For the past few months I have lived with my brother, sister-in-law, and three nephews in anticipation to leave the country. It has been nothing less than a transormative experience in which I have grown in my understanding of meaningful relationships, and also in my appreciation for family. Watching up-close as my nephews grow and develop, and being a part of the inner workings of a dynamic family, albeit for a short time, has made a significant impact on me, and the generosity and love I have experienced has been an important lesson for me.
My brother and sister are the type of people who bring people together and foster a sense of community. They have a principled approach to raising children and establishing patterns of behavior, but are not restricted to rigid ideas; when it comes to conflict, they approach each situation with thoughtful analysis and careful discussion to determine the best way forward, taking into account the varied and unique perspectives involved, which in turns fosters trust and a sense of fairness.
Most people might tolerate their brother and /or brother-in-law sleeping on their couch for a week or two, but at a certain point - especially for a household filled with children and chores - the typical American response would be "alright buddy, time to get a job and find your own place." If I expected a similar insinuation I never got it. In fact it was quite the opposite. The only concern that was every expressed regarding my stay was when I was coming back after I left. The assumption I made going in, that I may be family but I still needed to earn my keep, was shattered early on in my stay, and this made a big impact on me.
We are conditioned in our society to expect a kind of give-and-take relationship with people. Early in my stay I expressed a subtle anxiety I felt about "earning my keep." My sister had to explain to me that there was no keep to be earned. I was given shelter in my brother's house not because of anything I could give in return, but because of the love they had for me. It took a while for me to understand and internalize this, but once I did I was able to relax and appreciate the relationships developing around me.
This idea, that generosity and love is something that is freely given, is an important lesson in developing meaningful relationships, and it must be internalized on both sides of the relationship. My brother and sister internalize this idea by giving me love, but it is only when I have learned to accept this, and know that there is nothing I can do to "earn" it, that deep and meaningful relationship can truly develop without obstruction. And in learning to accept love, we learn the value of giving it, and become eager ourselves to share it with others.
On Managing and Running a Dynamic Household
I have been impressed to no end with my sister's positivity and endurance in navigating the chaos that is three energetic boys, even more impressive given her introverted and introspective nature. I will sometimes collapse after playing and trying to keep up with my nephews for an hour. How she is able to juggle one son's schooling, a 2-year old's spirited and unrelenting curiosity, the chaos of a house that is a 5-year old's indoor race-track/fight arena, while completing daily chores like laundry, shopping, cooking, AND still creating time for personal creativity, community engagement, and the offering of advice and encouragement to her brother-in-law (who by the way just got out of bed at 10:30am) is beyond my comprehension. Any sane person would feel overwhelmed at times, and I'm sure she does, and that just makes it all the more impressive, because it's not something that comes naturally; it's hard work.
Speaking of hard work, my brother also embodies an energy and positivity that has inspired me in the short time that I spent at home with them. I would frequently see my brother come home after a day or week of hard professional work, and with inspiration get to work on a creative project around the house. Some of the most memorable project I've witnessed over the past couple of months include:
- Building a weight-lifting power-rack in the garage and driveway. It turned out to be a really great and useful project that we got to use together a couple of times (I never made it up for his 5am workouts), and it was encouraging to hear the boys talk about working out. We showed Luke how to curl, and the youngest loves to practice his counting skills while repping it out on a pull-up bar.
- Building a climbing wall in the basement and revealing it on Christmas day. When my brother initially told me he was going to build a climbing wall in his basement I was incredulous. I could not picture there being enough space to make it worthwhile, but the finished project was a huge hit with the kids and it is a lot of fun watching them climb as far as they can and then falling backwards on the mattress below them.
- Turning the house into an aquarium. One evening we were outside in the driveway watching the kids play when a neighbor drove by and - for some reason I still don't know - handed us three bags of goldfish. The real kind. If anyone did that to me I would be pissed. "What the hell am I supposed to do with a f'n goldfish?" I was surprised to say the least when I came home the next day to find a giant fish tank in the living room, with brilliant scenery and even a night light. Talk about capitalizing on an opportunity. The fish have been a great source of entertainment for the kids. On one occasion the youngest deposited a huge mound of Play-Doh in the tank and Julie and I spent the morning pumping out the cloudy water.
- DIY capital improvement. The room I stayed in flooded several times during my stay, and although an estimate for repair was obtained, we eventually opted for the more cost-effective method of fixing it ourselves. With our dad's help (and our mom's help for ordering the pizza), we spent an afternoon digging a ditch on the side of the house and installing a french drain. No flooding every since.
- One evening after midnight, my brother and I took the toilet outside, poured the water out, and then I helped (I watched) as my brother stuck his arm halfway down the toilet bowl to fish out a ball one of the children had flushed. It was a great example of the type of work that goes into managing a five-person household, and of the importance of having a positive and good-humored approach to it.
I can't help reflect on the impact these types of projects must have on my nephews. They see the value of completing a difficult project, of the mentality to find creative solutions to every day problems, and it provides them with an environment that is dynamic and constantly evolving. It's just one reason it comes as no surprise they see their father as a hero.
More Lessons - From the Other Side of the Globe
One of the most unique experiences I had while staying with my brother's family was meeting and interacting with the three African girls they hosted at their house one weekend. Ben and Julie took my oldest nephew to Uganda in 2015 as part of a partnership their church has with one of the villages. Now, some of the children were visiting America for a few months and spending most of their nights in the homes of host families.
I was intensely curious to meet and interact with these three African girls. In my mind it would be like meeting someone from a different world, so different is their environment from ours. I wanted to know how they lived at home, how they would act in such a new environment, and how they would feel about all the relative luxury that surrounded them. When I was a child, I might visit a friend's house and be overcome with awe at the face that he had the latest video game console. Would these girls react similarly, but more intensely, at the thousands of "upgrades" that surrounded them?
The answers to these questions were more profound than I expected. Sure, the taste of a milkshake was curiously sweet, and our dish washers and iPhones were interesting, but these were not the things they fixated on. They were interested in the people they were with, and the interactions they got to have with them. When we showed them (or reminded them) how to play rock paper scissors, they would compete with everyone in the room, several times, and giggle at every outcome. They taught me how to play their games, and we would play countless times, over and over, and it was never any less fun than the first time. Our favorite game to play was a clapping game. You clap and slap hands with your partner, singing a tune, and when the song ends you freeze and stare each other down. The first person to laugh loses.
We tend to be very conscious of our time, and spend a lot of time being eager to move on to the "next thing." But these girls were not tied to a sense of schedule and deadline. We would play games for longer than I ever could have expected. I would think to myself "shouldn't we be bored by now?" but we just kept playing, and it wasn't boring.
The day before the girls left, there was a gathering at the house. My brother had picked up his college buddy and his wife from the airport, my friend came over, some of the neighborhood kids were there, and my parents visited the house as well. There was fifteen of us in all, and we got a bunch of meat and vegetables together to cook tacos. I've never seen a house so filled with chaos. Two of the girls helped me with the vegetables, others were coloring on the floor of the living room, and everywhere you looked were people playing, talking, laughing, and yelling. I felt then that there was nothing more happy than a house filled with people, and filled with chaos. An orderly person by nature, I came to appreciate in that moment the fact that disorder is a sign of life, and that is good.
That evening, as the girls and boys were getting ready for bed, and everyone else had left, we huddled for one last conversation with them. One of the girls became suddenly shy, and expressed the desire to say something. After a short time she asked us all to describe what we loved and were thankful for about the time they stayed with us. I was impressed with her desire to express vulnerability and reflect on what was meaningful about our experience together. What if we incorporated that habit into all of our gatherings with friends and family? What if before we left each other we took a moment to tell each other what we were thankful for, what we loved about each other?
I expected to learn something about culture from the girls, but I got more than that. I learned the disarming power of a smile (although I'm still struggling to implement that one), of laughter, and hugs. And of the impact you have when you focus on the present experience of a relationship, ignoring the superfluous things we tend to require to consider an experience a good one. When was the last time you had a staring contest with your friends, competing to see who would laugh first? I bet you won't last long.
Other Memorable Experiences (an Incomplete and Evolving List)
- I really enjoyed the caving trip my brother and I took with Andrew, my oldest nephew. The 3hour car drive was never dull, as we spent most of the time telling jokes and solving riddles. The caving experience was a unique one and we even ran into Nathan Williams. My nephew was always brave and eager to go boldly forward into an environment unlike any he had likely experience before.
- Always enjoyed it when my nephew Luke woke me up in the mornings. His approach was always a unique and varied one from flashlight to the face, jumping on my head, or a basic light-saber poke to the face. I'm going to miss those wake-up calls.
- It took a while for me to warm up to the neighborhood kids but once a mutual rapport was established some of the most fun moments were jumping on the trampoline with 5 to 8 excited kids.