I’m what you might call a chronic joiner.
In grade school I was a Girl Scout, and although I was not a very good one in terms of deep woods survival, being a Girl Scout had plenty of appeal: Giggling into the night in sleeping bags, learning silly songs, and the permission to wear an alternative uniform to school all scratched my itch to belong to something. The high school I chose to attend was an all-girls private institution of only about 425 young women. I wore the plaid, sang the alma mater, competed in pep rallies, and passed the torch to new classes. I treasured a particular legacy imparted only to those who experienced our hallowed halls. In college, I reveled in “going Greek” and proudly displayed the letters across my chest which broadcasted that not only was I chosen, but I was in on secrets to which others would never be privy.
Beyond my badges, sashes, and plaid, I’ve joined other clubs, causes, and kept up with my share of the Joneses. In some circumstances, my leg up would benefit a greater good. One could argue that within almost anything I’ve joined, there has been a philanthropic purpose that softened any elitist first glance. But in my younger days, I admit to finding safety in the exclusivity of it all. In my immature mind I thought the prize was selectivity—to stand out on the playground in my Brownie uniform, to walk through the mall in my green plaid, and even to sit in a certain section of the university commons as ridiculous as that sounds. Looking back, however, the value wasn’t so shallow. It was far more personal.
I didn’t have this epiphany until more recent adventures in joining.
In New Orleans, social organizations are on every corner, like nail salons are in Manhattan. Most are carnival related, krewes in a variety of sizes and selectivity. Some you and I may call snooty. And let’s be perfectly honest, New Orleans, some are snooty. But they also add to a certain pomp and circumstance that draws us into the carnival fantasy. Other krewes, like mine, are small in comparison to others, still selective, but not intimidating. You can’t miss mine. We have big hair, hips layered with heaps of brocade, and we will naughty any party that promises champagne.
Several months back I shared my vision for a new costume on my krewe’s private page and sparked what became a stream of exchanges about more costume creativity. We were speaking one another’s language and delighting in our cleverness. Soon after, we had a weekend of events in which the usual giddy behavior of our krewe blossomed before the eyes of onlookers. We were in our element, but the center of my euphoria wasn’t that we were on the inside as others looked in. Maybe it was that I’d grown up from being that immature Sorority Sue empowered by a bid? Maybe the champagne made me especially deep that evening? But in that moment, decked in 18th century costume, I got the sense that it isn’t about standing out anymore. It’s about belonging to something in which I don’t stand out.
I think we all have some innate wanting to be special, chosen, and handpicked, but as we age it becomes less about sitting at the cool table and more about sitting at the right table. The quirks and oddities that surfaced in our younger years eventually peel off and simplify. It’s all at once clear that we never needed the attention. We just needed to find our place, that certain pocket where our interests are refined alongside relationships that give a great big group hug to our distinctiveness.
The value of belonging reveals a bigger picture: We are not so special that we are alone.
There are people just like you and me. There are crazy men and women in this city who get their kicks building opulent costumes and living like fake royalty on the weekends. There are bibliophiles who have more books on their shelves than numbers in their contacts. There are grown-ups who dress their fur babies in bonnets and sweaters and will them their unconditional love. There are weirdos out there just like you and me, and only recently have I realized the prized possession is blending in with my fellow freaks. Because it’s in those moments of commonality that I free fall into the pure unadulterated joy of being me. What’s that saying Mom always said? “You are the company you keep.” When the right group for you comes along, they’re a keeper!
I know enough to know that dying to belong is rooted in insecurities and nonacceptance of self. This is when we fall victim to the desire to stand out in order to stifle our own unwillingness to settle in with the guts of who we really are. But belonging to something that helps you accept wonderful quirky you is entirely different. This is where I, the chronic joiner, have found myself in recent weeks. I don’t have the capacity yet to throw on a costume and sip champagne. That sort of unbridled joy hasn’t resurfaced as my grief over losing my father is still so raw. But there is the promise of arms welcoming me back from the darkness when I’m ready and the freedom for me to take my time.
Because the best groups are those who set you free—who bid you the prize of being you.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.