“Storms make trees take deeper roots” –Dolly Parton
It’s been a long time. Which sounds like the cliché beginning to every love song. And I’m sorry about that. I just didn’t know how else to begin after so many months of silence. But I suppose if I’m going to return to writing regularly, I should start with a piece inspired by a Dolly Parton quote.
I don’t always know how to restart after a long hiatus from writing. I just know I need to cleanse. To empty my heart and soul in a different way than running my brain all night long, instead of sleeping. Because, turns out, I need to sleep, too.
I’ve just returned from an impromptu trip to the mountains. A 1400-mile excursion that provides me with 20 hours alone in the car, with nothing but me, the dog, and my rambling mind to keep me occupied. And a random assortment of cds I keep stashed in the glove compartment for when I can’t handle my own noise anymore (Jay-Z and Gillian Welch…pick your poison).
As much as I’ve come to love Baltimore over the last twelve years, there still is something magical about hitting the road, and heading south towards the mountains. Maybe they just make me feel safe, or comfortable. The drive through the Shenandoah Valley is just the teaser, as I wind my way down through Virginia, and creep in the side door of Tennessee. When I hit that North Carolina line in Madison County, I frequently force myself to stop at the “scenic pullover” stops, designed for tourists, but used most frequently by this used-to-be-local-girl. To take a deep breath. And look at the panorama of mountains that surround me on all sides. It’s truly breathtaking. Most likely the first true “pause” I’ve taken in weeks. And I feel it in my heart. This deep pang that could almost be mistaken as arrhythmia or heartburn or some other ailment; but I know better.
The mountains are home. In a small valley wedged between the lavender purple and deep blue hills, where I spent the first 18 years of my life. Those hills are filled with people who make my heart complete; my sisters, my family, my friends. And though a trip home is rarely quiet, or uneventful, they’re always full. Full of life. And love. And little kid hugs. And usually cupcakes. And probably BBQ.
The last few years have felt particularly complicated. Between the health of my family and my close friends, and truthfully my own health, and the seemingly never ending string of national and international tragedies that seem to rock my very core, I’ve been having those cyclical conversations with God. The ones where you challenge what else could possibly be added to your plate (which is always the cue for just a few more things, which is basically just a cruel trick to remind us that we really are stupidly strong and capable of handling pretty much most things that come our way; one of those life lessons that I’d frankly rather put on a poster and hang in my office instead of “living through it”, but whatever, I’ll bring that up with God later).
And in the last few months, I suppose I’ve found myself somewhere between overwhelmed and incredibly grateful and blessed. Another trip to West Africa. Some new challenges and new opportunities. Another semester down and grad school is all but under my belt, and I seem to have survived it all with minimal scarring. Which is proof for me that God still listens to my prayers, even if I haven’t been his best advocate over the years.
And as we just wrapped up another commencement, and I’ve said my tearful goodbyes to another incredibly amazing class of young people ready to take on the world, I’m finding myself feeling reflective. And emotional. And perhaps a tad bit vulnerable.
I turned 30 this year. Which is one of those things you think about almost every day of your twenties. Like the ticking clock in Peter Pan. And then all the sudden it happens, and really nothing earth-shattering occurs. Except I do feel a bit more comfortable in my skin. And maybe I feel a bit more ready for what the world will throw at me. The anxiousness and nervousness of my twenties, and the looming sense of not being “good enough”, has all but subsided. And I’m hitting this interesting little stride in my life that I don’t want to preemptively label as confidence in myself, or trust, but maybe they’re the little saplings of those words. Just starting to take root and grow.
I’m learning life is hard and unfair. The Rolling Stones didn’t lie to me. It doesn’t always let up, just because it should. And I can’t always get what I want.
And I get tired. Which perhaps is easier to admit now that I’m thirty. Partially because I love the work I do so deeply, that I actually find myself with heartache. And frustration. And aspiration. Like actually being in love. And partially because its hard work. Maybe not hard like lifting heavy things all day, or hard like being a school teacher. But there are endless conversations about how to be better people, and how to really create change. How to look at the world with new eyes, and see new possibilities. Work that requires the brain to be in connection with the heart. And lots of flip-chart paper.
But also I’m tired because I have had too many burners burning. Too many big things going at once. Which gets exhausting. Juggling and peddling at the same time.
I haven’t really allowed myself the space to process all the tragedy that has happened this year. The world we live in that seems to get nuttier by the minute.
Generally when terrible things happen, my guttural reaction is to get in my car and drive to North Carolina and squeeze the faces of my nieces and nephews until they know, in their deepest cores, that they are loved so hard by so many people (okay, especially me, I’m a little bit obnoxious about being their “favorite”). Or to build an impenetrable bubble for all four of them to live inside and give it to them for Christmas next year so that I never have to think about something happening to their innocence. Their sweet smiles. Their goofy moments of ultimate silliness. But driving home isn’t always an option. So I settle for a phone call, or a quick text message. A connection.
Because I’m deeply troubled by what this world holds for them. And not just them, but all of my students. All of my “kids” (most of whom are indeed over 18, and are, for all intensive purposes, considered “adults”, unless I’m talking, in which case they’re absolutely my “kids”).
Especially just after graduation, just as we begin to release, I want to be able to explain it to them.
I want them to understand why it is so complicated. Why things aren’t always just black and white. Or good and bad. That as much as I’d like to dream of a simpler world for them, sometimes the complicatedness of our humanity is our greatest weight and asset. And that there is beauty embedded in what is difficult to understand.
Through some of the darkest times, we humans seem to find our greatest strengths. The journey through the dark and complicated can deepen our roots, and challenge our assumptions. And it can also leave us scared. And raw. And confused. And sometimes we just have to live that pain for a bit, until it gets better.
Through our struggles, we uncover unlikely communities, friends, and connections.
I want them to understand that the human capacity to make mistakes, and also to forgive, is a wondrous fact of life. That our bodies and hearts have the ability to heal. To transform. To adapt. But that we are also vulnerable to pain. And heartache. And suffering. And that vulnerability is where we do our best growing.
Sometimes it won’t be so easy to understand what to do next. The decisions won’t always be simple. It’s a delicate dance with the line. A fine piece of thread pulled taut between right and wrong. Okay and not okay. An infinite line; pulsing, moving, under the constant pressure of life. And it will be stressful sometimes, but that they aren’t doing anything wrong. In fact, it means they’re doing it right.
Things will happen that we can’t explain. And that sometimes life can feel really unfair. But that it all happens in balance. And when you’re lucky, you have to remember just how lucky you are. And be grateful.
Humility is not just a word. It is something you must learn. It is hard. It takes work. But it pays off. Being honest. Being willing to be wrong. Open to the discovery. Prepared to let someone else win sometimes. Prepared that others might see something differently, and that you might both still be right.
There are some basics, though. You should be nice to people. Be kind. Be generous of heart and spirit. And no promises, but generally, the scales will always try to tilt back to some kind of equilibrium. The good days will counter the bad. But it will take patience. And genuine bull-headedness. And sometimes the formula won't work.
But maybe these are things that you can only learn as you go. Perhaps my desire to protect them won't really change anything, other than remind them that they're loved. Because some things only make sense as you live it. And survive it. Storms make trees take deeper roots.
Dolly’s always right.