it took me a while to draw my houseplants
When I was, I don’t know, ten maybe, my mom gave me a book called “Regina’s Big Mistake.” It was about this high-strung girl who messed up her jungle drawing in art class one day, drew a big ol’ dent into her yellow crayon jungle sun, so she had to figure out what the fuck to do with this crescent-shaped sun.
After staring at it for a while, Regina realizes that it looks like a moon. (Let’s not focus on the obvious plot hole where Regina fails to realize she can simply color over the dent to make a circle sun, no one the wiser.) She finishes her jungle moon with a jungle night sky. It’s beautiful and she is proud.
Even as a kid, I was bent towards perfectionism, a type-A leaning that allowed a lot of room for self-criticism, obsessive compulsive tendencies, and high amounts of stress over “small things.” I possessed a very black and white view of what things should or should not be, what something was supposed to or was not supposed to look like.
Today, I sit down at my desk to finish my drawing of Shogo, named by Holden, the only one of our seventeen-ish houseplants with a second name, Shyguy, the name of any of Shogo’s leaves that curl up in the evening. I quickly realize that he is napping. Bastard. He has clearly wrapped up the dance party he’d been throwing yesterday when I started this drawing, and several of his leaves are now resting serenely over the sides of the pot, obscuring my view.
I pick up my pen and start drawing and put it off for a few minutes, but I know it can’t last long because I avoided the pot yesterday since I’m really not interested in its plastic existence. I start talking to Shogo now that I’m drawing again, not out loud, I think, but I can’t be sure. I tell him that he’s a great dancer. By far our most expressive plant, sometimes he’s yawning, usually swaying, and now he’s sleeping. To hell with “low light,” he is enamoured by the sun, in love with it and always dancing for his amour. It’s beautiful. But his drama has me in some shit today, his basking making the tedious chore of drawing his pot almost impossible. I’m stubbornly committed to carrying out the drawing as started yesterday, which means drawing the lip of the pot that I mostly can’t see today. I brace myself for fucking it up. I do, almost immediately.
This is the moment that my drawing starts to become what I never intended it to be, now different from the perfectly balanced composition of delicate black lines cascading sparsely over the textured white page that I pictured when I sat down at my drafting table yesterday. The sharp parts of me come to a head, the perfectionist that projected a complete drawing onto a blank page now losing to the multiple parts of me that insist on drawing with black micron pen and from life. (My hand has developed a distaste for the way that graphite lays itself onto paper and loses its quality immediately and over time as the pages of my sketchbook close on each other time and time again. It couples with a brazen something that wants to watch myself try to be perfect.) I keep drawing, and now this slow, tedious labor of love is a labor of self-love, an act of self-acceptance as much as it is an effort to echo Shogo’s vibrant beauty. Shogo takes his turn to speak to me, and he wakes up the soft part of me, the part of me that is strong and steady, my mothering soul that rests easy under the magnolia tree outside and finds joy in communing with our plants, and she labors to calm my sharp edges of control and perfectionism, and she keeps drawing, familiar with and abiding in the honest effort.
One time when I was a kid my uncle with a handlebar mustache came over and spent an entire evening coloring one page from our Jungle Book coloring book. He used all of the wrong colors. Simba and Nala were blue and purple, and the trees were bursting with romantic tropical hues that I couldn’t yet imagine to be close to the real colors of a rainforest and that I knew for a fact were definitely not the real colors of a coloring book forest. I don’t think that my uncle was trying to make a grandeur statement. I don’t think he recognized that I was both an artist and a child who needed to go around making up my own rules where they didn’t clearly exist so that I could operate efficiently, avoiding the paralysis of not having a defined path forward, even in my play. He was just my uncle, an artist, enjoying an activity with me and not following “the rules,” (even though I’m sure I tried to explain them to him) and when he was finished it was the most beautiful colored picture I had ever seen. It glowed despite the unforgiving newsprint paper and off-brand crayons. He wasn’t trying to be my hero, but I think, over time, that picture helped save me from a very boring version of myself.
It feels so good when I touch your juicy leaves, luscious, thick, springy. Like you, quirky and playful, always thriving. Every time I wash the dishes or wait on my Magic Bullet to finish its thirty dollars worth of breakfast blending, (the kind that blends most things but not really strings of de-thawed frozen spinach, a texture that I happily acquired a taste for quickly) my arms that usually make easy business of folding over themselves open and stretch out instead, instinctually, to rub the smooth edge of one leaf and then another or two between my thumb and pointer finger. I can feel the serotonin release as I soak in your happy, the both of us saying good morning or goodnight, taking in the sunlight or the quiet of after-bedtime together, our routines intersecting for fifteen seconds. Creatures of habit checking in with each other.
Every day you surprise me with the space you take up in our kitchen, singing and spilling over your bright white pot. I think you know more than anyone else that you do more for me than I can do for you.
I like stories that feel like the night drive home from visiting my parents in South Carolina, the whole world falling away from the stretch of highway in my headlights, and I’m enveloped by dark and the soft whir of my Honda. I like when I’m reading, and I trip over a sticky word, some weird written thing that celebrates the storytelling, and I reach out and touch the words on the page to try to feel closer to it. I like the game of making words work most of the time but not exactly sometimes. I like words between strangers when they’re written. But when I have to speak them, I can see them hanging big and red and unforgiving in the air with a loud, grating sound. I can’t stop thinking about that one thing I said five minutes ago and whether they will know that I am not clever or decide that I am too weird and not in an interesting way.
Sometimes, to soothe my anxiety, I think about how I feel. I try to decide whether I would care so much about how my words sound to them if I hadn’t come to school one day in sixth grade to find out that I didn’t have any friends anymore; if I hadn’t been tormented by mean girls who never told me what it was about me that made them want to whisper cruel jokes behind my back. Sometimes I think about how I spend my free time now, the same few coffee shops, parks, and bars in easy reach. I love to cover myself up with comfortable. I like to know the social norms of a place and easily move around in it and avoid the risk of speaking and being misunderstood by someone who doesn’t know me and my way of saying things and loving things deeply and mulling things over, always in the middle of analysis, only ever bookmarking my thinking for later or new information.
I hate to feel weak. I hate for H to see me weak. Most of the time I am not but last fall, he saw me cry a few more times than I would have liked.
It is September, and I am sitting in Chrome, drawing one of their beautiful potted plants. I’m soothed by the familiar cadence of looking and noticing and drawing, the finesse of the micron pen against the cream paper, pulled from being inside my own head by dragging my pen across the page. (I really am a physical creature.) All of a sudden I realize for the first time somehow that I can buy my own plants to love and draw. I find myself at Lowe’s, carefully pacing the indoor plant aisles close to the double sliding doors that lead to the outdoor lawn and garden section where I always spent way too much time with my dad when I was a kid and didn’t want to be there. Now that I’m here because of my own weird adult errands, I am surprised by how difficult it is for me to choose which plants to own, and I think about how weird it is to “own” a plant. (I’d much rather be called a Millennial plant. I don’t even like snow.) After a very long time, I am in my car with four new plants, two of them are buckled into H’s booster seat. Together we name them Shogo, Feist, Sam, and Wick.
I soon find myself frequenting local nurseries and hardware stores, looking for plants to take care of. Everyone has a different way of coping with heartbreak and trendy as it may be, I stand by my vice. For six months, I envelope myself in vibrating green aura while carefully considering my options until there are seventeen plants in our apartment with their names written on mini sticky notes stuck to their pots so that H can call them each by name when he wants to say kind words to them to help them grow. Sam, a fittonia, or nerve plant, is always on the brink of dying no matter what I do. On days that he looks particularly dreadful, H talks to him softly. “Hang on Sam. Don’t die. Don’t you want to stay with me another day?” It is almost morbid but he is very sincere and his kind words stay with the plants and the plants with me even when he is at dad’s house.