I’m going through one of those bumpy passages on the journey to belonging. I moved a couple of months ago, and while the reason was love and I feel the opposite of regret, the adjustment to a new community is pushing some ancient buttons. As with many children of immigrants, I know what it’s like to feel in it but not of it. By now, the catalog of my own complaints is intensely boring to me: I don’t know how to meet the people who might belong to my own quirky tribe if only I knew who they were; I’m always getting a little lost; the relatively short distance to my old neighborhood and old friends seems much longer now that I’m on the other side of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
I imagine that this too shall pass, and probably pretty quickly. I’ve moved more than 25 times in my life, so I know the dance. I’ve been doing some online research. I even wrote a couple of the messages I tend to generate in such circumstances: e-introductions to fellow artists and activists with whom I have some vague virtual connection (who so far have not replied, but never mind). So I’m not worried, but I am noticing the tenderness that gathers up memories of alienation and stacks them in my forebrain. I am noticing how the little story—the little, highly personal kvetch—connects to the slightly larger and eventually the big stories of our world, adding an extra charge.
For instance, by now I know who I am. Let’s see if saying it in the third person makes me more objective: for better or worse, she has a penchant for speaking truth to power and a disinclination to ignore the emperor’s nakedness. This is not endearing to people who would like the emperor’s favor, but really, it goes deeper than that. She has an allergy, grounded in early experiences of ethnic and class-based snobbery, to sucking up.
All fine and dandy, so long as you are willing to forego what sucking up might bring. But when she hits one of the bumps that remind her of how incredibly out of it she felt as a young person, something else kicks in. This something else is about 13 years old, and she can’t understand why the world to which she takes exception persists in failing to love her in return.
When I let these absurd feelings sink in, the same scene always appears in my mind, a meeting with my high school counselor. I wrote about it four years ago at another time of transition:
The only sense I can make of it is that this is my essence, I am coded to repair the world, so without brokenness, how can I be? Perhaps I had to leave paradise to be myself. After all, I have been annoying people in this way all my life. In junior high school, I refused to take part in the duck-and-cover air raid drills that were a regular feature of mid-century public school life (when a siren sounded, you had to crouch under your desk, covering your head, until it stopped). When that didn’t get me into hot enough water, I refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, which seemed to me exactly like one of those displays of coerced patriotism we saw in Red Scare films during social studies. When these and other such infractions landed me in trouble in high school, a kind and sympathetic counselor let me cry in his office. “You just want people to be fair and rational,” he said, shaking his head, and I thought, “What’s wrong with that?”
Where the personal meets the political, it all comes down to cultural citizenship, doesn’t it? The ideal of cultural citizenship is multiple participation, multiple belonging, feeling welcome wherever you’re planted. It’s amazing how well people are able to do without it. I’ve really been enjoying writing blogs for the Center for Digital Storytelling’s All Together Now project, a national series of free workshops for intergenerational story-sharing about civil and human rights. The people I interview for these blogs tell their stories of facing exclusion, hostility, even outright danger to their lives. Many make my experiences of name-calling, of being chased home and ridiculed seem insignificant. And then to a person, they assert their belief in the healing power of speaking one’s own truth and having it be fully received. Things happen to us, the scabs form, the scars start to heal, the determination to choose life and connection reasserts itself, and that is what gives me hope in the little world and the big one.
I’m guessing it will always be easy for me to feel like that young girl when I’m a little tender and life fails to reward me with acceptance for discomfiting those with the power to confer it. The thing I don’t want to forget is how much tenderness, prickliness, and defensiveness is rooted in early experiences; and how much compassion is needed to soothe those old wounds.
In the meantime, do you know a really interesting person in Marin County who would like to discuss all this with me over a cup of tea?
Or maybe someone who loves the blues. I recently discovered Laith Al-Saadi. This clip is a long display of guitar pyrotechnics (the music starts at 1:24) that will definitely lift a tender mood.