Disturbing Definitions: On Roots
Disturbing Definitions is a series that explores the meanings of words that relate to psychedelics.
These may not be literal as “psychedelics” overlap with concepts, themes, and words inherent in a variety of disciplines such as chemistry, psychology, personal development, health, relationships, philosophy, and even love. –RS The year I got invaded by the Russians was a strange one indeed.
The day after my 28th birthday, the 28th of November 2013, “the comet of the century” passed the sun and disintegrated into nothing. A meteor exploded over Russia. And this dream of living in Paris was royally blowing up in my face.
The only hope I had left was that the spacecraft Rosetta would achieve the impossible and land on a comet—the first time in history. If an SUV of solar panels could land on a flimsy ball of gas and fire hurtling across the universe then I could land a visa and plant roots in France. In other words, I was vulnerable to invasion. My immigration problems had led me on a wild adventure on a mythic scale—like Theseus who travels through the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur, using a ball of yarn to find his way back. Instead of yarn, I left a paper trail.
The labyrinth of immigration had a shifty quality though, it changed shape with every step I took and no matter how many documents I had, it didn’t seem to help me get to whoever I had to talk to nor help me to get out of my problem. My problem, however, was definitely not rooted in the immigration system. We talk about our lives in terms of facts. “This is how life works.” “That’s not how things work.” But, what’s the idea underneath the “fact of life” of which you are so sure? Mine was “instability.” “You certainly have a romance with instability,” a wise friend of mine said to me that year. Our dramas are our romances–torrid, explosive love affairs rooted in a not-so-distant past, given how present they are. We fall in love over and over again with the same relationships. It’s not about a person. It’s about an idea. Our romances always trace back to our roots. This was a root chakra issue. Our spine is the structure that holds us upright. At the base of it is the first energy center in the Hindu chakra system–the root.
The root center is one’s relationship to the Earth. It is our foundation: security, safety, survival, mother. It connects us to our ancestors–their memories. Some say that one has to balance the root chakra first before moving up the chain. If we lack rootedness how can we grow? It wasn’t the chakras themselves that interested me, rather their colors because, well, why those colors? Why, for instance, was the root the color red? If I were an expert on any color, it would be red. I have seen every shade of it. My mother changed her wig every day. Though the tint might have shifted every day, there was a common quality to all of them—red.
They looked exactly like the Pantene Pro V commercials I saw on TV: “So healthy, it shines.” We grow from roots, that we know. We reach our highest heights because of them, despite them, even in spite of them. Our roots can also hold us back from seeing the bigger picture–how much more there is, how far we can go. That is universal. It doesn’t matter how unhealthy or healthy our roots are. Well, that is a matter of perception. I stop myself a moment because language like “highest heights” may appear frivolous and idealistic so, to clarify, I went to a theater school where we moved like animals, elements, and colors. We mimed moving through calm seas, turbulent seas, sandstorms, serene forests, forest fires, and avalanches–all in the name of rhythm. The first time we started playing the elements, I was fire. I was quite literally playing ‘fire’. Beginning with a crackle and growing into a wild one, I jumped off the ground at one point, trying to communicate an unruly flame reaching for the stars.
The crew-cut Italian headmistress leaned over her black pants and pointed, “If you keep your feet on the ground,” lifting her gaze and hand, “ you can reach even higher heights.” Transcendence begins at the root. What is a root exactly? People make fun of me for asking stupid questions like this. Like the time I pointed to a lighting storm headed straight for me and my friends: ”But what is lightning?” Everyone made fun of me. But no one could answer my question. “Storm systems?” I asked. “Temperature meets pressure, meets air, meets tension between earth and sky?” Everyone still made fun of me but still, no one could answer my question. I googled it. Lightning strikes from the ground up. In plant terms, roots are organs of perception. A plant must sense their physical environment in order to grow. It does so with its roots, an organ whose function is to perceive.
The word “root” is anchored in our languages across the world, in idiomatic expressions, in poetry and mathematics, and quite simply in the soil; the ground upon which we stand. Roots are everywhere. Though not all roots are hidden underground, generally speaking, they are associated with the fertile world below–the origin of everything. Our words, like us, are living, breathing things that evolve with us. In the practice of etymology, we approximate the origin of their meaning and the growth of their meaning into meanings. How roots combine to form words, for example.
The root of the word root, for example, is from the Old Norse rót. Root has stayed close to its roots as either referring to the root of a plant or the origin or beginning of something. Its meaning then extended to describe hair, teeth, and even a type of beer.
The word also found a home in mathematics to describe a solution to any equation. Solutions are rooted in the equation, or in other words, the problem. “Root Stories are found in those parts of your life that you return to at unexpected moments; marked by active recognition and re-remembering.” –Cat Caracelo At the time the Russians made their advance, I was not able to work legally but technically able to stay in the country. I was in no-man’s land. What was at stake was my home, the first that I could call mine, and supplies were low. I had to find a way to make money under the table, which is how I ended up working in a restaurant called Love. With time, working around the clock to barely breakeven began to weigh on me until I couldn’t handle it anymore. One night, I finally cracked. It was the end of the shift, and I had just found out that the mozzarella that they served was frozen. That was the straw that broke my back. Looking around the fake cheesy restaurant, “Mama Loves You” was written all over chalkboards but there wasn’t a single Mama in sight. I threw my apron at the stock black and white photos of “Italian women” on the wall and yelled more or less “fuck this place” in Italian to my colleague. She came over and put her hand on my shoulder. I told her that I needed to sublet the living room in my apartment to give me some breathing room. “But where,” I cried. “Where on earth am I going to find someone to sublet my living room?” Suddenly, a Russian voice ambushed our conversation. “I’ll take it.” Both of us froze. Together, we looked over my shoulder to find a Russian woman who looked like a panther lounging in a booth. I swear, I could almost hear her tail tapping against the velour. Sonya was from Kazakhstan and had been married three times to rich men. “Car, money, apartment on the Champs-Elysees–everything–but it was golden birdcage.” So, she left her husband and the money and ended up on the streets. We made a deal. Sonya moved in. Sonya was prone to outbursts of symbolic talk, which is why I dubbed her the “Russian Oracle.” One evening, she almost scared my friend out of her socks when she began, calmly, to prophesize a day in June when we would all as a human race wake up with our memories wiped out. “We will have to communicate in a new way. Don worry, I will find you.” I just stomped around her apocalyptic vision, taking a good look around. At least it was imaginative. “Wait, what do you mean we’re going to wake up...” I would have her walk me through all her outlandish prophecies step by step. “Would I remember how to pee? Like all my memories?” These visions made good material for humor, because she was so serious and wise looking. June came and went, and we all still had our memories. As I had suspected. I think apocalypses are very personal. She spent her time cooking, smoking, drinking and doing inter-dimensional travel meditations. “I am not attached.” She would say. “I am light being.” When I came home, there were always plates of food on the kitchen table: pierogis, potato salad, carrot salad, beets, an arrangement of raw onions and herbs and packets of sunflower seeds. And Sonya, in her white sweatshirt, with a smile that radiated warmth. “Maruska! Come to Mama darling!” At my kitchen table, she taught me how to drink vodka—“drink like this and you never get drunk.” It was a complex drinking and breathing exercise where I’d have to hold my breath, drink, then exhale—there might have been a cocktail onion involved but being that I can’t remember anything after that, I think the system didn’t work for anyone who wasn’t Russian. However, this Russian invasion helped me back on my feet again. Even when she moved out, Sonya didn’t really move out. Keeping her key, she wagged it in my face, “You don eat enough.” Covering my face with kisses, she told me that love was the Russian way. I told her that “nobody loves poetry like a Russian.” She liked that. “What is ROOTLESS? It’s the idea that no one needs to feel stuck.”-Rootless Living Magazine There is nothing more healing than communicating your trauma dramas in a language you don’t really speak, preferably to Russians who do not speak your language either. Because they don’t care. Tell them your life story, the one that you’re most rooted to, and butcher it to pieces in a foreign language. No clever way to escape, few words to rely on, and completely blank faces staring back at you laughing because you strung something ridiculous together instead of something serious.
The disintegration of meaning into hilarious misunderstandings is very healthy. Uproot yourself. Our roots are also our histories. We carry them in our genes. Stories, traumas, generations–the eyes of the mother and father. In some countries, history is visible, the roots are left above ground. In the United States, not so much. America is a nation of immigrants–people that uprooted themselves. Or, people that were forcefully uprooted. But then, we’ve always uprooted ourselves. Roots do travel. With them, so do our stories. “Root is Sometimes Confused with Route.” –Google Sometimes, Sonya would call me with a mission of a spiritual nature. This woman was witchy, and she had a way of enchanting me. I was an easy target though, I was always a sucker for a fantastical setting. This time, she said, “I am in a forest with the refugees, you must come! We’re cooking and stuff!” “Sonya,” I sighed, “What do you mean a forest?” “Da, da...a forest, there are tents and electricity, and a fire.” “Where?” “Paris!” “Well,” I started, “Where is there a forest in Paris? How do you get there?” “Metro.” It was the park. In her defense, this park was technically the woods, ones that I knew quite well. I had even gone on some runs there. It is massive, with all sorts of hidden areas, but I had never noticed or perhaps ever dared to pay too much attention to the tents that lived in the “forest.” “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” –Carl Jung It was Freud’s theory of the mechanisms of repression that first interested Carl Jung.
The Jungian shadow–that which is unconscious and repressed– is very close to the Freudian unconscious, which the great mythologist Joseph Campbell defined as the “shocks that have been experienced and then repressed by the infant and the growing child....These experiences set up an individual’s posture, his structuring attitude toward life.” How we stand, how we move through the world–these are rooted in the unconscious experiences we call trauma, though I prefer “shocks.” The shadow contains both our basic human biology and our system of individual experiences. Out of these centers, Campbell said, came our dreams. However, the shadow “rests on much deeper ground,” he said, “from which myths emerge.” The collective unconscious. This was for Jung, the final frontier. After Jung broke up with Freud, in a sense, he decided to embark on an Odyssey into the unconscious realm: “Hell.” Jung was not talking heaven or hell literally. He was referring to the conscious and unconscious–what is in the light and what is in the dark. After his relationship with Freud became acrimonious, Jung entered into a period in his life that has been described as one of introspection, creative illness, psychosis, and madness. He decided to voluntarily confront the unconscious. He walked into the abyss. What he brought back was his psychedelic masterpiece–The Red Book. At its root, its message is: value your inner life. I pulled back a red towel hanging from a branch, and entered the world of the refugees. In the distance, I could see the faint figures of runners through the trees in soft focus, as if I had crossed some imaginary boundary, a world inside the world. There was a do-it yourself electricity tower built up a tree. A few tents were pitched around a fire with potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil. Packages of food were strewn on a table from Le Bon Pain. Sonya gave me a grand tour, including her tent, which she called “her country home.” After some amusing, warm conversation with a lot of rosé, a new man came over to say hello. He was blond, probably in his forties, Eastern European, good-looking. Sonya nodded over to him, waving and smiling, while she spoke to me, “You must talk to him.” The man took a seat by the fire. Sonya settled beside him. I remained standing. “This is who I wanted you to speak to...” she smiled. He gazed up at me. “...Tell her what you saw.” The innocence of the terror in his eyes is what brought me to my seat. He was a Ukrainian refugee whose whole family (except his mother) had been killed, and he’d had to flee the country.
The story he was about to tell me occurred when he had finally made it to Paris–after an experience that I am grateful that I have never been through. But the ease with which he told me that part is what struck me the most–it felt thin.
The loss of his whole family, he passed right through that, but whatever happened at that train station, that he couldn’t bring himself to tell me. But he saw something that had made him question his sanity. The man just stared into the fire, wrestling with his own disbelief. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. “You won’t believe me,” he said. “It’s crazy...” “Someone told me once that you gotta be a little crazy to stay sane.” I laughed, which lightened his load. His eyes reaching through mine, they gripped me by the heart and pulled me into his story. This wasn’t a crazy man, this was a sane man who had gone through a seriously traumatic experience. “Oh, that guy,” I said. I’ve had some experience in this realm.” He didn’t know if I was crazy or if he was crazy, but the statement was enough to establish a bond. So, I grabbed his hand and told him to take me through it. Together, we walked through the train station and led me through the shadow realm–his PTSD. I wasn’t actually sure what I saw: the personal unconscious or the collective unconscious or both. But that vision was definitely rooted in something very real–trauma. Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” -Mr. Rogers In all this talk of a mental health crisis, disconnection is our real epidemic. Loneliness, isolation, these sorts of sensations have tight grips around our populations. According to Hannah Arendt, the political theorist, the break from belonging is the root of all of our modern feelings of isolation and loneliness and also, Totalitarianism. Considering our current state of affairs, that statement is quite sensational. In all my years of taking psychedelics, the most healing effect they’ve had is reestablishing bonds: to myself, to spirit, to others. That’s why we’re here, for each other. We are the medicine.
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