Is a Less Rooted Life Inherently Less Deep?

Friday, November 7, 2014 - 5:32am

Is a Less Rooted Life Inherently Less Deep?

I’m snuggled in bed writing this column while my husband John packs for another trip. He’s got his Timbuktu messenger bag filled with ginger supplements (he gets vicious motion sickness), his Bose headphones, and a beautiful visa pasted inside of his well-traveled passport. He’s got a business suit, some running gear (the best way to see a new place), and one tiny baby sock — a token of our little girl.

We travel a lot, about half of every month, in fact. As freelancers who do a lot of public speaking and consulting with organizations based in a variety of cities, our work takes us to lots of beautiful places.

It’s sometimes as fabulous as it sounds. The moment when you crack open the door to your hotel room after a long journey and a big white bed with an embarrassment of plush pillows greets you, there is a sort of euphoria in having finally arrived. We get to meet fascinating people, reconnect with hilarious old friends, do work that challenges and feeds us. Sometimes we even manage to rustle up a gig near our families; a chance to travel home on someone else’s dime still thrills me — as if I’ve played a little trick on the universe by making my worlds align just so.

But more and more, I’m also reflecting on the undeniably un-fabulous aspects of this life. If we travel half the month, it dawns on me, we travel half of our lives.

We have a home that we love. We painstakingly filled it with art painted by friends and books that changed us. You can find my deep blue blanket thrown over the couch — the one my mom gave me when I went off to college. John’s favorite dishes are there; he fills them with his signature salads, always generous with olive oil and roasted pine nuts. We live for Sunday mornings reading The New York Times (the old school paper version) while our daughter takes her first nap, then heading to the farmers market for breakfast burritos and people watching. If you ask us where we live, we will say, “Oakland.” We will picture this place: the dinosaur kale in the garden; Matthew, the kid who lives next door, coasting his skateboard past our front door; the light coming through the kitchen window and illuminating the family photos hung there.

(Leo Hidalgo / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

But it would be just as accurate to say that we live on the road. We live — and I shudder as I write this — on airplanes, in rental cars, in impersonal hotel rooms, every one mostly like the next with its single-serving coffee makers and its germ-covered remote controls.

So I guess that makes our lives interesting, but I wonder if it doesn’t also make them less satisfying. Is a less rooted life inherently less deep? Less healthy? Less ethical?

Traveling this much certainly makes ritual or its less glamorous cousin, routine, very difficult. Where does one meditate or pray when waking up in a new room each morning? When does one exercise if each day is about maximizing time with clients?

Traveling this much certainly has environmental consequences. So many of us who live these peripatetic lives are fighting for the very people most vulnerable to the affects of climate change; our carbon footprints may stomp louder than our words.

Traveling this much endangers our relationship with the local — local issues that we might take action on and local food that we might buy, cook, and eat around a big table with neighbors and friends. We live in a co-housing community and feel luckier than most frequent travelers. So often we roll our suitcases up the driveway and are greeted by the revelry of a group meal. We are rescued from the dispiriting emptiness of the fridge, but also the familiar loneliness of the professional nomad: the doomsday feeling that “your people” have given up trying to keep track of you, that you are at sea in your own unsustainable schedule. You imagine that they are gathered somewhere without you, laughing, wine glasses in hand, remnants of a great meal scattered about; they assume you are elsewhere, because, well, you usually are.

I used to have a fantasy that I would one day be a regular at a bar in my neighborhood. I wanted to walk in and hear them greet me by name, encourage me to pull up my usual seat, pour me my usual drink. Blame it on Cheers — the TV show I had to beg my parents to let me stay up to watch as a kid.

It’s a fantasy, more than anything else, of being known. And that, perhaps, is the biggest difference between the life of wandering and the life of rootedness. When you travel, you are constantly new to people. There’s a certain novelty in it — a surprise always around the corner, an ego boost in the seeming importance of it all. But it wears thin fast. There aren’t enough upgrades in the world to rival the feeling of living in a home that you love, among a community that cares for you.

Ultimately, life is made up of great conversations. Whom do you most want to have them with? Some strangers, to be sure, but mostly with old friends, neighbors, family.

Wendell Berry writes:

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

By the looks of our frequent flier miles, we’re still learning.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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i love traveling. but this is very true in my experience.

Those who are rooted can also become potbound and stifle their growth. Sounds like you are working toward a good balance between being rooted and potbound!

Thank you for this beautifully written truly encapsulates one of the struggles of my life. When I get 'settled' into a place, I feel the urge to travel. When I travel, I feel the urge to 'settle.' BOTH seem to call to me with equal urgency.....hmmm.

Janet, I can relate. There's a great poem that addresses this -- "The Double Life," by Don Blanding. He's known as the "Vagabond Poet."

My husband and I are just finishing up a four month road trip of the U.S and Canada. These words are timely and true, as we move out of our mini-van home and into a housing cooperative this Sunday. Thank you for putting words to the experience. I hope I find we do not need to be free from place to feel free.

So well said Courtney. Some of us also have to travel to see loved ones aging in far away lands, too feeble to come to the land of plenty, or not deemed worthy of a US visa. I so get it, as someone who also is on the road at least half time. I love Wendells' comment, a reminder of the parallel spiritual journey, which must also accompany us as we try to honor roots in more than one place, in more than one language.

I hope this gets shot 'round the world, Courtney, and that it helps us start backing away from the normalized craziness of regular-to-constant air travel. Fine, fine piece of writing. So glad Northern California can claim you nowadays!

Jostein Gaarder wrote a children's Christmas book, and one of the characters was a wise man who observed that there are two ways to learn about the world: stay in one place, like a tower, and observe everything happening around you, or travel the world, maybe on the back of a camel, and see all there is to see. The trouble is you can't do both at the same time!

Yes, well said. Distance- tyranny or blessing?The sun both sets and rises everywhere on the planet.Wherever you are, may you always have time to find, and smell, the roses.:-)

Enjoyed this piece. It called to mind the T.S. Eliot poem in which he writes, to paraphrase, that the end of one's exploring shall be to arrive where one started, and to recognize the place for the first time.

I love your words. And also the comments shared. We all at different levels feel unsettled wherever we find ourselves. I think this discovery alone(realization that we're unsettled regardless) is where we start to find the solution.The solution is a lifetime of learning how to be a human "being" not a human "doing". I just read that today and felt compelled to pass on that truth!I suppose learning to "be" can be done anywhere.
Cheers to you and your sweet family.

I love your article. I've been living in Europe for the past three years and have only recently decided to return to New York. It is an emotional roller coaster when trying to decide how and where to make your life. I find comfort can be found in both independence and family - when is time to choose?

The article really resonates with me as well. I've lived in London for 3 years and while I love the excitement of travel and meeting new people, I have a deep longing to go back to my roots and build a life back in the US. However, a part of me does not want to give up the adventures that come along with an uprooted existence. I'm trying to understand how one strikes a balance.

I consider myself a citizen of the world for the very same reasons you wrote about. When I am settled, I feel the itch to move and vice versa. I have accepted that each travel runs deep in me, pushing me closer to my purpose and to grow.The great thing about your life is that you can choose in any moment and declare your intention for a different phase, be it 6 months or six years. It is about choice and this has helped me tremendously to enjoy my travel and my routine when I am at home, settled.

I worked as an art director in advertising in my 20's. I loved the travel opportunities at first but then began to feel increasingly uprooted from home and all that mattered there. Single at the time, I remember a three-month period when I had two commercials in production at the same time, on opposite coasts. On a particular day in the midst of this I flew back home to Chicago, dashing into my small apartment to do a quick load of laundry before heading back out of O'Hare. I'm running around like a crazy person when my cat, Gavin, suddenly perches himself in the doorway and looks up at me with an expression that pierced my heart. It's hard to describe what I saw in his face--some combination of sadness, longing, and resignation. In that moment I knew I didn't want the life I was living. Home mattered too much. I missed my rhythms, my friends. I missed my cat. How would I ever have a family living like this? I ultimately left that industry and went back to school. I've been a psychologist now for over 20 years and am grateful to be doing work that matters to me and that this work can be done close to home. Many people derive great purpose and meaning from a professional life filled with travel, particularly when their work, like yours, involves dedication to the betterment of humankind. At the same time the questions you raise here resonate so deeply with me. I appreciate your thoughts and the clarity with which you share them with the rest of us. Glad to be following you.

I think like all things in life it's a trade off. I definitely wouldn't say "less deep" but there are costs. When you get comfortable, you don't get challenged as much. You get set in your ways and views. Frequently getting out of your cocoon keeps your eyes and soul fresh.

I think it all just depends what's important to you, but I wouldn't feel guilty.

i feel so sad for you poor rich people having to live in luxury

I am sad to hear this, and I sympathize. I have felt that way often, and it is indeed easy to lose touch when one's fortunes change. It is not always so easy to quantify though, and we do not know all the details of the writer's life. In professional life, sometimes one is sent to that cushy hotel without any choice on their own part. One is part of a system and a culture. The best way to take action to improve things is not always evident. I was taken with another of Courtney's earlier posts where she wrote:

"The alternative is to let your actions be inspired — not by goodness but by curiosity. Be curious about where your food, your clothes, your stuff comes from. Learn more. Ask questions. Become a systems thinker — a far more edifying and interesting identity than a do-gooder."

There is so much to consider in regard to socioeconomics and equity. And well-being. I would love for there to be fuller discussion here. And for there to be acknowledgment of systems as well as individual fortunes, which can get so personal.

Anyway, a few thoughts. I appreciate what you said.

There are so many ways to see the world that don't involve movement. Reading, films, computers, dialogue to name a few. As somebody said, there are more ways than one to skin a cat.

Thanks for this. I am especially glad to see the environmental issues mentioned. I am in a profession that typically engenders much travel. (I am a creative artist and academic.) Over the years I have cut back on travel, because I trust that the work I do requires stillness and solitude (etc.). I have to honor that re-entry tkles time and effort. In my professional life, this means swimming upstream—or trying to stay put as the stream pushes. It is unfortunate that academia has been pulled into the more/faster trend, which I do not see fostering contemplation and colloquy. That said, I now have a frequent 1000+-mile commute, since some of my research, and my partner, are located in rural Nova Scotia. I see much rootedness there: people are connected to their families, to community (with the ups and downs of those things); there is less drive to "win" and grasp and race off to buy something. There is a sense of history and tradition (again, with pluses and minuses). My cohorts in the US can't fathom that someone would not just pick up and drive 3 hours to a city for a day to stock up on organic kale chips or jump on a plane to delver a 20-min paper, but my partner doesn't do those things, and many local residents do not have passports. I feel fortunate that I can marshal my mobility—fortunately, I have a hybrid and drive little in my US location—to make the trip and to feel more rooted while I am away from "home." I think it is worth thinking about all that is raised in this article. I suppose what stands out to me most in my professional life, in the most densely populated state, isn't the travel itself, but what I take to be a reliance on it. There is the often unquestioned assumption that travel makes one sophisticated, and that staying put makes one naive. I don't see it as an either/or—travel can mean connection,or can introduce one to a new place to re-root!—but the resistance to landing, in whatever location, seems to mean some miss out.

Great Article. I am 28 and 16 months ago pulled the plug on my steady and stable life to travel. I saw amazing things, met amazing people and did incredible humanitarian work, and at the end - I felt empty. Why? Because, as I have come to learn, quality of life relates deeply to connection and like Courtney proposes, a less roots = less connection = less deep. I think there is no way of avoiding this truth. Yes, there is the flip side of becoming too comfortable in one place, docile and bored (or boring), but this is easy to avoid if one views the place where one is rooted as constantly changing (which it is) and as having forever hidden pockets to unfold (which it will). I think also that much of the wanderlust of Courtney's and my generation lies our technology dependency, where the constant flicker prevents us from ever being bored, which conversely means we are never really with ourselves or the moment. My antidote to tendency is to seek moments in nature, where the timescale is far more grand than my puny human life can fathom. In the natural, time is measured not in the shaded boxes on my google calendar app, but in flowers blooming, leaves changing color, and the accumulation and melting of snow over a long winter. The world is vast and travel across it's surface would be endless, but no place, no novelty can compare to knowing one place deeply. Wendell Berry, as Courtney quoted in here article, writes often on the value of knowing place. He also writes on what he says as the catastrophe of the millennial generations inability to really think. Perhaps Berry's two ideas possess a correlation.

You sound reasonably intelligent, so you could always do something else...

I loved reading this! We have been fulltime RVers for the past 5 years. And while we travel most of the year, I would have a hard time not having a area to call home. We take our rv, and our family, back to our hometown every summer to give our kids (and honestly, ourselves) those experiences of belonging to something more permanent than the temporary RV resort. For the 4 children that have grown and flown, they have chosen to settle down there; for the 8 still at home, they know they belong. We love to travel, but we also like to go home; making both a priority gives our kids both roots, and wings.

I have been traveling between 1/3 and half the time for the last seven years. I must be strange, because I could not imagine spending all of my time with the same people all of the time, now. Having a "nest" is something that fills me with dread, now. Home to me is literally where I lay my head, and I love it that way. And, yes, my Timbuk2 messenger bag is truly awesome... :)

Interesting article, couldn't have come at a better time. I've been traveling for work for nearly 3 years and it's scary to see that the things that used to be so fulfilling for me about travel aren't as interesting anymore. It's quite scary to realize that maybe my priorities have changed altogether. Now, settling down and creating roots seems to be what I need, even if just earlier this year the thought of me finally coming home made me so anxious.

gr dad was the first French speaking protestant missionary in Louisiana-traveled most of his life-our preachers family moved almost yearly-I had to learn how to plant roots
and grow where I was planted

I wish I could believe anything any of these writers say.
It all just seems like more apologia for liberal30-40-50 something American conformity with its pseudo-hand-wringing. It feels inconsequential,
a non-issue.

Creates more hormonal recpetors linkage to fears. Either Love Or Fear???

I thoroughly enjoyed your quietly compelling piece. I am a student, a minority in the vast majority of the student population which at large, yearns to travel, and by travelling, saving every last penny to come back apparently more knowing and wiser than those that have travelled less. However, while people may arrive home brimming with confidence and pride and yes, growth, it is also possible to learn and grow from those boring every day tasks of lives, or making stakes in your local community, from reading or learning other language. Too many people travel today, without another language in hand. Too many reject the possible adventure right in their own backyard, of learning from the elderly or going to their local museum. You can travel great distances even without the career or a lot of money.

What is the point of this? Are you like a swallow skimming the water for a bug to eat, a sip to drink? Does a swallow therefore live a shallow life? Hah. Of course, "an unrooted life" is less "meaningful" no matter the measure used if you think it so.

It's the human condition.Even when you're onto a good thing, you'll experience diminishing returns, until you do without it. And then you appreciate that you made that choice because you were lucky enough to make the choice to do things the way you like. And I bet your daughter will have a lot of memories of life on the road, because kids like the adventure . Obviously you like it too, that's why you chose this life. But you probably need time away from it, like everything else. Even spouses have to take sabbaticals, before they take each other for granted.

Traveling is very interesting things to me. its always give me new experience sound good.

I have spent the last several years traveling, hopping from a sofa to a rented room, to this friend's house or that friend's empty cottage, housesitting, moving but never moving on. I have yet to settle but am full of longing to do so, and often homesick for something I cannot quite define yet. I return to this essay here and there, and make it home for now. Thank you, Courtney.