On the technical aspects of belonging and membership

[At the beginning of September 2003 I was informed by my landlady that she wanted to sell the apartment I had been renting from her for almost five years, and that I had to be out of the place by the end of the month. This essay was written after a few weeks of packing and preparing the new place for habitation.]


It was an exceptional experience at the end, this business of moving to another place. It cast an interesting and illuminating light on things I had been contemplating before I got the call to pack up and move. I refer of course – no surprises here – to the issues of identity and belonging. The difference is the experiences of this month have been concrete, with the academic value a boring sideshow.

I was confronted this month with the very real fact that I no longer belong – for the time being, and relative to a particular environment.

As I wandered through my apartment during the past few days, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I no longer belong in a place that has become synonymous with the daily reality that I belong, for now, on this island. This structure, these dilapidated walls, the four windows that never allowed enough fresh air in my life, the front door that scrapes against the dull, unpolished marble floor, the front porch with old cigarette butts and unopened mail in one corner, the familiar path between the front door, my “office”, the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, and back to the front door, was where I belonged for the past nearly five years. I did not belong at the neighbours’ house. I did not belong at the 7-Eleven, or in any other place in this city, this country, or in this world more than I belonged in this stuffy, dimly lit apartment. (Perhaps I exaggerate the “dark apartment” thing a bit for the sake of dramatic effect. Natural sunlight did sometimes penetrate the interior. I also had several electric lights, which did make the well-trodden path visible. And did I not experience many moments of intellectual enlightenment in this place?)

The fact remains I don’t belong here anymore. And it has nothing to do with identity, religion, or a vague understanding of the universe. (Or does it?)

Needless to say, an unpleasant sensation has gotten hold of my throat because of this suspended sense of belonging. And I suppose that’s where understanding makes a difference. If someone rushes at you and complains of an unpleasant sensation in the part of his anatomy where you know his stomach is located, it will be a pleasure for you to explain to this fool that he only needs to stuff his mouth with deep-fried calamari: Hunger is the problem, food is the answer. (Unless of course you’re wrong, and he’s actually complaining about a knife wound in his lower abdomen.)

In the case of my own unpleasant sensation, I could reassure myself with the explanation that I’m only experiencing a reduced sense of my place in the world, and that it is a normal reaction to a temporary situation. I could go further and say that I already have another place; that my sense of where I belong, will be restored promptly.

Still, there was no way I could allow such a rare, concrete manifestation of uncertainty to get away without milking it to the last drop of anxiety …

MYSELF: “If you say another place you obviously refer to the apartment in Benevolent Light New Village, right?”

ME: “Yes. You’ll move all your stuff there tomorrow, and next week you will feel completely at home.”

MYSELF: “Why?”

ME: “Because all your stuff will be there! And you’ll have your own front door again, and more windows than you can count!”

MYSELF: “There are sixteen windows. I counted them.”

ME: “Well, there you have it! Your sense of where you belong shall be restored before you can say existential angst. You’ll even have a view of the neighbour’s kitchen.”

MYSELF: “It’s not my apartment. It belongs to someone who’s doing my employer a favour by renting the apartment to me.”

ME: “Yes, I know. But it will be yours for all practical purposes, at least for a few months.”

MYSELF: “But I don’t belong there. Not like you belong on your own patch of land, where you can sleep between the cabbages if you like.”

ME: “It’s true … But do we ever belong anywhere for an indefinite period of our existence? Or are we strangers most of the time, running from one place to another – belonging here, not belonging there? And at the end of the day we rush ‘home’ because that’s where we think we belong – amongst our own people? What happens if that doesn’t work out? What happens if the relationships at ‘home’ are dysfunctional to such an extent that we feel we don’t belong there either? Do we keep roaming like the animals we are? Do we just keep fighting for our daily survival, for our right to a dignified life? Do we keep sniffing around in a desperate attempt to pick up a vaguely familiar scent? We are defenceless animals, for crying out loud! What more do you want?”

MYSELF: “Maybe I just wanted to hear that. Maybe I just wanted to hear it doesn’t always work out. That one should be grateful when things do work out, and when you indeed feel as if you belong somewhere. Because you know nothing lasts forever, and if you can just enjoy the good things of life for one day, and then another … it’s better than to never have had it at all. Love doesn’t last forever. Neither does life. At some time or another in your life, you will inevitably experience loss, and a reduced sense of your place in the world. How you handle it when it comes your way … this, this is what gives you a sense of security.”

ME: “Make the most of what you have while you have it?”

MYSELF: “Yes. I guess that’s what it comes down to. To hold collar against the wind. To fight for survival, and if you survive, to continue fighting for the best you can get. And when things work out for you, to share the good you have with other people. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

ME: “And never forget life is fragile? That death in the end conquers all? That all of us will eventually return to dust?”

MYSELF: “Well … if you view human beings merely as a collection of meat and bone sniffing around for a place to lay down its head at the end of the day, I guess you can remind yourself of all of that.”

ME: “And … you should also try to find a mate with whom you can make a contribution to the survival of this wretched species, or what?”

MYSELF: “Hmm … aren’t there a few boxes left we can shuffle around?”

And so another few drops fall in the pail …