Norman Maclean Nonfiction Award WinnerExcerpt from "Unrooted" Danny Rothschild
I started writing “Unrooted” in a non-fiction class, when I was learning about the “lyric essay” form. I became fascinated with this form, and decided to have a series of short essays that explored the different places I have lived. The speaker in each section is me; I decided to play around with different points of view to show how close or distant I am to each place. The italicized paragraphs are sections from a letter I received from my father shortly after we had a conversation about where I was going to attend college. The conversation turned into more of an argument about the identity crisis I sometimes had, and the feeling of lacking a home, something I thought about a lot. His letter was his explanation/apology for making the decision to travel throughout my childhood, something I am now very thankful for, though it comes with its advantages and disadvantages (as he explains in the letter).
The other day you asked why we uprooted you from your home in Rome to drag you around the world. It’s clear from what you said that you see the negative aspects of this. I’m not an intellectual—nor a poet—and I probably don’t have adequate words to describe our reasons in making this decision. But there were reasons, even if I can’t explain them as eloquently as I wish.
Rome, Italy: 1993
You start off in Italy, on the third story of an apartment, located above Teatro Grego, a Greek-style theatre with beautiful dancers twirling each night. The music seeps into your room, and sometimes the urge to see them is so strong you sneak in from backstage, sly in your ways. They know you are there, though, they just pretend not to notice. They don’t mind—they see the spark in your eyes for dance, or theatre, or something of the sort—you are an artist, they know that before you do.
Around the corner there is a bakery with your favorite pastries, bignés: puff balls with a Nutella filling—nothing ever feels so right on your tongue. They have ice cream, too, and the owner of the place lives right across the hall. He knows your favorite flavors: pistachio with lemon if it’s morning, or straciatella with cappuccino if it’s afternoon. Sometimes, he gives you what’s left in the tub at the end of the night. Why would someone want to leave this place, you wonder, but you are young and you have so much more to see.
Imparerai l’inglese alla scuola, Mom says, but you have hated English ever since you drew a picture of the sea with violent waves and on it wrote: da skai is blu. They laughed, but you couldn’t figure out why: phonetics is all you knew. You can learn Portuguese instead, Dad insists when you tell them English is not good enough. That’s what they’ll speak on the streets. This is a step up from English, but still, it doesn’t appeal to you. They keep trying to convince you, tell you moving is exciting! That for the first time you will have a house with a garden and you will finally be able to grow the kumquat tree you have tried to grow in a small ceramic pot in your room, but failed. Maybe we can get a dog, Dad says and Mom gives him a skeptical look, but that spark in your eyes lights up. You have always wanted a dog, ever since you were eighteen months old, crawling around the apartment on all fours. There is a doggy door in the walnut front door, even though the apartment is on the third floor and pets are not allowed. That’s what you love about this house. That, along with the green tiles in the kitchen and the big glass windows overlooking a curving street. You love counting cars, counting how many blues, how many reds, how many Smarts.
You love Italy, but soon won’t have a reason to. You’ll continue loving it only because you do now: the shaky two-person elevator, the thrill that it might snap any day, the fresh bread and the familiarity of the neighborhoods. You know where the best pizza is, and the cobblestone street that takes you there (the street is closed in the mornings because of the market, and you know every smell of the market). These things won’t easily be forgotten, but when you visit, six or seven years later, the crisp air that used to smell of pines will smell more of cigarettes and smoke, and you’ll feel foreign, maybe because you are the only one who doesn’t smoke, or maybe because you used to hate tomatoes. Maybe because you still won’t eat mushrooms. When you visit, the music from Teatro Grego will keep you up at night, and you will wish the place would close down.
The things you considered beautiful were in your child-like mind, but you’ll lose that. In an effort to retrieve it, you will trace faded footsteps in the parks you used to play in. You’ll return to the bakery to ask for a bigné. You might even return to the apartment and crawl around on all fours, just for the sake of it.
Yes, we knew that by moving you would also give up any chance at roots—but Mom and I both felt that our roots were more in our connections—mostly to family—and not to a place. And that in moving around, you would develop roots of a different kind—roots in individual people, rather than places. Looking back, I may have placed too much emphasis in this idea—probably to convince Mom that this was the right decision.
Bamako, Mali: 2000
Around me, I see tall grass, taller than me, swaying in the wind. I can’t see the end of the field, and that’s part of its beauty. Between dry grass, I see the crumbling dry earth, caked with the dust of last year’s Harmattan, a trade wind blowing dust from the Sahara all the way to North America. This is our winter, this wind from the end of November until March.
As a child I was told not to run out into the field during the Harmattan because I wouldn’t be able to find my way back, but I always did. During sandstorms I would sit in the field with my legs crossed, close my eyes, bow my head and hold onto the stalks on either side of me. It looked as if I was praying, and maybe I was. Maybe I was praying to the rain gods, causing the sand and dust to rise off the ground and start swirling around my head. I always looked up and watched the shapes being formed: somehow those shapes always resembled a mad man. But I had been doing no such prayer. I was an atheist, so the rain never came. Something about me must have angered the mad man, the grass kept swaying, as if each stalk tried to catch the other. The dust rose, the mad man breathing it in fast, as if he had been drowning for months and had just now resurfaced, mistaking the dust for air. This is when I’d run, short-legged and wide-eyed. I’d run in whatever direction—that never mattered; I’d run away from the man tearing up the field, my field; run until I no longer heard his growl.
In this field I experienced something bigger than the fields, bigger then the Harmattan. I shook the dust from my hair, thinking how much the earth had been craving rain. A particle of dust was small. In this field I was small, and this field, in the world, was small. But simply being is everything, even if we are meaningless, even if we are dust, because dust is nothing, nothing but what is in the forceful blows of the Harmattan, in the haze that hides the sun for days, and in the greyness that mocks the sun for months. Nothing but the lack of rain, and that too: the rain, and everything that thrives off it after months of waiting for nothing; nothing but the heat, but the dust, but the wind.
Check out the rest of "Unrooted" in the 2011 edition of Aerie International