Borrowed roots

Borrowed roots

The trees in my neighborhood are squeezed into small dirt rectangles between brick sidewalks and asphalt roads. Their branches get routinely hacked off, and they do not have many birds nesting in their branches. Mostly, their branches collect shreds of trash and plastic bags that blow through the city.

Still, I envy them. Their trunks are small and lean, but their roots have burrowed and spread so deep that the bricks have shifted to make way for them. The sidewalk bends and buckles around them, making crevices just the right size to catch the wheel of a stroller or a high-heeled shoe. It has taken long years of stalwart commitment for the trees to furrow the ground. If patience had a topography, I imagine it looking much like these misaligned bricks.

When I look at my own family’s history, I can find no such rootedness. My father grew up poring over navigational charts with his sea captain father, imagining voyages to the Galapagos Islands. My mother grew up hearing about her mother’s childhood in Australia and her father’s evacuation from London during the air raids of 1940. These stories formed my parents’ imaginations as children and so it is small wonder that they each left home at 21. Wanderlust tugged them across oceans, crisscrossing until they found each other on board a ship in Hawaii.

Our walls were mostly bare when I was small. The only décor I vividly remember is the world map that hung over the couch. I used to stare up at it, with my back pressed into the carpet, memorizing the contours and junctions of pink and green and blue shapes. Our family often hosted international students and they would always use the map to show us where they were from. Their eyes would light up when they pointed to the particular shape that constituted home.

We moved a lot when I was a child, often enough for “where are you from?” to become a complicated question. This trajectory has continued into my adulthood, although not in the form that I had expected. Life did not catapult me across oceans, as it did my parents, and it has been almost seven years since my passport has been stamped. Still, since I left home nine years ago, I have lived in 11 places (not counting several summers of camp) to work a grand total of 17 jobs.

These nine nomadic years have held much joy and adventure, along with much instability and fragmentation. But in the midst of this transience, I have learned to rely on the roots of others.

Most of the buildings I have lived in have had names. During my freshman year of college, I lived on Walker 1, named for a certain Mrs. Walker who was primly ensconced on the wall of the dorm lobby. For my first job after college, I lived in Laurel Ridge and then in Kirkland Hollow. My home in Maryland last year, perched on an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay, was named Windrush. I rarely learned the history of these buildings or met their founders, and yet the simple fact of their names lent them an air of permanence. Many generations had passed through them and so, by receiving their shelter, I became a part of their longstanding traditions.

Another tradition that I have been grafted into lately is that of the Anglican church. The churches we attended when I was a child were mostly spontaneous and free-form, and I grew up with a horror of anything that smacked of structure or repetition. The traditions of the Anglican church, however, have been anything but stifling. As a part of our weekly service, we recite the Apostles’ Creed. Each line is a statement of belief that Christians have agreed on for nearly two millennia. My own language of faith is often in flux but weekly, I am stabilized by the words of this Creed. Every line feels like a beam in a ceiling arching over me. These words hold me inside what I believe to be true, despite passing emotions. They tether me to a truth capacious enough to encompass all my wanderings.

I owe my current well-being in large part to the hospitality of these physical and spiritual buildings. They have each offered me shelter and situated me within something larger than my many small transitions.

I plan to move again this August to set up house with my older sister, who is buying her first home. I will bring my lamps passed down from Mama McClanahan, our great-grandmother, and she will bring our grandma’s easy chair. We each have half of our grandma’s silverware so together, we hope to throw large dinner parties. I will keep writing at my bird’s eye maple desk inherited from my aunt, who sat at it when she wrote her doctoral dissertation. We will fill our home with these acquired roots.

I am weary of these peripatetic years. I am ready to throw out my moving boxes, rather than bundling them into a closet ready for the next move. I am ready to plant a garden. I left gladioli and rosemary in Tennessee, sunflowers and lettuce in Maryland, but for this new home, I am eager to plant perennials.

Lately, I have been reading Upstream, Mary Oliver’s newest essay collection, which celebrates the beauty of living things. In her first essay, she writes about a black oak tree and how it must have changed since its wild younger years. “Who knows when supreme patience took hold,” she imagines, “and the wind’s wanderings among its leaves was enough of motion, of travel.”

No doubt the silver spoons will become tarnished and my current idealism will fade. No doubt I will long for more motion than the wind can offer. But perhaps in the merging of borrowed and inherited roots, new roots will form. Perhaps we can name our new home, and it will offer safety and permanence to fellow nomads. Perhaps, in time, supreme patience will take hold.