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Uncle Sam: A lesson in growth, from my plants

During the pandemic, asking our friends, neighbors and co-workers the question, “How have you been?” is imperative – the pandemic has imperiled mental wellbeing for many of us, and a simple check-in can go far in breaking cycles of dark, destructive thoughts.

And yet, alongside the solace I feel when someone poses me this question, I also have feelings of resentment and frustration. This is because, as far as the pandemic goes, inquiries as to how I’ve been are generally met with a recurring answer: “Oh, the usual.” In this era of social distance and isolation, it feels things rarely change and that my state of being is painfully consistent. Said differently, being asked how I am invariably reminds me of how mundane and repetitive my life has come to feel.

Of course, the notion that my life is some horrible remake of Groundhog Day is, in itself, a product of the pandemic’s injurious mental health effects. When I truly take time to reflect, it is evident that my life is nuanced and variable, albeit in different ways than before. The reality is simply that some of the limitations required by the pandemic make it painfully easy to forget that we are still dynamic, adaptive beings – in other words, that we are always growing.

Sometime during the pandemic, I decided I needed a visual reminder of this growth. And what better metaphor is there, I thought, than growing plants? Much like ourselves, plants – when properly tended to – grow in methodical yet surprising ways. And, again, much like different people, all plants grow in different ways: some grow vertically, some horizontally; some grow rapidly, some slowly; some grow better in the light, others in the shade…

Put briefly, we can conclude that there is a lot for a growing human to glean from a growing plant. These parallels are probably why I have developed a strong habit of acquiring more plants over the past several months. I have a wide array of species, including monstera, lavender, aloe vera, arrowhead plants, golden pothos, tulips, amaryllis, false aralia and a few more.

I keep them scattered across my living space according to their preferences. Regular watering and fertilizer applications ensure they continue to develop. When a plant grows too large, has some dead ends or produces runners or shoots, I pay careful attention to prune the plant such that, by cutting some parts away now, its future will benefit from fuller, more vibrant growth. In the same way, I try to trim out parts of my own character that may be inhibiting more meaningful growth in my future – things like reliance on my phone or a short temper. All these specificities remind me of the importance of place, consumption and self-care in my own life.

So, when I look at my plants, I am reminded that I, like them, am ever-changing. I, too, need proper care and placement so that I can grow to my full potential. That reminder is crucial beyond words during the pandemic. Luckily for me, being in Athens facilitates my habit of getting plants; local nurseries like White’s Mill, Hyacinth Bean Florist and Greenleaf Landscapes all offer a wide selection of plants. Even big box stores in Athens offer a fairly wide variety.

Clearly, getting plants in Athens presents few, if any, challenges! And even if the challenges were significant, they would be outweighed by the benefits: in a time where things can seem so static, reminders of growth are imperative. On top of that, houseplants help clean air, maintain humidity (very important in winter!) and generally offer a way to apply our human instinct to care.

In the same vein, growing plants reminds us not only to care for ourselves but for each other, which alludes back to asking the question that I started on: “How have you been?” Caring for plants prompts us to ask that question and simultaneously reminds us that the answer (even if not always positive) does not necessarily have to be, “Oh, the usual.”

Sam Smith is a senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.  

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