Power of Belonging


I called these Idaho mountains home for over twenty years. They calm me in a way I can't explain. The way they tower above the world make me feel safer, somehow, even though some of my most painful memories live here too. Its rugged and challenging terrain is perfect symbolism for how life in this place asked me to face things that required reaching deep for strength, stamina, and simplicity.

This deep reach reminded me who I am.

And who I'm not.

The people here are powerful and weak, both. Like all of us. They pull no punches, but as is true in most small rural towns, the sometimes toxic and cruel gossip is equal to the astounding way they rally when support is needed. These community characteristics are strange bedfellows, with a polarized ability to greatly nurture and deeply wound.

This roller coaster combination is a stark contrast from the Manhattan world I hailed from, however. Urban life has polarized characteristics that frame it too. City dwellers have ongoing interaction with others, but can experience extreme isolation and anonymity, at the same time.

People in this small, mountain town learned to work together for survival over generations. This is a great teacher. Along with continuity of generations and place, rural places seem to build an inner strength and humility, not as highly developed in its urban counterparts. (They develop other qualities that set them apart, however)

The divergence in these two cultures can be found in how they experience interdependence. Unlike ruralites, city neighbors rarely depend on each other for their livelihood or social structure. They are separate.

City life lacks the mutual need and committment to relationship that creates the deep community many rural people share.

I'll never forget what a high school senior said when asked what she appreciated most about living here.

"We grow up with a deep sense of integrity and committment to relationships because we've learned how to be in them. We're forced to deal with every single conflict and problem because we have to face each other every day. We can't avoid working through our problems together - and get past them." - a Mackay High School Senior

This Idaho town had an even more remarkable and unique comraderie, one I hadn't witnessed in all rural places, and wondered what set it apart. There was a love, a caring - even among rivals - that said they were family somehow. You sensed it when people were together. While moving cows out on the range one day, I ran into an old-timer, a local rancher, and asked him about it. Randy Pehrson shared his theory.

"The reason we are so bonded here - and strikingly different in personality from the town right next door to us is, historically, we were forced to work together as grazing associations on public lands, instead of owning individual permits. Through the years and generations,we just had to get along."

A fascinating observation that resonated.

The west is often characterized by the term, 'rugged, individualism.' This shaped a collective identity that, in turn, also characterized individuals. But this county parted ways with it when it came to being neighbors. In order to financially sustain themselves, they needed to work together, which led to non-traditional relationships. People in these parts were usually divided by religion. Mormons, other Christians, and non-church going people stayed to their own kind, so to speak.

This federal mandate on public lands broke down many barriers that, in other western towns, created a cultural divide. As an inner-city public school student in the 60's, I grew up with busing. It never occurred to me how similar these two top-down mandates were. Busing was the practice of transporting students from racially segregated neighborhoods to each other's school districts. This attempt to racially integrate schools and break down neighborhood segregation in NYC didn't work. Interestingly, in this rural place, their forced proximity had been a catalyst for an uncommon unity and diversity, unlike the results of busing. I wondered if rural people ever looked at it that way.

Perhaps the city version of forced cooperation was unsuccessful because it didn't share a sense of place or shared cultural identity - which included socio-economic status. Interestingly, the neighboring ethnic groups I knew as a child - Italians, Norwegians, Chinese, Greeks, Arabs, Puerto-Ricans, etc. - shared the neighborhood as a whole, while remaining ethnically segregated within it. These ethnically diverse neighbors living contiguously did learn to work together over time. This early assimilation is likely related to this shared sense of place, while busing negated it. That said, busing had a profound and powerful effect on me nonetheless. Desegregation gave me a deep desire and committment to know all cultures and be a catalyst for unity in diversity wherever I lived - including the wild west. It makes all the difference when we really 'see' people, and this is done most authentically by getting to know them.

These Idaho families worked together, year in and year out. They took care of each other's animals and children. Together, they risked their lives on horseback, broke a sweat building fence at 10,000 feet; young and old participated in seasonal rituals like brandings and weanings. There's something deeply personal, intimate almost, about these shared experiences, that included devastating tragedies too.

The community's collective personality reminded me of the Norwegian immigrant, Brooklyn, NY community where I grew up in other ways. We were not blood, but we shared a language, culture, and heritage that bonded us. We spent weekends building each other's summer bungalows on Long Island, adults were referred to as aunt and uncle, their children were our "cousins". They became an immigrant's extended family in the new world. This is still true in NYC's immigrant neighborhoods, but today it's characterized more by Arabs and Chinese, than Norwegians and Italians - who, for the most part, have assimilated.

These rural neighbors and urban immigrant communities shared the experience of redefining family in order to survive.

This loyal community bond was apparent at first glance when I stepped into this place many years ago. It even influenced my decision to raise my own family here. If my child learned how to work through relationship issues with integrity; and knew how to walk straight into the angst and fear of life's difficult moments because he had to face the same people each day, he'd master important lessons.

When we learn to be interdependent in community and still know who we are as individuals, we develop strength and humility.

When we know we need each other, we know what it is to belong. Belonging is an inherent primal need for every one of us.

It startled me to hear the young person acknowledge this gift of growing up in a rural place because, on the surface, people didn't appear conscious of it. But I might not have been looking deep enough.

Perhaps they do know how sacred an experience it is to truly belong.

On top of the deep life lessons this place invites us to, I'm also reminded this morning of the fresh, crisp smell of mountain air while the high desert wind whips across the sagebrush. I've missed you dear Idaho. Thank you for welcoming me home to this place I once belonged.

Linda Hesthag Ellwein