I received an anonymous letter today--addressed to the Courier, no return address, no signature, postmarked in a distant state. It's probably not well-remembered in this age of Internet comments pages full of pseudonyms and sock puppets, but traditionally, anonymous letters are not published. Many publishers automatically destroy such letters. Letter writers can ask to have their name withheld, but the publisher always verifies the identity of the author before publishing the letter. Imagine if this was still a rule on the Internet!

This letter writer was not unhappy with the Courier (well, maybe they will be now...). But I was struck that someone would have found the Winchendon Courier online and feel moved to write with comments after so many years so far away. It tied into some other thoughts I've been having this week, about identity and communities. What is it that makes us feel that we belong to a place, and that a place belongs to us?

The answer isn't always obvious.

I was born in Springfield, Vermont. When I was four years old, my family moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. When I was five years old, we moved to Spokane, Washington. When I was six years old, we moved to the other side of the city of Spokane. When I was 14, we moved back East to Acton, Massachusetts.

I never felt like I fit in anywhere that we lived, and I was not sorry when my family moved away from Spokane, as profoundly as that affected the course of my life (I might well have become an actor had we stayed put, and ended up in LA). But I meet people who have lived in the same place all their lives, people who were born in towns where their parents went to school, people whose families have streets named after them in the town where they've always lived, and I wonder...what must that be like? What can it be like to have that level of continuity with a place? I couldn't even imagine it.

I bought a house in Pepperell, and I lived there for 29 years, and I never once felt like I really belonged there. It was a nice house, a nice neighborhood, and a nice town. But I felt like a stranger to the day I left. People I knew moved into town. I never saw them.

Then I moved to Winchendon. And I felt like I'd lived here my whole life. I can't explain it, and I never will be able to. I felt the same way when I took a trip up to Camden and Lincolnville, Maine, researching for a book. It was like I knew all the streets, all the people, the landscape, the buildings, the town histories, in an area I had never seen in my life before. It was like the West Bay of Maine knew my name. I couldn't figure it out. And that's how I feel in Winchendon.

My parents lived in Winchendon. I'd certainly been around the town. But Winchendon welcomed me in a way I'd never experienced before. And it's not just the people. It's the feeling I get from the land. Go figure...I can't!

Many of us spend our lives seeking a sense that we truly belong somewhere, but sometimes belonging is a matter of accepting the invitation. We can't know how we'll really feel in a place until we actually get there, and make a certain commitment to it. Belonging works both ways. When we say "my town," we don't just mean, "the place I'm from" or "the place I live," but also "the place I'm committed to, the place I want to give something back to."

Everyone can say where they're from. But many people don't have a place where they feel they belong.

Do you? It's worth thinking about.

Inanna Arthen