Growing Roots (A Series): Part I

Where Are You Rooted?

bark-beautiful-branch-1080401I think the Hallmark card answer to this question features family and home – some kind of (outdated for most) fictional version of the generational homestead where you are always loved and encouraged.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.

abandoned-antique-architecture-175692It 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

argula-botanic-grow-6414Feeling 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.

Keep breathing.

How to Come Home

So this week I’ve been talking about coming home to yourself – being who you really are and bringing that sense to all of the difficult spaces you find yourself in: the difficult job, the marriage that isn’t what it once was, the argument with a friend.

antique-art-door-211763And that’s all very well and good as advice goes, but it doesn’t tell you a lot about how to GET THERE. Okay, Julia I can see that being my authentic self could have benefits. I can see that not continually fighting to improve according to some metric and instead bringing my gifts to a problem might bring me some creative solutions AND a whole bunch o’ fulfillment. I am on board, but… what the hell are you talking about? How do I come home.

It’s a fair question.

And it’s not one that there is one specific answer to, but there are strategies, there are things you can do, and things you can stop doing. Maybe we should start with the stopping.

Stop: pretending you like things you don’t, volunteering for things you don’t want to do, assuming that you’re the only one who can ________, believing that you just need a little more/different training/certification, believing that there is a right way to get it and that’s what you need to figure out, hanging on to clothes/books/music that you don’t like/make you feel bad, spending a lot of time with people who leave you feeling exhausted or really negative. This list could get a lot longer, so I’m going to leave it here for a moment because the critical thing is not that you STOP EVERYTHING that isn’t perfectly aligned (at least not right away because that would be really hard), but that you stop enough to make some space for discovery. Stop just one of these things and make room.

You need space for discovery because that’s the START category of this whole proposition.

You need to start paying some attention to what you already have inside you, maybe some things that have been there, unattended and dusty in the corner for a while.

A few suggestions on how to pay attention to those dusty parts. Some of these standalone, and others are multi-part strategies.

  1. Consider a meditation (ugh, I know – okay I’ll do like Martha Beck does and call it stillness – better?) practice of some kind. You don’t need to sit on a mat for an hour and think and do nothing (unless you already can and find it blissful). You just need to carve out some time and space in your head to let go of the junk that fills it up all day long. It’s awfully hard to look inside when there’s a constant influx of information, tasks, sounds, requests, noise, news, and wind-up monkeys banging cymbals (just me?). All of that everything keeps us at the surface, puts us in survival mode, keeps us from connecting to our core, which is (and I would have laughed uproariously if you’d said this to me five years ago) a place of peace. If you’re open a practice like this, check out this post for some suggestions on easy ways to get started.
  2. It feels weird to continue with a bulleted list after suggesting meditation, but such is the way of learning sometimes. The second thing I’d recommend is that you ask yourself what you used to like to do that you don’t do anymore. Any old hobbies in there? Any secret and long packed-away dreams? You may find some things on that list that got packed away for a reason. Like me for example, I used to like to drink beer competitively, as a sport with friends. First of all, I don’t recommend that. Secondly, that particular game got put away for a whole collection of good reasons. When I started asking myself this question about tucked away pieces of myself, I remembered how much I like to sing and how sad I was that I had stopped when the kids were born. I also remembered writing, a lot. Hmmmm…. Yes, I do a whole lot of both of those now, and one is part of my “work” in the world. The other is sheer pleasure, and even pays now and then.
  3. Get real honest about what you need and what you want and no, I’m not going to tell you to stop wanting anything. Check in on those needs and see what you can do to meet them to make yourself feel safe, secure, and like survival mode may be a little minimalistic. Explore those wants to see how they line up with the goals, career path, actions you’ve written down for yourself in your big book of obligations. Check yourself.
  4. Write down all of the reasons that you cannot want what you want, that you cannot be who you are, that you cannot dream what you dream. Write them all down in a flurry of negativity. Be the worst fan you can imagine. Be the anti-cheerleader. Go after yourself; just get all of it out on the page. ALL OF IT.
  5. When you have exhausted the list of shitty anti-support and abuse, read through it and for each one, ask yourself one thing: is this absolutely, irrefutably, totally 100% true? Do I know it for a fact? Would other people agree with me? If your list is anything like mine, there will be a whole lot of “No” in response to those questions. Challenge your reasons for hiding, for pretending, for squirreling big parts of yourself away.
  6. Start to play. Pick something. A hobby, a dream, a want, and play with it. Let it take your imagination on a journey. Let yourself explore the ideas. Let yourself imagine what could be different. Unleash yourself in your mind, and do so without constantly telling yourself why you shouldn’t or how it’s a waste of time. Savor your daydreaming. Get really good at it. Draw pictures about it. Write stories about it. Sing about it. Whatever. Just do it and be in it.

adult-armchair-beverage-846080And that’s it. Wait, what? No, really it kind of is. And let me tell you why. Because when you unleash yourself in your mind, everything else follows. Your beliefs change. Your feelings change. Your actions change. It ALL changes and it changes in a way that lets you be your whole self, that lets you be you, that lets you be at home wherever you are.

I’m here if you need someone to navigate. I have excellent maps.

And I’ll happily say: “Welcome home, love.”

 

The Self-Help Swiss Army Knife

I’ve been thinking about getting Swiss Army knives for my kids for Christmas, and I confess that this is likely a result of some ridiculously romantic notion of them cheerfully whittling on the back porch without cutting their fingers off and in lieu of some other pursuit that I find idiotic, but I’ve been thinking about it nonetheless. I have always been in awe of the massive amount of utility packed in such a relatively small container that is the Swiss Army Knife.

What tools will make me feel betterAnd then I got to thinking about that idea – a group of tools all hooked together and easily accessed, thus the idea of a Self-Help Swiss Army Knife was born. I began to seriously consider what tools in my toolbox I would recommend that people take on an adventure where outcomes are uncertain and pragmatism can be invaluable. And so, as a holiday gift to you all, I’ve come up with my Self-Help Swiss Army Knife (SHSAK) – although as I am a writer and coach and not a bookseller, it is sort of a DIY version (something I think I’d recommend against when it comes to an actual Swiss Army Knife – my Youtube search yielded lots of DIY to do WITH these knives and one actual “melee” weapon made of Legos).

So the Self-Help Swiss Army Knife needs to provide both the basic daily functionality of a plain old pocket knife and the extra bells and whistles (ok, corkscrews and toothpicks) of the real deal. Everybody with me?

Tool #1: A stillness practice. It can be meditation, but that word makes a lot of people anxiously flee (which they could prevent with meditation, but that’s not a helpful observation). The idea of and the procedures of meditation turn a lot of folks off, but there are many ways to develop a stillness practice – here’s one example, for more Google “sit spot”. What’s the point? The point is just like the one for the main blade of that knife. A stillness practice will cut away the crap. It gets you closer to what you actually want and need and gives you a break from the excess EVERYTHING. Sounds pretty good, right?

Tool #2: A body practice. What? Develop rituals, exercise, habits that put you in touch with your body. We spend so much time in our heads that we rarely give these amazing containers the attention that they deserve, and much of the attention we do give them is negative (a list of things we don’t like about them or recognition only when there is ailment). Paying attention to how your body feels and cultivating better physical feeling is both deeply rewarding and revealing about what is going on with you emotionally while you’re thinking about your holiday gift buying list. A body practice, like that nail trimmer on the knife, gets us focused on necessary self-care in a way that can only promote wellness over time.

Tool #3: Some method of journaling – this need not be written. If verbal expression isn’t your thing, maybe art OR maybe you hate to write, but love to talk. Find a way to express what’s going on in there in a stream of consciousness sort of way – no rules, no judgments, no grammar, no erasing, just get it all out there. Journaling is the can opener of the SHSAK. Let’s open it up and see what’s inside.

Tool #4: Now that we’re taking a look. Let’s magnify that vision a bit. For this, I heartily recommend Byron Katie’s The Work, a process of inquiry that she describes in her book Loving What Is. The author teaches us how to ask questions of our beliefs and our assumptions so that we can stop being hampered, tortured, made anxious and unhappy by things that aren’t necessarily true. It is a great tool for taking a closer look at what we think and believe and how it is impacting us.

Tool #5: Brooke Castillo’s The Model as described in Self-Coaching 101. This book is amazing. In it the author basically describes how to identify and change thought patterns that keep us stuck, prevent growth, and cause misery. Does she promise a totally happy life? No, but she promises a conscious one, where you get to make decisions about how you think and feel. This is the wire cutter and wire crimper of the SHSAK. It can also take care of small annoyances like the toothpick. Now THAT’s a useful tool.

Tool #6: Once you rearrange your assumptions, you may feel a little adrift. Any time you’re feeling adrift Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star makes an excellent compass for finding your way home – or to a new home. Okay, most Swiss Army Knives don’t have a compass, but I think we can all agree that they should, so the SHSAK definitely has one and this book is it.

Tool #7: The Fear Chair exercise as described by Liz Gilbert in Big Magic. The author talks about the power of fear to stop us in our tracks, regardless of how excited we might be about our endeavor. The answer? To put fear in its place. It can be here. It can exist. But it cannot drive. It cannot make decisions. It cannot run the show. This exercise is a great screwdriver. Pull it together, make it functional and go.

Growing and changingTool #8: Recognition and celebration. Growth and change are hard – that’s why so many of us avoid it at all costs. Notice your progress. Notice your accomplishments. Notice the way your life changes as you become more yourself. Break out a corkscrew and celebrate with a glass of champagne, or curl up with your favorite blanket and a book at a time you wouldn’t normally allow yourself such a treat. Give yourself a pat on the back and a big hug.

There you have it; a toolkit for self-transformation. If only I could fit them all into my pocket or yours.