Monday, April 18, 2005


Maslow hit on something deeply significant when he placed our human need for belonging as the first rung of the ladder off the essential foundations of physical survival needs, a rung that has to be secure before stepping further up to higher emotional and spiritual needs. Once our survival is assured; once we have air, water, food, shelter, security, our need for belonging becomes critical; belonging in a place, with a partner, in a job, in a community. Belonging, for most of us, is inextricably bound up with one of the deepest questions that any of us face – that of revealing to ourselves our own identity. Belonging reinforces our sense of who we are.

I felt oddly out of sorts at times whilst away last week, camping in the Lake District with my two lads, and the feeling of malaise only strengthened when we got home again. I couldn’t figure it out at the time; sure, there were some petty, niggling complaints nagging at me, but they shouldn’t have resulted in such a pervasive ill-at-ease feeling. They were all trifling things and I felt guilty at letting them get to me.

All the same, I couldn’t deny that they DID get to me. It was only after being back home for a few days and able to think more objectively, that the underlying issue began to show through the murk of my unsettlement. These issues had all eroded my sense of identity, and of belonging.

For the first time in ten years since we started going hillwalking together, back when they were eleven and thirteen years old, my two sons were forever ahead of me, having more energy to get up the slopes and stronger joints to get back down them again. My right knee was giving me a lot of trouble, so much so that on the descents I had to stop and rest it every ten minutes or so to let the pain subside. The reminder that my frame is committed to a different kind of downward slope and is only going to deteriorate further over the coming years wasn’t exactly welcome.

I know I shouldn’t grumble – I’ve been lucky to stay so fit for so long – nevertheless it felt as though a door once wide open was beginning to close and before much longer I might find limits put on my freedom to roam the hills.

(Mind you, on the positive front, sleeping on the ground on a camping mat did wonders for my back, which gave no trouble at all – in fact it felt better than it has for weeks, all trace of the lower back pain having vanished).

Then, although I’ve been wearing varifocal (progressive lens) glasses every day for a couple of years now, this was the first time I’ve worn them continuously for hillwalking. I’d avoided them before because of the tunnel vision effect that varifocals give, but this time there was no way I could read the map, see where to put my feet and take in the view, without them. The trouble with varifocals is that they give a blinkered view – peripheral vision is very poor, and with head down so as to see, through the right part of the lens, where to place my feet on rough ground, the surrounding scenery became blurred and indistinct. So I have clear memories of the intricate details of the paths we walked – the rocks, boulders, scree, streams crossed, but only hazy – literally – memories of the mountains through which we walked.

And thirdly came the frustration at having insufficient time to take photographs. Snapshots, yes; photographs, no. Photographs take time – time to observe, time to absorb the feel of the landscape so as to gain – hopefully – an insight into how best to record it on film, or in pixels.

Oh, and whilst I’m at it, I’ll gripe about the inadequacies of LCDs and EVFs. I do miss the real viewfinder of my old-fashioned analogue SLR. This shot was in focus; many more weren't. I'm still learning the foibles of this new camera.

In spite of their seeming triviality, these petty issues had the power to shoot tiny darts deep into my self-perception, attacking my identity as hillwalker and photographer, and upsetting my sense of belonging in the mountains. I felt separated from them, by the fact of my own physical limitations, and subsequently by my continuing to hold those limitations in awareness. Not dramatically separated; I was after all physically present up in the hills I love so much, nonetheless I felt set slightly apart.

I’d had such hopes too – maybe setting unrealistic expectations – but a mere handful of days every twelve to eighteen months is not enough and I know I try to cram every last ounce of appreciation into that short time, inevitably setting myself up for disappointment. So I’d looked forward to feeling once again that sense of belonging I’ve always felt in those rugged, wild landscapes – but this time, the landscapes seemed to hold back from me. Just a little, like the faint edge of distance and coldness hinting that an old friend has now found new companions.

But in spite of that, down in the valley with the hills rising abruptly all around I knew I’d be happy just to live – to be – in a place like that, knowing the presence of the hills as old friends. I could develop a sense of intimacy with that landscape, getting to know every rock, every tree, every turning of the path.

We drove back home with my sense of identity and of belonging in the hills weakened and uncertain. And things were no better at home. I’ve lived in this town for twenty seven years, yet I feel no ties to it. It’s familiar, but that’s all. I have a few acquaintances here, but no friends. No roots; I don’t belong. I remain a loner, on the edge of communities – involved, but a little remote, almost aloof.

And trying to re-engage with work on Friday only reinforced just how alien my work feels to me. In twenty-eight years, though twelve jobs in five organisations, I’ve only had two positions, lasting less than a year each, where I’ve felt I belonged, felt as though my true identity could blossom instead of being stifled at every turn. The first of those jobs was terminated abruptly when the company underwent the convulsions of downsizing; the second, for inexplicable reasons, I left voluntarily. I still don’t know whether that was the most courageous or the most stupid career decision I ever made. But that’s another story.

Friday was definitely a low point. I worked from home so that I could put the tent up in the garden to dry (we’d broken camp in pouring rain) but ended up hanging it in the garage as it rained here as soon as I’d put it up. All these three aspects of life - my greatest pleasure, my home and my job - came crowding in on me, telling me I don’t belong: a fleeting visitor only to the hills, a fish out of water in my job, and a stranger in my home community.

And now, returning to blogging after a week away, the questions of belonging and identity loom here also. I’ve threatened several times to abandon this blog yet I know what it is that keeps me here every time: the sense of identity that it gives, and the sense of belonging to the community of bloggers. Yet even they are unclear senses; I feel their presence less than I would feel their absence if I stopped.

All of which though leaves me, rather like this tree, no closer to finding answers to those twin questions: Who am I? And where do I belong?

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