One of the most important steps in repotting a houseplant is to untangle the roots before burying it back into the soil. Or so I’ve been told.
I am at the beginning stages of urban plant-keeping, and so far I have killed three out of four. My first plant was a Dracaena with long, bright, squiggly leaves, a gift I received for my 22nd birthday from my mom, back when I was living at home and had all the time in the world to water, care for, and sing to it. This was probably why it perished so quickly– I smothered it out of my pent-up enthusiasm. It seems that too much water can be more deadly than too little.
My mom replaced the first plant with a charming pothos, arguably the most remedial houseplant to care for. It had a spontaneous array of light-green spotted leaves that gave it a sense of mystery, as if it could grow in any direction, the pot not a defined home but a mere suggestion of residence. Again, I had high hopes, but it lasted not much longer than the first, befalling the same wet fate. Although frustrated, the irony of my name entertains me in all this– Noah, he who saved the most precious forms of life from a biblical flood, causing them instead.
The third plant was a Fittonia, also called the ‘nerve plant,’ for the bright and sharp lines that spread across its leaves. This one wore eye-popping lines of pink, which, combined with the dark, rich shade of green beneath, made for quite the visual experience. I named her Trixie, after one of my favorite drag queens Trixie Mattel, who, as you might guess, is fond of pink. She also is known for the extra sharp lines of contour and eyeshadow that transform her regular face, pushing her past the realm of ‘drag queen’ into ‘human-doll-work-of-art.’ She’s incredibly funny, not just for her face but the words and quick wit that come out of it. This is the type of glory I wished for Trixie (the plant).
She thrived on my windowsill in San Francisco, until I decided to take her with me when I moved to New York. As it turns out, plants do not like planes! That, and the drastic increase of humidity in mid-summer Manhattan, likely did her in. So now I am on my fourth plant, Sonique, named after another queen, Kylie Sonique Love. She has big, shiny, heart-shaped leaves, and a light but sturdy stem that quickly outgrew her initial pot. When a plant becomes too large for its container, the roots start to curl under themselves, limiting its access to water and nutrients. This isn’t always obvious, however, from the plant’s exterior.
When people ask me how I’m doing these days, I never know which answer to give them. We all seem to subconsciously understand that the conventional “I’m fine” is, at its best, a gross generalization, and at its worst, an active lie. But to unfurl the complex underbelly of our mental and spiritual well-being to our acquaintances, who do not expect nor deserve that sudden emotional burden, feels cumbersome, awkward, impractical.
I think at present, ‘fine’ isn’t entirely disingenuous to describe my state of being– I am taking on new professional ventures, dancing, when I can, with pleasure and curiosity, finding new friends in the rapid social scene of New York City and keeping up with the old friends who have moved away. I’m doing all of the things a fine person would do. My leaves are intact.
There’s something, though, buried under my exterior, that’s unsettled, like tangled roots. Most days my body bears a sense of unease, as if hovering just above the floor. I try to take deep breaths, but my inhales rise sharply up to my forehead, and my exhales fall out of me in flimsy huffs. Every morning at the subway station, I wince and seize at the noise of the train rushing by. When I eat I forget to taste the food sometimes, fixated on merely getting every last crumb in my system, as if the plate might open a trap door underneath and swallow my meal. When my head hits my satin pillow at night– which I bought to prevent my hair from frizzing out in my sleep– I’m enclosed by the suffocating static of my thoughts, sometimes so afraid of not knowing what tomorrow will bring, that the notion of inner peace, which I crave so deeply, feels unattainable.
I never fully understood the significance of mental health until the pandemic. Growing up with the support of tightly knit communities– family, school, dance– I always felt like I was a part of something bigger than just me, something that could hold me, see me as I was and transform me into who I was becoming. There came a point, though, when I threw myself into my dance training, as many young dancers do, only bringing with me the parts of myself that I thought would be useful and accepted in this profession: the hard-working, diligent part, the joyously curious part, the masculine part, and the perfectionist part. I never gave a second thought to what I had left behind.
Humans, like plants, can’t function with only half of their roots. It’s all or nothing, I’m coming to learn.
It’s been two years since graduating college, two years that have sped by as much as they have dragged, moving in random fits and starts. There were some stretches where I felt like I was going nowhere, and others where a vicious undertow was sweeping me out to a new sea, an entirely different set of circumstances, hopes, worries and intentions snapping into and out of place with each tentative breath. Transitioning from full-time student to freelance performer has involved constant but sudden, unpredictable shifts– projects coming up and falling through, working furiously for a few days followed by a day of inevitable stupor, meeting new people in the widest range of contexts, from hotel catering banquets to Pilates studios, then not knowing when or if you’ll cross paths with them again. It’s exciting, the spontaneity of it all– but the thrill ignites my anxieties from within, sprung from this desperate need to have a long-term goal, a prize for my hungry eyes to lock in on. I have always had the goal of being a full-time, professional dancer; in school, when the long hours of dance classes and the pressure to excel had me at my limit, I leaned into that goal, that distant oasis of success, like a leaf follows the sun.
Now, this goal I’ve always had is morphing, integrating into the messy reality in which we have all arrived. This process first felt like pure loss– I had lost my precious goal, my sense of direction, my identity. I was no longer a dedicated dancer but just a dumbfounded and confused human. That realization has been one of the hardest pills I’ve ever had to swallow, and the most profound gift.
Because for the first time in my life, I was able to turn my relentless gaze away from the sun, and look down at my messy, knotted, billowing roots. I saw the parts of me that I had left behind for the sake of dance, the roots that I had failed to water and tend to all of these years. I saw my family, my mom and dad and brother, the people who have known me and loved me before I ever claimed my path, who see through my perfectionist shell even when I wear it in front of them. I saw the little rebel boy in a skirt who danced around the living room, who danced to the melody of other kids’ teasings, who paid no mind to what anyone thought about him, who hadn’t been inundated with the sludge of gender roles and homophobia and patriarchy. I saw myself, for the first time, without the endless pressures and expectations of who I was working to become, but simply as I am right now: a tired, confused, lonely, curious, enraged 23-year-old just doing their best to keep their soil damp but not water-logged.
I was nervous to move Sonique to a new pot. I read through the steps carefully online, bought the recommended soil, and picked the perfect sunny morning. I pulled her up from the base of her stem, and dirt scattered all over my wooden bedroom floor. The mash of roots beneath was unidentifiable from the mound of soil that was still stuck to it, but with a gentle combing of my fingers, the white strands began to fall. Once the mound was fairly loosened, and more dirt had spread around, I gently lowered her into the new ceramic pot, already filled halfway with fresh soil. I packed it in around her as much as I could without smashing the untangling work I had done so tenderly before, as her thick stem and glossy leaves wobbled to find a new balance.
In the days that followed I began to worry as her two bottom-most leaves, which had already begun yellowing before the repotting, withered away, one after the other.
Losing leaves is painful, like tainting an idyllic painting with a single scuff, or smearing a thoughtless finger through a beautifully frosted cake. But just as cake’s ultimate fate is to be eaten– it cannot stand untouched on its pedestal forever– leaves come and go with the seasons. Newer, greener ones take their place, as I have seen them joyfully sprouting in the sun from Sonique’s plush head. Every morning now, I raise my head from the pillow, blinking through the eye-crust and the anxious, existential fog of a new day, to find her perched on my dresser, basking in the golden beacon coming through the window, roots deepening into fresh ground. I wiggle my toes and step down to rise up, surrendering to the task of today.