the defeatist brand of perfectionism

Sad plant.
A wave from beyond…new leaves poke out of the mess that once was a healthy, thriving houseplant that I killed with love.


Thing to Write About #2 – (Completely Factual)

A houseplant is dying. Tell it why it needs to live.

There’s a plant in the corner of the living room that my fiance refers to as “Sad Plant.” It’s dying a slow, painful death, and I’ve done everything in my power to revive it. The linchpin of my self-respect, apparently, depends very heavily on this plant not shuffling off of its pitiful mortal coil.

I bought the plant from Ace Hardware in May. Ace Hardware in Abu Dhabi is pretty similar to Ace Hardware anywhere else, except that they only have 250 different shades of paint and three kinds of nails, but also a fairly extensive range of outdoor furniture and a used book/coffee shop near the checkout line. I got really excited about the used book/coffee shop until, upon perusing, discovered that unless I was desperately seeking some circa-1995 Danielle Steele or Louise Bagshawe, there wasn’t much in the way of novels. (Side note: I randomly did see like 10 Laura Lippman novels. I’m sure my fellow Baltimorean and bestselling author would be thrilled to know that the interior used book store and coffee shop near the checkout line of Ace Hardware in the United Arab Emirates has half a shelf designated to her canon.)

I bought the plant after I’d unsuccessfully tried to grow a bunch of potted herbs from seed. In the States, I never had what you’d call a green thumb, but I did manage to keep an array of houseplants alive through multiple traumatic moves up and down the East Coast and, in fact, was incredibly sad to say goodbye to a couple in particular – the ivy that had grown to over six feet in length from a single leaf clipping given to me by a grad school colleague, the banana tree that I picked up off a curb where it sat, abandoned, wearing a sign that said “Free.” These plants came to me already past the seed-stage, but they followed me around from Florida ranch house to shitty Baltimore rowhouse to shitty Baltimore rowhouse and now live with an old roommate who they liked better because she repotted them and gives them plant treats like compost. Still, I kept them alive, and I kept them green and this, in my mind, signified some sort of successful track record with plants.

Out here, however, there’s a lot working against me. As I stood in Ace Hardware looking at yet more seed packets to buy, a kind man from Australia pointed out that it’s “damn near impossible” to grow herbs from seed here. The light is too strong, the water too damaging, the potting soil not top notch. “You can try sprouting them in a kitchen in half of a milk carton if you can find good potting soil,” he suggested. “Place them where they can see the sunlight, but not be in it.”

There was no place in my kitchen that matched this description of seeing but not being in the light, and I pressed him further. An amateur city gardner, he explained that it had taken him years to cultivate a decent herb garden here. The conditions aren’t ideal for most of the year, and bugs are a big problem. He pointed me towards the leafy potted plants and suggested that buying something already-sprouted would save me a lot of trouble.

I spent about twenty minutes Googling what house plants kill cats and finally selected one that seemed benign enough. A bright, glossy, dark green leafy plant with a splay of lighter, almost white-green, veins on each leaf. The stalks were strong, the leaves were sturdy, and when I held it to my face it smelled warmly green. I found a vase that was white but oddly-shaped for character, picked up some air freshener and cat food (Ace has a lot of random shit), and checked out.

The new plant fit perfectly with everything. It was bright and welcoming, a cheering addition to a dark corner. I watered it vigilantly, and arranged it so that it could “see the light” but not “be in it.” I read online that this particular plant “loves having its leaves misted with a light, cool spray.” I misted it once a week, and it spread its leaves out and settled happily into the corner of the room.

One day, however, I went to mist the plant and saw that it was noticeably slumped. It looked as though it just needed a mental health day, so I misted it gently and reminded it that it could come to me at anytime with any problems. It just slumped a bit further, so I left it alone.

A few days later, the entire plant deflated and the uppermost leaves had turned a sickly yellow color and were curling in on themselves. This was beyond a mildly disappointing day or even a bad cold: this looked terminal. I inspected it closely – it looked as though the healthy leaves were being forced downwards by some invisible hand, and the upper leaves were cultivating a cancer. I Googled and suspected over-watering. I stuck the plant outside in the heat of the morning for a bit, fluffed its soil, and diligently refused to water it for a week.

It got sicker. The yellowed leaves began to fall off, and the depressed leaves at the bottom got more depressed. I Googled again – bugs? I inspected the plant even more closely and discovered thousands of tiny silk strands webbing the undersides of the healthy leaves, and nearly-invisible specks of dirt walking audaciously on the edge of the jaunty white pot. I followed Google instructions and first sprayed the plant – outside – with a mixture of dish soap and water, let it sit (to suffocate and drown the invaders), then misted it again with regular water and gently wiped the undersides of the leaves with a paper towel, smearing off the little silken strands of egg sacs. Finally, I cut off all of the dead leaves and misted what was left with a white vinegar-water 50-50 combo that would supposedly deter any little gnats or flies or whatever the hell they were from laying eggs again.

The plant roused itself for about a week, and then relapsed horribly.

I repeated the dish soap – water – trimming – vinegar routine, this time hacking off nearly 75 percent of the stricken leaves. The remaining house plant was a sad rendition of what it had once been, but I reminded it that it had been through a lot, that it was still beautiful, and that the future was bright.

A week later, the plant flatlined.

I cut off every offending leaf, leaving just a little scrub of tube-like stems, like some sort of underwater tubular sponge.  There were still hints of green at the base, and I yelled at the strands telling them that they could still pull through. I put the plant outside in the sunshine and gave it bottled water – the closest thing to life support I could envision at this point.

It must be said that at this point, I have acquired and kept alive 8 other houseplants, including 4 potted herbs from the Plant Souk downtown, and one elaborate lucky bamboo that is technically my fiance’s but has fallen under my purview of care for some reason. Plus an incubating avocado pit that has sprouted a – rather suggestive – root. But my successes in other realms have never been enough when I become fixated on one thing. This is true on a very broad scale and a major facet of the defeatist brand of perfectionism I’ve been cultivating over the years. If I can’t do something 100%, it’s extremely half-assed and I feel too guilty to let it go or back out and it’s a major fatal flaw. There is no in-between, there is no B+.

I’m currently experiencing this on a larger level with this marathon I’m training for. It’s my first marathon, and I logically deduced at the onset that if I can run a half-marathon in 1:55, then obviously I can run a marathon in under 4 hours. Despite the fact that I am training under the watchful eye of a seasoned running coach and with runners who have several marathons on their legs and everyone has told me that this is not the goal to be pursuing with one’s first attempt, I doggedly pursue the goal and somewhere decided that anything over 4 hours would be failure. I’m not sure in what universe – besides my own perverse one – that running a marathon for any length of time would be seen as failure. But it got to me, and it got under my skin, and I started having sleepless nights about the fact that I’m having trouble maintaining nine-and-a-half-minute miles for longer than 2 hours.

And yet I will cut corners in other ways of life, driving around on half-bald tires and self-negotiating ways to sleep in for fifteen more precious minutes. But once I get a thought in my head, there is no way around it. It lives, it breathes, it grows, and I am forced to feed it constantly with worry and anxiety.

This plant was the visual manifestation of my anxiety. I could keep 8 other plants (and two cats!) relatively happy, healthy, and fed, but this one plant’s death was a certain sign of my total failure at domestic nurturing. I researched and researched and discovered that these bugs are a nascent problem in this part of the world, and that overwatering can weaken the plant to being susceptible to infestations. Overwatering – meaning, I loved it too much. I drowned it and weakened it with my weekly mists and uplifting talks, and it became weak and dependent, and bugs moved in. Surely this is a direct correlation to how I will someday incorrectly rear children. And, obviously, it means that I will not be able to complete a marathon in under 4 hours, so I’m basically a total failure in all things in life and should take to my bed and let everything else fend for itself. My love would probably kill it anyway.

I couldn’t bear to throw the plant away. I ignored it, mostly, but it sat there, sadly, a hacked-off, yellowed sea urchin in the corner of the room. A trophy of failure. A testament of total incompetence.

Two weeks later, a shining green leaf appeared. It poked through the urchin mess and uncurled, delicately but decidedly green. It was a determined hand reaching up out of the grave, and I rewarded it with a most-gentle spritzing of water and some encouraging words.

I have my doubts as to whether or not this house plant will live. But, like a phoenix, it’s pushing forward, not ready to give up the fight just yet. And I’ll do whatever I can do help save it. I will not simply let it fade away into that good night. So much may depend on a red wheelbarrow but, for me, too much is on a plant from Ace Hardware.

And I will run the marathon, and if it’s not sub-four hours, then so. The hell. What. There are other marathons and other goals, and this is just the first step towards one particular goal. I don’t want to drown this experience with my own dogged determination, I want to feed my power and enjoy the race and finish feeling happy and strong. And if it takes four and a half hours, or five hours, or six months to get there, I will.

But, because I can’t let things go, here’s the cast of apartment characters that I have successfully kept not-dead for awhile now: