We are your mothers, your sisters, and your daughters. We are your fathers, your brothers, and your sons. We are your best friend, your confidante, your lover.

We are the tourist to whom you gave directions, the busker to whom you tossed a quarter, the stranger you said hello to on the street.

But we are also the stranger you passed by, who looked like he wanted to say something but didn’t, and you thought, “Wait, do I know that person?” And you opened your mouth but stayed silent, and almost did a double-take as he walked by, but you restrained yourself, because you weren’t sure you knew him, and also because looking twice at strangers is considered rude.

That guy: We’re him, too.

But we’re not everyone. We’re not your cousins, for example. Or your in-laws. We won’t ever be your in-laws. Don’t ask; it’s too complicated to explain. But no matter what, and we don’t care how insistently you beg, we’ll never be your in-laws.

We’re also not your aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents, or grandchildren. We know that’s a tough one, about not being your grandchildren. We’re sorry. Really, we are. But there are some things we will never be, and this is one of those. It’s probably best not to think about it. We’re not your grandchildren. There’s nothing to be done. Just put it out of your mind.

But here’s something: To your cousins, we are your aunts and uncles, because your aunts and uncles are your cousins’ mothers and fathers. It’s actually simple, it only sounds complicated when you say it. Maybe you should be writing this down, or making a chart or something.

Also, we’re not just people. That’s another thing. We may have made it sound like we were only people. Well, we’re other things, too. Thoughts, for example. Aspects, relationships, signs. We are catalogs of symbols and systems of beliefs.

But we’re not everything. Don’t get carried away thinking that we’re everything. A lot of people hear that we’re their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and all the rest, and they start thinking that we’re blue skies, billowing clouds, and little girls with pinwheels running through poppy fields with sparrows darting all around. But that turns out to be a completely misguided set of assumptions about who we are. We’re actually not any of those things. Unless the little girl is your sister, or your daughter, or was once your mother. Then we’re her, but nothing else.

Take your ambitions and your fears, for example. We’re some of those, sure. But not all of them. We couldn’t be all of them, that would be ridiculous. It would be too much.

But we definitely are your nagging doubts. That’s us, no question. The desires that sometimes overwhelm you and the demons you fear you can’t control? That has us written all over it.

Often you’ll notice the thing we are without recognizing it was us. The fleeting moment, for example, when the sun is so low it shines on the undersides of the highest clouds, lighting them against the dimming sky. Everyone just stands there admiring the view. Sometimes we want to say, “Hey! Hello? Maybe a little credit?” But, honestly, we don’t need to be thanked for every thing of beauty in the world. The dead languages encrusted with obsolescence and frozen by immutable silence. And don’t even mention the wonder of every silent vow, or the way your dog cocks its head and stares at you, like it almost knows what you are saying.

Even though we are your fathers, and your mothers, too. And your sisters and your brothers. And your sons, and daughters, your lovers, and all of that.

And then, of course, at the end, we’ll be there. That goes without saying. We’ll be the tunnel, and the light, and the voice that speaks for all eternity, all those things you’ve heard about. That’ll be us. The friends weeping at your funeral. The ritual tossing of a handful of earth onto the casket as it’s lowered down? No one ever does that. That’s only in the movies.

And when you cross that chasm, the spirit that welcomes you—that immaculate and ineffable wonder expressed in all your stories, myths, and poems; the mystery that you’ve only seen in glimpses, cast in shadows, or symbolized in dreams; the life that animates the world beyond the real—that’ll be us, too.

But until then we’ll just be your fathers, and your mothers, and what we said before. Your sons, lovers, daughters, you name it.

But not your in-laws. We won’t ever be your in-laws.