There are places in this world where we are reflected back to ourselves, places that have the power to remember us when we've forgotten who we are.
For me, this place is the Yampa River Valley, where there is room to breathe and wide open skies. There are aspens whose leaves play tricks with the eyes and whisper secrets, and wildflowers that can stop your breath with their beauty--a panoply of color poured across the landscape. In this place, quiet is the steady heartbeat, and solitude is an invitation. This is the place that I call home.
Dropping west from the spine of the high peaks of central Colorado, the Flattop Mountain range rests along the backside of the Rocky Mountains. The Flattops are solemn giants standing sentinel over the spreading landscape of the valley below, their name giving indication to their shape: the same razed distinction as my grandfather’s haircut of the same name. In the crevices of these mountains, the headwaters of the Yampa River are born.
Descending from the heights of the Flattops, the Yampa flows in a widening arc east, then north, and finally turns the corner west in a long stretch before meeting the Green River, in Utah, which eventually flows into the Colorado.
These mountains are not dramatic peaks that insist on awe. They are subtle and serious. They are steady and humble. And they are written into the cells of my body.
When I return to this valley and am greeted by their familiar shape in the distance, something inside me responds, as if an invisible thread from their heights to my heart is plucked. This is what home feels like to me: it’s a sense of place, a resonance of deep knowing. The piercing, bone-deep familiarity of this place can bring me to tears.
When we walk through the doors of home—whether it's a physical house or a landscape or the presence of another being—there is a sense of being seen, being known.
Permission for authenticity, acceptance that allows us to shed the layers of pretense and pretending. Home is the place where we know our place. Home offers comfort and familiarity: It’s where we take off our shoes and drop our masks, where we loosen the insistence of striving, and rest.
Home is a feeling, in the heart and in the body. It is a sense of belonging, an ease of being that allows the guard to drop. Belonging cracks wide open when you start to nudge it, a ripe fruit waiting to burst at the slightest provocation. It is rich and hungry and grateful.
Honeybees belong to fragrant apple flowers, and each other. Blackbirds belong to marshes and reeds, and to the skies. Beaver belong to forested streams, and to the sound of running water. Where do we belong, as humans, and who do we belong to?
I know what belonging feels like, and I know what it feels like to not belong. I know too well the long rocky shore of isolation, waves of loneliness that swell and retreat. I am intimate with the longing that emerges in this place, the hollow, hungry place within the chest that tugs on the corners of the mind and insists that this is not the way it should be.
There is tension between the wisdom of this sensation and the other stories that permeate our collective psyche: the story of individualism and the validation of not “needing anyone else.” The story of unworthiness that creeps through the back of the mind, the thready ghostlike whisper that insists that alone is deserved, that belonging is a luxury for which we haven't the proper currency. The story of independence that says we ought to be strong enough to do it all alone, and that it is an incrimination of weakness to depend on others.
But we do depend on others.
This belonging, this sense of being at home in the world, emerges through the connections that we weave with one another. With the land and the other beings who co-habitate these places with us. With our sense of meaning, the elemental purpose that situates us within the context of these others. With our genius, that unique and storied complex of strengths and interests and quirks that is the gift that we have to offer the world.
Our belonging emerges through our connection to the deep truth of inherent worthiness. When we find this place within ourselves, it’s the patch of fertile soil from which belonging grows.
This worthiness can be eroded by the ceaseless impossibilities of the world. A healthy culture provides a loving and generative community, one which serves to enrich this soil of worthiness, and promotes diverse blooms of unique genius. One that encourages the fullest expression of our highest and truest selves, and where we know our place in the family of things.
What happens when we are instead faced with impossibilities of performance and perfection? We are assaulted with relentless mosquito-bite messages that say you’re not thin enough, strong enough, good enough. We're offered the choices of validation and conditional acceptance, an impersonal exchange that says your worth comes from what you give and what you do. What does it do to us when our worth is not a given, but something we must earn through how well we conform to the grossly unrealistic expectations of dominant culture?
Shame says that I’m not good enough, it says that I do not deserve love and belonging because there is something fundamentally wrong with me, something that makes me unworthy. How many of us walk through the world with this hidden belief?
When that is the beast that lurks beneath the surface, this belief that 'if people really knew who I was…’, we expend relentless time and energy trying to ensure that others don’t see certain parts of us. The parts of us that are hollow and wood-boned, the parts of us that are limping and raw, the parts of us that we are dragging behind us only because we cannot rid ourselves of them. The parts of us that make us human, and which might, if we had the spaces to share them, allow us to connect more deeply with one another.
Each of us wants something so simple and yet so intricately complex that it startles us into distortions of who we are: we want to feel at home in the world.
In our own bodies and in our psyches. With those around us, in widening circles of family and community. In the world. We want to belong. But when you nudge belonging and it cracks wide open, inside is the wriggling truth of shame. I don’t deserve to belong. And this is the dance that we find ourselves in, this sticky merengue of pushing others away and pulling them back in.
I don’t want to need you, says the thready ghostlike whisper, but I do.
What might it be like to feel so unarguably at home in the world that the doubt never crosses your mind that it could be any other way? What if we weren’t so tangled in the interminable hustle for worthiness, the constant striving for validation, the seeking for evidence that we have permission to take up space?
Home is, in the words of the poet David Whyte, an arrogance of belonging, an entitlement to inhabit the world. It’s the indisputable belief in one’s deservedness to be here, to speak and be listened to, to ask and be answered.
There’s a reciprocity in belonging, a sense of both holding and being held in the embrace of an other, whether human or nonhuman: seeing, and being seen. When I have a deep and abiding belief in my deservedness, when I feel at home in the world and in my own skin, there’s liberation. There is permission to take up space and to offer my gifts to the world. There is a place to return to, where I’m reminded of my truest self.
Home, to me, is the scent of fresh lilac, still on the tree: the bright, sweet smell that evokes the beginning of summer and the waking up of the world. It is rufous hummingbirds and aspen trees. It is the cacophony of red-winged blackbirds, ceaseless until the thunderstorms roll in. Home is the place inside my chest that blooms in response to the empathetic gaze of my dearest friend, who has known me and seen me and loved me since we were small children.
Home is the gradual and radical belief that I, you, we, all of us, belong to this world: irrevocably and without condition.
Jo Linden is an educator, facilitator, writer, and naturalist based in Portland, Oregon, with deep roots in the Yampa River Valley of Colorado. She is a co-founder of Root Down Rise Up, an experiential program for high school-aged women focused on personal empowerment for social change. Jo is also a lead facilitator of the Phoenix program, an intensive emotional growth program for youth. The many threads of passion and curiosity that weave through her work flow together to create what she considers the inner work for the outer work.