I’ve been writing this blog in my head since January 6. January 6, as you probably know, is Epiphany on the church liturgical calendar: the day we observe the arrival of the Magi at the Christ Child’s manger/cradle. This year, January 6 fell on a Sunday, and our pastor gave a very moving sermon about following the “star” (i.e. Christ).
As a part of her sermon, she asked, “What are you searching for?” Of course, the correct answer is supposed to be that you’re looking for Christ, and if you just “follow the star” (metaphorically), you will find him. But my brain never goes down the expected path, so I asked myself the question as an honest question, not a religious prompt.
The answer was simple: a place to belong. I am searching for a place to belong.
Growing up, I never felt I belonged, neither in my hometown nor even in my own family. I was so different from my parents, and not at all what they wanted. I might have thought I was adopted if I didn’t have two sisters who look exactly like me. And though I lived in one house from birth until I went to college at age 19, hence had a real hometown, I never felt I belonged there either. I was just so different from everyone around me.
Even my crowd in high school only tolerated me. I wasn’t really accepted. Some twenty years later, when our favorite teacher retired, we all gathered for a reunion of sorts. A man I’d gone to school with from kindergarten until graduation made the comment that he’d always wondered why *I* hung with them. And I’d been so conditioned to accept my state of not belonging that it was several days later before it occurred to me to wonder what the heck he meant. We were raised in the same neighborhood, the same type of house, the same socio-economic sphere, with very similar parents. The only difference was that his family boarded a horse or two at a stable in the river bottom.
When I married, I thought I’d be a part of my husband’s tight knit ranching community. But I remember once my mother-in-law and I were hanging clothes on the line when she mentioned someone in the community and added, “She’s not from here, of course.” I had thought that particular woman was a fixture, so I asked how long she’d lived in the area. My MIL tipped her head and said, “Well, let me think. It was the year of that horrible snowstorm, but after the highway was built.” She thought for a moment and added, “She’s been here about fifty years, I guess.”
Fifty years! She’d lived in the community for fifty years, but she wasn’t “from there.” I realized I’d never be “from there” either.
In my late twenties, I started a small, biweekly (and then weekly) community newspaper, and for the first time, I felt I belonged somewhere. I knew people. I had a specific place in the community, and I felt valuable. If I’d known how my life was going to go, I would have stayed there. But we moved back to the ranch, and eventually we moved on. And I divorced the rancher a couple of years later.
In 1996, I married Mars, and moved into his house. We were much more settled than I’d been in my first marriage, but I still didn’t feel rooted. In 2001, we moved to Washington, where we started all over. Again.
Then in 2007 our western Washington community was struck with a devastating flood. A thousand families lost their homes; hundreds of square miles were covered with a thick, bacteria-ridden clay soup, and we were cut off from the rest of the world by flooded highways.
An amazing thing happened. Neighbors came out of their homes to help each other. The United Way was flooded with calls: people offering clothes, food, even fifth-wheels and RVs to anyone who needed a place to stay. The United Way set up a sorting station in a empty storefront to collect and distribute donations and a phone bank to take the calls.
I spent two weeks manning the phones full-time, and I heard stories that would change my life. Incredible gifts, sometimes from people who really couldn’t afford to give them. And incredible humility too. I talked to one homeless man who’d been camping on a sandbar in the river, and lost everything. All he was asking for was a change of clothes, so he’d have something clean to wear to work. I asked if he needed food, and he said, no, he had a job and could buy food. I asked if he needed a sleeping bag and a tent, and after a long hesitation, he admitted that those would be helpful. But he refused to take anything else.
By the time the interstate was opened again, our community was well on its way to recovery (though full recovery would take years, and is probably still going on). In fact, FEMA sent people out to study what we’d done, to create a pilot program for how communities could kickstart their own recovery after disasters.
By the time our ad hoc phone bank was disbanded, I had found myself a community. I’d gotten to know some of the local movers and shakers, and made some real friends. Lifelong friends. There’s something about banding together, as neighbors, that really builds community.
When Mars was transferred to Canada, I was sad to leave Lewis County. I loved my life there. I had a house I loved, a strong network of friends, and a glorious writing office in a historic downtown building. I was close to family. I had a church and a doctor that I loved. A critique group with talented, wise writers who were also friends. I had a life, rich and full and happy. And a place where I knew I belonged.
I thought I could build it again. I thought I’d finally grown up enough to quit worrying about whether or not I belonged. I had forgotten that it took a five-hundred-year flood to create my sense of community.
So we moved. I spent most of the first year dealing not only with the normal stress of moving, issues at school, and problems with our new home, but also fighting clinical depression. I have been so lonely. I’ve never felt quite so much an outsider as I do here.
I thought I just needed to hang on. Things would get better. I’d make friends and find my niche. I did some counseling for the depression and tried to focus on the positive. And I expected that when I got over the depression, I wouldn’t be so sad at all time.
I was wrong. I’m over the depression. I don’t sleep for twelve or fourteen hours a day any more. I am, once again, enjoying the things I used to enjoy. And I have a lot more energy (though still not a hundred percent).
But I’m still very, very sad. I go to bed early most nights, and struggle to get going in the mornings, though I was always a morning person before. As Mars put it, I “go to bed sad, and wake up miserable.”
Thing is, I’ll never belong here. I have met people who were born in the U.S. but moved to Canada as babies. They still identify as American.
More to the point, Canadians see them as American. And a lot of Canadians seem to really dislike Americans.
I’ve seen discrimination before, of course, though I never understood it. My sisters and I grew up surrounded by many cultures, and it was years before I realized that some people thought my blond, blue-eyed siblings were different somehow from our Spanish-speaking, dark-haired playmates.
But I’d only seen it, never been its victim. Even when I traveled abroad, somehow I wasn’t exposed to the sort of American-bashing I hear goes on.
The thing I never realized before is that discrimination feels personal.
I try to tell myself it isn’t about me, not about Katrina. It’s more about that person’s upbringing or bad experiences, or in some cases, wounded national pride. Most of the time, the individual making rude remarks doesn’t even know me. Sometimes, he doesn’t even know I’m American. After all, I can pass as Canadian, unlike my brown-skinned childhood friends. I tell myself not to take it personally.
But it feels personal. Maybe discrimination always feels personal. It feels directed at me, like I have done something wrong, something shameful, by being born in the United States.
Or perhaps, the wrong I did was moving to someplace my persecutor believes I do not have the right to live. Using government resources (like health care) that I don’t deserve (though we pay the same taxes as Canadian citizens, without receiving the same rights and benefits). Maybe taking a job a Canadian might have had if I weren’t here — though I don’t actually have a job.
For some reason, Mars doesn’t seem to face the same persecution. Maybe because he’s quieter and more polite, less outspoken. Less typically American. Or maybe he just doesn’t notice.
Regardless, I am not “from here,” and I will never be. I’m here for the duration — at least until Mars retires in thirteen or so years — but I will never be “from here.”
I fear I will never belong.