I walk up the hill carrying my cute pool bag. Surveying the lounge chairs, I spot someone I know chatting with another person. Making my way over, I choose a chair that is close enough to chat, but with enough space that it won’t appear that I am permanently insinuating myself into their conversation but acknowledges that we know each other. Yesterday, I had a wonderful time at the pool. I chatted and chatted, part of the conversation, valued, seen, and I left on a high that I carried the entire walk home and into the evening, settling down for the night with the feeling that all was well. This pool is like being at a hotel with everyone you know. Sometimes, living in a small town is like living on a big cruise ship. Every day offers a new activity with the same pool of people to draw from. As I settle into a comfy spot and pull out my book, I glance over and send a smile their way.
“How’s everything with you?”
“Good! That’s great.”
She turns back to her friend and continues their conversation.
And this is where it turns. As the afternoon wears on, I begin to feel more and more invisible. The people around me continue to engage with their chosen ones. Even with many of my comfortable acquaintances present, I can’t seem to break into any conversations more than simple niceties. I try approaching people I know lounging in the pool, at the snack bar, sharing a smile and pleasant small talk. People come and go, responding politely but not really engaging with me. They all seem so tight with each other, deep in conversations all over the sunny pool deck as I inspect my toe polish, wondering if I am up to snuff. By the time I get up to leave, I feel lower than low. My mind repeating over and over, “No one likes me. Everyone else belongs. Everyone else has friends. There is something weird about me. What is wrong with me? Why don’t they want to talk to me?” The next day, I don’t want to even head to the pool. I’m not sure I even want to leave the house. Just looking out my front window, I can see proof of being excluded, as cars pull up to pick up others on the street for joint outings.
I wish I could tell you that this was when I was young. A twelve-year-old me back at the town pool in Avon, CT. But what I remember about those childhood days is mostly the strawberry shortcake ice cream and fruity mentos I bought at the snack stand, the strong smell of chlorine mixed with hot roofing shingles, the hot camp counselor, and the feel of steaming concrete under my rough towel. I’m sure my thought pattern had many moments of self-doubt...but it’s funny how that isn’t what stuck with me in my memories. Maybe my head was too far in a book to notice.
But this memory I share now isn’t from my childhood. It’s from several summers ago. I was a full grown adult, with my kids in tow.
When I was young, I moved around. The town I grew up in until after Freshman year was a truly mixed bag. Sometimes I was the bell of the ball but certainly, there were times of feeling judged or left out. The first town I moved to for my Sophomore year welcomed me with open arms. The second shunned me like I was a leper. The first town handed me drama roles, closely-knit comradery and boyfriends. The second town handed a snobby peach queen and a stinky turkey farm.
Moving was rough, but what it gave me was perspective. I was the exact same person in every place I lived. Yet the experience differed vastly.
When my children tell me that they don’t belong...that today at school they felt completely left out and that no one likes them, I tell them the story of me at the pool. One day, I left feeling like a celebrity, the next day, an alien from another planet. Same me, same pool. Perhaps my experience was really how I perceived it. Perhaps it was my interpretation. But the real litmus test is whether I choose to internalize it to mean something about me. How can it when I am the same person day in and day out? My experience means more about the people that were there, and how I chose to let the situation make me feel than reflecting poorly on who I am.
These days, I focus more on finding my people. The tribe that makes me feel like a rockstar with their love and appreciation for what I bring to their lives. I search out individuals that respect my mind over the label on my jeans, my feelings over my spending habits, and my perspective over my alcohol tolerance. And on those days where I start to feel like an alien, I’m strong enough to step back and see it for what it is...a moment in time that is fleeting and means absolutely nothing. Because the kind of “belong” I mean and want for myself is not “being the property of” but being a “part of and rightly placed.”
be the property of.
2. be a member or part of (a particular group, organization, or class).
3.(of a thing) be rightly placed in a specified position.
be rightly classified in or assigned to a specified category.