Allegory of the peperomia obtusifolia

Over the years I’ve amassed an impressive collection of houseplants, my favorites of which were given to me by friends and family. Among them are a wildly-overgrown aloe, a housewarming gift from my sister two decades ago (it’s now a monster of a plant in a bucket I can barely lift and inhabits the basement accordingly), whose starfish-like extremities have been snipped many times for the purpose of treating abrasions and skin irritations, and a sweet little jade in a terra-cotta pot delivered by a loved one for my birthday last summer. My beloved Dieffenbachia was a thank-you offering from a friend as a thank-you for hosting her boys for part of a day a few years ago, and I have two scraggly succulents in residence that a fellow plant-loving compatriot volunteered to rehab and which she’s since returned. I’m proud of my beloved pilea, another gift from that selfsame sister, a prodigious progenitor of a plant who’s spawned six pint-sized pilea babies so far. Our playroom is home to a hale and healthy clivia proliferated by my grandmother, and it flowers sporadically in a showy spray of brilliant orange blooms every year in early summer, if we’re lucky. Perched upon my kitchen windowsill are two treasured heart-shaped succulents sent by a longtime friend for my fortieth birthday (through the mail, cushioned by specifically and thoughtfully-designed packaging), and I love the unruly ponytails of the spider plant adopted from my mom, along with the offshoots it produces, two of which are currently hanging out in my hydroponic apparatus in preparation for planting. The petite marble poinsettia our lovely former tenant left as a parting present keeps company with the Thanksgiving cacti in the dining room, and an absolutely behemoth peperomia obtusifolia my brother gave me a few years ago (before it quintupled in size) occupies the majority of my desk in the study.

I’d begged my brother for a clipping from his peperomia, so he faithfully complied (and sent one of my all-time favorite text messages: a photo of the cuttings in a jar of water with the caption “These guys are rooting for you.”). Since the day I brought that plant in its beautiful cobalt blue-glazed pot into this house, it’s flourished despite the fact that all I do to tend it is provide water and turn the pot every so often to even out the effects of heliotropism. When it drops dead leaves, they fall directly into the pot, and I leave them there, thinking they’ll break down eventually and become part of the soil. Because the plant is thriving so thoroughly, I’ve become almost superstitious about leaving the leaf litter, even going so far as to put leaves that die and drop outside of the pot back into it. The logic behind this, flawed though it may be, is that the peperomia seems so healthy and happy, with its strong stems and broad, glossy, deep green leaves, that maybe the reason for its hale and hearty growth is due in part to the dead leaves in the pot. Now hear me out on this: what if the leaf litter breaking down into the dirt, its molecules being washed toward the roots when I water, actually promotes the plant’s overall fitness? What if the wholesomeness of the plant is enhanced by the parts of itself that have already come to pass? As we know, a good-looking plant is usually a happy, healthy plant, so we can judge how it’s feeling by its appearance. Even though the visual method of gauging one’s well-being doesn’t apply to people, I think perhaps this same principle of personal leaf litter carries over to us.

Think of the plant with its dropped leaves inside its pot, the pieces of itself that once flew like flags but withered and fell away to be replaced by new growth, feeding itself from the inside out. The plant is both literally and figuratively gaining ground by incorporating bits of its former self that have undergone disintegration and decomposition, rearranging the pieces to synthesize brand-new banners of matter. I see this plant and I can’t help but think: humans are like this too. The versions of ourselves that are the most well-equipped for success (which, by my definition, is health and happiness) are the versions that don’t just discard the parts of our identity that don’t work for us anymore; they’re the versions that find ways to reconstruct those pieces to amplify our potential, to inform a greater composition of ourselves.

I want to live like this, to take a page from that peperomia. I want to gather around me all the scraps of selfhood I’ve shuffled off like scarves, all those mortal coils that shaped prior iterations of existence so that they aren’t chaining my ankles to the past but self-fertilizing the process of becoming. I want to resorb the remnants of what has been, to build a being that lives and breathes for the better because of this active integration. This is essentially the gift of acceptance. It’s a gift I hope to give my future self, a little bit like handing her, whoever she will be, a little plant in a pot to oxygenate the inside air.

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