I have one tattoo, on my back, which is a symbol of a tree bending in the wind. At the time I got it, my interpretation was that that tree is strongest which bends most in the wind.
This was because, after graduating from college in 2013, I had applied to top graduate programs in English literature and been rejected by every one. For the first time in my life, I had no clue what I was doing, and the smartest disposition it seemed I could take was blowing in the proverbial wind.
A few months after I got my tattoo, I traveled to Quito, Ecuador, where I taught English from late 2014 to spring of 2015. This was in many ways one of the peak experiences of my life: it was my first time living in a place that seemed to have nothing to do with either of my parents, and I found myself as a teacher and found that teaching made me feel alive. Additionally, I deeply connected with my Ecuadorian host family and greatly enjoyed traveling around and gaining fluency in the Spanish language.
Still, Ecuador was not and would not be home to me. The entire time I was in the country, I knew that for me the experience would last no longer than 6-7 months, and I felt ready to return to the US when my second semester of teaching was done.
Upon this return, I had no further plans, and briefly considered staying at home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before deciding to move to Denver. Many of my friends from college, which was also in Colorado, now lived in Denver, and I was resistant to staying in the same place as my parents. From my perspective as a 24-year old, living too close to home seemed a mark of failure.
I didn’t manage to get things off the ground that first stint in Denver, holding a few unsatisfactory jobs before receiving an offer to tutor writing at my old college, in Colorado Springs. While I had no desire to move to the Springs—its Christian, conservative environment seemed the opposite of what I found cathartic with my friends in Denver—the offer seemed too good to pass up, and I overrode my internal resistance and decided to make the move.
All this time, it became evident to me that the tree I’d designed and placed on my back was missing just one component: roots. While I had made an important declaration to myself in emphasizing the need for fluidity in one’s life, I remained adrift, bopping from location to location without clear community or center. As a result, when I think back to my mid-20s the primary feeling is deep alienation.
I sought refuge by moving back to Denver the following year, living with a group of friends in an up-and-coming political cooperative. Through this time, I reacquainted with the banter, partying, and activism that characterize at least a subculture of life in one’s 20s, an experience that I found deeply satisfying after my relative isolation. At the same time, the culture of the house in which I lived didn’t represent true “home” for me: it could be too combative, too stressful, and missing the spiritual aspect that I hadn’t yet claimed as essential to my being.
The following year, at 25, I moved out of the house and in with another friend in an apartment. I still lived in Denver, but the difference was I now lived with a friend who more greatly shared my values, and together we explored spirituality, psychology, and restful retreats in the outdoors. Additionally, we experimented with and practiced cooking, a skill that made both of us feel more qualified as makers of home.
At the same time, I’d known as soon as I moved in with this friend that my time in Denver was reaching its end. Washing the dishes one morning, I said aloud to myself, “I have fulfilled my purpose in Denver.” It was almost like a message someone else had spoken through me, one arriving with such clarity and simplicity as to be undeniable. And the more I tried engaging in my normal activities in Denver that year—activities like dating and getting jobs—the more I felt that I no longer fit.
In the end, I chose to apply to graduate school at several locations around the country, one of which was Madison, Wisconsin. As soon as I got into this school, a parallel intuition told me that for some reason I was meant to go there, but my visit out to Madison did not seem to confirm this impulse: I felt the place was flat, muggy, and culturally conservative, and I angrily called several friends on the phone and told them I hated it. As with the time I moved from Denver to Colorado Springs, as soon as I thought about moving to Madison my body manifested a strong and pervasive “no;” here as the previous time, I ignored it.
Recently, I received another opportunity to interact with this same form of resistance through a job interview process with a boarding school in California. Since graduating from my graduate program in Wisconsin and returning home to Santa Fe, I have applied to a service which links up teachers with opportunities throughout the country, and one of the first schools to express interest in me was the aforementioned one in California. Yet again, the further I embarked in the interview process the more my gut told me “no;” I was enjoying living in Santa Fe and did not want to move to California.
This time, I listened to my gut and simply told my interviewer the conflict I was experiencing. I told him that while the details of the job seemed perfect to me, the location did not, and I did not think I would be able to take the job unless the teaching was virtual. Hearing this, the interviewer told me he appreciated my candor and we ended the interview process.
When I go for walks in Santa Fe, I feel a kind of lightness and energy that radiate through and animate my being. The very mountains and their subtle, shaggy hair in the form of piñon trees seem to smile at me, to wave with the lightest brush of wind. The sun seems to smile too, and the clouds to coast through like gentle, fairy-kissed puffs of rain. I have never experienced another environment as magical except in Colorado—also in the southwest—although even between these two states I denote a difference: New Mexico has always felt more soft-spoken to me, more mystical, while the sharp peaks of Colorado seem to conjure up and invite bravado and adventure. That energy was fine for me in my late teens and early twenties, at which time I enrolled in college in that state, but now the curvy hills of New Mexico are what seem most aligned with my being.
I likely will never complete my tattoo, adding on the roots which would grant permanence to my tree. It simply does not seem necessary to me to affix my body with what I know about myself, to mar my bark in that way. Still, I can now say that I recognize the importance of putting down roots in my life in all realms, something that pertains to environment, culture, career, and relationship; it is what makes me feel alive, what makes me feel that I am honoring myself at the deepest, most fundamental layer of my being. Why is it that I have always felt simultaneously calmed and energized by mountains, by crisp air and brown and green hues? I do not know, but I know that this is a disposition worth submitting to, one that unlocks and lets flow other dimensions in my life. I do not need to prove myself independent, and it is okay that, for now, I live in the same place as my parents, the same place I am from. For me, the inexplicable, irreducible feeling of home is what allows other reaches of my tree to flourish, which in turn is how I give to the world.