I think I am likely to kill the monstera in my bedroom. It sits in the corner near the windows on a stand that hopefully gives it unobstructed rays of sun. Each morning I dutifully open the curtains, and then the blinds, so the good light my apartment gets will help it grow. I test the soil with my fingers and mist the leaves. Sometimes I talk to it. I turn the pot to train it to twist the opposite direction so that it will not seek the sun so deeply to the left that it topples off the stand.

I bought those little glass globes that let it self-water when it needs to and pushed in natural fiber plant stakes so the aerial roots can have something to wrap around. I avoid letting the leaves rest against the wall or the chair next to the stand to avoid bruising or warping the leaves. But I am still convinced the monstera will die.

When I asked Mayra, our office admin, for a clipping of the large plant next to one of the windows she happily snipped off a bit and set it to propagate. It died in less than a week — adrift from the greater whole. When I relocated to Philadelphia I was the same — disconnected from my parents, sister, and friends in the pursuit of something new. I’d packed up my life and moved a few hundred miles away to ease my fears that if I didn’t leave I’d never know what was possible. I settled into an apartment so empty it echoed and set about trying to forget the worry of withering away among the energy of the city.

Mayra pressed the entire pot into my arms the next time I was in the office and my stomach sank. There is much responsibility in caring for a plant and too much room for error. I think who am I to take this life from its home and convince it to change the flow of its being for the sake of my own need to have a bit of something, a breath of fresh air or perhaps a vessel, to pour my anxiety into. Still, I tucked it into the backseat of my SUV and drove home, glancing at it in the rearview mirror like a small child I’d now been charged with raising.

I know plants move. They are alive and shift with their environment and it scares me. When I see time lapse videos of them, some sort of fear or unease creeps up from the depths. I am fascinated, but also oddly terrified. Perhaps it is because of the movement I can’t really perceive. How the leaves don’t seem to move under the naked eye. How the plant a few feet from my bed is steadily changing position — getting comfortable where I’ve placed it. Deciding if what I’ve provided is sufficient. Deciding if it will thrive. Or if it is time to die.

Like in M. Knight Shyamalan’s movie The Happening when the plants of the world decided they no longer wanted to remain complacent. Death after death was caused by them shifting the environment around the humans in the film — excreting some sort of chemicals that caused people to kill themselves in oddly creative ways. The Happening is not the best movie, far from it, but it speaks to my fear. That somehow the plants in my apartment are far more aware than I think they are and I must do everything I can to keep them alive. I don’t want to be a murderer. I don’t want them to suffer. I have so much anxiety in building my life in my new home that I pour it into the plants as an outlet. I think so go the plants, so goes my life. So I do what it takes to ease my nerves and keep them healthy. I suppose it is a win-win situation if not a wholly sustainable one.

I’ve lived in my apartment for five years — six years total in this building. Down on the third floor, my unit was at the back of the H-shaped structure and the light was nothing like here on the fourth, the top floor and now facing the street. Light pours in and often I am forced to pull the curtains to stop the glare. Things are golden here.

Summer is still a month away, but today the temperature peaks in the high 90s. The single wall unit air conditioner doesn’t keep my entire apartment cool. I close the doors between all the rooms to trap the icy air in the living room. In the bedroom I’ve propped box fans into the open windows. They seem to pull the heavy, hot air inside and the monstera leaves move in the currents. I dig my fingers into the dirt of each plant in my apartment to test the moisture of the soil. They are dry so I soak them well with water I’ve let sit and warm in old Simply lemonade bottles. A few of the plants need new pots, but the last time I repotted one the next few weeks leaves fell off in droves and I settled into the fact it would die. Just like the plant, I’ve struggled a bit in my new environment. There have been times I’ve hidden away and isolated because I was uncomfortable in this unfamiliar place.

I tell a friend about my anxiety that I will kill this plant by repotting it — uprooting it and swapping the pot for one that is bigger but not necessarily better. He says that I have to be doing something right if most of the plants are still surviving. He has his own green thumb and some days on FaceTime he props his phone up on his desk and lets me see his plants sprouting and growing under perfect conditions. He holds the camera above the leaves other times and I get a close up view of what could happen if I just put a little bit of science into the care of the six plants I own. The largest of them has grown so tall I guess by the end of the summer its leaves may touch the ceiling. Presently, it is taller than me. Mayra gave this one to me, too. And when she did it fit neatly into my arms. I suppose I have to be doing something right.

He tells me about plant food and pH balances for the water and my stomach sinks again. I have to get used to death, I tell him. Not because I want the plants to die or plan on doing anything to kill them, but because there are so many things in my brain that actually impact my day-to-day life that worrying about whether the plant’s leaves continue to yellow and shrivel is one thing too many. This can be an exercise in letting go. The monstera is still alive with only one leaf slightly yellowing at the tip. I can be proud of that. He asks me to try to save the other one and ships me a fabric pot that will help it with room to grow. I prop the plant in the corner of my living room and pack a few handfuls of new dirt around its base. It grows like a weed — so tall that when I turn the heat on for the winter one of the leaves covers the vent and gets burned dark brown.

I start talking to this one, too. Tell it I am proud of it and that it is beautiful. It starts to throw new leaves so often I am convinced this is some precursor to a great tragedy. I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I worry that things are going too well and I’m getting too comfortable with this new growth spurt. I don’t want to get attached, but I am. I keep up with the routine because the worry about the plants dying is seeming to become balanced with the sense of acceptance it is giving me. I know what I can offer now, to myself and the plants, and it has to be enough. I know my intentions about their survival and just maybe I’m starting to believe the best way to help something grow into its full potential is to give it what it needs with a healthy dose of space. I moved to this building, to Philadelphia, because I needed space and room to grow. I left behind the safety and familiarity of my hometown because everything felt too tight. I moved here because I wanted to unfurl and twist toward my own light. Whatever came of it was all up to me.

I don’t worry too much about whether I will kill any of the plants anymore. Not the towering dieffenbachia in the living room corner. Or the trailing vines of the pothos on the mantle above the TV. Not even the majesty palms in the dining room that seem to survive even when every single leaf seems to crunch to nothing when I touch them. I don’t worry because I’ve let myself find some measure of peace in knowing there are things I can’t control nor do I want to. I think I’ve found a balance between the obsessive need to provide the perfect environment for the plants and knowing perfection doesn’t exist. This carries into my own life. This apartment, far away from where I began, fits so much better than I ever expected. I had the basics I needed to blossom back home. All the love, light, and support I could stand, but it is here where I’ve started to truly come into my own. I know now that I will not wither away or shrink in the brightness of the world.

Now, I worry that there is a natural end to the plants’ cycle — not lack of water or soil — but rather the pot is too small or the light too dim to contain or nurture all the plants can be. I can only do so much before it is all out of my hands. This is what I am working on. Letting go of the anxiety that I have to keep the world around me alive as if the people and plants cannot do their own thriving. Like I’m doing the very best I can for myself. It’s coming to terms with the idea that if this plant dies then it dies. The world will not end nor stop spinning nor will I crumble with the plant. Life would go on, just changed.

I decide to repot the living room plant one more time and hope it survives this shift. I stuff the fabric pot into a giant brass one that gives the roots plenty of room and looks good in the golden light. The weight of the plant’s growth is so heavy that it is now starting to arch over and I rig a series of poles and ties to keep it balanced. The leaves now really do touch the ceiling. I think it is over seven feet tall. The monstera in my bedroom has thrown new leaves, too. Instead of growing up, it grows out — spreading like an open hand. Some of the leaves still crane toward the sun and others have flipped upside down like they are shying away from the brightness. Only one leaf has died. I guess I’m still doing something right.

I now open the curtains before I do anything else each morning and leave them open until it is time for me to go to bed. The monstera stills leans heavily to the left — arching toward the light no matter how I’ve tried to train it. So, I let it be. I mist the leaves and test the dirt and avoid moving it too much more. It should move on its own — slowly and in private — until it finds the best way to gather the sun.


Image: Fensterblatt (Monstera deliciosa) by Maja Dumat, licensed under CC 2.0.

Athena Dixon
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