SEARCHING FOR SEOUL 12 (A chapter from the new book)- BELONGING
When you hear the word, belong; what is the very first thought that pops into your mind?
For me, the first word after belong is; don’t. I don’t belong. After reading the very first book I’d ever written, someone told me, I can tell through your writing that you’re a well-loved girl. And I took that to mean that I write about love well because I have been so well-loved myself. And I have. I know that I have. But to feel like I belonged where I was planted? That, I did not know until I met my husband. I don’t think anything is more important to a person’s well-being than the knowledge that they are loved. But the sense of belonging--I think that comes awfully close.
I like looking up the definition of words sometimes. It’s a helpful practice when I want to clarify my feelings or thoughts. When I look-up belong, there are several words that pop-out at me. Words like: to be suitable, appropriate; to be attached by birth, allegiance, or dependency; to be a member of a club; to be properly classified.
That last bit really gets my attention. "To be properly classified." The main definition of classified is, "arranged in groups with similar things". Well gee, the definition alone indicates why I didn’t feel as though I belonged. I was not“arranged in groups with similar things.” I was in fact, arranged in groups with things that did not originally belong to me or with me. I was like a donated organ, trying to pump life into a body that was not my own, ready to be rejected at any moment without the right care and attention.
I think I have spent half of my life worrying that my brother and sister would experience something like that too. Organ rejection. But I was so overcome by my own longing to belong when I was younger, I don’t remember doing much about their challenges. There’s no doubt they had a rougher time adjusting than I did. Wallflowers don’t exactly leap off the page, but they don’t get bullied or picked-on either. I was an average, awkward, teenager. My despondency and loneliness was a battle I fought quietly with engrossing books and make-out sessions with boyfriends in darkening basements and cramped cars. My way to cope with feeling adrift was escape.
It wasn’t until I was out of college that I had any clue how tough grade school had been for my little brother. In my eyes, he had always possessed the best chance of belonging. He was involved in all those extracurricular activities, was much brighter than me, and to top it all off, he had all the academic and cultural advantages of being exposed to the land of the free since before he could even talk. He was even taller than me for goodness sakes. All that milk! All that red meat! All that spaghetti!
Looking back, it’s easier to spot my sister’s unhappiness. She liked to wear her hoody like a pull-over face-mask, hide behind layers of black clothes, dark eye-liner, the electric blue streaks in her pitch-black hair. I didn’t understand why she seemed so unhappy all the time, why she cringed so much, why she started calling mom and dad by their given names. She was the pretty one, the funny one, the one that used to run into my room late at night when she heard me crying in my sleep. The strong one. The hurt I saw in her eyes was uncomfortable and I’m sure I looked forward to running away to college, far, far, from home so I could avoid whatever change had come over her so that I didn’t have to worry about her--as though proximity alone could prevent that.
My mom and I spent hours compiling a master family photo album this past year. It was a mammoth task; involved rooting through bins of forgotten photos and engaged mind-numbing efforts to place them in some sort of chronological order. What I gleaned from this project (other than the mental note to start tackling my own photo boxes now), was the reminder that our childhoods were actually--very happy. Nearly every photo was of the three of us smiling, or laughing, or doing something fun. We looked exuberant in those pictures--poster kids for adoption.
I guess the natural question to ask would then be, what happened? Maybe you’re one of those selfless humans who adopted, or maybe you’re an adoptee yourself, seeking answers of your own. When did we go from those brightly smiling kids to the withdrawn or angry ones we became in later years? I have a theory about that. I think everything changed for us the year we moved from Sioux Center, Iowa, to Anoka, Minnesota.