childhood, Ok here's what were gonna do, writing

Bonsai of the Soul

I’ve been fascinated with bonsai for as long as I can remember, along with my affection for orchids, and horticulture in general. Unlike the orchids (looking around at my office window at my happy plants there) I’ve never been able to keep a bonsai alive. Too scattered, insufficient time, and too many moves where there was little room to bring along things like a 3 foot tree. Perhaps, though, my knowledge of how bonsai works gave me the metaphor for what I was thinking about today. Much like the essay I wrote years ago (and keep meaning to update) on kintsugi (kintsukoroi) as it applied to the human psyche. As I was talking with a friend about having a home, and how important it was to me, the first thing that popped into my head was a joke-rooted-in-truth: I’m a Cedar bonsai. 

If you aren’t familiar with bonsai, let me explain. For those who are, feel free to correct me in the comments. Bonsai isn’t just growing a tree in a tiny cramped pot. In fact, it’s important to choose the right pot for the tree. Bonsai is a work of art, after all. The tree is trained to become bonsai. Bonsai is trained not by trimming the branches, shaping, or selecting for tree species with small leaves, although all of those are factors. The most important part of bonsai is to prune the roots. This affects the growth of the tree, and the more you have a thriving healthy root system (entirely possible for hundreds of years in improbably cramped living quarters) the better your artwork will survive and thrive. 

When it comes to a person, never being able to put down roots, to form attachments to people, to places, has an effect on them, one that shapes them for a lifetime. The conversation that gave rise to this essay was about making a home, and how I felt about the idea of being rooted to a place, and a community, and how this is affecting my mental health (and through that, the physical). I grew up virtually rootless. As a military brat, that was one thing. Being together as a family, other than a relatively brief time my father was stationed in a place where the family couldn’t be alongside him, wasn’t a bad thing. I know other military brats have the same feeling I do about this: it’s not bad, it’s just different. Often, we are more diversely educated and cultured than the mainstream US peers we have, because we did move around a lot, and unless your family tried to keep you living in a bubble (it’s own form of root training) then you got to experience a whole wide world. That openness to peoples, foods, and experiences begun as a child is broadening. 

On the other branch, there is the feeling of never quite fitting in. And knowing that you will be moving, sooner rather than later, further rather than perhaps a block or two away, that affects you. You become aware that putting out tender roots into the community around you, making those connections, trying to have a house where you can plant a fruiting tree… and expect to see a harvest from it? it’s not worth the effort. You’ll just have the roots sheered off and fitted into a new pot. Unlike the tree, you the human can choose to divert that mental and physical investment of energy into different things. 

In my case, even when my parents did settle us, what happened next was almost worse than having been moved around. I thought, for a time as a child, that we were homesteading in Alaska, and this was Home. That concept meant a lot to me. I branched out, made friends, started to make plans. And then… got yanked up and moved forcibly a continent away, to a place I didn’t want to be, put in a school I really did not want. Again, that lesson of ‘don’t put any roots down’ was reinforced. The attachments were snipped away. 

Over the last twenty years, my closest and staunchest community, the support I’ve gotten, has largely been online. Talking with others like me, I find similar root-pruning in their lives as well. I seem to gravitate towards military-adjacent communities, I think, but I suspect there are others who have chosen the virtual world for similar reasons. We are bonsai. The roots we have need to be portable. 

It’s both a strength, and a vulnerability. I know for me, even once I married as a young woman, the rootlessness continued. I didn’t have a stable home, and that became hell when I had young children. I still have nightmares about that, and it drove me to accomplish things I didn’t think possible in order to try and make sure they were safe, in the end. When I was finally able to escape the state I’d been in, where in theory I’d been long enough to grow roots, I found they were not there, probably due to having pushed all my energies into the fruit, so to speak. 

And now? I’m a bonsai out of a pot. We have a home, I have support not only from a loving husband, but friends, a house that is ours. I can put roots out, without knowing they will be cut away again soon now. I can have a safety net. Now, I just have to convince that part of my brain that’s never fully healed from all those root pruning shears.




13 thoughts on “Bonsai of the Soul

  1. Wow!
    My Crowsnest Pass birth and life thru 2 months in Grade 1 in Coleman, Alberta gave me mountain-born experiences, including seeing an operating Hydroelectric “Crowsnest Power Plant” that used water flowing from Crowsnest Lake. A huge spring flows from Basin Cave (aka Crowsnest Lake Cave, Crowsnest Spring) into a pool then under the CPR tracks into Crowsnest Lake. I learned to skii at age 3, after Christmas. Also tobaggoned down the slopes on either side of our house.
    After we moved to the 3/4 Section mixed farm, I went to a 1 room school, Carnforth. Four of our classmates rode horses to school, giving us freshly frozen free hockey pucks all winter.
    The results of a varied childhood include hatchet, boy’s axe, axe, and double it axe experiences, plus bar wire scars on knees due to fence repairs and due to a mountain pony, Red, who made sure I never wort new blue jeans for more than a week until he ran my leg along the handiest barbs next to the cow path into the pasture. Sometimes he got me going out, and coming back!

  2. I know what you mean.
    And even though we have a house now, I don’t expect it to last. Maybe 5 years, maybe 10? But, I doubt that long. And nope, I prefer online friends, they move along with you. Or they don’t. Either way, there’s no physical attachment, and that is fine by me.

  3. Bonsai are amazing – but require a careful guardian. I love the concept that the tree continues, but the guardian changes when they get too old. There are some gorgeous bonsai (I just looked up the plural – bonsais – but it sounds weird) at the National Arboretum in Washington, DC – ever seen them?

    Love it as a metaphor for a child of a military family.

  4. As I recall, I changed schools every year to grade 10. Might be the reason I had a library in my head, instead of social skills; I had to develop those later (to the extent I have developed them…I could use more).

    Now I’ve lived in the same city for 25 years and still don’t have Kipling’s Thousandth Man.

  5. I moved about every 3 years – sometimes quicker! – from birth to 1993, when we built this house. And it’s now home in my mind. After my wife died I considered selling it and moving elsewhere. But that thought was abhorrent on so many levels!
    I can’t move. It is home. I raised my children here, buried my wife here (nearby), and will likely die here. In a few more years it will be paid off, and my kids know I intend that it stay in the family, always available to them.
    Putting in roots isn’t just a metaphor; it’s creating a legacy. It might be modest, but it is there, fixed in your mind and emotions as a place you can always go back to, however briefly, to regain your soul.
    It is home.

  6. I moved four times before I was eight (Army brat) about every 2-3 years. We landed in San Diego and my parents didn’t leave there until I was in college, but I have clear memories of thinking about which friends I would ask to live with if they moved before I finished high school. Starting about 2 1/2 years after we moved to SD, I got anxious we were going to move again. When 3 years passed I relaxed, until the next 3 year mark… and so on – hence my thinking about who I’d live with to finish high school. After college I moved every couple of years as well. Then after grad school we moved three times in four years before landing in Philly. Now I am anxious to buy a house here in Texas and put down roots. Hopefully that happens in the coming year.

  7. There are so many cultures within communities these days that you don’t have to change physical location to move. Within the past 6 months I have had all of the social groups I have been involved in, some for 15 or 20 years or more, sever my roots with them (a lot of it a side effect of the COVID-Response, as I see it). Only my roots from 30 years or older have stayed. That is taking quite a lot of assessment to work our way through, especially the financial impacts that all these “social” root changes have been doing to us for the past 3 years.

  8. This is a serious issue, and one that I can relate to. Unfortunately, however, the title of the post has set off my internal soundtrack and all I can think is, “Blue canary in the alcove by the lightswitch, who watches over you?”

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