Wednesday 9 June 2021

Belonging (Longing to Be)

It’s never about belonging to someone, it’s about belonging together.
— Renée Ahdieh

Searching for a blog topic the other day, I chanced on some notes from an exchange with Fran in March 2019. It was a time of considerable uncertainty for me, and the snippet arose in a conversation about my options and needs.

“I think, Fran, underneath much of this, I have an unmet need to feel I belong.”

“The reality is you do belong, everybody does. You just don’t feel it yet.”

A great deal has changed since then, but I never addressed this lack of belonging. There are hints scattered here and there in notes, blog posts, and journal entries, but nothing approaching an epiphany. Until now. Reading those old lines again, it came to me that belonging is a longing to be. No more, no less than that. A. Longing. To. Be. But be what? That will be different for everyone. A longing to be successful, perhaps. To be secure. Safe. Loved. Wealthy. What am I longing to be? The first things that spring to mind are to be genuine, to be real, and to be a part of something.

The first two could be summarised as authenticity. Being true to myself. I can’t imagine anybody not wanting to be true to who they are, but what does it mean? Let’s put that to one side for now. The third — my longing to be part of something — is easier to explore.

Looking back over my life, I’ve never truly felt part of things. More often than not I’ve been an outsider looking in through the window. At best (and mixing metaphors), I’ve hovered on the side-lines, never confident enough to join the field of play.

Our gender group is arguably the most fundamental belonging, but it’s eluded me. I’ve had very few adult male friends, and little of “what men are supposed to like” resonates for me. I tried to foster an interest in “boyish things” from an early age. Growing up as I did in Liverpool in the 60s and 70s, that meant following and playing football (soccer). My father took me to see the Liverpool squad return in triumph after some major win, but the crowd’s cheers as the team bus went by were alien to me. I didn’t get it, and never have. I did try. There’s a photo of me in Liverpool football strip in the garden of my parents’ house. I was good at rubbing dubbin into my boots, but hopeless at playing in them.

My school years were happy, but I had no interest in teams or groups. No place on the school team. No Cubs or Scouts like my friend Phil. No Air Training Corps like Gary. I joined the youth group for a while but I didn’t fit in. In Sixth Form my closest friends were from very different backgrounds. Peter was born in the UK to Chinese parents. Amjad’s parents were from Pakistan. SS (Saranjit Singh) joined the school when his family moved here from India. In our different ways, each of us was outside the norm as far as the rest of the school went. We were known, affectionately enough, as the United Nations.

I was born and raised in Liverpool, but have never considered myself a Liverpudlian or Scouser. I’m English and British by birth, but have little sense of national identity and no loyalty to local or national sports teams. I can rationalise this by saying it feels weird to identify with and take pride in things I had no part in achieving or creating, although it’s not really a rational thing. The connection simply isn’t there. I envy those who have these connections, because it’s so outside my experience. That said, I’m aware that my lack of group identity is a sign of my relative privilege.

Given that I’m writing about “a longing to be” it’s notable that one group of friends I made at university referred to itself as the BE-in crowd. I imagine the name was chosen to echo the love-ins of an earlier generation. (“Love-in. NOUN: A gathering at which people express feelings of love, friendship, or physical attraction towards each other.”) Some of the deepest relationships I’ve known date back to those days and people, but I never felt part of the group. I found a peripheral role as unofficial observer and poet-chronicler. This is not a criticism of the others, but it’s how it was. It’s how I was. I’ve always been better at one-on-one or three-way relationships. I struggle to find — and hold — my place in larger groups, no matter how welcoming.

Jump forward thirty years. Three years in London. A move to Newcastle. Marriage. A family. A change in career. A new best friend across the Atlantic. A new book underway. The three components of my search — to be genuine, real, and a part of something — came together in an article written in 2016 in which I recalled my first visit to Newcastle’s Literary Salon.

Some pieces were more to my taste than others but what struck me more than anything else was how everyone was introduced, welcomed, and received with equal warmth and respect: as writers and performers, but most of all as people. And it struck me this is another aspect of being real: the awareness and acceptance of our common humanity, no matter how different our individual situations and life experiences might be.

It was an ache to belong I’d not felt in years. I did my best. I dared my fears at the open mic and performed selections of my poetry and excerpts from the book Fran and I were writing. You can watch several of my performances on our YouTube channel. I returned every month to partake of this vibrant community of poets and writers. I was always made welcome but baulked at their intensity and conviction. Notes scribbled during salon performances show how outside it all I felt.

Jan 2017: I have no life experience equivalent to these people. No sense of place, lineage, family, social awareness, heritage, locale. I am rootless / adrift / scared. My poetry is boring, lifeless. Dare I find a way to be honest? What am I afraid of?

Apr 2018: I decided not to read my piece tonight (Schrödinger’s Fishing Tackle Box). Why? Not good enough. The piece, or me? Both, probably.

Being on the outside didn’t stop me enjoying and benefiting from the experience. On the contrary, I valued the challenge:

I’m not a part of the spoken word circuit but I know these people. [...] Good people. Good atmosphere. Good conversation. I am never wholly at my ease. I am challenged by words that take me way beyond my experience. My comfort zones. But that’s why I keep coming back. To be challenged in a safe environment.

Around this time I began volunteering with Time to Change and other mental health groups and organisations, including Newcastle’s Recovery College (ReCoCo). I’ve written elsewhere how excited I was to join the ReCoCo family, and how that fell apart when I realised I never should have been there. Once again, I was on the outside looking in, this time from the other side of a line separating those with lived experience of mental ill health and those without. It hurt deeply, although I understood. Services need to be developed and delivered with, and where possible by, people with appropriate lived experience. As I wrote at the time, “impostor syndrome undoubtedly plays a part [in this self-doubt], as does a need in me to feel I belong. A never-quite-satisfied desire for home.”

What was it about these groups that left me so desperate to belong? In the case of the BE-in crowd it was their breathtakingly authenticity. I'd never met people like that before, and it was intoxicating. It has taken me forty years to approach that level of self-knowledge and honesty. At the Literary Salon, I responded to the performers' passion of expression and shared identity as performance artists, writers, and poets. It’s something I’d yearned for since chancing on Ezra Pound’s “And Thus In Nineveh” in my teens.

Aye! I am a poet and upon my tomb
Shall maidens scatter rose leaves
And men myrtles, ere the night
Slays day with her dark sword

With the Recovery College and other mental health organisations, it was the consolation of shared experience. As a friend of mine expressed it, “The best way to describe the feeling of the Recovery College is that it’s like a family. A family without judgment.”

Fran said, “The reality is you do belong, everybody does. You just don’t feel it yet.” In the course of writing this article I’ve realised it doesn’t have to be within a group. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years, yearning for a group to belong to instead of acknowledging that I feel most genuinely myself, most at home, within my core relationships. These qualities and resonances I’ve been drawn to – authenticity, creative drive and passion, community of experience – are present in my closest friendships and connections.

I’m blessed with friends who I love fiercely and who love me fiercely in return. Several know each other but these are individual one-to-one connections rather than a group of mutual friends. In their different ways, these people get me. The ones who really get me understand why a sense of commitment and belonging is so important to me. I love people who claim their place in my life and offer me a place in theirs. That might sound cloying or constraining but it’s not. It’s commitment, to each other and to the relationship. I can express it no better than American author Renée Ahdieh who wrote, “It’s never about belonging to someone, it’s about belonging together.”

Maybe one day I’ll find a group that works for me. In the meantime, the yearning to belong helps me explore who I am and what belongs in my life. Not everything and everyone does. And that’s OK.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash


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