Recently I spent an afternoon with a woman who had been introduced to me by a mutual friend. She had a naturally tanned face lined like a rural map, bright blue eyes, a long single braid of pure silver hair, and a quiet confidence that made getting older seem downright appealing. We were talking about knots in life – situations that are blocked rather than moving forward. In my case, it was finding a house and working on my novel. I wouldn’t have connected the two things, but she did.
“You need space to write,” she said. “You’ll write the book when you have the house. But why is that taking so long? It sounds like something’s amiss with your roots. You need to plant a tree, and fast.”
I am by nature a pragmatic person. I’m big on personal responsibility, relying on a combination of research, persistence, and sweat to get where I want to go. Shouldn’t I be able to write anywhere, anytime? Virginia Woolf aside, wasn’t the lack of a room of my own just another excuse? Wouldn’t the house come from patiently going through ads and visiting a lot of wrecks? My father liked to say, “If you work hard enough, you can do anything.” But he also played the lottery, and drove us once a week to church, where we celebrated the product of a virgin birth turning bread and wine into flesh and blood, and prayed for divine intervention in the knots we couldn’t manage to untie ourselves. How could I not also be drawn to magic and metaphor, to the unconscious and invisible?
And so, though skeptical of this woman’s unusual prescription, I found myself thinking of what kind of tree I might like to plant. But where would I plant it? I live nine stories up in a small apartment with barely a balcony. My “garden” consists of a few jade plants and a couple of unkempt window boxes I’ve left to chance: failed attempts at growing herbs, a dandelion, some unidentified stragglers that I assume came from my neighbor on the eleventh floor, who throws her cuttings over her railing.
The solution to my knots was turning into its own knot. I put aside the tree question for a bit, and thought about roots.
As humans we are of course anything but rooted (though I have come across the unfortunate case of “tree man,” a Bangledeshi who sprouted a root-like fungus from his hands and feet). We are made to move, equiped with everything we need to crawl, walk, run, roll, climb, leap, and spin. Gravity and a lack of wings keep us earthbound, but not immobile. There are, however, roots within us: your hair has roots (they’re the only part that is actually alive – what you see and groom is the dead stuff); your teeth have roots (as you know very well, if you’ve ever had one pulled); you have 31 pairs of nerves branching off your spine from nerve roots, exchanging sensory and motor signals with your peripheral nervous system.
Eastern approaches to the body such as yoga and ayurveda work with subtle energy centers called chakras. The first, Muladhara, is known as the root chakra, located at the base of the spine or in the groin area, and has to do with safety, grounding, and survival. Other disciplines take an elemental approach, identifying the feet, legs, pelvis, and sexual organs as our Earth element – the part of us that is closest to the ground, our foundation, our base. Whether you accept these concepts or not, sayings like “stand on your own two feet,” “you don’t have a leg to stand on,” “find your footing,” or “get your sea legs” confirm the connection between the lower body and our notion of stability and safety.
But usually when we talk about roots, we mean something synonymous with “where I’m from” or “my family tree.” These are the roots you were born into. They came with the package – a specific family in a specific place. But not everyone stays where they’re planted. My ancestors pulled up their Polish roots to go to America. I crossed the same ocean in the other direction. What does this say about my roots? “Something’s amiss,” said the silver-haired woman. But is it?
According to a wonderfully informative article on trees by Thomas O. Perry, the first root to emerge from a seed is called the radicle. In some species (pine, oak, walnut), this root drills straight down and remains the organism’s major artery. But in others (spruce, willow, poplar), the radicle does not persist, and a system of fibrous roots takes over instead. Maybe in life, as in tree growth, the eclipsing of the original root is a natural affair, depending on whether you’re a willow or a walnut.
Then there are the roots you put down for yourself. I think of these as home: that place where you can refuel, let go, exhale, let down your guard, close the door to the wild world outside, and give your fight-or-flight a rest. It may be a tent in the desert, a cheap sublet under the eaves, or a place you’ve been for years, lined with layers of familiarity like straw woven into a bird’s nest. Is it possible that setting down these roots — making a home for yourself — actually has more to do with smart adaptation than simple inertia? Here’s Perry again:
“Except for the first formed roots that respond positively to gravity, most roots do not grow toward anything or in any particular direction. Root growth is essentially opportunistic in its timing and its orientation. It takes place whenever and wherever the environment provides the water, oxygen, minerals, support, and warmth necessary for growth.”
In other words, whether you are several feet from where you were born or on another continent, if you’re able to make a home there, if you’re putting down roots, it’s because it’s a place that feeds you, a place where you can grow.
Which brings us back to knots
All of this is a great reminder: when there are knots in your life, look to your roots, in every sense of the word.
Feel your feet and legs and pelvis and notice how you stand, walk, and relate to the ground. Stretch your legs, feel your weight. Remember that the ground supports you.
Think about the roots you came with: your history. If you examine the stories of the people who came before you and lead directly to you, you may find patterns you can avoid repeating, or qualities that can help you deal with your obstacles.
And look at where you call home now. Does it give you what’s necessary to grow? Is there something missing, anything you need to tend to?
The weeks after I spoke with the silver-haired woman were rich with sun and rain. The mystery weeds blossomed in the boxes on my balcony. One was particularly tall, its stem, when I looked closely, almost twiggy. The penny dropped. I took a picture and sent it to Francis the Landscape Gardener, who came back with gold: “Looks like a plum tree,” he said. Perfect. The tree found me, and grows, rooted in mid-air, until I find the right patch of soil to anchor it in.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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