People don’t like to feel alone, and that’s completely understandable. The sentiment of wanting to feel close to something or someone is wrapped up in our sense of belonging. Why do we feel like we have to belong somewhere? Well, it roots us in a place and time. It gives us a place to refer to back when people go looking for “who we really are”. But, a sense of belonging also helps us identify ourselves and locate ourselves in the larger context of society. It makes us feel like we belong with a group of people and that that group all have certain identifying characteristics. For some reason, we take comfort from these abstract concepts. I’ve been struggling with these concepts for the past two years, and while I’m not any closer to answering the question of why we feel the need to belong, I can say that I’ve learned a few things along the way.
I was born in Monterey, California but my father’s job in the military took us all over the United States. Hell, I didn’t even spend most of my life in California. Still, no matter where I lived, it was always where I felt I belonged. It was so stupid. I couldn’t explain it to anyone—and believe me, a lot of people asked—probably because when I was asked where I was from I would get that shit-eating grin of self-satisfaction that happens when you tell someone from the Midwest that you are from California. You are some kind of exotic creature, you see. I thought I was hot-shit. I really did. Even though my California “memories” consisted of being barely old enough to be let out of the stroller occasionally so that I could throw rocks at the seagulls or pick through shells on the beach. My California credentials were, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent.
But I’ll be damned if I didn’t hold onto the idea of being a Californian while living in North Dakota, which is where most of my “origin story” bullshitting took place. Anything, anything was better than being “from” North Dakota, despite the fact that it was the longest I had ever lived anywhere. North Dakota. Jesus fucking Christ, what was I doing there? Well, that was simple. I was dragged there by my Mother. High school in North Dakota wasn’t bad. The winters were cold. They still are, it’s a fact. I did a stint of my college career at the University of Oklahoma before moving back to Grand Forks, North Dakota to finish up my degree at UND. Of course, immediately after graduating I left, and I’m talking immediately. I packed it up and moved on as fast as I could.
Eventually, I arrived in the Promised Land. I was home! Hello San Francisco! I was finally back in the place where I had felt I belonged all those years I was away. I had convinced myself that it was a sort of coming home for me, that it felt so good to be back. Everything had come full circle as far as I was concerned. It all made sense. Except, it didn’t. Even here I felt the need to prove my credentials as a Californian. I would walk around downtown San Francisco like I remembered the place. “Oh, yeah, the Transamerica Pyramid… that’s uh… that’s down on…” *wait nervously for someone else to answer* “… yeah, she’s right. It’s down on Montgomery.” Oh, and I had all these anecdotes about family members that had been there and the things they had experienced, trying to draw some correlation between the meaning of their experiences and my own need to feel like I belonged somewhere.
It was starting to rub my partner the wrong way, too. It wasn’t all that difficult to pick up on the slight quiver of annoyance in his voice and the bristled expression on his face anytime I would put out like I knew the area better than I did. That only ended up exacerbating my need to feel like I belong here. I was going to be a Californian, god dammit. A real one. And no amount of disapproving face-scrunching was going to keep me from being able to say, “I’m from California” without having the least bit of an existential crisis.
Time went on. I got a California driver’s license. I put California plates and tags on my car. I started shopping at Trader Joe’s and “doing coffee” with friends. Whatever the fuck that means. I started walking around with a bag filled of stuff and acted like I had places to go and things to do. But I didn’t… and I don’t. I started drinking local craft beers, but then realized that was a gateway activity to hipsterdom and immediately stopped. I took BART and sounded annoyed when people back home didn’t know what I was talking about. “BART Mom… Bay Area Rapid Transit. Duh… come on.” And then one day all of that ceased to matter.
It was a cloudy day in the Bay Area, and cool. Some may even say it was cold. My partner and I decided to take BART (I already told you what it was) into San Francisco from our quiet little suburb of Rockridge in the East Bay, and have lunch at the Ferry Building. He got something edible, I did not. Outside, sitting on the benches facing the Bay and having a wonderful view of Alcatraz, he asked me if I was done with my sandwich. I suppose the look on my face said it all, because he took it from my hand, chucked it in a nearby trashcan and asked me if I wanted something else. I said no. He went to the bookstore a couple of docks from the bench. I elected to stay put and enjoy the weather (cloudy, cool days are my favorite) and the view.
As I was watching a ferry come in to dock a sudden tap on my shoulder roused me from my relative comfort. It was a tourist. “Excuse me, sir. Could you perhaps take a few pictures of me by the water? I’m here on business and I’ve no one to hold the camera for me.” I told her of course I would. She posed at the dock-front, smiled, and I snapped a few pictures then handed her back her camera. She smiled at me longer than someone should normally smile at someone they don’t know and then said, “Thank you very much.” I watched her walk away. She never stopped smiling. She seemed so damn happy, and for a second it annoyed me. It infuriated me! How could this tourist come to my city and be so happy, especially by herself?! She doesn’t know how to be Californian! She doesn’t know how things work here! People who don’t belong here aren’t allowed to be happy! I’ve been here for almost a fucking year trying to be happy and derive some sense of belonging! Then, a tiny Leonardo DiCaprio finagled his way into my brain, shouted “INCEPTION!” and then scurried off. It hit me like a truck.
What the fuck was I doing? I had spent all this time trying to fit into a place I felt I had belonged since I left it 20 years ago and didn’t even realized that I fucking hated it. I hated almost everything about it. I hated the Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, the hipsters, the people walking around with stuff in their bags. I hated the way people never seemed to work and always be “doing coffee” with a friend. I hated the city. I hated the people. I hated BART. I hated hybrid cars and those green hybrid taxis. I hated the Castro. I hated it all! Not because I actually hated it all, because I had thought it was necessarily to be and like all those things in order to belong. Who the hell was I? That’s the thing about cities, you know. It’s that much harder to retain your unique sense of self because you often feel like the only way to fit in is to be like everyone else… shop at the same places everyone else shops at, eat the same food everyone else eats, talk about the same things the same way everyone else talks about them. They are master oppressors of individuality, and for a cynical and creative soul like myself, it can be suffocating.
I hated it because I had allowed myself to think that the only way to get the sense of belonging I had so longed for while living in North Dakota was to try be and be like everyone else. And, oh, how I loathed myself for several weeks. In that several weeks I developed a new problem… well, the opposite of the problem I had before. I had embarked on a mission to prove my ‘otherness’. I was determined to show these Californians with their Tesla electric cars and fair-trade coffee that I was made of sterner stuff. Oh? What’s that? It’s cold? Bitch, you don’t know cold, okay? Try living in North Dakota where it gets so cold that car batteries freeze within hours of you turning your car off. Take a ride in your new Tesla? I’d rather be run over by it. Never mind the fact that electric cars are dumb. Duh. Everyone knows that. Trader Joe’s? Sorry, there’s a sale going on at Target where “the rest of us” shop. I did and said anything I could to differentiate myself from everyone else, but that also meant that I didn’t necessarily belong anywhere either. And so I started trying to prove to my friends still back in North Dakota that I was “North Dakotan enough”… that I was even North Dakotan at all. I seized every opportunity I could on Facebook to interject on a status where I could show that I had a relationship with a certain place, person, or thing connected to North Dakota. I started talking to my high school and college friends from North Dakota as often as I could, reminiscing about such and such a shenanigan with such and such a person. Then the maddening irony of it all set in and I just gave it all up.
That’s when I asked myself the crucial question—the question I should have started asking myself when I was teenager—why is it so important to me that I have a sense of belonging? I’m not sure I’m any closer to answering that question now than I was several months ago when I first started asking it, but I have learned a few things. Once you stop trying to prove to others and yourself that you are Californian enough, or North Dakotan enough, things gets a whole lot easier. Once you close the trunk full of costumes and masks, once you look around and understand, truly understand, how you fit in just the way you are, things make a lot more sense. There’s an old adage that says you leave pieces of yourself wherever you go, wherever you’ve called home. And I suppose that’s true. But, it’s kind of bullshit, too, like most old adages and their supposed relative truth. It’s not the pieces themselves that matter. It’s the size of those pieces you leave behind and the size of the hole they’re trying to fill that matter. Because you can have the biggest pieces of yourself that are connected to these places and the sense of belonging that you derive from them and still not manage to fill the hole. Your sense of belonging starts when you stop asking other people and places permission to belong. It’s not about where you “feel like” you should be. It’s about where you are, and you belong wherever you are.