Where Are You Rooted?
I think the Hallmark card answer to this question features family and home – some kind of (outdated for most) fictional version of the generational homestead where you are always loved and encouraged. For most people reality is a lot more complicated. Modern humans don’t often have access to their physical ancestral home (“I grew up here. I was just driving through the neighborhood. Do you mind if I look around?”)
I, for one, moved three times before I graduated from high school and became a sort of serial home changer for years after that. Some of those later moves were based on the sheer practicality and necessity of changing work situations and the realities of being a renter, but I was always searching.
I was always searching for HOME, some mythical geographical spot – some alchemical mixture of architecture and good vibes that was meant to be a safe and enduring harbor for me. I had this sense that my internal discomfort and restlessness just needed to be in the right spot to be healed.
The Family Homestead
When my parents made the decision to leave their home in the DC suburbs in order to downsize and remove themselves from the rat-race, I asked that they let me know before they put the house on the market. This was the house I had lived in during high school and to which I had returned in times of early adult crisis. They did just that and my husband and I bought the house from them.
It was a charming old house and I loved it like a family member. When we hired an old house inspector, we found out our new home was in fact an ailing family member. We jumped into the task of reviving her, bringing her up to code, making her safe, securing her against the forces of nature. I had this idea that when we got her completed, the magic would ensue. I would feel safe. I would feel certain. I would feel like I belonged. I would feel rooted and connected to this place where I had done so much growing.
We spent a lot of money on that hope. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. If you’ve ever owned an old home, or a boat, or your own business, or had a kid with terrible teeth, you are familiar with the wind gust that is generated by thousands of dollars rushing out of your account to fix the most recent problem.
My favorite fix occurred on the day that the old house fixing specialist, who rode to work on his bike that had a wagon of tools attached, inserted four car jacks under the house in specific locations to address the fact that the whole structure was sinking into the ground. Each jack had to be raised to a different height because, as is the way with old houses, the level of “sink” into the earth varied from spot to spot. This reality had made for interesting versions of parallel and perpendicular between walls and floors, creating gaps and cracks and thousands of places for small objects dropped on the floor to go and live for eternity.
We poured our money and time into that old girl. And after several months in that house, after seven years of trying, I got pregnant. This shift created new cracks in our plan to be rooted in place, to be the link in a geographic family legacy chain.
Cracks in the Foundation
While we had been rebuilding, old problems were festering in our neighborhood. Crime was on the rise. More to my immediate and specific concern, violent crime was on the rise. As my body grew to accommodate twins, my walk to the subway slowed. At that slower pace I became aware of more signs of trouble and experienced my own lumbering vulnerability which increasingly attracted unwanted attention from others.
During the final phase of my pregnancy, which involved 10 weeks of modified bed rest (which I will forever refer to as “house arrest”), I was reclining in the only chair that could still hold me comfortably when I heard gunshots. They weren’t in my house or even in my yard. They weren’t next door, but down the block. I don’t even remember the circumstances of the crime, I only remember sitting in that chair, nearly incapable of even rising to standing by myself, and feeling vulnerable, helpless, and wildly protective.
My dreams of digging deeper roots – of digging in to that family place – were shattered. I stared out at the double corner lot we’d been so excited to have as a place for kids to play and knew I couldn’t be okay with it. I thought about the playground down the bock where I’d imagined taking my kids and where I’d recently seen evidence of drug traffic and knew I’d been fooling myself all along. Having spent time here growing didn’t mean I should stay, and it didn’t mean I was home.
The funny thing is, though, I thought I’d just gotten the place wrong. I still thought the answer to my rootlessness was finding the right location.
The End of the Geographic Solution
When we embarked on searching for our current home, we had 3 month old twins in tow. There is nothing like house hunting with infants to cure you of the idea that finding the perfect home will solve most, if not all, of your problems. There is no perfect home for 3 month old twins. And 3 month old twin parents are really too tired to make good decisions. We chose the house where they stopped crying and fell to sleep. Yes, that is the truth.
I could tell you more about that house, but the house is really not the point. The point was to get to feeling rooted, and dispelling the myth that hearth and home, that architectural and geographic alchemy are THE answer to that question. We landed in a better spot in so many ways, but it took years for roots to grow and they didn’t grow because we’d found the right place.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe there are places that are better and worse for us. I believe that the spaces and land we inhabit can contribute to our growth and well-being. But I don’t believe that you need to find the right house or the right town to feel at home, and as a one-time compulsive real estate shopper, THAT was a huge revelation.
How to Grow Roots
Feeling at home, deeply rooted, is an inside job and requires attention to what is going on under all of that practical geography.
Being rooted is about more than checklist of features, double-closets and neighborhood school rankings. Being rooted is about more than a spot on a map or walkability or even how much the utilities run. Being rooted is about more than your family’s history on that spot, more than your memories, more than expectations and tradition.
Being rooted starts with listening: listening to discomfort, listening to tingles of curiosity and the light quick breath of joy. Being rooted starts with your attention to the signals your amazing body gives you when you can get quiet enough to hear them. Being rooted means being at home with and in YOU, an idea that confounds some and scares the living daylights out of others because it sounds like a lot of work and like it may be uncomfortable.
And it may be, but you don’t need to do all of that just yet. You don’t need to take all of the healing steps to grow your roots. You really only need to take one step at a time.
And the first one is simply a breath, in through our nose and out through your mouth, a breath that soothes your tired nervous system, that nourishes your cells. A breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, that takes your focus and thereby quiets the chatter in your mind. Just a breath and your attention on the growing sensation that you are safe, that you are secure in this one moment, that in this breath you are completely and unassailably okay.
Roots are grown rather than found or inherited. They are cultivated rather than dictated by tradition or market forces. They are individual as much as they can be intertwined. They are yours.