Grief is a sacred journey

Remembering Where We Belong

“Only from such a place of loss and longing can we begin remembering ourselves home.”                                 ~Toko-pa Turner, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Back Home, p. 18

After two weeks of Arizona sunshine, loving friends, gourmet meals, and brilliant stars, I looked forward to the Finger Lakes spring. I wanted to hear peeper frogs and honking geese. I wanted to watch bluebirds in their nesting box and finches at the feeder. I longed for wet earth and greening trails.

My son Anthony lives three miles away when he’s not traveling. A few days after my return, he came by to borrow a chain saw to trim trees broken by winter’s heavy snow. I prepared a simple lunch. He suggested a walk.

I hadn’t spent much time in the deep woods after March snows. Instead, I’d headed for the AZ desert.

While I was gone, the snow melted, mosses greened, and buds swelled. As we walked the forest trails, we cleared broken limbs from the path. We visited a place where Anthony and his friends created a small pyramid near stone walls. We explored the dam Anthony made in the stream before crossing another swollen stream and climbing to the back corner of the property.

“Let’s hike up to the gorge,” Anthony suggested.

“I don’t use that trail anymore,” I said. “After the neighbor logged the big oaks and maples, it was too sad. They also demolished trails with brush, so I got lost a few times.”

I don’t like being lost.

“I’ll find the way,” Anthony said. He explored every corner of this forest as a kid, so I trusted he would.

I climbed through a brushy barrier and followed Anthony and Willow up hill. The trail had been re-opened by a man who bought the woods after the big trees were cut. Seedlings were becoming trees in this familiar, yet all new landscape. A wide well-tended trail opened before us and encouraged me on.

We found a posted sign marking the corner between my neighbor’s property and National Forest. Anthony pointed out a row of ancient oak trees growing in clusters. “This oak hedgerow ends on our land near the swamp,” Anthony said. “Dad built a tree house in one of them for David and me.”

We found a lean-to with remnants of a bark roof not far from a familiar bridge. Deep shade from the hemlocks preserved patches of snow. Even with my poor hearing, I heard the rushing gorge stream before seeing it.

“I belong here,” I said to Anthony. “I loved Arizona’s blue skies and exotic desert plants and birds, but this is home.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anthony nodded. He’s attached to this land, too. He spotted a soaring hawk. I saw the flash of a white-tailed deer. Yes, it’s cloudy here and sometimes wet and cold, but it’s green, gentle, and full of wild fertile life.

While traveling, I read Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home by Toko-pa Turner.  The book awakened  an on-going question: Where do I belong? Where do I feel at home?

My husband Vic died ten years ago this June. In his last months, I said to him, “I don’t think I can manage the house and land by myself. I’ll need to move.”

“I know you’ll figure it out,” he said. I half-wanted him to tell me what to do after his death, but it was my job to find a sense of home in a world without his physical presence.

Gorge Stream

I’m still here on the land where we cleaned old dumps and my sons and I built a cairn for Vic. I’m still here living in an old farm house we saved from collapse. I’m here because of a network of helpers, an enduring community, and my love of this land. This is my sacred earth, the place where I belong.

***

Where do you belong? Do you long for home when you’re away? I recommend an article called “Wisdom of Trees” by Sara Burrows because it helps me understand the mysterious network of connection that holds me to the forest. You might also enjoy Give Thanks for the Teaching of Trees which includes three favorite poems about forest wisdom. I expect I’ll write about desert experiences sometime soon, but this week, I had to write about belonging. I leave you with a taste of Arizona desert sky.

Arizona sunset, March 2018

33 Comments
  1. Yes, yes, yes. For some it is a busy city, others a desert, you a forest, me a small village…though i deeply miss our forest. I belong here. You belong there. As long as each of us belongs to ourselves….we can belong anywhere….

    • I’ve felt a sense of belonging to this land since seeing my first sunset here in 1972. The beauty helped me overlook the falling down house that needed everything from a new roof to foundation work. Reading Toko-pa’s book helped me dig down into my roots again. It was also a gift to have a young male explorer to lead the way.

  2. Fertile post, Elaine. Thank you. Home is what we think about when we’re somewhere else. Home is where we keep returning to. Home is where we nestle ourselves into the earth.

    • I agree, Mark. Thanks for taking time to read and comment. If you ever make it to the Finger Lakes, I’d love to show you and your wife my favorite trails in the National Forest. We complain about too much rain here and the slow spring, but the waterfalls and mosses are spectacular.

  3. Beautiful. Love the picture of you with Anthony.

  4. Such an important question Elaine, Where do You belong .. or where do you long to be .. Is it a place? or a feeling? Or maybe both. One’s land keeps one grounded and loving I would imagine. If one has one’s own land there is appreciation for it and we tend to it and are tender towards it. Too many have been displaced from their land of origin and moving to somewhere where this is no ‘attachment’ leaves a deep wound.

    It would be cliched to say ‘home is where the heart is’ but there is truth in this.

    Your photographs are beautiful. Welcome home!

    • Yes, there’s a truth in that saying, Susan. In Arizona, we visited Chiracahua National Monument where the Apache people took their last stand against the US calvary and lost. I had been there 20 years or more before, but wanted to return. I was keenly aware of the indigenous blood and suffering that soaked that land and the cruelty of human conquerors then (and now). My land was once summer hunting land for the Seneca Indians, one of the tribes in the Iroquois Confederation. The Iroquois sided with the British during the Revolutionary War, so when the British lost, the tribal people were sent to registration. Their land was given away to the victors. I live on a piece of that stolen land. As I walk under the oldest trees, I remember the suffering they’ve witnessed.

  5. Dear Elaine, What joy to read of your travels and glorious return to the land you belong to! We all need that time spent in different places, which brings a new perspective to where we live, and can be confirming either way. The Welsh have this wonderful word “hiraeth” which means “calling the soul home” and this is what I felt when I first visited the northern lands of my country, for I long to walk upon its valleys and mountainous lands.

    Writing about nature comes so naturally to you! There’s another book still to be written on this land you love. Perhaps another memoir, scattered with the trails you follow and their unfolding seasons. Now there’s a book I would love to read! For as I follow your wonderful words and inspiring images over hill, past gorge stream and into deep woodlands, far from losing myself, your words, in many ways take me home! My soul knows!

    Now, tis you that makes my heart sing today! Thank you so much for including your “Teaching of Trees” article. What a joyful, uplifting rich reread! “Lost” by David Wagoner is one of my favourite (I have hundreds!) poems. Enjoy your earth and heavenly trails! In sisterhood and in soul, Deborah.

    • Deborah, your comments send me on rich journeys. I love this word “hiraeth” (my paternal grandfather was of Welsh lineage) and the idea of “calling the soul home.” I imagine a calling to a place and even more to an inner state of peace and presence. Vic recognized this land as ours before I did, so I wasn’t sure I’d feel the same connection without him here. Instead of lessening, my sense of belonging here has grown.

      I’m still working through endless financial and medical needs for my mother-in-law. They piled up while I was away. I keep my blog going by writing about what interests me at the moment. I write a monthly blog for my local hospice. I submit articles here and there and promised a Jungian workshop on Aging and Grief in the fall, so this will help me focus on Jungian themes and myths. I await that inner sense of knowing and dedication necessary to create a book. I have a number of starts, but nothing completed. We shall see. I loved that article about trees, too. I read a more scientific version a few years ago, I think in The New Yorker, and I’ve seen these ideas other places. We’re learning more about the wisdom of the earth and vegetative realms. Blessings to you and your home.

  6. Lovely, warm post, Elaine. I too know the pull of the land, the ten-year disorder (too mild a word) that logging brings, and the awe I feel as each time I walk a path, I see it differently. And I too wonder how long I can actually stay here. My older son who loves the land too, lives 750 miles away. One day at a time. :).

    • Janet, I have an older son who lives 500 miles away. He’s very attached to his beautiful land in North Carolina. The son in this blog is only here part time. He’s a traveling musician, so off he goes. The neighbor’s woods was murdered 20 years ago with their permission and for money, but that encouraged us to add a conservation easement to our deed so no one can log our forest for profit in the future. Plant life here is vigorous, so it was wonderful to see new life emerging from the disaster. Yes, one day at a time and appreciating each day. I look out my bedroom window first thing each morning to see what the bluebirds are doing. They’re guarding a nesting box, but I don’t think she’s laid eggs. It’s just too cold.

  7. What a beautiful post, Elaine. I complain about the severe Maine weather but truly feel I belong here with it’s mud and reticent spring. I could use a visit to Arizona, too! Always love to visit places, but awesome to come home.

    • Thank you, Molly. I imagine Maine with challenging winters and gorgeous coastlines. Our spring is muddy and reticent, too, so I’m having a love affair with my LLBean mud boots. They take me anywhere and keep me sure-footed. Arizona was beautiful. I’d been there many times before, but not to that area. Often a little overcast and cool, but exquisite with long views and unfamiliar wildlife. I saw a Great Horned Owl there after dreaming of one a few days before. I have a few stories to write about Arizona, but I’m still hatching them.

  8. As one of your correspondents said, home may be a feeling, and that’s what it is for me. It’s not that I don’t love my current digs–recently blessed by your visit–but I can feel lost and estranged from myself there as well as anywhere. My sense is that we pass from one place to another, one state of mind to another, and of course sooner or later pass on altogether; home is always there in that feeling of deep and deepening quiet that seems to be there wherever I am.

    • Dearest Fred, I agree that home is within. I struggle with a sense of displacement when I travel anywhere. Dotty has a lot to teach me about trust in what life presents. I’m chewing the lessons.

      I have much to write about Arizona and my experiences there with you, but the ideas are still brewing. I’m captivated by the owl we saw near the San Pedro River–a sense of spiritual visitation–and the dream I had 5 days before of walking with Dotty up a hill with a mature owl that was given to me. Dotty was helping me find a safe place to release it. I’m also digging into the grief and beauty of Chiricahua and what that place means to me. And then there’s friendship.

      I came home to piles of rejected insurance bills for Virginia (mostly sorted out now) and an appointment for Medicaid application. I had most of what was needed but there are more tasks, so I’m still making phone calls and waiting for people to call back. The beauty of the welcome home walk with Anthony felt immediate and accessible. I went with that feeling. Sending love to you and I wish I could share the rain.

  9. Welcome home, and thank you for another inspiring post, Elaine. And for the link to the fascinating TED talk, “The Wisdom of Trees.” I loved it! When I was five years old my father took me for a walk through the woods near our first Florida home and the powerful feeling that washed through me was a magical/spiritual revelation. I now recognize that feeling as my soul singing, “Yes! Oh yes! This is who I am. This is where I belong.”

    Thirty-six years ago Fred and I built a cabin on 5 acres of land in a valley in the densely forested Smoky Mountains. Returning there every summer is always a homecoming for me. Through the years we’ve acquired adjoining property and now have 30 acres, most of which is forest. Like you, I find deep comfort and solace in exploring, maintaining, and preserving it for future generations.

    By the way, if you haven’t read “On Trails” by Robert Moor, I highly recommend it. It has added new dimensions of meaning to every hike I take.

    • Jeanie, I’m taken with the walk with your father and what it represented for you as a child. My sons have strong memories of being in the woods with their dad when they were very young and then for years after that as they worked with him on the land. Their memories of me circle around the garden. They’re both gardeners and they both love the woods. It’s interesting what we remember from childhood. Those formative moments that stick and stay. I know your beautiful posts about being in the NC mountains and hiking with your beloved family dog. I haven’t read Robert Moor’s ‘On Trails,’ but I put it on my reading list. It sounds just right for me.

  10. Writing my memoir, I realize how deeply rooted I am in belonging to a certain place and culture. Children who lack such moorings often get into trouble.

    Enough of the moralizing, I am SO thankful you took a break to a quiet place, entirely different from Ithaca and elder-care. I believe you were on the threshold of a breakdown, caring for Viginia so diligently. Wise woman that you are, you knew you need a time-out! I noticed that you mention Anthony is just 3 miles away, a good thing even if he travels quite a lot. What a great companion on walks, sharing history and thoughts of the future.

    I am urging us to take a break to the NC mountains. Tall trees and higher-altitude foliage always restore my soul. Thank you for all of this!

    • I love learning about your roots, Marian, and feeling the solidity of your family ties. I don’t think you’re moralizing. I believe in family rootedness. My mother moved from place to place and teaching job to teaching job after my father died. She broke contact with my aunts, uncles, and my paternal grandmother. I couldn’t keep up with her address which changed every year as she went to a new place. My brother and I didn’t see her often, spend holidays with her, or even want to see her by the time we had our own families. Some of these wounds were stitched together when she married a man she’d known as a young woman and settled in Rochester, NY, a few hours from me. She lived out her days with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home 10 miles from me. All was forgiven and the love was still there, but so many years of connection and support had been lost. I didn’t want to uproot my children even thought they were adults, and that was one of the things that made me stay in the family home. I also have a spiritual community here with friends who knew my sons as babies. Those are precious new roots that Vic and I worked hard to nurture.

      My vacation was good and needed. My friend insisted I relax. I did my best and left my son’s phone numbers for Virginia’s nursing home. I didn’t get one call about her in two weeks. I’m psychologically sturdy and had strong support from therapy, friends, and sons, so didn’t think I was close to breaking, but I was tired and angry. I’ve had to face that Medicaid applications and a thousand other things make me angry and drain my energy. Is the unexpressed anger the biggest drain of all? I’ve been assured by the Medicaid counselor that when Virginia’s application is accepted in early June, I’ll be off the hook with the financial, insurance, legal parts of my responsibilities. Until then, there are more papers to gather and more places to call that don’t call back and records to order that are promised but rarely sent and have to be ordered again. Dear Virginia threw everything away. I’ve learned a lot about keeping my own financial records straight and clear for my sons.

      I hope you convince everyone you want to convince to take a break with you in the NC mountains. I’ve never been there, but my NC son and his wife love to camp in those mountains. We all need a break.

  11. I love how you (and your commenters) express old truths in fresh ways.

    Now that I’m immersed in memoir, I recognize more deeply my attachment to the land. Thus, I still see myself as a Pennsylvania Mennonite, though I am now neither. One of my chapters reveals a lesson I learned playing in Grandma’s woods with a (boy) friend.

    Naturally, it was hard for us to sell the 9.1 acres that had been in my family for at least three generations, and harder still to sell my mother’s and aunt’s properties after their deaths. No one lived close by any of the acreage or homes, and my brother would be unable to maintain it. So it goes . . .

    Happily, my neighbors and I were able to able to place 3.14 wooded acres in busy Jacksonville into preservation status when Walmart challenged us. They still built a big box, but some squirrels and birds remained in their homes. And tall oaks thanked us just by standing there.

    Playing prophet here: Your beloved farm will probably remain in your family even though now you don’t know how. I appreciate the links here; I do want to listen to the TED-x talk. Thanks for all of this. You keep me grounded, Elaine!

    • The tall oaks thanked you by just standing there. I’m glad a little patch of nature could be saved to help wildlife survive and thrive. When my sons and I had emotional discussions about “the land” after Vic died, I reminded them that sooner rather than later, none of us would be alive to live on or protect the land. With a conservation easement, Vic and I had protected it the best we could for the future, but like everything else in this world, there will be a time when we have to let it go. The deed on this property goes back many generations. I see all those names starting with Ebenezer Jewell who also loved the land.

      We’re pausing at the moment to imagine how it would work to pass the land and house to my son. No one is quite ready at this point, so we float ideas. It’s a great complement for you to say I keep you grounded since it’s a big job for me to feel grounded with my inner ear chaos. Thanks for taking a double dose this week.

  12. Yes, my little patch of land with the pond that was dug because I said it needed to be here is my home. I miss it terribly when I leave for any amount of time. It is not beautiful but it calls to me and I feel at home and at peace walking my few acres. I don’t even mind my neighbors, the woodchucks that call it home as well. One day I know I’ll have to leave this place. The winters, the unruly potholed driveway, the rocky yard and garden make living here more work than I’ll be able to keep up with one day. And then I’ll miss the frog song, the sunlight dancing on the pond, the heron landings, the deer that wend their way around the land. I can’t Marine ever loving a place like I love this place.

    • Your pond must be full of life and love for you and the wild things. Somehow I’m sure your place is beautiful, inside and out. How could it not be with your eye for beauty? I know about the hard work. Fortunately Vic got this place in good shape before he got sick, so the unruly driveway with potholes is now well drained with a packed gravel surface. It’s still a lot to tend and the tending is never-ending, but with help, I do it. When the crocus arrive (they’re bravely peeking up through a light cover of snow this morning), I’m glad I’m here.

  13. It’s been twenty years since I spent three summer seasons working in Yellowstone. That is the place I still long to return, and it’s the place I consider home. I also long to spend time on the family property in MT that I spent so much time as a child with my grandma and grandma. One of my sisters said none of us have any bad memories of that place, which is why I suppose we love it so.

    • I wonder if your family property in MT is still in the family, Jeri. I hope it is so you can return there. And Yellowstone should be available to all of us–unless the present administration decides to attack it. I think (hope) Yellowstone is such a universally loved place that it will be spared. I’m not so sure about the small Finger Lakes National Forest bordering my land. I look forward to new writings about being in nature. I enjoyed your recent piece.

  14. Welcome back from beautiful AZ, Elaine. I do miss it there, but thoroughly enjoyed a month out of winter with hubby in Mexico. It’s so great that you can say you know where you belong, where the roots that have taken hold for so many years still brings you comfort. For me, I don’t think I’ve found where I belong yet. I know it isn’t here. I still feel like it may be Arizona. 🙂

    • Hi Debby, I’m glad Mexico worked out reasonably well, but it can be challenging to travel with someone whose health is shaky. Sounds like your husband did OK. I was in areas east of Tuscon where it is alarmingly dry because of drought. The northern parts of the state have a very different feel and a bit more green. Welcome home. It’s finally warming up.

      • Thanks Elaine. The warmth and the sunshine were a miraculous tonic for my hubby. He’s done a complete 180 since January. I count my blessings every day. 🙂

  15. What a beautiful and moving account, dear Elaine.
    They say we belog to many places… but our home is the place where our heart lives in joy. I guess memories could be an important element when it comes to identify our place in the world.
    Travelling could makes us “feel” which is our place. Even if we excperience happiness as we are somewhere else. We know where we belong when we return… 😉 Sending love & best wishes!

    • Thank you, Aquileana. I was sure I’d leave my land after my husband’s death, but here I am 10 years later. My roots run deep in this soil, but someday I’ll leave as we must leave all things. I’ll leave knowing it’s protected with a conservation easement which means no one who buys this property can cut trees or make changes that aren’t for the health of the whole.

      I imagined I’d feel more at home in the desert since I’ve been there many times before, but this time I was thinking the weather there might improve a difficult inner ear problem that destroys my healing. If a dry climate helped me, I might have considered spending more time there, but it didn’t help. It’s a good thing to know. I think I’m more suited to inner underworld journeys than to outer journeys now. And, yes, in the end and in the present moment, happiness and the sacredness of life are within me any place I am and no matter what’s happening. Somehow it’s easier to remember that in the quiet refuge of this place.

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