The Place of Belonging

A few years ago now, The Place of Belonging was the title of a book I was going to write. I never did; instead, I wrote If Women Rose Rooted, and some of what I’d intended to say about place and belonging went into that book, and some will go into The Enchanted Life, the book I’m working on now. Sometimes I think I’ll always be writing about it, because although the psychology of place and the myths and stories of place have been at the heart of my work for so long now, it seems that there is always something more to learn.

So many of us have no true sense of belonging to a place. Today, we live mostly in ways that are displaced from the land and from the nonhumans who share our places with us. And yet, from time to time throughout our lives we may catch a glimpse of a different way of being in the world: a way of enchantment and wildness and mystery. A deeply embodied sense of being part of the life and patterns of a place. A way of being in the world that we feel our ancestors might once have had, but that we have lost, and one that we long deeply to find our way back to.

‘By reciting a myth, the storyteller remembers a creation, and, by remembering, is a part of that creating. It is best understood in that dreadful solecism “walkabout”. In walking, the Australians speak the land. Their feet make it new, now, and in its beginning. And the land speaks to them, now, anew, and in their beginning, by step and breath that meet in its dance, so that land and people sing as one.’

Alan Garner, The Voice That Thunders

I first had that feeling of being in step with the land, and with place – really had that feeling, not just some vague foreshadowing of it – in Connemara, when I was thirty years old. It would take me another decade or two before I had a complete sense of being part of the life and patterns of a place – what Garner calls ‘singing as one’ with the land, and what I call ‘falling into the land’s dreaming’ – but Connemara was the place it first happened to me. The place where I began to wake up.

Sometimes, like your first ‘proper’ human love, the place that you first truly love will hook itself deep into your heart and won’t let you go. I left Connemara five years later to escape a marriage gone wrong; it was the only safe choice I had at the time. And ever afterwards, somehow, and for so many reasons, whenever the time came to move on again in my life, returning there just wasn’t an option. And so I lived happily in, and learned to belong to, some of the wildest, most beautiful and iconic landscapes along the western shores of Scotland and Ireland.

But here’s the thing about belonging: it seems that there’s belonging, and belonging. I’ve always believed that you can learn to belong to any place, if you choose – indeed, that there’s a moral imperative to do so, because the land deserves no less of us. I’ve instructed people in that kind of belonging. Learn the ecology, history, language, culture, mythology of your place. Go out into it for long periods of time, every day. Sit in the same place every day for an entire year, in all the seasons and weathers; talk to the land and listen to it, and maybe then you have some claim on belonging to it. And a feeling of being at home, for however long you happen to be in that place. Because not all loves are forever; not all places are forever. Sometimes we have to leave. Sometimes we need to leave. But wherever you go, I tell the people who come to work with me, root. Be a serial rooter if you must, but root deeply into every place you inhabit. Be fully in that place. It’s the only sane way to live. It’s the only way to live that is deeply respectful of the earth.

That’s one kind of belonging. Then there’s the kind of belonging that comes with heritage: a sense of belonging to a place which you may or may not ever inhabit, which is encoded in your DNA. Those of us with Irish ancestry know this feeling especially well: no matter how many generations ago your people left, and no matter where they ended up, there’s a part of you that will always feel Irish. No matter how beautiful the other places that I’ve lived, no matter how transformative my time there, I’ve never properly felt at home anywhere other than Ireland. In my case, a good part of that is genetic.

But maybe there’s another kind of belonging altogether: a kind of belonging that is best expressed within the beautiful old myth of Gobnait, an Irish saint who lived in the early 6th century. Gobnait was born in County Clare, and is said to have been the sister of Saint Abban. She fled a family feud, taking refuge in Inis Óir in the Aran Islands. While she was there, an angel appeared to her and told her that she must leave, because this was ‘not the place of her resurrection’. She should, the angel said, look for a place where she would find nine white deer grazing. So Gobnait wandered through Waterford, Kerry and Cork. She first she saw three white deer in Clondrohid in Co. Cork, and she followed them to Ballymakeera, where she saw six more. But it wasn’t until she arrived in Ballyvourney, in the south-west corner of Co. Cork, that Gobnait saw nine white deer grazing all together. That was where she settled, and founded her monastic community.

From the first moment I heard the story of Gobnait, it resonated with me, and with a life in which I’ve been wandering, like her, from place to place, in search of who knows what. Learning to belong to each of them – loving and merging so deeply with one in particular that I thought I could never extract myself – but even then, somehow, never quite belonging. Always, sooner or later, feeling some sense of being driven on. In search of the ‘place of my resurrection’? The place where the soul is happiest on earth, from where it will happily and freely leave the body, when the time comes? I’ve seen this journey of mine in many different ways over the years, depending on what was going on in my life at the time, and on the particular reasons for my needing to move on yet again. I’ve imagined time and again that I’ve found my final resting place, when in fact what I’ve found were beautiful but temporary sanctuaries along a path I didn’t even know I was following. Each place offering its own lessons, its own transformations. But these days, I see my journey from place to place not so much as a form of restless wandering, but as the acceptance of an invitation – an invitation to delve more and more deeply into the holy mysteries of place. And I see myself undertaking that journey as pilgrims do, with rare and blessed humility, knowing that something is lacking, but not ever quite knowing what it was until they’ve reached the journey’s ‘end’. (Which of course is never a true end, but merely another kind of resting place along a path we’re not yet meant to understand.)

So, here I am. A meshwork of places. A web of placeworlds lives in me. Places that made me – literally, contributing air and water and food; places where I’ve left parts of myself behind – contributing skin cells, hairs, body fluids, breath. And now, this place. This place, where I am now. I washed up on this north-western Donegal shore three years ago, and I have loved it deeply, and hope to continue loving it deeply for a good few more years to come. It has taught me new lessons, and I’m sure I haven’t finished learning them yet.

But there is always Connemara. Tugging, tugging. Nipping. Biting. Itching. Come home, Connemara calls, and I find myself wondering again about ‘places of resurrection’. Is there really such a thing? Is there really, for each of us, the possibility of a place where we truly belong, body and soul, where we can stay, and never feel a yearning for any other place? A genuine place of belonging? A place where we can finally enter into our own wisdom, fully live out our calling? And if there is such a place for each of us, is Connemara mine? Is this why my place-journey feels as if it hasn’t yet ‘ended’? Or is it simply nostalgia, or a sense of needing to lay to rest old ghosts? Are we doomed always to yearn for what we can’t have?

The pathways along which we travel on these journeys are paved with questions, and the answers are often elusive. But I’ve always been a seeker, and it seems that I’m seeking still. It seems I’m a pilgrim still. And this is why, for the next year, I’m going to be splitting my time between this beautiful Donegal valley which I have no desire to leave, and the mountains of Connemara, which it seems I can’t quite bear to live without.

And as I always have, I’ll find that the truest answers can be found in place.

(Image of Mamean by John Smyth)

37 thoughts on “The Place of Belonging

  1. there are wooded hills embracing the valley where i live now. i have lived deep in the woods on several of those hills and they still have the power to move me into song, something i want to seek here in the much abused colonized flatland. your article a reminder. thank you

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  2. Hubby and I found our place after two decades of wandering to many amazing places, never wanting to settle down anywhere. I feel absolutely we were called by this land somehow, we had no “people” in this area and no experience creating a homestead out of raw land. We feel more deeply rooted to it each year and it is such a rich and soulful experience though we live quite simply. The connection has morphed into such a serious sense of responsibility and has put me at odds with so many people not connected, not sensing the needs of the land and only wanting to exploit and experiment. It is heart-wrenching to feel as her steward yet unable to fulfill her needs because so many want to use her up. Your words are such an inspiration and while I have no intention of ever giving up, it’s so nice to hear those who understand what a real connection to the land feels like.

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  3. That sense of a happy home of the soul was what prompted me to begin my blog about the place where I belong. I hope and expect to be buried here, in the place where I have lived and walked alongside the spirits of countryside and history. Yet I find it very hard to put my true feelings into words and my blog has stalled as a result. I hope to find language again soon. In the meantime, thank you for this post and for relating the lyric rawness of your pilgrimage.

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    1. As a professional writer, I still find relationships with place the hardest thing of all to put into words. So much of the experience is nonverbal. But for those who are still seeking, words help. And so we go on! Thanks for reading.

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  4. “Sometimes we have to leave…” as i had to leave last April, after 18 years in a most amazing 24 wondrous acres in Maine–heart-wrenching.The space where i was finally able to “sing as one”, “falling into the land’s dreaming”, or one of my phrases: “a place where all of our many senses become woven together as one with all.” And a few of us do overcome that temporary, disorienting, disabling sadness, and are able to realize that “not all loves are forever, not all places are forever” and rediscover means of moving on. Fortunately, the Earth still continues to resonate with some of us in sympathetic vibration.We still feel deeply its often subtle, sometimes subliminal, ambiance penetrating us regardless of the insanity thrust upon us, knowing that we are also being allowed, still after all the crap we’ve divvied out upon this magnificent World, the gift of responding to and with Earth’s exquisite beauty.

    So, thank you yet once again Sharon for i believe i speak for other readers: without hesitation, you exude a most beautiful soul.

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    1. 18 years is a long time. A statement of the obvious, but gosh. The longest I’ve ever remained anywhere is seven years. Of course it isn’t always about time; my most intense and profoundly transformative experience with place came from somewhere I spent just 4 years in, and if I’d stayed any longer I would be a gnarly old stone on the beach there now, Lewissian gneiss at its hardest and bleakest. But I loved it so! All place relocations to those of us who are place-sensitive are in some senses dislocations. I wish you well in yours. Yes, something always travels with us, for sure, once we’ve had that relationship with place. That ‘something’ is my lodestone.

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  5. Reading this sent shivers of recognition down my spine. The insistent call of the land after my first visit here is one reason it was not hard for me to leave the US; for the land there, though I tried, would not open itself to me. Its gods and spirits of place were silent. I too have Irish ancestry, though I am more in touch with the Welsh. The places I came here first were St David’s and Iona. Iona still calls, though after many trips over the past 21 years, I have not been for a while now.

    The seeking for a place that can hold you, your dreams, your story, your energy and your spirit and where those of the land reach out in kind is a lifelong quest for some of us. Or a mostly lifelong one. It makes me wonder how refugees and economic immigrants deal with these things. An alien land, alien gods, alien earth/place energies on shores, when one, quite literally these days, is washed up on them. I suppose not everyone is as sensitive to such things.

    I am well aware when I leave the Cornwall, Devon, Somerset area and venture into Wiltshire, which does not feel welcoming to me. I the three counties listed above and the Highlands and Islands of scotland plus parts of Wales are places where my heart and soul sing out, picking up the threads of the chorus sung by those unseen presences that share the spaces with me.

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    1. Yes, I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which immigrants connect to a place, merge the stories they bring with them into the stories of the new land (because the land’s stories are always in a process of becoming). Another article for another day!

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  6. Dear Sharon, What you write I can feel in my bones. My DNA has been Swiss for a long time, exiled to the USA. So I experience the same split, same longing like you to Connemara. Your writing has become a dear companion in my searching for “home”. I have spent half od my life in this immense and crazy country, never really feeling at home wherever I lived. Maybe maybe in Boulder, Colorado There were scraps of song I understood. I need the mountains and now I live by the sea. It was my choice to follow my husband, because we are invested in our growing and learning from each other. But what do I tell you about myself? I am a stranger to you. I had the good fortune to journey in Ireland on a writing pilgrimage of sorts. Imagine, we were at Loughcrew at the autumnal equinox and the sun was indeed shining into the ancient tomb. The land felt alive and I knew I was walking on the mother’s body, in all her forms. Ahhh the Cailleach blew me over up there! had me in her grip with a freezing cold wind. An extraordinary experience, frightening, too.

    Thank you with all my heart for being an inspiration, a dear sister on the search for meaning. For opening my eyes to a deeper land than meets the eye. Love and gratitude, Ursula

    On Sat, Dec 3, 2016 at 4:36 AM, The Art of Enchantment wrote:

    > Sharon Blackie posted: “A few years ago now, The Place of Belonging was > the title of a book I was going to write. I never did; instead, I wrote If > Women Rose Rooted, and some of what I’d intended to say about place and > belonging went into that book, and some will go into The Enc” >

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    1. The old Cailleach has some Trickster in her, for sure! And yes, the compromises we make for the sake of human relationships are inevitable, I guess. But sometimes we find ourselves crossing again the paths we turned away from to follow along someone else’s. And when we find ourselves presented with the same paths again and again, maybe it’s time to take notice. Finally to turn onto it, and see where it leads. Maybe it’ll just circle on back to the original path, a happy detour to find a hidden treasure. Or maybe it’ll be the beginning of a new journey entirely. The choices are scary, sometimes …

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  7. Love this. as always. But how do you pronounce Gobnait? Please let it not be Gob-nut. I’m going to guess….Gov na? So hard to honor a saint when you can say the name. 🙂

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    1. Actually, it would be a bit more like GUB-nit. It would only be pronounced as ‘Gov’ if the ‘b’ was aspirated i.e. Gobh, but it doesn’t ever seem to be spelled in that way. I know, it doesn’t sound very beautiful to an English-speaking ear. But lost in a sentence of Gaelic it’s fine enough 🙂

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  8. I could get very wordy here, but to get quick to a point…well said! my life has been spent searching for ‘home’…and I have found a few. Always it seems something requires me/us to search yet again…however, what we leave behind is no less ‘home’. Truly, it is a question begged, for what do we seek? is it not really all in this now? wherever we find our Self…and wherever we leave behind. it is all in the feelings of the heart in any breath,any moment, any place. Breath deeply, savor each moment, immerse in where you are…now. so much love, and so many thanks for your beautiful spirit shining through your words. Yo entiendo. Yo siento.

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    1. Thank you, Elena. I’ve called a few places home, but I guess my question is whether there is some kind of ‘uber-home’! But whether there is or not, it’s the yearning that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe that’s all just a reflection of the human condition Maybe I’ll find out during the year ahead 🙂

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      1. the year ahead portends to be an interesting one, and there are those of us that are definitely on our way to ‘somewhere’ that we believe we can – again – call home. for me, I am ready to put down some roots, hoping only for his as the last time,,,ah, yes, ‘the human condition’ fits well – yet there is so much more to the ‘story’, yes? and this is the peak of ‘our’ journey – telling the story(s).

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  9. Your post resonated with me too – for many years my thoughts and reflections have often converged on one thought “I wish I could go home”. Now I’ve lived in many places and I have a current home but I know the “home” that comes to me in this thought is not my current home. I often wonder if its my “home” somewhere else in this world or maybe after this world. Loving all your posts. xxxooo

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  10. This is poignant and beautifully written. I have always agreed with you intellectually about the need to develop a sense of belonging to the place you find yourself, but in my heart I’ve struggled with it. When I was a child, I lived four years in a certain place, and that’s where I belong. It’s not that I fell in love with it, or that I developed a strong friendship with it. The land chose me. It wasn’t just another place I experienced – rather, I was another person it experienced, and it decided we belonged together. When I left, it wasn’t ready to let me go. It has been calling me home ever since.

    Actually, I have a second place which feels the same way, my summer home, and it’s just as lonely and wistful, and when I go back there it clutches me with its stony dry fingers, and it breathes in my heart. It did the same to my father. Some places are full of need and curiosity and love. Some places are so delighted when they find someone who speaks their language. That’s how I experience it. Maybe that’s how Connemara feels about you.

    (reposting as it disappeared after clicking post … apologies if I’m doubling up!)

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    1. Yes, I wondered whether you would find some relief in this piece! I have always believed that the land can choose us, participate in our journey, ask us to participate in its story. Most people think I’m stark-staring mad if I talk about that. But I have found myself stumbling into some strange places learning very necessary lessons that I could only have learned there – lessons that have been life-changing (you know this; I’ve written about them here before, and also at length in ‘If Women Rose Rooted’). But perhaps there’s a deeper choosing, of the kind you’re talking about. A permanent kind of ‘claiming’. And I’m always very much aware of the fact that our relationships with place go both ways. If a place invests in us, and we leave it … so it’s not just that I owe something to myself, it’s that I owe something to Connemara, just as when I left Lewis (that island I’d merged so deeply with) I felt its grief along with my own … ‘Some places are so delighted when they find someone who speaks their language.’ That’s a perfect way of putting it. That’s what happened on Lewis, and I left anyway. That was hard. Like leaving a lover, only worse. Abandoning a mother? I don’t know. But I do know that I’m rambling! I will for sure keep you posted.

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  11. I haven’t ever found a place where I never had at least the occasional longing to be somewhere else — I’m pretty wiggly — but everywhere I’ve lived, even many of the places I’ve stopped for a night or two in my van, I’ve found so many things to love.

    Where I live now I actually find myself with the desire to root — it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that, most because, I think, I was in unsafe living situations, & while I could love the _place_, I couldn’t love the _home_, because it wasn’t.

    But here, in the shadow of the Sandias, in the Knolls, it is beautiful, I am safe, & I find my roots creeping out to taste the soil…

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    1. Yes, that’s an important distinction. there’s another one, too. I find that sometimes there can be a conflict between the land and the cultural aspects of a place. You can love the land, but the human culture there is hard to find a way into. You can’t find your tribe there. I think for me there’s an aspect of that too. Connemara was the only place I’ve known where the two came together. Perhaps that’s part of it all … I hope your gentle forays into rooting are fruitful.

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  12. I love reading your work Sharon – it helps me think about my place in the world and how I can describe this to myself xx

    I’ve been wondering whether the love for a land you’ve known, or for a land not yet met, is similar to the love for a soulmate.
    If met and lost – then the yearning continues – we learn to live with the absence but there’s still that empty space that once was filled, connection lost. Its a kind of grief.
    And if never met – then there’s a knowing, a longing. Somewhere there is someone (or some-land) who would be the “place where we truly belong, body and soul”. But we don’t always know where to look – there’s an uneasiness, a constant feeling of not being quite steady on our feet.
    So your advice to become “rooted” in the place we are in is helpful – at least this gives us a sense of connection and stability.
    But I agree, its never quite enough… we’re always looking over our shoulder, on the lookout for the path that will lead us home.

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    1. That’s interesting; I’m not sure I have a belief in human soul-mates, so why is it I resonate more deeply with the same idea when it comes to place … But yes, you describe it beautifully: a sense of ‘not being quite steady on our feet’. It is a complex phenomenon, this land-longing, which takes on new dimensions as we grow older, I think. There’s a line in a song by Carolyn Hillyer which has always tripped me up: ‘Where will you lay your bones, my dear, when all is said and done?’

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  13. Beautiful writing… I have recently done my first soul retrieval and it was very connected to sense of home. I believe my soul fractured when i was forced to leave (at 15) the land i grew up on and was deeply connected to. It was traumatizing and I have tried to heal over the years in many ways but not fully address it. Now I am, and the soul retrieval process and the visions I had during it make so much sense to me now. After 20 years I still feel the tug, the ache, although I would never want to live there as an adult.
    I recently bought a house and feel very connected to this land. We had been renting here for couple years, and the thought of leaving my woodland haunts, foraging spots, and secret groves filled me with such sadness that I bought a place right next to our rental. We have never been happier, my son and I.

    I am reminded of John O’Donohue’s writings, here. About the soul always being a true home to find solace in. I believe we have physical homes and a soul home, an interior “home” which we can lose or become ripped from as well. This is all so interesting to me.

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    1. Yes, the idea of ‘home’ is indeed interesting. Something I’ve always wanted to write more about, going beyond place to exactly those things you write about. Maybe John O’Donohue got there first; I’ve never read much of his work. Perhaps I should …

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  14. Living into place for over 30 years here in the woods brings an inner landscape that calls me into the outer forest. Belonging to this land is a partnership in song with the landscape of beauty, rhythm and wisdom. Knowing a particular place in all of it’s phases and seasons reflects back to me what an entwined spirit of feeling can lay down at my soul’s doorsteps. I pick up the blanket of moss, tender and tentative, wrap it around me and dream into belonging to this place. In the growing elder, I find that there is less distance to travel… to come home to a sense of belonging as I carry it in the forest of my heart. May we meet there. Thank you for your words Sharon.

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    1. And maybe in the growing elder I will find that too. But my sense of self, and my heart, are so tied up in my relationship with the land that I wonder. It goes beyond just belonging, I think. Coming home to myself is one thing, but there is a whole world outside of me. But then that’s what this next year is for: to explore these things. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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  15. Still looking for that “place to belong”. My soul is always restless even as I try to connect with my new surroundings. Just when I think I’m settled, the longing comes again.

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  16. Sharon, I am so glad to have found your work; introduced to If Women Rose Rooted by an herbalist friend on facebook and now happy to read your blog. You have crystallized my lifetime.

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