I Was Here First: On Belonging.

In Maine, you’re either from here, or you’re from away.  Those that are from here have no trouble telling you you’re from away.  In fact, they will likely tell you before your first sip of beer, as they are already on their second pint.  They don’t care that it was your grandparents who first settled here.

“It can’t happen in just a generation or two,” John told me down in Cornish, a small town in the Southwest corner.  He’s owned his music store there that we played last Saturday night since 1974.  “You’ve got to have had family here for much longer than me.”  Charlene, his wife, is from here.  She inherited her grandparents’ house, who worked hard for it after their parents settled here.  Marriage is not a transferable ticket for being-from-here.

I don’t belong anywhere, but Maine is one of my favorite states.  I’ve had long dreams of becoming a waitress in a diner someday when I’m hard on my luck and need a place to recover in solitude.  I’ve got a bad attitude and nothing to lose, and potentially a dark secret that the town can only wonder… but, hell, if I ain’t a good worker.  In that alternate life, I don’t contest that I don’t belong there.  It’s part of the a-stranger-comes-to-town narrative.

But I don’t need anyone to tell me so.

netsIn Bangor, we woke up in a movie theater parking lot in hopes of catching an early showing of the latest superhero movie before our show that night in Ellsworth.  I love superheros, but I’m late to the game.  I didn’t grow up in Batman pajamas, or even attempt to care about Saturday morning cartoons that contained anyone with a flimsy mask and a cape.  I didn’t belong there.

Until someone told me I belonged.

By my late twenties, I’d taken to reading graphic novels– but only the kinds about the oppression of women in Pakistan, or the illustrated retelling of the life of Margaret Sanger.  You know, important stuff.  Stuff that didn’t group me into the nerd category.

My comic-curiosity appeared to my friend as a cry for help.  So one night, after babysitting his cute kid, he handed me the start of the New 52 Wonder Woman series.

“Just try it,” he said. “I think it might be what you’re looking for.”

“Oh, I don’t really do comics,” I said.

“You will.”

I came back the next week, strung out from lack of sleep and asking for more.

“This stuff is for everyone,” Justin said, checking his stash to see what else he could entrust with me. “You belong here.”

timeIt goes like this–

I spent half of my childhood laughing at jokes, some I didn’t know the meaning of, because it is good to laugh, and laughing makes me part of something.  Until I was told that the joke isn’t for me.  In fact, the joke is on me.

I then spent my next two decades holding my laughter carefully, just in case it wasn’t meant for me.  I scan the jokes in the ridges of my brain, ensuring its intent, its audience, its landing before letting out what is now a deflated, dissatisfying chortle.

It also goes like this–

As a kid, I am generous with my tears.  I dole them out for other peoples’ parents splitting up, for the evening news, for the broken robin eggs on the sidewalk.  I name and write poems for the dead German Shepherd I found on the railroad tracks.  I am an endless source of empathy.  And then I am told that it’s not mine to carry.  That I am too sensitive.  That I don’t belong with those who are grieving, because the grief isn’t mine.

I then spent the next two decades churning each devastation carefully inside, allowing it to filter through the cogs and see if I have any right to elicit a single tear.  I hear myself say, “I’m sorry to hear that,” but feel nothing inside.

There’s a traffic jam of feelings inside, and they are separating me further from anywhere I might belong.

keepoutI am calling bullshit on belonging.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

I suspect this isn’t just for the benefit of those who are rejoicing and weeping directly.  You are laughing or crying, too?  You belong here.  You’re laughing and crying because you haven’t been given adequate tools or space to express your empathy for decades for fear of making a fool of yourself and being outcast?

Oh, yeah, you definitely belong.

I do, too.

sexiststuffThere’s a funny scene with a taco and a spaceship in the new superhero movie.  I laughed so hard I got a popcorn kernel caught in my throat.  I didn’t have to assess if there was more to the joke or not.  Taco spaceship physical comedy is hilarious no matter who you are.

Two nights later, just before our show in Stockholm, Maine, my Someone told me that one of my favorite Christian social defenders died at 37.  I took the news stoically, beginning to assess the appropriate reaction for someone who I don’t know personally.  I tried to measure my grief to the correct ratio compared to, say, her grieving husband and children.  I scrolled Twitter to find out how others, more worthy than me, were responding, so I could respond to a lesser degree, being that I am not a Christian, nor a regular Tweeter.

Then, I stopped and just felt sad.  With everyone else.  If you’re feeling sad, too, you belong here.

We trudged downstairs to the bar for dinner, where a from-here man sat next to me, talking to the guy next to him.  I chewed slowly and read my book, their conversation getting louder and drifting onto my pages.

“You’re not from here, are you,” the Maine man said.  It wasn’t really a question.

“Well,” the other man said, “no, I’m from Connecticut, but…”

The Maine man laughed audibly and shook his head.

“…but!” the Connecticut man said, “I’m 60 years old!  I think I’ve been around long enough to learn just a little bit…”

It was too late.  The Maine man finished his second pint and turned straight ahead.  The conversation was over.

He looked my way.  I stared steadily at my book.  According to him, I wouldn’t belong either.  He hollered to the bartender in a familiar way, lurched from the barstool and left.  An ease replaced his space.

So maybe it goes like this–

Belonging here is to laugh and cry.  But sometimes, it’s just to take up space at the bar with whoever else is there.  It seems that those who are busy deciding who belongs and doesn’t belong squeeze themselves out of belonging themselves.  Even if their great-great-grandparents were here first.

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