The sense of belonging is a tricky thing. One minute it’s there, the next minute it can be gone as if it never existed.
Many of us get our sense of belonging from other people, but for me it’s always been tied to place. Monday morning as I sat down to write this, it started to rain. Even though it was brief, I was instantly grounded. I belong where it rains.
Last week I went to Sonoma County where my family lives. Family is an ambiguous category for belonging: we know we belong with them by definition, though our adult selves may have outgrown the baby box we sometimes find ourselves stuck within. Elbowing out room in that box for our whole selves to fit can take time and effort as well as grace. Yet at one time our whole selves lived in that baby box, and sometimes we discover the parts we’ve shucked trying to get along in this fragmented world.
On my last trip to Mom’s, I discovered a sense of belonging to the roads I’ve traveled to get there over five decades. From three different points of departure I have made my way there as if it were home, though I’ve never lived there. Now, from this arid land on the eastern edge of the Tulare Lake Basin, I head north, crossing first dry river beds, then slack rivers and creeks, the landscape growing lusher by the mile. By the time I exit Hwy 99 at Lodi at the southern edge of the Delta, the trees are healthy. When I reach the coast range and start winding through its hills and valleys, the roadside weeds are in full flower and sumptuous with the smells of summer. It feels more like where I belong than where I left.
And it’s where I might have ended up had my “Berkeley experience” (as they call it in the alumni magazine) just stayed with making me some kind of professional in environmental planning. But I was never called to that, although I was lured. Instead, in Paul Taylor’s office I heard the song of four rivers—Kings, Kaweah, Tule, Kern—and one giant, misused, missing lake. And though I tried as hard as Jonah to avoid this destination, the song won. This is where I belong, though many of the people I live among find it odd, do not agree, or wish it were not so.
So I have great sympathy for people who live among people who think they do not belong there. For Blacks in the South, whose ancestors were brought there involuntarily to be slaves for landed whites, the continuing challenge to their sense of belonging is crazy-making in my mind. For Mexicans here, who have a similar challenge to their right to exist both at home and in this foreign land, the insanity is little different. And now, with the post-pandemic rent crisis exploding in our cities, no tenant below the national median income is safe from becoming instantly homeless. With no place to lay one’s head, the sense of belonging can disappear in a heartbeat.
The news last week about the Texas truckload of mostly dead people from south of the border reminded me of a song by Joel Rafael, the standard bearer of Woody Guthrie’s music. Called “Sierra Blanca Massacre,” it tells the story of a young man who leaves Mexico in similar circumstances and ends up dead in a locked boxcar with other illegal immigrants. Giving name and voice to the young man is the purpose of the song, and he speaks of loving the land on both sides of the border. But despite his abandonment of family, friends, and home, which causes him shame, he sings of Mexico “a piece of the sky still belongs to me.” Place continues to hold his sense of belonging even when landless and he feels he’s given up his right to belong socially.
One thing I love about the Ukrainians is that they know this Russian invasion is challenging their right to belong to their land. It’s not just their emotional well-being under savage uprooting, but their physical survival as well. When we know we belong to a place, we have half a chance of surviving the onslaughts of those who think land is just property, extractable economic resources, and rights-of-way. I hope we can learn from them.
Trudy Wischemann is a Washingtonian re-placed in the Tulare Lake Basin. You can send her your stories of belongingness c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.