bunt sign

February 28, 2000

Family dynamics are always chancy, and keeping a widely-scattered group of people united takes more effort and compromise than it sometimes seems to be worth. Here are people that we see only once every three years, to whom we're connected by nothing more than shared blood and history. It's been trying on all of us to put this summer's family reunion together, but most of all on my sister, who has made herself the point of contact at the center of it all. It wouldn't be happening at all without her energy, and at times she's taken a beating for it that she doesn't deserve.

We're renting a house in Colorado for thirteen of the seventeen people who will be there (the rest want to camp). Suzanne had to find out who was coming, what their needs were, and when they could get there. Then she had to go through the process with her friend the travel agent of making inquiries about available vacation homes, getting prices and descriptions and trying to fit it all into what she knew people wanted. After a decision was made, she had to front the money and collect each person's share. There were rules, and she had to let people know that they couldn't bring their dogs.

Between collecting money and trying to make sure everyone knew the rules, some feelings got hurt. Words were exchanged in email that probably took on too much significance. There have been times during this whole process when we've thought about chucking the whole idea, but then we remember how great it was the last time we were all together, three years ago in Jackson Hole. And we think of the history we've shared and the people, some long gone, that we have in common. It may be a trial, and it might not work out perfectly, but we're committed to making it happen.

It makes my heart ache to see anyone hurt over careless words and misunderstandings and miscommunication. I've spent most of my life talking around the edges of subjects, just to be sure I wasn't saying something that could be taken wrong. I probably haven't had to do this, but I remember times when I've slipped, and one wrong word has driven a wedge between me and someone I loved. Temporarily, but still, it was there and it was real.

And yet, here I am publishing my journal on an easily accessible Web site, knowing that many of the people I write about are reading it. I know a time will come that I'll say something in the wrong way, or make a regrettable remark, or wish that I'd been more secretive. I'm getting less paranoid about this, though, and I'm truly glad that the people I'm closest to are interested enough to keep reading. It also keeps me honest.

I know how it feels to have someone misunderstand you, or not hear you, or accuse you of something. I've been dismissed as not important enough to have an opinion about the subject under discussion. That hurt. I've been laughed at for the way I dressed. That was in high school, and it still hurts. It's made me sensitive to what effect my words have on the people who hear them, and also on people who might hear about them. I was just kidding, or you shouldn't take things so seriously, or even I'm sorry won't change the past once the damage has been done.

Some outspoken people are proud of being blunt, saying exactly what they think without regard to how it might be taken. That's fine, if the only person likely to get hurt is the speaker. We have a presidential candidate running his campaign under the slogan "straight talk," and he's gaining credibility that way, if only because it distinguishes him from other politicians.

I do appreciate directness and honesty in others. People should say what they believe, and express how they feel. But how something is said can take it over the line. People don't have to be callous or unpleasant to each other, especially if they're in the same family and have a vested interest in getting along together.

It's been a rough year for our family. Some bonds have been broken that may never be repaired. Some things have been said that can't be taken back. But we're also trying to look past words said in heat or haste, so that we can maintain the relationships that matter to us the most.

Instant communication can be one of the culprits. It's much too easy to say something sarcastic in email and hit the Send button before you've thought about how it comes across in print. There's no context, no mitigating half-smile or head shake to take the edge off. The tone of your voice is whatever tone the reader gives it, and it could be worlds away from what you intended.

But we can also use the power of electronic communication to heal the wounds and bring ourselves closer. I've strengthened some old ties and made some new friends in the time I've been on line. The world seems so much smaller and more manageable now that it's so thoroughly interconnected. So many people that matter are just a click away. As the rules change, though, we shouldn't lose the traditions of courtesy and civility. The shrinking world probably calls for even more kindness and consideration.

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