Roots

What are your roots?

And who told you?

Therapy homework one year consisted of writing the letter to my parents that I’d probably never send but always needed to write. At the time, the words gushed like a fresh wound–thousands and thousands and I never even reached the end. At the time, reading what I wrote and sharing bits and pieces became a cathartic therapy for me. It felt a bit like watching the wound scab over. Last week–and I don’t remember why–I pulled the letter up again. This time it felt strangely foreign. Oh I remember every second, but it’s not . . . I just don’t . . . need to remember anymore? It feels a little gratuitous now?

If I decide to go back, I can remember the odd and dizzying experience of trying to find my footing as a 20-year-old in a reality very different than the one I grew up in. Slowly dicing onions with shaking hands, I would contribute some thought to the chatter, something I thought sounded normal, and the whole Chipotle crew would fall silent and turn to look at me a little too curiously. Like I was from a different planet. We’d open the doors to a stream of normal people on their normal lunch breaks, and as I looked down and fidgeted with the tortilla press I would deliver the tense line, “What can I get for you?” over and over until Max stepped in with some brotherly taunting to teach me how to speak terrifyingly confident greetings, like “Well hey there, what brings you in today?!” My shoulders tightened progressively through the day until I ended my shift with a splitting headache and found myself back in bed crying over how completely lost I was.

Memories like these once served a useful purpose in fortifying my rejection of the world I had known where there were no crowds of normal people and I wasn’t allowed to get a job and rarely allowed to go to a friends’ house. The memories helped me prove to others (really so that I could prove to myself) that my childhood had been dysfunctional, that it was a culty experience that left me helpless in the outside world, and that I was right to get out when I could.

But now the memories feel, as I said, a little gratuitous. Like re-watching a bloody surgery I don’t need to re-watch. Reading my letter with its story after story of weird abuse doesn’t seem therapeutic anymore, at least for now. That time of uprooting is done.

We all come with confusing stories about who we are, why we are, where we must be headed, and what is even going on in this strange world. Many of these stories we’ve accepted from others, and they can feel set in stone. The stories speak of values deeply ingrained by our families, or by our cultures large and small. Values we rarely stop to question. Assumptions rooted deep within our psyches. Truths rooted deep within our bodies.

And then when things hit just enough of a chaos point, just enough dissonance and impossibility, just enough crashing and burning–we sometimes get to see that these roots may have been quite arbitrary, and realize it’s time to dig ourselves out.

So we uproot and replant. Or uproot and be blown around a lot and maybe never replant. Life can be hard and is different for each of us.

Uprooting, by the way, is not always a choice and is rarely pleasant. It takes courage and it usually means having hit a low point. So when you see someone uprooted–whether they’re still blowing in the wind or have found different soil–remember compassion.

So what were you told were your roots? Were they really roots for you? And are they still? And do they have to be? And are they allowing you to grow beautifully? Or are they stifling and starving you?

When I wake up in the middle of the night and, with the willpower of a person half asleep and half needing a distraction from the high pollen count, find myself scrolling from Kyiv bombings to missiles in the Korean peninsula to a senator swearing assault rifle regulation is off the table to a rich bully threatening the employees who make him his money to a major news outlet reporting on a major celebrity stating the least sexy thing a guy can do is fart to a money guru tweeting in all caps about the economy crashing and how you need to buy silver . . . it makes me wonder where my roots are?

I think a lot of us these days are finding ourselves tangled in news feeds. Somehow supposed to digest a thousand threats and crises and scandals and tragedies and offenses during an afternoon on the couch. Until we’re left with no willpower and little imagination and just a fizzle of who we were somewhere deep inside, sputtering a little weaker each day.

And then there are those who have a firm foundation from which to accuse and judge and know. Simple arguments and convenient theories and too much confidence and too narrow a window on the world. Some of us live with unquestioned roots that explain everything for us so that we’re not lost and anxious and we know exactly how it will all turn out. Until something drags us down into the street and exposes just how full our society is of things we don’t know, don’t understand, and wish we hadn’t seen, but can’t unsee.

In my experience, the logic-y, dogma-ish roots are too dry and inflexible and they tend to snap when life gets stormy enough. Which may be why despite hundreds of millions of people who are pretty sure they know what’s up, our society seems to blindly stumble from year to year, blaming and blaming and never quite fixing.

And if you also find yourself sleepless some nights, I wonder how your body itself may support you with its own roots in those worried moments. When all the reasons and plans and budgets and jobs and rules and structures and explanations aren’t working for you, maybe your breath will still sustain you like it always has, and your feet will find they’re still rooted to the ground, and you’re still alive, and you’re still here, and you can still touch and taste and see and hear and feel and laugh and cry and hug and dance and sing and do the body things that don’t require a credit score or a stock exchange.

Your feet can’t tell you why the world is the way it is today. Your hands can’t tell you where we’re headed. Your breath can’t change the trajectory of humanity–except that it can calm and center you and that a bunch of you’s make up humanity and that maybe if we all stopped to breathe calmly our trajectory may change. You, though, in your body, right now, can’t solve it all. But I think it’s your chaotic, scrolling brain that is insisting you find all the solutions–not your body. I think your body is just waiting for you to drop in and find the same aliveness and ease that you did as a running and pushing and swinging and bouncing and singing child, before you joined the world of the adults who have to know it all.

Today, your feet and your hands and your belly and your lungs and your movement and your stillness and your ears and your eyes and even your nose and your mouth can be your roots to a different kind of place, a different state. Not one of fixing or judgment or worry or need. One of aliveness, of being. And with those roots you may find some rest and peace.

And while the world needs you to come back to the work from time to time, when you find yourself blowing in the wind I wish you the courage to let the wind blow around you as you feel the ground with your feet and enjoy being a body.

~

Let’s find roots together as we go? Email address below. <3

From 1 to 92

and so I’m offering this simple phrase
to kids from one to ninety-two

The Christmas Song

One of my earliest vivid memories, marked by the musty smell of old books in the college library: Two fellow professors stopped my dad and struck up a conversation. They held their briefcases and said big sentences to each other and I knew that the world would be okay. The grown ups were in charge.

I can’t remember, on the other hand, when exactly I began to realize that’s not true. First, they’re not really in charge. Second, they’re not really grown ups anyway. I think I see this more and more every year.

I wonder what would happen if all the people who think they’re in charge remembered every day just how not grown up they are and not grown up everyone else is.

The term “grown up” is misleading, and I a little bit vote we retire it.

~

Have you ever slowed down enough to carry on a conversation with a little kid? It’s funny, they’re shockingly alive.

Jack was my oldest tiger, Sebastian was my biggest tiger, and Dakota was my favorite tiger. It’s not that my world quite revolved around them and all their stuffed siblings, it was more like they were my family, like I retreated to them for love after a day of facing my other family. There was Basil (pronounced like the pesto, because who doesn’t like basil pesto?) the beanie gorilla, and Peter Rabbit the sleepy rabbit, and India, the beanie baby bengal given to me by my best friends’ little sister I had a transient crush on, and more. (Notice the tiger theme, because tigers are awesome.)

At its peak, I think my stuffed family consisted of 50 or so. And while I remember a few of their names, it’s challenging because their names morphed every few weeks (kids clearly don’t automatically think identities must be set in stone). The whole lot of us would gather for a feast, prepare for a battle, or hunker down for a stormy night. I loved my stuffed animals.

“You’re getting older now, Peter. You’re becoming a man. It’s time for you to stop playing with stuffed animals.”

It felt like getting punched in the gut. I hadn’t thought yet of questioning my dad’s alwaysrightness, but I knew this one felt impossible. My face felt a little numb and dizzy and I cried tears of growing-responsibility and I loosened my grasp on wonder a little more.

My dad softened a little and let me keep the tigers only. The rest had to go. Adulthood is inevitable.

~

Each time a need goes unmet, we’re called by society to bury it deeper. This is called growing up.

We’re encouraged to get in line. Follow the guidance the other “adults” made up. Not rock the boat. Do our budget and then die someday.

Rarely are we encouraged to get back on all fours and imagine again that we’re a tiger living under a waterfall in the jungle. Or even just to laugh or cry or dream like a child.

~

I’m not saying don’t budget, don’t work hard, don’t do important grown up things. If nobody did grown up stuff we wouldn’t have doctors and farmers and plumbers.

But the doctors and farmers and plumbers and politicians and pastors and CEO’s aren’t as certain as we think they are. Somewhere under numerous coats of grown-up paint, they’ve still got their sensitive childhood-colored skin.

And while we grown ups have to make grown up decisions and face a grown up world and take grown up responsibility, we could make the world a safer place by remembering and reminding each other that deep down, we’re all just doing our childlike best.

It’s okay to retreat back into your pillow fort once in a while. The world isn’t as grown up as you think it is.

~

The world is not as okay as we believed it was when we were 5. The grown ups aren’t really in charge. And the ones in charge today won’t be tomorrow.

But maybe while we fight an ongoing fight to protect each other from angry or selfish grown ups with their guns and their rules and their money and their hierarchies, we also make the world a little safer by coming back to our childlike selves and each childlike other. Making the same safe space for each other now that we felt decades ago, where we get to retreat for a minute and let everything be “okay” for now.

None of us can carry the grown up world without childlike rest.

~

And I want to just say, those childlike rests are very much more possible for some of us than for others. I’m a white male whose family has lived in America for generations. I have no kids to pay for, and a salary that allows me to disappear to the mountains on occasion. I can afford Disney+ and a TV to watch it on. Whether or not I “should,” I can habitually buy artisan cheeses that cost $24.99 per pound.

And I have neighbors that can’t. And many neighbors can’t because of decades and centuries where our world went along with the “grown ups” who insisted they’d figured out how to make the world better. But better for who?

So as we make ourselves spaces to soothe our inner child, let’s also make safe spaces for our neighbors who don’t have what we have.

I had scores of stuffed animals. Somewhere in my city there is a kid clinging to an old tattered one. And after thousands of years and trillions of dollars, the grown ups haven’t yet figured out how to fix this difference. So maybe sometimes when we retreat to our pillow forts, we can invite a friend who doesn’t have a retreat.

~

tl;dr “grown up” is a lie or at least an unhelpful term, nobody has it all figured out, it’s okay to admit you’re still a child, and remember to share <3

~

Can I join you on your fight against growing all the way up?

Deeper

Do you ever catch yourself looking into someone’s eyes just a little longer and thinking “holy **** there’s an actual person in there!” before quickly breaking eye contact and saying something like “ugh, winter” or “thank god it’s Friday” just to lighten the tension of the tangible spirituality you just experienced between two powerfully human beings?

How much energy do we spend trying to avoid seeing each other as humans and deeply connecting?

And then, once we’ve carefully avoided truly connecting, how much TV do we watch alone on the couch wishing that we had someone there to talk to? But like to really talk to?

And then when we do find someone to talk to, how quickly do we replace the magical mystery of deep connection with a less fragile, less volatile, maybe less explosive normalcy like “how was your day?” again or “what do you want to watch?”

Really seeing someone is uncomfortable. Really being seen is uncomfortable.

When someone says “Hey. . . . how are you really doing?” there’s this strange hit–half ecstasy, half terror.

Deep connection is too good.

And full of too much potential.

So we sign it away in exchange for casual predictability.

No more rocking the boat of our lives or each other’s lives. Safe familiarity. Safe predictability. Safe blandness.

Safe nothingness.

Lonely nothingness.

And then one day we dare to hold someone’s gaze a little longer and speak with a deeply felt emotion for the first time since high school. And the possibilities of being a human and how magical it is come flooding back.

How many words do you speak in a day? And of those, how many do you actually care to speak? How many of your words are just social lubricant so you can avoid honesty and vulnerability and connection? Tailored to avoid the smallest chance that you’ll reach your tender, childlike hands out for connection and be rejected again?

Toughness is manufactured. Toughness is protection against the chance of experiencing the pain that can come along with being deeply human. And so toughness accidentally protects us from the magic of being human at all.

But what would happen if you looked someone in the eye just a little longer and said something like “Hey . . . I appreciate you.” . . . ? Or even the terrifying baggagey words that you’ve learned not to use, or at least to breeze quickly through, diluted with as much casualness as you can muster: “I love you.”

What if you risked connection?

What if you risked touching souls with someone?

What if someone else is waiting for the same thing?

Do you think the weather could wait?

Is it scary? Yeah. Yeah, it is. We’ve all tried before and failed.

As a kid, I laid it all out there with my crush after years of “being mature” about stuffing my feelings, until she’d thoroughly moved on, and I realized I had to go ahead and speak from my heart, and . . . well, it didn’t go as planned.

Then as a young adult, I shared with my mom some deep feeling of sadness over leaving my students, and she just brushed it aside and updated me on her garden or something and it felt so yucky.

I learned it’s safer to stay surface level. “How’s work?” when I’m really more interested in how my friend is doing on their insides. I learned to make sure there’s an “activity” planned instead of just inviting someone to be together to be together.

This is a lot of rambling.

Okay.

I guess what I’m saying is,

it’s not too late,

look at someone in the eye,

see that they are a human,

feel that you are a human,

and say something real.

Live your deep humanity.

Don’t live a script.

Let your insides out a little.

Not every place is a safe place,

but I think we live as if there are no safe places,

and a world with no safe places isn’t the world you’re looking for.

You know at least, like, 20 people. Chances are, one of them you could get real with. And find in that realness–that connection–a strange feeling of care and love and aliveness and togetherness and magic that you haven’t felt since you were listening to Death Cab for Cutie as a teenager.

You’re allowed to go off script and show up as your deeply human self. And it just may free someone else who needs the same thing.

Get weirdly connecty.

Sending you love today. <3

~

Can we stay connected?

Baby steps and struggly downward dogs

“If your legs aren’t already straight, don’t try adding this in. Don’t ever force yourself. Let your muscles and tissues grow and change over months and years.”

This morning’s yoga class felt a little different. It was very slow and mild with an emphasis on finding the edge and then not pushing it. A little was enough.

I trained with an absolutely fantastic trainer way back–it felt like studying with a guru. He really knew his stuff. Honestly I probably couldn’t have found a better source of information and direction. Except my body. My body is also would have been a great source of information for me, but I ignored its signals. After some quick progress, I pushed too far, shrugged off the pains and the not-quite-right feelings, and hit a wall. Usually it took a couple days for my muscles to feel recovered. This time, my body felt overwhelmed by pain and weakness and just . . . tension for days and days and then weeks and weeks and by the time the pain had subsided, an “I-can’t-do-that-again” preemptive pain had taken its place. And I stopped. Completely. I had tried too fast. I hadn’t listened to my body.

Maybe that speaks to you, maybe it doesn’t. Since a concussion turned my world upside down, I’ve been really surprised at just how much one person’s response to being pushed differs from another’s. Once upon a time, I was the type to push myself to the max and then past it. And it felt like I had bottomless energy.

When I was a teenager, I would bring my glove and a baseball out to the rock wall in the back. I’d wind up and throw as hard as I could. A hundred times. And then a hundred more. (For context, you’re not supposed to pitch over a hundred pitches in a row every day. Especially as a 13-year-old. That’s ridiculous.) And then I’d head inside with just as much energy as I’d had before. It worked when I was a kid.

Then I moved up to the Twin Cities and dove into running. I started with a mile or two, then six. Then 13.1 out of the blue. Somewhere around mile 11 my left hamstring didn’t really work, but with a forwarder tilt, gravity pulled me forward the last couple miles. I wasn’t ready for it, but I found ways to compensate, and so it sort of worked. My core and hip flexors were weak, but my legs were strong, so I moved 13.1 miles again and again for the joy of it. And there was so much joy. Then I learned that you can push your pace when you run. Learn to breathe through the stress. So I picked up my pace.

One evening, with Marvel film scores playing in my ears, I set out to push my 13.1 pace. Halfway through, the Winter Soldier beat dropped and my pace picked up. It was electrifying. Until about mile 10. Then my body said “Absolutely not!” and I slowed to a walk that was more like a crawl. I could hardly lift my arms. I took a shortcut home and collapsed on the couch. Dizzy. The nausea and stomach cramps hit like a tsunami. I have never, ever, ever felt that absolutely terrible after a run. In a weird way, it felt worth it, like . . . look at how hard I worked! In another way, it slowed me down. A lot. Nervousness replaced excitement, and it was a while before I tried 13.1 again.

And then I had a concussion. And I stopped moving at all for months. And the strong compensation muscles I had became weak, so nothing was ready for a run anymore. And then my head finally felt okay, so I ran a mile. Then I ran two. And then I ran 8. . . . 8! And that was the day I felt a new kind of leg and back pain that I’m still feeling three years later.

I always try things long before I’m ready.

Because that’s how you be a badass.

And it’s worked at some points in my life. For some things.

And then at other times, it doesn’t. Especially after a concussion. Or especially after getting in touch with my deepest self. Sometimes trying things before I’m ready ends up hurting or scaring or discouraging me. Knocking the wind out of me. And the attempted leap forward turns into five steps back, or fifteen if you watch closely as I subconsciously sneak further and further away from my goal because I just can’t get near that awful feeling again.

~

Pizzeria Balognett was a little hidden garden of a restaurant in the hills above Italy’s Lake Como, where they plopped down freshly picked eggplant and tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil and salt in front of you, whether you asked for them or not, while the pizzas baked. The pizzas were perfection. So we went back for lunch the next day, and left with at least four more pizzas boxed up to enjoy on the next day of our honeymoon. Our rental host, a British expat, stopped by our little apartment, and when he heard how many pizzas we had brought home, he grinned and said “Such Americans!”

We in America, as a culture, are maximum. Always. We’re never halfway, we’re always the most. And that can be wonderful. Like eight of the best pizzas we’ll ever eat.

I’m afraid that we as a culture push ourselves and each other a little too hard, a little too fast, though.

And it’s complicated by the fact that it seems to really work for some. So we just push. Everyone. All the way. “No pain no gain.”

~

My therapist recently congratulated me for making a fairly forceful ask in my life. The change I want to see, he explained, happens slowly. Very slowly. The bigger the change, the bigger the pushback. So sometimes a clear, hard push is needed. But not because the change should (or even could) hurry up. Just because the change needs repeated reminders and remotivating.

But then, when that push has been pushed, I need to remember that the change is still going to be a slow process. Yes, we need to push and we need pushing. And then we need to accept that the wheels will turn slowly. Sometimes they need to turn slowly. Sometimes if you force them to turn fast, it hurts a little too much, and they stop turning at all.

Like when you decide you’re an exception to the wisdom about building up to 13.1 slowly. Or like when your trainer enthusiastically shouts that “you’ve got this, keep going!” without first having a two-way discussion about what is good discomfort and what is too much overwhelm or even pain. Or like when you decide the answer to beating social anxiety or loneliness is to fill every corner of your schedule with all the people all the time. Or like when you decide it’s time to cut out every single happy food forever, starting today. Or like when you decide you want to be a reader and then force yourself through three brutally boring hours in a row and find that you can never quite pick up the book again.

~

Maybe you’re the type that changes fast. Maybe. Although if that’s how you’ve always thought of yourself, but you keep finding yourself giving up or worn down or discouraged, then maybe you also could give yourself some extra time for change, too.

Or maybe you’ve already acknowledged that you need time. That you can’t take big leaps. That baby steps are what work for you.

At risk of sounding cliche, remember the tortoise and the hare? “Slow and steady wins the race.” Because slow and steady doesn’t burn you out, injure you, freak you out, or overwhelm you.

Yoga this morning was a great reminder to let time play its part in your growth. We’re all so damn frenzied about our lives. Goals. Progress. Growth. We need to get this, fix this, stop this, change this, find this, and it needs to happen with same-day delivery!

We know better by now about about muscles and fitness. But do we accept this about our core selves, too? The core selves we so badly want to be, to grow into, to experience, to find.

Is it okay that it’s going to take me three brutally long years to learn how to express negative emotions? Is it okay that it may be summer by the time you’ve actually finished that book? Is it okay that when you join all the flexible, toned 30-year-olds at the yoga class, your downward dog will honestly look more like a malfunctioning twerk for at least a few weeks, and that you’re the only one not wearing designer joggers?

~

So what’s your thing? The change you need. The growth you’re planning. The relationship or communication skills you want to develop. The goals you’ve set for yourself. How you want to take care of your body. How you want to stretch your mind. How you want to show up for the world.

And is it okay that you may be in this “getting-there” stage for a long, long time? Maybe for the rest of your life?

And if you let the change happen slowly, do you think you may give up less?

You’re trying. That’s enough. That’s a lot, honestly. So be gentle with yourself. Don’t push yourself too hard. You still want to feel safe enough to show up tomorrow. And you won’t if you push yourself past what you can be okay with today.

You’re human. And that’s going to take time.

Take a deep breath, give yourself a little hug, and accept where you are today.

Tomorrow can be just a little different.

<3

~

P.S. If you struggle with taking it slow and giving yourself room to grow and permission to take baby steps only–I strongly recommend looking for a slow, gentle yoga practice somewhere near you, and making showing up your only goal each time. When you soften into change, it’s amazing the pressure you find your body’s been holding, and how desperately it’s been wanting gentle care.

P.P.S. If all this slow change is too slow, look back a year or ten and see just how much it has been adding up. Keeps adding up. Trust the process.

~

Let’s grow slowly together?