Once upon a time in China, my students asked me,”How do you travel like you do?”
Honestly? No idea, but I didn’t say that.
“Because I want to?” Wait, why did I make it question?
“So, would any of you ever move away from home? Or the other side of the world?”
“No.” It was nearly unanimous.
“Roots.” Roots in the places they’re from, connections, ties, foundations – deeply planted.
At the time, I thought that having deeply planted roots indicated a person is stable, grounded, and sturdy. Everything I am not, which makes those qualities all the more desirable. For most of my life, I have viewed my wandering tendencies as a fault to be corrected rather than an asset to be developed. Even as a kid I changed activities – T-Ball, gymnastics, band, art, archery – drifting from one to the other when I got bored. Now, as an adult I find myself meandering from place to place to find the ever-elusive “home.”
There are enough cliches out there to distract you from ever really finding it…
“Home is where the heart is.”
“Home is where you hang your hat.”
“Home sweet home.”
All of that to say, home evokes this idea of permanency. Many people end up living in the same town they were born in because it’s “home.” They might not even like the place! I couldn’t wait to leave my hometown when I turned eighteen. Simultaneously, I gave up the idea of being a stable person.
Now I understand: stable does not equal stationary.
What has this got to do with roots?
Let’s go back to the trees for a moment. In a way they support my crazy idea. That is not to say that trees uproot themselves whenever they feel like it. However, they do something else entirely. According to Iowa State University’s Forest Extension, “Root systems may occupy an area four to seven times the surface area occupied by the crown of a tree.”
In tree talk, the “crown” is the canopy.
If a the canopy has a diameter of 10 ft, then the roots have the capability of being 40 to 70 ft away from the trunk. Experts debate exactly how far a tree’s roots can go because there are a number of factors to consider: soil fertility, moisture, nearby roads or construction, the age of the tree, and even how closely together they are planted.
One thing is clear: trees travel.
In order to be sturdy, stable, and grounded a tree’s roots have to move away from where the trunk is. “Roots are opportunistic,” say the people at deeproots.com. They go in many directions, not just down, or left, or right. If conditions are favorable they will push further in that direction.
In short, my idea of a rooted person being someone who never left home was shattered.
I expected to go to China and love it. No, I expected to find the place I was missing my whole life and never realized. I’ve read blogs and articles about people who traveled to other countries and felt more at home there than in their place of origin.
I desperately wanted to be that person, because the United States always felt like a bad pair of shoes. They were the only ones I had ever had and I made due, but they didn’t fit.
So when China didn’t fit like a magic Cinderella slipper, I was a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it was challenging, I met life-long friends, and it most definitely changed the trajectory of my life, but it wasn’t my destination.
To go back to my roots analogy, I hit bedrock and I knew I wouldn’t be going any further in that direction. So I returned to the States, regrouped, and tried something different.
At first it was a bitter pill to swallow, but the idea grew on me. I’m actually still in the place of staying, or more specifically Oklahoma (aka: that place that gets tornadoes).
It is in this season of staying that I stumbled upon a place that felt more and more like home every time I returned to it. Such is life, you seem to find the best things by happy accident.
Many faces of the trail
Alright, so it isn’t exactly a place.
It is nothing more than a thin line that snakes across the world, ending here and beginning again there. The journey, not the end, is the reward. There are not arrows telling you which direction to go, but it is always encouraging you forward.
The trail offers me a place to think, to understand that life on this planet is vastly amazing and I am only a small part of it. It chides my inner pessimist and nurtures my excessive optimism. It is the challenger and the cheerleader in one. I can be fully myself, uncensored by society often prompting me to let go of my own agenda. It is dirt under your finger nails and snow in your boots, cussing through the tough stuff and laughing when it’s over. It’s hot drinks in cold weather, and blazing stars on frigid nights. It is a place of warmth and comfort despite the lack of material things. It isn’t always easy, the best things aren’t.
The trail is a home of sorts, a safe place, and I strive to be there as often as I can.
On that stretch of dirt leading from yesterday to tomorrow, things seem a little clearer in their simplicity. Walls come down. Truth is tangible. And even if for a brief moment, all is right with the world.
After experiencing the things I have in the last year, I wish I could revisit that conversation with those students. I would tell them that even roots have to venture into unknown territory, sometimes on an invisible journey in order to support the impressive creation above the soil.
I would tell them that their efforts may lead them right back to where they were in the first place, but they will be stronger for it.
I would warn them that remaining stationary comes with the risk of becoming stagnant.
I would be honest and tell them that I wasn’t sure why I had chosen to travel to China.
I was certain of on thing: I needed to leave.
It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.
I want to repeat one word for you:
Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.”
-Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road
Until next time!