January/February: Isolation/Belonging

This is part of my yearlong monthly word series. If you want to read about its origins, you can do so here.

On March 1, 2021, I sat in my car outside the Sevier County Health Department for the required 15 minutes to ensure I didn’t have an allergic reaction to the Covid-19 vaccine a woman had just injected into my arm. My eyes brimmed with tears—after so much time isolated in a town that still felt new to me, there was the hope of being able to go home again, of getting to see my family again. A month later, I’d get my second dose. The eastern redbuds would be in their brilliant bloom across the East Tennessee hills. Their beauty would amplify my grateful heart, and I’d whisper a reminder to myself to treat every encounter of my life going forward like it could be my last, to make sure that the people I love know I love them.

By January 2022, life felt somewhat normal again, including the human proclivity to forget our daily blessings and despite the fact that a global pandemic was still working its way through the population, variant by variant. I’d started volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters and, on January 15, was preparing to meet my little for the day when I tested positive for Covid-19. It was strange to suddenly have this virus I’d spent the last two years actively avoiding. And I quickly learned how tenuous connection can feel as I entered what January’s theme would become: isolation.

I do well on my own. I like my own company. In fact, I’ve long self-identified as a lonesome cowgirl. I relish the chance to set out on adventures fueled by my own grit, to sit in the quiet moments of a solo camping trip, to seek the tender edges of calling out to a stark wilderness beyond that both knows and does not know my language.

But I’m also a human being who needs love, connection, and belonging like the next person, and you must be careful when you’re playing with isolation, as isolation begets more isolation. And the gnawing in your lonely heart can try to shrink you into a smaller and smaller place when, in reality, that ache is trying to tell you to expand, to reach out, to connect.

I didn’t expect ten days alone in my apartment to feel so pungent. I didn’t expect the tight lump in my throat, the gazing out of the window wishing to be seen. But if we don’t slip into the isolation, if we can gingerly tiptoe through it with curiosity instead, it can begin to shed light on what matters most in our lives.

I may have been physically isolated for the last half of January as I slept and sneezed and fought off a virus, but I was also reminded of what existed outside the door that meant the most to me. It was Sabrina leaving groceries at my front step. It was the daily video check-ins from my mom. It was the surprising array of friends who sent me texts to see how I was doing. It was the clients who extended my deadlines and told me to rest.

When isolation gripped my chest, it asked me where I wanted to be. It asked me to think about why I want to be there. And I began to dream about what’s next for me. I’ve been fortunate to get to live in many communities over the past six or so years—more moves than I care to count. In each place, I’ve been able to find my community, the hidden gems that offer a touch of belonging. I’ve been so grateful for these experiences, and I’ve also felt so severed from a rooted sense of home. In isolation, I began to dream about where my next move might take me and why. I began to consider the people I want to hold closest to me. I began to remember locations where finding my community hadn’t felt like it took so much darn work.

Re-entering the world after Covid was stranger than I expected. I felt like some deep cave creature resurfacing from a long journey underground, timid of the light and unsure how to act in social situations. But if isolation begets more isolation, belonging must beget more belonging, I reasoned, and so I worked through the discomfort to regain a sense of connection. I let my lip quiver and my voice shake sharing this experience with a friend, trying to make sense of what I’d learned and seen in my isolation, remembering my dreams about where I’d next find my belonging. I realized that as much as I love my current home—and, gosh, to my surprise, I really, truly do—I need deeper belonging, to begin to dream about where I may head next, to be closer to my family and the little pockets of this earth that just get me without introduction. It’s the thing I’ve envied about the people I’ve met in all the small towns I’ve lived in and traveled to over this last stretch of my life—my conversations with them always seem so rich in their sense of place, a pride for having rooted into their hometowns with their families and their rituals.

If January’s isolation reminded me to seek more rooted belonging, then February’s freedom reminded me to remember the belonging I already have and to soak it up each day it exists. Indeed, February’s theme would become: belonging.

This belonging was the kind that tells us that we can know something needs to shift while still rooting into and loving where we are. It’s the kind of belonging that reminds us that we shouldn’t always be reaching for the next thing, imagining that life will be better once [this thing] happens. It’s the kind of belonging that lets us know the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and that sometimes we need to communicate through the muddy parts to learn that our feet are planted just where they need to be.

At the end of February, I sat in a coffeeshop in downtown Sevierville. Tears flooded the edges of my eyelids. I caught them with the back of my hand after willing them for so long not to fall. I had just finished signing my lease online for another year in East Tennessee and my heart was filled with gratitude for that choice, thankful for my Smoky Mountain home and for knowing that I wouldn’t be so quickly ripping up my roots again the following month.

How lovely it felt to rest in that moment of belonging. To be in a place long enough to know what hour the herons roost in the big tree behind the Advance Autoparts. To know without thinking when I’m approaching that one lane that morphs into a turn-only lane without warning. To have my local art classes and greenway walks and micro-interactions with neighbors about the weather. Because belonging can be found in many shapes, and while my journey may take me away from here one day, I already know I’ll miss it. There’s always a good chance that someday in the future, we’ll miss the day we’re currently in. As Dolly sings: “The good old days, when times were bad.”

I don’t know how much longer East Tennessee will be home for me. None of us can really know what the next year or month or day might bring. But as I gently rock between isolation and belonging, grief and gratitude, I do know how much both sides of a coin can teach us. I do know that home can at once feel so close and so very far away. That there can be joy in finding belonging hidden within the hollers and also in being in a place that just fits you. I know that we can both bloom where we are planted and realize that we bloom better in another climate. I know that when we seek belonging, we can fall prey to hedonic adaptation and feel lonely even in the “right” places. I know now that I can always return to the home I hold within my own heart and from there reach out for hands to hold. And I know someday I’ll miss these Smoky Mountains that held me when I most needed to be held.

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