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Belonging and community

I love the indieweb carnival. Every month, a new blogger hosts a topic on their website, and everyone else is invited to post about it on theirs. Webmentions link it all together, allowing anyone to browse through all the different points of view and modes of expression. It’s lovely.

This month’s IndieWeb Carnival topic is about community and belonging, so here are some thoughts about that.

I’ve been working with a new therapist who specializes in trauma, after realizing that I wasn’t doing well at processing my mother’s death and the decade leading up to it. My parents had moved to California a decade prior to that in order to look after my Oma (grandmother). When my mother’s condition progressed to the point that she needed oxygen, my sister and I both moved continents to be closer to her. She had a double lung transplant that gave us all lots of extra time — in fact, more time than these sorts of transplant recipients get on average — but this is one of the most invasive surgeries you can do, and there were complications from the drugs, the surgery itself, the underlying condition. It was incredibly hard on her. In turn, it was hard on all of us in a way that’s been difficult to process. I realized lately, for example, that I’ve been having auditory flashbacks. I’m really hoping a specialized therapist will help.

Part of therapy is intake: giving your therapist the lowdown on who you are as a person and your general context. We’ve been going through my childhood; she asked for me to discuss any particular life events of themes that stuck in my mind.

A subset of the things that came to mind for me included:

  • An entire factory floor of Albanian seamstresses lining up to pinch my cheeks while my parents looked on helplessly, unwilling to cause an international incident (this really happened)
  • Living in Vienna as a seven-year-old and almost becoming fluent in German until the Chernobyl nuclear reactor melted down in Ukraine and we moved back to Britain because my parents were worried about the fallout
  • Being a borderline third culture kid: growing up in Britain to American and Dutch / Indonesian / Swiss parents with extended stays in Austria and North Carolina
  • Living with the generational aftermath of concentration camp survival (my dad is one of the youngest survivors of Japanese-run camps in Indonesia)

A few of these things made it difficult to connect to people when I was growing up. The thing about third culture kids is that they often don’t get the implicit cultural references that everyone else seems to just know: the result is that I often felt like there must be some kind of hidden password that everyone else was in on that had never been shared with me. At the same time, I’d picked up on a generational anxiety that I didn’t even know existed, which made it hard for people to connect with me. Even now, as an adult, it’s hard for anyone who hasn’t helped care for a terminally ill loved one to really understand where I’m at as a person. Quite often, I don’t even know myself.

I sometimes wonder if religion would have provided me with a stronger through-line of community, but I always remind myself that then I would have needed to believe in one. I’m pleased for people who do have a sense of belief that adds to their life. Even after a childhood of Church of England schooling (and perhaps a little bit because of it) I can’t bring myself to believe in any kind of higher power.

I don’t have the same questions about nationalism (or its cousin patriotism, which I believe sits on the same spectrum). I think putting so much identity into a place that you carry a sense of superiority over other places is so archaic, so unbelievably stupid, that I can’t bring myself to entertain it. There is no greatest country in the world, or greatest state, or greatest town. We’re all just people, and these borders are artificial divisions that serve to separate us.

Case in point: one of the biggest rug pulls of my adult life was Brexit. When I moved to the US to help care for my mother, my intention was always to move back to the UK. Five years into this journey, Britain reminded me that I didn’t really belong there: I was a European citizen, not a real British person, and I no longer had the legal right to return as anything more than a tourist. I already felt like I ripped my life apart (albeit for good reasons), and this came as a huge blow. I was born with American citizenship and can live here forever, but it’s not like I feel like I belong here. There’s a cognitive overhead to living in a country you didn’t grow up in; an ongoing tension, and a sense of loss that never really goes away. Not anything close to the palpable loss that would come a few years later, but enough to tug at your soul.

If there isn’t a place where I feel belonging, there are, at least, people. One of the important facets of family (or at least, a close one, which I’m grateful to have) is that you have shared cultural touchpoints, and shared context. I’ve said before that family is my nationality and my religion, having no use for the traditional versions of either of those things. It’s my primary community, too.

But there are others. When I first connected to the internet, back in the mid-nineties, newsgroups occupied the space that social media and web forums take up now. Not long before, someone had created one specifically for British teenagers; I logged on with my dial-up Demon Internet account, started lurking, and then eventually dove in.

There was something freeing about only being able to express myself in text, not least because I’ve always had a very hard relationship with my own physicality. I’m big, and was big early; I felt like the Incredible Hulk. There were hardly any mirrors in our house, and I’d catch myself in the full-length ones in department stores and recoil. (I still do.) On the newsgroup, I didn’t have to worry about any of that. I could just be me, without being bogged down by my pesky corporeal presence. Everyone else who posted there was kind of awkward in similar ways to me, too; the missed cultural understanding that I felt so profoundly in real life didn’t seem to matter there at all.

Eventually, we all met up in real life, and these people who I’d met through words became lifelong friends. I hosted parties at my house and traveled around the country to visit other peoples’. It was an experience I still strive to recreate; it’s what informed the communities I created later on, although I later learned it wasn’t as completely safe as I thought at the time.

As an adult, my communities have been practice-based: indieweb, for example, or the community of Matter alumni. I’m pleased to say I’ve made lifelong friends from these places: people who mean the world to me. These are people who I do have a sense of belonging with, and I’m grateful for it. And, of course, I have a new family of my own, which carries its own sense of belonging. (I’m writing this as my sick child sleeps his way through a long nap; when he wakes up, I will hug him tight.)

These days, I see my lack of geographic rootedness as a superpower. Sure, I don’t really feel like I belong anywhere, but that also means I can be anywhere. There’s no real tether to one particular place; no need to be in one location forever. And the benefit of being a permanent outsider is that I always have an outsider’s perspective: I tend to see things in a different way to the people around me. Sometimes that turns out to be valuable; sometimes it brings a little scorn. At least it’s something different.

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