By Ena Ganguly, Freelance Writer
Growing up, I remember the lush gardens my mother’s mother tended to, full of ripe fruits, fragrant flowers and all types of beautiful colorful plants. My mother seemed to inherit this ability, using her talents to raise up entire beds of aloe vera plants, elephant ears and peace lilies. It seemed like every plant they touched bloomed, grew and bore fruit.
I, however, struggled with the ability to nurture and raise plants, though I really, really wanted to be good at it. I wanted to be part of the lineage of women who were gifted in this art but, unfortunately, I was much too eager in my attempts, buying all the plants, soil, and gardening tools I could afford, only to watch my plants die, one by one. My approach was thoughtless and entitled; I assumed some intrinsic knowledge passed on from my elders would just kick in.
It did not. I bought plants only to kill them, so I would buy some more. It was a vicious cycle.
At that point in my life, I had just graduated college, was living with a horrible roommate, and struggling to make ends meet. My schedule was swamped with shifts from multiple jobs, and most of the time I did not have the luxury to cook, much less water the plants waiting patiently in my room. Even when I got a steady job, I experienced so much stress in my new environment that I would go entire work days not being able to eat, and coming home tired and bitter. I did not have a self-care routine as much as I had coping skills, like binge watching television and eating out. Though it is okay to cope, I felt blocked when I tried to move towards something more mindful of my emotional, physical and mental needs.
Much like my own self-care routine, my plant-care routine was non-existent. I wasn’t listening to my body, just like I wasn’t listening to my wilting peace lily or dying basil plant.
After spending too much money and killing too many plants, I gave up. It felt as though the Universe, my ancestors, and the Gods did not grant me the gift of connecting with the earth in the ways my elders could. I walked away from this desire, disappointed in myself.
Up until recently, save for a small cactus, gifted to me by a friend for my birthday, I had removed all plants from my life. Failing to give the right type of care to my plants caused me to examine the care I was giving to myself. I figured that I cannot take care of anything else unless I learn to take care of myself, by working on practicing self-compassion, forgiveness, and self-awareness. Feeding my body, loving my body, and practicing celebrating my body.
The possibility of becoming a plant parent presented itself again earlier this year, when my partner and I threw a housewarming party for our new apartment and were gifted plants by some of our guests. Seeing this, I was honored, feeling like it was the Universe’s way of bringing me back to plants. I was also nervous. It was daunting to consider taking care of anything other than a prickly desert plant, but the polite South Asian in me knew it would be terribly offensive to return these gifts back to their senders. More importantly, I sensed that the Universe, my ancestors, and even the energy of my living elders, sent these gifts to me as a message: to try again.
I wanted this time to be different. I made sure to jot down the names of each plant and read up on how to best take care of them. Where before, I expected my plants to flourish despite my negligence, this time I began to do the work of tending to these living beings. I learned from my green-thumb-having friends how to listen to plants. I began to dip my finger in the soil to test for dampness. I started looking at their leaves to see if they were getting too much water or not enough sun.
In this process, I realized how similar plants are to me and my body. Plants have their needs, just like I do. They need water, sun, and companionship, just like me. Plants are also often quick to forgive when I do not water them enough or give them ample sunlight. They respond with such compassion and resilience, traits that I am still working on for myself.
Similarly, these past few years, I’ve begun to practice self check-ins, where I take a moment or two to assess what it is I need. Do I need to eat something or drink water? Am I repressing an emotion that I need to feel? The support of my loved ones and therapy has further nourished my ability to practice self-awareness, where I am assessing not only if my body needs food or water, but also if my body needs my compassion, grace or gentleness.
Even with the internal work I have done, there are times when I forget to feed or water myself, or I let a feeling ruminate for hours, or even days. Like plants, the body is so resilient. It speaks to me through a parched throat or a grumbling belly, and even when it is depleted, it still allows me to complete the tasks I need it to do. In other ways, it allows me to process heavy feelings like resentment or bitterness and holds me as I let go of anger, grief or frustrations, through body movement, journaling, venting or crying.
Like my gardening habits, learning to tend to my needs is a work in progress. I still have to remember to pace myself when I’m at the nursery, reminding myself how much care one plant requires. There are times I forget to water my plants, where I find them withered or wilted. By no means am I near the brilliance of my mother or her mother. But, I think that’s the beauty of tending to plants, and tending to myself. It is a constant work in progress, and there are still so many areas where I can improve. The process of gardening, and the process of tending to myself, requires forgiveness, mindful listening and the willingness to try again, and I’m grateful that I’m learning these lessons, for the sake of my plants, and for myself.
Ena Ganguly is a queer South Asian writer, community organizer and facilitator. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Arts in Government and Humanities Honors.