Collage of a woman hiding behind leaves
Collage: Eleanor Shakespeare

LIFE HONESTLY

If I can keep this plant alive, maybe I’ll be able to nurture other things, too

Many things have died in Marisa Bate’s care – from friendships to 80 per cent of all foodstuffs. Can a lone pot plant change that?

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By Marisa Bate on

When I was growing up, my mum kept a very tall plant in the dining room and it was like something out of a Roald Dahl short story – it grew and grew and grew and grew, brushing the ceiling, tied down, like a captured King Kong, with bits of string and rope. One day, when I was doing my homework, I suddenly noticed two black beady eyes staring at me. There was a bird in the tree. I screamed.

I think this has played a legitimate part in why I’ve never been into houseplants. Until last Wednesday, that is, when I found myself paying good money for a plant with a name I can’t pronounce and mostly because it has pink leaves. I was in one of those shops that sell succulents in glazed navy pots, alongside Aesop handwash and expensive copper candle holders; one of those shops that stack ceramic water jugs and cashmere cushions next to a cactus as if, somehow, this desert plant is more “lifestyle” than actual life. “Fresh hell,” is what I mutter under my breath normally as I walk past. But there I was, succumbing. Succumbing to the succulents, succumbing to the Aztec rugs and the coffee pots and the cactuses, because, well, everyone seems to be into plants these days and I should have a plant in my bedroom because I saw someone on the internet did and this is just how capitalism works.

So, I carried my plant home – like a parent with a newborn from a hospital – thinking, “What the hell do I do now?” I placed it by the fireplace and stood, looking at my new housemate. I thought, “This would make a nice Instagram picture,” except I’m not on Instagram. And then I thought, “It’s just you and me, kid,” until my boyfriend got home and I informed him of how often it needing watering because I thought at least he might remember and this plant might live longer than expected if it isn’t solely in my care.

And so I began to think about all the things that have died in my care: a charity fundraiser; nearly 80 per cent of any fresh foodstuffs I buy; a thousand schemes for books and blogs and storytelling nights, washed away with too much wine; friendships with dazzling women because I can’t keep a diary, or because their lives meander down a different path and I haven’t always made the time to follow them. In my sole care, faith in men is often dead, burnt in a trash can, throwing trust and intimacy on a bonfire of bitterness (luckily, my friends help me dig these things back out from time to time and blow out some of the flames of my rage). In my care, milk can sour and damp washing goes stale. Am I ready to be the guardian of anything? Or anyone?

So, I carried my plant home – like a parent with a newborn from a hospital – thinking, ‘What the hell do I do now?’

It is, of course, a huge cliché – tending to a small plant is a test of adulthood, like goldfishes and curfews and saving accounts and gas bills. Perhaps this is why gardening is so fashionable again and these “fresh hell” shops are becoming as frequent as Pret A Manger flat whites. As a generation of us are scrambling around, trying to practise adulting, we’re taking a shortcut – “Oh, look, I have plants. Living things, which aren’t dead, are in my life. I’m responsible.” And maybe it’s because we can’t actually do the other, actual adult stuff at the moment – mortgages, credit cards, small humans; things that cost money. Our wages are still only able to buy us Topshop and pad thai from the local pub. We can’t afford to adult, but we can afford to grow some stuff.

And, while Sunday-afternoon trips to garden centres would once have filled me with doom and the despair of boring adulthood that would have driven me to wild destruction, they now fill me with calm and contentment. And perhaps I should hate myself for that. Or, perhaps I should give myself a break. Because maybe there’s something kinder, softer and more genuine about growing a plant than I’ve realised – away from the hip hype of Instagram accounts and lifestyle stores.

Growing things is really about time – time and energy. It’s about patience and longevity. It’s about the promise of something, the reward of hard work and attention. It is about investment and creating something outside of yourself. And, without realising, buying that plant, to put in my house, with my boyfriend, was the most romantic thing I’ve ever done. Without realising, or perhaps only subconsciously, it was a promise of a journey, of a future, of doing everything I humanly can to not let this – us – die in my care. And, yes, that’s pretty adult and, yes, that’s a lot less cynical than an Aztec hand-painted coffee pot. But, mostly, it’s pretty magic.

@marisajbate

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Collage: Eleanor Shakespeare
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