It didn't take much time working in our garden for me to declare that no seed falls on infertile soil in El Salvador. New sprouts popped through the dirt before I'd even hung up the rake, potting soil came with stowaways confidently sprouting by the time I cut open the bag, and a thin layer of dust on the patio was encouragement enough for something to take root and unfurl a few leaves before we unceremoniously plucked it out.
This shouldn't have been a surprise; it's a tropical, agreeable climate with an ample supply of both water and sunshine. Seeing a sapling pushing undeterred through a crack in the pavement or a retaining wall never ceased to make me smile. Beyond the environmental factors, however, Salvadorans themselves are naturally open and welcoming, their easy smiles and relaxed manners inviting you to not hurry on, but sit and enjoy a moment. The warmth of the climate and people simply encourages everything to grow roots, to persevere despite difficulty, to live and to thrive. So we did. We let our own roots grow, establishing a home, friendships, favorite places, and learning not just the roads, but also the way.
Therefore it felt all the more brusque when our tour ended and it was our turn to be yanked from the soil. This was our ninth move in 12 years, yet it was by far the most difficult. It seems we'd become rootbound.
Initially, I was really looking forward to returning to the United States. I longed for the comfort of the familiar, for cultural fluency, familial proximity, for not being the foreigner, for being able to express myself with clarity, nuance, even humor, instead of blunt basics. Plus, we'd have changing seasons, plants we'd know the names of, and driving habits that wouldn't make us shout. But with just two weeks back on U.S. soil, I'm finding the transition to be less of an easy slide into comfortable slippers and more like I got off at the wrong bus stop and am standing on the corner wondering where in the hell am I?
While in the past four years we had a few family visits and a one-month home leave to the U.S., in retrospect I see that was enough to merely notice the cultural shifts without having to adapt to them. The pandemic exponentially accelerated what might have been normal, evolutionary changes, leaving me and my husband running to catch up. Whereas the pandemic's lasting effects on El Salvador seemed only to be that restaurants plastic-wrapped meals before carrying them from the kitchen to the table, it feels like American culture is still bent on reducing human interaction and keeping people in the "comfort of their own home." What were initially pandemic-era necessities have stuck around as the new normal way of life. Businesses tout being contact-less, door-to-door delivery, no-cash, easy peasey. Malls and office buildings are nearly empty as everyone shops online; grocery stores are mostly self-checkout; and medical appointments are increasingly virtual. All this requires more technology and less humanity. "There's an app for that" does not warm our hearts but instead makes us grind our teeth as we create yet another account, user name and password, only to be rewarded with promises that all the data sharing will make our lives so much easier.
The other night we were having Vietnamese Pho for dinner at a nearby restaurant and, as I can't resist doing, I started a conversation with the Vietnamese waitress. The place wasn't too busy and she was quite chatty, and so within about 10 minutes we'd learned quite a lot about her and her immigration journey, which was really interesting. While she was recounting her story, I saw a handful of individual customers come into the restaurant, pick up their to-go orders, pay the cashier, and leave. Convenient? I suppose. But by staying isolated in our self-controlled environments we miss out on the happenstance interactions (with people, animals, the weather) that give our daily lives color, interest, depth, and a better understanding of the other humans around us. Is this really the most fertile environment for life?
Waiting for the bus the other day, no doubt grousing about this unfamiliar world we've found ourselves in, my husband wisely concluded, "We just have to consider this a transition to a new culture, as we've done before. We have to figure out from scratch how to adapt." He's right, because so far it feels like an inhospitable climate that doesn't want us to grow roots, but instead just wants to extract our resources and leave us wilted and yellow.
To weather these changes, I need to soak up the parts of this American life that still fuel me; to fertilize my own roots, if you will. I can do this by having analog interactions with others to remind me of their humanity and not just their other-ness. I can do this by getting away from the sterile, paved-over environment and into the trees, along the water's edge, and out to broad horizons. There is nothing more soul-affirming than sitting on a precipice overlooking a valley and being face-to-face with what is tangible, grand, and inspiring. Something that has - and will - outlast the things of man.