Creating a Culture of Belonging: Riffs on Time, Place, and Co-creating Space

This whole post is going to be a freestyle; inspired by bell hooks and her book Belonging: A Culture of Place and Little Light’s amazing post on vulnerability. In fact, I’ll just say now that one of the reasons I don’t post more often is because I’m self-conscious about always having to “get it right”—wordsmithing in just the right way, organizing my thoughts into some kinda coherent blend that others can understand, all on the cold, hard ground of the typewritten landscape, unmodified by hands/eyes/lips/tongue/posture/tone/breath/physicality of any sort. It ain’t easy. Well, not for me. Somewhere in the back of my mind is the belief that I have to come correct; be twice/three/x times as good just to be worthy of the written page. And against a cultural background that doesn’t condone showing weakness or vulnerability of any kind; especially not revealing oneself or one’s family. Don’t speak of something bad/it will happen. Don’t speak of something good/it won’t happen. Keep your own counsel. Keep to your family. Keep within.

The time I was reading Belonging, I was also reading and being inspired by the Rethinking Walking series, and saw a lot of it in the light of…walking as a spiritual practice, of re/discovering the pleasure of contemplative movement, re/experiencing nature as freedom, a center of healing, a center of a power greater than that of the oppressor, a contrast to dominator culture, witnessing symbiosis, integration, diversity…….and that led me back into the themes bell hooks explored in her book: choosing to stay, to build/upon, to deeply, intimately entwine yourself with a place despite the pain because….wherever you go, there you are. The pain comes with you. Rootedness has a power, too. Which is a strange statement to be coming from someone who says, …carry home in my heart, not under my feet…. But there you go.

Hooks quotes this definition of a culture of belonging from Carol Lee Flinders’ book Rebalancing the World”:

“…intimate connection with the land to which one belongs, empathic relationship to animals, self-restraint, custodial conservation, deliberateness, balance, expressiveness, generosity, egalitarianism, mutuality, affinity for alternative modes of knowing, playfulness, inclusiveness, nonviolent conflict resolution and openness to spirit.”

That’s a big contrast to life-as-usual from where I stand, with covering, protection, adrenaline-heightened senses, focusing on the nitty-gritty of daily survival in an alternately anonymous/hostile background. Hooks mentioned being influenced by the “nature worshipping ecstatic mystical spirituality of the backwoods”, in contrast with the doctrinal fundamentalism of formal church services….just from growing up in, experiencing the freedom of childhood in the woods.

That brought to mind Vine DeLoria’s God Is Red and his critiques of the spiritual bankruptcy of modern U.S. christian worship that he traced in large part to the divorce between land and belonging. Brought to mind Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets and the female-directed worship of Dionysius that encouraged women to drop everything—all the daily grind of household responsibilities—to play music and dance in the woods. Both the pagan and christian patriarchs had this in common: they knew the power of nature to speak to us, with us….and they did their best to limit this rapport lest its influence lead to disobedience.

Obedience. There’s the rub. So much of running from belonging is active resistance to a dysfunctional obedience. An obedience not borne of power-within but power-over. In Belonging, hooks spoke frankly and at length about what drove her from Kentucky: racism, separatism, white supremacist violence, classism, sexism. But also of what kept whispering to her from back “home”, salvaged her spirit amidst the culture shock of leaving to attend school in California; how she kept braided tobacco and her grandmother’s quilt as talismans of home. Of belonging.

Culture of belonging. Interbeing. Fancy way of saying what the labor movement still calls Solidarity when we’ve remembered our voice. That an injury to one is an injury to all. That we’re all in this together, like it or not. That a certain mutuality exists independent of our individual needs or desires. That reciprocity is inherent to life. We can acknowledge it, act on it, but can’t escape it no matter how far we go.

One of the things that has always drawn me to the labor movement is the frank admission of this mutuality. This ‘all for one and one for all’. I find it absent from mainstream feminism, with its (seeming, to me anyway) emphasis on individuality, individual solutions, individual choices, individual options, all the focus on the self, as if we exist apart from one another, spring forth fully formed out of our own heads. I think: “but we don’t all have the same power to fight against the wall of institutions by ourselves. we don’t have the same range of choices. our choices don’t happen in a vacuum. they come from who we are, where we came from, how we move in this world. we come from ancestries, cultures, histories, generations. we contain multitudes.” Where mainstream feminism leaves me cold is the emphasis on this individuality; the (seeming, to me anyway) assumption that individuality is freedom. Mierda! I’m a single mother. An only child. One of few women in a trade of men. Everything I fucking do I do alone. You know? And all this holding up the world on my solitary shoulders feels like a burden to me. I’m supposed to be excited about a movement that tells me (metaphorically), “yeah! stand on your own two feet some more, sister!” Bah! I get tired of running point. I want a movement comprised of others standing shoulder-to-shoulder shouting “we shall not be moved.”

Which brings me to Little Light’s next fabulous post. And I’m trying to do the exercise, and I can’t. Oh, I can think of things I want, but not without focusing a whole lot of energy and description on the shit I want to lose. Like: “I want a wholistic life, an even pace, space to breathe, space to be….NOT moving frantically from one crisis to the other and being worn out/ground down/beat to a fucking pulp and still coming up for more…” It’s really difficult. In the daily grind, I don’t have much time to carve out space to breathe. Space for myself, where I don’t have to get anything done. Space where I can revel in the joy of being alive. That’s key. It’s something my mother never had. And now she’s….the cancer has really spread in her liver, and she’s off the experimental chemo, and we’re taking a family trip to Chicago next month so my daughter can be a tourist—my mom wants to share some of her favorite places in Chicago with her granddaughter, while she still can. My mom, who spent her whole life being one of the women who let the good clothes hang in the closet, the good china stay in the cabinet (the china she bought on time as a young woman), the good cologne stay on the dresser…you get the idea.

I want everyone in the world to see with the eyes of an artist. To see beauty in this imperfect world.

I want everyone in the world to be loved, valued, cherished, supported. To have their talents developed. Their thoughts and emotions valued, not one over the other, but valued and recognized in conjunction.

I want a wholistic life, where all aspects feed into and nurture all the parts of my being in one coherent whole.

I want to feel free enough to not censure or edit everything I say or do. I want everyone to feel that freedom.

I want everyone to go to sleep with a full stomach in a warm, safe bed.

I want a nurturing community, a web of life, a place to lay our burdens down. I want many hands to make light work.

I want a culture of belonging. Solidarity that affirms our similarities and our differences.

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2 comments for “Creating a Culture of Belonging: Riffs on Time, Place, and Co-creating Space

  1. ripley
    September 18, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    yes. solidarity.

    sending good wishes to you and your mother.

    Also, maybe related, one thing that struck me about Chicago was the investment the city had made in some kinds of public spaces- places where people could come together (for free) and just enjoy the city for a while. NOt all of it by any means, but those spaces meant a lot to me.

  2. September 18, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    oh, i love this post. i wish i had something more interesting to say. but i just really love this post.

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