Roots

My first semester of teaching is over. It is almost Christmas and I am in Miami with my parents, waiting for my sister to arrive tomorrow afternoon. Sometimes I go back a few years on this blog and read old posts. I found this from a 2012 post about Christmas:

Merry Christmas! Every year my family hosts a Christmas Eve Party for some of our oldest family friends. We started the party because we didn’t have any family in Texas and now some of the folks have been coming for over 10 years. Its the family tradition nearest and dearest to my heart and I look forward to it every year. In keeping with my mom’s roots, we make several Cuban dishes each year including, arroz con frijoles negros, platanos, yuca, and flan. My mom makes the best flan in the world. The recipe has been passed down through the years and apparently my great-grandfather worked for Kraft Corporation and swears that they stole my great-grandmother’s recipe for their instant flan. What a scandal. The party has been a part of my life for so long that I don’t remember Christmas without it. It has been amazing getting to share Christmas with these lovely people every year and watch everyone grow. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without all of these lovely things.

It doesn’t feel like Christmas this year. The 85 degree weather has something to do with it, but – apart from the heat – everything is just different. 2013 was actually the last year we ever had the Smogard Family Christmas Eve Party. Last year we went to Minnesota to be with extended family. This year we are in Miami with the other side of extended family and the exceptionally warm weather.

Some people asked me if I was sad that my parents moved away from my hometown while I was in India. The answer was – no. Not really. A few of my close friends still live there, but the community I grew up with that made Texas home has been moving on for quite some time. Neighbors move away. People get married and find jobs that take them across the country, around the world. My childhood was built of songs and familiar faces, just as much as it was by certain fast food restaurants, bike paths, and creeks. People and places alike.

The really strange part is not being away from Texas. The really strange part is no longer having a clear answer when people ask me where I am from. Where I am going home to for the holidays. Where is home?

Well, I grew up in Texas but I haven’t actually lived there since I was 18 and then I went to college in Minnesota which was very familiar to me because that is where my dad’s family lives so I’ve been going there since I was a kid and normally I went home to Texas during summer and winter breaks but for a while my family lived in Los Angeles so I would sometimes go to California and then I lived in D.C. for a year after graduation but I didn’t like it that much and actually ended up around the world in India for the best year of my life and now I live in Boston and I kind of like it, but I don’t know how long I will be there or when I will ever go back to Texas because my parents moved to Miami while I was overseas but its ok because Miami is actually where I was born and, yes, it would be a lot easier to say that I have memories here but that’s not actually true because right after I was born we moved to Argentina so I lived there until I was 3 and I don’t actually remember Miami at all so – no – going to visit my parents there now doesn’t actually feel like coming home unless we go to Universal Studios. Because that theme park was my childhood. 

I watched a TED talk that was making the rounds on Facebook a while back about roots, locality, identity, and nationality. The speaker, Taiye Selasi, said that instead of asking where people are from, we should ask them where they are local. This focus – instead of restricting a person’s identity to one country/nationality – seeks to better understand a person’s actual lived experience. Saying you ‘are from Texas’ or ‘were born in Miami’, says less about you than if you said you lived in a certain neighborhood or worked at a certain school. Makes sense.

But what if you don’t feel local anywhere?

My hometown looked different every single time I went home from college. New developments replacing the fields. New shops replacing the old ones. More and more friends moving on. Visiting Carleton even one year after graduating felt different. Campus was full of young faces I didn’t recognize and I realized that it wasn’t my school anymore. It was theirs. Their place to make memories and mine to just remember. D.C. never really felt like home, but I would love another early morning run to the top of the Lincoln Memorial. I saw an embarrassingly small amount of India, but I definitely felt like a Baliganapalli local when I saw the same smiling faces every day. When I took the same bus to the same print shop where the same woman would say hello to me.

That is what Selasi says it means to be a local. Where do the shopkeepers know your face? Last year the shopkeepers in the nearby village might have known my face. I doubt they would now. Does that mean I am no longer a local? I still feel more connected to Shanti Bhavan than I do to Texas. How can Texas feel farther away, smaller in my identity, than a place where I spent only a year? Is it emotional/temporal proximity? Am I a local in Jamaica Plain because I live there now? What if it doesn’t feel like home?

Every month I get a small piece of art from Holstee’s Mindful Art Subscription. Each month there is a piece and an accompanying story to help you reflect on the theme. December’s was roots. So, in the spirit of reflection, I’ve been thinking about roots. How we get them, why we want them, what if we can’t see them.

I feel like I belong nowhere, but also everywhere my family is. I saw the movie Brooklyn a few days ago and was touched by something the main character Eilis says at the end of the film. She went from Ireland to Brooklyn and was extremely homesick and lost until she fell in love with an Italian boy. Then, a part of her started to belong to America. She returns to Ireland after a death in the family and, while she is there, has to grapple with her identities and whether you can truly go back home once you have grown roots somewhere else.

She said that a new place will never be home until you find something that is completely yours. Something that has nothing to do with your old life. Because if you spend too long remembering who you were, you will never find out who you can be.

Selasi said that we can never truly go back to a place because it will never be the same as how we left it. Either because it has changed, or because we have. So maybe – like Holstee says – roots are things we carry with us, untethered to space and time. We will always continually belong to new places as we grow and fondly remember the places that have been and how they have shaped us.

Maybe it is better to ask people where they are local instead of where they are from. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all, because you will never learn much about a person if you never get past where they were born or where they live. It is how well you listen after those questions that makes the difference. Maybe the point is that we are all always changing and choosing who we are becoming.

Today we are celebrating Christmas Eve in a new city, without the familiar faces I have grown up with. But we made my abuela’s flan – the same thing we have made every year since I can remember. We also made my Minnesota grandma’s peanut butter cookies (you know, the ones with the chocolate kisses smushed on top). We’ve never made those before, but – even though it deviates from tradition – it feels like home. A little Cuban and a little mid-western and all of the cultures and people who have shaped my experiences. I hope you get a chance to reflect this Christmas and celebrate with the people and traditions that build your identity. If things are changing, maybe a little faster than you might like, I hope you embrace it and remember who you were, who you are, and who you will be next year. Merry Christmas.

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Comments:

  1. Mariam George says:

    Christmas morning- loved the post. Enjoyed the way you write.

  2. Michael Hanna says:

    This was really enjoyable and thought provoking, Danielle! I especially loved not only this passage I’ve copied below but how you built up to it through the entirety of your post. I felt really connected to your work due to the tone of your writing, which allowed this passage to really seep in 🙂

    “Maybe it is better to ask people where they are local instead of where they are from. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all, because you will never learn much about a person if you never get past where they were born or where they live. It is how well you listen after those questions that makes the difference. Maybe the point is that we are all always changing and choosing who we are becoming.”

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