We all need a group of people to belong to, a group with which we share common understandings, common experiences hopefully even a shared history. Once upon a time these groups were clear cut, we belonged to families, extended families, and communities whether geographically bound, or virtual due to our common links. But try as I might, I never feel that I really belong anywhere, and I suspect that I’m not so alone in my plight.
While my work offers me a sense of professional identity, do I want to hang out with work mates after hours? Not usually. I did the other night though because someone was getting married and we all participated in a hen’s night. That’s for another post. And while we have a body of knowledge and practices that bind us, challenge us, inspire us, give us cause to write, speak, teach and help, not everyone’s necessarily on the same page at work and disciplinary differences often rear their heads preventing companionship outside of work obligations.
My family of origin? I have no sense of connection with them anymore, indeed while I often wonder how they’re all doing and am happy to vicariously participate in their lives through what they choose to publicly share on Facebook, I have no desire to socialise with them at all. In fact, I actively seek to avoid them because of a history that I don’t wish to detail here. So my natal family may offer a sense of connectedness through blood, and name and kinship but community? No one was around when I had my children, and if there is a time in your life when you desperately need a community of support, this is that time. And they lived across the city and aside from coming around to see me once or twice, they left me to my own devices.
Except for my sister. As an adult I have found a sense of continuity through my relationship with my sister and her family. There is always someone. And she is this someone who provides my connection with my natal family. She’s good for news, good for gossip and makes good family.
I’ve mentioned children, so how about mother’s group? These women, younger and older were my lifeblood for the first five years of my first child’s life. They offered companionship, a weekly destination and a sense of belonging to a shared cause, that of brand new parenthood. We all stumbled as we learned and loved our weekly get-together as our babies played and we grew into parenthood accompanied by never-ending play dates, coffee and the occasional w(h)ine. But as with all groups, there is a period of coming together before differences force people apart, and now three out of ten of us meet up once every six months or so as our children approach their 15th birthdays.
My neighbourhood? Neighbourhood are funny places. You spend countless hours checking out properties, but not nearly as much time checking out your neighbourhood. We have a great neighbourhood, but neighbourhoods too are built on commonalities, and most of the people on the street either have grown up children who’ve moved out and married, or have toddlers of the opposite sex to my children. We move in parallel universes as the rhythms of life propel us in particular directions, in different time planes.
The school? Schoolyards are funny places too. I desperately wanted to meet parents when my eldest child started school. I was breaking my neck to chat, organise get-togethers, have coffee and meet up with people. I really tried to put on my best face. But some bonds are stronger than others and there was another mother’s group who had bonded strongly and their kids were just starting school… I eventually tired of being looked over, looked past and not included in activities. Or perhaps they just didn’t like me. But now that the children have finished primary school I hear that this mother’s group are still going away with all the family groups that belong to their group. That’s wonderful. That’s the sort of sense of community that I yearn for too, one that stretches across time through all the changes and challenges that living brings. I used to leave the school fighting back tears in the afternoons sometimes. People don’t intend to exclude you, but that’s just how it happens sometimes.
I did meet people from that school, and have made an effort to be close to the parents of my kids’ friends, especially where a connection is created. The unhappy part of this is now witnessing some of these families falling apart as partners grow, change and seek to move away from their partners and children as they recreate themselves anew, or seek to live in and acknowledge the truth of themselves, something that they were unable to do within the confines of marriage. This turbulence makes these friendships turbulent. I’m there for them but they seek me out less and less as they don’t want to intrude.
I joined a community health group recently. I feel like we’re all on the same page, even though there are differences based on age. I share a common bond with this group and we don’t have to gild the lily when we speak. I get that sense of openness that you sometimes experience when you’re on a bus talking to a stranger. You’re not judged, you’re not criticised and you feel accepted. For the part of my life that relates to our health concerns, this group of people are wonderful. Yet even they are a little reticent and I suspect that this comes about because of cultural factors that relate to saving face within their broader community.
High school friends? The maintenance of friendships is a difficult task. This is especially true across time, and while one of my closest school friends and I found each other about ten years ago and realised that we’d both had similarities in how we’d spent our time and that we only lived about ten blocks from each other, we had changed because of the passage of time. We were no longer as close, even though we had spent time growing into ourselves in each other’s company over those fervent years through all our schooling and a little beyond. Joe Cocker helped too. We both married late and had children about the same age who now attended the same school. Now we move into new paths of shared history making as we move into middle age together.
But everything looks different from the other side. I imagine that everyone else’s life is full, fuller than my own. I imagine you you’re all connected to work, families, mother’s groups, neighbourhoods, schools and groups that hold special interest for you. I’m forever standing in the backyard looking over the fence and imagining that your lives are better, more fun, more active, more social, full of less angst, happier, more fulfilling, more meaningful, full of trips away and fabulous get-together’s and greater opportunities than mine. I’m sure that you all drink less, exercise more, have less fat and sugar in your diet, eat 40gms of fibre daily and don’t need to take Vitamin D supplements. I bet your calendars are full and that weeknight dinners with friends are a common thing and that you have fabulous Christmas’s and holiday abroad annually.
I have to work hard at being sociable these days, even though by nature I’m absolutely not anti-social. I love to talk, and to listen. I love a shared history. I love to grizzle too, and complain and not take any good fortune for granted either. But it’s hard to find a sense of community, a sense of belonging. I think that my inner grumpy self has taken hold and puts people off. I’m going to have my own TV show: grumpy old women – the early years.
But perhaps it’s more to do with my own psychology, my own personal limitations and my own inability to respond, to participate and to give of myself that prevents my full membership in any of the groups I yearn to belong to. Because in truth, in order to be part of something bigger than yourself, you have to be, well, bigger than yourself. Like everything in life, there is reciprocity involved here, both the giving and the getting.
In anthropology we talk a lot about communities. Groups and groupings are the mainstay of our work. We have theories that allow us to conceptualise, discuss, deconstruct and construct the social and cultural factors that allow us to create, sustain and live within communities. We look too at the destruction of communities and theorise about this, along with the factors that lead to successful reconstructions following crises. The way people come together and form, and re-form groups is endlessly fascinating and ever changing. It’s important because after all, groups and groupings constitute our very basis of identity and belonging. As part of this, anthropologists examine all the beliefs and rituals that accompany and dictate life in various communities. In this way we can see how our very identities are tied up with these same communities to which we belong or seek to connect with.
So, after having described some of the worlds in which I circulate, why do I feel so disengaged? Are the reasons social? Or are they personal? Are there structural barriers to my participation and belonging? Or is it merely my sense, my perception? Is Facebook and the creation of its virtual, eternal present community of ‘Friends’ in part to blame? Is it the fact that ‘likes’ are only momentary and not deep enough to be long lasting? Or is it an issue that pertains more to my perception of myself as having less in common with those around me and focusing too much on the differences between us and not the similarities? I imagine that family, church and village used to take care of a good deal of one’s identity in the past, but these structures have changed and we are sometimes left wondering about the replacements, and the void.
Did everyone get an invite to the party except me? If you want to go to parties then you have to throw them too.