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Roots and Wings

It was the great poet, philosopher and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who, among so many others pieces of wisdom, pointed out that, "Children should get two things from their parents: Roots and wings." I wholeheartedly agree with this philosophy, but I'm also convinced that there's more to this simple statement than would seem at first glance. A lot of food for thought lies in, and in particular between, these two parental gifts that it's worth spending a bit of time contemplating them.

On the surface, it seems easy. Wings symbolize the need to get out, see the world, learn new things, be open-minded and adventurous. Roots, on the other hand, stand for steadiness in an uncertain world, for strength through familiarity, a source for regaining one's energy and a place to fall back on in times of doubt.

My parents have certainly endowed me with wings and encouraged me early on to use them. I started flapping them tentatively when I was in highschool and have been flying all over the place since then. I've never been held back and always encouraged to explore, to discover, to crave the new. I left home when I was fourteen, though not in as drastic a way as this sentence implies, and my home country at the age of 23.

I never cut any ties, and I cannot complain about the lack of roots. My family has been in the same area for more than sixty years now. In her entire life, my grandmother never moved more than twenty miles – outside extensive travels. I grew up in one town and never moved apartments. The point of departure has frequently changed when I went home, but I always arrived at the same place.

Your place of birth and the home of your family is one definition of roots. It's what Old Goethe meant. But there is another definition, more relevant later in life when your days of crazy innocence are over and you start to look forward and not only at the moment. This definition comes straight from biology. Roots are organs that nourish you, that give you strength and hold you firmly in one place. They are the exact opposite of wings.

At the same time, roots are very much like wings. They are something you carry with you. They are a part of you. Wherever you go, you can sink them in the ground, wait a little for them to take hold, and you'll be safe and strong. Slowly, you'll become part of where you are. These are the roots that your parents can't give you. You have to grow them yourself – or else you won't be able to give them away.

If I have these roots, I have certainly never made use of them. Back in Salt Lake, when I could have expected for the first time to plant myself in a community on my own terms, I saw my stay primarily in utilitarian terms. I was there to get my degree, and I had a visa in my passport that discouraged staying on afterwards. I was there for a few years, and no matter how many it would be – it was more than six in the end – it was meant and understood to be temporary. I didn't grow my roots, for fear of being uprooted at the end of my term.

Almost all of my friends were in the same situation. We had a good time together, we partied, we were comfortable and felt at home. We didn't miss a thing. But we also never integrated into the fabric of society. Outside university, we weren't part of associations, churches or councils. We didn't know our neighbors and we didn't care. We didn't interact with people in the same place but those in the same situation. In this company we found support and fun, friends and soulmates.

We only realized how delicate, even fragile our home was when it fell apart. At about the time I graduated and left the US, a dozen friends did the same. Our world exploded out of existence. Scattered loosely around the globe, our paths now rarely cross. Back in Salt Lake, it is as if we had never been there. New arrivals have moved into our apartments and taken the chairs in our favorite coffee shops. And we are working hard to feel at home wherever we happen to be.

Salt Lake City was a happy time precisely because it lasted so long, and I found myself in the company of people who were there for a long time. We lived with the illusion of becoming rooted in a community, which is better than living outside. Grenoble was hard because it was screamingly temporary. What are you going to do in two years?

I've now been in London for a year and a half, and I have no immediate plans of defecting. The coming years should give me ample opportunity to build a home and to give some solidity to my life. The threat of leaving isn't looming over my head. I could stay forever if I wanted. At the same time, there is this prescience in the back of my head that I'm not going to stay here forever, that I'll eventually grow my roots somewhere else.

Over the years I've mellowed down. My desire to run across the planet has subsided, and I'm less excited by opportunities on distant shores than I used to be. Maybe the unease that I feel sometimes are the tips of my roots pushing to get out and start growing. At those times, I think I might be ready to build a home, and doubt overcomes me that London is the right place to be. It would be great if my parents could advise me on that but as they have given me the best gift already, I have to figure the rest out myself.

7 January 2009