To my amazement, my dad never mentioned the plants, and their branches were—through some miracle-- voluptuously green again by the time I next passed through. I considered it a stroke of undeserved good luck, and, determined not to press it, swore I’d never agree to care for plants again. Yet, some time later, my friend was so enthused about her houseplant hobby—and convinced I’d develop a love for it, too—that she took the risk of putting me in charge during those three days of watering… and then bestowed a plant upon me as a housewarming gift when I moved into a new apartment that same year. It was all downhill from there.
She said it was a plant that couldn’t die. It was one of those genetically modified self-sustaining plants that require neither water nor sun on a regular basis to thrive. But left in my care, it was dead in a week. I mean… dead. Even an all-night water-basin soaking couldn’t save it. I’d been hired, as a babysitter, to care for dozens of other people’s children by then, and nurtured starving shelter cats into fat feline lovesluts. But plants? I clearly lacked the touch.
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But now I’m back (cue ominous thundering?). I’ve raised my own child from a baby to a toddler—clearly, I’m not just a death-trap by default. And I’ve been reading books about gardening to Kaspar since he was tiny. I obviously still value the enterprise. There’s a part of me that keeps coming back to it. When we moved into our house this fall, I surveyed the back yard and decided that it’s high time I got over my cultivar curse… and got my home gardening on.
I can do this, damnit. I can grow plants!
Which brings me to step one. Compost! Now this I can do. While I gather the information necessary to embark on planting a garden over the next several months, all of our family’s fruit and vegetable food scraps (plus egg shells, plus some cardboard matter for a healthy carbon/nitrogen balance) will be transformed into rich, nutritive soil by way of a compost barrel in our backyard. (I wanted a worm composter in our kitchen, but Aaron wasn’t into it). We actually started composting a couple of months ago, having noticed that about 90% of our family’s garbage load consisted of decomposable matter. I like that we’re making positive use of what would otherwise just be thrown away. I like that this ‘trash’ is, in reality, the makings of food-growing ‘gold’: high quality soil. I also like that it’s pretty hard to mess composting up.
This appeals to me on a metaphorical level, too. As the new year approaches and I turn potential resolutions over in my mind, I’ve been thinking somewhat differently about self-improvement, goal fulfillment and the stuff resolutions are made of. Bad habits are notoriously hard to break, and attempting to get rid of the parts of ourselves we feel aren’t helpful to us, and aren’t a part of who we’d ideally like to be, seems like the way most of us approach change at this time of year. But how often is that approach really successful? What if we’re all collectively trashing (or attempting to trash) parts of ourselves that could instead be… composted?
In an essay about a traditional Jewish concept known as the yetzer hara, “the evil impulse that is also the source of all creativity and passion,” child psychologist Wendy Mogel introduces the concept with respect to parents’ concerns about their kids’ ‘bad’ behavior. She writes, “the yetzer hara is a warehouse for our curiosity, ambition and potency—it’s the yeast in the dough. Jewish wisdom teaches us that our child’s unique yetzer hara contains the blueprint for her greatness. Our job as parents is clear-cut, if not simple. We are to identify these traits and ‘remove stumbling blocks before the blind’ so that our children’s yetzer hara can be channeled and expressed in a constructive rather than destructive way.”
I suspect that reframing our thinking in this way can be as liberating for ourselves as it is for our kids. Positive change doesn’t have to mean completely ridding ourselves of our perceived faults. It may instead mean identifying the traits that aren’t helpful to us and finding what parts of them might be transformed into something positive. This will likely take time, and the process won’t always be pretty (neither, of course, is compost), but our own ‘yetzer hara’ elements can indeed re-emerge in a new season as the nourishing ground beneath our personal growth.
I’ve decided to reframe my destructive personal history with plants—bonsai incident and all— as a bit of yetzer hara that I can channel constructively in the coming months before spring. As our family’s food scraps devolve back into dirt, I’ll mirror the process in my own evolution into a home gardener extraordinaire… or at least successful beginner. My wintertime goals, with respect to this, are three-fold: I’ll look for lessons in my bygone gardening mishaps, and start studying up on how to keep plants alive. I’m also going to try my hand at growing herbs again, though this time I’ll begin indoors, where rainstorms can’t drown them. Lastly, I’m planning to take on a house plant to call my own. I’m determined not to kill it. When spring finally rolls around, I’ll be armed with the knowledge, confidence and beautifully composted soil to start up a vegetable garden.
Do you have a garden? Indoor plants? A compost pile? I want to know if you’re growing things! Give up your green thumb secrets below!