At Home in the World
(Excerpted from my essay that appeared in the Inverness Almanac, Vol 3, spring/summer 2016)
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.
—Raymond Carver, “Late Fragment”
Our culture’s widespread disconnect from the Earth is a form of trauma, and it touches on the other traumas— personal and familial, intergenerational and ancestral, communal and societal—that we carry in our bodies. For me, this pervasive feeling of homelessness is a residue from ancestral experiences of displacement. I think what it would have been like for my grandfather to come back to Domazlice, the Czechoslovakian village where he was raised, after years in the Nazi concentration camps, with the entire family missing or killed and the village population decimated. Many people whom I’ve talked to about their conflicted relationship to place have similar ancestral stories: pogroms, genocide, war, immigration, poverty. The science of epigenetics now proves what our bodies knew already: that trauma is transmitted intergenerationally, and that we continue to experience the lived repercussions of our ancestral wounding. Our preoccupation with place—our restlessness, our fantasies, our fears—speaks from the places in our bones and in our genes that know that a profound loss has occurred and will likely transpire again.
This sense of existential placelessness comes not only from ancestral wounds but from personal history. Traumas in childhood produce a similar sense of rupture; for various reasons a child learns the world is not a safe place, that the ground cannot be trusted to provide a solid foundation. All the myriad traumas, both monumental and quotidian, common in the lives of most children, can shake the house of the child’s sense of being at home—in herself, in her body, in community, and in the world. In the language of attachment theory, these early traumas create difficulties in forming healthy and secure relationships in adulthood. If children are not given the chance to experience the parent as a secure base (a failing on the part of the parent that is due primarily to his or her own trauma), and thus learn the world is a safe place to inhabit and explore, they may later be unable to feel a sense of belonging securely in a loving universe.
I believe that, due to our traumas, both personal and collective, we are enacting attachment-related patterns in relation to the Earth. In the early relationship between the child and the parent, for example, if the infant is neglected, abandoned, or experiences a great rupture, he may withdraw, give up, and later, in a pattern known as avoidant attachment, have difficulty forging or maintaining intimate relationship. Turning away from relationship with the Earth is emblematic of this kind of attachment style: in the pain of our own wounding, we run from the love that is possible. I often feel how, upon reaching a maximum threshold for pain, rupture, and grief, I—near-consciously—disconnect as way to protect myself from experiencing more pain than I can handle. I love Earth, but cannot face her.
This is the big work of healing from trauma, and the reason why personal work is the foundation of working ecologically. If we are in our trauma, we are not in our bodies. If we are disconnected from our bodies, we are disconnected from the Earth. We might know on an intellectual level that the Earth is in crisis, but until we feel it with our senses, we won’t feel it with our hearts. And only from this heart-place do we have a true basis for moving into aligned action. The work of being in healing relation with the Earth has to begin with doing the work to support being in healing relationship with the body.
This work is also necessary in order to make the body, and the heart-body, a strong-enough container to hold this sense of connection to Earth when it is finally sensed. Both the joy of intimacy and the grief for all we are losing—have already lost—have the capacity to crack us open. If we haven’t built and fostered a space within us to contain the immensity, it could rip us apart. We turn away from the fact of our environmental catastrophe because we are immobilized by the fear of what it is to feel. In order to feel, we have to do the daily work, a work that is essentially a devotional practice, to create a safe home in the body.
So when we talk about place, I believe what we are really taking about is the Earth. When I ask, “Where should I live?” I am really asking, “How should I be?” All the qualities I long for in my dreaming of right place—a sense of belonging, rootedness, sacredness, and love—are all capacities pertaining to my relationship with Earth, and are available to me if I tend to them.
I think what we are all wondering is—on a core level—how do I draw nearer to what I love and have grown distant from? My deepest longing is to approach the live acorn of my own heart and return it to the soil, placing myself fully at the center of my being. In essence I want, as Raymond Carver wrote, “to know myself beloved on the Earth.” And when I truly know myself beloved, I am able in turn to know others, and to love them, and to know place, and to love it. And ultimately, knowing myself beloved on the Earth, I come to know the Earth beloved in myself.