Familiarity and Belonging

“Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”
— G.K. Chesterton

Dear friends,

A short story: The princess kisses a frog, and creates the prince.

~ ~ ~

Over time several thoughts of the same cloth have come to me:

~ Reading is good, re-reading is sublime. I am always surprised when re-reading my favorite books at just how much more there is the second time.

~ Revisiting the same mountain trail ten times is more illuminating than hiking ten different mountains. The feeling that dawns on you once a trail is well-known has no substitute. Here is a view of Mount Lafayette, from Little Haystack, a hike along the Franconia ridge I have done enough that familiarity alone carries me across the peaks.

~ To travel the world visiting everywhere only once can hardly bring understanding. You must return several times before a place opens up to you. Returning to the same place brings a new set of emotions, and eventually, some familiarity.

So it is with many many other things. More than I think we realize at first.

~ ~ ~

Some hasty thoughts follow.

Familiarity is a misunderstood virtue. Cultivating a sense of belonging is under-practiced and misunderstood. No matter where you live it is worth trying to improve the small things of your world. Romanticism has always elevated the pleasure of adventure over the pleasure of belonging, to an almost comical degree in recent times—everyone’s favorite hobby just so happens to be “travel”. I think this is something of an oversight. (however I am not against travel! I think seeing the world is a great hobby, but it’s one that you should try at home, too.)

(And this is not a post about staying put forever. You should pursue opportunity and leverage yourself wherever you can. But wherever you settle should also be a place you come to care about, and not a transitory thing. Places, institutions, and families are the things that may outlive us, we should build them whenever we can. Love and effort turn them into their glorious forms, like the princess and her frog.)

~ ~ ~

Do we find it difficult to cultivate familiarity these days? There is a Twitter joke:

It’s true, but why? I think the paradox is explained simply: hanging out, catching up, etc, are inadequate because they are too big. Familiarity is crucially the maintaining of weak ties, or else the maintaining of strong ties in weak ways. Some things can only be made strong by binding one thousand tiny threads. So the problem isn’t that friends must hang out more, the problem is that they haven’t seen each other in forever (without hanging out). What creates strong friendships are repeated, tiny, and unplanned interactions.

Unfortunately for some of us, these ties are harmed by the modern environment of cars: Driving point-to-point means we will never bump into people along the way (though we might at the destination). The same happens as we order more of our everyday lives online. We cannot have as many of these small interactions because we simply dwell in fewer places than we did 100 years ago. The family friendly pub and the association club fell prey to watching a screen. (TV is so pernicious because it asks for nothing from you, except all of the time you’ve got to spare. You might not even notice that you’ve lost something. Did we sleepwalk into bowling alone simply out of a scheduling conflict?)

One way to gain these interactions is to do them consciously, like going to a cafe every single day. This is expensive if you treat it as a coffee habit, but very cheap if you understand that it is buy-in for one of the few accessible spheres of public life. I have met a hundred people by simply going to a cafes every day until the people became familiar, including my wife (and the shop owners, the mayor, roommates, a sculptor, enough friends to make a liquor tasting group, etc).

Note please, some people go to cafes to expressly meet people, and are aggressively friendly in trying to strike up conversations with everyone they see. If you understand me I hope it is clear that you should not do this. You should do almost the opposite! The thing that familiarity affords is not having to awkwardly reach out to people, but simply existing alongside them enough until it no longer becomes weird to interact. Having a sense of familiarity first is what removes the awkward desperation that’s endemic to things like dating sites and meetup groups, which are quite stifling in comparison. But if you go somewhere every single day, then after 100+ days, you start to recognize people, and they start to recognize you. Then you can talk about all kinds of stuff without the forced pretense, but there’s no simple substitute for that time spent.

Aside from cafes, how best to cultivate the familiarity of people? Where can we find the repetition required? Perhaps there’s no easy answer. But I think that the best way to build new relationships of every kind is to do work together. Start a project, join an association, work with the garage door up. Working on something together is probably a good date idea, too. As you come to know your work, you come to know the people. (by work I mean: you should find meaningful work to do outside of your job, if you want much of anything to follow.)

~ ~ ~

Belonging: To belong is to possess a kind of irreplaceable familiarity. If you love your family, it is clearly not interchangeable with another family. When you love your home or city, or some club or cafe, you cannot swap for any other and feel the same.

People seek meaningful places worthy of calling home. These can be found, adventure tells us, but belonging reminds us that with our own efforts they can (they must) be made. All worthy places were once unworthy, after all.

A person may remodel a house, but stop short at only the things that increase its resale value. It is when he decides to make contributions that offer him no economic gains that he might open up the genius of the place. To love a place is to allow ourselves to contribute beyond expectations of material return. To dwell poetically is to live as if even a simple apartment was your home forever. Once you are able to cast off the feeling that wherever you are living is somehow temporary, wherever you are living will begin to feel like home. To do this requires a kind of love.

The princess kisses a frog, and creates the prince.

~ ~ ~

(Hmm, that’s not quite all. There must be more to belonging. At the very least: Sometimes we can feel astonished by things in the world, and yet at home with them. Some things seem to offer both both fascination and comfort, like an impeccable garden, or a grandparent’s farmhouse that seems to house not only the territory and people but also a deep well of memories. There exists a certain kind of romanticism to be found even within the everyday belonging, though it often seems to hide from sight. Is it possible to cultivate this familiar mysticism of the world?)

Did I set out to write what I was really thinking, when I began? I no longer remember.

My days lately have afforded only doing, not thinking or writing, but the sun is changing more and more.

Write to me soon,

s s