Keeping Plants — And Love — Alive


Everything I’m about to tell you about plants is likely wildly inaccurate. I’m not a botanist. I’m not even a great gardener. I’m a mediocre keeper of plants. Most of them are still alive, and some of them even thrive. Mostly, I try to figure it out as I go because this isn’t exactly my area of expertise.

I’m about to make a parallel to my love life, and I just want to say, for the record, that as far as I know, all my exes are still living. I don’t know if they’re thriving since I don’t keep tabs. I don’t really know anything about love or relationships either, so I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. Sometimes, it feels like more than my fair share. Still, I keep learning and growing.

Lately, I started assessing the health of my plants, trying to figure out why so few of them make it. I show them love. I water them often and make sure they get enough light. I’m attentive to them — and not just when they’re dying either. I started to wonder if it was possible to be over-caring for them. Too much water? Too much sun? Most of them are succulents, and I’m learning that too much love just means another dead plant.

I started to joke that maybe this is a lesson for my love life, one I would likely disregard. But then I had to over-think about it. There did seem to be a grain of truth in it. If I’m honest, there was more than a grain.

I love hard. I always have. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that I grew up knowing that love, in my experience, was conditional. That made it unstable. When I loved, I loved with all my heart. Old ladies at my parents’ church, every stray animal that crossed my path, my toys, my friends — everyone I loved, I loved well.

I grieve hard, too. I don’t take losses in stride. I remember being a child and hearing that one of the elderly ladies at church who I only knew enough to hug when I’d see her had passed away. I remember standing in my closet so that I could cry in private, clutching dresses hanging there to try to hold myself up as the grief pulled me down. I cried silent tears so no one would hear how hard it hit me, how much it hurt. Maybe that’s when I learned that loving someone meant letting them hurt you, however inadvertently.

I could have loved less, given people a wide berth so that I would never feel that way again. Instead, I loved even harder because life was short, and everyone I loved could be lost. If I could love them enough, maybe I couldn’t stave off the inevitable grief, but I could know that I did everything possible to show them that they were loved and cherished in their time here.

My love was a net I cast out over the people in my life, but it covered nature, too. Animals. The Earth beneath my feet, the clouds in the sky, the falling rain. I loved the sound of storms and the clear day and every kind of weather. I ran fast but stopped to smell every flower in bloom, and I practiced mindfulness long before I knew what it was or that it had a name. I was an intense little thing that grew into an intense adult, and even though partners would come and go who would break my heart, I still — even now — love hard.

But I look at a succulent I’m clearly murdering, and I figure out that I’ve loved it too hard, cared too much. It wanted so much less of my attention, and I began to wonder if my enthusiasm for love could be interpreted as smothering rather than nurturing. No one was saying it, but in a moment of insight, I realized that if different plants have different needs, so do different people.

I’ve needed what I always have — love that is steadfast. Love that doesn’t make me worry and wonder. Love that loves me for me, not some illusion or pedestaled princess. Love without conditions. Just love.

But I’ve failed to take into consideration the varied languages and interpretations of love. I’ve done what I’ve needed to do, but I didn’t ask myself if it’s delivery could be over-caring, drowning the foundation we built.

Growing up, we had a basement that flooded every time it rained for any length of time. We knew that we couldn’t keep important things there, at least not on ground level. We knew that any rainy weather meant a massive cleanup after, and anything left carelessly on the floor would be thrown away if it couldn’t be salvaged. Too much rain meant rot. Decay. Precious things lost forever. It meant waterlogged memories and too much work to make it right again.

I have no idea why the root of the problem was never fixed enough to stop it, but then I look at the root of my own problems. I feel like I’ve been patching leaks, but the cause of my need to love so hard remains unrepaired, and every solid rain could let in the damp, the flood, the eventual decay and inevitable repairing of the damage caused by failing to look at my own issues and resolve them.

When we don’t work to heal our trauma, we tend to unknowingly cause more damage — in ourselves and others. Our partners can’t fix it, and no amount of focusing purely on the symptoms will heal the cause. Loving hard isn’t the problem. Seeing a wound and knowing that I’m neglecting to heal it? That could cause damage — for myself as much as anyone else. I feel like I’m keeping an existential crisis alive, rather than ever coming out of crisis mode just to live.

I’m incapable of being careless, ungrateful, or neglectful in relationships, but I wonder if I could relax a little more in loving and being loved — if I could learn to trust that relaxing into love won’t mean that the walls will cave in on me. That it’s not entirely on me to hold them up.

I’ve already said I don’t know anything about love or relationships, but I’m learning how to exist in them. I’m learning how to identify my triggers, and I guess I’m just not as interested in patching up problems as I am in tracing them back to the source. How do I nurture without smothering, give space without neglecting?

I look at my plants, and I know that it’ll take practice. It’ll take being open to doing things in a different way and learning to love not less but more gently. It will take learning this particular partner rather than assuming I know what I’m doing. And it will take a measure of grace — for myself and for the girl in me that has always loved so hard for so many hard reasons.

This article was brought to you by PS I Love You. Relationships Now.