During the height of the pandemic, when every rhythm and routine of all our lives were tossed around and thrown out, I was desperate for simple, repetitive acts to keep me grounded and sane. So I clung to the two things everyone else seemed to gravitate toward: baking bread and cultivating indoor plants.
So many essays and sermons could be written on the meaningful process of bread-making, but it’s becoming a plant parent that’s got me pondering these days.
It all began with a snake plant from my sister-in-law. It was easy, low maintenance, and it added just the right amount of happy green to the kitchen where it hung. It grew with each watering, and over time, it even sprouted its own little baby snake plant to its side. Proud doesn’t begin to describe the joy I felt.
As death and loss and grief divided and conquered our weary hearts, I began to invest in more plants: a neon pothos plant for the living room, a golden one for the bedroom, a waxy emerald peperomia for the bathroom, a baby zz for my son’s desk, and a heart leaf fern for my daughter’s. I wanted to fill every corner of the house with as many plants as possible, as if I could fight off death with more life.
Years seemed to pass by as the pandemic wore on, but each new leaf on my plants had me clapping with delight. Every day, I’d spritz them with water, say nice things to them, and wipe down their leaves. Every month, I’d gather them into the shower to give them a bath, and all of it filled me with happiness, no matter how brief.
But then winter came. The watering schedule became unstable. The soil wasn’t drying out as evenly or as quickly as it had been. Plants that had once thrived started to shrivel up one yellowing leaf at a time. Tiny mites began to show up, gnats started to form and buzz around the house, and one by one, my plants began to die.
With shame and yet relief, I left some outside on the curb to get picked up by someone else who could better love them. Others just ended up in the trash bin. Then, over time, I started to dread caring for them altogether. I’d watch the pothos leaves lose their vigor, and only when I knew the plant would die otherwise, I would water it. I recently found my resilient snake plant had turned yellow, and when I tried to pull off one of the yellowing stalks, the whole plant came apart from its roots. I had overwatered it after neglecting it, and now it was gone forever.
Hoping these last several years has felt a bit like caring for my plants. There have been times when hope seemed alive and well — or at least, easier — when gatherings at the table were filled with laughter and light conversation, when cheering each other on wasn’t predicated on whether we agreed on everything or not, or, maybe, when ignorance blinded us to the real pain others who have different lives, different skin tones, different abilities and limited access experience.
But when we can’t seem to catch our breath after a tragedy before another one hits, when death clings to us wave after wave of this virus, when finding community feels fraught and the future bleak, the easier kind of hope feels more wishful than real.
Most days now, hope looks less like laughter and light conversation and more like lament and crying out, “How long, Lord, how long?”
There have been many moments when I don’t even want to hope. It feels safer to stay cynical about the world and about people. I tell myself, “It’s better to expect the worst, so don’t hope for the best.” I try to convince myself it makes me stronger, keeps me protected, but my heart calluses over.
In the margins of my cynicism, I’m learning that hope is a practice of staying tender, of still believing — believing God does hear our cries and truly cares, believing healing and change are possible, even now. Hope is staying tender while everyone shouts and fights and straining to see the humanity in us all. Hope is telling your tensed-up body that it’s okay to hope, to dream, to try again.
There are now patches of emptiness throughout our house where plants used to live, their pot saucers like gravestones marking their absence. I continue to dread watering the ones that remain, but every time I see their leaves perk up afterwards, hope shimmers — because they’re still here, still green, still receiving what I can give them when I can give it. Hope is watering my plants even when I don’t feel like it because the practice of doing it anyway will keep my heart tender. It may not be much, but it might be enough to keep me going, to keep me hoping.