On Wildness & Belonging

There are myths in many different cultures about a particular garment that represents a woman's wildness, her most natural and authentic state of being. In one Arabic oral tradition, it is the woman in the feathered dress*, in Inuit culture**, a sealskin cloak. Different adornments, but the same storyline... 

A woman, enclothed in her native skin—feather or flipper; embodied in her natural habitat—sky or sea. Here she flies or swims with the inherent wildness of her insistent heart, a fierce freedom that sees her in her most indigenous form. Undomesticated, unbidden.  

In both of these stories, there is also one who stands in the shadows, watching. One drawn to her spirit and her ethereal beauty. She's watched unknowingly by one who seeks to own her, to overpower her; who conspires to steal her dress or cloak and in so doing, possess her wild heart.  

In both stories, he accomplishes this and she acquiesces to his side in domesticated docility. Over time, he is lulled into a false sense of complacency, believing her sufficiently tamed and content in this. He drops his guard. At that moment, she swiftly moves in to reclaim her native self, dons her wildness, and flies or swims away.

Although she may love the children that were born from this union, and perhaps possess some fondness even for the one who stole her wildness, the pull to her wild self is deep and burning and ultimately calls her home.

When I hear these stories, something within me responds: a sleeping creature stirring in my chest, or an electricity awakened. My body knows what it is like to wear that feathered dress, knows that these images are more than metaphor; they are part of a woman’s many journeys through transformation.  

For me, there wasn’t a someone who spied from the shadows and malevolently stole something from me. Rather, I have wandered through most of my life with cloak held clutched in a quivering fist, offering it to anyone who would take it.

I have been afraid of my wings, of this wildness that lives within me, that calls me out of the known and towards something deep and mysterious and uncharted within myself.

I, like so many women, have been convinced into this fear by the stories of a culture that tells women to clip their wings, a culture that has lived in fear of this wildness for millennia.  

When I was a teenager, I pursued one particular boy with relentless desperation. I fixated on him and became convinced that he was the only one who could quench the nameless thirst, the deep sense of longing that permeated my psyche.  And in this misguided quest for fulfillment, I allowed my boundaries to be crossed over and over again, allowed myself to be taken advantage of. Used. Discarded.

I discounted my wings in exchange for what I thought was love.

We, each of us, have a deep and insistent need for love. For belonging. To be seen, received, acknowledged. At some point, I had assimilated the story that this need could only be met by an ‘other’. That ultimately, my sense of wholeness or happiness would be met only when I found, to quote hundreds of years of messaging, “the one."

Like all cultures, ours is a world of stories, and all of these stories have a moral for us about what is the right way to live. The stories of dominant culture have very specific proscriptions for women about what this looks like.

In this equation, two is supposed as the least common denominator of everyone’s experience. It's the ultimate aspiration toward which we are encouraged to strive, offered as a panacea for the unspoken emptiness. It's the number that represents wholeness. And, of course, it's the accepted formula for enduring happiness. The abstract, ambiguous Ever-after.  

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The predictable storylines of the Disney princess and the romantic comedy are stories told from that dark corner where the hidden one perches, grasping at our wildness, seeking to own and contain and supplant that fierce beauty, that power. Walking through this world, we are assaulted on all sides by narratives that weave doubt and desperation through the fabric of our experience, that tell us that we need another to be complete, that we are somehow flawed if we are alone. Especially if—god forbid—we want to be alone.

Loneliness is something that transcends whether or not you are in another’s presence. It is possible—common, even—to feel lonely in the company of others. It is equally possible to feel connected and fulfilled when alone.

We seek to explain loneliness as a mathematical equation, a factor of one- resolved by adding another, when it is actually an experience of zero added to any circumstance.

It's the empty space of longing. It’s a feeling of discomfort, heartache, grief, or restlessness that comes with being a human in this world.  

We are lonely, perhaps, not because we have no one to keep us company, but because we suffer from deep disconnection with the most fundamentally nourishing aspects of existence.  We are lonely, perhaps, because we have surrendered our feathered dresses and sealskin cloaks to the closets of patriarchy, domesticated ourselves in exchange for stories that never seem to come true.

I'm not the only one who has abandoned my wildness, and therefore my Self, in the attempt to meet a deep need for love and belonging. This is part of the heroine’s journey. But what if real belonging arises not from the company or companionship of another, but from a deeper source of connection? What if the fulfillment of that nameless thirst that drove me toward that boy all of those years ago, and into plenty of other, albeit healthier, relationships since then, can’t be quenched by another?  

What if real belonging is about the sealskin cloak and the feathered dress? About belonging to our deeper selves, to our wild nature?

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What if real belonging is about coming home to that part of ourselves which is most natural because it emerges from the Earth herself?

I have realized, after years of searching, that the quality of belonging that I so deeply crave doesn’t orient outward toward an other, but toward a source within that connects to something greater than myself. True belonging, in this sense, is a matter of being at home within oneself, and therefore, of being at home in the world.  

This is about reclaiming something that has been lost, something that lies just beneath the surface of women's experience that, despite centuries of attempts to contain, control and pretend it into non-existence, breathes quietly (or sometimes screams) and is very much alive.

This is about ferocity and power and a refusal to acquiesce to the whims of a culture that limits us to half of a pair. Because, despite the constant bombardment of these stories, women continue to rise up and take flight.  

We rise up because there is something in us that is deep and burning and ultimately calls us home. We rise up because the wildness in our hearts is stronger and more welcoming than the stories in many of our public arenas. We need stories that allow for a more complex experience of love.

We need love stories that account for the truth of human vulnerability and connection as an inexorable aspect of the brutal and beautiful journey to the Self.

We need love stories that acknowledge the importance of solitude and inner wisdom. We need love stories that don't require us to hand over our feathered dress to real and imagined predators in exchange for love, or require that we demand others to slip out of their sealskin cloak and sacrifice their own joy of diving deep into their own blessed waters.  

These are stories not about the false duality of hard-hearted independence or limping codependence, but about a much more nuanced spectrum of experience.  And they will emerge out of our own experiences, written as we write them, as we reclaim ourselves in this time and choose lives that demand the inherent wildness of our insistent hearts.

Lives that allow us to fly.

*Mernissi, F. (2001). Scheherazade goes west: Different cultures, different harems. New York: Washington Square Press.

**Estés, C. P. (1992). Women who run with the wolves: Myths and stories of the wild woman archetype. New York: Ballantine Books.

header art: “Wing of a Blue Roller” by Albrecht Durer, 1512.

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Jo Linden is an educator, facilitator, writer, and naturalist based in Portland, Oregon, with deep roots in the Yampa River Valley of Colorado. Jo leads women’s retreats and is also a lead facilitator of the Phoenix program, an intensive emotional growth program for youth. The many threads of passion and curiosity that weave through her work flow together to create what she considers the inner work for the outer work.