How does Empathy Bring us Home?

How does Empathy Bring us Home?

I grew up in the interior of Alaska. The colors there are beautiful and strange: dusky black-teal spruce trees, brilliant orange and pink sunrise and -set, white snow, and blue-black-gray shadows from the moon. I know the forest floor there, the bright red berries, the different mosses and lichens, the peeling birch bark and bursting aspen, the dirty-cream of puffball mushrooms, the curling fuschia of fireweed and then their white seedy fluff.  I know what it feels like to step on the peat, to dig in red-brown clay, to sink into the powder of the snow up to my calves. It is the landscape of my dreams. I know what the air tastes like when fall and spring are coming. It is home to me, but I haven’t actually lived there since I was 18.

I miss home every day. When I take my dog out for her walk, I look at the vegetation of the suburban Pacific Northwest and I imagine I’m looking at the plants of the Tanana Valley. The constant overlay of longing prevents my rooting into Washington State, where I have lived for twice as many years as I lived in Fairbanks.

I am an economic and emotional migrant. I live thousands of miles from the place I was born and grew up. There are deep habits of movement in families, and I grew up expecting to live far from my parents, as my own parents had moved as far north and west as they could go, away from their mothers and fathers. What has this journey done to me? What does migration do to humans?

How do families that have begun a tradition of generation-to-generation migration find a sense of home? Research shows that our attachment to place changes our willingness to contribute to the well-being of that place’s ecology. And that a sense of belonging and being home soothes our nervous systems and supports our immune systems.

I was in the women’s prison south of Portland, Oregon yesterday, bringing constellation work there with a group of volunteers. (Deep appreciation to you folks – I tried to do constellation work there without you in past years, and didn’t get very far.) We got to do a constellation for one of the women residents of the prison, a person I have been working with for years in my volunteer work there. As we gently held a series of her childhood traumas together, the link between trauma and addiction became more and more clear. As the events of her life sifted into clarity, this woman’s face began to relax, and at the end of our exploration, as she accepted that she was not bad or wrong, and that the addiction made sense, her face became more clear than I’ve ever seen it in the years I have known her.

This work of the reclamation of self-warmth through the accompaniment of trauma is a radical move to transform the world. We are gradually supporting people to feel at home in their bodies and their lives.

What would empathy do today, for me, about my protest against living on a different-looking earth than the one I grew up on? Sarah, do your eyes want to close so that you can see the plants that you love? Sarah’s nose, are you searching for the scents of the changes of the season? Does your body relax when you surround yourself, in your imagination, with the deep familiarity of the four acres at ¼ mile Red Fox Drive? Yes, yes and yes. And now my father’s childhood earth is arising in me – the crusty land of the orange ranch in Fillmore, California. The dust of the dirt roads of both landscapes is rising around me. Bodies of my family, do you miss your childhood homes? Is the missing itself a part of our belonging?

And in my empathy process, the generations start to disentangle themselves from one another, and I see my own longing as something quite different from what I saw in my parents. I coalesce into my own person, with my own relationship to home, a sense of having been born into my own deep love of the landscape of interior Alaska. I feel it in my cells. And somehow this acknowledgment of my own singularity lets me turn a bit more toward the earth of my current home.

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