Guest columnist Jena Schwartz: Synonyms for belonging 

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Thursday, December 01, 2022

I sit and try to settle beneath all the roiling and reactivity. When I allow my breath to move down past my collarbones, down through my rib cage, to fill my lungs, to reach the pit of my belly, I know that waiting there is a space where love and loss ripple outward, as if the breath is a pebble dropped into the center of my being.

Grief, fear, anger, memory, incredulity, hopelessness, power — these gather like ships and sail outward from my being, a fleet of feelings flung into open waters.

Queer people have been finding new ways for millennia. To stay pliable, to stay soft, to stand rooted in love — these do not mean we don’t fight. I find that I feel a degree of paralysis I don’t particularly like admitting to myself; perhaps the fear of harm is so great that it’s difficult to process, for myself but even more so for my beloveds. I do not want to settle for sealing myself off in a bubble, however tempting that may sometimes be.

I also don’t want to live as a raw nerve, a lightning rod for pain upon pain. This serves no one. So I continue to strive for something like balance, however elusive. And it always starts with centering myself through writing, listening to music, connecting with very few people before I reach out for the many, and bringing myself back.

To all who experience the ways systemic oppression and violence erode our reserves, I love you. And I refuse to stop seeing the humanity of those I call my enemies, lest I become the same as them. This is the hardest work of all. It feels impossible and like the furthest thing from a priority. But I will stay the course, no matter how unclear the path may be.

Why? Because the dance floor, church, and synagogue — these, you see, are synonyms for belonging.

These are the places where we enter and instantly know who we are. Where we enter because we feel lost to ourselves. Places that can hold our questions and love us as we live into them. Where we share history and ritual with our kindred spirits, by blood and by choice, by history, by memory, by struggle, by celebration. Where we step inside and expect someone to call us by our true names. Our changed names. Our chosen names. Our ancient names. Where we pray by singing, by chanting, by dancing, by reciting. Places of music and of silence, of reverence and irreverence, of tradition and of casting off tradition and of transformation.

These are the places where we (should) get to be free.

If we cannot be free in these sacred spaces, where do we gather? There is nowhere in this country that is “safe” from AR-15s. Not the grocery store, not the queer bar, not the elementary school, not the house of worship, not the shopping mall.

There is nowhere in this country that is not facing rhetoric and legislation that seeks to destroy safety — physical, medical, social, financial, legal, communal, spiritual — for queer folks. Intersectionality is critical to this conversation, as not one of us exists without it. Those who said rhetoric and legislation targets so viciously experience the impact to varying degrees, depending on which of those many facets comprise their identities.

I am a queer woman in a queer family. It has taken me many years and inner and outer work to claim that word and know that I belong to it. That I belong, period. And that’s just it. The belonging. The thing every human being seeks. The thing no law can take from us. The thing no act of violence can shatter. Yet the toll of these losses is unfathomable and so very heavy to carry.

I grow weary of my own words. I fear that my responses to each act of violence, each bigoted politician or PTO member, are growing stale and redundant, like I’m recycling my own thoughts. And I continue to reach for a deeper analysis. Maybe it will come, and I will certainly keep listening and working towards it.

For now, I only know that my heart is with every queer person who has questioned whether they fit. Everyone who has experienced ostracization from without or alienation from within. Everyone who has fled, who has experienced the elation of knowing who you are, who has sought out places where you could let your guard down and just be.

I am with you.

Jena Schwartz is a writing coach, poet, and essayist. She lives and works in Amherst. Visit her at www.jenaschwartz.com.