Do you remember years ago when the big thing at work was to take turns falling backwards and having your colleagues catch you? It was supposed to bond everyone and reinforce that you were part of a group that would be there to catch you and help.
I never could do it.
Even as I would lecture my students that learning was best done in a cooperative fashion, I personally hated the giving up self-determination that was the cost of belonging to a group.
To this day, I am quietly uncomfortable when I am in a car and someone else is driving. Going all the way back to when I was a child, I had so many people telling me what we all should do (I was the youngest, so I received a LOT of unsolicited guidance). I learned the art of nodding, looking interested in the group suggestions, and then going about my own way.
As I rose in my career, I equated success with the ever-growing ability to do what I wanted, to have to conference less and be master and commander of my own ship. As a veteran teacher, my favorite teaching partners were the ones who were happy with a quick “collaboration” in the hallway before we went to our individual classrooms. At home I was terrible about attending neighborhood meetings; I feared I would be called out for mowing my lawn in circles while everyone else did rows.
Of course, I wanted my sons to also be independent forgers of their own fate. I swelled with pride whenever my sons took the road less traveled. One of my favorite moments, still, was when we were on a cub scout campout and the group hike was cancelled in favor of crafts due to rain, yet there appeared my son, Ben, in a defiant poncho. So, he and I trucked off, just the two of us, to a shared soggy, muddy, escapade of defiance.
Of course, any parent will tell you about the Karma of experiencing your own children’s behavior turned back on you. I lost count of the times I tried to get our youngest son, Journey, to follow our lead, only to have him acknowledge the good suggestions and then disappear to complete his own agenda.
And then we retired. Primarily, we have enjoyed our freedom to wander and wonder (and blog), but little did I realize that, along with turning in one’s punch card, or desk, one also surrenders a sense of belonging that many take for granted, like background noise.
I still write articles (and books) regarding education, but I am not an insider affecting policy any more. I am a removed observer who comments from afar, and, to be honest, with less feeling of being “in the game” as before.
I now realize how often I actually did collaborate and rely on others. A talk over coffee, a lunch discussion comparing science and humanities, even just listening to another teacher’s class from the hallway, are the tacit privileges of belonging to a group of professionals that one learns, grows, and (I really miss this) laughs with, together.
Moving to Spain in many ways accentuated the non-belonging.
We knew almost no Spanish, and while we are improving poco a poco, we still often rely on Spaniards who speak better English than we do Spanish. In the States, our alcove neighbors ranged from a couple we played tennis with to “How about that storm last night?” short talks with folks as they walked the dog past our house.
Jiab and I weren’t the social butterflies of the street, but we made small talk and exchanged pleasantries, a nicety that is a struggle to do with our neighbors here, where they are all nice, but anything more than short, simple sentences becomes a labor on both sides of the language barrier.
Ironically, if the Spanish language seems to keep us at arms length from fully belonging, some of the Spanish ways do the opposite, pulling us into a smothering hug of groupness before we even understand what’s going on.
When the Spanish are upset, they let the world know. More than once have I been in a store near an elderly lady who is unhappy about something. I make sure to take a half step away so as not to be hit by the flailing arms as she shouts her protests. Inevitably, she looks to her audience for confirmation of her complaints. A couple of times their eyes have locked on to mine and a string of Spanish is fired in my direction like an angry machine gun. My only defense is to nod and say “vale” until she chooses to recruit a new ally to her cause.
One odd, and surprising, forced-belonging concerned our apartment. We love our place; our terrace is so admired that Jiab has coined a new Freudian term for what others express, deck envy.
As we emerge from winter to spring, however, we are thankful for the dial back in heating (which we weren’t aware of having rented the place in August), because (and Americans here might want to sit down), we have no control of our heating.
There are radiators throughout the apartment, but they are connected to one big building-wide system. Every night in winter the heat would come on about 5:00 pm, and stay on till about 11:00 pm. There are dials on the radiators, but they are only good for strengthening your fingers as you twist them back and forth to no effect. The problem, as an aside, was not insufficient heat usually, but too much of it. Many nights we slept with the heat blasting and the window by the bed open to counteract.
So, we live here in communal fashion but still with our American sense of individualism (and me with my extra Texas sense of lonesome cowboy individuality).
All of this might have melded together on a slow curve, but of course, we now live amidst the lockdown brought on by the coronavirus epidemic. We are not allowed out except to go to the market or pharmacy. We have lost our tennis games, our hikes, and gathering with friends over wine and tapa. We have no choice.
One might think this is a life-long non-belonger’s heaven.
Again, though, as it took retirement to show me how I took for granted the little ways I did connect and belong while working, the lockdown has revealed by their absence the many connections we had forged in just a year’s time.
Our next door neighbor, Rosa, is a woman in her 70’s who still goes out at night to concerts and parties, and many a time we found ourselves on the last bus of the night bumping into her as we were coming home ourselves. Our efforts to communicate became a mutual fun game where we were excited simply because we understood what the other was saying as we rode and then walked to our apartments next to each other.
As we now sit for the whole day at home, I realize how my prior days had been formed by getting in tune with the natural rhythm of life here, getting up later as the Spanish do, being busy with everyone else in the late morning, shutting down for siesta in the afternoon, and gearing back up for dinner and going out later (and never before 8:00).
In the news, I see that many Americans are struggling, even resisting, to belong to a concerted movement to fight the virus by all adapting similar and safer behavior, including not congregating in groups and keeping safe distances.
As I used to think, belonging is giving up control, and control is the essence of power.
Here in Spain, I have not only accepted the idea of belonging and adaptation to the group norm for the good of all, I feel empowered by doing so.
To reinforce that feeling, we step out to our balconies every evening at 8:00 pm and join all our neighbors (and all of Spain) in giving doctors, workers who keep the market shelves stocked, and even ourselves a round of applause for our mutual cooperation. It’s like a cushion of sound that can catch a person falling backwards.
It’s starting to rain now. I miss hiking terribly, but I won’t put on a poncho and defy the orders. I’m going to curl up with a book, or a movie with Jiab, or a computer game (sorry, Jiab!). As I do so, I picture myself in the middle of all other Spanish residents, all separate, all giving up control, and all belonging together.