Airborne and rootless
There’s this hunk of tree branch wedged into the chain link fence that skirts the baseball diamond across the street. I first noticed it when I wrote about it here, as part of an exercise I’m doing in self-reporting. I can see it from my desk, through the window. I can see the empty tree pit too, where the trunk once erupted from a dirt oasis in the pavement and sent itself skyward until it outgrew its confines, and the city cut it down. Before that, this park used to be factories, our neighbors tell us, until they burned to the ground in the 1970s. The fire raged and smoldered for a whole week. “We thought they were going to burn our neighborhood to the ground,” one man told Steve.
Instead, the embers became a park and rec center. Trees were spaced along the sidewalk. They grew tall and began to buckle the sidewalk, and they were cut down and replaced with saplings. Now just a gnarled fists of branch remain of the older trees, airborne and rootless where they couldn’t be wrested from the fence.
I keep thinking about these vestigial branches because they’ve intertwined in my mind with something an interviewee told me last week. He founded a nonprofit that takes groups of millennials on week-long train trips across the country to help them advance projects and ideas. One woman, for example, used the trip to meet with people providing services to the homeless in different cities, and then proposed a new youth drop-in center in Detroit based on what she learned.
The founder said one reason he’s come to see the project as valuable is the message young people are being sold. Brands, colleges, parents, gurus, all them them: take risks. Your 20’s are the best time to do so, to be entrepreneurs, to travel and be ambitious, to go out on a limb.
And they do, so many of us do, seeking the next and the bigger and the brighter. I thought of your piece, Padmini, and this question: why, when I like to stay, am I always leaving? Already just under a month here, when I think about what I would need to do to advance my career, most of my plans involve going somewhere else. I’ve already been down that road.
This founder summed up my experience pretty well. That risk-taking path leads at first to exhilaration, then often isolation, maybe demoralization, and its worst, desperation. The risk-takers have grown so tall so fast they can’t be supported by their own frail roots or spindly trunks.
I felt this so acutely in Whittier. I’d been honored with grants and awards to do this documentary project, and then I was actually there, in Alaska, about to spend a year far from family, far from friends, far from university, and everything else that had given my life structure up until then. I nearly collapsed under the pressure. Once it was all done, I felt demoralized, unsure if I could take on a project like this again. And then I felt desperate, searching for another way to prove my worth.
I remain, of course, a driven, ambitious person. I do think people should take risks, especially while young. At my best, I derive a real grounding energy from traveling. It allows me to slough off the worn markers of my self and try on new ones. But I think there’s a strong need for a counter-message too, one that says even as you risk sending yourself skyward, even as you grow into new patches of sky, tend to your roots.
I look at at that branch, melded with the chain link, and see a being that became so defined by, so dependent on, a certain achievement, a certain height and stature, even just the idea of status and achievement, that it’s continued to cling there, dead, though its roots and its trunk and its branches, its constant companions, have been cut down.
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