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  • Writer's picturestephanieraffelock

The Longing To Belong

There is a place in my big story, where all of the smaller stories converge, leading to an ending that marks a new beginning. The arc of the tale I tell both begins and ends in the woods.

The entry to the trailhead swallows me, the forest taking me into her. Descending a natural set of stone stairs, carved out by wind and rain erosion, I focus on my footing. The stairs are steep and uneven and I don’t want to slip. I’ve fallen a few times on trails. Got a black eye once when a tree root jumped right out in front of me and sent me flying face down onto the hard ground. It made for a good story. But I’m about to turn seventy-one and I’m aware that falls don’t have the same bounce back factor that they used to. So, in spite of the forest’s welcoming beauty, the path can present challenges and danger. I must then, remain mindful of how and where I tread.

Finally, when I have found my way to more level ground, I take a deep breath. The path stretches out before me, a carpet of late, lingering autumn leaves, blurring the edges of what’s trail and what’s forest. Long and gnarled tree branches have laced their fingers overhead, creating a canopy of shelter for the travelers here. The leaves crunch under my feet and I am at once, home. My child-heart belongs to this place, to forest paths and labyrinths made of stones and twigs, to the whisperings of winds that sing poetry through the rustling and fluttering of brush and leaves.

The descent onto this path is a metaphor. I am in the Persephone story. The Greek myth weaves the tale of Hades, the God of the underworld, capturing Persephone for his bride. Demeter, Persephone’s mother, does everything she can to get her daughter back, including turning the world into a cold and barren place where nothing will grow. A deal is struck between Demeter and Hades, resulting in Persephone’s ascension into the world each spring, assuring the cycle of growth and harvest. But she must return to Hades and the underworld in the winter, and during this time the earth will remain cold and barren. The Persephone myth is how the Greeks explained the seasons.

What I read into the Persephone story is that it also speaks to the cycles of my life. There’s a time when I birth creativity, a time when my creations blossom and form, a time in which to harvest the fruits of my labor, and then the barren landscape. I become the daughter, descending and then dancing with Hades. Hades represents my shadow aspects, the unlikeable, wounded parts of myself that need to be acknowledged and comforted in order to heal.

For as long as I can remember, the winter months of my adult life have left me feeling melancholy and sorrowful. Once, a psychiatrist wrote down a diagnostic code with regards to my sorrow, a label upon that phenomenon. He called it S.A.D. – Seasonal affective disorder, which is a form of depression, also known as Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern.

I think that modern medicine is wonderful. I also think that it falls woefully short because it is removed from myth and story which informs who we are, especially in a psychological and spiritual sense. I said “Screw that psychiatrist and his S.A.D. diagnosis.”

Instead I embraced the seasonal descent on a yearly basis. It’s become a time for me to reflect upon the failures of the past year; a time when I mourn the losses that have pierced my heart; a space to find my way in the darkness; and I do this with the knowledge that dark places can be a powerful, revealing reclamation and renewal of the soul. To that end, winter is a dive into the invisible that lives just beyond the veil of the visible world. I belong to the myths and stories of human kind that stretch backward and forward in time.

Further ahead on the trail is a view of the water. This part of the lake is long and narrow, looking more like a river with a slow, gentle current. The waters sing sad, beautiful songs of hope and letting go. I think of Psalm 46:10, and how I’ve come to pray it over the years:

Be still and know I am God.

Be still and know I am.

Be still and . . .

Be still.


Just as the women in my grandmother’s church mumbled prayers as they counted the beads of their rosaries, so too do I turn to prayers of grace and gratefulness in the cold and deep mythical dreaming of winter months.

Walking this trail is like walking the truth about my life. I’m awed by the way the light and shadows dance in the woods. I don’t judge the shadows of the forest, so why should I judge the darkness within myself? My breath mingles with all breath, my DNA with all DNA. We are all shadow and light. I’ve been given a heart that longs to beat with the world. This is home, too. This is where I began and this is where I will end. One day the earth will swallow me up and my body will melt away from a physical form into everything that is and ever was. This is my belonging.

Day-to-day life slows into this calm river, punctuated only by hours of creating art, which awakens another belonging. Kahlil Gibran said that “work is love made visible.” I work with language, words and story. I’m blessed with the wondrous and noble process of growing old while continuing to tell the stories within me and around me. Just as the Greeks created myth to explain the world, there is myth alive in each of us. It gives us a lens through which the miracle of creation illuminates our path. I belong to creativity and art. I belong to writing. I belong to the hours of process, reaching for meaning and rapture within the human story.

After I ascend the trail and walk the short mile home, I will sit on the couch with my husband. This is the question that began our conversation thirty-four years ago and we are still asking it of each other: “Tell me what’s in your heart.” Each answer is a new story, a new connection, an ineffable sweetness that gives sustenance to our intimacy and keeps moving us forward.

I live in a marriage where we worked together for nearly thirty years. Both of us are now enjoying separate encore careers that will take us right up to the edge of where life recedes. Daily, the conversation continues: “Tell me what’s in your heart.” We struggle. We celebrate. We survive. We unfold. I belong here. I belong with my husband. I belong to this unending love. I belong to the spirit of stretching and growing into being better. I’ve always wanted that -- and once I let go of the idea that being better meant I would somehow “fix” myself, a weight fell off of my shoulders and freed me.

Belonging is a journey of accepting who I am and loving who I am. It’s loving this life I’ve been given. It’s a surrender into the messiness and chaos of becoming human, the striving, aspiring, and reaching for a life that I want to be informed by love. In the beginning was the word, and the word was love. I belong to love.

In these latter years, my younger self and who I am now, have merged. I no longer chastise the reckless young woman who made un-beneficial choices that hurt her heart. The way that I see her now is that she was brave and courageous and she clawed her way out a darkness that was not friendly and could have consumed her. I see her as someone who rose to the occasion of longing with a sincere tenacity and an ever present undercurrent of hope. I marvel at how she gathered the jagged shards of harshness to her heart. We both gave up the excuses we’ve made for bad behavior, and the blame we’ve placed on others. My younger self, and who I am now have burned those thing seventy times seven in the flames of forgiveness and will continue to do so as we continue to evolve.

When memories of her seep into present time, I don’t condemn who she was. One of the gifts of older age is being able to love the plucky, brave soul who carved out a life that made me who I am today. She taught me that everyone has demons and despair to face. Everyone has shadows. I belong to her and she belongs to me.

I’ve grappled with the “Something Greater,” hoping to find entry into its mystery and presence. The arc of this story ends at the feet of the “Something Greater,” easily seen in the woods, should I forget. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz who realizes that she has always known where home is, I’m taken by the sense that I have never been separate from where I belonged; that belonging has been demonstrated to me over and over again, the microcosm of such, reflecting the big grapple with the macrocosm.

I have always belonged to the love that created me.

Home is right where I am,

Never alone or without.

The wailing cries of seeking has turned into a lovely melody.

Home is right where I am,

Never alone or without.

Within me is all of the light that I will ever need to know that I belong . I am home and I am loved. I belong to nothing and I belong to everything. I am the small flame in one candle, which lights the universe.

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