I'm reading
How to belong
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
How to belong
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
How to belong
Pass it on
Pass it on
3 January 2020

How to belong

Six exquisite poems on belonging.

Written by Pádraig Ó Tuama

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

Discussed in this Story

For years I’ve thought there’s a connection between being alone and belonging. At parties, when I was feeling like I didn’t belong in my own skin, I began looking around and seeing other people who – like me – were also unoccupied. Some of them looked as awkward as I felt. But I began to notice some people who, even though they were alone, also seemed at ease.

What’s their magic? I wondered.

One night, I decided to enquire. I like being me, a woman said. We had a long conversation after that. I’d noticed her because she was a self-assured wonder amidst the jumble. The quality of her being made me want to learn to be me.

Of course life isn’t a party. But it has some. And it has workplaces and families and friendships and fights and loneliness and limitation and failures and fuckups. It has abusive power and predatory people. It has elections. It has religion and threat and consolation and poetry. It has music and madness. It has clocks too – little timebombs reminding us that we were beautiful once. All of these experiences with all of their threats and echoes and predictions and diagnoses.

These six poems explore how a person belongs, and how a person is alone:

A person says “I’ve lost control of my story” and begins to notice what’s around them.

A person says “I need help” and those three simple syllables open up a door, we hope.

A person notices time passing, and realizes time will continue even when they don’t.

A person tells lies that save their life because they live in a country where people think words like Legitimate Target mean something.

A person reads a story about a dictator of the past and realizes it’s not a story about the past at all.

A person knows they are born to write. They have a blank book. They begin to write.

What will help us find belonging? Damned if I know. But I do know some things, so perhaps damned I am. So here it is: It is a good thing to find the time to be alone, and be alone. It is a good thing, when alone, to listen. And to learn. And to act. Being alone helps us be together. And being together – with all of its justices, changes, demands, recalibrations and celebrations – is what will save us.



It’s everywhere you turn these days, it seems:
the idiot on the hillside; the lazy stealing language
and calling it inspired; the prophet screaming
at a screen; the poet writing policy and pretending

it has meaning; the landlord counting pebbles;
the loaded drawing borders and separating peoples;
the empire claiming histories they’ve stolen; the holy
hiding in cathedrals; the rigid tightening their backs.

We see the spark and believe it’s some new fire. Nothing’s
new. And nothing changes till we twist our spines to truth
and see behind us. Revolutions are useless without a little volta.

Behold the lowly fallen far behind us. Behold their buried stories.
Behold the Sodom city and the angels on the their heels.
Behold the fire burning and the shaping of us all.



How to be alone

It all begins with knowing
nothing lasts forever.
So you might as well start packing now.
But, in the meantime,
practice being alive.

There will be a party
where you’ll feel like
nobody’s paying you attention.
And there will be a party
where attention’s all you’ll get.
What you need to do
is know how to talk to
your s e l f
between these parties.

there will be a day,
— a decade —
where you won’t
fit in with your body
even though you’re in
the only body you’re in.

You need to control
your habit of forgetting
to breathe.

Remember when you were younger
and you practiced kissing on your arm?
You were on to something then.
Sometimes harm knows its own healing
comfort its own intelligence.
Kindness too.
It needs no reason.

There is a you
telling you a story of you.
Listen to her.

Where do you feel
anxiety in your body?
The chest? The fist? The dream before waking?
The head that feels like it’s at the top of the swing
or the clutch of gut like falling
& falling & falling and falling
It knows something: you’re dying.
Try to stay alive.

For now, touch yourself.
I’m serious.

Touch your
Take your hand
and place your hand
some place
upon your body.
And listen
to the community of madness
you are.
You are
such an
interesting conversation.

You belong



Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living beings.

I’ve been swimming round here for a while now
and while I’ve never touched the ocean floor,
I’ve tried.

You notice things out here. The way the wind
makes waves chop at odd angles, the way the water feels
warmer at the top,

the way the moon makes music when you’re half dead
with cold, the ways of frozen bones, the way the morning
never feels the same.

Once a seal bumped me. Came right up to me,
like a sea puppy and — I swear — he smiled. I was floating happy
after that. I said

the ocean was my home. Then the storm came.
Then the waves. Then the lightning spiked the surface. This
is not your home.



Time, and Time Again

Forever — is composed of Nows —
Emily Dickinson

Today, I took a pencil
and drew a little shape.
Mostly round, but not a perfect circle.

And then I drew
And another.

Until I’d filled the page.
And then the room.
Until I spilled across that border that I hate,

Until I’d
a world

with little shapes of imperfection
gathered round an empty space.
Little skins that try to hold themselves together:

just like that shirt
I don’t fit into anymore;
just like these words;

just like the way I tried to wrap my arms
around my self but never could;
just like the coffin

that my friend was
laid to rest in, broken open,
now that time has had its way.

Nothing lasts a lifetime.
Yesterday I saw a baby and thought about
her midlife crisis, half a century from now.

There was a time when I
said I didn’t mind the way that nothing
lasts forever. There was that time

when I broke most of what I loved.
There was that frightened time when language
just abandoned me.

There was that time when I woke early,
when I took a little pencil
when I wrote time

and time again thinking love might start
if I could start again.
There was a time when I thought

once drawn
were straight.


The Pedagogy of Conflict.


When I was a child,
I learnt to lie.

When I was a child
my parents said that sometimes,
lives are protected
by an undetected
light lie of

When I was a child,
I learnt to lie.

Now, I am more than twenty five
and I’m alive
because I’ve lied
and I am lying still.

it’s the only way of living.


When I was a child
I learnt that I could stay alive
by obeying certain

let your anger cool before you
blossom bruises on your brother’s shoulder;

always show your manners at the table;

always keep the rules and never question;

never mention certain things to certain people;

never doubt the reasons behind
legitimate aggression;

if you compromise or humanise
you must still even out the score;

and never open up the door.
Never open up the door.
Never, never, never open up the blasted door.

When I was a child,
I learnt that I could stay alive
by obeying certain rules.
Never open up the door.


When I was a child,
I learnt to count to five
one, two, three, four, five.
but these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count

one life
one life
one life
one life
one life

because each time
is the first time
that that life
has been taken.

Legitimate Target
has sixteen letters
and one



How to Belong
for Jotham Shepherd, soon to be seventeen.

Third time lucky, right? Try to stay alive.
Find a place to climb to; find a roof; buy some
climbing shoes; you’ll need them.

Feed your devils or they’ll feed on you.

Take a bag, a book, a pen, a friend who knows
what quiet is; take whatever choices that you need
to sidestep where the riot is; take survival; take whatever

bible will enliven you; take a thing you hate and

reshape it with a knife; take a night — your own —
and brighten it; take a look at all that is around you; take a
drink, but only one or two, the morning time is good for you,

so don’t sleep through it; take your bursting brilliance.

Take that light that’s been surrounding you for decades.
Take the storyline of kindness and mix it with the truth.
Take your youth and your excuses. all your confusion;

use them.

Take your generosity; take all of your ferocity
and your love; take those words that you’ve been
saving up, make them save you now; make them fight.

Take your hand, your pen, your paper — write.

Pádraig Ó Tuama

Poet and theologian, Pádraig brings interests in language, violence and religion to his work.

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