Tuesday, January 20, 2015


A few years ago, when Essie was just old enough to get around the house on her own four limbs and just young enough to think she could put anything into her mouth, willy nilly, poisonous or not, I got rid of my best house plant.  It was a clearance "tropical plant" I'd purchased on a whim at the grocery store years before.  I've read since that buying clearance plants is a really bad idea, since they're most likely about to keel over and die.  But this one didn't.  In fact, it was one of the few plants I'd ever owned that didn't keel over and die.  And it was nice and big and leafy, like a little jungle right in our house.  But when Essie started to eat it every chance she got, I decided it needed to be put out of her reach.  But it was too big to put up on a table, and the only place on the floor it was really going to get enough light to thrive was also our living area, where Essie spent most of her waking hours.  Given the choice between the plant and the baby, I chose the baby.

Last year we discovered that Essie was having an allergic reaction to a potted plant at her violin teacher's house.  It was an enormous, flowering peace lily.  Hmm, I wondered, could my own, albeit smaller and less successful, peace lily at home be bothering Essie too?  I decided to let it go.  That left me with a single straggly pothos in the way of house plants.  It's one that will never die no matter how I mistreat it and it doesn't seem to be offending the allergy-sufferers in the house.  But I wanted more.  Nothing flowery.  Nothing finicky (I'm not good at plants, as a general rule.)  Something green, though.

We'd had a fairy garden full of succulents out on our front porch all summer and it grew and grew and grew, in spite of my myriad faults as a gardener.  And I've always thought succulents were so pretty and slightly alien-esque, which endears them to me all the more.  Finally, my mom had an amazing, gorgeous jade plant and she offered to give me some cuttings, so it was settled: my mission to increase the greenery factor of my household was going to involve succulents.  Jade.  And in a fun, slightly intimidating twist, I was going to propagate the jade myself.  So, when I visited my parents for Thanksgiving, I took cuttings.  Here is Mother Jade and her hopeful offspring:

The plan was for that cut end to dry up and scar over and then for little roots to shoot forth in search of soil and a new home.  I set my cuttings in a dish out of the way where they wouldn't be bothered and I waited.  The cut end dried up.  I waited more.  It scarred over.  I waited some more.  And, behold!  Little roots did indeed shoot forth in their desire to thrive and grow and become part of a great, beautiful, living thing.  Except.  They did it wrong.

All of my jade babies sent out their new roots somewhere in the upper half of the cutting.  Down at the base of the stem, the end I planned to plant?  Nothing.  Valiant effort and all, guys, but that's not where I wanted you.  (Note: I didn't actually say that to the plant.  I don't talk to my plants...maybe that's why I have such a hard time with them: lack of communication is notoriously bad for relationships.)  Anyway, a little research seemed to indicate this was not necessarily the end of the road.  I could still work with this.  With some careful guidance and maybe some counseling, I could still raise a functioning adult jade.  Maybe even a happy one.  I don't know yet if I will succeed, but I'm not giving up.  Grow, little jade babies!  Thrive!  Be happy and fulfilled!

(Okay.  That whole metaphor got way out of hand.  And all because I had to go and refer to my mom's jade plant as Mother Jade.  I'll stop now.)

I did plant those cuttings today, though.  Some rooting hormone at the base of the stems and some bracing in their little pots to keep them stable while they put forth roots where it counts (in the soil this time, I hope)...and now all I can do is wait and see.      

(Except!  This whole jade thing occurred in tandem with some other thoughts I've been mulling over for a while now and it occurs to me that my propagation attempt gone awry makes a very nice metaphor for those other thoughts.  So I'll just begin again.)

My older daughter, Millie, recently told me she wants to write novels and is frustrated by the fact that everything she tries to write comes out like a children's story instead.  Too short.  Too simple.  Not quite the amazing, complex, and detailed epic she has in her head.  I can relate to this frustration, I told her.  Creative writing is tricky because it's not something you master by forcing into a box you've pre-selected.  Millie is a rule follower.  Revels in knowing exactly what the goal is and the precise steps with which to achieve it.  She gets that from me.  

This is a sad confession: some of the most satisfying writing I've done was for the job I worked before Millie was born.  Novels?  Scholarly treatises?  Greeting cards, at least?!  Nope.  I wrote a procedure manual.  And you know what?  Even though about zero people were excited to read it (but they had to anyway) and even though it's probably long obsolete (that job was ten years ago and the systems they were using then weren't exactly state-of-the-art, so I'm sure they've upgraded to new technologies, new procedures), I enjoyed writing it.  It was the sort of writing you can absolutely wrangle into a very small, very particularly shaped box.  Rules!  There are so many great rules you can impose on the structure of a procedure manual that is, itself, a list of rules.  And then there's that special satisfaction in phrasing something in such an exact way that it can't possibly be misunderstood or misapplied.  And in paring it down to be as concise and brief and straightforward as possible.  (I know what you're thinking.  This person has never written anything concise in her life.  Case in point: this post.  Okay.  Well, I was concise then.  Brevity was my superpower.  You'll just have to take my word for it.)

In general, though, most of the other sort of writing I've done has been more like my attempt to propagate jade.  Picture this: inspired by life or by art or by wild, improbable daydreams, you conceive an idea.  That's your cutting.  You make a note of it, you let it percolate, maybe you even outline a little bit.  That's your waiting period.  You're not full-on writing yet, but you're getting there.  Maybe this period lasts a good long while or maybe it's just until you get home and can sit down at the keyboard to get started.  In jade propagation, the waiting period between cutting and planting is important because your plant is likely to rot if you just straightaway stick the green, fresh end down into the soil.  It needs to cure a bit.  For writing, this waiting period simply means that not every idea you have will actually make it to the writing stage.  If you wrote a novel, an academic treatise, or a greeting card for every idea that popped into your head, your brain would rot.  Or your readers' brains would rot.  (This is a stretch, I know, but it's my metaphor and I'm sticking with it, okay?)  At some point, though, you're ready to move beyond an idea and actually do something with it.  The idea is demanding to be dealt with, looking for a greater context in which to thrive and grow.  To become part of a great, beautiful, living thing!  So exciting!  But then you go to plant it and discover the roots are all sticking out in the wrong places.  It's reaching out for a place to take root, sure, but not how you'd planned it to.  Not that character.  Not that tone.  Not that pace.  Whatever.  It's so easy at this point to decide it's just not working.  Darn.

But you can still give it a chance, I told Millie (and I tell myself).  You just have to keep working on it.  Rules are excellent.  A detailed plan is a comfort to many, myself included.  But if the creative flow starts to deviate from the plotted course, starts to demand attention in a direction that you didn't intend...well.  Go ahead and plant it, care for it, see how it grows.  It may not be the jade plant you pictured in your head at the outset, but it can still be a jade plant.  Maybe a smaller one.  Maybe a crooked one.  But...maybe a magnificent one!  You never know.  Maybe that plant will itself be a Mother Jade some day.  Maybe your (her, my) story will itself be inspiration for another artist some day.

ETA: This has been sitting in my drafts folder for a while because I intended to go back and edit it.  It wasn't supposed to be a long post about plants that turned into a ramble about creative writing.  But...since it is essentially about a thing going in a different direction than what was planned, I suppose it makes perfect sense for the post to have done so as well.  I'm just going to leave it as-is this time, relatively unedited, in the spirit of the advice I tried to give my daughter: Keep working at it and let it be what it ends up being.  New life that takes root in an unexpected place is still new life, still worth the effort.  And she has been writing.  Like crazy.  It makes me so happy.

As for my baby jades?  Essie, the bane of my houseplant population (apparently), knocked over my little pots and I had to replant them.  I don't know if that will have been their doom or if will turn out to not really matter.  Either way, I'm not turning it into a metaphor for anything.  Not this time.  You're welcome.

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