The circle of family
Elizabeth Lesser is fortunate to have a loving family, but it took a child outside her immediate circle to teach her that family has no boundaries.
The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small. — Mother Teresa

It's the end of a hot and humid August day and I am in my vegetable garden with Eli, squatting over the fuzzy leaves of a vine, searching for the perfect-sized cucumbers to make what my mother called "refrigerator pickles." These were my favorite delicacy when I was growing up, as they were for my sons, and now are for the current youngest member of the family, Eli, who is 10. Eli is my ex-husband's son from his second marriage, my sons' half-brother, and a frequent visitor to our house, especially during August, when we make pickles together.

It's been a great summer for cucumbers, and the vines twist and climb all over the garden. Eli and I are amassing a huge harvest and enjoying the soft air and the buzzing sounds of late summer, when Eli says,

"What is your title to me?"

"What?" I ask, not quite understanding what he means.

"Are you my mother-in-law?"

"Oh," I laugh, suddenly grasping what he's getting at. "You know, I don't think there is a title for what we are to each other. There should be."

"You're not my step-mother," he says. "I know that. I think I'll call you my double-step-mother. Double-step for short."

I look at his beautiful face, which has always reminded me of my first son's face, and I am stuck by the ways in which love will grow like an unruly cucumber vine if you give it enough time and space. Years ago, when Eli was about to be born, my heart shriveled in anticipation of a baby who would be my boys' brother, but not my own child. I felt about as spacious as a clam.

But my sons fell hard for Eli the moment he was born. They liked to baby sit for him at our house, which, after about a half hour, meant me taking care of him. I figured they were responding to some sort of ancient and tribal instinct, when a family's structure was much less tightly defined. So, instead of banishing Eli from my heart, I followed the lead of my kids, and I fell in love with him. Fortunately, my big-hearted husband, who has never met a child he didn't want to play with, was equally enamored of Eli.

Soon, he was part of our family. I kept his favorite juice in the refrigerator and the treats he wasn't allowed to have at his own house in the cupboard. Before he learned my name, he called me Cookie Lady. He seemed equally comfortable with all of us, and unconcerned with bloodline. We were family—his brothers, me, my husband, my stepson. Even after the boys left for college, he visited me and my husband, mostly, I think, for cookies, and the refrigerator pickles.

How to widen the circle of your family

Elizabeth Lesser
"What is your title to me?" Eli asked. He was really asking, "Where do I stand in the circle of your family?" Mother Teresa said: The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small. It's not that hard to understand what she meant. The nightly news is filled with stories of small circles. Some people are called to widen these circles through their work. But you don't have to be a delegate to the United Nations or a volunteer in a soup kitchen to do the noble work of drawing bigger and bigger circles. Our friendships and families, our marriages and work relationships—all of them are circles begging for more spacious boundaries.

We need wider circles and new titles that relate us to each other, rather than divide us into smaller and smaller groups—family groups, political groups, religious groups, racial groups, tribal groups. I think this may be the only way to save the world from the meagerness of our own hearts. It took a child to show me this; a child and a willingness to widen the circle. I had to start somewhere. So I started with Eli. I figured that if I couldn't let a child into the circle of my family, I had no right to have an opinion about "the problem with the world."

Take a look at some of the more closed loops in your life. Do you really need to keep that person out of your heart anymore? What would it take to give him or her a new title? Have you stayed angry or shut down long enough? Vengeance or protection or cold heartedness may have served a purpose then, but could forgiveness be a better balm now? If so, take a few small steps toward expansion. Push gently on the edges of your circle, and see if there is room within it for the exiled ones. And like the proverbial pebble thrown in the pool, as your circle widens, it will ripple out, and set a widening pattern in motion for the world.

As the co-founder of Omega Institute, America's largest adult education center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality and creativity, Elizabeth Lesser has studied and worked with leading figures in the fields of healing and spiritual development for decades. A former midwife and mother of three grown sons, she is also the author of Broken Open and A Seeker's Guide.

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Excerpted from Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser. © 2004 by Elizabeth Lesser. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.


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