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Roots and Branches

It’s April.  In less than three weeks, I’m leaving my country on a one-way ticket.  


Over the past several months, countless enlightening experiences have crystalized and clarified my intentions behind this departure.  I noticed the changing of the seasons, the history of our civilization, and even corn, finding a profound lesson in each metaphor.  As time passed, my feelings of frustration and impatience changed into gratitude and abundance, and I found the bravery to let go of what I love most.  


I publish this journal entry hoping that it illuminates parallels across our lives.  Thank you for reading these stories.  


It was October when I first grew jaded towards my nation.  My band was on tour, and over six long weeks we crossed the USA from coast to coast four times.  Every day, I spent hours looking out the windows of our sprinter van as we barrelled down freeway after freeway.  I saw so many fields of dehydrated, brown corn stalks that I lost count.  It seemed like our entire country was made of these sprawling monocultures.  I longed to drive through an untouched America, for this industrial cultivation was far more drab than nature’s inherent perfection. 


Beyond aesthetic shortcomings, these cornfields spiked my concern for our biome’s health.  They completely lacked biodiversity, putting all surrounding ecosystems at risk.  The flora and fauna that predate American colonialism are all interdependent, and a farm that boosts but one crop stifles all others.  Nevertheless, the agriculture industry prioritizes fulfilling the mounting demand for corn, overlooking the health of the other organisms that help yield abundant harvests in the first place.  


These culled stalks aren’t being used for corn on the cob, either.  My assumption was that they’d be used for highly-processed breakfast cereals and gas station snacks, but the truth proved far scarier: corn is used in hundreds of products that have nothing to do with food.  Toilet paper, crayons, toothpaste, drywall, and aspirin all shockingly feature corn on their assembly lines, but by far the worst corn-product is gasoline ethanol.  This plant literally fuels our nation, and we thank it by isolating it from all other organisms and spraying it endlessly with pesticides.  What does it say about the culture of our nation that, rather than honoring this crop that is responsible for almost half our GDP, we abuse it as our agricultural slave?  Every sight I caught of these dying, under-pollinated cornfields on tour caused me to curse our nation’s values.  Each time our van stopped for a gas refill, I apologized to the corn flowing out of the pump nozzle, wishing it could avoid its fate of becoming carbon emission.  I abstained from the brightly-packaged snacks within the gas station’s walls, wishing our species would stop using corn to make such inflammatory and malnutritious products.  Each sight of the roadside crop bugged me, removing me from the gratitude I held for the rare and privileged opportunity to travel the country with my friends.  


But, when I was able to get corn out of my mind, I remembered how honored I was to be on tour.  The concert-going high-season of the warmer months was coming to an end, and my band made sure to shine bright while we still had stages to grace.  As the autumn leaves fell from city to city, the crowds we performed for gave us all their energy and hospitality, which we gladly reciprocated.  Everything was left on those theater floors to be mopped up by a janitor while performers and attendees prepared to hibernate until next season.



It was November when I returned home from tour, but my hibernation was abated by an examination of the personal habits that my road-life exacerbated.   Marijuana helped me balance my centering yoga routine with the fast-paced micro-anxieties of road life, but it failed to serve me once I returned to stillness.  Sedentary again, I could no longer make excuses for my addiction.  I was shackled to the plant against my better judgment.  It was unavoidable: I had to quit.  Fortunately, my recovery was more intuitive and swift than I expected, for I’d felt the samadhi of sober meditation and preferred it to intoxication.  In fact, on one of my first nights back home, I got high and practiced seated meditation – a ritual that tour life deeply entrenched – only to be banished from my quiet introspection by a green apparition warning me to stop abusing my spiritual practice.  Never before had I been shaken out of meditation so aggressively.  My eyes jolted open.  There I was, alone in my home, feeling as though I’d been slapped across the face!  In that moment, I knew that I’d be happier, sharper, and more connected to myself without this unnecessary substance.  I thanked the universe for sending me such a blunt messenger and promptly dumped all my smoking paraphernalia into a sidewalk trash can.  I never looked back.  


A week into my recovery journey, I came across a deeply profound book: Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke.  Tearing through these pages, I learned the value of pursuing pain over pleasure.  These two opposites are inseparable, and one always induces the other.  It finally clicked: the euphoria of smoking, binge-eating, and phone-scrolling-marathons requires balance.  No wonder I always felt horrible after entertaining these vices, clinging to the numbness they gave me for fear of facing the emptiness of their absence.  Cowering from the comedown – remaining consumed by these high-dopamine activities – destroyed my pleasure-pain equilibrium.  My brain automatically made itself miserable in reaction to these acts.  But the scale gradually began to level throughout November.


During that sobering month, all the frightening thoughts and feelings that I cowered from finally surfaced.  Each time I resisted the urge to escape into crapulent oblivion, my fear of my own mind reduced.  The malaise I felt confronting these demons informed my evolution into a stronger and more thoughtful being.  


That month, I also began my fruitful friendship with Cold: I traded my dreary post-inebriety meltdowns for the natural high that follows a piercingly icy shower.  I stood beneath my frosty showerhead,  grappling with the most primal form of discomfort I’d found.  My instinct begged me to shiver and take shallow, desperate breaths.  Instead, by empowering my breath to slow my body towards stillness, I saw the illusion of danger dissolve.  Again, my fear faded.  Emerging from the shower, I was charged with kinetic bliss, high off my bravery.  I thanked the steely, unforgiving cold for teaching me that joy always succeeds pain.  This willingness to seek discomfort improved my mental and physical health from the inside out.  


However, an overlooked consequence of this internal transformation was that my pre-existing environment was unable to validate the positive changes I was making.  Looking around at the relationships in my life, I sought an abundance of mirrors and came up short.  Still, I remained grateful for the friends who saw me as I was, but I yearned for connections to people farther along this path from whom I could learn.  Months later, this search continues, a significant factor of my imminent migration.  I’d never be here, confidently facing this looming, self-imposed risk, if I hadn’t felt the pain of November.  


It was December when the pain of November gave me the courage to pursue my ambition of getting my Yoga Teacher Certification, simultaneously seeking guidance from teachers and metamorphosis into one.  No longer fogged by the complacency of cannabis, I found abundant space in my life, and I wasted no time acting to intentionally occupy that space with new blessings.  Four weeks after quitting my addiction, I was doing unassisted headstands and hour-long, full-lotus meditations in a yoga shala outside Pokhara Nepal.  For this one blissful month, yogic lifestyle completely engulfed me: I looked at my phone but once a day, rose at five in the morning, spent my entire day engaged in practical and theoretical yoga classes, ate a purely sattvic diet of vegetables grown on the shala grounds, and was in bed by nine.  Growing friendships with my classmates validated that others were on the same Seeker’s Path as I, and admiration of my inspiring teachers revealed that my journey was just beginning.  



The stunning natural environment I found myself in, at the foot of the Himalayas, proved to be the greatest teacher of all.  In this corner of her kingdom, Mother Earth made herself reliably consistent, allowing human spontaneity to thrive atop her stable base.  Each day began with a misty sunrise at half past six, scored by a symphony of barks, squawks, and bleats originating from surrounding farms.  Dew coated the tiles of my bedroom’s balcony, wetting my feet each time I stepped out to welcome the sun and depart from the moon.  I always knew exactly where to find the moon in the sky.  I spent several minutes engaged in trataka – concentrated gazing meditation – with the textured lunar craters as the sky’s cool blue light boosted my cortisol.  Watching it wax and wane across an entire cycle, greeting it at the top of each morning, grounded me immeasurably.  By midday, sunrays dependably brightened cloudless skies and heated humid air.  Despite the elevation, noon temperatures of Pokhara’s December resembled those of New York’s July.  Sunset signaled cool moisture to return to every outdoor surface and pashmina wool shawls to cover all occupants of the shala.  The steady rhythm of the Nepali biome suited me far better than the meteorological volatility I was raised on.  


Receiving my diploma at the end of the month, I was proud of my tenacity and adaptability, but I grieved over the end of my immersion in yogic paradise.  Leaving Nepal under obligation to return to my job, band, and family broke my heart, and I vowed to return to this square of Nature’s Domain for a longer stretch.  



It was January when this vow was emboldened: returning from Nepal to rediscover the infamous might of Cold, I found my hometown frigid and its trees bare.  On my first day back, I walked down the street, lamenting the weather for causing us all to hurry back indoors with our chins tucked into our scarves.  I boarded the train, frustrated that our phones and earbuds create the severance which sows our individualist society.  I sat in my backyard, breathing through the winter chill, gazing at the brittle branches above me, and imagined my fellow New Yorkers sheltered from the elements in their isolating abodes.  A profound loneliness overcame me, for the network of like-minded people I sought still hadn’t revealed itself.  


I took matters into my own hands, leveraging my new Yoga Alliance certification by resolving to offer free weekly yoga classes with the goal of tailoring a network of peers with similar interests.  Given the icy season, I knew I’d need to find an indoor space generous enough to offer free programming.  My cynicism told me I’d have a hard time finding such benevolence in my city, so I worked harder: I took to Google maps and found every community center in my neck of the city, sending them each an email of sincere persuasion.  Mi Centro in Bed Stuy, a Latinx cultural center and pre-school, responded with such enthusiasm that I immediately knew I’d found a home for my yoga classes.  I’m in infinite debt to Thea, Eva, and the rest of the Mi Centro family for sharing their space.  They curbed my pessimism and reminded me that acts of pure kindness can be found even in gritty New York.  Thanks to them, I was able to cultivate a pocket of warmth in the city’s peak of winter.  



It’s a good thing I had this routine in place, for I failed to find the moon in my city’s sky even once during January.  I wondered whether to blame the skyscrapers or the smog.  I walked restlessly for entire evenings, summiting every urban elevation I could find, but still my lunar search was bootless.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the January moon seldom reveals itself in New York City.  This just happened to be the first January I cared enough to look.  I was devastated.  The ritual which dutifully centered me for my entire Nepali getaway had been swept out from under me, and I felt horribly unstable.  I dreamt of Nepal frequently on these moonless nights.  


It was February when I finally glimpsed the sliver of a new crescent moon on my twenty-second birthday.  I couldn’t have asked for a better gift.  Seeing that I was under its silver light made my city feel much more like home.  


A week after I turned twenty two, I left my home yet again, on a trip to Mexico City with my mom and sister which gave me further clarity and perspective on my path forward.  Navigating this foreign city was exhilarating, and my surprising ability to communicate in Spanish gave me immense confidence.  Having the most fluency of my traveling party, I became the designated translator, relishing in this role and treating it as an excuse to turn practical exchanges of asking for directions or ordering food into indulgent pursuits of interpersonal harmony.  


Beyond that, not only were my words creating bridges to other souls, but my wordless expressions of body language proved to cast spells of their own.  I understood the fine line that any alien treads between enhancing an ecosystem and disrupting it, which made me far more mindful of how I entered Mexican spaces.  Rather than bursting into a room like the Kool Aid man, I crossed thresholds discreetly, intuiting the natural vibration of the establishment and altering my frequency to resonate.  This practice became a valuable lesson in creating space rather than occupying it.  


Naturally, I balanced this nimble demeanor through gluttonous street-food binges.  My awe towards the local cuisine mounted as I sampled tacos, tamales, tostadas, and more.  The common thread was corn.  But, unlike in my country, I could see the natural path of traditional preparation that the crop took from the stalk to my plate —  in masa and elote alike.  Rather than being a thankless, contorted contributor, maize became the focus of every dish.  The inherent honor and respect paid through the culinary process made each bite richer and tastier. 


But, somewhere along my mukbang, I caught a nasty stomach virus.  It was a reminder of the importance of taming excess.  The sickness hit me as I dismounted my rented street bike one morning: my leg felt limp and frail upon its first impact with the pavement.  My muscle weakness was quickly met with a rising fever and headache, and I knew the only reasonable thing for me to do was to tuck into bed and wait it out.  


But there was one appointment I was determined to keep: my reservation at the Mexican Anthropological Museum.  I’d always held deep wonder towards the indigenous pre-Hispanic civilizations of our continent, and this museum was loaded with ancient artifacts and information revealing the details of their lives and societies.  Undeterred by my affliction, I hobbled into the museum, my crumbling body cradling my curious mind.  I’d been warned that this museum typically demands an entire day of each visitor’s time in order to see all its treasures; knowing that I wasn’t fit to exercise the entire value of my ticket, I still wandered the exhibits until I could no longer stand.  


I was nearly delirious by the time I entered the final installation of my visit, which was dedicated to the Aztec, or Mexica, population, native to the land on which my wobbling feet stood.  My jaw was agape at the scale and artisanship of the museum’s recovered Mexica relics.  Propped up before me in the center of the room was the famous Aztec Sun Stone: with a diameter of twelve feet, it reminded me how committed this ancient civilization was to honoring the solar center of our world.  I was inspired to mirror this worship in my own life, recognizing faithful circadian rhythm as the highest expression of alignment.  



Opposite the Sun Stone hung a giant landscape painting of the Valley of Mexico, the center of the composition containing a recreation of Mexico City’s appearance before European colonialism: a bustling megalopolis, ordered around a grand pyramid, filled an island surrounded by a placid blue lake, over seven thousand feet above sea level.  I grew alarmed, for the Mexico City I’d flown into was no island.  The painting’s adjacent info-card illuminated context: the Mexica people, originally from the region currently known as New Mexico, were given a divine message to walk south until they discovered a city in the middle of a lake, and to make this utopia their new settlement.  As if this mission wasn’t hard enough, they were also told that, within the island city, an eagle must be crouched atop a cactus with a snake in its mouth (hence the corresponding imagery on the Mexican flag).  When the Aztecs found this eagle, they’d know they were home.  



Of course, they found the island, cactus, eagle, and snake, all in Mexico City.  This hub of ancient Mexico thrived for countless generations, but the Europeans who conquered the land had no regard for its sacred idiosyncrasy.  By the 17th century, the colonizers began manually draining the holy lake of the Mexico Valley, leaving only the dry urban sprawl seen today.  As I stood before this masterful painting, I grappled with the scope of global imperialism, but I also held gratitude for modern Mexican culture for upholding this story and cherishing ancient traditions.  


My favorite artwork of all, however, caught my periphery as I was making my exit from the museum.  A towering depiction of a fearlessly poised leader, the rock-sculpture made me stop in my tracks.  When I finally released my eye contact from the piece, my gaze fell to the info-card at the foot of the statue which identified the figure as Chicomecoatl, the Aztec maize deity.  I was overcome with a feeling of guilty debt to the corn god before me.  I mentally scanned all my recent encounters with Chicomecoatl, from the taco carts outside the museum to the rolling cornfields I traversed on tour with my band.  This plant, having kept our species alive for millenia, showed more resilience and longevity than entire human civilizations.  Tragically, veneration towards maize dissolved in the coming of the modern era.  Our contemporary monuments celebrate humans and their achievements, neglecting the supreme miracles of the natural world.  This sculpture, representing corn as a dominant force deserving praise and respect, cemented an epiphany in my thoughts: ancient wisdom will guide us home.  In Mexico and Nepal, it took leaving my country and entering another, donning my lens of personal bias, to regain approbation for the reliable phenomena of the sun, moon, plants, and all other timeless ubiquities I took for granted.  For the Mexica, this submission to the universe was obvious, indisputable.  The intensity of this realization reminded me of my mortality, and, more urgently, my illness.  It was time for me to lay down.  



Back in my room across town, I remained bedridden for eighteen hours straight.  Between expeditious sprints to the bathroom, I experienced vivid fever dreams of the ancient world… and corn.  I saw a pasture of lofty cornstalks morph into the New York City skyline.  I saw supermarket corn-ear pyramids warp and become giant Aztec pyramids of stone.  Beyond that, translating these zany and surreal visions into logical verbiage is futile and incongruous.  The bottom line is, by the time I’d regained my strength and emerged from bed, my disdain for the modern world lessened as I began to understand evergreen ancient wisdom.  But, I still scorned getting on a flight back to a concrete jungle devoid of nature.  


It was March when, back home, I nevertheless discovered my love for New York anew, thanks to the solidity and proximity of my travel plans.  Seeing my remaining time with my favorite people and places dwindle, I refined a subtle nuance in my travel motivations: I aim to study the world, returning the gems of my experience home to leave my city better than I found it.  I’d already seen a microcosm of this self-actualized change in the community being built around my weekly free yoga classes.  The same circle of Gen-Z yogis that I yearned for months prior became a tangible reality!  Every Thursday I unrolled my mat at Mi Centro and was met by a mixture of earnest frequent-attendees and open-minded newcomers, the gathering size steadily increasing.  Having this space to express and share my passions made me feel fully embodied in my purpose and validated by the beautiful souls around me.  The success of these free classes left me with a bolstered sense of self-love and loyalty to my newfound community.  I grew confident that, if scaled, this collective has the power to shift our generation’s trajectory and improve our planet’s future.  


Thereby, over the course of a few months, the relationships and activities to which I devoted my time changed drastically.  Seeing this transition unfold quieted my desire to dramatically pull up my roots and settle long-term elsewhere on the globe.  Whenever I tire of nomadism, I will come back home to further nurture this coalition of young people aligned around raising vibration.  In fact, I maintain faith that my exploration will only help this community feel more global and interconnected in my eyes; I’m bound towards like-minded people wherever I go.  


Now that it’s April, I’m imagining myself as a tree beginning to sprout new spring buds after a long winter of bleak purgation.  New York City being the only place I’ve ever lived, I intimately know its volatile and tumultuous transition from winter to spring, as well as the value of this shift as a symbol of any New Yorker’s personal growth.  This week, as vibrant buds began to gradually endow the deciduous trees of my neighborhood, I was overcome with an amplified version of the familiar warmth that the past twenty-one Aprils reliably injected into my body.  As the domesticated plants of New York blossom, so do we.  The idyllic metro-topia of our dreams comes to life during the city’s warmer months, for we are primed by months of stark winter to radiate jubilance in reaction.  The streets become our living room, fashion runway, and dance club.  Junctions are inundated with barbecue grills on wheels, surprised acquaintances running into each other, and buskers baring their souls.  On these blue-sky, burning-sidewalk days, our city dons the hospitality and familiarity of a small town — and simultaneously the eclecticism and sleeplessness of an endless festival.  Entering this party requires us to fully embody ourselves, proudly contributing our nuanced identity to the full spectrum of light.  We shine confidently, surrounded by our tribe. 



It’s bittersweet that I won’t see New York at its best this year.  The luster of its festivities never dim, but my spirit is ready for uncharted territory.  


Soon, it’ll be May.  I’ll be in Bali, away from all my loved ones and material possessions.  It’s inevitable that New York’s gravity will pull me back, but not for a few moons.  That’s all I can concretely write about the future.  


I won’t be leaving in bitterness, though.  The feelings of frustration that I held towards my home last autumn have since been outweighed by gratitude and understanding.  I love this place for making me who I am.  I’m driven less by an urgency to escape and more by a desire to learn how experiencing other places can help me improve my own.  My roots here are so strong, and I’m now beginning to view their earthen grip as a justification for letting my leaves and branches soar.  Branches are meant to grow towards the sky, never questioning the angles of contortion this pursuit implies.  A harsh storm might make them shudder and flap about, but even if a gust of wind dismembers a branch, preventing its leaves from photosynthesizing, the tree continues being fed by its roots.  I hope none of my branches snap, but I’m not scared.  My roots here are so strong.  Wherever I am, I’ll always be home.  

 

Thank you for reading this piece!  


I highly recommend Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke (the book I reference in this piece) to anybody dealing with addiction to their phone, substances, or anything else.  It’s completely transformed my outlook.  You can find the book here.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this piece in the form of a reply or a DM!  If you thought of anybody that you know while reading this, please forward this email to them!


I appreciate you taking the time to read my words.  I hope you enjoyed this piece! 


I’ll see you soon for my next journal entry!


If you’d like to receive more of my writing in your inbox, you can subscribe to my free email list here.



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Chloe Brandon
Chloe Brandon
5 days ago

I feel I am on a similar journey now! Trying to find my balance of pain and pleasure. I have had so much free time lately that I have filled with activities that destroyed my pain-pleasure equilibrium. Maybe Dopamine Nation will provide me with more guidance. Great to read about your journey and insights🌽

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