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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  • Shiri

    I really relate to this, Rachel. My personal and my professional are hopelessly intertwined, in a similar but different way from yours. Sometimes I feel that by engaging in rooting (love this) in a professional context, I’m giving myself a pass on looking at the hard questions in a personal context. I feel like if I do it publicly, I don’t need to ask these things in my own head and can deal only with what my public response is, which is quite different for me from my internal one.

    There’s a lot of really brave rooting you’re doing in that last paragraph, publicly and personally.

  • Lisha

    Oh my goodness!! What an adorable video of you and your dad! His happiness about you exudes through this video. I hope you continue to write more about the discovery of your roots (in all forms) this year and my those roots continue to grow and flourish. Self discovery is amazing isn’t it?

  • Amy

    Rachel, THANK YOU for becoming more comfortable talking about that tension to a mostly-white audience, because we can’t learn from each other if we don’t talk about things, no matter how difficult.

    • Shiri

      I’ve been struggling with how to word and even frame this idea in my head, which is really appreciating hearing Rachel’s and others’ voices talking about race and life as a black woman, without wanting to be a part of making the authors feel like it’s their responsibility to explain their point of view or experience to me. I’m grateful to be able to read Rachel’s writing and think more deeply about that tension.

      • Elisabeth S.

        Rachel, whenever you talk about race, I want to listen and hear more (without making you feel like it’s your job to do the educating). I think this was one of my favorite posts that you’ve written! Really looking forward to seeing where your year goes.

  • Violet

    I like words that have two, seemingly contradictory meanings, like root or cleave. Sometimes I need contradictions to see the whole picture. Like a fireproof box with contents so valuable you can barely look at them. I respect that you’re choosing to do this rooting work in your own way, on your own timeline. It’s hard stuff.

  • NicoleT

    Thank you so much for this post! It was so beautiful and, at least to me, a bit heart wrenching. It’s never easy digging into the past and laying ground for the future, especially when you’re just starting and there seems to be so much to go through. Also, I think that quote is incredibly lovely and whimsical; I definitely teared up while reading it. I wish you the very best of luck.

  • Ijumaa Jordan

    Rachel, I always love when you post. This entry has really touch the emotional places inside that I know about but I have never put words to. The last paragraph shakes my brain and I need more time to reflect on it and figure out what actions I want to take. I deeply appreciate you writing this.

  • Rachel, I love this. I am similarly skipping a list of resolutions and focusing instead on building. But I realize from this that rooting – digging deep and digging up – is a necessary first step.

    After a year of wandering and homebase-lessness, I find myself staring at 2014 ready to dig deep, dig up, plant in and grow.

    • Ooh. Building is a great word!

  • elle

    Rachel, this year I’m rooting for you.

  • MC

    Thank you for putting into words something that I’ve felt but haven’t known how to describe – the strangeness of starting a new family when I haven’t really come to terms with the drama & trauma in my family of origin. It’s definitely something I need to work on in the next few months leading up to the wedding, and something I have not been looking forward to one. bit. This was a good reminder of how crucial that work is.

    • I’m honestly not really looking forward to it either, ha. Good luck with yours, we can do this!

  • Harper

    Rachel, thank you for this fantastic post! It’s hard to work through the hard stuff and that is what I’m focusing on this year. The word I chose was “confidence” – although it’s not a verb, it is something I need to be more mindful of and is easily turned into action. If I decide to be more confident my partner will follow through, I will be more kind. If I’m confident in my writing abilities, I’m more likely to write. If I’m confident in myself, in who I am, I’m less anxious. In some ways, it’s similar to positive thinking, but this forces me to take action in ways that thinking positive thoughts doesn’t necessarily do. As someone who struggles with anxiety, this is a challenge for me but in a new year, facing what is personally challenging yet simultaneously rewarding is important. So, TL;DR thank you for speaking to “digging into” – I think it’s something we could all get better at : ]

  • Emily from Oz

    Oh how different the meanings of word are between English speaking cultures. In Australian slang, ‘root’ is a coarse ‘to have sex with’. So I hope you get a lot of that in 2014 too.

  • I already said this on Twitter, but I love the word root, and I love even more how you’re interpreting and embracing it. Best of luck in 2014! I have a feeling you’ll get the work done. ;)

  • What a beautiful post and what a great new year’s idea. I may have to steal this for myself. As for being rooted, I may take that idea over to my website (www.sophiaspockets.wrodpress.com) for one of our monthly themes. Want to write post for us if we do?

  • Rachel, I hope that any reservations or anxiety you feel from sharing your very personal thoughts and experiences regarding your race with a mostly-white audience is also counter balanced by the self pride for doing so as well. As one of those white ladies, I have to believe it must take some courage on your part to put yourself out there when talking about such a volatile subject to people who for the most part, you don’t know.

    And then, it also confuses me that you would feel nervous as I see you as doing all of US the service here. You’re educating me and many others here about things we may have little to no experience with. As someone who believes it’s our job here on this planet to help each other, understanding each other, is incredibly necessary. I’m always grateful to read your words and thoughts on a myriad of issues – even when I don’t agree with you because you’re intelligent, thoughtful and empathic.

  • Samantha

    This was amazing. I hope to one day have as eloquent writing as you have. I love your verb for the year, too. As an orphan, I think this is something I need to work on myself. I loved your video to and how courageous of you to share. Thank you for this. Good luck in 2014! I can’t wait to keep reading right along with you on your blog and in your other writing endeavors.

  • KimBee

    Yes! Although I didn’t choose a verb for the year, I also chose a word. My word this year is “healthy” – healthy body, healthy mind, healthy work-life balance, healthy relationships. The relationships part will be a big one. I’m getting married in August, and we’re working hard to build a healthy baby family while also shifting our relationships with our families of origin to be what we need them to be.

    Also, I really appreciate conversations about race and would love to participate in more of them on APW. As a white woman who works in urban education, I am wary of implicitly accepting institutionalized racism and am even more concerned about passing this legacy down to the next generation. (Ditto for sexism and other forms of bigotry). I think it’s super important that we’re honest about the microaggressions that occur on a daily basis and that we not putting the onus on people of color to be the only people contributing to this conversation.

  • Rachel, I love your practice of choosing a verb! I’m pretty sure I said that last year, but plum forgot to accept the challenge. For me this year will be a year of creativity, but I haven’t figured out the verb for that. Perhaps I should follow in your wise footsteps and choose “craft” as well. But it also needs to be about believing in my ability to create. To create for the sake of creating and not become fearful of others opinions, something I struggle with fiercely.
    I love the word root. The image of digging in the dirt to feed ones self springs into my mind. The stronger you make your roots, the more resilient, lovely and amazing the rest of you becomes. Good luck this year!

    • Parsley

      How about “Create” as your verb?

      • Yes, create makes sense. I was just fighting it because it’s the name of the PBS affiliate. :D. I guess part of my creating should be rebranding it for myself.

  • The past two years I have chosen verbs as a theme. My verb last year was “to dig.” I started with it being mainly focused on my professional goals and also continuing to integrate into the culture/country/non-native language I live in now. But the verb ended up being appropriate to about every part of my life halfway through the year in ways I never saw coming. I had to dig in and hold on tight to survive the second half of the year. And this post reminds me that I have not yet chosen a verb for 2014. Need to figure out what a good one would be…

  • lolauren

    I just want to say, that as a white woman who will soon marry a black man I appreciate the way you delve into race and the family dynamics that come with that. It means a lot to me and I understand its not an easy place to tread. Bravo to being brave and giving us the words to better understand our own lives and “tensions”

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