...on Belonging & Memories: the Summer of '09

One of my best friends is currently travelling in Israel, something he does every year. He texted me the other day saying “Something about this place just makes me so at ease”. And even though I’ve never been to Israel, I knew exactly what he meant. And this got me thinking about places that make me at ease, places that give me a sense of belonging. To be honest, I don’t have any answers about belonging, or feeling at home. I’m someone who left my place of birth at 17 years old and never looked back, always searching for some kind of sense of being, of belonging, of deep understanding. I’ve spent long periods of time in the US, Scotland, and England. Through the years, I’ve experienced both deep belonging and deep disconnection in each of those places. I’ve felt both at home and displaced in each of those places. For me, the concept of home, is often attached to people and experiences, rather than places. Even now, as I ponder about my future in the UK, I have no idea where I could go next. I haven’t felt drawn to anywhere in particular, in many, many years.

As I thought about all of this, and felt some nostalgia, some longing, some hope, some curiosity, I kept thinking about my time in the USA, in both 2004 and 2009. The USA holds a very special place in my heart. Growing up, it always held the symbolism of hopes and dreams for me, and when I finally received a scholarship that enabled me to move to Great Falls/McLean, Virginia, at the tender age of 17, I was honestly beside myself! I still remember this moment at Lisbon’s airport, when my whole family was crying, and I couldn’t quite understand why, because I felt so excited and hopeful to start a new life. That moment still represents the perfect example of how different I always felt from my family and upbringing. I wanted to go away and leave so badly! Partly running away from repression, partly running towards my dreams. But this part of my life in the USA is for another day. I wanted to talk about the time I returned there, this time to the state of New York.

I was in year 3, of 4, of my first degree at the University of Glasgow. I was becoming more and more aware of what interested me and what didn’t, in terms of job prospects. At the time, I was working several jobs alongside my joint theatre studies and politics degree – bartender, tour guide, administrative assistant, project assistant, youth worker, drama worker – and was particularly intrigued by the work I was doing with LGBT young people. I used to run this drama group with a colleague, who is still a great friend, and we would create these forum theatre pieces where the young people could explore some of their difficulties, and possible solutions. There was something about it that I loved, and something that I hated. I’d already given up on the idea that I was ever going to do any work in politics or international relations, and it seemed that the future was leading me to theatre work, from a healing/transformative perspective, rather than performative or entertainment one. There was also something about the young people themselves – did I enjoy working with young people? Why? Why not? And how much?

Looking back, these questions don’t seem to matter so much, but at the time they did. And so, I did what I usual do: I found an extreme situation of something and dove right into it. I’d been thinking about returning to the USA for some time, and I wanted to know exactly what I should be doing with my life, and if working with young people was going to be part of it. Also looking back, I’m almost laughing at my own naiveté of wanting to know exactly what I wanted to do at the age of 22, but anyway. Live and learn! After not being able to get a scholarship to participate in an exchange program in California, I went for the next best thing available to me at the time: summer camp! I signed up to go work in the USA at a summer camp, in the following roles: dance teacher, drama teacher, or swimming coach. After an initial interview, I was invited and hired to go work as a swimming coach/lifeguard/general youth counselor at Camp Mariah, part of The Fresh Air Fund, a not-for-profit agency providing free summer vacations to NYC children from low-income families. Specifically, Camp Mariah, named after its patron Mariah Carey, was part of a wider Career Awareness Program, where children were not only going to be having fun, but also go through challenges to encourage their resilience and confidence.

As I thought about that summer in the past week, one main thing kept coming back to me: the simplicity of that life experience. It wasn’t at all easy, but the more I thought about it, the more I could see how simple life at camp was: getting up, cleaning, breakfast, swimming, teaching swimming, lifeguarding, lunch, swimming, lifeguarding drills, more teaching and lifeguarding, break, dinner, activities, and sleep. The days were long and intense, but they felt purposeful. At least, most of the time. During that summer, I experienced the same thing I had experienced 5 years before whilst living in Virginia: some kind of inner belonging and familiarity. Being in the USA always makes me feel like I’m somewhere familiar. Still to this day, meeting someone from the USA always makes me feel at ease, an inexplicable connection to that country and people. Every time I’ve lived there, I’ve also experienced this heightened connection with myself and my inner world. People who are very close to me know that I rarely cry. In fact, even though I may be profoundly moved by something or someone, I can often only let out a lone, single tear. Not in the USA. It’s the only place on Earth where I’ve cried my eyes out about different things, and the summer of 2009 was no different.

Spending a summer at the Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill, NY stripped me right back to my core. On an external level, I literally spent most of my time in swimming trunks, t-shirts, and flip-flops. I think I only had one haircut that entire time, and it’s fascinating to think back to that experience, because there is so much “stuff” that I think I depend on, living in London. Living in big cities, in particular, gives us this illusion that we couldn’t possibly live elsewhere. What would we do without the 100s of daily activities at our disposal? Do we even do 1% of everything that we could possibly do in a city like London? I think we often mistake quantity, for quality. I used to think 100s of options represented quality of life, but I don’t think I believe that anymore. That’s what I mean by simplicity. At camp, I rarely concerned myself with outfits, hairstyle, appearance, and that was so refreshing! Maybe at 22/23 years old, I didn’t really appreciate it, but I certainly do now! On an internal level, not having so much external stuff to worry about, really allowed me to get in touch with many emotions, and my own instincts.

It was also the summer I finally got around to read Eat, Pray, Love, and I remember completely resonating to much of what Elizabeth Gilbert was writing because I was experiencing similar things: letting go of the past, being in touch with my inner core, facing the truth of my own contributions to the many dramas of my life, enjoying the simplicity of certain lifestyles, embracing the art of doing nothing, and generally just being with my damn self, without running away. I faced and experienced many things that summer, but many of those things have only really made sense in the past couple of years. I forged very deep bonds with others who were working alongside me, and I’m still in touch with a few. Social media also enables me to know what’s going on in many of those friends’ lives, and I’m always happy to see what they’ve been getting up to in these past 9 years.

I also learned immensely from the children themselves, and there is also something very special about mentoring young boys and being a role model for them, even though our backgrounds were so different. One of my fondest memories is this: the boys in my cabin had been up to no good, which had prompted my co-counselor and I to think of some consequences for them. But before we presented any kind of consequence or punishment, I sat down with them and explained why we were doing what we we’re doing. At the end, one of the boys said to me: “You know, Ryan, someday you will be a great father, because you never shout at us, and instead you explain everything to us.” It took me some time, but I can now see how important that is, not only to a child, but any person: to take the time to explain, to have the patience to connect.

I’ll leave you with Brené Brown’s definition of belonging, from her book Braving the Wilderness:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”