Where Does One Belong?

I had a conversation with a friend the other night about belonging. David and I were discussing whether one can feel a deep sense of belonging in a community into which one has settled later in life. We were specifically discussing whether either of us felt as though we belonged in the Quad Cities, but it’s also an interesting question in the context of returning to a community where you’ve lived before but from which you’ve been absent for a long time.

Belonging is a deep and elusive sensation, and it is not entirely a self determined quality of one’s relationship with a place or community. You can’t just decide to belong somewhere. I think you can earn a sense of belonging, but it also depends on a kind of rootedness that can’t just be formed overnight. Neither is one’s sense of belonging exclusively external — it’s not just a measurement of how one is (or is not) welcomed by the community.

Belonging is like resonance. Some places just feel more like home than others. One of the biggest struggles for me over the last few months was that I really liked living in the Quad Cities. I like seasonal change, I like the benefits of a city without significant traffic, I liked living in a place where our home butted up against nature and that we saw wildlife living in a relatively hospitable environment. (I really wish I could have caught up with that wild turkey the other day, and for some reason, whenever foxes came around I couldn’t find a camera.) I like snow. I love thunderstorms. We lived in a roomy but cozy home. I loved being able to walk across Richard and Janice’s lawn to see my brother Jon and his family. Leaving all that was not easy, and I continue to have a deep sense of loss. But there was something missing in our lives there. I can’t pinpoint it yet. Even as I felt welcomed by friends and family in the Quad Cities, I never felt that I fully belonged there. What was the missing ingredient?

As we are returning to Oakland after 15 years, I’m not sure I feel that I belong here, either. We have some of the ingredients — we were married here. Our boys, Justin and Nate, were born here. My parents live here. We feel welcomed, of course, but a deeper sense of belonging will take time.

Over the next few weeks and months I hope to figure out whether we belong in Oakland. And I want to dig into that question that David and I were grappling with on Sunday — how does one know where one belongs?

Tuesday December 22, 2009 — Mark —