This morning I woke up to a message from an old friend, asking if she could send me something she wrote, something that she didn’t feel ready to publish with any identifying information, but something that she would love to have “held” for her, in this space. I told her to send it along, meaning it completely when I said that I would be happy to read anything she wrote. I will let her words speak for themselves, but I just need to tell you how much my heart warmed when I read her reflections. Because, despite themes of sadness and grief, it was just so real and relatable, and that’s the goal, right? To say the things that are hard to say, because we are not the only ones who feel them.
Paris and Plants (by Andie Kates)
I’ve been spinning my wheels this week. I’ve been trying to hold in one hand current events and the necessity of being an informed citizen—while in the other hand clinging tenaciously to the personal need to keep myself grounded. Interestingly, a main source of hope this month has been my much-adored spider plant. I haven’t been able to put this sentiment into words, though, especially against the backdrop of recent global politics. I want to try and translate the connection that only seems clear in my head. Not sure how this will work, but figure I may as well try.
I was buried in work on Friday, November 13th; when I first heard people talking about the attacks in Paris that evening, I had no idea what had happened. In all honesty, I felt no shock with the news. I felt no outrage. I felt a tired sense of, “Oh, again. Oh, this again.” It didn’t sound like cynicism inside, but a desensitized self-protection. Oh, this again—in Paris, so we notice more than when this happens in Beirut. Oh, this again—a sense of safety shattered in a second.
I have resistance to follow the news these days. My desire to be an active, compassionate citizen is no match for the heaviness of loss that seems too familiar. I hear the echoes from last year when Michael Brown was murdered and Ferguson, Missouri erupted in pain. The calls for justice and change spiraled across the country, aftershocks of outrage and solidarity permeating conversation and consciousness. Black lives matter. Syrian refugee lives matter. All tragedy seems connected in emotional memory. Another example: while the Western world holds Paris in its heart this week, I find myself back at the Boston Marathon. That afternoon, we used Facebook to tell our loved ones we were safe and alive because reception for phone calls was impossible in the immediate aftermath of the explosions.
And Paris also brings me back to years prior— when the phone call came on a sunny Saturday morning in January saying a close friend was dead. And I laughed because I had just talked to him yesterday, and seriously, this isn’t a funny joke. And it wasn’t. An icy blue morning, a phone call, and then nothing seemed clear despite the sky.
Unexpected loss and a struggle to understand the why –it may be November 2015, yet I circle back to that May afternoon. That May afternoon I came home and found his body on my bedroom floor. A logical part of me knew immediately he was dead; my body went into shock. Other parts of me could not comprehend the split second in which life divided into a before and after. It has taken the better part of eighteen months to understand that his death wasn’t my fault.
This week, too, a teenager drowned in the local river and a family friend died from complications of alcoholism.
I want to say to France, and to the world—these are moments when feeling connected hurts too much to stay with it for too long. These are days when every moment, every loss, seems connected and I find myself unable to let another tragedy into my heart. Paris—I know you’re hurting, the whole world is hurting. Our human capacity for cruelty is too real. And in raw honesty, I’m trying to stay grounded this week. That’s pretty much it. I’m also trying to figure out what my role is as a white woman laden with privilege in a world where it’s only too easy to ignore others’ pain. How do we reconcile privilege and responsibility with raw humanity? –and know it is a privilege to step back and say I can’t feel another tragedy today.
In my dreams this past week, I had the opportunity to say goodbye to him. In this dream I was not too late; though I still couldn’t save him, I could hold him as he died and he was not alone. It was the first non-nightmare I’ve had of him since that May afternoon. Twelve hours later I’m riding the train with a coworker when the real memories come without warning. His body—lifeless, still as stone. That intestinal fear and urge to flee.
Paris, to be honest, feels far away and impersonal.
Paris, is it arrogant and selfish to say that I am not a stranger to our quotidian human pain? I find myself unable to be present for yours. I avoid the news with compunction. I find myself unwilling to talk about it with coworkers and friends. Despite the reality of Syrian refugees, I find myself unable to separate loss from loss, memory from memory.
I hate acknowledging this. I know it is selfish and arrogant, albeit self-protective. I do not enjoy recognizing that I cannot disentangle myself this week. I know that on other days, other weeks, it feels easier, and I can more strongly turn outwards to embrace the rest of the world. I do not enjoy admitting that I feel too scared to do that today. Or, that I do not want to try.
In the same breath, gigantic loss can begin to heal in the smallest of moments.
My spider plant has had an offshoot for months. In the past week, small root buds have started to poke their heads out of the baby. In my morning plant-watering autopilot, I almost walked past it without pause. But I did a double take on Thursday, turned around, and cradled the tiny green leaves in my hand. This is life. This is life growing in my living room. Can you believe how incredible it is? In the face of destruction, exhaustion, and fear, this little spider plant is ready to take root and grow. It’s thriving.
I don’t consider myself a gardener, and while I love the outdoors I wouldn’t say I have a green thumb. The animals and plants I’ve loved have so often died suddenly, unexpectedly. I don’t always trust myself to care for others. But this morning, a few days after spying the roots, I went to the hardware store. I bought more potting soil, came home, repotted the larger plant, snipped the baby from its offshoot, and buried its rootbuds in new soil. I put both pots near the window and am now watching the sun shine down on them. I’m waiting for growth, eager as a child. I also notice a fearful part of me hiding in the back of my heart waiting for it to just shrivel and die.
The story I hear in the back of my heart is that those I care for and love most deeply all die. Such is life—it does tend to end in death. Younger, hurting parts, however, believe that those friends and loved ones died because of me. I was the poisonous common denominator, the notorious cause of death. The trepidation I feel watching the plants this morning is real—but Adult Me knows that as elegant –and negligible—as my own existence may be, I’m just not omnipotent. And certainly not responsible for the entire universe, or capable of innocuously causing such destruction. Our loved ones die no matter what we pray; tragedy happens sometimes and we don’t know why. Today I know that my spider plant—my spider plants—are green and strong, watered and soiled, soaking in the November sun. This single moment feels like a miracle and the rest is not mine to know.
I wish there were a clear cut way to close out this reflection. It’s safe to say that I can find no resolution, no summary, no epilogue. Life goes on. Spider plants give me hope when humanity doesn’t. I have a newborn plant growing in the living room: small solace to global grief, but simultaneously hopeful. Will the plants thrive? I have no idea. Maybe they’ll shrivel up in the next week and I’ll be left with pots of dirt and regret. Maybe the spider plants will continue to propagate and I’ll give them away as Valentine’s Day gifts because our apartment simply can’t hold that many babies. I have no way of knowing.
What I do know: the sun continues to rise each day. The temperature continues to drop. The leaves are all but gone and December arrives in nine days. There’s no backing up or starting over—there’s just here and now. I can, and do, ride waves of helplessness at times and on heavier days, nihilism. I alone can do nothing to heal Paris, the world—not one person alone can do this work. Yet I also know that on a sunny morning in November, I can dig my hands into potting soil, water the plants, watch the sun, and see what comes next.
Andie Kates is 25 and currently living in Boston. She is grateful to Jen for the opportunity to share her writing!