Thoughts on Belonging

I collected my alumni card today. 112 days after submitting my Masters dissertation to #CityLIS, 85 days after finding out I got a Distinction, and 4 days after graduation.

It feels large. I didn’t expect to feel any sort of way about it at all and had assumed I was simply going through the post-graduation motions… but then the card was handed to me, and the lovely blueness of it, with my name against it in white, made me blink. I didn’t know I’d write about it and in fact I hardly ever blog – I often want to, but then I stop myself. Odd, for someone whose first degree was Creative Writing. However, it feels appropriate tonight: not only am I thinking a lot about the changing sands of where I belong and what I’m going to do next, but I have been actively thinking for six months or so now about why I focus so much on understanding notions and feelings of belonging.

I like these two cards. There are three types of belonging held within them. First, a physical, direct, bodily one, represented in red, the validity of that belonging having expired in October 2021. This was one that permitted me to enter and situate my body within a physical, bricks and mortar building, giving me access to certain rooms and levels, and permissions to borrow any information I wanted, ask any questions I wanted, poke any theories I wanted. Then there is a halfway, liminal belonging, one that begins in blue nostalgia and ends in December 2024, that permits me to approach the library desk to half-apologetically enquire, as I did today, what my access to resources will be from now on (turns out, not much, but there are other ways to acquire books and papers that excite me). There is also still, in principle, a bodily belonging here – access to a ‘place’, albeit one used far less than when the red card was in play: the physical space of the library is still mine should I want it. Then, at the end of 2024, the physical validity expires altogether and a historical (yet still nostalgic) belonging replaces it. This is belonging as an idea rather than as a place; one of memories, senses, and snippets of past knowledges that will rise in my mind when something current stirs them. It will be the feeling rising in my chest, and the slow turn of my head, every time I am on the number 4 or 56 bus going past City campus. This again, is also still a bodily belonging – but now only insofar as physical reactions and feelings to memories are concerned – not as a ‘place’ for my body to ‘be’.

One of the main themes of my final dissertation project was belonging. A lot of my work up till then has been about belonging too, and much about ‘the body’ – my body, all of our bodies, yes yours too: our bodies individually and also what happens when we put them together in the same spaces. This study was specifically in relation to public libraries though: how we navigate to and from them, why we do, who they’re for, and how they ease loneliness within marginalised and vulnerable populations. My own story is – briefly – within it as an autoethnographical element… again, my body asserted itself stubbornly, asked to be witnessed. That was not my plan for the study at all and it came as a surprise at the time, but this is something that amuses me now, as clearly on some level I am a bit obsessed with asserting and situating my body.

I have spent the last 22 years of my life – since emancipating myself from the foster care system like a teenage bulldozer on speed and with the loud proclamation of “I am fucking done with this shit and you can all piss off” – lumbering from one place or notion of belonging to the next; sometimes with a modicum of grace and self-control, and sometimes like an inelegant, floor-slapping klaxon. These places and notions have ranged wildly: ideological movements, activist and campaign groups, countless jobs, voluntary work, lovers, relationships, friendships, community projects, recovery groups, gardening groups, public libraries, benefits offices, doctors offices, caffs, park benches, writing communities, hospitals, hostels – and universities. I have, as a result, slowly developed a keen and ever-growing awareness of how important physical spaces are to me – especially public libraries, the great leveller, the only places I have ever been able to regain my breath during difficult times – and how much I like to feel as if I belong to something, to have something to navigate towards. I am also now more aware of my razor-sharp insistence on community and collaboration, and what drives it – one body, alone too much for too long, felt like dying. These awarenesses interest me a lot and push me to gently inquire within; and they make me excited to see where, or possibly what, my next ‘place’ of belonging will be. I am grateful to this degree for allowing me to explore this more, to look at it, to hold it up for inspection both by myself and others. To do this Masters was a gift, a chance to produce something within a framework of academic accountability and supervision that focussed me and shoved me forward through fear, which I would not have otherwise been able to access. A lovely, brilliant thing; a blessing.

Ultimately, I collected this alumni card because I enjoy the memory of #CityLIS; the knowledge that from 2019 to 2021 it was one of the main ‘places’ that I belonged to. And there is something very comforting about the physicality of a blue card, and the smell of the plastic, that makes me smile – in the same way as a physical book, as opposed to a Kindle, does.

I also know that as soon as I find the next thing to belong to, to insert myself into, to insist that I am witnessed in – I will file this lovely little blue plastic card away in one of my archive boxes, next to the red one, after turning it over in my hand for a while. And I’ll think to myself: well, that was a nice chapter, was it not?

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