Prayer plant. Latin name, Maranta leuconeura—a name that, if you’re familiar with the Bible, looks suspiciously like “maranatha”: the Aramaic exhortation at the end of I Corinthians that’s typically translated as “Come, Lord.” I’ve named mine Sybill, after the professor of divination in Harry Potter. When I first read, some years ago, that millennials were becoming known for collecting houseplants—a way to tend to those nurturing instincts we were neglecting by not having children—I scoffed. I now have nine houseplants, and I’ve told my brother, if I hit a dozen, he should probably call someone. The other day, I Googled “prayer plant yellow leaves,” after a few of Sybill’s leaves had, obviously, turned yellow. One of the “people also ask” questions Google generated was “why isn’t my prayer plant praying?” The prayer plant gets its name because its leaves fold up at night—an act that someone somewhere decided looked like praying hands. My plant’s leaves move, but I have yet to understand how they look like praying hands, at least not the pious picture of palms pressed together in a steeple. They’re more sprawling, haphazard, which is often how I look when I’m praying and nearly always how I’m feeling. “Why isn’t my prayer plant praying?” The answer is the answer to every question one asks Google about houseplant problems: too much light, or too little, too much water, or too little. Perhaps millennials don’t have children because we’re inclined to Google everything, and these are the kinds of answers Google gives us. One of the more recent additions to my houseplant menagerie is a succulent (also named after a character in Harry Potter), which was a sea-creature purple when I bought it, and now, two weeks later, is bright green. Google: why did my succulent change colors? Answer: succulents turn green when properly cared for and only display their otherworldly colors when neglected. Solution: don’t water it as much—meaning, find that delicate balance between smothering it and killing it, which, come to think of it, is what parenting is all about.
On our first date, I gave you the keys to my car, let you drive us all the way to the Washington side of the Gorge. I didn’t have a smartphone then. I don’t remember if you had a map, other than the hiking guide that told you how to locate the Wind Mountain Trail—so remote, we were the only ones at the trailhead, and we passed no other humans while we walked. Ten years down the line, I wonder at that: my willingness to trust you with my car, my life. How I followed you through a fog-banked forest, and at one point, slipped in the mud. How I lied and said I’d been meaning to get new boots anyway, so sure, we could go for a hike in the middle of November, when in fact I hadn’t owned a pair of hiking boots since I was a child. When we reached the summit, the Gorge was still shrouded in fog. When we came down, we leaned on the back of my car and ate trail mix out of the trunk. I don’t remember how it happened, but at one point, I turned, and you were gone. And there was a moment—more than a moment—when I stood in the damp, insistent silence and wondered if I had made you up. Wondered if I had climbed in the car of my own accord at eight a.m. on a Sunday morning and driven myself to a place I would never figure out how to come back from. But then, you emerged from the mist of the woods, and I stood spooked on the gravel, my voice hooked in my throat, until you held out your hand, and I handed over the keys once more.
A Valentine’s Day Meditation for the Rest of Us
When you learn that St. Valentine is the patron saint of lovers, epilepsy, and beekeepers, you think this makes a terrible kind of sense. What is love, if not emotional epilepsy? What is epilepsy, if not a thousand bee stings to the brain? And what, after all, are bees, if not honey-maddened lovers, slaving away for their queen? You pose these questions to your friend via text, as you sit in your apartment and she sits in a hospital with electrodes glued to her head. You wonder if St. Valentine knew what he was doing, when he married all those lovers against the emperor’s orders. You wonder if any of us ever know what we’re doing—if it isn’t all just a game of terrible chance: fall in love, have a seizure, spend your life tending to the needs of the hive. You’re wearing leggings and an oversized sweatshirt, and you have leftover soup in the fridge. Your friend is wearing her electrodes, looking out a rain-stained window, and eating the raw onions and tomato slice that came to her when she ordered veggies and hummus. This, too, makes a terrible kind of sense. On a day when everything is pink and red and covered in chocolate, somewhere, a lesser known saint is sitting alone, waiting to see what will become of him and choosing to go on living nonetheless.
This morning’s sun rose behind an overcoat of fog, light diffusing between clouds slung low into the trees. Fog used to make me think of Sleepy Hollow—imaginary worlds of headless horsemen. Now it makes me think of every post-apocalyptic movie, rebels ducking between abandoned buildings, marauders around every corner. As I drive into the city, the sun breaks open, then retreats. I pull onto the highway and pass a billboard that reads, “Remember when Portland was known for our food carts and airport carpet?” I remember when Portland was just known for being weird, when people who didn’t live here called it “eclectic” instead of texting me to ask, “Hey, so, how are things going over there?” How are things going over here? We are no longer known for our food carts and airport carpet. Our airport carpet has been rolled up and replaced, and our food carts live behind a fifteen-foot wall crowned with barbed wire. This particular pod of food carts has the word “asylum” in the name, and we crowd around a fire pit with our gyros and pho—a fire pit that emits no warmth, as far as I can tell, even when I hover my hand mere inches above the flame. Some weeks ago, I was at a stoplight, staring at a painted wall that read, “Still here.” At the time, I found it encouraging, but now I wonder, is there merit in simply surviving? On the way home, I pass another billboard, half of which is covered in graffiti. I can’t remember what it says, just the nonsensical spray paint scrawling, the homeless camp right beneath it, the bright November sun now arcing freely across a clear blue sky.
Every year around this time, boxes appear on front lawns, paper signs poking up from them that say things like “free” and “please take.” Inside the boxes are all kinds of pears—Bartlett, Asian, Anjou—picked from neighbors’ garden trees. I have begun to hunt for and hoard signs of normalcy like a dragon plucking gold from villagers’ homes. I don’t even realize I’m doing it, until I come upon something like a box of pears on a lawn, and instantly, my heart unfurls from its fist. A remnant from a time before the strongest thing we felt was fear—fear especially of each other—before the strongest thing we knew was a deep, abiding animosity for anyone who did or said or thought something different from the vein of reason we’d decided was correct. Never have I ever felt truth to be such a fleeting, fickle thing: shape-shifting and elusive as a curl of purple smoke. Never have I ever wished to leave the house and hear people talking about anything else. Several years ago, I was on a bus, crawling through the countryside of Croatia, homes and walls still revealing signs of former wars. We witnessed structure after structure that had been blown to bits, and then, out of nowhere, there’d be a sagging but in-tact cottage, a woman on the porch flapping a tablecloth in the wind. Instantly, a wave of relief would roll through me. So it is with the box of pears. So it is with the group of senior citizens who meet at the park to attend a dance class, reggae pumping through the trees. So it is with the people I wave and say “good morning” to as I run past them, who don’t have time to tell me who’s right or wrong today. So it is with the streets that change only with the seasons, the trees who drop their fruit for everyone, and always have, and always will. On my way back, I choose two pears from one of the boxes and hold them in my open hand.
I’m reading a book right now called Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. She’s a very intelligent, very scientific writer, whose work I first discovered when she wrote a memoir about grappling with her father’s sudden death. It was the first thing I read after my own father’s sudden death that made me feel as though someone else might understand. This new book is like that other book, but different. I am not scientific. I would sooner set myself to relearning calculus than take another biology class. But I love the natural world, love especially the trees—things that became, years ago, my primary reason for staying in Portland, after suffering a terrible heartbreak that made me want to jettison myself into another life, another skin, another world. But I could not say goodbye to these trees. The place where I live now is surrounded by trees and ivy (so much ivy), and this evening, I lie out flat on my deck and read Macdonald’s book, pausing every page or so to look up at the trees. It’s been hot, and I haven’t been sleeping well, and life with all its major and minor grievances has put me in a foul mood. I have come outside, despite the heat, to escape the oppressive drone of the air conditioner. I’m reading an essay about Macdonald’s expedition to a remote location in Chile, studied for its resemblance to Mars, or what Mars once was. Billions of years. Microscopic forms of life. Extreme cold. Extreme wind. The scientist, who is the subject of Macdonald’s essay, who feels most at home in this harsh terrain. I look up at the trees, my trees (such as they can be). While I’ve been out here, the temperature has dropped, and a breeze begins to slip across my skin. It was supposed to be just as hot today as it was yesterday, wasn’t supposed to cool down until late tonight. Yet, here we are. How little we still know. How much we try to predict, to control this world, our worlds, and still, they slip through our fingers. And really, thank God. All the unknowing drives me mad, but I am also convinced it is the only thing that keeps me sane. I return to Macdonald’s story. The trees sway and settle. The wind slips over me again.
By now, I’ve learned to recognize the signs: restlessness, listlessness, a sense of impending doom. These may, I think, be the same signs as those of clinical depression, but it isn’t that. It’s month eleven of a universe upended, for which the only remedy is to put on shoes and real pants, get in the car, and drive. Today, it’s through the woods and over the river to the eastside Powell’s, the runt younger brother of the behemoth downtown, which I still can’t bring myself to visit. I am only slowly able to accept how much the city has morphed, and today, it isn’t the graffiti or the slickly built chain stores that sour my stomach: it’s the “for sale” sign on Hawthorne Theater. I’ve never been inside it, but there isn’t a night I can remember when there wasn’t a crowd, lining up to be let into a show. Now we line up to be let into Powell’s, neat little squares taped to the sidewalk. I came prepared, zipped in the warmth of a new winter coat, but I’m let right in. “Just one?” the employee-turned-door-monitor asks. I might say yes or just nod or say nothing at all, the ache of “just one” pushing into my bones. At any rate, I’m given a lime-sized dollop of foaming Purell and told they’re not currently accepting cash or checks. Okay, okay, I think, just let me look at the books. It’s something I learned after my father’s death: when the world becomes a different world, do not expect broad swaths of normalcy. Look only for small pulses of comfort. I walk up and down the aisles, reading titles, pulling them off the shelves, if only to hold them with my sterilized hands. I get to the Ts, locate War and Peace, pick it up and put it back, then pick it up again. I’ve been thinking it’s time—that if I’m ever going to take this on, it’s now—but I can’t bring myself to admit it’s come to this: that I have the space to digest 1,200 pages of Russian literature. I put it back. Give me a couple more months, Leo, I think, and instead go up a few aisles and happen upon a collection of the letters of C.S. Lewis. I take it to the counter, greet the woman behind the plastic partition, pay with my plastic card (more hand sanitizer), then slip the book into my purse. “Thank you,” the door monitor says. “Have a good day.” I walk out into the bustle of a busy street, the winter sun playing tricks behind the clouds. “Better” is not a word I use anymore, but I feel a bit lighter, the weight of a book on my shoulder, my feet, for these moments, knowing their purpose, as I walk with fogged glasses back to my car.
The thing I love about Portland is, after ten years, it can still surprise me: a shock of blue sky in the middle of rainy December. Truth be told, I’ll run in whatever, but only sun can send out the weekenders with their dogs and bikes and children, and for those 3.5 miles when I’m outside among them, the world feels like the world again. In the house next to the Lotus Preschool, a man comes walking out in full-on Santa garb, real white beard and all. I smile at him, and he smiles at me, then chuckles and says, “Merry Christmas,” as though it would be weird for him not to. “You too,” I say, and mean it, because these days, we have to mean everything that comes out of our mouths. If a woman falls down in a neighborhood forest, and there’s no one there to hear her, does her fall still make a sound? A question I ponder as I bolt down a hill, 35-degree breeze on my face. Truth be told, sun and wind still have my heart, the one remnant of Californian left in me, though I prefer the chill of them in winter than in the dry dead heat of summer. Inflatable snowmen bend on lawns, cutesy bears and penguins bursting with “happy holidays.” In one front yard, otherwise unadorned, stands an old wooden post, topped with an even older looking letterbox. “Believe in the magic of the season,” the sign above it reads, half-rusted so I have to come close to make it out. The thing I hate about New Year’s is the false promise of a fresh beginning, like the turning of a calendar is all it takes for life to right itself. But there is no hope in counting the days, thinking maybe then we’ll get what we want. There is only here, now: a greeting from a stranger, the gift of lovely weather. There is only trying to be the kind of person who can find magic in even this season, drag it outside and say it aloud, and make someone else want to believe it.
If you are a fantasy nerd, you joke with your brother about setting sail for the Undying Lands and leaving the people of Middle Earth to their fate. You say it because there is nothing left to say. But in the absence of an elf-driven ship, you head out on a run. Most of the campaign signs have been removed from people’s lawns, and the ones that remain have begun to tilt sideways in ground softened by these last days of rain. Through windows, you catch glimpses of televisions turned to experts pronouncing prophecies, as only experts can. Even so, November is still your favorite month, every tree decaying in its own special way. No matter how many years you live through the seasons, your eyes never stop hungering for the riot of colors. Leaves clog the streets, and geese call from on high, unperturbed by the clamor of that noisiest of species who thinks we have it all figured out. Down another street, you see the elderly man who once let you take shelter in his garage during a downpour, and ever since, he greets you by name. He’s running his lawnmower over mounds of leaves, three houses away from where he lives. He looks up as you run past and waves, his face wide with a grin. Love your neighbor as yourself, you think. It shouldn’t be so hard. But like everything we ought to have the strength and decency to do, it is one of the hardest things of all. Who is my neighbor? an expert asked Jesus, and He told a scathing story of a man wounded in the road, ignored by the ones who ought to have known better and cared for by a person from the enemy camp. Go and do likewise, Jesus said, always getting to the meaty middle of things. Down another street, you pass a young mother with a stroller. Good morning, you say to her, and she greets you back. Middle-aged men wearing air pods, teenage girls walking dogs, so much of our species out in the road, just trying to take it all in. You smile, say good morning to everyone you pass, pausing as each set of eyes meets your own. All of us are so utterly powerless, you think, and yet, we are powerful enough.
I keep buying houseplants. I have asked myself why. Maybe I’m doing what the pagans did when they brought evergreen branches into their homes during winter: an act of sympathetic magic meant to protect the life force of the trees until spring. But I don’t think it’s that. Maybe it’s the original reason: I need to share the space between these walls with something, anything other than myself that breathes. I still think it’s partially that. But I think now it’s closer to the days I spent sitting by my father’s bedside while he lay in a coma, and a whisper of digitized music, like the sudden opening and closing of a noise-making toy, kept punctuating the air. The first time I heard it, I thought it was one of many alarms erupting from one of the many machines he was hooked up to, but no, the nurse said, “They play that every time a baby is born.” Right, yes, I had forgotten: because good things happen in hospitals, too. A lot of babies were born in those three days, or maybe that’s just how I remember it—the claustrophobic pulse of unknowing interrupted, so often, by some signal from another sphere of existence. But those days, it was death in the room with me, and these days, the death is out there, and I am staying inside, I am told (I’m not sure any longer what I believe), to keep that death from coming to me. Oh, but it will come, has come already, the life we once had leaking out of us all as we wait, wait in the pulse of unknowing. And that is why I keep buying houseplants—some signal from another sphere of existence. Some whisper that reminds me it’s all intertwined: life and death, blood and leaf, and we can watch one part of it crumble, and still, the world goes on, merciless in interrupting our tragedy with beginning, a green still worthy of a song.