Although I have lived in my current house for over eight years, it is only now that I feel as though I belong. More precisely, when it comes to my house, my street, and my neighbourhood, I now feel we belong to each other. At work, which dominated my life for 40 odd years, I knew where I was, and lived a career that offered a strong sense of ‘nest’, and so security. Now I am retired it is different, my belonging relates solely to my home and my community, so making everything simpler and more wholesome.
The idea of not belonging in one’s own house is, perhaps, odd. Surely, if anywhere, belonging at home is immediate! Not for me. I am not talking about belonging in one’s family, that is a given. I refer to a belonging related to the building and its accessories. When we first arrived we were lodgers. On that day what happened was material – money changed hands, the vendors moved out, and we moved in. Moreover, the walls were bare, our goods were in boxes, and nothing was familiar. The house would not be ours until it had been fully appropriated. Gradually, every box was emptied (confession – there are still a few untouched in the attic!), every space was worked on to reflect our needs and tastes, key original features were restored, and our ornaments, pictures, and furniture were in place.
Then, last summer, the conservatory, the hub of family life, was re-built. Now the house is ours. Wherever I am, I feel completely at one with my surrounds, and moreover I like what I see. But our street is critical too. Not belonging here would be wretched. In this instance developing the feeling of belonging took about five years. Neighbours come and go, relationships evolve, and when we arrived there were at least two people who were ostracised. Now, however, the street ticks along nicely. It is difficult to know why it works. None are my close ‘friends’, but as a group we honour neighbourliness and respect personal privacy so it is, for instance, rare for me to go into a neighbour’s house. Yet at a simple but important level we matter to one another. We say our ‘good mornings’ and ‘good evenings’, borrow sugar or flour when needs be, and know if someone is ill or away. And when the snow falls this winter I know that the path will be quickly cleared by those who can.
Belonging also involves being part of the wider neighbourhood, and for me this means having local shops and cafes with which I have an accord, and (emotionally) close friends living nearby. And both of these I do.
My relationship with the local shops matters to me greatly. Where we live, the high street is bulging with branches of chain stores, and typically these are large and impersonal, with the staff always changing and who seem incapable of offering a service in any personal way. For these reasons amongst others, where I can I stick with local traders. What a difference! When I go to the paper shop it is ‘Hello Prof we have a copy of your paper for you’. At the chemist it might be (discretely) ‘Hello, Mr Collier, repeat prescription?’ and at the florist just before Christmas there was more. I bought some twigs of mistletoe and in keeping with the Christmas spirit held them above the head of Shelley – the bouquet and wreath maker – and gave her a Christmas kiss. I know her well, as I do Jeff the stall owner. On seeing this, he, a large jovial man well over six feet tall, came over and demanded a kiss too. We had a hug and the proverbial kiss and then we all broke into laughter. Both of us were surprised at what had happened but it worked, and if ever there was confirmation of belonging, there it was.
Finally – to friendships. Of my eight ‘best’ friends, five live within walking distance or are a short bus ride away. Interestingly, of these, three I have met in the last eight or nine years. As a group every two months or so most of us convene to discuss topics that interest. The last was – ‘Do we have too much choice?’; the next is -‘What should I do before I die?’ If there is anything that underpins my sense of belonging these close friendships are high on my list.
Belonging is so strengthening, and since my last house move and my retirement it has become a reality. In many ways it would have been nice if it had come sooner.