For a long time, I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. Not in my family, not in my culture, not with my peers, and not even in my body.
Those were times of deep loneliness and excruciating shyness, times when I felt out of place, awkward, judged and wrong, wrong wrong. I felt so ‘not right’ and that experience was the source of deep pain.
This sense of not belonging translated into my experiences in uncomfortable ways. When I was young, I felt a strange and ancient sense of being too old to do things with my peers and I let that feeling stop me from participating and playing with peers and friends. When I was older, I still felt out of place, and I had a very hard time understanding where this deep sense of not fitting in came from.
However, as there are gems in all tough lessons, this internalized sense of being an outsider, which, in my memory I can trace back to around the age of 11, also came with many rewards and skills.
I became a keen observer of human nature. Because I felt too awkward to participate, and because I longed so deeply to participate freely without self-judgment or fear I studied the people around me intensely, armored with books and an appearance of not caring, of being absorbed in other things. Yet, I deeply cared, and thus felt driven to understand and learn how to access this feeling of belonging, of becoming free and light and happy.
There are many ways in which we can feel like we don’t belong, and, as I’ve discovered in the process of unraveling my own blockages, my own fears, my own blind spots, there are just as many ways we can feel that we DO belong, despite and in fact because of everything.
The one experience of not belonging took me into experience after experience, and my path towards belonging became a deepening journey that was simultaneously an unraveling journey.
But what did not belonging look like?
Not belonging looked like the paralyzed voice that couldn’t jump into social groups and flow with jokes and storytelling and pleasure.
It looked like a crippling shyness and a constant humming chant of ‘no one likes you, no one likes you, no one likes you’ over and over and over again, until I believed it and froze up.
It looked like confusion and longing and a lack of snappy comebacks and a lack of a tribe that had my back.
Not belonging looked like schooltime labels of ‘loser’ and ‘not cool’ and ‘boring’ and ‘awkward’ and absolutely no resilience and ability to change these self-fulfilling prophecies that were running through my head.
But not belonging also looks like curiosity and inquiry.
It looks like a keen desire to understand humanity, to understand why groups of people and individuals often act in opposition to each others’ values, even when the individuals are in the groups.
It looks like a desire to question everything.
A desire to learn, to explore and to unravel the mysteries that led to difficult experiences in middle and high school.
Not belonging looks like questioning the wisdom of church traditions that put down women as less than men.
It looks like questioning cultural practices that value male participation and reward it financially in a dramatically different way that for women. Cultural practices that value certain races and cultures over others.
iI looks like questioning why there are almost no young men in dance classes, and almost no young women on hockey teams.
Not belonging looks like noticing that we are living in a society where there is still unspoken subtle segregation, where people of different cultural and racial backgrounds can live in the same communities yet almost never cross paths, even when they work and learn together.
Curiosity and inquiry and the spark of feeling like an outsider have taken me down the most incredible paths.
Curiousity caused me to question my own family’s mythologies. Why, for example, the MacKinnon side of my mother’s family, and their Scottish roots, were idolized, yet the Adams side, with disparate roots including some distant First Nations ancestry, were hidden, ignored, almost didn’t exist.
My mother and her siblings, growing up, didn’t know they had First Nations roots. Some still deny it. Yet, as genetics does it’s thing, children are born reflecting who they come from, some favouring one side, some favouring the other, some being the perfect mix and some showing up pulling shadows and stories in from the past, because they look more like ancestors 3 or 4 generations back than their own parents.
It astounds me still that my sister and I, full-blooded sisters, look so different. I’m taller than average with dark hair, dark eyes, and my sister is average height with blond hair and shockingly gorgeous green eyes. How does this happen? And then my cousin, my mother’s sister’s child, looks like the spitting image of my mother, more so than her own mother. Mysteries indeed.
All of this is to say – my mother and her siblings, growing up, didn’t know they had First Nations roots. My mother learned this fact when she was older, and shared it with my siblings and I when we were teenagers. Confirmed by my great-aunt and grandmother’s journey to learn about why they looked different, with little details but some confirmation by their own aunt, these ancestors, most definitely not white, also confirmed their presence in my mother’s appearance.
Learning that there was indeed First Nations ancestry made so much sense because my mother looks mixed. She looks not quite white.
So here’s the thing. Secrets carry power. The things that are not spoken, that are denied, that carry a whiff of shame, the scent of these secrets carry a force that drives us, in fact, further than the truths of our history which are in plain sight.
Identity is a tricky and amazing thing. And, knowing oneself is one of the most powerful acts of rebellion and self-power you can access. Self-knowledge and acceptance are the grounding rods to truth, joy and resilience.
i am so grateful for this revelation of hidden ancestry.
Why? Not because I identify as First Nations. As a woman who looks white, with most of my ancestry being a mixture of whiteness, as a woman who was raised in a family and culture rooted in European immigrants’ stories and lifeways, in a culture that prioritizes whiteness, I cannot claim to be what I am not. Just as I can’t go to Scotland or Wales or the Orkney Islands and claim to be Scottish, Welsh or Orcadian (I’d be looked askance and it would be so clear I am not that), what I CAN do is claim roots that are Scottish, Welsh and Orcadian. And, I can also claim First Nations heritage, but not claim to BE First Nations.
What I can do is honour who I come from, where I come from, and then honour my own self by becoming, quite simply, a rooted me.
I’m hoping this makes sense.
What I’m getting at is this: my own identity has been a healing journey catalyzed by my experiences of feeling like and being an outsider growing up, combined with revelations about secret histories.
These secret histories started opening doors in my inquiry. I started asking a lot of questions of myself.
Questions like: who am I?
Who is my family? Who do we come from, where do we come from, and where do we, and I, belong?
What is this country I live in? How is it that whiteness has become the norm, and First Nations live in often deplorable conditions.
Questions like: how could my country have torn children away from their families, and run residential schools, forced the devastation of language, cultural practices, and landtheft?
The thing is, these kinds of questions are good, and also terrifying.
When we base our identity and our sense of groundedness on the externalizations that come from thinking we know what our cultural backgruonds are, thinking that we know how men and women should act, thinking that we know our place and everyone elses’ place in society, and thinking that all is as it should be, we are vulnerable.
When we ground our identities in our roles, such as mother, father, daughter, wife, husband, worker, artist, life of the party, loser, or whatever it is that you most definitely attach yourself to, we are vulnerable.
When we sink our teeth into the identities of being young, thin, talented, lucky, unlucky, charming, sexy or powerful, we leave ourselves vulnerable.
When we attach ourselves to stories of any sort about ourselves, even the tragic ones, identities of being broke, sad, boring, old, chronically ill, ugly, fat, unlucky, disliked, put upon, we are vulnerable.
We leave ourselves vulnerable because these are identities that, even if true, can change in an instant. And, often, these identities are not really true. They are not true because, in fact, our core selves, our essential spirit is both more than, and less than, the ideas and projections about ourselves that we broadcast.
We leave ourselves vulnerable because we start to believe these identities, and then, when things change, or when we are shown the secrets, the lies, the mistruths about our tightly clenched identities, we fall into a disorienting and ‘rug pulled out from under ourselves’ state of being.
I’m all for the intense learning that comes from having identities torn away, because there is opportunity for tremendous growth when you find yourself in that place, but I’m also interested in learning to simply be more grounded by the certainty that who we are is unknowable, yet the essence of ourselves is also so steady and powerfully present, that no matter what identities we take on or put off, we are rarely knocked over.
The great irony in this state of being, this way of living without as many labels (or, with the necessary labels worn lightly, like a showercap you put on and take off, rather than a full body suit of armour that must be wrenched off and, when worn, becomes crushing) is that learning to live wholly and in a sovereign way, as one singular in nature and connected to your essence, involves an examination and investigation and true claiming of identity.
I was not able to let go of my longing to know where I came from and who I came from until I’d exhausted my search. To understand the secrecy about this distant First Nations ancestor, I started asking questions of my family. I wrote a letter to my beloved great aunt, my mother’s mother’s sister, and she replied with a letter of their quest for knowledge, when they were young, an adventure to visit their aunt, whose shame and anger and denial was so vehement they knew they were onto something.
I was not able to let go of my longing to know until I did some ancestral genealogical research.
I had to look at my culture and, from there, at colonial history. I studied anthropology to learn more about cultures, I went on exchange programs to Japan and Russia, I plunged into chronic fatigue, which led me down the rabbit hole of healing therapies, and then into chronic stress and trauma.
Struggling with chronic fatigue, another symptom of freezing up, and seeing this fatigue reflected in my mother and her siblings caused me to look at the abuse that went on in my mother’s family when they were children as well as my father’s family. It led me to learn more about PTSD and teenage soldiers and alcoholism and the tragically unruly and crushing ways that coping with immense pain with addictions and violence visited such damage on their wives and children, who were in a society and time period in which these young soldiers got no support to heal, in a time when it was very difficult for women to leave their alcoholic abusive husbands and still pay their bills. One question opened the door to others, and I took every invitation to be cracked open, shocked and outraged and astonished.
To begin to feel freer and more accepting of myself, I needed to go through the process of self-inquiry, discovery and acceptance.
I certainly did not want to admit and see the painful parts of my family history, my culture’s history, my country’s history, or the harsh and brutal realities of humanity. However, seeing the pain, bearing witness to ways in which people and ancestors cope, finding acceptance of how everything that has happened in this world has conspired to place me where I grew up, in the far north of Canada, and have conspired to place me where I am (as with everyone in the world), I find a certain peace. Rather than resisting the history I don’t like, I can accept it, see it clearly, and choose how to act, react and make the changes I can.
Acceptance has come, for me, from a deep knowledge that now, as I know more and more about myself, my family, and history, I can also accept that I cannot know it all, but I can connect, always, to this enduring spark of energy, motion and life that is inside of me.
I can accept the mysteries of myself and my existence, and allow the identities I carry, the identities I clutch onto, and the identities others give me (whether I agree with them or not) to fall away. And even when I’m using a certain identity, I no longer strive so fiercely to fulfill the mythologies attached to the identity.
For example, the mythologies and expectations of motherhood. I became a mother, a single mother, at the age of 23. And when I was attached to the idea of young single mother, I also struggled with all of the judgements about being a young single mother – not dateable, a burden, shameful, ‘she must have done something wrong’ etcetera etcetera.
15 years further into this healing/being/living journey of life, I am still a single mother. But now I don’t really fucking care what labels are attached to that identity, I wear it as a statement of certain circumstances, without identifying or resisting the labels that accompany it.
I am well aware of the labels but because I feel so much more rooted in a certainty that I am a person here on earth, who happens to be understood through various labels, it does not mean that I am a shameful failure, or a strong independent woman, or super capable and resourceful, or admirable, or tiresome, or struggling. I am simply myself, raising my teenage daughter on my own, and that too will change.
It has been through my challenges, my curiosity, my investigations of myself and a gnawing hunger to know who and where I came from that I find myself, now, feeling like my body is my first home, that my resilience lies in my faith that I am both more than my identities and so much less than my identities.
It has been through turning towards the gaps in self-knowledge that I am now in a position to feel grounded enough, resilient enough, alive enough to let the labels and identities go.
And finally, I feel like I belong. This experience of belonging has little to do with the ideas about belonging that I had as a teenager, when I was longing to fit in, to be accepted, to be adored and loved and have an inclusive pack of friends. Back then I thought that belonging had to do with who you spent your time with and how you dressed and behaved. I was so fixed on these external indicators of belonging that I lost sight of the truest sense of belonging.
I know, now, that belonging to this world relies on an acceptance that I am inhabiting my body, rather than resisting it. Belonging lies in a sense that I am ok. That there is nothing wrong with me. Belonging has come with the understanding that I come from certain people and certain cultures and languages and historic experiences, and yet, I belong to myself first of all.
I belong I belong I belong.
In whatever state my body is in, under the mantle of whatever labels I wear or cast off, in whatever culture and geography I find myself, I belong first, foremost and most truly to myself. I am a sovereign, complete person.
Most of all, I belong to myself and no other.
And so this is why I do the work that I do. My greatest passion is facilitating self-knowledge, creative self-expression, and bringing people home to their bodies so they too feel complete, whole, sovereign and luscious. Yes, luscious. Free, alive, and vibrant.
On February 20th I’m running Personal Mythmaking, an 11-week course and circle for people who are committed to knowing who they are, what and where they come from, for people who are longing to feel so deeply rooted on such a powerful foundation that they will be unruffled by life’s circumstances.
We investigate, inquire, ask questions and learn to inhabit our bodies.
In our 11 weeks together we mix weekly themes (such as language, culture, ancestors, body image, place and space, heroes and villains and more) with playful storytelling/fairytales, embodied anatomy prompts, creative writing prompts and videocalls until, by the end of it, you’ll also have written a surprising, beautiful, optimistic and glorious story of yourself and your life.
With ease. All of this learning is designed to be easeful.
Personal Mythmaking is a small and intimate course (no more than 20 people), in which I’m devoted to providing you with tools and skills with which to awaken your own inner knowing, your creativity, and your connection to your body.
I draw together my background in anthropology (study of cultures), creative writing, painting and dance with my hands-on bodywork training and practice (Hellerwork Structural Integration) and the very practical skills of carpentry into a joyful and unique course.
If you have questions, please do reply to this e-mail to inquire. Or, if you’re curious about signing on but want answers, I’m also happy to chat (free, of course) via telephone or skype. I am also happy to set up payment plans for you, please just ask.
Dr. Tonia Winchester has this to say about Personal Mythmaking:
“Janelle is a guardian of your sacred truth, and will create a safe space to play, know, understand, and emote. She will bring out your inner guide and create new pathways for success, love, and abundance.
She is a delight to work with, sharing deep, provocative writing and embodiment exercises peppered with giggles and heart-catching anecdotes. She will transform your life.”