I don’t know how the conversation began, but I know how it ended. Its final flourish was an accusation, thrown at my mother as she gathered coats, children, and suitcases to head out the door of my uncle’s house: “You’re just rootless.” I was twelve or thirteen at the time, old enough to see from the look on my mother’s face that this was an epithet of significant gravity, and young enough to be oblivious to what this accusation really entailed.

That night we made the long trip back from the town where my father had grown up in darkness and silence, though I remember falling asleep to the serious sounds of my parents’ conversation as we rolled south from Jersey, and away from my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We were headed back to Virginia, drawn by the currents of my father’s naval career to make our home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I had only ever known New Jersey through visits; from the time I was born, the Navy had floated my family to various assignments up and down the east coast.

The reality and implications of our rootlessness mystified me as a young teen. I felt rooted in my suburban existence. Everything about it seemed entirely normative; everyone and everywhere else seemed idiosyncratic. The New Jersey world my relatives moved through was not mine; the accents were thick, the gossip was about people I didn’t know, the places they lived and worked bore the weight of years. It was all strange, quite distinct from the feel of a newly built suburb, though lovable, to me, from a distance.

Looking back now, I realize several things about my childhood in the D.C. suburbs: no one I knew had grandparents who lived nearby. Also, the parents of almost every kid I knew were government employees or contractors, consultants, lawyers, diplomats, or career military officers. This caused our environment to be penetrated with a breathless sense of self-importance and urgency. We were all, adults and children alike, doing things that really mattered to the whole free world, and we’d better get on with doing them, every day, all the time. Everyone came from somewhere else and was hustling on their way to somewhere more important. Perhaps we were, all of us, rootless.

A few weeks ago a writer-friend gifted me with a bumper sticker souvenir from a Flannery O’Connor workshop in Georgia. “All writers are local somewhere,” the sticker proclaimed, in words that O’Conner spoke to an interviewer back in 1959. Such words both console and provoke me as a writer, and as a wife and mother who is edging into the years of middle life. I’m consoled because I have deep trust in Flannery’s straight-talking wisdom and, given her accomplishment in portraying the profound amidst the grit of her Southern world, I’m inclined to trust her. I’m provoked because I still feel a bit adrift in my place, even as I make my way through middle age. I still wonder whether the accusation flung at my parents is one I might ever manage to fully escape. When can I finally claim myself to be local, here in my place, now?

This wondering requires a bit of explanation. Ten years ago, my husband and I purchased a small hobby farm in a semi-rural corner of Virginia, thanks to various factors that included a deep dive into the books of Joel Salatin and Wendell Berry. I’ve now lived here longer than anywhere else I’ve ever known. We live, with our six children, in a house off a gravel road, on a scrap of land with a ramshackle barn and a fluctuating number of sheep, goats, and chickens, near a small town that’s hopefully far enough off the highways to stay small.

Part of our inspiration to buy the farm came from an affection for the scattered towns that dotted the Blue Ridge foothills near our alma mater, the University of Virginia. We would stop at local diners and burrow through bookstores on tiny main streets and dream about how much easier it would be to afford a house there. Other inspiration came from my time in Wisconsin’s farm country, working a summer camp job with small town kids whose parents sold vacuums, worked police jobs, and even made a respectable living peddling artwork at artisan fairs. These kids were so different from the people I had known growing up; they were shockingly, refreshingly content with not being on their way to take charge of the whole free world.

As my family journeys into our tenth year on our little farm, we intend to stay for good. Yet I continue to wonder if it’s possible to opt-in to roots, to intentionally plant one’s life somewhere, and let it expand into the soil of a new place, space, and community. Our move here was peaceful and chosen; I imagine, however, that anyone forced from their home in a situation of duress—any migrant, refugee, or exile—might also ask a similar question.

Wallace Stegner’s book of personal essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West, a title suggested to me by a friend who is himself well-rooted in his place and his history, provides some food for thought regarding what it means to be, and to become, a local. Stegner was a Pulitzer-Prize winning chronicler of the west, its people and its landscapes, and he was a teacher of writers with such exquisite localized sensitivities as Ernest Gaines, Larry McMurtry, and Wendell Berry. He explains in Where the Bluebird Sings that he only settled down in his long-term California home, finally, at age thirty-six. (This was three years later, I noted with some surprise and satisfaction, than my family and I moved out to our little Virginia farm.) Although Stegner settled down as an adult, his childhood was, as he termed it, “migratory.” His father’s endeavors pulled his family through numerous towns in western United States and Canada; although in his young adulthood, Stegner went east for work and for education, it was the world of the west that eventually pulled him back.

Given the dynamics of education, employment, and opportunity today, many, like Stegner and myself, experience childhoods that are, to some greater or lesser extent, migratory. Many find themselves, for political, economic, or other reasons, in cities or even countries that are geographically distinct from where their relatives, living or deceased, are from. Setting down roots is often not as simple as going home to the one place in the world where one “ought” to be. Yet perhaps the following suggestions might serve as pathways for people like us, as trails through the tangled woods of life, leading us to places beside still waters where we can rest, kick off our sandals, curl our toes into the soft earth, and stay awhile.

Be sensitive to what forms you

When Wallace Stegner was a young adult, he moved to Iowa City for two years, far from his usual haunts further west in Salt Lake City. There he noticed that distance and homesickness were efficient teachers. He began to see himself as “a Westerner,” as someone who “came from arid lands,” who was accustomed to “dry clarity and sharpness in the air” and “horizons that either lifted into jagged ranges or rimmed the geometrical circle of the flat world.” Not only that, but he realized that his childhood in the west, migratory though it may have been, was what had formed him. Later, he turned back there for good.

Perhaps it was the same dynamic of distance, of separation from the places they had both grown up, that made my own parents particularly good at being sensitive to elements of rootedness less confined by the limits of geography—the tapestry of family histories, traditions, and faith that can stretch its weave across space and time, and that waits to spread its varied colors before those who are willing to stop and pay attention.

My father’s family was in the fishing industry, running boats on the Raritan Bay and around the curve of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, into the Atlantic. With the heart of a museum curator, he restored many of the tools of his family’s fishing trade, seeing history and meaning in things that others—who still lived and worked within a stone’s throw of the Bay—had left discarded in garages and sheds. The heritage of life on the water formed my dad, turning him towards the Navy, rather than another military branch, and turned our family towards the seaside for all of our childhood vacations.

My mother’s genealogy endeavors—entailing not simply internet searching, but scrambling through graveyards here and in Europe, knocking on rectory doors in Ireland and Germany, and thumbing gingerly through crumbling hundred-year-old books of baptism records, stored inelegantly in drawers—deepened our family’s understanding of who we were and where we were from. The tiny town of our Irish ancestors held a welcoming party in the parish hall when my mother and her sister visited, celebrating because, strikingly, they were first ones in the clan who ever came back, after the waves of emigration to America nearly a century ago.

I’m still not wholly sure what it means to know that these things—Ireland and the sea, among others—have formed me. I’ve never lived near the ocean, but its rhythms still feel familiar, even consoling, thanks to my father. My Irish family were only names on paper before my mother’s travels. We now exchange emails, photos, Christmas gifts, and even, sometimes, advice. Though my parents raised me at a distance from their own hometowns, they rooted me in a sense of who I am that’s portable and precious, and unbound to any one particular address.

Be a sticker, not a boomer

The western United States, during the early 20th-century childhood of Wallace Stegner, retained much of the wild, transitory nature it had throughout the previous century. Yet, he noted, the culture that grew there was “the product not of the boomers but the stickers, not of those who pillage and run but those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” The Benedictine monastic tradition, often credited with bearing the flame of culture through the so-called Dark Ages, similarly values “sticking.” All these monks, even to this day, make a vow of stability, a promise to live their other vows (of fidelity and obedience) in the context of a particular, specific community, with particular, specific people. Although not vowed to our Virginia home, my husband and I have tried to resist the cultural pressure to treat our place here as a stepping-stone to elsewhere. We’ve both chosen to concentrate our energies on educational, professional, and familial opportunities that allow us to remain here, in this place, rather than ones that would make success dependent on mobility.

Perhaps functioning a bit like the walls of a monastery, the geographic confines of the Catholic diocese where my husband and I have worked in ministry, worshiped, and raised our children for years matter. They are boundaries that encourage us to stay. A diocese is a territorial delineation that organizes Catholic congregations under the authority of a single bishop; ours stretches across the northern half of Virginia. Priests who are ordained into a diocese generally remain to serve there, in various parish assignments throughout the area, for life. Many of the lay ministers and priests in our diocese are our friends; we were all fresh-faced rookies just setting out on our vocations years ago. Now, tempered and tumbled by time, we’re all a bit grayer around the edges, but still companions, familiar with one another’s quirks and foibles, trying to live out our faith here in this corner of the world, together.

Be a homebody

Annie Dillard’s two nonfiction masterpieces, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood, both begin with reflections on how we meet the world in and through our own physicality. In Pilgrim a wandering tomcat leaps in Dillard’s open window and pads its bloodied pawprints upon her body as she lies half-awake beneath her bedsheets. It’s uncertain whether the tomcat has padded the blood of life or death across the white expanse; the moment gestures towards life’s fragility and ultimate uncertainty, dependent as it is on the travails of the body. American Childhood narrates how young Annie, observant of everything from minerals to baseball mitts to boys, grew so intimate with the hills of Pittsburgh that they pressed themselves into the deepest corners of her mind:

When everything else has gone from my brain—the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.

To be rooted, perhaps, is to remember that we are flesh ensouled, encountering the people and things of the world in and through our bodies. When we allow the world to make its home in us, to curl and grow within us, we, in turn, have the opportunity to become more deeply rooted in it. How might our bodies be a home for another? Pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding give mothers one sort of education in how to do this, in profound ways unequaled in any other relationship. Fatherhood, although set back at a slight remove from the literal bearing of the child, also has the potential of becoming an education in how to shoulder the existential weight of both child and mother alike.

Many of our daily interactions will be less intense than parenthood, but the dynamic is similar. Being home-bodies to others, we extend our voices, hands, and eyes, welcoming those we encounter rather than hunching over our screens or huddling behind our earbuds. We hear the exhaustion in a friend’s voice at church, and offer not just our prayers, but our flesh, lending our arms to make them a meal, or to drive their children to sports.

Sometimes, simply stepping outside can be a way of homing the world in the body, especially in an age that is constantly slapping new coats of virtual reality over our lives. Walking, hiking, running, or cycling over the swells of the earth is not just healthy, but often key to rooting us in the real. Back when I worked in small-town Wisconsin, I spent my break hours cycling through cornfields and pine forests that rolled under a sky more expansive than any I had ever known, where the heavens seemed to come down to meet me face-to-face. In those sparsely populated places, absent strip malls and high-rise office buildings, there was less to distract me from my own creatureliness.

Certainly these suggestions of how to set down roots in new places are not exhaustive. These pathways—of sensitivity to what forms us, of sticking rather than booming, and of being home-bodies for the world and other people—are just a few of the trails I’ve started to notice myself walking down, quite imperfectly, here in the Virginia landscapes where I make my home. Yes, it is a place I’ve come to from elsewhere, but there’s something about staying here that sets me straight, that reminds me of my provenance from God. This place cups me in its green hollows and roots me in the reality that this one life I’ve been given is a gratuitous gift, made only to be given again.

Image credit: “Old Mill The Morning Bell” by Winslow Homer via Wikimedia Commons

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. “These kids were so different from the people I had known growing up; they were shockingly, refreshingly content with not being on their way to take charge of the whole free world.”

    What a great and inspiring observation! That whole paragraph is a treasure.

  2. Thank you, Martin! It took me a while to articulate something about this “difference” I kept noticing. 🙂

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