The social scientist Brené Brown wrote that "a deep sense of belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically and spiritually wired to love, to be loved and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We hurt others.”
In my birth family home,"belonging and being connected" were daily expressions of love – on the phone, at the front door or kitchen table.
Our red brick house was surrounded by grass, maple trees, weeping willows and flower beds. Our nearest living neighbour was across the road, an old highway. A grave yard lay to the south, empty fields bordered the north and east. Fields of tobacco, corn and tomatoes, radiated outward in all directions.
A minimum security "industrial farm" was down the sideroad. Men who had been incarcerated for less serious crimes sometimes helped in the fields, while serving their time. Seasonal workers arrived from Mexico or Jamaica to help with harvest.
The City was ten minutes north, the Six Nations Reserve was twenty minutes east and Lake Erie was thirty minutes south. By 1980, I had migrated two thousand miles to the west and my sisters had also moved away.
Dad died in 1996, leaving Mom alone with Lucky, the dog. Glaucoma had diminished Mom’s eyesight and she was almost blind, could no longer drive, but was fit, alert, and a fun conversationalist. She genuinely liked people and even though she was relatively isolated, she remained active in the village.
The telephone connected Mom to neighbours, friends, and broad networks of support, including her daughters.
“So, what about Hallowe’en this year?” I asked. “Will you just turn out the lights and go to bed?”
“Oh no,” Mom quipped, “I’ll answer the door. I want to see who’s there. Maybe I will recognize them.”
“But Mom,” I blurted, “You can barely recognize a broom in broad daylight. How can you possibly recognize a kid wearing a mask?”
“Well, I’ll wear dark glasses and pretend. I can see shadows,” she paused. “I’ll ask questions. I always think that if I open the door, they’ll tell their friends, ‘A nice old lady lives there. Let’s not soap her windows, or smash pumpkins in her yard.’ I feel safer if I say hello.”
Wearing a floppy hat, goofy lime-green sunglasses, and holding a bowl of candy, Mom opened the door saying, “Hello, Mr. Ghost – what’s your name?”
One Hallowe’en she met Miguel, whose dad worked at a factory in town. His little brother’s name was Pedro, even though the kids at school called him Peter. Simultaneously, Miguel met my mother who looked old, but was very friendly.
Imagine a social compass that measures "belonging indicators" relative to opposites. “Belonging and Connected” would sit opposite “Othering and Disconnected.” Similarly, “Love and Gratitude” would anchor true north, with “Hate and Indifference” pointing due south. Mom’s moral compass was usually dialled to “Joy and Sharing,” in resistance to “Fear and Greed.”
We may function best when we feel like we belong, but communities are full of people who are "not like us."
We can be "othered" based on our age, ethnicity, ability, skin tone, social status, gender, religion, or sexuality. Or we can "belong" through habits of mind, words and deeds.
The night Miguel met my mom, he was impressed by a nice old lady wearing funny glasses. Still, he wondered ‘Why did she call him Mickey Mouse?’ He was dressed as a dog with big round ears.
Leaving small town Ontario in the summer of 1976, Lorraine Widmer Carson spent summers in Banff while finishing university. Her first Banff job was as a chamber maid, then as a waitress. Between 1980-2017, she worked for Parks Canada, The Whyte Museum, The Friends of BNP, The Banff Centre, and most recently, Executive Director at the Banff Canmore Community Foundation. The views expressed are her own and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.