The Family Tree

September 20, 2023

Monica Roberts Essay Contest 2023 Grand Prize
by Louis Mitchell

I was thinking the other day…about community.

I was trying to figure out how to explain it so someone new to their authentic selves—someone searching for connection. Someone who had already experienced mistrust in families and systems that they’d hoped could love and support them.

The idea of “chosen” family wouldn’t quite work. Any mention of family might be more triggering than comforting. I didn’t like any of the more capitalist or mercantile ideas that are often used. I refused to appropriate indigenous language by using terms like “tribe.”

I closed my eyes and invited the breeze, the sun and the ancestors to whisper into my ears and my heart.

All at once, I saw a large tree.
Full of vibrancy and color.
Limbs heavy with many different fruits and pods.
Branches lifted high and wide, some soaring and some hanging almost to the ground.
Patches of denseness that seemed to block out the sun and sparse spaces where the arms were open and spread wide.

I began to think about this amazing swirl of life and could see how I might describe our communities in it. We are not one thing—we never have been. We are kaleidoscopic and brilliant, sweet and savory, nourishing and toxic.   

But we are alive!
Grown stronger from the decay of our dead and the tenacity of our integrity.
Though, we have been through countless seasons of winter and loss, we still live and grow.
Somehow managing to thrive in spite of those that wish to kill us.
Growing in new directions every day—roots digging deeper, branches stretching farther.

Our roots cannot be seen, and some think that we just sprung up overnight.
But they are centuries deep—anchored to the core of all of history and humanity.
From every region and every nation, we are connected.
We’ve been known by many names. And will be known by many more new ways of identifying ourselves.

Many of our ancestors and predecessors were known by names lost in time and unrecorded. They used whatever means they could muster and paid prices with their lives to make space for us energetically, in flesh and in spirit.

We’ve been worshiped and we’ve been reviled.

We were honored, valued, sought for our wisdom, magic, and medicine.
We were arrested, killed, castrated, sterilized, lobotomized, ostracized.

We loved. We raised families. We worked however we could.
Some fought in wars, others worked for themselves in businesses, legal and extra-legal.
Some labored in the home, others in industries or farms.
A few might have been royalty or lived with wealth and privilege.
Some were well acquainted with lack and hard conditions.
Some lived in cities where they might have found opportunities to build community that offered a chance of support.
Others lived in rural areas, blending in with cis-heteronormativity until catastrophe or death disclosed what they had kept private.

Yet they lived, as we live, as fully as our daring, imagination and resources allow.

We have always ranged across a broad spectrum of presentations, behaviors, and affections. Those closest to the “norm” of dominant cultures fared better than those who were not.
Many attempted for the sake of their lives—to blend, to fit it, to stay “undisclosed.”
Some could not and others had no desire to assimilate to society’s ideas of who they should be.

But we are all parts of this tree.

The limb that you’ve found to grow from might be thick and gnarled.
It looks old and strong. It isn’t the prettiest, but it’s built for function more than fashion.
It’s weathered many storms and seasons. It might even look almost dead, but you are the fruit that it bears. Your presence is proof that it still lives.

You might be growing from a newer branch. Green and supple, able to move in the wind, seemingly unbreakable. Invited to tables as adornment, occasionally celebrated for its vivid and vibrant nature. It may not be as well seasoned as some of the older ones, but it’s more able to flex and flow with the changes of modernity.
Some of us grow close the trunk, nurtured by celebrity and accolades.
Featured and scrutinized.

Some of us are further out. Prey to any who pass too closely.
Both places have their lonely moments—too much focus and too little care are both precarious.
You may find yourself far out on a limb, barely hanging on,
afraid of falling to what you think will be your destruction.
Remember that even if you hit the ground and burst wide open,
your seeds will spill and new life will come from you.

I’ve lived my life closer to the edges than the center.
I’ve felt unnurtured by the strongest parts of this old tree.
I’ve felt pushed and pulled by the elements.
And I’ve fallen and split open.
Landing on hard concrete without the cushion of warm dirt or fragrant grass.
But the seeds of my life live on in those that I’ve touched, held, loved, journeyed with.

Our tree is not made for a season or even a century of seasons.
Our lineage is as old as time itself.
Our seeds will continue beyond infinity.

Welcome to this tree, sapling/sibling.
You are what the world needs!
Whether you are fruity and delicious, a hard nut,
a wispy reed or a seasonal flower, an unobtrusive node buried near the trunk,
moss or a fungus clinging near the base—
all are important parts of the ecosystem of our survival.

Close your eyes and breathe with me.
Sit still and let the elements wash over you.

For so long, you’ve felt singular and alone,
but you have always been a part of us and we of you.

The east and west might not even know that the other is alive.
The north and south bring different gifts.
But we all have purpose.

The treetops and the roots are connected though separated by time and function.

A hundred years ago and a hundred years from now, we will still be growing.

Somewhere, even now, a seed is being born and making its way to be nourished by us.

In the next years, it might be two and it might be thirty,
I’ll cease to be above the ground and my essence will join the ancestral roots.
I will join the masses of the nameless ones and become nourishment for those of you who remain.

Bloom and blossom in your time! Find what you are created to do and be fully alive in your purpose!

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
– Seneca (4 BC – AD 65)

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