are our family because we love them, rather than being obligated to love them because they are our family. It is the idea that love could be something deserved, and that family could be as simple as who we like best.
It’s easy to forget that this is the line of thinking of meritocracy and of much of conservatism, too - the great gospel of deservingness. It’s easy to overlook those aspects because this idea, of chosen family, of being chosen, has to do with the ways we want to be loved. We want a solid and believable post on which to hitch love, strong and visible enough to guarantee that love will stay because it has a reason to; love as math, the proof simple on the chalkboard.
I was a theater kid. Sort of. I was never any good at theater, or at being on a stage in front of people, or being in front of people at all, but that wasn’t the point. Theater kids are another story about chosen family, which is part of why people who haven’t done any performing other than karaoke in years still talk about high school theater so much, and part of why it’s always so easy to identify former theater kids. It’s at least as common, if not more so, for people to seek out theater because they want the wool-sweater closeness of a substitute family than because they have any real interest in or skill at performing. If I could have somehow been a theatre kid without having to do any acting I would have done that, but I couldn’t, not really. Theater kids are all about love, that’s the doctrine and the morphine drip, the fabric and the thing the fabric holds. It’s a glutting of love, a great disgusting banquet against restraint and against coldness, where every feeling will always be welcome, where more will always be more. More love and never enough, always. I didn’t want to do theater; I just wanted somebody to love me because they had chosen me, and this seemed to be one place where that was abundant.
I started to get over it before I was even out of high school, but it took me a lot longer to stop looking for family in my friends, to stop looking for ways in which the connections I formed with people counted as more, and overcame the necessary boundaries between individual lives. Lately I’ve been spending time with my parents’ old friends from before I was born, and have realized that this is an inheritance, as exhaustingly non-elective as going home for Thanksgiving. My parents would never call their friends their family; not out loud, anyway. They would say it was maudlin, overwrought, juvenile, the way a teenager believes love can work. They have very little blood family, and less and less of it lately. Their parents are dead; their siblings are mostly estranged or also dead. At some point I wondered why from such an early age I had reached outside the family for family, had latched onto the cultural narrative of friends leveling up through some opaque ascendence ritual to something more. I assumed it was just embedded in the culture around me, which is after all true - sitcoms in the era in which I grew up had just begun replacing the family with the friend group and the suburban home with the urban cityscape and its dreamily claustrophobic apartment set. But I realize now that I may have gotten the idea from my parents, people who rejected their families for real, traumatic reasons, and also for the simpler, less defensible reason of simply not liking them enough. From around the time I was ten or so, every holiday, vacation, fight, problem, crisis was just the three of us; our family often felt more like a clique of chosen friends than it did the sprawling, obligated, house-full-of-people idea of real family. The three of us wanted to believe that we did not simply love one another because we were there in the way other families did. We wanted to believe in our sameness, the way someone might want to believe that their taste in reading material is consistent with their politics, and that both make them comfortingly legible.
But family is an inconvenience; its inconvenience, its don’t-wanna-ness defines it. Mostly when my friends have called me their family has been when they've been mad at me, which seems appropriate - during hard conversations, when sentences start with "I love like family, but,” or “you're like my family, but." Family becomes a word for the willingness to love someone past when they hurt you, to make continuing love more important than present frustration, to love someone even when we don’t like them. The key that does not expire, the password that does not change, the house that stays standing, that which we come home to because it is the only place to which we have left to come home. This is equal parts appealing and dangerous, like most culturally approved forms of love. This is the version of love that theater kids believe in; the wild piling-on of emotion, every sentence ending with “but I love you.” A warm room with an unlocked door and a table that never sheds past abundance. A Thanksgiving episode of a TV show about a friend group, but one that never ends, where no one ever has to go home.
But love is defined as much by what it shuts out as by what it welcomes, by the boundaries it erects as much as what it invites inside. This time of year, when everything longs toward the warm windows in the houses of strangers, reminds us how we are asked to equate love with boundarylessness. But no love is boundaryless, not even family, and the fact that family is figured this way is one reason it is so often a site of trauma. It is easy to chase this overwhelming holiday-sense thing that forgives everyone inside the room everything. It is tempting to refuse the parts where we go back outside in the cold and walk to the train alone.
A couple weeks ago, two of our best friends got married. It was beautiful. Their vows were so perfectly coherent with one another that it was hard to believe they hadn’t scripted them together in advance. The whole room seemed lit up by how much these two people believed in their life with each other, in their fierce gratitude for their impossible luck at having each found the other. I went outside into the cold at one point, mostly because I couldn’t stand up in my shoes anymore, and looked back at the party spitting golden light. The sound of people yelling along to the music shone out through the door to where I sat in the comfortingly sparse backyard. Perhaps those of us who try to make our friends our family do so in an attempt to obscure the fact that there are things into which we cannot follow them, parts of our friends’ lives we cannot enter. We try to erase those borders and breaks between how much participation is allowed, between how much we are allowed to enter the joys they experience.
The bride was also a former theater kid. Getting dressed in the room up above the venue, we joked that a close friend’s wedding is the nearest thing in adulthood to being in a school play. Like a school play, the event created a holiday around itself, lifted the usual rules of how much love it was permissible to express aloud. Thomas performed the wedding ceremony, pronouncing the bride and groom married; we are very close with these people, but none of us have ever described each other as family. We understand instead that our lives, and separate relationships, are our own, neither borderless nor endlessly abundant. The wedding had that theatre-kid sense of everything being more and yet more, of love multiplying itself by giddy exponents, but then it ended, and we all admitted we were tired, and went home. No one felt any longer that it should be possible to make a holiday the permanent condition of life.
But even so, surrounded by all this bright-blaring joy, I felt that familiar tug between happiness for someone else, and frustration that I could only get so close to them, that the fact of someone else’s family, and someone else’s love, by necessity creates a remove between them and the people who crowd around to celebrate it. Perhaps all love, no matter how close and how bright, is founded on this frustration; romance is just a failure to be in the exact same space another person’s body occupies, to be within the same experience through which it carries them. But maybe it is this failure that makes it good, that buoys it up onward into a future.
Eventually Thomas and I got in a long cab over a bridge, quiet and sore-footed, drained from the emotion of the evening. Our lives closed up into one room, and the lives of the people we loved closed up into another. Thomas is a former theater kid, too. We had both at one time gone so far into seeking that boundaryless version of love that we understand the relief in its refusal, the gift of holding something back for oneself. At home we curled up without talking, two separate rooms together on one couch, each spilling light onto the street and each inaccessible from without. Even here in the shared house at the end of the night there were limits, a breath away from one another, a space entirely our own, a long recovery from the saturation of loud love and togetherness. Even in love not everything is a holiday, and a holiday is not a place where anyone can live. We save them up and retreat in order to emerge with something to offer, the hope of the thing we cannot quite ever access, the warm room in which we cannot stay past the break at the end of the night.