One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand,doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.
—Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p231
When I fished my copy out of my inbox and flipped to the little cat-sticker that served as my ‘come back here!’ marker, I glanced again and realized the marmalade tabby had “A” written on their belly.
For my A, as in, “Send this quote to her! Right away!”
In middle- and high-school, she was a committed chameleon. It was a little odd, in a way—striking Eurasian features, a waterfall of bright blonde hair, a carriage that inevitably caused people to say, “You should be a model-!” At 5’3″, that’d be a nope, though she did once walk the runway for a student fashion show, looking as dagger-sharp as any woman on a Parisian catwalk.
But that’s kind of the point. She’d seen how ‘catwalk’ worked; she ‘did catwalk.’ When we visited London, she was all smoky eye, poker-face, and red wool overcoat (hip-length). In Austin, she looked as if she’d stepped out of the Austin City Limits Music Festival marketing materials. She did. not. want. to. be. seen.
Which has always made me sad and worried. Because I know that being-not-seen quickly becomes being-not-known… being erased as a person. It’s hard to accept how loved you are when you’re convinced that what’s being loved is the façade.
I’ve often wondered if I’m the only parent in the world to have had shouting fights about never believing that, and always loving her as is. (Screaming how much you love someone: surreal.) Perhaps the screaming worked; I’m certainly being treated to increasing amounts of retroactive truthfulness as she’s slipped into the Land of the Post-21. I don’t see her often enough in situ to let go of my worry, though.
When I went through the agonies of that growing-up transition, I didn’t have her luxury of fitting in. I never did manage to unlock that door; the attempts I made were always off-kilter, and when I became a bully’s focal point I gave up entirely. It eventually pushed me through to the other side of the mirror: I am, unalterably, who I am; you can take me as is, or leave me as is—because those are the only options I offer.
I suspect this has inadvertently made me a role model for belonging.
When I stood on the other side of my suicide attempt, I began to see that much of what had felt “too”—too silly, too childish, too wonky, too bright, too much—was not nearly as problematic as being dead.
It’s a blunt instrument, but a useful one. If I love to move my body as I listen to loud music, what difference does it make whether I’m dancing in any defined way? Funnily enough, during the last few dances I’ve gone to I’ve had someone approach me and tell me how much they’d enjoyed watching me dance. I’m pretty sure it’s because I let my love and abandon well up and spill over.
And belonging, to me, comes from that same well. I am as God made me, in all my imperfections and vagaries. As used to be said about freckles: they make me cute. My oddities and particularities bubble up and spill over, creating a pool everyone around me is welcome to splash in. Which they seem to enjoy.
Having never fit in, I make it easier for others to take a deep breath and just be. By doing what I’ve always done: being me.