The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Drinking from the Root

Drinking from the Root

Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity

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I had come down with a cold in the middle of rehearsals for a show. The timing was inopportune to say the least. I was working through all the usual protocols – raw garlic, vitamin C, extra sleep – but wanted to try new things. I asked members of the band and company I was rehearsing with, and they all recommended ginger root. A member of the band gave me some instructions – where to buy the raw root, how to boil it (cutting it up first) – and I was on my way. After rehearsal, I went to the first corner store I could find, picked up a few raw ginger root, and headed home. I cut up about half of a one root and dropped the chopped pieces in a kettle with water and waited for it to boil. Upon boiling I waited a few minutes longer to let the ginger really get into the water – I wanted all the benefit I could get. I took the kettle, poured out a cup, straining the water, and took a sip.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I felt like the inside of my mouth was about to throw a party. There was dancing and moving and tingling. Since then, I’ve gotten used to the taste and experience of ginger. I like ginger now. So much so that I make a point of drinking ginger tea often. But the tea that comes in bags, is just not the same as drinking the root.

What is it About the Root?

When I was coming up as a tap dancer, I spent about 7 years in dancing school. It was a great experience. I had wonderful teachers and learned a lot. In a very real way, my experience in dancing school prepared me for what would come next. The movie TAP, the challenge scene, Gregory Hines, and seeing all the older tap dancers in that film is what came next. There was something about the dancing in that movie – notably not all of it, but most of it – that was categorically different from what I had been doing in dancing school.

Over the next few years, I would come to meet and know Gregory, Savion, and Slyde. I’d even meet folks who weren’t in the film like Buster and Brownie. These were the folks, who through their dancing, inspired the kind of dancing I had been doing at dancing school. I had found myself as close to the root of the tree of Tap Dance as one could get, and it was wonderful.

The thing about being at, or close to, the root, is that there is a lot of clarity. For example, the root of an oak tree is not mistaken for, nor does it try to be, the root of a maple tree. Roots are clear on their role – to find and pass on the resources necessary to make a particular kind of tree. To do this, there has to be clarity about the kind of tree that is to be made. So much clarity, even focus, that an alternative – a different kind of tree coming up from the ground – is not even a considered possibility. When working at the root there seems to also be a keen vision of the kind of fruit that is expected to come from the tree.

This connection between the root and the expected fruit speaks to the direct relationship between the root and the fruit. While roots are unseen and may not necessarily be judged, fruits most certainly are seen and can be judged. In fact, one of the most direct ways I’ve been able to consider, in my own life, the unseen motives that are at work in me (my roots), is to observe my actions (my fruit).

I got used to the directness of the older tap dancers. They didn’t have time to fiddle around. They weren’t interested in changing their ways – the ways that had made them the kind of dancers they were. They were interested in seeing the essence of what they had explored, discovered, and formed, embodied in the next generation. There were ongoing conversations – even debates – as to what this essence was. Many argued amongst themselves. The essence of course, was unseen, and while the debates continued, moments occurred when agreement across the community was found. Everyone could find agreement that a particular dancer had the thing, even if they couldn’t describe what that thing was.

The Other Ways

Drinking from the root isn’t the only way that transference of information or the project of formation happens. More often many don’t find opportunity (nor do they pursue opportunity) to drink from the root, for whatever reason. If not from, or close to the root, the experience of seeing, experiencing, and growing into a particular way becomes diluted, less clear, even confusing.

Cranberry juice is a regular staple in my home. If you’ve ever shopped for cranberry juice, you know that there are a multitude of options. There is everything from the fresh pressed 100% cranberry juice to the multi-flavored, sugar and water added, cranberry juice cocktails. Even at the 100% range there are variations. Regardless, anyone whose tried 100% cranberry juice knows that it is tart. So, tart. So tart, that there is ample reason and attraction for all the alternatives. I, too, love a good combination of cranberry juice, orange juice, and pineapple juice.

However, if I am to drink cranberry juice, I want to know what drinking cranberry juice is like. I want the full and complete experience. I want the directness. I want the clarity of knowing that this – what I am currently experiencing – is cranberry juice. After all, shouldn’t the thing itself be enough? Why ornament it or dilute it?

Notably, I want the opportunity to adapt to the requirements of the experience. What about me needs to change for me to enjoy cranberry juice. Maybe my habit of gulping down what I drink doesn’t work with 100% cranberry juice? Maybe I get to learn how to sip? Maybe over time I can enjoy more of the drink per sip, but not at first?

This is often the case with drinking from the root. It is simply too much, too direct, too tart. Think of the person who desires the personal expression of their own personality above any other consideration. In most cases they come off as abrasive. The common defense is that the world isn’t ready for the authenticity of the person. To a degree that’s true. When thinking of roots, the larger reality is that its not that the root is too much in some absolute sense. It is simply that we aren’t in a position to take it. It’s not that the person is abrasive in some absolute sense. It is rather that we aren’t conditioned to relate in that way. Person to person, we have had ideas about mutual consideration that help us relate. They help us bring each other into our worlds. The only entity I know of that can be sure of their own character and goodness and therefore hold to their character and actions with some sense of absoluteness is God – and even God (in the Christian revelation) had moments.

Getting Used to the Root

There are two considerations when thinking about drinking from the root. The first is whether we want to or not. Drinking from the root brings with it significant moments of formation, a high level of responsibility, and a kind of experience that it seems fewer people share. If we want those kinds of things, and the kind of formation that drinking from the root provides, then we have to ask, how can we do it? Of course, I’ll be addressing this in the upcoming Asking the Questions, but there are at least a few ideas that I can offer here from my own experience.

Get as close as you can and show up. In any pursuit, the root must first be identified. Where are the things that resonate as if they have emerged from the root happening? This is answered by seeking. Not just searching, as if in a library or online. But in seeking, as in on your feet, with your eyes, in real time and space. The root, when it comes to the formation of character or the embodiment of a practice is not an amalgamation of information or even understanding. The root is found as a persona that is relational, that acts, that is inspiring, and that willingly gives of itself for the sake of our own formation towards what is good in it.

Once identified then we must approach. Slowly, so as not to spook ourselves out of the experience, but with clear intention. We must want what the root has to give – and move accordingly. We must be willing to adapt and change, entrusting the root with our being to a significant degree. We can’t know who we’ll turn into more than the root might model for us. If that is enough, then a process of transformation can occur. Without this giving up of oneself, there is little possibility for true transformation. For the life that we want is in the root, and we must willingly give up what we have for the sake of what we might drink from the root, if we are to truly receive what the root has to give.

Once approached and engaged, you’re in. The process has begun and the only thing that can interrupt it is our own desire to turn away. Notably turning away is different than resting. Resting from the process of transformation is part of the process of transformation. It is necessary and good to take time and simply be, where we are and with who we have become. Resting is the gift of knowledge that we do this kind of work in partnership. It is not us working alone, nor is it someone or something else working on us while we remain passive.

What we are really talking about here is relational growth. The root is ready to give what it has to give and we must be willing to drink for any of this to work. There will moments of adjustment, tartness and surprises to experience, but in the end transformation awaits – and I don’t think it comes without drinking from the root.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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