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Uprooting Myself

August 2, 2012

I’d thought I was too tired to cry at leaving.  I’d made it dry-eyed through the sleepless night of packing, the schlepping boxes up the hill to the post office and to friends’ houses; through the lunches with people I don’t know when I’ll see again, through the last jam and the last dance; through the sunset and stars as we stood looking out over the valley from the height of the war memorial; through the last dinner in town, the hugs, the going-away present of hand-knit socks, the farewells, the ride down to the bus station.

And then the bus left town, crossing the inlet, climbing the hill, passing the museum where I worked one summer, and I realized that I was going to cry after all. I did it as silently as I was able, my face screwing up in the darkness; wiped my face, dozed, woke briefly to a glorious sunset breaking through thunderclouds, and slept again until we arrived at the train station.

I remember, some time in high school, telling my dad about the sort of place I wanted to live when I grew up.  It would be enough of a city that there would be good restaurants and plenty of cultural events going on; it would be dense, a pleasant place to run errands on foot or bike.  It would be surrounded by nature – you might need to drive to get to mountains, but a simple walk in the woods would be only a thought away.

I didn’t think that place existed.  And then I came to college, and found everything I had dreamed of and more – not just the things I wanted, but also the things I didn’t know were missing from my life.  Community.  Music.  Real yogurt, fresh apples.  A space for myself in the universe – not only in the here and now, but also in the forever and always.

It’s been my Newford, my Bordertown, and I didn’t even have to run away to get there – I just woke up one day, and there it was all around me.  The rocks sang songs of time, and the stars answered.  Old folkies and young rock guitarists shared the same stages.  In the weird and wonderful Memorial Day parade, roller derby women precede the Baptists, who march bearing a dove banner like a dragon. Four-times weekly farmers’ markets take food stamps, and the co-op caters to hipsters and sporadically-employed hippies alike. They’ve been dancing the same dances on the Commons for the past forty years at least – hundreds of feet, weaving together the bonds of community over space and time.

(A friend of mine, who graduated several years ahead of me, used to spend fifteen hours on busses to come back and visit. “There must have been someone special,” remarked the person to whom I mentioned this.  But no: there was just the town, whose spirit has a habit of stealing hearts.)

It was here that I found My People.  They live with the world, not just in it; they ask questions of the trees and listen to the bugs; they walk softly and live boldly.  They keep bees, knit socks, sow seeds, sing songs, put up pickles, tell stories. They create and they share. Here My People found me – for I had no idea what I was looking for, and thought I was quite content by myself. Now I know better; however content I may be to spend time by myself, I am so much fuller and so much more awake when My People are in my life.

I recognize them now.  They’re everywhere.  I have to keep reminding myself of that as I leave. My Bordertown didn’t generate all of them them anew from the primordial soup; many grew elsewhere and were captured there for a time like fireflies in a jar, lighting the path.  Some, like me, are scattering across the world once more, where we will surely meet more of our kindred.

It’s hard.  I didn’t plan on putting down roots like this. I didn’t plan on anything, really; I just did things as they came to me and figured I would wind up somewhere eventually.  Well, this is where I wound up – struggling to uproot myself from a town where I lived for barely four years.  Leaving home, where I’d lived sixteen years in the same house, was easier than this. That was adventure; this, though it marks the beginning of many things I truly want, feels like exile.

It helps if I contemplate exactly what I rooted myself in. The bedrock, the Commons and its community, the co-op grocery and the co-op bookstore, the way the evening light falls on the hills and the towers, the stars at night, the waterfalls in summer and the icefalls in winter – I can’t take these with me.  But the music, the sense of being awash in the sea of time, the balance between local community and global awareness, the relationship with the earth and with my fellows – these things can travel with me wherever I go.  As I rise, stretching my fingers towards an unknown sky, roots feed the growth of these my leaves: Knitting a sock.  Cooking dried beans.  Keeping a plant alive one more day.  Matching another’s rhythm with my melody.  Telling a story of a day long past. Speaking for voiceless shells caught in the long dance of evolution.  Maintaining a friendship one more week. Now that the harvest has come, I gather the fruits of boldness, of love, of communion and curiosity.  Hopefully they will sustain me in the journey to come.

By the time I arrived at the train station, the universe had apparently had enough of my wallowing and seemed bent on reminding me that life would keep going on.  First was the white-haired lady with one squinty blue eye, wearing a fabulous straw hat and a bright yellow dress, who came up to me as I was fighting with my various and unwieldy pieces of luggage.  We had a nice conversation about the wanderings of her daughter, and she told me some things about me that were entirely true and wished me joy on my journeys.  And while my general appearance and demeanor could easily have supplied the things she told me, that doesn’t undermine the kindness of a stranger, unprompted, telling you things that ease your travels.  And then there was the woman I sat next to on the train herself: fortyish, wearing hand-knit socks, traveling all the way to California for a relative’s wedding.  She told me to knit the heels double so they wouldn’t wear out, and we had a nice conversation about the geology out west and her young nephew who was fascinated by dinosaurs.  We discussed the weather and its effect on the year’s crops; she asked if I had studied anything that would help us get out of this mess.

No, said I; there’s nothing I can do.  I’m a paleontologist.  The creatures that I study died long ago, when the world was very different from today.

And then she said, You’re wrong; what you do is important. Someone needs to tell those stories, clearly and loudly.  Because the world is changing, and we won’t ever understand that unless we understand the past.  We need a prophet.

I didn’t tell her that I feel there have been prophets aplenty – that I sometimes feel we are Cassandra, speaking truth while the glaciers fall, the seas rise, the forests burn, and no one listens.  That was just my tired mind speaking and I knew it.  We do not bear any curse of Apollo, and if the people are not listening, it is surely because we are using the wrong words, or because we are drowned out by the shouts of the powerful, or because it is easier to fear the future than to do something about it.

Change happens.  It happens in the smallest atoms and the largest galaxies, in the solid mountains and in leaves on the wind.  In time, perhaps, it will reach the halls of the powerful as well. Change has grasped my life and twisted it into a new shape; four years ago I could never have talked with that much passion for so long to even a friend.  I drifted, doing what was asked of me and little else.  It feels so strange, now, to have a plan that extends beyond a year, to know what I want.  It’s so much easier to be disappointed if you’re looking for something in particular, and so much easier to feel the loss of fruits carefully gathered.  On the whole, though, I’m glad to have this knapsack full of the gathered harvest, these ghostly roots that will nourish me wherever I go, these branches that bare leaves to the sun and storms. And I’m glad to have opened my eyes to those who root nearby, growing between the cracks of our concrete civilization, rising for the same broad sky.  May our forest spread far as we wander.

As Crowfoot sings:

So fare you well, my own true love;
Fare you well for a while.
I’m going away, but I’m coming back
If I walk ten thousand miles.

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