My senior capstone project for Wheaton College’s writing program was an 85-page collection of nonfiction stories, poems and essays entitled The Care and Keeping of Your California Poppy. I used step-by-step information on how to grow and replant California poppies as the backbone around which the larger narrative was built. Throughout college – those first three years of living away from family – I did a lot of processing. What does it mean to be an independent adult and a part of a family unit? How do I choose where to live after college? How do I choose a life partner? How do I begin sifting through my assumptions about the world and my place in it? What do I discard, and what do I keep? And how much of a say do I have about any of that? The fact that I got engaged in my senior year added an extra sense of urgency to those questions. I remember deciding that, in the months before I got married, I would read everything I could about women’s issues, feminism and marriage so that I could figure out (once and for all!) “what it means to be a strong woman.” (I have since realized that, thank God, that question is both simpler and infinitely more complex than a summer spent reading would enable me to answer.)
But anyway – the poppies. It was a good project; probably a better process than product, though I do think I created some good work along the way. The botanical imagery allowed me to flesh out the major themes that I had felt myself surrounded by that year. It gave me a new way to examine my story and a new language for telling it. Seeds falling to the ground (landing either at the stem of the parent plant, or several feet away after being blown by wind) enabled me to talk about my childhood. My siblings. My early memories of our backyard and our mom’s feet under the dining room table. Complex root systems created an arena in which I hashed out family lore – actions of grandparents and their implications for grandchildren. And when I read that poppies will starve if in a crowded or competitive environment – that to save a plant, sometimes you have to uproot it, move it to the other side of the yard and count on the plant to be adaptable – I knew that I wanted to write about my future. My “next steps.” I wanted to figure out where (and who) it was that I needed to be.
The comparison of plant growth to personal growth is, I know, not original. It’s not an original idea in the world; it’s not even an original idea in my family. Just before I left for college, my dad bought a small peach tree and asked me to help him plant it in our front yard. He said, “As I see your peach tree growing, I’ll think of you growing.” We dug a hole, planted the tree, watered it, and named it Frederick. Several mornings later as we backed out of the driveway, headed toward the airport, I stared out the window at that tree. I thought with great sentiment about how the next time I came home, Frederick would be tall, branches heavy with ripe peaches. For generations he would stand as a reminder to how much I’d grown, how far I’d come.
Fun fact: Frederick is dead. Six years later and he’s still just two feet tall with approximately nine leaves.
I should have learned from this experience, but the poetry of human/plant comparison is just too pleasing. When Galen and I moved into our first apartment in Chicago, I bought two stalks of lucky bamboo from Ikea – you know, the ones that grow in spirals rather than straight sticks. I bought these particular two because they were growing together, intertwined with one another. I put them in the same glass vase, placed it on our kitchen window sill to catch the light, and said that they were like us – growing up together. Lucky.
A few months later, a strong wind knocked the vase over and it shattered on the tile. The heaviest part of the vase landed, shards down, on the bamboo stalks and severed them cleanly in half. (They had already been turning yellow for several weeks, but I had refused to accept their demise until this unmistakable sign occurred.)
I do my best, now, not to identify my personal life or relationships with anything that grows leaves.
Strangely enough, this is proving tricky. Two weeks ago, I realized that my giant aloe vera plant – my favorite and longest lasting plant, the one I named Cthulhu, the cynical star of my plant pun posts (1, 2 and 3) – had been looking droopy for a few months and was not improving. I read that root rot is the primary cause of succulent death, and had a terrible feeling that I had been over-watering him. Forums online told me to dig him up and remove all roots that looked dark or slimy. The trouble was that they all looked dark and slimy. But one person noted, on another forum, that you can grow a full aloe plant just by sticking one of its leaves in a pot of soil. The plant grows its roots back, like a lizard grows its tail. Well, if the entire root system is damaged, I reasoned, maybe the entire root system needs to go. I took a kitchen knife the size of a small machete and severed the topmost part of the plant’s crown from its roots, allowed it to scab over for a night, and replanted it the following day – our moving day. As I scooped dirt into the planter and patted it around Cthulhu’s rootless stalk, I thought about writing a post here on how it felt to leave Chicago. Not just being transplanted, but actually having to sever the roots, the main supply of nutrients, contact and familiarity. To lose that physical sense of history and context. The fact that I didn’t know whether I was killing or saving my favorite plant only added to my desire to write on this topic: would we both survive the transition? Once we found new soil, would our roots grow back?
In the past two weeks, my desire to write that post has ebbed away. There’s still value and poetry in exploring the ways in which plants and people are alike, but it’s only that – a likeness. Symbolism does not equal sameness. I think that sometimes, in my attempts to describe something artfully, I forget that. Each of us is unique and incredibly complicated. I can’t say everything there is to say about myself by writing about poppy seeds or aloe roots. I can’t explain my hopes, my needs, my next steps. I certainly can’t do justice to my family or their history. And I can’t encapsulate all of the nuanced facts and feelings that crop up when you leave the place where you’ve lived and grown for the past six years, or the past nineteen. Likeness doesn’t cover it.
The best that I can do right now is to say that we’ve been really blessed. We made the trip safely, even after being awake for 23 hours. We love our new apartment, our neighborhood is great, we both have jobs (!!!!!), and we live within ten minutes of family – something I’ve not experienced in six years. Texas is hot, of course, but it’s bearable. We even have a pool. I hope that I didn’t kill Cthulhu; so far he hasn’t shown a big change in either direction. I’m watering him conservatively, but other than that I’m doing my best to leave him alone. I hope that below the surface of the soil, roots are growing. Meanwhile, we’re happy.