The first year we were married, the Russian and I decided to get nice Christmas gifts for our mothers. And because we live down near Pittsburgh and our families don’t, we thought we’d splurge and get each mom a little collection of IKEA goodies. Among the things we decided to get for my mom, there was a large potted succulent, a crassula—or jade plant—which for some reason we named Bob Jr.
It was a dreary December day, and the cold wind cut across the enormous parking lot and found every possible chink in our coats, freezing everything it could touch. We dumped all the stuff in the car and placed Bob Jr. behind the passenger seat. Then we set off toward home, weaving out of the labyrinth of cars. Just as we were taking the sharp turn onto the highway, we heard the little skid, pop, and whoosh of Bob Jr. falling over and dumping his soil onto the carpet.
“&*^$!@*&$#?%, Bob Jr.!” my husband exclaimed in a sudden burst of emotion. Then we started laughing, because he had just cussed out a succulent, because we were so unreasonably angry with this succulent, and because we had named the succulent Bob Jr. And you can’t get too mad with a plant named Bob Jr.
Bob Jr. inadvertently started a trend, not of spilled plants in the car, but of naming every plant I get. Over the past year or so, I’ve developed a real obsession with succulents, and it’s a tad worrying. Someone could come to my house, see the little pots lined up on the bookshelf, and remark, “Oh I love your plants!” To which I’d reply, “Thanks! That’s Ophelia, Lyle, Ned, Happy, Dusty, and Kelly. There’s Alice and Titus and Fred Jr. and Ramone, and over there on the windowsill is Little Leonard.” To which they’d promptly leave.
I often joke that the succulents are just filling in until I have pets or children. And I admit the whole business is odd. At the store I pick out a succulent that just, you know, speaks to my soul, and then I wait to name it until a name comes to mind that I really think encompasses the plant’s character. I know, it’s weird. But something about looking over and seeing the little pots lined up on the bookshelf is so satisfying, so homey. Succulents are just so happy.
Of course, sometimes they’re not so happy. Every few months there’s a slew of deaths, a mourning period (I’m mostly kidding; don’t send help. Send help), and a new round of plants. It’s a little, constantly evolving family. And it’s a challenge as I try to figure out what a succulent from the desert needs in the schizophrenic weather of western Pennsylvania. I experiment with watering too much or not enough, I learn from my mistakes of not repotting or of leaving out in the sun too long, and I try to be patient when I can’t tell if my efforts will produce a thriving plant or one that rots to death.
(This lovely echeveria was such a casualty. I didn’t even get to the naming process. Tears.)
Sometimes I’ve found that too much care is exactly what signs the death warrant. It’s the hardest thing to sit back and let the plant do its thing, but it’s way stronger and more beautiful when I do.
My succulent saga is like a lot of things, but it very much reminds me of the writing process. Writing creates all these little microcosms you feel responsible for, all these little worlds you want to name and coddle and love so they grow into full-blown, gorgeous tapestries of literary lushness.
But writing doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you have to sit back and let the story do its thing. You have to let it stretch its roots down in your mind, let the root system grow massive and entwined. This usually happens when you don’t realize it. It usually happens as you read and watch TV and write crappy-looking first drafts. As you talk to people and laugh and cry. As you live your life day by day. As you doubt that you really are a writer, because you’re not producing a brilliantly rich work of art every time you sit at the keyboard. It’s frustrating. It sucks.
But at some point the roots that have been weaving together under the surface start to support a plant up top. The visible product of all that preparing, waiting, and living grows and flourishes. And that’s when writing becomes really fun. That’s when writing becomes magical and real. That’s when you realize that it was never your job to make the plant grow, but to be there to enjoy it when it does.
So thanks, Bob Jr. I’m sorry we swore at you.