In college, I read a lot of poems. Long and short, rhyming and not, epic and lyrical and imagist, poems dashed in and out of my academic life for four years (and still several years before I would begin to actually enjoy them). With the great abundance of good poetry in my life at the time, I’m surprised and more than a little amused that the poem I remember best from those years is not a good poem, but is in fact barely a poem at all, its author only a poet by the slimmest of definitions.
“To Edmund Clerihew Bentley” lurks at the beginning of G.K. Chesterton’s odd supernatural mystery, The Man Who Was Thursday, on the page where a normal author would have written: “To ECB For all the great times.” Chesterton—humorist, journalist, philosopher, theologian mystery writer and sort of poet—wrote a poem instead. And while the first 5/6 of it is a long and allusive inside joke for the early 20th-century literary London set, the last four lines shift the tone away from the modern apocalypse, and read:
Between us, by the peace of God, such truth can now be told;
Yea, there is strength in striking root and good in growing old.
We have found common things at last, and marriage and a creed,
And I may safely write it now, and you may safely read.
I’m not sure what I loved about these lines when I was nineteen, but they’ve echoed through the many years since, growing stronger and more meaningful instead of politely fading away like all the Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare have done.
Because I’m thinking of roots today, this year, this season. Of having them and leaving them, of returning and putting them down. I’m thinking of roots in the way that it seems many of us are these days, especially this generation in and around our thirties. We think about it a lot, asking where we want to live, what we want to do, what we want to be about for the long term. We think of roots like we used to look at course catalogues, wondering where we’d like to invest our time and attention and then carefully directing it all that way.
I recently attended a wedding shower for a woman I met when she was a kindergartener. In a room full of our mothers and sisters, we looked through a photo album that stretched back twenty-five years. We’ve gone on vacations together, and our various backyards have hosted barbecues, rehearsal dinners, baby showers, and graduation parties. I’ve called the mothers my “urban aunts” for quite a long time, because that is the closest approximation I can come up with for the closeness of relationship and influence they’ve had on my life.
These women taught me not just how to be a mentor and teacher, then later a wife and mother, but also how to continue to be myself through each of these seasons. Some got married very young, others later. Some stayed home full time while their children were young, and others worked various amounts outside the house. They are artists and readers, musicians and gardeners and bakers. They love deeply and honestly, and work hard for their families and communities, and they’ve been endlessly generous to me in sharing their stories, stories that go with my as I sort out my own.
It occurred to me at the party that these are my roots, yes, but that as a small child I didn’t notice them growing. These roots grew over time, little investments from all of us, tendrils of love that bound me up and gave me the strength to grow and flourish and, eventually, to leave for a time.
My dining room is currently host to some paperwhite bulbs, resting atop handfuls of muddy gravel in glass cylinders, given to my husband and me as we left a class at church. Below the triumphant columns of green, with white blossom crowns, a broad network of white capillaries fills the water between the rocks. The roots came first, shortly before the green burst out of the papery bulb, but now they’re both growing at once, filling their respective worlds with new life. It was meant to evoke the slow but sure transformation of spiritual growth. (We attend the sort of church that hands out botanical object lessons. I’m really quite fine with it.)
As I watched the roots form, it struck me that the roots aren’t optional. The bulb doesn’t consider not putting down roots, staving off the potential pain of uprooting should she ever have to move to a new jar. Without the roots, there is no stalk, no flower, no real reason to exist at all.
The roots of my childhood, the party full of dear urban aunts and their daughters, were just as automatic, and just as invisible. It’s a testimony to the privilege of stability that I never considered, when I was eleven, holding off on intimacy and connection, waiting for a sense of forever before I got involved. I was fully engaged, ready to love and be loved by those around me, without ever having decided to do so. Like my bulbs, I just put down roots, where I was, and grew.
There is strength in striking root, my poem and my plants remind me. Roots go with health, with growth, with life. Whether I’m living in the neighborhood I’ll live in when I’m sixty, or we move next month, I’ll be putting down roots either way. Just as these women were roots for me, I have the opportunity to grow them for others, wherever I am, for however long. So maybe I’ll stop worrying about the where and when of rootedness, knowing that the answers are here and now. And always.
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“It occurred to me at the party that these are my roots, yes, but that as a small child I didn’t notice them growing.” As someone just a little way further down the path, this sentence struck me as a great truth. I think the strongest bonds I have were forged when I was so busy living them that I didn’t look ahead to a time when I would be looking back at them. They are the realest things, the ones we didn’t make on purpose, that we just lived into.
So beautifully said! Thank you for that image.
Wow! So interesting. And unlike you, I had few roots growing up. Mother was an introvert, and we moved 4 times between 3rd and 9th grades. Maybe she was so busy setting up house that she didn’t have much time for long term relationships. I remember very few adults who contributed to my growing up. My aunt on Mother’s side mainly and my parents. Was the difference because your dad pastored? Or was your mother one to gather people around? It would be interesting to have tea and muse about this!
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It’s a good question, and I believe that the stability of living in one place for a good while, something that I totally took for granted at the time, had a lot to do with it. My mom also made these friends because their kids were friends and in activities at church together, a circumstance that I’m starting to see mirrored in my own life, even now. I think the challenge for me is realizing that the roots I’m creating are valuable and worthwhile, no matter how long-term they are.
Would love to catch up over tea someday! Hope you and Brant are well.