#Who We Are Now

On Houseplants and Care

By staying home during lockdown, we care for the collective. How do we care for ourselves?

Content Warning: brief discussions of domestic violence

There is an elderly man who sells succulents at the Sunday morning harbourside fruit and vegetable market in Wellington. The plants are sold in white plastic cups, and they range from $3 to $5 each, depending on their size. They are not only cheaper than their equivalents in large home improvement stores, but also hardier. In recent years, I’ve noticed a few houseplant seedlings, too, peppered throughout his humble succulent offering.

I don’t know much about the man who sells the plants, because of a language barrier between us – he is East Asian, I am Croatian: we communicate in English. He says hello, tells me the plant price, and sometimes points out individual plant characteristics. He also offers watering advice: “not too much water” seems to apply to most plants I’ve purchased from him. I make my selection and give him the corresponding coins. There is a saying in Croatia, that if a plant is given and grown with love it will prosper, so I promise to take care of them well, and we wave each other goodbye.

My neglect of my plants was often a mirror to the lack of care I was affording myself.

I have always felt a special connection with plants, although I have never considered myself much of a gardener, or even someone who has been particularly good at keeping them alive. I’m thinking now that this might be symptomatic of a much larger issue: I have always cared for my plants, but I have certainly killed a few when I was unable to dedicate the time and effort needed to sustain them. During these times in my life, my neglect of the plants was often a mirror to the lack of care I was affording myself. Commitments piled on and I was just trying to stay afloat: submitting PhD chapters at all hours of the night, picking up extra tutoring, research and design work so that I could support myself, and taking on emotional labour for other people, when I really didn’t have the capacity to do so for myself. Unfortunately, my plants paid the price. I’m not proud of it, but I didn’t take care of all the succulents I bought from the man at the harbourside market, despite wanting to badly enough to make the sincere promise that I would.

He’s been on my mind recently, while I was limiting all non-essential outings due to the Covid-19 situation. I haven’t been to the market in months, and I wonder how he is being impacted by the pandemic. I don’t know if his business will be affected when the market reopens, both by folks avoiding public spaces or by others who might avoid Asian-owned businesses due to unfounded fears steeped in racism. While I would like to venture out and buy a few more plants, my short-term university tutoring and guest lecturing contracts don’t leave much room for non-essential purchases, especially now, given the precarity of the situation for non-permanent university staff.

At a time when the government was asking us to physically distance ourselves from each other for our collective health, others were suggesting this might be an opportune time to go within and get closer to knowing ourselves. Yet despite such well-meaning advice about the benefits of meditation to help support positive mental health, as an Aries Sun, I can’t seem to meditate. Sitting still is suddenly an invitation for my brain to come up with new creative film projects, plan the week ahead, and problem-solve emerging online teaching challenges. Never is my mind busier than when I am trying to actively wrestle it to a halt.

In March, astrologist Chani Nicholas tweeted that we might consider tending to our plants when we’re feeling overwhelmed, as plants hold wisdom that we can often forget. She also, rather facetiously, commented that competing with our plants (alongside indoor parkour and fighting with our cats) might be a good way to pass the time in quarantine during Aries season. Though the idea of competing with plants may seem ridiculous to most, it makes sense to many Aries folk, who are notorious for competing with everyone and everything. While I have never competed with my plants per se, I have been at times extremely frustrated by their slow growth or inability to bounce back quickly after an over- or under-watering. I want my plants to be the biggest, lushest, brightest parts of my home, but in my eagerness to watch the final result of their growth, I have forgotten to actually enjoy watching them grow.

I can’t meditate but I have 37 plants in my flat.

The time that I spend on my plants is an hour that I spend tending to myself.

It takes me at least an hour a week to tend to them. I water them, clip their dead flowers, inspect for disease, fertilise when the need arises, top up their soil, repot them on occasion and play around with their placement in my flat for optimal sun exposure. Lilith, my king palm, has recently been taking extra time to care for because she needs a weekly spray with organic neem oil insecticide to get rid of her mealybug infestation. My jasmine almost succumbed to aphids recently, but bounced back after a few weeks. The marigold I purchased at a home improvement store, which was what brought the aphids into my home, didn’t make it. The garden centre’s advice to isolate new plants for two weeks before introducing them to the other plants in the home feels very poignant now.

I can’t meditate, but the time that I spend on my plants has been both a way to practice responsibility towards the collective by staying indoors and an hour that I spend tending to myself. My wilted lavender reminds me that all living beings need water. My oregano and rosemary plants connect me to my Mediterranean heritage. I recently started growing St John’s wort from seed, because I remembered picking the flowers at the Croatian seaside for my grandmother, who was skilled at turning them into oil. I am trying to continue this tradition.

I see the hour that I tend to my plants is a time that I spend dedicating myself entirely to supporting other beings to thrive. My indoor plants depend on me for their survival, and in many ways, they are as much a part of my daily life as my friends and colleagues in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Draco the dracaena, my oldest plant, was one of the first purchases I made when I moved to Wellington for my PhD studies. He was a permanent fixture in my shared postgrad office, and his shiny green leaves provided a stark contrast to the banality that often underpins institutional offices and academic spaces. Draco bore witness to numerous conversations shared between my office mate, Hannah, and me: celebrations when we received funding for our work; anecdotes about the weekends that passed; concerns with structural and systemic inequalities that feminist researchers often come up against. At times, when I found myself so frustrated by or stuck in the PhD process that I could not feel productive, clipping Draco’s brown tips, or inspecting his leaves for sun damage helped ground me, if only for a few minutes. When Hannah and I had to vacate our office space after graduating with our respective PhDs, taking Draco home was a sombre occasion and a tangible reminder that I was starting a new chapter in my life.

He had no leaves, and stayed like that for a while, quietly hibernating and gathering his strength.

Charlie, my second oldest plant, was given to me by my partner at the time, who purchased him at the Wellington Botanic Garden Shop. Charlie was a juvenile candle plant and cost $7. At the time, I couldn’t afford him; instead, my partner gifted him to me. Charlie thrived at first, but as my PhD studies became more stressful, he suffered – just as my relationship did. On one occasion, after a few weeks of sporadic watering, I over-watered him and he nearly died. Luckily, I managed to save a few stems. They were bare and ungraceful but he looked like he was going to make it. He had no leaves, and stayed like that for a while, quietly hibernating and gathering his strength.

A few months later, Charlie grew a few small leaves, and I started dating someone new. Noting Charlie’s progress was a daily task: I was proud of the fact that with my minimal gardening skills I was able to help him recover. I repotted him in fresh soil, placed him on my small dining-room table, and made sure to open the curtains every morning to let him soak in the sun’s rays. I ate dinner on my sofa for weeks because Charlie needed optimal sun exposure more than I needed ideal eating posture.

While Charlie was getting better, my new relationship was getting worse. Some nights, my new partner would get violent and threaten to break the things I cherished, including my plants. One evening, he snapped a clothes-horse with such force that a part of it flew off and fractured Charlie’s new growth. I frantically grabbed the pot with the remaining stems and wrapped my body around it, shakily asking him not to hurt us. After he left, I held onto Charlie’s pot and kept apologising, because I felt that I should have cared for him better. I tried to propagate his broken pieces, but the small fractured stems didn’t take and they died a few days later. The fact that someone I had invited into my home was capable of hurting something that I cared so deeply for – and that could not defend itself – wasn’t the first sign that relationship wasn’t healthy, but it was the loudest. I leaned on my close friends for support, and I met with them in Newtown coffee shops and over Skype. Despite the 15,000-kilometre physical distance from some of them, making an active decision to stay in touch was a way of taking care of myself.

The commodification of the ‘self-care’ label distances the term from its radical origins

There are currently over 25 million Instagram posts under the #selfcare hashtag, ranging from yoga postures, bath bombs, luxury facial mists, gym selfies, inspirational quotes, and well-meaning advice reminding folks working from home during Covid-19 self-isolation to take a break. Yet the commodification of the ‘self-care’ label distances the term from its radical, anti-racist and feminist origins as a politics of self-preservation in an environment that was hateful to specific identities, bodies and existences, as suggested by Audre Lorde in her 1988 book A Burst of Light.

We must not lose sight of the fact that this crisis will disproportionately affect those who are already most marginalised in society, since institutions and the healthcare system often perpetuate inequalities by privileging certain bodies over others. Moreover, as the instruction to stay at home benefits the collective, they can also prevent people, mostly women and children, from leaving unsafe places. Physical distancing, self-isolation and financial pressures can exacerbate the likelihood of domestic violence. I wish we talked more about that at the national level.

Changing patterns is hard.

Charlie and I are both doing well now, and he is almost five feet tall. That is far too tall for a candle plant, and I recently learned that I could – and probably should – have pruned him instead of letting his stems grow wild. We spent a lot of time together under the lockdown, and he’s overdue for another wooden stake to take the weight of his new growth. He is still scraggly, but every time I look at him I am reminded of how far I’ve come. I remember that we all have our own process. I remember that we all deserve to heal. I remember that loving someone intensely isn’t enough to break the cyclical nature of domestic violence: both victims and perpetrators often come from broken homes. Changing patterns is hard.

I remember that forgiving yourself is important. I remember that bouncing back is hard, and rarely ever graceful. We do what we can, when we’re ready to do it. If we’re lucky, we have friends that help us along our journeys. I remember that ‘self-care’ means different things to different people, and this pandemic has affected, and will continue to affect, us all differently. I remember to offer my help to others in the spirit of solidarity, because not everyone is lucky enough to have support systems around them like I do.

Above all, I remember to breathe. I remember that there are 37 other beings in my flat that need my care to survive. And that, in turn, they give me something far more valuable than the $3 I gave to a lovely man at the harbourside market.

'Who We Are Now' is a series of first-person essays on aspects of life in Aotearoa in the present moment, supported by a Copyright Licensing New Zealand Contestable Fund Grant 2020. Read more in the series here.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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