It’s that time of year where the winds blow strong here on the border, pushing hard on everything. Windows rattle. Trees and plants bend to the earth. Some of the older shrubs, whose roots have dried and withered, lose their hold on the soil and begin rolling across the desert. Tumbleweeds. We see them on the road, in parking lots, in the front yard. Some tiny, and some as big as small cars. Blowing and rolling. Without roots they are disconnected, and go wherever the prevailing wind takes them.
Sometimes we in the Foreign Service feel like those tumbleweeds. We are never in any one place for more than a few years. Mexico today, Washington tomorrow, Saudi Arabia after that. Even when we do stay put for a little while we find that the cast of characters around us continues to rotate. Nothing ever stays the same way for long. It’s easy to feel rootless and disconnected, like the breeze has taken us.
We were in Michigan for a nice long Christmas vacation, and we had my younger sister come visit us recently. All of this, combined with the relative newness of being a parent, has gotten me thinking about roots. I’ve lived in eleven cities in the last eleven years. K has lived in almost as many. We will live in many more. What sort of existence will this be for our son? Is he doomed to live the life of a tumbleweed, never knowing the feeling of being solidly grounded in the nourishing security of family and community? How can rootless parents teach a child to have roots?
Yet these fears are relieved when I visit places and people that are familiar. I remember that I do have roots. I felt my roots when my sister, fresh off a plane and exhausted, enthusiastically dove into a new board game with me. I felt my roots when I baked the Christmas cookies that my Mom has baked every year since I was a kid, and felt them again when I saw her a week later and she had brought along a large box filled with those same cookies (which tasted better than mine). I felt my roots when I visited the Michigan State campus, and the sight of every building stirred up a different memory. I felt my roots when I walked into the Breslin Center, that temple of basketball where my friends and I screamed our lungs out through many close games.
I feel doubly encouraged when I get the chance to explore K’s roots. I get a sense of those roots when we walk into a room filled with relatives who we haven’t seen for years and pick up the conversation right where we left off. We talk about how disappointing the Lions were this year. We retell old fishing stories (the fish get bigger every year). We sing the old Christmas carols, most of us off key, most of us dropping out after the first or second verse when we forget the words. We listen to and tell stories about how Grandpa J (no longer with us) used to insist on chewing every bite of food exactly 82 times, so every meal with him took hours to complete. Or about that time that Aunt M (still with us) took the turkey out of the oven and to her dismay discovered that it had no breast meat. Turned out she had cooked it upside down.
Somewhere in the midst of this immersion in the sea of family and memory I come to realize what roots really are. They are not simply the physical ties that bind us to a piece of soil. No. True roots are the strands of memory, relationship, and meaning that connect us to a story that is far bigger than ourselves. My son (like his parents) has been born into a network of roots that wind their way through Michigan, New England, Wisconsin, Pakistan, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. It is a network of roots alive with countless songs, and teeming with stories. As long as we live we will work to connect him to those roots. In every building we call home we will put pictures on the walls that evoke that great story. We will tell and retell the chapters of that story (Aunt M with her turkey never gets old). We will connect him to the people who are characters in that story. Our hope is that our little tumbleweed will feel secure in his roots, regardless of where the wind blows him. And as he rolls into new and interesting adventures of his own, he will add strands to the network of roots, carrying the story forward.