I belong to Air Canada.
In this moment. January 2020.
Buckled into Seat 14C.
Far above where birds take flight. The place where dreams alone can live.
In this moment, I belong to this unbounded world above the clouds. A creature of the air.
This air-borne liberation is a mirage.
I know my feet belong on the ground. A creature of the earth.
I am on a flight to Montreal to visit friends. Their relocation to this city will bring me back again and again because our friendship is long standing and we will nurture it. My friends have also made me belong to Montreal again.
Again, because this is the city where my parents met. Where I was born, but never lived in for long. What part of me, then, belongs here? Belongs to this city where I speak the language only to a moderate level of fluency? Because all of me would not be if it weren’t for this city.
But countries and cities pull at me from all different directions.
Jamaica – my mother’s birthplace. Lebanon – my father’s. Kuwait – where my sister was born. Calgary – where my youngest sister was born. And Vancouver where we settled in 1974 and where my family has stayed since. All of us have ventured afar over the years, whether alone or together, to travel or to live for fragments of time. Toronto – where I lived for six years.
My whole being is a mosaic of spaces, places, and time. Of different cultures and societies. I identify with all of them and I identify with none of them. I am rooted in my experiences with each and am unrooted because I do not feel like I wholly belong in any of them.
They have all shaped me as have other cities I’ve visited, especially those that feel as if they are the locations where I ought to be, where I yearn to be.
In Montreal, my friends and I go to a movie they want to share with me. Their second viewing, my first.
Antigone (in French, Canada, 2019). Sophie Deraspe’s screenplay and her direction. Based on the Ancient Greek play by Sophocles. A play I know. A play that belongs to me because I have studied it, absorbed it, discussed it, taught it, remember it.
This film, this Antigone, which now belongs to me, too, tells the story of an immigrant family to Canada. Two girls, two boys, and a Grandmother, haunted by the memories of the children’s parents murdered in Algeria, in the country that they once belonged to.
In this country, this foreign Canada, do they belong?
Ismène, the older girl, has built a successful career as a hair stylist. The grandmother cooks, cleans, loves each child ferociously. Antigone is fearlessly devoted to the family, to their story, to their truth. In an address to her class, “une exposition,” she elevates her classmates from a state of boredom, heads on the desk, eyes rolling, to whip-straight postures, eyes that pierce through teenage school inertia. Her story of survival, loss, and grief lures them to listen.
Antigone’s two brothers? Étéocle and Polynice? The fierce family love envelops the two brothers and yet they search for belonging elsewhere.
Why isn’t their family enough?
And why do men so often find belonging in violence, especially vulnerable men?
The story of this dislocated, relocated family unravels in flashbacks and in real time. Antigone’s knowledge of her brothers, the appearance of their being and belonging, is contradicted by the reality she grasps in hindsight.
She remembers a night. Polynice creeps home late, after dark. He opens the fridge door, she startles him in the kitchen. He stands in the shadows, the pale light casting an eerie halo around him. Bruised, bloodied, black-eyed, he exults to his sister “I’m in,” “I’m in.”
In what? In toxic brotherhood? In a position to provide for his family now? In hopelessness? In power? In control, as illusory as that power and control may be?
Polynice is not a lone wolf. What he decides matters. It affects him, his brother, his sisters, his grandmother, his community. But he makes choices as if he were alone. Is his choice a resistance to belonging to this family or is it his way to belong more meaningfully?
His choice is made as if he were an island. But no person is an island.
As much as we may long for separation, for isolation. Long to escape duties, obligations, chores, stress, news, disasters, worries, fears. But a hermetic existence is possible for only a few, it is life’s answer or life’s purpose for even fewer.
Most of us, the vast majority, need – crave – connection. We are social creatures. Socialized creatures. We achieve our potential by being a part of a world wide web and I do not mean losing ourselves in the emptiness of cyberspace or discarding hours of our life on the internet.
We want to belong. We are part of a world of belonging.
We recognize that we are as others are. Lost, found, lonely, together, alive, dying, needy, giving, angry, happy, sad, joyful, cruel, kind, hateful, loving, powerful, powerless, smart, stupid, healthy, sick, caring, selfish, playful, serious, studious, ignorant, ambitious, lackadaisical, safe, unsafe, privileged, oppressed, worried, carefree, careful, careless, faithful, faithless, believing, unbelieving. Free, not free.
Isolation, being alone, is a desire, a fantasy, as is belonging. The former is a choice, the latter inescapable. We are compelled into connection. We are born into a web of connections.
We have to negotiate with ourselves as much as with others. We negotiate with life, with experiences. And despite this we are often unprepared for what life throws at us.
Perhaps there is a toxic underpinning to the idea of belonging. After all, embedded in the word “belong” is the idea of ownership. My husband, my wife, my spouse, my daughter, my son, my child, my father, my mother, my parents, my sister, my brother, my siblings, my niece, my nephew, my uncle, my aunt, my grandparents, my cousins, my relatives, my friend, my colleague, my acquaintance, my pet, my community, my neighbourhood, my job, my school, my work, my career, my money, my dreams, my aspirations, my humour, my loss, my grief, my beliefs, my body, my pain.
Would we be better served by leaving belonging to refer to objects? When we talk about humans, living creatures, plants, trees, the earth and the webs of existence in which we’re enmeshed, would it be better use other verbs: “connect,” “embrace,” “cherish,” “know,” “love”? I connect with this city; this city connects with me. This family embraces me; I embrace this family. These friends cherish me; I cherish these friends. I know that person; that person knows me. You love me; I love you.
Words alone will not remake belonging. We need to excavate the purpose, the meaning, the appeal, the allure, the temptation of belonging.
Why do we care about belonging? Why do we need to belong?
Where do we belong? To whom do we belong?
Where do I belong? To whom do I belong? Who belongs with me, to me?
I think we can only remake belonging if we learn to transcend the boundaries of belonging and not belonging. To embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty of embodying different states and ways of being. To be unbounded. To imagine our lives as bigger than what we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Bigger than our dreams, bigger than our imaginations.
Bigger than our communities of “same as me.”
As big as our hearts.
Because we belong nowhere and everywhere.
I belong nowhere and everywhere.
I may live in Vancouver, but fragments of me are dispersed. Unless I identify with everywhere, I can’t care about the world, the environment, the fragile state of humanity’s existence.
We belong to nothing and everything.
I belong to nothing and everything.
Because I am not beholden or enthralled by a particular thing or person and yet I am curious about all the world has to offer.
We belong to no one and everyone.
I belong to no one and everyone.
Because I am not an object to be owned and yet I am human as you are human, as he is human, as she is human, as they are human, as the many are human.
This heart belongs to those I love, but not as a thing for them to own.
It is a gift that says they are valued and valuable.
This soul is untethered in a state of un-belonging.
The essence of me is free.
“Even bullies wear pink shirts on pink-shirt day.”
I heard this sentiment expressed more than once this past week. And to a certain extent it’s true. It’s a day when we offer camouflage to those who don’t realize they are the bullies we’re talking about.
Even so, the day does shine a light on the topic. It inspires people to share their own experiences as Shane Koyczan has done this year with his spoken word poem (link below).
As my friend Bob has done on his blog.
And as I want to do here because sharing our stories helps to build awareness.
I won’t address overt bullying such as when the boys in high school taunted me with choruses of “areema, areema, areema” from the back of the class or a girl slapped me or another taunted me about the strap on my training bra.
I want to talk about the peculiarly female form of bullying which isn’t dealt with by initiatives such as pink-shirt day.
Because the majority of female bullying is insidious.
Women tend to organize in circles.* Girls refused entry into the circle or who have been dismissed from it are the ones, I would argue, who are often subject to bullying because they are isolated and excluded.
I was a new kid in Grade 8, my family having just moved to West Vancouver. Fortunately a strong friendship helped me survive the transition, but the friendship dissolved the following year and it was difficult to replace.
My memory of Grade 9 is one of tears: tears shed because I was always on the edge of the group. Sitting in the hall at lunch, for example, listening while the other girls made plans for the weekend and not being invited to participate.
Tears shed because I was alone.
In my second year at UBC, I joined a sorority. In hindsight, it may not have been the best fit for me. If being on the outside of the circle in high school is difficult, falling out of favour in a group of 40 or so is excruciating.
I remember carpooling with two of my sorority “sisters” although as I reflect on it today, I realize I must have done all the driving because I was the one with the car. On the way home one afternoon, we hatched a plan to get together later to watch a movie. I dropped them off and went home to get ready, sitting by the phone waiting for the call (yes, that’s how it was done in those days!). The call did come, but to cancel. Secrets are very hard to keep though and I found out later that the get-together had gone ahead as planned, but without me.
Trying to understand, I asked. The explanation? “Reema, when you ask someone how they are, you really mean it.” In other words, being with me was work. My interaction with others was based on more than a flippant line or light-hearted gossip or trivial talk.
I still am work and when I ask someone how they are, I still really mean it. My interest is in the whole person and their truth, not simply the mask presented to the world. I am a little too earnest to fit in easily and that has often put me, continues to put me, outside the circle.
But with the passage of time and the wisdom of experience, comes strength and acceptance, and a circle of true friends including that friend from Grade 8 whose friendship was reclaimed and a few from those sorority days.
It does get better, but it is never forgotten and it is not always easier.
Bullying requires constant and persistent vigilance, and that’s why it’ll never be eradicated simply by wearing pink one day a year.
*From the work of Deborah Tannen which I was introduced to in a writing workshop many years ago.
Three videos which touch the heart and mend the soul:
An informative interview on the topic of bullying:
I had lunch with friends recently. Our conversation turned to favourite movies and I mentioned Truly, Madly, Deeply starring Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman. I also said how tough it was to track down a copy to play at home. The DVD had been discontinued and anything I’d found online was expensive.
Later that day I received an email from my friend: she’d ordered a copy of the movie for me. She didn’t realize it at the time, but the copy she’d tracked down was reasonably priced because it was a VHS tape. Not a problem: I have a working VCR at home.
I first saw Truly, Madly, Deeply when I lived in Toronto (1986-1992). There were any number of cinemas within walking distance of where I lived and a quick subway ride could get me to movie theatres on St. Clair or further north along the Yonge Street corridor.
I went to the movies often during this time and often alone.
Because when you live on your own, you learn to take yourself out. You can’t always count on having someone there to go with you, whether to a movie or for dinner or to special events. It’s tough to do, especially as a woman, but it’s key to surviving the isolation and loneliness of city life.
I remember enjoying many new releases in Toronto including Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I was much older than the target demographic but was enticed by the reviews which described Belle as a new-style Disney heroine. She reads!
I saw Thelma and Louise in Toronto although I’m not sure the stranger who sat beside me understood the film given how his hand drifted over during the screening to fondle my thigh.
There were also movies I enjoyed with friends or with visiting family members. Dirty Dancing, Dances with Wolves, Terminator 2 (at the time, the most expensive movie ever made). I also remember going to see Silence of the Lambs (it made me nauseous) and The Princess Bride which had me laughing as much as I’d ever laughed.
Those memories may not be as vivid as they once were, but the stories, the images, the feelings, the impact of that time and those movies have stayed with me.
So as I anticipate the click of the VHS tape in the machine and the whirl of the spools as the tape begins to play, I’m also a little nervous. Will the movie live up to my remembrance of it? Will it move me in the same way as before? Will I go through piles of tissues the way I did when I first saw it?
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. I’ll enjoy the film, but the memory I’ll latch on to is that of a friend who went out of her way to help me recapture the magic of a darkened theatre and a brilliantly acted story of love, grief, healing, and life.
Thank you A.E.!
An excerpt from La Muerta (The Dead Woman), a poem by Pablo Neruda, which is recited in Truly, Madly, Deeply
No, forgive me.
If you no longer live,
if you, beloved, my love,
if you have died,
all the leaves will fall in my breast,
it will rain on my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with frost and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, but
I shall stay alive …