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Belonging to a Place and a People

I have the kind of friends they make sitcoms about. The kind of friends that make you ugly cry/laugh when you’ve had a bad day. The kind that you can go to church with in the morning and drink gin with at night. The kind that know about your past and still like you. The kind that will help you move—more than once. The kind that feel more like family than anything else.

I’ve known a few of my close friends since childhood, but most of my favorite people came into my life at a very specific time—and place.

The place was called Signs of Life. It was a coffee shop/bookstore/art gallery where I worked for a couple of years when I was in college. It was the epicenter of a friendship boom that was unlike anything I’ve seen before or since.

I was hired as a six-dollar-an-hour barista. My boyfriend, John, asked his best friend, Max, to get me the job. I was about to know for the first time what it really felt like to belong.

Before I get overly sentimental, let’s dig deeper into the meaning of the word belong, so that we really understand what we’re talking about. In Peter Block’s book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, he defines belong in two parts. Let’s start with the first one:

“First and foremost, to belong is to be related to and a part of something. It is membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of the phrase. Belonging is best created when we join with other people in producing something that makes a place better. It is the opposite of thinking I must do it on my own. That wherever I am, it is all on my shoulders and that perhaps I would be better off somewhere else. The opposite of belonging is to feel isolated and always (all ways) on the margin, an outsider. I am still forever wandering looking for that place where I belong. To belong is to know, even in the middle of the night, that I am among friends.”

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my time at Signs, as we called it, was the beginning of a new era. As an introvert, I had often felt that I was at the outskirts of whatever was happening. But at Signs, I was front and center: the lead barista in a busy coffee shop late at night in a college town. I no longer felt isolated; I was now an integral part of a bustling community.

Aside from John and Max, the first person I met at Signs was a guy named Harold. He looked like a tiny, red-bearded Irishman because he was. His arms were tattooed with Hebrew scriptures and he could spout off poetry like it was bubbling out of him. He was my fellow barista.

Then came Kat, the librarian. She wore (wears) a ‘60s bouffant hairdo and red lipstick and had the sharpest wit of anyone I’ve ever met. She quit right before I started but that didn’t keep her from jumping up behind the counter and making her own drinks like she owned the place.

Bryan worked over on the bookstore side. He was my favorite. He wore thick glasses and argyle sweater vests and when we closed up shop together he would blast Daft Punk. He knew all the words to every song and we’d dance at midnight as we mopped the floors. I didn’t know I could laugh so hard.

Paul was older than the rest of us and had children about our age. He’d read most of the books on the side of the store where he worked. He looked like Charlie Brown and he held the rest of us together by hosting retro movie marathons in his basement.

Jacob was one of our regulars. His humor was so dry that it took me a few months to understand that he’s actually one of the funniest people on the planet. He’s about seven feet tall and he wore those funny barefoot shoes.

Our dear friend Chris was what we like to call “everyone’s favorite a-hole.” (Can I say that?) He always talked me into giving him my free drink per shift so that he could use the WiFi without spending any money. He sneaked in snacks and he lied sometimes. We dressed up as two members of the band KISS for Halloween once. I absolutely adore him.

And there were so many more. Jackson and Jim and Anne and Dan. It was like we were all drawn there by some inexplicable force. We all needed something at that time, and we all found it in each other.

Working at Signs was incredibly exhausting and stressful. At times the line was out the door and I had to scramble to make drinks while also making conversation with several people at a time. I made so little money that I had to pick up extra hours to pay the rent while also going to college full-time. I stayed up late and woke up early. I was pouring myself out completely. But in my vulnerability, I was opening myself up to an incredibly fruitful season from which I am still harvesting. I was blossoming into a version of myself I had never before seen. We were all growing together.

I don’t know why Signs was such fertile ground for those budding friendships. Perhaps we had all felt like outsiders, and for once, we didn’t. Perhaps our varying personalities came together in a sort of symphony that drew us all in like a siren call. Perhaps the late-night, caffeinated, twenty-something, stressed-out silliness fused us together like natural disasters sometimes do.

Or perhaps we all felt some ownership of the place. It was ours. We all went there every day to eat, to drink, to study, and—yes, to belong.

Part two of Peter Block’s definition of belong amplifies this concept of ownership:

“The second meaning of the word belong has to do with being an owner: something belongs to me. To belong to a community is to act as a creator and co-owner of that community. What I consider mine I will build and nurture. The work, then, is to seek in our communities a wider and deeper sense of emotional ownership and communal ownership. It means fostering among all of a community’s citizens a sense of ownership and accountability, both in their relationships and in what they actually control.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but as employees and regulars at Signs we felt a sense of ownership. I was confident when I was there because I felt like it was mine. I wrote the specials on the board and I opened and closed up shop. I had a key. I cleaned the floors and wiped down the tables. I knew people’s names and they knew mine. Max and Harold and Kat and Bryan and Paul all felt the same. John and Jacob and Chris owned their favorite seats and their regular drink orders and their sense of familiarity and comfort. We went there for work, for sustenance, and for emotional fulfilment. For a while there, it was home.

It’s been thirteen years since I worked at Signs. We all eventually graduated, and we started to move away, get married, and find “real jobs.” But those friendships, those people, that feeling of belonging—they’re still very real.

John and I have been happily married for ten years now. Max has four kids and we Facetime with them regularly. Harold lives out of state, but we see him when he does pop-up poetry readings or shows up at our house with a vegan pie. Kat’s a head librarian and John officiated her wedding. Bryan still blesses us with his singing skills (when we’re lucky) and his wife is now one of my best friends. Jacob married a girl from China and still confuses us with his humor and strange footwear choices. Chris goes MIA every few months and then regales us with his ridiculous stories that may or may not be true. Paul continues to host his retro movie marathons, and he brings us together to remind us where we started.

Many of us have moved, and not one of us still works at Signs. In fact, I rarely go there anymore because I discovered that the building is not where I belonged. The people were my home, and they still are.

Have you ever felt that sense of belonging with a group of people? Do you feel a sense of membership or ownership in your community? If not, how can you open yourself up to a deeper sense of belonging where you live?

(Excepts from this blog from Community: The Structure of Belonging, Second Edition, by Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2018.)

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