On Belonging

A story of coming home.

Andrea Mignolo


Trillium illustration courtesy of Midjourney.

When I was in elementary school we lived on a dirt road in a small, wooded neighborhood. The houses were somewhat far apart, walkable but not dense enough to fill a pillowcase full of candy on Halloween. There weren’t any kids close by so I spent a lot of time in the forest and with our older, friendly neighbors.

The Gregorys, who lived across the street, had vineyards and strawberry patches, the first spiral staircase I had ever seen, and put flowers in their salads. My 10 year old brain marveled at this act of wild creativity. It was on their property that I learned an early and important lesson about electric fences. The Lanes lived down the road past a large patch of trilliums in a shaded midcentury modern and were involved in the world of midwestern architecture (Mr. Lane was the architect of a local high school). And there was Mr. Bateroff in his pick-up truck, speeding too fast along the little dirt road. I mimicked the head shaking and tutting of the adults every time he zipped by, kicking up a cloud of dust. Other than speeding he was a friendly man, hosting neighborhood potlucks and letting us catch tadpoles from the pond in his back yard.

And then one summer two girls, sisters, moved into their grandparents house down the street. The move was temporary while their parents, who had also moved in, navigated a brief hiatus in employment.

The house looked something like this.

Laura was my age and had a flair for drama (think Sound of Music not Gossip Girl) and mischievousness, of which her older sister was usually the target. She had a way of smiling, followed by a quick wink, that let you know she was up to something. I don’t remember us becoming friends, we just immediately were.

Our imaginations functioned on the same frequency and the connection felt intuitive. There was nothing to negotiate, just endless worlds to explore. The way we played was wildly expressive and lacked any sense of self-consciousness that would have been destabilizing. One day after school we became cats and crawled through her grandparent’s house on all fours meowing at everyone, which drove her sister wild (this put “being cats” in regular play rotation). We filled bowls with Cheerios, set them on the kitchen floor, and ate without using our hands before meowing some more, purring, and taking naps.

I also was building friendships with other girls at school, girls who lived in neighborhoods with paved streets, lots of kids, and a housing density that could fill a pillowcase full of candy faster than you could say, “Ghostbusters!”

Photo by Kasturi Roy on Unsplash

I learned a lot from them too — how to be a part of a group, the rituals of girlhood interactions, and how to belong socially. Collecting stickers was popular activity and we’d spend hours flipping through each other’s books commenting on recent additions and occasionally making strategic trades. The glorious puffy, glittery, smelly stickers were all safely behind plastic coversheets of photo album pages. To my recollection we never actually stuck them on anything. Maybe they were a proxy for our budding style and curatorial sensibilities, maybe they were a way of understanding how to negotiate social situations while quietly broadcasting our identity. But deep imagination wasn’t a part of how I interacted with this group of friends. It was more of a tentative foray into the question of “how do we belong together?

As my career took off I found myself spending more and more time in the world of stickers. Learning the rituals of belonging in corporate and start-up environments and learning them pretty dang well. But the cost was high — I lost my connection with intuition and imagination, along with the courage to step into relationships where such things could flourish. Whenever I met someone who lived on that frequency, connected to the flow of life in ways I longed for, I felt shame. Shame for having lost touch with this part of myself and shame that I didn’t know if I could connect with it again.

The world of stickers asks us to sacrifice a part of ourselves for the safety of belonging. Encoded are rituals for how we behave, what we do, and what we acquire so that we can be accepted, successful, and liked. As I examined this aspect of my own life it became clear that in my bid for belonging I routinely abandoned myself.

To rectify this dire situation I figured I needed to get back to connecting with the Lauras of the world. I wondered if I could become a tuning fork, vibrating at a frequency that would invite connections that do not require negotiation but simply the willingness to be, and the courage to follow with openness and curiosity, the currents of creativity.

Recently I was talking to a dear friend, Whitney Hess, and shared that I was hearing echoes from the world of stickers that softly called to my fear of not belonging. In response she shared that for her, no belonging mattered more than belonging to herself. Well beyond what my ears and brain were processing, her words acted like a soothing balm to existential aches I didn’t know I had.

What matters most is belonging to myself.

In life, when do we ever truly belong to ourselves? In childhood we belong to our family, in adolescence to our peer group and culture, and in adulthood to society. What gives us the courage to listen and heed the call, after learning to belong in so many ways, that it is time to come home to ourselves? I thought I needed to reclaim my connection to the Lauras of the world, but I am learning that first I must reclaim my connection to myself. As Brené Brown says, “our worth and belonging are not negotiated with other people. We carry those inside our hearts.”

What does it mean to belong to ourselves? Here is what I’ve discovered so far: belonging to ourselves requires a radical act of trust. The willingness to connect deeply with the currents of knowing that swirl inside of us and the faith that what we find there is enough to guide who and how we are in the world. A way of settling into our bodies so deeply that a vast stillness opens and we can listen for what wants to come through. And when we hear it we tend to it, stay true to it, and allow it to become a part of our being.

Belonging to ourselves isn’t some kind of “my way or the highway” approach to life, in fact it is quite the opposite. As I’ve cultivated my own belonging I’ve found that I am more open to contact, more connected to the world, more in the flow of life. I am grateful for what I have learned from the world of stickers and from the Lauras, and I can see how they are all part of navigating the world together. But until we can fully belong to ourselves it is just about impossible to find our way without squeezing into uncomfortable contours that were never ours to fill. Belonging to ourselves invites the world to fold itself around our rightful shape and shows us all the ways in which we so beautifully and perfectly belong — to ourselves, to the world, and to life.

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