Belonging

For a long time I have been thinking about ‘belonging’, I want to identify what or where my place in this new world is. I am not thinking about ‘place’ as a physical location, though that is part of it, nor am thinking about my place on society’s class ladder either. I am thinking about where I belong, what/who my ‘tribes’ are, what/who I am connected to? Where do I fit in? Who are my people? So many question marks, with so few answers.

These questions I am asking myself about connection are not new. I have felt a sense of disconnection for a long time, as far back as when I returned to New Zealand from the UK in 1988, maybe earlier. It was always my desire to return to London, the city of my birth; not necessarily to live, just a visit to weigh up what constantly drew me there and whether my life in New Zealand measured up to the fantasy I had of what could have been. My life in New Zealand was always good. I was very lucky to spend so much of it in green suburban Auckland, to bring up a family in comfort and security, in a good sized house with a big garden. I have no regrets on that front; however the itch was always there.

My family emigrated to New Zealand from North Cheam on London’s southern fringe in February 1973. I was 11. It was a big wrench. I do not remember much of my life in North Cheam prior to leaving, details are vague, but I remember being happy. I have always put it down to a bad memory, but perhaps there is something deeper to it? We settled in the Auckland suburb of Blockhouse Bay and, apart from those couple of years back in London I did not live further than five miles away from there at any point over the next 40 years; until I ended up in London again.

I do not feel particularly English or British, even less so after the 2016 Brexit vote and how this nation and some of its people have responded to it. I do not particularly feel like a Kiwi either. I sort of identify as a British New Zealander, neither one nor the other, a non-committal, half way option, one that flips and flops depending on my mood and how I feel about each location. Right now the Kiwi in me is taking the lead.

A sense of belonging, of connection, is important, but seems to be less available, less of a feature in our lives than it was in for previous generations. I look at my parents, though my father is no longer with us, and I can see their connections, their tribes, and how important those things were to them, and still are for Mum. Whether they recognised them as important or not, I don’t know, I don’t ask. My intuition tells me that when you belong, have a sense of place and a community, you don’t realise it is there or how important it is, until it has gone.

Mum and Dad did pretty much the same jobs all their lives; Mum was a nurse and Dad worked with metal in the aircraft industry. Dad started work at Air New Zealand soon after we arrived in Auckland in 1973 and stayed with the same team until he retired. Mum worked in a variety of departments in Auckland hospitals until she too retired, returning to work part time for as long as she could. I suspect if we had not left the UK, their UK jobs would not have changed, at all.

Their workmates were their work tribe, work was one of their communities, a place they belonged. They went to church; different churches in the end, as their needs were different and their church community was a very important part of their lives, and for Mum it is still is. They had places they belonged, places that gave them security, contentment and purpose. The church was a key part of their social community; Dad mowed the lawn and did maintenance jobs at his church, Mum sings in the choir at hers. It was a place that offered joy, and a purpose outside of just being employees, parents and grandparents.

I believe this community thing, these tribes, are getting harder to create and maintain. I know I am not typical of my generation, career wise I am more typical of the following. I have worked for a lot of companies; in the 30 years I have been in IT I have had nine different employers, and one of those was for nine years. I have never built a work community, workmates come and go, and I can count on the fingers of one hand, with fingers left over, how many old work friendships I maintain. (Hi Jeff!). Work was never going to be a place of belonging, colleagues were not going to be one of my tribes; even though I liked most of the people I worked with.

I attended a church youth group for a few years, not as a particularly active participant in the religious stuff, it was place of friendship and some of those relationships formed in the late 70s and early 80s remain today. These are the people I routinely see when I go back to New Zealand. There is a shared history, a lot of us spent time in the UK in the mid to late 80s, our kids grew up together back in Auckland; we have common, often shared, experiences. They would be a bigger part of my community if I lived in Auckland.

In Auckland I had my social tribes, places I belonged, communities that were important to me, and occasionally, I was important to that community, happy places. I mountain biked for 10 years, before and during the boom, building tracks, joining and organising (mostly) non-competitive events. In the year or so before I went travelling, I was trail running with a fabulous bunch of people, leaders in what became a huge trail running community. I had the creative side covered and was heavily involved in a small photography group, organising and attending photo shoots with people I liked. Each aspect of my character was fed, supported and enhanced by people I wanted to be with; and of course I had my family around me as well.

So why did I leave? Leave these community, my place of belonging, my tribes, my normality?

The thing in the back of my mind that kept nagging about London, that place of my birth, never left me, it was never on the surface, but neither was it buried so deep I didn’t feel it rise every now and then. In 2007 I got ill with what turned out to be a large abscess growing on my liver; it was removed in a long piece of surgery, along with good sized chunk of liver. I was so unwell I was off work for seven weeks. The day after I started working part time, my dad got sick, passing away a few days later with a blood cancer he knew nothing about. As you can probably imagine, this was a life changing period, with illness and death finally coming to my attention in a direct and unwanted way.

I had been thinking about a visit to Europe as a 50th birthday present to myself for a long time and with life now seemingly more precarious and more precious all of a sudden this trip became more important to me. After my marriage ended, and the older two of my three children had left the country, life was a lot less complicated and there was time to think and reprioritise. I was a bit bored, a bit dissatisfied, and was feeling less like I belonged. I desperately wanted to travel; and to be honest I was single and wanted to meet someone new, and way outside my existing circles. When my youngest started work and was staying at his girlfriends house more often than mine it just seemed like the right time to take the leap towards something new.

Travel over, and the bug largely sated, I have been in London for eight years, most of those in Walthamstow with Eleanor, and in the main I am very happy. I have a good group of friends, a good job; in these Covid-19 circumstances, it has proven to be a very good job, and I now have my own place on the south coast in St Leonards-on-Sea. I am a lucky guy, accept….

I don’t have that feeling of belonging. I don’t have a tribe, a community, something that I feel I completely belong to. It’s not that I feel like I don’t belong, as this is not the case, I just don’t want my sense of belonging to be based around work or other formal structure. I want to belong to something a little different to before, I want to write and I want to take pictures and I want to have some simple recognition for both. I have been sucked into the world of social media, sharing photos and short messages, looking for the quick hit that comes from someone I admire liking something I created, inviting me briefly into their sphere. It comes rarely, the gap between rushes lengthening over time and the idea of belonging to that imagined elite group, no matter how small, just fades away; until the next rush. Rinse and repeat, as the (new) saying goes. No real community there.

I have a job, and that job comes with really nice people. My team are great and I don’t feel like I don’t belong in that team, but it is a different type of belonging. My boss and one of my peers, both of a similar age to me, have been in the department for decades. It is all they know. They belong and they BELONG. I know I am transiting, it is what I do, I will leave on good terms, and I will be replaced. Everyone will move on. No real community for me there.

Yes, I have good friends, our social group are lovely, and I feel nothing but warmth and welcome, but they are Eleanor’s friends and terrible as it sounds, I want some of my own as well, ones I have earned through shared interests and joys. Bonds of my own making.

One of the reasons I wanted to buy somewhere in a small town was to find a community I could insert myself into. I had (have) visions of mornings in a cafe or evenings in a pub talking politics, music or art, anything at all, with a group of regulars. A modern day, seaside Cheers, ‘where everyone knows your name’. I know this is fantasy, these places are rare or don’t exist. Rural or coastal villages that do have a sense of community have those communities through generations of living, of struggle and working together to overcome. They don’t want some London based foreigner turning up, buying a property and wanting instant acceptance.

When I bought the flat in this lovely Victorian building I live in I was hoping there would be a community of interest in the building, keeping it maintained and wonderful, chats on the stairs and a glass of wine in the garden. The reality is most people who live and own flats here don’t care. There are two occupied flats in my part of the block, I haven’t spoken to either of the residents all year, I haven’t even seen them to be truthful. There is little community spirit and shared experience happening there. There are some nice folk on the other side of the building, and the other directors on the board are interested and interesting, but like me most of them don’t live here. At least we have common purpose, to keep the building maintained, a shared ideal, a community of interest. It is just a lot of work.

I have found a bar I like, it is tiny and reasonably new, sells good beer, and is not overly busy, I like the owner and he knows my name (yay, Cheers). I was starting to feel at home there before covid-19, I am hoping it will open again; it is not a certain thing. It was a start of something I think, though basing my sense of belonging entirely on a bar is not such a good idea, it is not a community of like minded folk, just people who like beer.

I want to start building something, finding or starting a photography group being the most likely, but I am constantly wavering on where I (we) should live; I love London and El’s place and our friends in Walthamstow and I mostly love my flat and St Leonards, and a growing part of me would like us to live in New Zealand for a while. This uncertainty is not helping me develop my own circle of interest, my own community, my own tribes; what if I make one in the wrong place?

This may all sound like I am unhappy, and this is absolutely not the case. I just don’t feel I belong anywhere at the moment and I am struggling with this. This is my own fault, I am lazy and I lack confidence to get out and do something. The only person stopping me joining a photography group, or getting my mountain bike out and going to find people to ride with is me.