How things grow
Last year, gardening was at an all-time high.
It makes sense.
As people were displaced from business-as-usual; asked to work at home, asked to eat at home, asked to shop from home, asked to avoid social gatherings, they must’ve been feeling evicted from their pre-Coronavirus lives. Maybe they were bored. Maybe they were looking for a way to create, to contribute, to return to the earth, to turn the soil and let beauty or sustenance emerge.
Not everyone wants to grow something, but for those who do, there are thousands of resources that address the optimal conditions for flourishing. The right soil, the right seeds, the right seasons, the right tools. Of course, with gardening, nothing is ever guaranteed, but if you want it, there’s an abundance of information and experts just a few clicks away. A formula for success.
Traditional wisdom about how things grow is useful, but it doesn't necessarily guarantee results. For my part, I continue to struggle to keep really hardy houseplants alive. A colleague recently repotted a plant for me because I had managed -somehow- to keep it alive for three months without incident. In its new, superior milieu, despite my best efforts, it perished.
As bad as I might be at following the instructions and nourishing plants, I’ve discovered that I’m good at another kind of cultivation: creating or sustaining vitality not in perfect conditions, but in near-impossible, inhospitable conditions. The things that persist despite.
I’ve been told, consolingly, that orchids struggle to bloom again without the perfect conditions. That if they do bloom, it’s once a year and lasts 6–10 weeks. I know it’s not my meticulous care that created this aberration, but there is an orchid in my office that has been, after a season of repose, amid plastic Home Depot tubs filled with gloves, inexplicably in bloom since January.
In a couple of months, I will celebrate my four-year anniversary at work. The orchid has been with me since day one, which -I suspect- is no coincidence.
This job, which is my dream job, came into being out of chaos and catastrophe. I had submitted my application immediately prior to leaving for a weeklong international exchange program. Three days in to that trip, I got one of those calls none of us ever want to receive: my baby sister had died suddenly.
In the chasm of that loss and all its associated implications, traditional wisdom would have told me “no major life changes for at least a year.” But when I got the call for an interview, the person with whom I spoke was kinder than was purely necessary, more accommodating than anyone could reasonably expect. Traditional wisdom would have told me “nothing but polish at the interview,” but I was raw, vulnerable, honest.
Amid conditions that never should have conduced to perfect alignment for vocational fulfillment, I landed, firmly, in the greatest professional blessing I can imagine. Like with anything immeasurably precious and beautiful, I didn’t get there alone. The canyon of my despair allowed me to hear the call a little more clearly. Forced me to look at what was beautiful beyond the expanse of my personal grief. Mandated immediate trust and connection with the team at work.
Even today, I feel my sister reverberating in each thing I do. She was the most generous person I knew… and I get to try to be a little more generous than is strictly necessary -or conventionally wise- every single day.
I feel genuine compassion for people who don’t work in my field.
They don’t get to see what I do: all the things that persist despite. It’s unimaginable to them that hope, or faith, or generosity, or grace, or love, could flourish in conditions of arrant penury.
Through my work, I believe I have grasped knowledge that defies all that traditional wisdom, and it’s this: the most beautiful things of all grow in the most hostile, inimical circumstances. Because these are the things that are most tenacious, the most resolute.
When everything else is stripped away, these are the things that emerge; these are the things that remain.
And the truth is, sometimes there has to be a stripping-away of that which is held dearly. This is why blossoms drop to give way to fruit. Why leaves fall to create opportunity for new growth. Why seedlings must break free from their shells as they sprout.
Gardening wisdom also tells us that, in order for something new to grow, we must extirpate that which is no longer serving us. The weeds that crop up, surreptitious and pernicious, sometimes without our even noticing. For most of us, it’s a little too much television, a little too much social media, a little too much acquisitiveness.
These are also things for which there is no instruction manual; no gardening kit. They are sustained by small repeated acts of kindness and humility; and kindness and humility are not things that you can contrive to grow or apply. They either are or aren't. And every day that hope springs, or faith, or love; it’s the tiniest act of rebellion: a thriving in the face of insurmountable obstacles. A sunflower springing up from asphalt and concrete.
Poet Audre Lorde wrote: “Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose. the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually. we must do battle where we are standing.”
These most beautiful things that persist despite; they don’t grow in the chosen arena for our revolution. They grow right where we stand.
And where we stand today is forbidding, daunting. Many still on the brink of economic collapse. Still on the precipice of the worst cultural divide ever seen. Uncertain about the future after a year of global pandemic.
But what might grow, if we close our laptops? Turn off the news? Listen to each other? Love each other? Uproot the weeds of racism? Continue to wear our masks?
I hope we find out.