Wednesday, August 4, 2010
One of the most important points of reference for humans is our sense of belonging. This may come easily for some, while others may have to work very hard at it. I remember when in the 3rd or 4th grade, I learned the word "shelter." I immediately fell in love with this word. To me, it exuded its meanings of protection and safety, and it just rolled deliciously off my tongue when I said it. Shelter. (Later that week, I would get a spanking for using the word, but that's another story for another time.)
Shelter and belonging are connected, deeply connected. When we belong and when we know our tribe, we have a sense of being sheltered, somehow protected. There is an element of our tribalism that of necessity frames an "us and them" mentality, though it need not have the pejorative implications that it often does. Finding and knowing our tribe is essential to our mental and social health.
My favorite picture of myself as a little girl is one taken when I was about two years-old, maybe three. I'm standing by a phone table, fiercely clutching an Orphan Annie doll. She was my toddler's talisman. It must have been my parents who gave me the doll, and years later when I was in my forties, they would give me another and she still rests on a bookcase by my bed. Orphan Annie was a perfect metaphor for what would be my life. Like Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling, I would be lost and displaced and it would take time to find my tribe with whom I would no longer be an orphan.
Now I know that my tribe is that of writers. Some weeks ago I attended a reading at a local university, and the audience numbered at least fifty people. I had never been there before, but as the group gathered in and listened to the author's reading and then discussed his book and the writing process, I knew I was home. I didn't know another soul there. I didn't understand some of their conversation. I was not part of any writing program. Yet the thread that connected everyone in that room is a thread that has always weaved my life: we write. I knew I belonged.
When I was a senior in high school, the advisor to our newspaper staff invited a local journalist to come talk to us about writing. After his introduction, he asked our small group who among us wanted to be a writer. I wanted to flash my arm to the sky in ecstatic commitment like a sinner going down the aisle to be saved on Sunday. What I did was I sat there silent and stiff. No other hands went up either. My heart pounded from the inner energy that wanted to shout, "I do!," and yet I sat paralyzed. I could not do what I wanted to do, which was grab him by the collar and shout "I want to write! I want to write! Now tell me how to do it!" He finally gave up and said in frustration, "Well, what's the point of talking about writing if none of you wants to write?"
That was one of many steps I would take to walk away from my tribe. I got lost, stayed lost, and even when I realized what I needed in order to become "unlost," I would struggle to find the path back again. When I was in college a professor asked me whether I knew what I wanted to do when I finished school. My reply was that I knew more about what I didn't want to do than what I wanted to do. He answered, "Well, that's not a bad start." Many years later I would read an inspirational quote from Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Indian mystic, guru, and leader, " 'Tis better to wander at the call of one's Soul than to go straight by the path of reason."
His words helped me to hang on to the belief that all my years of feeling lost and wandering about were not purposeless. Like clinging to Ariadne's thread, I just had to keep following the song of my Soul, no matter how elusive, and trust that I would find my way back to my tribe. It has been a journey with many false starts, dead-end paths, and many moments of "what was I thinking!" In the end, though, I know now not a moment was wasted. I am home. I write. I have found shelter.