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it's so cold in alaska

Lately I've been thinking about what it means to be a part of something. There are many aspects of my identity and groups that I'm a part of that I didn't necessarily choose to be in. 

A few years ago, I was telling a friend how I didn't feel like I could get along with people in most of the writing programs and workshops I've been in. They were either too serious, leaving their daydreams of somehow writing bestselling novels from their isolated wood cabins suspended in the air, looming with condescension over anyone who dared to view writing as an actual possibility for a career rather than a concept. Or they were too silly, hungry for fame but lacking the talent to achieve it, truly believing that fan fiction had any sort of literary merit. I said that I didn't know where that left me, and that I would never be able to fit in with these people. 

"But that's not really an option," said my friend. "You can't not fit with those people." 

"What do you mean? They're not so fun and so inclusive that it's impossible to not get caught up with them." I rolled my eyes. 

"No, I mean you don't have a choice. It doesn't matter that you aren't a cosplayer, or that you don't have a Thoreau-related tattoo. It doesn't even matter that they don't talk to you. It's not those things that make them a part of the group, it's the group that attracts those things. You're a writer, so you're with them."

With them. The words made me cringe. But he was right. It wasn't like we would suddenly be best friends because we all wrote, or even that we had anything besides writing in common. But giving myself the label of writer in a strange way bound me to this community even though it appeared to be a solitary act. I am one in millions of hopefuls across the world typing, writing. It doesn't matter that  I haven't watched Doctor Who and have no fantasies about becoming an aloof novelist. It doesn't matter that I'm writing profiles and personal essays, not fan fiction and heartfelt defenses of the oxford comma. I am writing, and that simple fact nullified any of the characteristics I clung to to feel superior.

But then, I thought, if I am a part of this group, why doesn't it feel like it? Why do all of these people connect with each other so effortlessly while I am left in the corner with my own thoughts?

It was a familiar query, one that could be applied to other labels as well as writing. I often found myself staying silent while others chatted away at school functions, family parties, almost everywhere. And I suppose, you could say, with validity, that I didn't feel like I belonged because I wasn't making any effort to belong; the superiority I felt would prevent me from every becoming a part of the group. And to a certain extent, you would be right. I was acting superior.

But like most people who act superior, I didn't actually feel superior. It was a coping mechanism I'd developed. And no, I'm not going to tell you some sob story about how I was bullied or how some great tragedy befell me. I had an easy, perfect, picturesque childhood. I just happen to possess interests and attitudes that no one near me seemed to have. Because I already didn't fit in, I decided to not want to. If life was a series of arbitrary humiliations, then the less witnesses the better anyway, right?

The cultural narrative that those who don't feel included should feel superior rather than trying to make a connection ("I'm not like other girls," etc etc etc) did not help. Maybe I did develop a bit of an ego, but it developed from alienation.

But to other people, it wouldn't seem like I was isolated. It would seem like I was surrounded by so many groups of people who were attempting to understand me, and I wasn't making any effort to understand them. I began to think that perhaps this perspective was more true than my own, that maybe I hadn't really tried to connect with anyone, still sore over minor rejections and dismissals in elementary school.

And so after that conversation, I tried to build communities around my interests, and connect with the communities I was already a part of as a result of certain aspects of my identity. And I didn't fail. I met people who I could be intellectually challenged by, who could make me laugh so hard that my laughs no longer had a sound, who watched the same movies and shows as I did and shared my philosophies. But I still felt like I was missing out on something. Even though I loved my friends, whenever they would describe their experiences with other friends or in different programs or groups, it always sounded so much bigger than whatever I was experiencing. I wanted the ecstasy of wandering around the streets at midnight, and the serenity of gazing out onto my city's skyline with people who understood me as completely as anyone can understand someone else. I wanted to be, I wanted to feel like I was a part of something. I still want to.

There have been a few brief incidents when I thought "This is it. This is what I was missing out on this whole time." Telling scary stories in a friends' parked car at a local park and watching the windows fog up with the condensation of excited breath til streetlights became abstract shapes shrouded by a prismatic glow, eating tacos at a friends' house her room crammed with the entire neighborhood (the door open to welcome more) and leaving her bed littered with the debris of the evening (mostly shredded cheese and olives), swinging on swings meant for children (emblematic of the childhood we were about to outgrow) in Central Park with a group of kids I'd only known for mere days though we hugged each other as if we knew every tragedy and heartbreak the other had experienced-- in these moments I felt I understood the human experience with more beautifully poignant clarity than I had ever before.

But I have a lot to catch up on before I will be given more of those ordinary luxuries. I still don't know why I often find myself unable to talk to people the way other people can. I still don't fully understand how to connect with people. But I want to.

Oh lord, I want to.


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