There’s a man in my neighbourhood I see nearly every time I leave the house and travel south. I think he suffers from some sort of mental illness, though I have no idea what. I know he hurts and sometimes screams his pain.
When I see him, he is usually walking; still in his 40s, I think, he is bowed and set low by something less forgiving than age. Every once in a while, he stops his constant roaming and roars, his words jumbled by pain or my limited knowledge of other languages, or both. I’ve never seen anyone approach him, and I haven’t myself; it’s not fear that keeps me away so much as the fact that we don’t belong to the same world. There are languages of personal pain for which there is only one fluent speaker.
He belongs to a place, or so it appears to me, that no one else can access. And there is a painful corollary: the vast and sometimes sadly impassable difference between belonging to and belong with. My sad, bent neighbour belongs to his own world; and he belongs to this neighbourhood, whether anyone wants it or not, simply by being here–but that doesn’t mean he belongs with us, or we with him, or even that such notions mean anything at all with such chasms between us.
(Or that there is even an “us.” There’s nothing like Halloween for bringing the health of one’s community harshly into focus: In previous years, we’ve merely hung out in the kitchen with the living room lights off; as years went by without one single costumed child knocking to demand sweeties as payout for not burning our house down, we relaxed this year and got one trick or treater: a very drunk, very adult person who first tried to kick our door in and then hammered on the front window and roughly demanded candy, NOW.)
I’ve vacillated over the years about whether or not I belong in or with Toronto, with Toronto people; I don’t know at this instant, but I don’t feel like I don’t belong. There are the long-term moments of belonging that, for me, reside most steadfastly in my husband and my best friend, a cohesion that exists everywhere.
There are moments too, with others, that occur along the way and are plain and pure delight. Moments when the chasm disappears and I recognize someone who also recognizes me.
Two such, one consequent of the other, happened to me recently. (Well, the chain really came into being when I began working at the corporate monolith I recently left to pursue freelancing; I had the very unlikely experience of being close co-worker to another PhD in Renaissance drama with an ongoing passion for the novel, especially those of the Victorian era (a strong, real experience of belong both with and to!)) He, my fellow former academic, got me reading Woolf’s novels this year and last week asked if we could read The Waves together, since he’d never been able to finish it.
He chose an edition and I went book-hunting; I may not generally or fully belong to or with or in Toronto, but its bookstores clasp me to their chests with the sturdy, loving arms of forever. In one store, musty and close and glorious, when I was flagging and footsore, my back beginning to note too keenly the literal weight of Thackeray’s Pendennis in my pack, I rushed straight to the Ws; the book wasn’t there. On my way out again, the owner asked me if I was looking for anything in particular, maybe a text book, which he kept behind the counter…?
I told him, no, I needed a very specific Woolf and the cracks in the earth between us pulled together and sealed entire. He effused like I was a long-lost relative or a missing friend, “Oh, my, The Waves and a particular edition! I never hear such things, you must come in often, often, to check…”
I know my people when I see them and they see me, and then I know I belong to and with and in and at any number of wonderful places, times, moments, ideas, people, voices, languages, joys, and desires.
Sometimes it seems as though everyone is on fire with their own agony, sitting alone in the flames and ashes; but then these small and large and improbable connections occur and I become certain that while we may all be engulfed eventually, maybe even the most wretched don’t always feel their wretchedness in full solitude, or even as wretchedness.