why not just like it?

Some years ago, I bought a bunch of houseplants at one of the big box stores and most of them have done well. Or at least, the ones I still have can be said to have done well. I don’t remember the ones I may have lost along the way. I don’t take particularly good care of them. I go for too long without watering. I am inconsistent with pruning. Despite my carelessness, a few have thrived.

I attend to a long overdue repotting project. I set up in the kitchen. It is quite a production. First dragging out the oversized bag of potting soil, then the perlite, then the sphagnum moss. Preparing the new mix with shovelsful of each, blending in my largest mixing bowl. Then washing the old containers, then filling them half full. The gentle extraction of the plant from the old pot. Distressing the roots to prepare them for their new soil. Situating, re-positioning. Covering over the roots, tamping down. And then finally, a soft soaking spray of water from the pull-out hose of the kitchen tap. It is a messy task. There is wet soil on the counter, the floor, on my arms. I repeat this four times. There are a few more plants that are ready for larger pots, but I have tired of this particular domestic chore and there are others to attend to, so the rest will have to wait for another weekend.

I have come to appreciate the comforts to be taken in these repetitive household tasks. The opportunity they present to still the part of the mind otherwise churning with questions, self-doubt, wandering down paths of memory best left undisturbed. To focus on a sequence of orderly steps. To see a series of actions through to a visible conclusion. I am not, of course, saying anything new.

It has been difficult, being back. The cold does not help. This year, this protracted winter, I have felt the cold in my bones, felt it creep through my body, chilling the blood. It is hard to remember warmth. It is hard to remember even the bright sun of a few days ago, its thin heat so fleeting. Then again, I have been told that I do not do well in making the best of things. I have been told that I expect too much.

In a conversation several years ago, I was bemoaning some part of my work that I did not enjoy. “I don’t like to do this,” I said to M. We were in the kitchen; I was working at something on the counter. I had a litany of complaints. When I paused, he asked: “Why not just like it?” and we laughed at first. But his question has lingered with me in its direct, almost absurd simplicity: Why not just like it?

I have tried, since then, to embrace this challenge, delivered even as I know it was, in half-jest. Attempting to turn in my mind: “I don’t like making small talk at cocktail parties,” to: “I enjoy meeting new people and learning about their interests.” From: “I am anxious in unfamiliar situations and my anxiety can sometimes immobilize me,” to: “I welcome the opportunity to overcome my fears and to practice new skills.”

It seems silly now, to see these things written down. But I must admit that there have been occasions on which these little tricks of mind have made a considerable difference.

There was a time when I was more caught up in the trappings of domesticity. When I ironed in the evenings, sewed dresses for my daughter. One might speculate on what I was trying to do – create a kind of order in what felt otherwise like chaos. I was in my twenties, having recently lost my mother, then my father. Transitioning from graduate school to some kind of “real” life. Transitioning from married to not. And then later, to married again. One might speculate. Things fell apart. I have put them, to the extent possible, back together.

In a letter, a friend once said: “I am angry all the time. I am nearly always filled with rage.” I thought: How odd to say such a thing. And that can’t possibly be true. At the gym, I listen to a radio interview where men in their thirties talk about a project they started and they say it came from a place of anger. “That’s where the writing comes from,” one of them says, “this rage.”

On the way home, I think about this. Is that where the writing comes from?

I try to think about the ways in which I am angry, but instead, I think about sadness and I find myself tearful in the shower. There is something satisfying, I think about weeping with water flowing down all around you. I let it go on.

So, you’re driving along in a right-turn-only lane. There is a traffic light, a right-turn arrow, and it’s red. It’s early. There are hardly any cars on the road. No one coming, no one behind you. But the light is red. Do you turn?

I wait. But I think about turning. I count to ten. I scan the road. Still no one. Now that I have considered turning but decided to wait, I have become a bit invested in the waiting. I am now, in a way, committed to obeying the traffic signal, am I not? The seconds pass.

I chastise myself. Why not just go? But then I think: Shouldn’t the rules of the road be followed, even when there is no one else around? Even when there is no one watching?

Am I angry all the time? It is hard to know with certainty. I have read that an inability to express anger appropriately can lead to depression. That suppressed rage can manifest indirectly. What do I have to be angry about really, I ask myself. And what good does it to do be angry about things over which I have no control?

As I acclimate myself to middle-age, I am struck by how difficult it is to let certain things go. Certain beliefs about oneself, certain investments in particular narratives about one’s own life and its possibilities. I am a victim of circumstance. I am one who is always left behind. I am lovable or unlovable. I am skilled or unskilled at one thing or another. I am too ambitious or not ambitious enough. I am impractical. I am selfish. I will never be able to …

If there is a persistent anger (or perhaps I can refer to it more gently as a “frustration”) it is one born of grief. Of mourning the shapeless, inarticulate possibilities one’s life may have at one time seemed to present; potential at its most abstract, unrelated to action or consequence.

As one moves on, building a life one decision after another; erecting the scaffolding for the platform from which one views the landscape, one small stone (Do I turn now or do I wait?), one steel beam at a time, shapeless possibilities fall away and the vista increasingly becomes determined by one’s vantage point (How high the scaffolding? And the platform, oriented in what direction?)

The plants are at their most vulnerable after re-potting, so I try to situate them where they can receive an infusion of bright, filtered light. I check the soil each day for moisture, turn the pots so that they do not grow only in one direction, reaching, as they will, for the light. I check the leaves. I trim the brown ends of palm fronds. So far, they appear as though they will do well.