By Catherine DiMercurio
Sometimes we find new ways to belong to ourselves.
I read recently that where we belong is not always the same as where we are used to.
That juxtaposition between belonging and familiarity is a curious one. I am in a prolonged state of transition. I have not yet moved into my new house, but have been steadily at work, along with my son, my boyfriend, and his son, to make some fairly dramatic changes there. My old house, which I’m simply occupying at this point, is in a state of disarray as I prepare to move. The yard is getting overgrown. We can only do so much to maintain both places. I have work responsibilities. I am tired.
When I think about belonging and familiarity I think of people, not places, now, which is a fine thing. I do look forward, though, to having the sense that I belong in my new space, to making memories there, building the familiar piece by piece like the log cabins my sisters and I used to make from popsicle sticks we’d collect throughout the summer. Belonging and familiarity aren’t always at odds.
The house I am leaving feels like a collection of homes, four walls filled with debris of different versions of home, good, bad, and otherwise. Here the familiar has a long history, sometimes sweet and wonderous, like bringing babies home from the hospital after they were born. The ensuing, often sleepless years, unfolding moment by moment. The familiar had its run of trouble here too and that’s ground I’ve covered before. The house is filled with discarded nests. It is all twigs and straw and popsicle sticks. There are things I don’t want to forget, and things I don’t want to remember. If I swept it all into a pile, I wonder what would be recognizable, what would still seem familiar. I wonder what to take with me.
Belonging is a funny thing. This house was mine because my name was on the deed and the mortgage, and now different pieces of paper bear that scrawl. Signing all the documents to transfer ownership for both houses, I remember looking at my signature and the way it changed from one document to the next. By the time you have signed your name fifteen times you begin to doubt that you know how to do it anymore.
[Side note on signatures and belonging: I think of the poetry of a name, the way the script mirrors mood, the way when I pen a note with the three letters of your name at the top and the roughly four and half of mine at the bottom, I attempt to corral with the shape of words the way I feel, and it feels like creating art together. It is the words as I write them and the sound of them in your head or on your lips when you read them, and what a beautiful thing it is, to make art with you.]
But despite the documentation and transfer of ownership of what I have called “mine,” what I now call “mine” doesn’t belong to me, because homes have the histories of other families and maybe in a way, the way we reshape a home to our personalities, the way we nest and re-nest over the years, is also a beautiful piece of enacted art, one that we make in collaboration with our own histories, along with those who have inhabited the space before us.
In many stories, place functions very much as a character, a real force the characters interact with, rather than simply a backdrop. Fiction that effectively executes this (Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love comes to mind readily as an example, but there are many others) is easy to immerse oneself in, because it feels like truth. We are products of our environment, acted upon by place, as much as we interact with it.
Belonging is a funny thing. I wonder if you can feel at peace with yourself and not in harmony with your personal setting, or does that peace create the sense of harmony no matter where you are?
I have the strong sense that feeling internally at peace but out of step with your environment is common, and is perhaps what propels us to look at our surroundings perhaps as a place where we do not belong, or no longer belong.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that tucked away within both the concept of belonging and in the word itself is longing. There is an ache within us to fit. I think of the two baby robins snugged in the nest at the new house. It sits securely in the crook of the downspout behind the garage. I think of how we long to feel safe, at least somewhere.
I wonder how it is built, our sense of belonging to one another? How much is instantaneous, how much constructed. I consider what that infrastructure comprised of.
And what does it mean to belong to ourselves? I was told that by the time I reached almost-fifty, I would not care what others thought of me; I would be wise; I would settle into myself. Yet I don’t settle in. I still often feel awkward in my own skin, in my own brain, though at times I have allowed myself to be at peace with that part of me.
The sparrow in the backyard at my old house pinched a beakful of just-brushed dog-fur-fluff. My dog has the softest fur, and I thought, well-chosen! What a happy, cozy little nest that will be to settle into.
And sometimes I think maybe I can settle into myself after all.