It was clear that I had killed it. I couldn’t pretend otherwise. That I had managed to kill it while trying to take care of it, while employing long-practiced skills in extending the life of an outdoor thing that lives inside didn’t really matter. The plant was dead.
Lynne said as much when she saw it sitting sadly in its pot of dirt on the kitchen table. At that point there was only one sprig remaining of what had been a full, trailing, beautiful hanging garden of a thing. One sorry stem barely standing up above the soil. But I had set it in the sun, I had watered it carefully. I had, from time to time, talked to it, encouraging it and telling it that it was wanted.
To no avail. “That’s dead,” Lynne said, and I still believed otherwise, still told myself we couldn’t see what the root system might be doing. And we couldn’t be sure that the magic of photosynthesis wasn’t working its miraculous thing among the remaining leaves. Er, leaf. The plant could rally, I told myself.
Some weeks before, I had noticed signs of the plant’s overgrowth: yellowing leaves, thinning stems. It was outgrowing its pot in the breakfast room where it hung in its macrame web. The only way to save and continue to enjoy it there was to pull it from its pot, cut back its roots, and replant with fresh soil. This was something I had done with other plants many times. I had likely done it with this one. But what I didn’t bother myself with this time was the tenderness of this particular plant’s stems, which had entwined themselves in macrame and each other. As I pulled the root ball from its pot and the plant from that macrame net, I incidentally also tore those stems to shreds.
I didn’t think it would matter. Surely there was enough green left to nourish the plant. But when I packed it back into its pot, I realized how few stems and fewer leaves remained. These struggled to survive for a while, but gradually, stem after stem shriveled. The leaves furled and shrunk, and finally the last stem faded like dry grass.
I was very sad.
This happened just last summer in the midst of pandemic uncertainty. My sorrow over a dead houseplant was probably overkill (for lack of a better term), an exaggerated response to what had become a metaphor of loss.
Why such an attachment to a houseplant, you might sensibly ask? You might point out, and rightly so, that I have others. Others that have been around longer. Far longer, in terms of houseplants. There’s the ficus tree, for example, that I got in Memphis in 1995. And older: the schefflera that started as a cutting from one in my mother’s house. Both of these predate my children. This plant– Tradescantia fluminensis, commonly known as an inch plant and dead in its pot on the kitchen table– was only 9 years old.
Still, unlike the history of many of my houseplants, I remember buying this one. It was spring break, 2011. I was grateful for a week off from my teaching job and grateful that my kids were off with me. We didn’t have money to go anywhere, but I loved being at home, and I loved the freedom of a weekday errand with Emma to… where? I don’t remember where I found the plant; I just remember standing at the counter of a coffee shop with Emma afterwards, happy about that plant. And I bought Emma a cake-pop.
When we got home, I stood on a ladder in the breakfast room so I could screw a hook into the ceiling. The plant looked beautiful there, and it was very happy. One could say it thrived.
If you have houseplants then you know it can be tricky to find a place where they’re at home. Any place might be too bright, too dark, get too much of a draft. There are so many ways it can go terribly wrong. And of course this indicator is completely false, but there’s something about a happy house plant that suggests the flourishing of the household. In fact, I’ve often told my daughter that, rather than including a garage, a swimming pool, or even a backyard, what a home really needs is these: sunlight and books, plants and music, pets, and, if you can get them, children.
Real plants, I mean, not fake ones. But real plants die sometimes. And sometimes, accidentally, you kill them.
I was sad about that plant. I think I’ve mentioned this already. And you may already think I’m crazy, but there’s more to say. Because somewhere along the line, feeling sad about my inadvertent but absolute destruction of a plant I had loved, I asked God for another one.
Not just another plant. I had plenty of those. I took an asparagus fern and put it in that pot and tucked it into that macrame hanger and it too was very happy suspended from the breakfast room ceiling. But I wanted a plant identical to the one I’d lost. I wanted Tradescantia fluminensis. I wanted a new inch plant with its delicate leaves and tender stems, with its sweet, occasional flowers.
Maybe I wanted another chance.
In the years since I’d purchased it, I had never noticed another one for sale. And so asking God for a new one seemed absurd on two levels: first of all, what I was asking for didn’t seem likely. Lowe’s, Home Depot– they didn’t seem to trade in inch plants. Ivy? Yes. Ferns? Sure. And scads of succulents, but no inch plants. We couldn’t find toilet paper. What were the chances of an influx of inch plants?
And second of all, I was asking God to replace a houseplant in the middle of a pandemic, during a time that my prayers were about the recovery of people on ventilators and the advent of new medical interventions. I was praying for the survival of my husband’s business, the businesses of friends, the perpetual strain on families with young children at home and parents working from home, teenagers isolated from friends and, maybe, help. Racial injustice and political division and fear that fomented so easily into anger and rage.
I still pray for these things. But a global pandemic is no time to ask the almighty God for a houseplant. Is it?
God concerns himself with big things, universal ones. By those lights, pandemics are right up his alley. In a pandemic, the complexity of the human body, its myriad systems, and the intricacy of the delicate immune system all cry out for God’s attention. Then too, we become aware of those things he always sees: how poor health and weakened immunity are so often the accoutrements of poverty. Privilege and injustice, those inequities God sees and calls us to correct, suddenly become unavoidably apparent to the rest of us.
And if one believes as I do that he knows every person by name; knows the number of hairs on each head; cares for and watches over, grieves for and rejoices with every single person on the planet, then certainly a pandemic only heightens his acute focus on the people who suffer most.
In this context– now or ever– how could I ask God for an inch plant?
And here’s the truth, oh patient reader: I asked God for this in the midst of a pandemic, and then I forgot all about it.
I forgot all about it, I say. But there were two of us in that conversation.
For a culture (ours) that is so hostile to people judging other people, we are pretty darned judgmental. Have you noticed? That stranger who delayed too long at the green light or who sped through that red one becomes a fool, an idiot, or worse. That’s judging. The pandemic has demonstrated this tendency to judge in bold relief. Take masks, for instance. People who don’t wear masks don’t care about other people. Which is also true, depending on your opinion, research, bias, of people who do.
Casting judgment is in our bones or maybe our DNA. Maybe we do it to make sense of the world, to make ourselves feel better, or to find allies among people who think like we do.
But we may be less aware of this tendency, one I think most of us have: we judge God. We judge him based on what we think he should or shouldn’t do, does or hasn’t done.
Just as with the driver at the stoplight or the stranger wearing (or not wearing) a mask, there is more to God than what we are judging him for. At any given moment, we forget his wisdom that spun galaxies and unfurled constellations, that designed the marvel of the immune system and the pattern of fur growth on a dog. The best scientists recognize the unlikely brilliance evident here.
And we also forget God’s sacrifice, a love given in such eager pursuit that it spent itself on our behalf. Christ’s death was terrible loss to God. And for Christ, his death was obedience to a love so incomprehensible, we often simply dismiss it.
But would a God who already suffered such loss out of love for us not (also) care about the smallest of things? Where do we find the limits of the mind that conceived the universe? Where does such power find its end? And where does the depth of a love like this stop?
Last October, we traveled to the North Carolina mountains for a weekend. That Friday we found ourselves in the little town of Spruce Pine, and in that town we came upon a gift shop that also happened to have a large greenhouse. That greenhouse sold absolutely enormous inch plants.
My husband bought me one for my birthday. It was far too big for the pot suspended in macrame from the breakfast room ceiling. So with great care for the tender stems and leaves, I gently cut that inch plant into viable pieces. And now I have three beautiful inch plants in my house.
You can call it coincidence if you’d like, but this is the way it went: in the middle of a pandemic, I asked God for an inch plant, and he gave me three.