As I was sorting through a pile of old papers today, I found a note from a friend which included the quote, “Stay close to the root.” I’ve lost touch with the friend who sent it and forgotten the context that brought it up. But for some reason this early Quaker advice struck home for me today, and I am musing about its current relevance. Some years ago I was asked to speak about simplicity to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Fairbanks. I believe I spoke about staying close to the root in making decisions about simplifying our lives, citing Fran Taber’s pamphlet, The Taproot of Simplicity. This was in the early days of environmental awareness when it was difficult for people to make changes in their lives that would reduce their carbon footprint (not that it’s any easier today; we just have more strategies available). My message was that we don’t need to go lopping off branches, i.e., deciding to change bits of behavior from the top down; we need to find the taproot deep within ourselves which will then give us strength and clarity to know what changes are needed and where we need to engage in outer action. That’s what I said then, and I still believe it, but I’ve strayed from its truth.
There is a certain irony in finding that quote in the midst of my mess, a mess that continues to haunt me: old academic papers, data from uncompleted research projects, samples of student writing, letters from family and friends, pictures, and lots of handouts from Quaker workshops. I’ve carried most of this stuff around for years, and while I know that most of it can be thrown away, I have to go through it, just in case there’s a gold nugget in there somewhere. I read each card and letter and think of the person who sent it. Then I decide whether to keep it or toss it.
It’s a laborious and time consuming process, but it is helping me figure out what is essential, or, if not essential, important to me for some reason. I know the rule about throwing something away if you haven’t looked at it for 10 years, and I know if I died tomorrow the whole lot would be hauled off without a look, but still, still, there are stories and connections with people who influenced my life. Some letters contain bits of truth that still speak to me; others I can offer a silent thanks to the sender and send along to recycling.
I’m also feeling stretched a bit thin right now, too many irons in the fire ( abashedly mixing metaphors). Each day I get notices to write my congress people or sign a petition or write a letter to the editor about an urgent matter. And everyone wants money for their cause ( Many of the papers I disposed of were funding appeals ). Some days I just want to walk out in the woods and breathe deeply, smelling the new growth, greeting each intrepid plant that has survived the winter here and is returning to grace my path. But this sorting work needs to be done and I have been dreading it and putting it off. I think I need to reframe the task as one of reviewing my life— treasuring certain moments, reliving the pain of others. It’s not so bad that way. And I got through a whole box today!