How to Really Plant Roots
Remember that brief phase in the mid-2000s where it was cool to buy jeans with holes already manufactured into them? It’s still a thing, but we’re kind of over its being a thing? My Grandpa Roger, who is seriously the Frank Sinatra of class, had a few words on that.
I was visiting his home in small town Wisconsin circa 2007, and I happened to be wearing jeans with both of the knees blown out (definitive college attire). My Grandpa asked me with a clever-yet-casual smirk, “Say, did you earn those holes?” I was relieved to be able to say that I had. Since no one in my family questions Gramps, that was the day I first made note of an unwritten law: You’ve got to earn your holes, doll face.
There’s this funny thing we sometimes do: we purchase things that are old, worn, and many times falsely broken-in. This past summer, I read a feature on a newly built, farmhouse-style home in which the author kept saying how much “we love how old everything looks,” even though the fixtures are probably from this season’s Pottery Barn. The owners had spent what I can only guess was a small fortune on an overall vibe, a feeling of old-fashioned charm. Though there’s nothing wrong with decorating how you like, it does raise the question: why pay for patina?
The reason we are drawn to torn denim and whitewashed lanterns could be the same reason we enjoy antiquing. It’s a way to feel enriched by history, a stroll through an age of durable goods nearly extinguished by our mass production, a visit to nostalgic landscapes only contained in a collectible snow globe. For these revelations seldom found in our “real life” anymore, we attempt a reenactment. This staging of olden-esque items throughout our homes lets us feel simultaneously grounded and light; aligned with objects of longevity, yet enlightened by our subversion of the mainstream market.
We chase this feeling of rootedness because we know that the deeper the roots, the loftier the branches. My grandpa, who is now 83 years old, planted his roots growing up in a farmhouse during a time when families spent their evenings around Zenith radios and record players. His life experience reaches far back enough that it touches some of these now sought-after scenes, without having to artificially engineer them.
Here are a few notes for those of us who would also like to weave some genuine silver threads into our own lives:
Some of my best memories are from childhood and feature me green and adventurous: a 45-pound sprout climbing a 30-foot tree, back when I hadn’t the faintest concept of my own mortality. Many lessons were learned and many corrections made. As my experiential knowledge has grown to resemble that of an adult, I have collected memories of times of feeling invincible and weightless. Though I am still myself, I am also a thoroughly changed, more careful person. Twenty years from now, I will have many more proverbial cedar chests full of teachable moments. Part of being deeply rooted is simply allowing your life’s “patina” to come naturally with age. The holes in my college jeans were formed by just living in them long enough (but don’t worry, I’ve outgrown those, too).
Don’t be a replica.
One of the ways I earned those holes in the college jeans was on a volunteer trip to South Africa. It started as one of those romanticized, “I just want to travel” kind of situations, but I was broke and unable to justify traveling for leisure’s sake. So I decided to embark with a group of women on a donation-sponsored, two-week mission to give of our time and hearts to helping others. What I didn’t expect was how much this trip would teach me about real life.
I was in culture shock for most of it: this mortality I had only brushed shoulders with once,
at my Grandmother’s passing, seemed to be well recognized here. But as we kept company with wonderful people of different languages, homes, and tiers of wealth, we learned so much of what we all have in common—like campfires, informal soccer, and a love of good cinema. I learned that even on the other side of the globe, God is the same and transcends all contexts. I learned that travel for travel’s sake might have been aiming too low.
In the same way, our chasing a feeling of experience without a depth of experience can cheapen our form and cause to miss out on what really grounds and frees us. Our fear of the unknown can keep us from going deeper in life, so what we need to remember is that our trials can shape us for the better.
Be the nostalgia you wish to see in the world.
Let's be honest about this: true patina develops under conditions of distress. Sure, my Grandpa grew up in what we sometimes view as an idyllic time, but he also lived through plenty of wars and even served in one. Whether it's natural aging or more acute weathering, your patina is proof that you've been through something. Though there is beauty in it, there is also a painful side, which we forego entirely with factory-made ambiance.
We tend to ascribe value to things from other worlds. That’s okay because it teaches us to pursue the meaningful, wherever it can be found. I own an Underwood typewriter that reminds me of the “good old days,” when the writing experience was more tactile, even musical. In my house, it’s a symbol of quality and inspires me as a writer. Our generation is drawn to authenticity, so it’s no wonder we latch onto objects like this. But there’s a new trend surfacing: we are bringing back durable goods of our own design, and it is so exciting.
When it comes to how we furnish our homes, I say, “Pin away.” Be creative, economical, and purposeful. But in the raw, unadorned parts of life, don't be afraid to trudge through. Though there is no shortcut through our difficulties, the grit with which we travel through life is what forms our etchings.
My Grandpa doesn’t try to drip with charm. He just does. His persona is the result of a time when Americans spoke more eloquently, made better products, and went about life with a bit more leisure. Our current trend of “looking back”—to handwritten letters, copper pots, and firewood boxes—speaks to what our generation admires. What are those things of value that we wish we could carry with us into the present? If we can incorporate enough of the things we find worth holding on to, and even make some of them ourselves, perhaps someday a future generation will be looking back to us for cues.