Ming Tree, Aspen, Resignation

When my wife and I drove across the country to our new home in Massachusetts we had a car full of plants. At night, in stops at restaurants, we would return to our car with the windows fogged over from the oxygen being released by the plants. The car looked like it was occupied by teenagers making out in the back seat in an empty parking lot. One of those plants was a ming tree, which is a plant that looks a bit like a shrunken aspen tree without the seasonal color shifts or chalky white bark. I bought it because it reminded me of the tree that I used to climb in my back yard when I was a kid. The wind blowing through the leaves would make a rustling paper sound that would drift through the windows during summer nights over the hiss of a small boombox on my headboard. I was in middle school when my dad had to get the tree cut down due to a power line. It was like watching my childhood being removed from the back yard in pieces. When I climbed the tree as a boy I could see over the fence to the mountains and the sun would cut blindingly through the leaves, backlit like living stained glass.

In the past couple of years when working through rounds of depression, watering plants was a healthy thing for me to do. A dose of consistency in a world that has been anything but. It’s not a plant in the window, it is a minor survival strategy. A testament to living things that grow in the sunshine even in the dead of winter. If I can just keep the plants alive for another week it is a project with a tangible result and outcome. It was a delight to discover that I could make something live, so I have amassed a large collection of plants. The wall of green is keeping something out. It is a defense. The plants remind me that life continues with sun and water. I am trapped in my house, but my house is a living thing.

Last summer I noticed bright green aphids crawling all over a plant. I spent several weeks reading about how to kill off the aphids online: cayenne in water, dish soap in a spray bottle, none of the approaches worked. At the end of the process, before taking off for vacation for a week, I took the plant outside and left it there, assuming that I would be coming home to a dead plant. What actually happened is that it rained heavily all week on the plant and drowned the aphids. So I saved my plant by putting it outside and giving up on it. The plant did better with my giving-up strategy than it did with all of the available online advice. 

Sometimes resignation is the only available option. Resignation is not a cynical position, it is simply the acceptance of inevitable events. I say this to convince myself because this is counter to the message that I am always being given. The word resignation sounds like defeat in a culture that insists on illusions of undefeatability. We are always making decsions based on extremely limited amounts of individual information.

A thing has to impress the right audiences or a larger audience in order to gain relevance. The reception of a created thing is transformed into my value as a person because I am the sum of my acceptable and celebrated products. The scramble for relevance in a world where everyone wants to be perceived as more important is a chore. I hate that I want to participate inside of that system. I hate that I often feel ashamed about my lack of ambition. The size of the audience does not make a thing more or less valuable. A vital thing can vitally matter to just one person.

It is not a passive act to decline to be the glowing center of the universe. It is an act of resistance in a culture that insists that everyone is supposed to, or even can be living their dream, working the perfect job with perfect relationships and a perfect diet. To accept things as they are, to accept a large amount of mystery as a necessary part of life, to accept relationships as they are can be freeing. Often the pressure to idealize a circumstance is more of a burden than coming to terms with the reality of a circumstance. There doesn’t have to be a silver lining in order for life to be lovely. Life can be barely survivable and still lovely. In fact, sometimes it is easier to appreciate beauty when everything falls apart. I understood this better when I was a 25-year-old kid with barely fifty dollars in a bank account than I do now.

I am not the person I thought I would be when I was a 16-year-old kid. It has become more important having time for relationships and I am willing to resign things in exchange for deep relationships. To live and continue, you have to make choices regarding which audiences you will serve. Whose opinion do you want to take into account and how will that choice shape the way that you live? I do not want to end up in a place in my life where the people I love are less of a priority than the demands of a career or an imaginary legacy. 

There is a great deal of dread in the world, but the funny thing about artists is that we manage tragedy and anxiety by creating. The work that we do requires isolation and very long stretches of time which is hard to come by in a culture that values productivity that can quickly and efficiently monetized. It is difficult to escape the stream of distraction sometimes unless you are forced out of it.

In contrast to the loud and noisy world, the quiet trick of a painting or a plant is that it seamlessly disappears into everyday experience the second that you place it in your environment. What that piece of art or a plant does to your brain over the course of months or years is unknowable. The object and the changing way that you perceive that object shapes the experience of space. Since you are, in part a collection of accumulated experiences, what you look at every day becomes a part of who you are because it becomes part of how you see. I liked the ming tree because to me it looked like an aspen tree from my childhood. I took paintings into the office that I work at and left them hanging there. They are just an assumed part of the space now except when new people notice them.

I have a ming tree that sits in a front window and I notice it once or twice a week. The tiny branches straining in the direction of the sunlight. It is one small plant. It performs its function of being a tree and in that simple function, it gives a handful of people joy, even if that joy is subconscious. One living, growing thing reminds me that growth is only visible over long periods of time and should be treated with patience and mercy. One growing thing reminds me that the solutions might fail, and that resignation is a perfectly acceptable way to be at peace with being a limited human. I find grace in that and I think that it informs my relationships in ways that I don’t necessarily have to understand in order for them to work.

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