My roommate, Rachel, has been out of town for the past couple of weeks, and she tasked me with an important job of keeping her beloved fern alive. It’s a beautiful plant with vibrant, green fronds. It deserves to stay alive and give Rachel’s room the right je ne sais quoi. There’s only one problem: I suck at keeping plants alive.
I try, really I do. I, like every other millennial it seems, have been swept up in a house plant fever. Maybe we want the right look for the Instagram version of our lives. Maybe we need visual flora reminders that we are not alone in these Children of Men times. Maybe plants remind us that love can blossom again with just amount of sunshine and water. But not too much water or the poor plant - I mean, love - will drown in its own sustenance. It’s a delicate balance.
A few months ago, I received two plants - one succulent and a baby maidenhair fern - as party favors for my friend Jay’s baby shower. They were a perfect gift for someone like me who came to the desert land of LA four years ago with few contacts and was greeted by Jay, who didn’t mind driving sad, car-less me around town. Someone who’d showed me such love was literally growing the greatest love of her love in her belly, and the plants would be a reminder of her kindness, not to mention a great addition to my apartments’ decor.
I ordered a fancy shelf from Urban Outfitters and arranged them next to books whose covers I believed matched the plants’ personalities. I imagined a monthly transition ceremony, during which I would switch out books based not only on my desire to read them, but also on the color scheme. “I couldn’t possibly read the Kundera. The blue lettering on the cover is too perfect.” I went wild at my local library’s book sale, hoarding bags of books back to sacrifice at the plants’ altar.
Then one day I got the text. “The baby didn’t make it.” I sprawled out on my living room floor crying for the baby, for Jay. I wondered how someone with such a sunny disposition could bear that kind of loss. I worried it would be a bad omen if I couldn’t keep Jay’s plants alive.
Some people might be surprised to know this, but I’m pretty superstitious. I avoid cracks, read my horoscope, and make sure to collect any stray strands of my hair that fall in public in case someone might use them for nefarious reasons. I also don’t trust crows, and eye them suspiciously. They know something we don’t know. Yes, I truly believed if the succulent and maidenhair fern were to die, it would be an omen of the worst kind, representing all of my future failures and things I couldn’t control. I needed control.
And so I was determined to be the best plant mother possible. I watered them as needed. I bathed them in sunlight. I stared at them in silent meditation, hoping they’d feel my presence and know how much I needed them to thrive.
Of course, the inevitable happened: the unpredictability of humans. One night at a party, a drunken hand wave knocked the poor plants from their perch. The succulent was immediately decapitated, dead on arrival. Circling the wagons, I decided the lone survivor needed more security in the form of a smiley, frog-shaped plant holder from the best discount store in town, Daiso Japan. I switched out the soil, re-watered it, and kissed it, my lips blessing it. Two days later I woke to find a brown, dry mass of fronds in the pot. The frog’s smile was now malevolent. “Surprise, bitch,” it seemed to croak.
I didn’t throw it out, instead keeping it as a tiny mausoleum to remind me of my own limitations. Or the limits of adulthood I’ve yet to reach. Dealing with her own adventures in plant motherhood, Jazmin Hughes of the New York Times wrote, “If adulthood is measured in goal posts, then a fitting proxy should, too, display signs of progress.”
Plants, too, are a proxy for my own adulthood, but not only as an ostentatious show of pride or a means to prove to the world my own competency. They also represent that even as adults we can’t control everything. Sometimes, the universe just doesn’t give a fuck about our plans. It’s a sobering (depressing) realization, and the impulse is to ask, “So why try?”
I don’t have all of the answers. Maybe Susan Miller will have some in her monthly horoscope reading. But I believe the universe is constantly undulating, moving ahead and coming right back to where it started. Things go in cycles. Plants seed, grow, and die. And then start over again. And again. And again. Humans, like plants, have this fate, a desire to improve things in the next life.
So Rachel, if you’re reading this, yes, I watered your plant.
Jay, if you’re reading this, I hope you keep watering yours, too.