The Private Intellectual
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Monday, March 21, 2011  

A Little Less Than Kin, A Little More Than Kind*
Chicago Diarist

The optometrist was very generous in praising our motives, but came back to the question so many people end up asking. "It must be so hard to get attached."

I had decided to start being more upfront about being a foster parent. The system is in pretty poor shape and in need of volunteers, and who knows who might discover an interest in helping out if you give them the chance? And one has already, by this point, hopefully mastered the charitable reaction to the highly stereotyped responses one gets. No, we're not adopting, at least not yet; no, we don't know how long she'll be with us; yes, it will be hard to let her go. There might be anxiety or surprise or incomprehension behind these questions, but never any ill will.

I had already disclosed the proximate cause for my visit: a pair of glasses, the only one in my current prescription, being broken by our foster daughter. I opted not to share that a morning with the kids had made the prospect of an eye exam in their absence sound positively delightful. It would have been counterproductive, not to mention selfish, to have grumbled that the hardest part is actually doing all the parenting stuff. People--and this is to their credit, I suppose--leap over all the bad things about parenting and seize on the thing that makes it worthwhile.

"Well, that's life," I shrugged, as I typically do. When I feel like laying the existentialism on a little more heavily, I add that we're always having to say goodbye to people before we're ready. I don't know what I'll say after we've been through such a transition; perhaps whatever it is will have more weight.

It was a pleasant proto-spring kind of day, and we'd already been outside once (in a busted attempt to get the kids into the car to scour a suburban Borders for last-minute deals). Soren liberated the sandbox from its long winter obscurity and the girl dove right in. They play together and help each other almost instinctively now, which is a joy (not to mention a relief). Attachment, I can assure you, is a blessing.

Ear infections, on the other hand, are a problem. Sleepless nights are a problem. Driving out to West Chicago at 2 a.m. to get the girl to sleep is a problem. Albuterol treatments and temper tantrums and teething. These things are hard enough with one's biological children, but at least with them you have a baseline of hormonal irrationality that helps pull you through. I can as yet only anticipate the pain of parting, but I'd rather experience it a dozen times over than feel as I do when a jagged, alien cry breaks my sleep for the fifth night in a row.

The experience of being a foster parent has made me think a lot about the idea of fictive kinship. It's a big theme in Christianity, of course--I open every sermon with the blessing 'Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.' By 'fictive' I don't mean what we might think of when we hear a related word like 'fictional.' It's not in any way false or bogus. It is, however, made rather than born. The theologians have long argued for the familial relationship of all humanity, but that was typically an insight owed to grace: to the image of God granted in creation and restored in the incarnation. To make this relationship real for us is another matter, one at which Christians have shown only intermittent, though truly inspiring, success.

Not that religion in general or Christianity in particular is the only way to find this notion of fictive kinship. There are after all sororities and fraternities, military service, labor unions, and Deep Springs College. And however you experience it, to the extent that you take your fictive kinship to another seriously you tend to experience the downsides of both the kinship and the fictive-ness. Fostering a child, like bearing with a co-religionist, entails more duties than privileges. We must love her as if she were our own, to the best of our ability, and yet she is not our own, and she may be sent elsewhere without our input or consent. We knew this, of course, and we did not and do not object. It's hard to imagine it being any other way.

After my eye exam, I thought back to T.S. Eliot:

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives--unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation--not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and the places with the self, which, as it could, loved them
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

The idea of love expanding beyond desire, and this--call it disinterested love--being the key to liberation from both future and past, is something I've never quite gotten over. I think by the end of the Quartets Eliot was working out the sense in which even a defective love has this shadow of the eternal, in that it suspends both regret and anxiety for the sake of the timeless moment. Everything hurtles away, we ourselves and whom we love, as best we can, and that love is what makes this never-ending flux bearable.

A few lines down he echoes Hamlet:

When I think, again, of this place,
And of people, not wholly commendable,
Of no immediate kin or kindness,
But some of peculiar genius,
All touched by a common genius...

And thus brings the poem cycle back where it began, with a fragment of Heraclitus: "Although the logos is common, people act as though they had a mind of their own." I'm no expert on Heraclitus and I'm rusty on Eliot, but I take his meaning to be that the individuality of the mind is to some degree an illusion; that, kin or not, we are always and most certainly of a kind with one another. This is no sweet insight to swallow. The narcissism of small differences rages even in biological families, and to see a strange parent's mannerism in the events of a ruined day is alienating indeed.

Yet here we are, eating and drinking, crying and sulking, anguished and craving comfort. Attached we already are, and denying of fleeing it will only lead us into graver sorrow. It is better to embrace the offered blessing and its attendant grief. It is Horatio, or I do forget myself.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 1:30 AM
Dude! You're on ALD!!!
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