Monday, July 13, 2015

Belongingness - a Human Need


Until today, I had never heard the word. To me, “belonging” has always been sufficient: the longing to be. To be part of a group, the “in” crowd, the social or professional people from whom you feel excluded; anyone who says No, you’re not part of our gang. Acceptance gives us validation; refusal makes us doubt ourselves. Feeling like the outsider always looking in on others’ lives seems like a betrayal of what life promised us – free entry into the human race. Why would we not all get on? We’re all the same. Human. Yes, belongingness, I suppose.
I’ve never made any secret of having spent chunks of my life feeling isolated, but then I think most people do. We have to live external lives, owing to the commitments of work, family, or social mores that are regularly at odds with what we feel internally. If we wore our hearts on our sleeves on a daily basis, not only would be intolerable to be around, we would be intolerable to ourselves.

At the moment, I have never felt such a complete sense of un-belongingness. I don’t fit in the US where I have spent so much of the past seven years, because the humour really is too different. People take offence at me; I take offence at them. We are, as Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw said (depending on your source), two countries separated by the same language. For the most part, irony does not travel oceans heading west.
And then I don’t feel I belong when I return to Europe. I am so passionate about the many things I have seen in the United States, and I have met some extraordinary people from whom I learn new things on a daily basis. I love the optimism and passion; the patriotism; the incredible commitment on the parts of individuals to try to make the world a better place. Europeans are far more dismissive of Americans than they are of us, and, yes, most US citizens don’t travel outside their country; but neither do a lot of people in the UK – and there is far less on offer here.
So I’m feeling a little bit lost and tearful these days but wondering whether any of us ever really feels that we were truly anything other than individuals treading water, rather than somebody onboard helping to steer the boat.
As a young kid, I was never part of the “in” crowd. No matter how well I did in sport, no matter how many goals I scored in hockey, I was still bottom of the barrel next time when the captains cherry-picked their teams.

But it started way before that. In infants’ school, I could see that the “in” crowd was made up of girls who were tenants of the gem of the play area, the Wendy House, not ones like me, who had to queue outside it, angling for an invitation, only to be told at the end of break that there was no room at the inn. The Wendy House, by the way, was supposed to be a protected area for Wendy after she was shot by the "bad boys" in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. I don't remember that kind of solace. The Wendy House tenants were tall, quiet and blonde; I was short, brunette and very talkative. People like me had to be content with the sandpit, which didn’t hold the same excitement of secrecy, because everyone could see what you were doing.

Nevertheless, I loved the smell of seaside and plastic, the yellow bucket bright under the artificial light of a dim winter classroom. I loved the dry grains running through my fingers, the light trickle as they hit my palms, the fists of tightly clenched roughness. Unless somebody hit you over the head with a spade, or threw sand in your eyes, it was a happy place to be. You could play with others, building dams and moats and mountains, or you could sit quietly, imagining the ringing of an ice-cream van in the distance, or a dog running to meet the tide.

But I would have given up the whole sandpit world for the secrets I imagined being shared in the Wendy House. The enormous square of hard, red canvas held all sorts of mysteries for those of us excluded from it. Once inside, the playmates would stay there for hours, emerging only occasionally to invite another to join them as an exclusive guest, or to play servant and fill the plastic kettle with water for a tea party. They had cakes, too: purple plasticine buns with yellow blobs on top; long, brown fingers; orange sponges. They made them in the art section of the classroom and took them spitefully away when they relocated to the house. 
I thought that making a glamorous collection of plasticine cakes and biscuits would make me a welcome visitor in the house, so I set to work on the long, ribbed sticks, determined, as I would be throughout the rest of my life, to do the work better than anyone else. I was, as yet, too young to know that the only thing that guarantees universal popularity is failure, and I began my creation with only the thought that my cake-making was the quickest way to win friends, influence people and scrounge an invite to the tea party.
How I wanted to be among them. I saw the plasticine cakes as my ticket to a better life. As I ran my fingers down each strip, still perfect in its see-through wrapping, I was already anticipating the cries of delight and warm, open arms that would greet my offering when I arrived at the Wendy House front door.  
When you pulled the cellophane off a new pack of plasticine, it felt criminal to disturb the perfect keyboard of strips. If you touched just one with the tip of your finger, the smell stretched all over your hand; you could still smell it in your nostrils when you went to bed at night. I liked the blue and orange the best. Sometimes, I rolled a piece of each together and made a marble pillar, even though our teachers warned us not to mix the colours.
I made cup cakes: blue bowls with orange filling, orange bowls with tiny, rounded balls of blue filling.  I made pancakes, alternating layers with every colour from the pack - green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink. I made eclairs: yellow tubes of cream wrapped in brown, light folds of pastry. There were sweets, too: yellow bon bons, brown toffees, pink chewing gum. I took my hamper of goodies to the Wendy House door but always received the same negative reception. Next time, I vowed, I would make an even more impressive batch of cakes.
When the door flap was pulled aside to welcome new guests, the rejects in the sand pit could catch a brief glimpse of the house’s inviting interior. Everything was red in there, including the faces of the residents, who looked as if they had been sitting too close to an open fire. Their heads were always bent conspiratorially together, their voices hushed. The tea set was placed like an altar in the middle of the floor, along with the plasticine cakes; hands circled the air dramatically, raising sweetmeats to mouths; and, accompanying all, the mmming and aaahing that was the taste of the mock feast.
I was never enough of a recluse to be pushed into the Wendy House by a teacher encouraging better communication among her pupils; nor was I enough of a joiner-inner ever to be invited to become a member of the exclusive clique. I therefore had to be content with imagining what took place among the shadows behind closed doors: the sound of pouring water, the clearing of dishes, and the dreams of those who, after feasting, were allowed to lie down and take a nap.
And now, whether I am in LA looking at the Hollywood sign, in the UK among the people who know me the best and understand me the most, or in New York watching sunrise and sunset over the Hudson, I feel grateful for all of it, and still know I have a better life than most people in the world. But at 56, I’m still outside the Wendy House. 
And still, that ache to belong. 

The need for belongingness.


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