Working on the plant-based poem November Love Story I was surprised to discover that this “Nurture” essay, which appeared in Surviving the Twenty-First Century, had never been published on Montaigbakhtinian. Here it is.
There was a time, in a youthful phase, when I was going to Russia for a few weeks each year to work on my Russian, and I would rent a room with a Russian “family” (a woman with perhaps a child or grandchild or two). After my first such visit I had all sorts of theories about Russian families. My second such visit led to a dual realization: not all Russian families were like my first one, and, given this fact, it was also quite possible that there were many other types of Russian families than just these two. It was quite possible I would never know enough Russian families to write intelligently about them. It was from a similar perspective, I believe, that someone wisely said that you should never write about a place you had been in for more than two weeks or less than two years. And we are also back to one of my favorite insights of Greek mathematics: the oneness of the one (of the first Russian family, in our case) is negated by the existence of the two (the second family), which in turn makes way for a world of possibility: the three, four, five and so forth, towards infinity.
I have begun with this sort of disclaimer above all to try not to fly too close to the sun in making the following observations of one writer (me) with, as it were, one houseplant and one child. The child’s name is Jonah. Another kind of writer or gardener would also know the plant’s species or common name. I picked it up more than a year ago in the garbage area of my apartment building. It was mangy, half dead. We might wonder about the circumstances and feelings surrounding its abandonment. Had one of my neighbors tried for quite some time to get this plant to flourish and given up in frustration? (“Clearly my thumbs are not green!”) Were adult children cleaning out a deceased parent’s apartment? Had the plant been an unwanted gift, or spoiled when a young child tried peeing in the pot? Did the person who left the plant in that garbage area have a moment of feeling, conscious or unconscious, that s/he was abandoning a living thing? There are times when we abandon (or “throw out”) inanimate objects—an old tape player, a book we have never read, a child’s baseball glove—and feel the ache of separation, a shadow of mortality. (And the traumas of birth, weaning, going off to college?)
At first, notwithstanding the plant’s superficial ugliness, manginess, I hung the pot on the rod over my bath, on the shower-curtain rod. I never did any pruning. I’m not a pruner, though I am a repotter, and at some point I repotted the plant, with positive effect. Then, a few months ago, I transferred it to the window ledge, by the little frosted window above the bathtub. There it received a little more direct sunlight and began to flourish. It flourished so vigorously that I had to move it to one of my bedroom windows where now it is as green and unmangy as green and unmangy could be.
Plants usually respond like this to my care, as to many another person’s. I doubt that our green-thumbedness is based on any great talents or secret knowledge. In my case, above all I am a careful waterer. I wait until the soil is dry to the touch and then I water the plant thoroughly until water fills the saucer below. And if a plant is not thriving I try a little fertilizer or move the plant to a different location. I remove yellowing leaves, and in the winter when the heating system dries out the air I occasionally spray the leaves with water.
I also like to think that I have had similar success with a seemingly more complex plant: Jonah. And perhaps my technique has been similar. I have spent a lot of time with him. I have roughhoused and played ball with him and coached his teams and read to him and next to him and watched TV with him. I bathed with him when he was little and held his hand as we walked around town. I give him a hug and kiss most every morning and night and take walks and talk with him when things are not going right. In the evenings I have not used babysitters, but have put him to bed myself. I try not to keep him up too late, even when we are having a good time together. If there seem to be problems at school, I go to see teachers and have frank talks with Jonah. I speak up (and write way too many, too lengthy e-mails—not one of my better habits). On a few occasions when there have seemed to be problems we could not understand or did not know how to deal with, Jonah’s mother and I have gone to a child psychologist for advice.
I am here taking all this to be a kind of watering, or of a combination of waiting and watching for dryness and watering thoroughly when watering seems needed. I note that I have vastly oversimplified the past 14 wonderful, but hardly always wonderful or happy years. Among other things, I have for present purposes largely written out of the story Jonah’s very involved mother and also the fact that she has long lived in a separate apartment, sharing custody of our son. And it would be obnoxious and pointless for me, the father, to detail Jonah’s accomplishments and shortfalls to date or to quote the best and worst lines from his (not wonderful) report cards. And I have long had the sense that adolescence is not going to respond so simply and productively to my simple, if time- and attention-demanding technique. Interestingly, two of my plants have grown too large to fit happily in the sunnier spots of my house, and life for them, and thus for me watching and trying to help them, has become more difficult. As Jonah, growing rapidly, struggles for an impossible though much ballyhooed independence and autonomy, while also missing the warmth and security of his first months and years, and as his mother and I, though proud to see him becoming a man and making his way in the world, must also feel, like a cloth tearing, beloved bonds being rent, . . . How can this be easy? We must grow up as fast as our son, and learn the lesson that so many parents these days are finding it hard to learn: how to leave our child alone, how to re-make full lives for ourselves after Jonah’s own full life will have taken him some distance away from us.
Meanwhile, for the past many years Jonah has been flourishing like a many leaved, young green plant. And, oddly enough, I, while raising Jonah and tending my plants, have written hundreds upon hundreds of pages about human ignorance and about how we cannot know who we are and what the consequences of our actions are and what we should do. And about how we often do not want to know, or do not “really” want to know. And about how, in any case, knowledge cannot save us from mortality or from other aspects of the human predicament. Sometimes—increasingly—this work has seemed a hair off to me, a significant hair off. In the sense that the work seems to ignore, to deliberately ignore, some very basic things that I do know. If only about caring for houseplants and raising one particular child.
Watering my plants the other day I had a thought about the nature-nurture debate that philosophers and others have long engaged in. The view from my apartment has been all on the nurture side. It may be the case that many people—many busy, overworked or otherwise engaged parents, along with various pundits, politicians and business leaders—may wish to deny this view of childrearing. That is, for personal, political or economic reasons people may wish to insist that a child’s genes or in-born character count for most everything, and thus when a child has problems at school or with the police, the parents may assign him (or her) to a psychologist, a professional who should know how to help the child deal with his problems.
But again, the view from my apartment has been all on the nurture side. (Which is also to say that I rarely see children as having their own problems; these are family problems, school problems, societal problems.) Often in times of trouble—wilting, leaves turning brown—it is enough to keep watering with more scrupulous regularity, but not excessively, and a plant will, as it were, revive on its own. And similarly with Jonah and regular meals, regular bedtimes, more time with him mom or dad.
In studying and reflecting on the work of great philosophers and other intellectuals, and in studying the history of societies and of individuals around me, I have learned (rightly or wrongly?) that we cannot know what the good is, and there is no meaning to or purpose of life, and so on and so forth. In recent decades some philosophers have decided that the good is “flourishing.” In my experience, this has above all simply shifted the definitional problem from one set of letters (“the good”) to another (“flourishing”). What is the right or best or a good way to live or be? Unanswerable questions, and unavoidable ones. It is easy enough to observe that some of the most superficially successful people—prominent entrepreneurs and Wall Street players, Nobel Prize winners, performers and athletes, famous writers—are in many ways limited human beings, driven often by demons or false gods, or by what might be called existential panic, or by insecurities deeply rooted in their childhoods. These are plants that take up a good deal of space and light, and may block light that might have nurtured others. Do we want to refer to this phenomenon or to some of these people as flourishing?
“Why am I so byoo-ti-full?” I will always remember overhearing Jonah singing that line in the bath when he was something like 4 years old. “Flourishing” (as I am calling it) has not led him to be extraordinarily creative, to get the best marks at school, to be notably helpful to others, to be surrounded by friends, etc. It has to do rather with self-confidence (and thus to a talent for acting and public speaking) and with contentment and engagement with his particular life, his rooms, his activities, his parents; a pleasure at having time by himself and a pleasure in playing with others, competing and making up skits and games together. He knows what he likes and does not like, has a quite sophisticated understanding of life, and plenty of good jokes. Touch wood, may such flourishing last, and may it survive, his entry into the work world. (It is not insignificant that Jonah is growing up in the United States where children are coddled, told how great they and their ideas and their soccer kicks and drawings are. For better and worse, this approach takes—or, rather, appears to take—much of the work out of childhood.)
I would not ignore the role of social and economic factors, and this essay may lend its weight (however light) to arguments for policies that would help poor (and rich) parents spend more time with their children. But the essay remains fundamentally a middle-class piece: written by a middle-class parent with a middle-class child, and for middle-class readers. And I would note, too, that Jonah has the good fortune of having two parents who earn their livings in the bureaucracy, who earn decent salaries (with health insurance and defined-benefit pensions) without having to work monstrously long days. Between his mother and me we have twelve weeks of vacation and twelve “personal days” a year to spend with Jonah. Two afternoons a week I work from home so that I can be there to meet him after school, give him a kiss and some food and point him in the direction of his homework. We are not rich and have no “nice things” (no car, no big TV, no doorman, no country house), but economically, at least for the time being, we really have everything we need. When Jonah’s shoes get too small or he loses a school book, we buy replacements. We take taxis, and when (as often happens) I am too tired to cook or want to get out of our 800 sq. ft. apartment, we go out to eat.
Someone who, thanks to luck or talent, gives some evidence of having a green thumb need not go into the landscaping business or join the lecture circuit. And, even at the risk of contradicting what I have written heretofore, I must note that, inevitably, if Anne (Jonah’s mother) and I were notably richer or poorer, or if we had had a different child—a girl, for instance—this essay would not be quite the same. At the very least, its idea of flourishing might be somewhat different. But still, I would insist again and again that if a plant or a child receives basic nurturing in a consistent fashion, its, her or his flourishing may be quite appreciable and satisfying, and to the plant or child first and foremost.
— Text and drawings by William Eaton
William Eaton is an essayist, poet, fiction writer, artist, and the Editor of Zeteo. Surviving the Twenty-First Century, a collection of his essays, was followed up in November 2017 by a second volume—Art, Sex, Politics, which also includes a few of his drawings. Readers of the present piece might also be interested in the essays What shall I learn of parenting or parenting of me? and The connection between shoe-tying and world peace.