After trauma, you must remake yourself.
You must decide: this is who I will be.
The purple queen, like so many others, came from my school’s greenhouse. The greenhouse is a little cement bunker; leaves press wild against the windows. The air is humid, plants exhaling over you like benediction. The greenhouse is four rooms and a long hallway. The first room is like a rainforest, and you can walk through it, sidle under the fruiting banana tree, squeeze past the overgrown pathos, its leaves intricate like they’ve been hole punched. The plants here are huge and call to mind something ancient and alive, something a little menacing. Hibiscus blooms in the back corner, birds of paradise in its shadow.
The second room is full of rarities, pitcher plants and papyrus, mimosa plants that flinch back and close if you stroke their soft leaves. On a table rests venus fly traps, grown by the biology students. The next room is full up with desert plants, spiked and dangerous. They sit on tiered shelves, a horseshoe of arid life. In the corner is an agave plant the size of a human, big enough that it must have been growing for decades. I imagine it is thousands of years old. You can often find the greenhouse tortoise, Snorkel, here. Snorkel is ancient and albino. His dinosaur arms bend fantasy-like on the concrete as he roams.
The fourth room is orchids and bananas, bromeliads and tiny pineapple bushes. In the central hall is a tall metal shelf full of plant starts. The starts are clipped off from the plants in the other rooms, little samples you can take home and, with the right water and sun conditions, make as vibrant as their ancestors.
One winter day I plucked up a purple queen in a tiny pot, a plastic thing that couldn’t have held more than two inches of dirt. The purple queen is a trailing plant with almond shaped leaves. It’s one of the easiest houseplants to care for, because the leaves themselves will tell you if they’re getting enough sun. They turn purple with enough light, a deep royal color you wouldn’t think could exist without some kind of dye, fantastical in nature. If kept in too much shadow the leaves revert to green, a return to a time before magic.
The purple queen hangs from a ceiling hook in a hanging pot I bought for a dollar at a yard sale. It stretches towards the back door, the only source of light in my college living room. I bought a sprig of it, but now it trails out of the pot in all directions, gone wild in its desire to live.
You will find things to fill your days, things that bring joy, things that combat the sort of darkness that will never leave you. This is the way you survive. This is the way you out run it.
I like the idea of bulbs. My grandfather tells me I can keep bulbs and tubers over winter in vermiculite, a sandy substance that smells like unused cat litter. This feels akin to having a root cellar. Root cellars seem magical, the idea that just by sticking something back in the ground you can preserve it for long months. That apples could retain their flavor by hiding for a while. I desperately want a root cellar, someplace to hang garlic braids, but I live in an apartment. The best I have is watching my tulips flower and die off, watching them return to the bulb that sprang them and then digging it up, nestling it away amongst the vermiculite, waiting for spring to summon it up out of the thaw again.
It may be true that you feel like the darkness will never stop, that you will see the old days like visions for the rest of your life, and maybe you don’t feel worthy to find something new. Maybe you don’t feel stuck in the past so much as part of it, a time traveler who is slipping between dimensions. Nevermind. Continue anyway. These feelings will fade, you must tell yourself. These feelings will fade. Stick your hands in the dirt. These feelings will fade.
The plants that hang on the wall are all dried, wrapped in paper towels and placed in the August sun until they are ghosts of their living selves. It started with the stick. It’s a long stick, three feet or more, although it arcs to the right and hides its true length. I found it in a friend’s back yard when I was helping them dig a rock garden. It was buried just beneath the surface, a branch or root of the Pacific Nine Bark, a tree so named because its bark comes in layers, each a different color. It was beautiful from the beginning, but when I rinsed it and rubbed it clean with a washcloth, it was stunning, pale rose wood fading into silver and tan. I brought it home and hung it on my wall.
For a while it was bare, but then came the flowers. Dried sunflowers from a birthday bouquet. Hydrangeas from a friend’s back yard. Roses and snippets of flowering grass.
Now there’s leaves, too, and feathers from crows and magpies, a chicken quill I found in a coop. A friend made me a shadowbox featuring a stanza from Tolkien’s “The Road Goes Ever On,” and this hangs beside the stick. A cottonwood twig sits on top; a bit of wood gone smooth from the river hangs beside.
The wall keeps growing, more and more trinkets to be wound around the bark, affixed with twine and glue. I keep finding splendor outside. I keep needing more of it to make me whole.
Trauma will give you an intense and conflicting set of beliefs. You are worthless and capable of very little; you can take much more pain than other people. You have no purpose, but your purpose is to help others.
(Maybe I’m saying you when I mean me. Maybe this is what trauma taught me, and maybe it teaches everyone something different. Maybe I am hiding behind generalization.)
The hens and chicks are from my parent’s yard. My grandmother placed them there 10 years ago, back before she died, when she was still bringing plants to our yard like it was an extension of her own. The yard came with the trailer we purchased to escape the basement where we all almost gave up, or did give up, or maybe gave up and started again. The trailer was a new start. I knew I wanted that house the moment I saw the shasta daisies. The house had been empty for months and the yard was crisp in the western Washington summer, but the daisies were lush, huge white petals around sunshine middles. I loved them. They promised me things would change.
Besides the daisies, the yard was mostly grass and dirt, with a splotch of wild roses in the corner. My grandparents planted sedum and flowering pear and banana trees and bamboo. Everything grew tall and wild. The septic system under the trailer was broken, the drainage field leaking out into the yard, which meant the dirt was wildly fertile. One day my grandma brought over an orange plastic tub full of hens and chicks, a succulent that can survive anything. Its Latin name is sempervium, which means always living. Romans believed sempervium would protect buildings from lightning strikes. She brought over a guard against what would strike us.
I moved out of the trailer long before my parents, but eventually they left too, for a house on a hill in the woods, the house they had wanted since before the basement. When they left, I begged them to save the hens and chicks.
They were still in the pot my grandmother had brought over all those years back. They had never been fed, and were only watered by the rain, sometimes flooded and sometimes drought stricken. But they were flourishing, the dirt full of worms, a plant’s best sign of health. I took some for myself, the absences barely noticeable in the cramped pot.
I keep them outside my door now. I still believe they will protect me.
Which is good, because if trauma shatters anything, it’s that sense of safety. That belief that everything will be okay. You know it won’t. You have seen it all go to pieces. You keep on seeing it when you close your eyes.
I keep a garden journal. I keep it as I keep all my journals, which is to say sporadically and with long absences. I got the journal from my grandfather, a cast-off in his garage sale box. It has a purple cover, and each page has a delicate flower illustration, Latin name and soft lines, light as pencil strokes. The first few pages are scattered with my Grandmother’s writing. She’s gone now. On the day I found out she was dying, I cried in the back room of the airport bookstore where I worked. My manager held me, and then she sent me home. I don’t remember much of the hospital. I remember asking my cousin to water the daisies by the back door, the last plant I bought for my grandmother.
Her notes are nothing special—phone numbers, dentist appointments. But I fill the pages with notes on my garden, and later with dried specimens, pansies and marigolds. I want to keep these so I remember what I grew, later when it is gone.
Trauma will leave you struggling to love yourself.
Perhaps you will feel like a pile of glass pieces, all smashing each other into an impossible mess of smaller and smaller shards. Perhaps you will feel wrong and broken, like something rotted in you at too young an age to ever be set right. Perhaps you will not recognize yourself in the mirror, will see a stranger instead of a self. Perhaps the way you feel is nothing like any of these analogies, but the sadness sings the same. Perhaps you will question yourself at every spark of joy, like by killing your joy, you could discover its murderer.
But when you are planting something, there is no need to question. Your urge to repot a viola is not based in anything but nurture, but care. This is the gift plants give to you: they shine back a beautiful version of yourself, a thing you do not struggle to love.
I found the spider plant in the laundry room at my college apartment. There were two of them, crazy with new growth, in front of a cardboard sign that said free. I dropped my dirty clothes to inspect the plants. It was dangerous, I knew; homeless plants can be full of spider mites or rust, can infect the rest of your garden quicker than you can neem oil the infestation away. But I believe in gathering up lonely things in my arms. I took one and texted some friends about the other orphan.
Spider plants are a familiar house plant, good for oxygenating the air. They grow new sprouts at the bottom of the their long leaves, little tangles of green. You can leave those tangles there and the plant will grow into a hanging bush of sorts. But I took them off, replanted each one in the dirt and let them grow up over the edge of the pot, hanging down towards the sofa.
I neem oiled the plants, stroked their long fronds with a soft cloth to knock off any hanging mites. It was still a risk. I would never know what was growing in the dirt. But I would see the spider plant grow full and lively, a soft green so pleasing it almost seems fake, reaching down towards me, maybe in gratitude.
Plants can serve as a touchstone, a marker of good places. You will find them in libraries, school buildings, on the desk of attentive receptionists. Maybe you will wonder about their health, if their pots are big enough, if the room gets enough sunlight, if the plants have been fertilized lately. But maybe you can just appreciate them, the geraniums on the first floor of the language building, the christmas cactus on the new fiction shelf, the way coleus and pansies fill the planters on Main Street as soon as spring arrives. They are everywhere, everywhere. They tell you that you’re safe.
The dragon tree was on clearance at Fred Meyer. I haunt the garden clearance section. I am always hoping to find something new and different, some root-bound thing that needs a home. I feel a physical pang of pity whenever I see an unhappy plant, something so hungry for room or sustenance.
I buy the tree for three bucks. Dragon trees are small; mine was around a foot and a half, a skinny tan trunk climbing up into spiky, tri-colored leaves. It drank thirstily, at first because it was so root bound that there was barely any dirt to hold the water, and later because it was just thirsty, always seeking reassurance that the water would come.
The dragon tree lived by the TV in a plank pot. I named it Maui, and a nearby tropical thing was called Moana. It towered over its domain. I misted its leaves regularly to replace the moisture that the dry eastern air stole away.
The dragon tree lived with me until Steph announced that hers had died. Steph loves dragons. There are dragons all over her house. Dragons star in her book. She has custom dragon converse. She needed the tree.
“Take it,” I said.
“Are you sure? You love your plants,” she said.
But I was sure. I loaded it into her car. And when I visited her house, I found it on the counter, vibrant against the kitchen cabinets, luxuriating in the damp west. “Hello,” I said, and stroked one green leaf, edged in red.
People leave. You have learned this the hard way. You have watched things, people or relationships or cherished items you wished to house within the safety of your arms for the rest of your days, shatter. Maybe you were the one shattering. Maybe what you wished to save was some last piece of you, something good and dear and true, and maybe you watched that break, disappear forever.
But some plants will come back every year without you so much as looking at them. Some things are so sustainable.
I only have the plot at the community garden for a summer. I’ll move away before harvest time the next year, and so will grow my tomatoes in pots instead. But that summer I dabble in farming, plant a skinny tomato bush, sweet onions, eggplant and watermelon, plus some failed peas—failed because I wanted them to be snap peas and they were not. My plot was 4x6, a raised bed. I spent the hot summer hours weeding, yanking out the thorns and vines that grew relentlessly where I did not plant them. The community garden was irrigated automatically, but I came by often enough to give my watermelon something extra, to offer reprieve from the scorch of the sun. Soon enough I was coming to harvest. The skinny tomato sprouted into a wild tangle of arms and fruit, bright orange cherry tomatoes tumbling under leaves and hiding in clusters. I took home gallons and gallons of them, sweet enough to pop into your mouth and make a summer meal out of. By the end of the season, I had given up on finding new ways to eat them, had let them lie to fertilize the dirt.
I didn’t know if I could grow eggplant, but they came out deep purple and firm, and I took them home and fried them. Something ate half the sweet onions, a rat or a deer, but I added the others to a stir fry. The watermelon came last. I harvested them too early, and although there was more fruit, the frost came before it was mature. Still, I was delighted to see the thick vines sprout from seed, grow to fill the garden bed and then spill over the sides so that I had to guide them with stakes, keep them from tripping people along the path.
Even writing about this I ache, imagine my porch lined up with plants this spring. I imagine buying half a dozen giant black pots, planting tomatoes and potatoes and sweet summer corn. Some of these will work in constraint and some of them won’t, but that isn’t the point. The point is how spring calls it all back, brings the fresh dirt smell to life in you, makes your blood sing the joys of new growth.
Jennifer has lived in the Pacific Northwest for all but the first two weeks of her life, so she likes to cheat and say that she is born and raised. She grew up south of Seattle along 167, and later moved to Olympia. Jennifer is now finishing up a degree on the east half of the state in Ellensburg.