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Deeply rooted: What plant fatherhood taught me about caring for myself

When I moved the last box into the Casa de Joy — my affectionate nickname for my new apartment in Brooklyn — my first priority was acquiring a set of houseplants. After years of surviving and navigating homelessness in shelters and other people’s sanctuaries and hellholes, I secured my lease, high-speed access to Janet Jackson’s Internet, and then my new, leafy housemates.

I vividly recall the viny, bushy, sky-reaching plants and flowers that dominated the walls and fountain-bearing yard of my grandmother’s lavish home in Hampton, Virginia. I’ve grown up encountering plant life in abundance in spaces filled with love, so as an adult, they represent perseverance, comfort, freedom, and stability.

When I moved into my new home this past July, it quickly became clear that not even the deepest Steak-umm-stuffed deep freezer or flyest plastic-covered couch could bring joy to a greenery-free residence. So a family of resilient, depression-proof potted housemates was essential to turning this apartment into a sanctuary. They would be proof that I’m doing okay enough to unclench and blossom. The first of the squad were Rita Louise the croton and Sister Mary Clarence the neon pothos, found at Natty Garden II, a Black-owned nursery in Brooklyn.

When they arrived, I was hyped about the influx of color as well as being able to channel grandmotherly warmth. I heard my own grandmother, in my head, telling me, “You can’t have too many plants." The sunny, plant-filled sitting room she added to the back of her own home helped her feel like she was back in Panama, where she grew up.

Nearly a year into a pandemic, I’m exploring life beyond survival mode while keeping us all unmurdered these past few months. I now see how intertwined our wellbeing — my own and my plants’ — really is. “We both need sunlight and to be cared for and be told we are loved in order to flourish,” explains Grace Lamour, a New York-based counselor and assistant director at a Manhattan therapeutic preschool. She agrees that houseplants can upgrade our lives and teach us a lot about ourselves and what it means to “be okay.”

She says that especially for people in crowded, over-developed cities or who may not have access to nature and green outdoor spaces, “caring for houseplants can be therapeutic for those battling depression, anxiety, addiction, and for survivors of abuse.” I can testify that manual work with tangible results is a reprieve from trauma and can bring a sense of pride, confidence, and control for the overwhelmed or unstable. Helping a living being thrive reminds me that I have something to offer this world.

Alex Hardy

With winter enveloping us in its ashy knuckled grasp, I realized that if I have to hoard moisture and double up on shea butter as the radiator cooks the air with sporadic aggression, Rita Louise and the gang could probably benefit from some help being their best selves too. I figured we all deserved to be loved and cared for intentionally since each of us has a different recipe for survival. And that changes according to the day, season, and circumstances.

On the advice of my sister-friend Colah, who hosts the Black in the Garden podcast, I picked up a humidifier to share with the girls. They luxuriate in humid living room air by day while it helps me recover from a recent hateful flu-like situation in my newly painted bedroom by night. I also moved them away from the drafty windows and researched ways to help houseplants thrive during the winter (repotting? affirmations?). I bought a cute spray bottle and incorporated misting and pot rotation into my morning routine of cleaning the kitchen and making tea or coffee in silence, selecting an aroma mix for the oil diffuser, and lighting candles before checking lists, email, or social media.

Within just a few days, Rita Louise stretched to the ceiling and lost a few crispy leaves — a necessary shedding of the past, I take it. It was easy to relate to. The rest of her leaves darkened and regained the bright red and yellow edges that greeted me when I brought her home. A new leaf opened. Shirley the snake plant perked up too.

The humidifier wasn’t the only nourishing new addition to our lives. I got some paint to jazz up Starkeisha the purple waffle’s terracotta pot, and the doodling calmed me after intense work days. I bought myself a baker’s rack and a portable ballet barre to elevate my spirits and my hindparts and combat a snack-positive, sedentary lifestyle. I was working on all of us, clearly, in tandem. I sought new ways to find joy in our daily upkeep as I got my medication adherence back on track and remembered I also needed water to live.

As I regain my footing and continue getting to know myself outside the lens of trauma and brokenness, the daily joys and routines of plant parenthood keep me rooted. I marvel at how they react to and reflect love and neglect.

As I spritz and continue to remove dead leaves, I feel distance from my former self: a joyless wildling trying to make magic and find peace in plant-free spaces. Painting cool blues, bright yellows, and orangey pinks on my walls and housing as many plants as I want reminds me that I won’t have to pack up and leave in a rush any time soon. I can take up space. No diluting myself or dancing around fighting housemates.

And alongside this new plant- and self-love journey, I’ve been engaging wellness check-ins with members for my community who are going through it: multicultural, multigenerational groups of front liners who need a place to process their complex feelings about the pandemic. In conversations about coping with grief, loss, and devastating transitions, I always mention how my plants help me carve out moments of joy. The participants bust their emotions open and teach me the importance of considering our various identities while embracing our individual needs.

Nearing half a year in, I’m still working to anticipate and appreciate the fluidity of what each plant and my various selves — the nap-forward freelancer, the resource-providing village member and chronic illness survivor, the freaky-deaky wordsmith and wellness advocate — need in order to keep our spirits moisturized.

And a little science to balance out the feels: Plants don’t just help moisturize spirits; they help us breathe better, too. Lamour tells me that in addition to improving air quality and brightening up rooms, the process of cultivating indoor houseplants has cathartic and healing effects that “can help in developing empathy and compassion for one’s self as well as others.”

Giving support during this raggedy moment in history has been a blessing. It helps me offer myself grace around times when my care level dips and I am forced to accept that plants be dying. And that’s okay.

On spiritually ashy winter mornings like today, when I have a short praise report, the sense of accomplishment I get from seeing my plants thrive incentivizes me to push through to the next ho-ass day.

Breathe, mist, repeat.