On Belonging

Recently, I received official notification that the decision has been made to grant me citizenship in Latvia. I have a number. I am a citizen of this land. I belong here. The place of my ancestors. Holy shit.

As I have been waiting for that decision, I have felt many things: Fear, uncertainty, uselessness, frustration, confusion, helplessness. A feeling of, “What the hell am I doing here?” I realized how much power was held over me by the threat of institutional rejection. I felt some of the layers of privilege that I enjoy in the United States disappear. I felt compassion for immigrants; both my ancestors, and all the others across the globe. I understood the search for belonging, and the exhaustion of that search.

In the meantime, something else has happened.

I’ve been tending a fire everyday; bringing wood in from outside, to keep our house warm. In fact, I have a place that I call “our house,” and it is often filled with music, the smells of cooking, and children.

I know where everything is at the local supermarket, and how the snowy streets curve and crunch under my feet on my walk there. I know which spots are likely to be more icy, and which parts are better suited for dancing steps. I can tell how cold it is by the quality of the snow, and I can tell the quality of the snow by the color of the tree branches.

I missed my weekly visit to the local wine merchant this wednesday because I didn’t accompany my 6-yr old friend to his dance class across the street. I felt some sadness, and I feel eager to return to say hello. I recognize the kids and parents at the dance class, and at kindergarten. I notice most of the parents keep to themselves, and I wonder why.

There is a three-year-old girl who is learning my language, as I am learning hers. She knows how I like to lay on the floor and dance, and I know how she likes to hang over my legs and breathe. We have a ritual of putting on her outdoor winter clothes that involves tickling, laughter, and a mix of resistance and surrender. I respect her emotions, and she knows that I think it is okay to be angry...but that I will not be very playful if my feelings are hurt. Sometimes we hide together under the covers and listen to our breath, or sing a Latvian lullaby that inhabits a precious place in both of our childhoods.

I can walk through the train station in a hurry and know where I am going. I have taken the tram in the wrong direction enough times to know which direction things actually are without having to think about it. I know which direction I am facing when I stand outside, and what land lies in each direction.

I have begun to overcome my fear of being the “strange foreigner” who smiles on the street; in fact, I almost offered chocolate to a woman sitting across from me on the train last week. Almost.

I have walked in cemeteries, and sat in coffee shops. I have listened to the wind in the bare trees, to languages, and stories. I have understood a little more about why people don’t just walk around smiling. I have felt some of the pain.

I have prayed in a palace that was bombed and rebuilt. I have danced by the frozen river. I have watched the moon through a full cycle. I have seen the bare ground emerge from beneath the snow; and put my hands on it to give thanks. I have made two Birch friends that I visit daily, even when I’m in a bad mood and I don’t stick around long.

I have seen the haunting walls of what used to be the prison. I have felt the painful walls in my own heart. I have softened some of them.

I have ascended the central tower which was one of the only structures left standing during the bombing, because it could serve as a lookout for the occupying army. I can picture generations of people in the streets. I can feel the stories. I can hear my grandparents.

I have questioned what I am doing here. I have felt my longing to contribute. I have felt respect for the past generations here and I feel invested in the future ones. I want the people here to be happy, to feel free. I want to be of service. I yearn, with my whole heart, to feel useful.

I think Belonging is a feeling. I think it is deeper and more complex than a citizenship number. But there is a security that comes with such institutional acceptance; a security that thousands, nay millions, of people seek across the globe. “Can I stay here? Will my children be safe? Will I be forced to flee at any given moment? Will I be persecuted? Or will you give me the chance to explore what it means to belong here? To learn the nuances of the land, of the weather, the language, and the people? Will you give me the chance to understand how I fit in here? Will you give me the chance to discover what I have to offer here?”

I did not intend to write about foreign affairs, immigration, politics, or border control. But I know, from my own experience, that walls separate us. Walls harden our heart. Walls create fear, and resentment.

Belonging brings a sense of freedom, of choice. It evokes an attitude of respect for the place where one has been given the chance to belong. A curiosity about, and a kind of kinship with, the people of this place. Belonging evokes an allyship, a devotion; an impulse to protect, to act on behalf of. For me, it brings a desire to be of service.

Yes, I bring with me the customs and history of other lands. I have with me the inspiration from other teachings, other spiritual traditions, other music and other dances. I bring with me a love for the California white sage, the Irish open-hearted humor, the Italian language, and the Icelandic horses. I carry white American privilege, and a deep sorrow for the historical violence, oppression and racism that my privilege rests on. I maintain a devotion to the reform of the American educational system, and the young people I have been honored to mentor. In my heart, mind, and body, I feel an almost painful love for the lands I have walked, tended, explored, cried on, and gotten lost in. I feel a passionate defense and advocacy for the natural world that I know and love.

But why should these things separate me?

Can I not have room in my heart for more love? For more music, more dances, more stories, more young people, more trees, more languages, more prayers? More inspiration, more devotion, more advocacy, more understanding?

I don’t want to threaten. I don’t want to take.

I want to give. I want to love. I want to be of service. I want to belong.

Thank you, Latvia, for giving me that chance. For welcoming me home.

_____

I devote this article to my ancestors, and to the well-being of all those seeking refuge around the world. May you feel welcomed, somewhere.

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