I’ve been mulling this subject around in my brain from many different angles. A forest of tall, strong trees has a complicated system of roots on the forest floor, like the ones pictured above. They’re beautiful, really, in their own way, but one could easily get tripped up on them. The same seems to be true with people.
I come from a forest of tall, strong trees, both literally and figuratively. I grew up in a remote area of the Pennsylvania Blue Ridge mountains with natural forest land all around. I had plenty of time to explore my world, play imaginatively, and regularly refresh my soul as a young child. My parents guarded these opportunities for me that seem so simple and yet so often missed. We did not have a television hooked up in our home (and yes, TV was prevalent when I was a kid!), and I was not allowed to join any sports teams or other activities that required daily meetings or practices until I was in high school because my mother firmly believe that kids should be kids.
I’m so thankful for this because I nearly suffocated in high school, and some of that was likely because I was an introvert living an extrovert schedule. Once I hit high school, my average day looked like getting up at 5:50 a.m., catching the bus by 6:45 a.m., getting to school by 8:00 a.m., practicing with my sports or theater team after school until 5:00 p.m., traveling home until 5:45 p.m. (thank God for the life-saving 40 minute commute that allowed me to process my thoughts once I was old enough to drive), eating dinner, doing homework and instrument practice, and going to bed in time to get up and do it all over again. And that was just on normal days, let alone concerts, recitals, games, tournaments, and stage productions! My family has a running joke that I always scheduled “free time” first when planning out my limited evening, but if I didn’t, I feared I would never get that far. (And, unbeknownst to my mom, she kind of instilled that as a value early on.)
I have an amazing heritage of stability, commitment, and strength. My great-grandmother lived to be 100. One of my grandfathers lived to be in his 90s, and I have a living grandmother who is 102 and counting. I also just spent a few days with my family celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Now, that’s commitment! But that’s not all. Every single one of my siblings and I are in our first marriages and still committed and rocking the family life thing on a daily basis. When we were home, I couldn’t help but note that when we mentioned all being in town to celebrate my parents’ 50th, that another set of siblings with whom we grew up were in the area to celebrate their parents’ 50th, and another set of siblings said, “We just celebrated our parents’ 50th a year or so ago!” And there were others at the party that I knew had also been married for more than 50 years. Amidst today’s marriage statistics, that’s amazing! My parents’ had a circle of friends who knew what commitment looked like, and I got to grow up around all of that.
So why do I live twelve hours away? Why do I have a hard time visiting for more than a few days at a time? Truth is, if I had stayed in the area into young adulthood, I would have been only a shadow of the person I am today. I always viewed the world a bit differently than most with whom I grew up, but I didn’t have the framework, life experience, and confidence to embrace choosing a different path without completely relocating. From afar, I can more effectively name the things that are wrong and do them differently.
Oftentimes, people are so constantly focused on what is wrong and trying to fix it that we forget to notice what is right and build upon it. But other times, we see so much that is right that we are afraid to name that which is askew and work to engage multiple perspectives to come to a more accurate and all-encompassing truth. Like most white people, there were many things in my growing up experience that were just plain wrong. Like most American Christians, there were some things in my upbringing that were treated as unquestionable truth that were simply interpretation, perspective, political opinion, and culture. And for some reason, I needed and still need wide-open spaces to identify which is which and make and maintain the shifts needed to be a healthy, whole adult.
But that doesn’t minimize the foundation of a healthy existence that my parents provided for me in a supportive, loving home. As I work with people daily, I am constantly reminded of the amazing foundation for a healthy life that was provided me through my family.
Over the past few weeks, I took my children to celebrate and connect with their roots. We celebrated marriage and life-long, loving commitments. We celebrated and enjoyed the beautiful lands of the northeastern United States that are filled with wonderful memories for me and provide me with a connection to the land I rarely feel in my current location. We walked the streets and parks of Boston and Newton that I walked as a child, that my father walked as a child, that my grandmother walked as a child, and that my great-grandparents walked. I sent my dad a picture of my son walking in the park that was my dad’s old stomping ground.
We traced our roots together as a family, and I come from a family of tall, strong trees, so our roots are a little messy. But they’re beautiful and they’re needed to support life and health and another generation of tall, strong trees.
As we drive back toward the Midwest, I imagine a day in the future when my adult children take their families to a little corner of northeastern Pennsylvania and say, “This is where my mom grew up, and I have a lot of great memories visiting here as a kid.” Who knows where their journeys will take them? Only time will tell what pieces of their upbringing give them life and what pieces they will need to adapt and choose a different path. But one thing I know, they will always have a beautiful, messy network of roots holding them up amidst a forest of tall, strong trees.
*I recognize that, in my work as a community developer and educator, asking people to remain in a setting that threatens to wither and suffocate them for the sake of the community is a big ask. I know that some people, like myself, will need to relocate and find a new space to feel whole and to thrive, but I know there are others who are strong enough to remain in an environment, embrace the gifts and the things that are beautiful in the community, and work to exemplify the change of those things that need to change. To those individuals, I tip my hat and say, “You are stronger than I. Thank you for remaining in this place with your gifts and contributions, and please tell me when I am holding you back with pieces of your youth that you need to let go.”