by Joseph Kenyon
The vast majority of what we read, listen to, or watch on a screen of any size is about finding where we belong: That place or group where we are always welcome and where our absence is noted and felt.
I began musing about this when I realized that Sunday, May 15, was the 130th anniversary of Emily Dickinson’s death. If anyone can claim to be the poster child for not belonging, it’s Dickinson. Her poetry, and the mystique around it, revel in being excluded, the outsider:
The Soul selects her own Society –
Then — shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more —
But taking any writer’s work as the best and final word on that writer’s life is to merrily skip down an alley in a tough neighborhood. Dickinson belonged to three tight circles: Her family (she was such a good baker that her father only wanted to eat the bread she made), her group of pen pals with which she first shared her poems, and her garden. Any gardener or nature lover knows that once a person establishes herself in that garden or a certain neck of woods, she becomes as familiar to the animals and trees as they are to her.
I found this out while living in Michigan where my love of bird-feeding reached full flower. Our house backed up to a nature reserve, and as I went out to fill the feeders, a call went up, starting close by and relayed through the trees. If I forgot to fill the feeders at night and the morning was advancing, finches would come and tap on the glass of our bedroom window (yes, they knew where I was keeping myself). I belonged to them. I was part of their order.
When we left Michigan, the feeders were the last things packed, and we timed the move to be in midsummer when the birds would have enough time to absorb the loss of a steady food supply. Even so, for the final two days, we kept the draperies closed so we wouldn’t have to watch the birds flying around, looking for the food they had come to know so well. I was under no illusions that the birds were my friends or that they had any emotions toward me, but leaving them was a loss of a group to which I belonged.
On the virtual side of life, have you ever noticed how logging onto Facebook has the same feel as walking into a neighborhood bar on a busy night? You open the door and you’re in the midst of a hundred conversations going on at one time. Old friends, new friends, issues, jokes, problems, and tears, it’s all there, wrapped up in the cloak of chaotic belonging. Some people are there for business or just stopping by, but the majority of patrons are there for the connection to other people.
Take a look at that word again. Do you see it’s opposite contained within it? To be longing?
So complex is the human mind that while we are doing one thing, we are wishing for the opposite. In the midst of belonging, we still can be longing for something else, that “other” group from which we’re excluded or feel excluded. When I lived in a rural area, I often felt left out and missing the vibe that only a city creates. Now that I’m living in a metropolitan area, I find myself wishing for a walk in solitary woods or look with longing at a blog about rural Devon.
Belonging and to be longing: The opposition creates the great tension that makes life the most complex and fascinating novel we’ll ever read. Yes, there are those who go to one side or the other: stuck in a hell without hope of release or sedate and serene without one concern about time or place. But for most us, we are here, wishing we were there, and once we go there, find ourselves wishing we were back again.
The trick is to give and to get the most out of each place or group to which we belong, whether that group is as large and boisterous as friends and family or subtle as a garden or a pet. And in those times when we find ourselves longing to belong somewhere else, we can find solace in the fact that all places and people belong to one wide world, and wider still, a universe, a consciousness, and/or a God whose essence is our essence.
Or in the words of another famous poet/songwriter who spent his life searching for belonging, even while he belonged to the most famous group in music history:
I am he
As you are he
As you are me
And we are all together.