Nairobi, Kenya - We didn't know much about gardening per se, but we thought we knew the most important principle: Pay close attention! So when my boyfriend and I brought home a beautiful pink bougainvillea for our balcony, we pampered it: We fertilised. We watered every day. We tied its delicate branches around an arbor with string, to give it a frame on which to grow.
But instead of growing, it began to die. The marvellous flowers that drew our attention in the nursery faded and dropped, and then some leaves dropped, too, yellowing and curling in on themselves like wounded snails. Apparently we'd been too eager to court new life: We had over-watered it.
According to the instructional websites we consulted after the damage was done, to save our plant now we had to prune it - aggressively. Pruning allows plants to recoup their energy, fruit trees to devote attention to fewer, but bigger fruits. Some plants have what's called “epicormic buds,” buds dormant beneath the bark that are suppressed until living leaves are cut away. There's even a process called “coppicing,” whereby continually cutting a tree back to its stump to regrow can, in theory, enable it to live forever. To revive our limp bougainvillea, we would need cut the whole thing down to a stump: to kill most of it so it could be reborn.
I read that a month ago, but I still haven't been able to bring myself to do it. Every time I advance on the plant with my shears, I feel so sad about stripping it of the only, struggling green leaves it's got left that I pause, then turn away. Also on our balcony is an avocado seedling we're trying to grow from the pit; we're supposed to cut its tiny crown back to encourage spread, but my boyfriend refuses: “It's only just started to grow,” he murmurs sadly. This is a deep instinct. A friend of mine who is teaching her toddler to care for plants told me, “The fear is built in even at her young age - how much she doesn't want her flowers to die even as new ones are blooming behind them.”
We are creatures of nature. But we distrust her cycles. Since our own deaths mark the end of what we understand to be our lives, it's so hard for us to believe that destruction can be the mother of new life, that killing things can transfer energy to other things. To trust that brutalising our poor plants - cutting living parts away - will help requires a mental leap over our instincts that we find so hard to make.
I think we make the same mistake in our lives. At least, I do. I treasure and nurture everything I ever put energy into, from projects to hobbies to loves, even as they become exhausted from time, or wilt from my over-care. In the last few years I took up not just gardening but the mandolin, painting, yoga, cycling, hiking, photography, book projects and many friendships.
Abandoning any of them feels like a failure of commitment, the trait we're all told makes for a successful life, so I dutifully continue to build them all into my weekly to-do lists. But by refusing to prune our lives, they become suffocating forests in which no leaves are allowed to fall. And if they do fall, they're not permitted to decay; our souls become strewn by a carpet of material so thick that nothing new can emerge from beneath it.
Aversion to loss has perhaps never been more institutionalised in our culture than it is right now. We believe life is about adding more and more capabilities; we refuse to subtract.
The storefront window of my local bookstore displays self-help books: “Simply Better.” “Good to Great.” “The Art of Action.” “The Productive Person Action Guide.” “163 Ways to Pursue Excellence.” “Thrive.” “Flourish.”
The titles idealise continuous growth; they remind me of a former boss' favourite phrase about successful people he admired. “She's jumping from strength to strength,” he would say, as if never experiencing weakness was the ideal of living. My yoga studio offers a class called “The Power of YES!” in which the instructor encourages his yogis to say “yes” to every opportunity the universe presents.
Newspaper articles exhort us to practice “positive adult development,” continually improving our efficiency and augmenting our compassion. A newsletter on improving personal health recently instructed me to “re-frame” things I want less of as affirmative ambitions so that I experience greater motivation to realise them. Instead of “less junk food,” think “more vegetables!” “Talking to yourself positively,” it advises, “may change the way you look at your goals.”
We're positively drowning in positivity. And too much positivity actually annihilates certainty. It's no surprise to me the age of Yes! is also the age of anxiety. We're clawing through the rubble, through the stacks of our self-help projects and listicles of “23 Easy Ways to Instantly Make Your Day Better,” for some kernel of true self. Drawing back, it seems ridiculous: What searcher in a haystack would say the way to find a pin is to heap on more hay? But in our search for happiness, this is what we've been doing.
“There is a 'no' at the root of necessity,” the essayist Noelle Oxenhandler has written. “The Indo-European neked-ti means 'no drawing back’. “ Achieving a sense of purpose “involves a kind of winnowing,” she went on. “The wheat from the chaff. The 'yes' from the 'no.' “
The philosophy of yes, though - the philosophy of “9 Ways to Get More Out of Your Day” - makes our lives like computer screens overtaken by one of those viruses that continually opens new browser windows until the machine crashes. We cannot add indefinitely. Nature knows this: There is no infinite growth in nature. She gives and she takes, in order to give again.
Our oldest myths know it, too. On a plain in the centre of Kenya, where I now live, in a place called Hell's Gate, stands an 80-foot natural pillar. It formed, science says, when a volcano disintegrated to dust, leaving only its hard core of magma behind. Masai legend assigns it a different genesis story, though one that reiterates the creative power of removal: A princess set out for a distant village to join her new husband. When she pivoted backwards to cast an ambivalent, regretful look on her old home, she turned into stone. It speaks to how we harden as human beings if we fail to change - and to accept the loss that change entails.
Sometimes we do understand pruning's restorative power. We understand it when it comes to our health. We get the idea of a cleanse, an elimination diet. And sickness, a loss of faculties, can sometimes deliver a curious sense of deepening. In a series of beautiful meditations on his thyroid cancer, the essayist Jacob Brogan wrote about the immense, preparatory grief he felt ahead of his thyroid-removal surgery: “Will I weep when it leaves me?”
But the paradox was that the surgery turned out to add as well as remove. It gave him a new scar, but more than that. “My surgery [folded] its way into my sense of self,” he wrote. Something nestled in his spirit where the physical thing was removed. A different kind of presence, spiritually weightier than his thyroid, settled into the space made by loss; physically lesser, he felt augmented.
Clipping our lives is the real self-care, not buying ourselves a spa package.
The other time we get it is when we fall in love. Often, we sense viscerally that a new lover issues us a kind of call to abandon the husks of old selves we insist on keeping around and become new; love is the flood that washes our spirit clean. And the fresh sprouts start to come out all over.
We need more courage to prune on our own, though. Clipping our lives is the real self-care, not buying ourselves a spa package. By adding and adding and adding, like that forest from which the leaves are never cleared, we make ourselves vulnerable to fire: the grand crisis or the panic that sweeps everything away in a smoky surge.
I experienced this once. I was an accomplished goal-creator. I had lists of goals for five years, for the year, for the week, for the day; I absorbed quantities of inspirational articles; so many things I read or saw went on the lists and made them start to appear grotesque, infinite. Eventually, I became overwhelmed. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't prioritise. I was terrified to make choices - to cut. My boyfriend and I decided I needed to rest.
To brainstorm ways to do so, we created a list. I thought it might be soothing to start caring for some plants.
* Eve Fairbanks, a writer who lives in Johannesburg and Nairobi, is at work on a book about South Africa.