The last day I spent with my houseplants was very hard. I cried a lot. I took a bunch of pictures of them that now I don’t want to remove from my camera. I kept some leaves.
Spouse went into the office, even though it was Sunday, I think partly to escape the emotional drama. Which dragged on and on. I’d been surprised by the interest in my Craigslist ad: within 30 minutes I had 4 offers; by the end of the day, I had 15. One person was willing to drive from Pennsylvania, and if she’d been one of the first responders, I would’ve gladly waited until Monday to meet her. But she wasn’t. The first 2 responders flaked out, but the third one came through. A young vigorous guy in an SUV showed up promptly, enthusiastically bundled all 4 into his vehicle, promised to take good care of them, and was away in less than 10 minutes.
I had kind of expected to feel lost, grieving, or even despairing. (That’s how I’d felt for the first six months after I let go of the two stuffed animals I’d had for 20+ years.) Instead I felt . . . blank.
I’ve started writing a poem. I’ve done a lot of thinking and soul-searching. I wasn’t nearly as good a friend to them as I wanted to be. If I’d let go of them years ago, all 5 of us probably would’ve been happier.
I’ve been rearranging my studio. Tangible problems that had stymied me for months have begun yielding. For instance, I’d kept a copy of every pay stub I’d received since I started working in 1985. I could never bring myself to part with them even though I never used them for anything. I was thinking like a hoarder—the pay stubs felt like they somehow were my past—getting rid of them would erase my own history. Monday, I decided I could take that risk. I shredded every single one, emptied the paper strips into a compostable bag, and recycled the whole thing. I felt lighter, freer. More financial papers followed: monthly budgets from 8 and 7 and 6 years ago. Looking at them, I tried to remember being that person, but I couldn’t. Once I realized that, the whole process eased.
Yesterday I cleared a path to a box packed with art objects that I had brought with me from Indiana to this apartment when I came out here by myself, a week before our big move. I wanted art to be part of my new life here from the very beginning. Even though we’d arranged for our utilities to be turned on before I arrived that week, they hadn’t been. Temperatures topped 90° every day, but our apartment had no air conditioning. That took days to straighten out. In the evenings, I stayed up late pondering our new life. For the first time, I decided I would plan the arrangement of my studio before the furniture arrived. I laboriously measured the smaller bedroom, using sheets of paper, since I had nothing else handy. Then I drew a scaled model of the room, and tried to remember everything that would have a footprint. How could it all be arranged? What configurations would work the best? This time, I was going to get everything right from the start!
Reality unfolded differently. The noisy air conditioning unit in the closet of the larger bedroom convinced Spouse that it should become my studio; the smaller bedroom, our master bedroom. The big move itself, in fact, that entire week, was beyond grueling. (It literally took me months to physically recover from the move.) The day the movers arrived to unload our stuff, I was past exhausted, my nerves jangled, I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in a week, it was fiendishly hot (100° F / 37.8° C). I desperately needed dark and quiet, but there wasn’t any to be had. The best I could do was hole up in the closet in my studio where at least I didn’t have to talk to anybody. Spouse directed the movers to place my furniture and my boxes into my studio willy-nilly. There were so many boxes that the furniture had to fit around them, not the other way around. All of my careful plans were overthrown right away. No matter what configurations I’ve tried in the years since, the room has never really worked.
This apartment has significantly less square footage than our apartment in Indiana. Spouse had to put a bunch of things in storage. We’ve lived here 4+ years, but our bedroom and living room still contain packed boxes stacked up 5 feet high. Slowly but surely, in my studio I’ve unpacked all the boxes (except the one with the art objects ironically enough). Spouse got rid of one of my bookcases because he said there wasn’t space for it—but I still had all the books, which I stacked on the floor. I also have furniture in my studio that in Indiana was in other rooms. And up until Sunday, I had 4 houseplants, 3 of which were in pots big enough to need floorspace, near the windows.
My floor plan would not have alleviated all, or maybe even any, of these issues. (My brain and planning make uneasy bedfellows.) What my brain excels at, however, is experimenting and improvising: trying stuff out, seeing what works & what doesn’t work, figuring out (some reasons) why for both, tweaking, rinse and repeat.
None of that can happen when I can’t bear to let go of anything.
When I graduated from high school, I was socially and emotionally stunted and I knew it. And so I knew I wasn’t anywhere near ready for college. My parents made me go anyway, and I quickly flunked out. In the short space of the 7 months that followed, I grew up in a hell of a hurry. It was that, or die, horribly. I chose life, but I paid a high price.
Returning to live with my parents afterward was as a prisoner of war. I lived with the enemy, who I had previously believed were my family, had my back. I knew better now. The people I’d previously turned to for help were no longer available. But I still had all the same old problems, and a whole mess of new ones.
I threw myself into the social life made possible by my first job. I experimented and improvised with everyone I met. I made friends, I started dating for the first time. These new relationships were going to strengthen and nourish me so that I could leave my parents under my own power and make a better life for myself. That didn’t happen. The friends and the boyfriend were emotionally abusive, but with slightly different dynamics than my family, so I thought I was learning better skills. And everywhere I went, people told me I was too stupid, too stunted, too helpless to make it on my own. “You can’t cook! You’re too absent-minded to pay your bills on time! You’re so weird, it’s no wonder nobody likes you! So how will you find roommates to help split costs? How can you live alone?” The subtext, sometimes spelled out, was, stay here with us, with your family. Yes, you’re weird and stupid and we don’t really like you, but you don’t have any other options, and if you’re not too much trouble, maybe we won’t throw you out into the street. (Of course, maybe we will throw you out to the street, so you better behave! Don’t ever think you can relax!)
In this environment, my best friends were 2 stuffed animals, the houseplant I’d received for a high school graduation present, and various trees in my parents’ neighborhood. But none of them could give me any advice, or tangible help. For that, I was on my own.
I did move into an apartment without human roommates. I brought the houseplant and the 2 stuffed animals. My favorite aunt gave me a dwarf Ficus tree, that I gave the placeholder name of Figgy, planning to devise a better one when I knew her better. She became my new confidante and best friend. I hated my job, which I sucked at. I had PTSD and high sensitivity and suffered panic attacks, so I tried to avoid people as much as possible. I had no social life except for time spent with my emotionally abusive family of origin and another emotionally abusive boyfriend. I really couldn’t afford the rent, which was more than half of my take-home pay. And yet . . . I loved living on my own. I was just starting to get the hang of making decent decisions for myself when Figgy took sick. No matter what I tried, she kept ailing, and eventually died. Some part of me died too. Everything was so hard and hurt so much, nobody who could help would, and I just didn’t think I could keep going. What was the point?
My mother contacted my aunt, and two of them concocted a scheme to save me from myself. Not tangible help, not emotional support, not counseling, not a vacation, not money. No, their ‘solution’ was giving me a second dwarf Ficus tree.
How dare I not be grateful? Did I not realize how expensive these trees were? What a bother it was to transport a new one to my apartment? As a surprise, no less!
Yes, I trudged home from my shitty job one day, to find a new Ficus tree waiting for me. Mired in my own depressive fog, I hadn’t really begun to mourn Figgy, and here was someone new to ‘replace’ her, as if that was possible. I couldn’t be bothered to devise her a name, so I just called her Figgy as well. It hurt to look at her, so I mostly didn’t. I was afraid to confide in her, or try to get to know her. What if she took sick too? She was like a roommate I couldn’t really trust, but instead of helping with the bills, I had to take care of her.
Every time I tried to think of a real name for her, I resented that the first Figgy didn’t live long enough to get a good name. So why did the second Figgy deserve one? I didn’t feel like I could grieve the first Figgy because it wasn’t fair to the second one.
The first Figgy was in my life for maybe 3 months. The second Figgy was in my life for over 20 years. And all that time I was clogged with rage and grief at the unfairness of it all.
I couldn’t heal because I couldn’t let go. The headspace problem with the houseplants was worse than the one with Spouse because Spouse and I clearly cannot read others’ minds. But because I often spoke to the plants in my mind, with words or pictures, I didn’t feel like there were tangible boundaries between us. That is, whenever I thought or felt something related to the plants, I thought they could ‘hear’ it. There was nowhere I could go to get privacy from them. And yet I couldn’t let go of them because they were my family, right? And they depended on me. I didn’t have any human friends I could give them to, so I was just stuck with them, forever. Just like my human family thought about me in 1985, and 1990. That’s what family means, right? People you have lots of complicated feelings about, most of which are negative and troubling, so you just ignore them, and then everything’s fine! And if it isn’t, it must be because you’re a bad person, unlike the rest of us.
Every time I enter my studio, I’ve felt reproached by reminders of past failures. I can’t easily experiment and improvise with new configurations, not just because of all the physical piles, but also because I’ve forgotten about the good stuff hidden underneath all the stuff that no longer fits my life. In my studio I feel like I’m everyone I’ve ever been, all at once. It’s overwhelming, then enervating.
But after successfully clearing out the pay stubs, yesterday I got bolder. I gathered my paintings, then put them on the bed in the other room, while I brainstormed places to hang them in my studio. I scooted over one of the bookshelves, which allows me for the first time to put my dress form in front of the windows. I changed the display of objects on that bookshelf; now it includes 2 of my own art photographs, framed. I remembered the box of art objects, never opened, and began clearing a path to it. So many lovely things inside! Most were created by other artists. Some of them definitely need to be hung on the walls as well. Others can be worn. Perhaps my favorite was a length of cloth I had fabric painted. The colorway evokes a complex gestalt of my favorite emotions: joy, delight, love, surprise, whimsy, wonder.
I need to be a person who feels those emotions more often. Darker emotions have their place, and I honor them, but they’ve held sway for too long. Partly they’ve dominated because I didn’t process them and therefore I never let go of them. I think this late autumn and winter will be a good time to tackle that project. But also a good time to take on new projects, like creating beautiful clothes that help me embody joy, delight, and the rest.
Now that I know what I’m trying to do, now that I have an inspiring image, I can better edit, prune, winnow everything else. I can flow again.