Friday, May 14, 2010

On belonging

I've been pondering the notion of "belonging" over the last few days, trying to piece together this blog post. True to form, all the scattered bits of my ideas converged mentally while I walked the 10 blocks home from the subway to my apartment last night. (Hence the name of this blog, as well as proof that, for the sake of the blog, I should never-ever move--even if the piles of books that regularly threaten to entirely take over my wee studio apartment do eventually win by crowding me into having only one tiny corner allowed for all the non-bookish parts of living....)

So. Anyway. Belonging.

Last week, I visited a friend who just adopted a sweet dog from an animal rescue organization. I expected the dog to perhaps be skittish or shy...she'd only been in her new home for two days, after all. Instead, she was calm, and politely interested in meeting me, if perhaps a little less excited about the whole encounter than I was. Why? Well, it became very clear over the course of my visit was this was a dog well on her way to being vastly content. Why? Because my friend belonged to her now. In two short days, Madeline-the-dog (named for this Madeline, of course) had already claimed her new owner in a complete, wholehearted way. And not that I didn't love my friend before, but I left her apartment a few hours later smiling, because, well, I think it's impossible to not change for the better anytime one is loved fiercely, whether by person or by beast. In short, I think it's quite likely that my friend is going to become an even better person than she already is, now that she belongs to a dog. (Hmm, I suspect I must take advantage of this opportune moment for book suggestion, even if it ruins the evocative mood of this blog post. Need a picture book to articulate the small but critical difference/nuances between a dog belonging to a person, and a person belonging to a dog? Try the Christmastime charmer The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy or, the poignant and pitch-perfect Orville: A Dog Story.)

Thinking later about this idea--the peculiar loveliness of belonging and how it changes us--made me flash back to an understanding that's bubbled up in me the last few times I've traveled. Over the last year or two, I've gotten into the habit of, whenever possible, taking late-night flights back into NYC instead of daytime ones. To me, there's something breath-taking, and breath-giving at the same time, about descending from a dark sky toward Manhattan's city-island full of lights. It goes deeper than just being a sight that's "magical," or any adjective one might use to describe beauty. It's even somehow beyond the simple notion of home. It's more about a sense of completeness. Trying to articulate how it makes me feel to a friend recently, the only way I could express it was to say that flying into the light-filled city reminds me that, after eight years here, I belong to New York now. It feels as if NYC is reaching out to reconnect and reclaim me as its own. And this often-hard-but-always-glorious city makes me a better person, I think, because I belong to it.

In a similar sort of way, a certain handsome guy in my life belongs to a particular corner of the Pacific Ocean, because he grew up surrounded by its waters. I've watched him for years, observing the fact that if he's away from "his" ocean too long, he becomes jittery, stress-laden, unhappy. By contrast, even a short trip back to visit it gives him a sense of peace, and returns him to his most complete self. In a mysterious, hard-to-define but definite way, I think it's fair to say that he's a better person purely because he's spent his life belonging so intensely to that ocean, even when he's far away from it.

And the "click" moment of last night's ten block walk: that this all connects, and deeply, to a line from one one my very favorite lyrical, literary YA novels, Cynthia Rylant's I Had Seen Castles:
"I want to have that morning. The walk to school with the guys, the banter, the wisecracking, the cuffing and shoving that boys must do to claim ownership of each other."
I've loved that line since the very first time I read it, because it expresses something so entirely true. That is exactly how pre-teen boys act, exactly why their rough-and-tumble antics are actually so important, because they reveal their feelings of belonging to their tribe, and to each other, on their way toward becoming themselves.

So. Ownership. Belonging. You could call it connectedness, too, I think. As I think about it, I realize these are transformational words, transformational experiences. It seems there's something about belonging--to a person, to an animal, to a place, to an idea, even--that makes us our best selves, makes us more whole. Why is that? Does anyone know?

I think it's time to end my rambly thoughts on the idea here, but I know it's one I'm going to keep pondering. And I'd love to hear your own thoughts and responses and ponderings in the comments. And I'm curious, too, of course. Outside of the most obvious answer of your family, your beloved ones--who or what or where do you belong to, in a way that transforms you, that makes you your best self, that makes you more whole?


  1. Truly a lovely post! Thank you. I agree whole-heartedly about the importance of belonging (and immediately want to write a book about it somehow).

    I also enjoy thinking about the less obvious ways that belonging can claim us. I grew up in the church, daughter of a pastor, but never belonged to the faith community. As an adult, I have never yearned for church or religion -- if I have to classify myself, it is as a humanist.

    And yet... hymns claim me. Whether I hear a familiar hymn at a wedding or funeral, or encounter one in the media, I immediately feel a sense of connection. I suppose hymns reach the part of me that understood church as home, the one constant in a childhood that shifted from town to town.

    I belong to that past, whether or not it is something I embrace now. And I'm happy when I am reminded of that.

  2. Molly, what a beautiful post. I love when you have these poetic thoughts during your walks to and from your apartment and then post them here. I love how your mind weaves its way from one thing to another, and how it all connects. And how books always find their way into the mix!

    This makes me think of something that E (to anyone reading this comment: my husband) said to me recently. I was away at a writing retreat in upstate New York for all of last month, and E came to visit me halfway through. I took him on the private property and showed him around, and I was especially excited to show him the walk I had sometimes taken at night on a circular path through the woods that crosses ponds and and winds its way back to the property's front gate. I normally live in the city, so taking a walk in the woods felt almost new to me, even though I grew up in the Hudson Valley and spent my childhood in the mountains. Anyway, I took E's hand and we walked together down the path and across and around the ponds. It was nearing twilight. Afterward, E turned to me, this sweet, surprised smile on his face, and said, "You looked so at home in the woods. It's like you belong there." I've lived in the city for over ten years and what he said surprised me too. After all this time, I belong to this place I haven't seen in ages.

  3. oh my. this post kind of broke my heart in a really beautiful way.

    i'm still not sure where i belong, but i've always felt at peace with a book in my hands.

    thanks for sharing -- this was really, truly lovely.

  4. This is a beautiful post, Molly. It really makes me think.

  5. I posted an even more rambly response on my blog, but the short answer is: In the hills & in the writing community.

  6. Place is so important... I write about it all the time, of course (Mississippi, especially, as it was the homeplace for this air force kid).

    We lived for 7 years in one place (unheard of!), when I was in elementary/jr. high, so I felt keenly like I belonged to the house on Coolridge Road outside Washington, D.C., and it's the house I write about in Countdown.

    On a trip to D.C. this week, I found this house boarded up and abandoned. It gave me such a start, as if I had lost something in myself. I had to walk around and around it, taking pictures. I blogged about it, showing then-and-now photos, and I have dreamed about this house for the past two nights. It's hard to let go of that time and place.

    I adore I HAD SEEN CASTLES, and I particularly loved what you said about dogs and belonging, which reminded me of one of my favorite books, MR.DOG, by Margaret Wise Brown... even though the boy belonged to himself, and Crispin's Crispian belonged to himself, they certainly belonged to one another as well.

    Rambling here, too! Lovely post, Molly.


  7. Thinking about my belonging to something, I realize there are two that immediately strike me. The first is my home state of Utah. Most people don't realize how incredibly beautiful it is here. Often I don't either, at least until I move away for a few months or years. Then I start to ache for my mountains. Actually, I get lost without them. How else am I supposed to know which way is east?

    And in almost striking contrast, farther south along the highway are the glorious red deserts of central and southern Utah. The first morning of waking up, bundling up in sweatshirts and blankets as the sun just begins to rise, and peeking my head outside the tent to a vista of absolute perfection is something I can only describe as spiritual.

    Those places have been my home for longer than my memories trace back. They are my birthplace and most likely my final resting place. Though I always long to see new places, I cannot leave my home for long.

    In the past few weeks, though, I've begun building a home within that home. This home is largely empty now, though the walls shine with brilliant colors of various hues, still damp from the recent application of paint. Piece by piece, that space will be filled with chairs and shelves, followed soon after by books. Lots and lots of books. The best kinds of books, too. Those especially for kids and teens.

    The walls are still bare and I've yet to have boxes of books cross the threshold, but that place is mine. It has already claimed me. Every morning I unlock the door, flick on the lights and open the blinds. Then I see it, and it welcomes me. I could spend hours lying on that floor, looking up at the gorgeous walls, noticing each piece as it finds a place.

    Soon enough, this store will claim children as well, and teens and mothers and fathers and anyone who wants a place to read and laugh and live.

    A friend commented the other day on how this store *is* me, that it is taking on my personality and becoming part of myself. I daresay she's right. I hope she's right, because that way I can give the best part of myself to others, to give them love and belonging when they may not know how to find it anywhere else.

    I belong there because it is part of me, and I am part of it. I can't imagine a greater gift in life.

    Michelle who belongs to Fire Petal Books

  8. Argh, this is my day for blogs to eat my comments--attempt number two, lol.

    Lovely post, Molly. I'd never really thought about it in that exact manner before, but for me, place also brings a great sense of belonging. My home town, the beach, virtually any old stomping grounds---it's like the memories hug me and tell me I'm welcome there. It's a gorgeous feeling.

    Coincidentally, a stray Chihuahua showed up in our yard on Sunday, and it's pretty obvious he thinks HE belongs at our house--along with our other THREE dogs. (argh)

    Thanks for posting!


  9. really beautiful post! it definitely stuck out in my google reader and made me want to come over to your blog to read more. i think a lot about this belonging - connectedness stuff, too... just had a long conversation with my husband about having a baby.. the pressure to decide!!! argh! but glad to have read your post. every little word helps! :)

  10. Honestly, I had never really thought of what a sense of belonging can do to a person. You've made a large dent in my brain patterns of late, thanks Molly.
    Growing older ain't all that easy for some of us (ME)
    I often dwell on the negatives, getting older and not having accomplished career goals that were made in a more youthful and hopeful (and perhaps too naive) time of life.
    But... a sense of belonging, I have it by the ton and have not ever stopped to think about how lucky I really am.
    I live in the same City I was born in, the same area of that City too. A block away in fact from where my Grandfather lived, where my father and then I was born.
    THAT is a sense of belonging, to walk the very sidewalks that you once did as a child, on your way to school and knowing each and every crack in that sidewalk. You feel you own it.
    I have a dog (as does your friend) that owns me completely and without judgement or question. Then there's the more important sense of belonging when my children and their spouses, their children, and my husband of 37 years gather around me on Birthdays, holidays.
    You've posted something really beautiful here Molly, I needed that kick in the ....:)

    On a seperated note....very interesting pic book need:)

  11. great post--I followed Kate's link over and recalled how much I enjoy your blog! *adds feed*

    I've traveled and tried living in a few different places, but again and again I find myself at home when I get a glimpse of Lake Superior. I belong to this Lake, and even if I don't visit it every day, I'm always aware of its presence in my life. I also feel a belonging, a connectedness, to books and the writing community: fiction is somewhere I have felt I belonged even before I knew how to make the squiggly lines into true words.

  12. Thanks, all, for the gorgeous and thoughtful comments. Hope you've all taken the time to read each others''s like a crescendo-ing of powerful thoughts about place and identity and sense of self! I wish we could all gather up for coffee and just keep talking about this for hours on end...

    @Linda - Music is so linked to memory isn't it? It's something that's fascinated me for quite a while. Have you read Sara Zarr's ONCE WAS LOST? Or the adult nonfiction book THE WORLD IN SIX SONGS? You might like both, though in very different ways.

    @Nova - Lovely. Just lovely. Especially that last sentence. Written like the gorgeous writer-woman that you are!

    @Tahereh, Renee, Kate - Thanks for commenting, and for pondering these thoughts and ideas, too.

    @Debbie -- More and more, I realize that "sense of place" is at the core of every story I love, and at the center of most of my own stories, too. And, oh, I can feel the ache of that story about the house. My parents moved from my childhood home just a few years ago. The last time I was back, a friend tried to drive me past my old house so I could see it again. I vehemently told him no. I wasn't sure I could bear to see it changed, even a little. On a happier note, YES! How could I forget MR. DOG? It's the *perfect* story to illustrate belonging.

    @Michelle - I hope I'll get to take a trip out to SLC one of these days to browse the shelves and watc the patrons and see this store that you belong to. Love that comment from your friend!

    @houndrat - Did the chihuahua get to stay???

    @Blanche - Thanks for stopping by & how delightful to have a reader from across the world: connectedness indeed. Hope you'll keep coming back and commenting. P.S. I think babies are lovely....

    @Christine - I think we all often forget how lucky we are in so many ways. But what a nice feeling of wholeness you've expressed, in regards to your particular corner of the world.

    Do please keep the thought-provoking thoughts coming, folks. Sharing them is a delight.

  13. By contrast, even a short trip back to visit it gives him a sense of peace, and returns him to his most complete self. >>

    This is why there are ghosts. They are people making a short trip back, to touch base, before moving on. Those that move on.

    And ghost dogs, too. :-)

  14. This was wonderful Molly.

    I have that feeling when I go into my house. There is something there that immediately centers me. It is where I belong. Sometimes when my family is around, that moment hits me where I notice them specially for that moment and it is overwhelming to know I belong to this place.

    IN addition, the online writing blog community that has emerged over the last couple of years is amazing. I feel I belong with and around words, whether it be with writers, editors, agents or just sitting with books.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post .

    PS I personally find a wonderful feeling of belonging sitting next to a piece of choclate or a cupcake. But Im not sure my backside agrees...;)

  15. such a lovely poist - and a concept I have been wrestling with of late. I would like to think I belong to my tribe of YA writers...and maybe I do. All I know is that search for connectedness is one of the most universal truths about being human.

  16. Thank you for a thought-provoking and thoughtful post, Molly. And I've very much enjoyed everyone else's comments, too!
    I moved around as a kid more than I would recommend to any sane human, so belonging to a place was always difficult for me. Yet, somehow, as a teenager I realized that I actually belonged to all of the places I'd lived, to the friends I'd made in each place. It was one of those strange topsy-turvy revelations to see that the same thing that tore me apart made me a more whole person.

  17. Just lovely Molly. Really thought provoking and beautiful.

    Maybe it's that we all, being human and alive, full of potential with the innate need to grow and to change, need, like a tiny seed, a place to plant ourselves and call home. Deep inside ourselves, we all need a home: a safe and nourishing person, place or ideal where we are free to become the amazing tree we are destined to be. No flower grows without belonging to a bit of soil, and no human can blossom fully without a sense of belonging.

    We stumble and bend when our hearts, homes and ideals are broken. Alternately, we grow and blossom, finding the deepest sense of happiness, when we belong to one.

  18. Beautifully written post! I just met you at the NESCBWI conference and was checking out your blog. I belong to yoga. It transforms me, comforts me, and brings me to a place that feels like home. I breathe a deep sigh just writing about it!

  19. On belonging. In my native language of Marathi we have a word for this: huq. I cannot translate it because it is so much more than belonging. It's the right to ask without fear, it's the right to comment without any worry. Only your most beloved will have huq over you. My daughter can ask me for the last bit of chocolate even though she knows I want it. It's her huq. And I will give it to her because I love her more than myself. So it is in giving that you become more complete. And this is why those all-important pets make you feel so good ... they have huq over you. I bet Madeline was sharing ice-cream with your friend the first day.

    So glad I followed the link from Nova here ... this is a lovely post.

  20. Vijaya, thanks for your comment, that is beautiful and I'm glad to know the word and the feeling behind it. How interesting that there isn't quite an equivalent in English.