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Rachel: What Lies Beneath

On growing together while coming apart.

I’ve always been a resolution kind of a gal, but for the past few years, I’ve chosen a verb for the new year instead of a resolution. As I wrote at the beginning of last year:

I must say, I like verbs a lot. What makes a sentence? A verb. What makes things happen? Verbs. What makes a good resume? Kick-ass verbs! What do I do when I’m bored during a long run? Think about sex…or conjugate French verbs! From iterative verbs (they are creatures of habit) to irregular verbs (they’re quirky, like Zooey Deschanel!), verbs give us all the power to take action.

Before you do anything in life, you must select a verb. You can begin, or quit, or change. You can choose, share, trust, try, think, relax, open, hope, serve, speak, save, flee, organize, believe, commit, or give.

My 2013 verb was craft. It led to a very thoughtful and introspective year. Perfecting a craft is quiet work; for me, it involved a ton of researching, reading, thinking, attempting, failing, and attempting again…and again…and again. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily lonely, but it is something you do mostly alone, or with the help of one or two teachers. I had no problem spending my time on more solitary endeavors, but in a world that is currently dominated by social, being somewhat anti-social felt strange. I’ve spent the last few years broadcasting so much of what I’m thinking and experiencing online; to really craft this year, I had to do far more listening than talking. I had a lot on my mind, but I wasn’t sharing as much as I felt I should be, and I was sharing it in a very different way than I had in the past; after writing like a motherfucker in 2012, that was rather confusing. Speaking and being heard is a core part of my identity, and doing that in a vastly different way than I was used to felt scary.

Now that this strangely quiet year is behind me, I’m heading into 2014 with a lot of new skills and titles to my name, and the sense that thing are starting to come together. But, on some level, they are also coming apart. And so my verb for 2014 is root.

Root: 1. to implant or establish deeply 2. to pull, tear, or dig up by the roots 3. to poke, pry, or search, as if to find something 4. to unearth; bring to light

While I’ve been crafting away quietly this year, I’ve realized that there are a lot of things I want and need to start digging into. First, there is the professional uprooting. I want to dig into some topics and stories far more than others and get back to my journalism roots. But I won’t be able to do that—or, really, establish myself fully as a professional writer—without building things up and tearing things down. Normally, that would worry me, but this year, I’m going to own that contradiction heading in.

Then there is the more personal. I’m getting married in 2014. Talk about roots. To me, a wedding is synonymous with coming together and coming apart, which is why my engagement has left me wanting to know more about the family I come from, and about Eric’s as well. I’ve spent a lot of hours this year scanning old family photos and learning about both of our family trees, but there are still a lot of things that have been buried over the years.

I cannot think about roots (the noun) without thinking about my blackness. Roots invokes the made-for-TV mini-series (starring my childhood—and adult!—hero, LeVar Burton) that helped people understand slavery in a new way. Roots makes me think of my hair, my nappy roots, which I have had relaxed every eight weeks for most of my life. I cannot think about root (the verb) without thinking about roots (the noun) and thinking about how my roots—my blackness, my black father—shape my experiences and make me who I am.

There is a fireproof box in my closet. In it, on top of the childhood photos of my father and the sympathy cards I received when he died, there is a script and a score for a musical version of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. This script was my dad’s great life work (for lack of a less cliché term), but he could never get the rights to produce it. I guard this single copy carefully but to be honest, I rarely look at it. That’s what I’ve done with trauma for most of my life: kept it in a locked box and tried not to think about it.

Rooting was getting that video from VHS to digital file in 2013. Rooting was watching it, and sharing it publicly. Rooting is reading my dad’s script, and the book it was based on. Rooting is getting someone to play the music for me so I can just know what it sounds like. Rooting is finally reading the out-of-print book Little, Big, a quote from which is inscribed on my father’s urn. Rooting is addressing my relationship with my dad’s mother, with whom he had a very fraught relationship while he was alive. Rooting is talking to his brothers and sisters and to my cousins for the first time in more than a decade. Rooting is creating a new family with Eric, and rebuilding my relationship with my father’s family, who I haven’t seen in more than a decade. Rooting is digging into feminism, womanism, and the tension between white women and black women. Rooting is about looking at prison culture and the role of black men in our society. Rooting is about being more comfortable talking about that tension to a mostly-white audience, who I am always afraid will complain that I talk too much about race, or who will find one way or another to dismiss my experiences. Rooting is bringing my own stories to light, but also amplifying others’ stories and experiences.

The personal and the professional are all tangled up, you see. But it’s all my roots.

“There is an aged, aged insect who lives in a hole in the ground. One June he puts on his summer straw, and takes his pipe and his staff and his lamp in half his hands, and follows the worm and the root to the stair that leads up to the door into blue summer.” —John Crowley, Little, Big

Photo by Katherine O’Brien

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