Hadley came racing out of the classroom on her last day of preschool clutching her farewell present from her teachers: a pink zinnia, standing small but proud in a clay pot Hadley had painted sky blue earlier in the year. The whole thing was wrapped in crinkly cellophane, tied with a cheerful ribbon to keep it safe on the ride home.
While my daughter insisted on posing for a million photos with her flower, Kate Hudson's voice rang through my head on a loop: "Our love fern! You let it DIE!"
I'm not a plant person. My mom used to call me every day to tell me which plants to water and how much, given our current weather conditions. Having three kids in four years put an end to that ritual---ain't nobody got time to fawn over the hydrangeas when there are tiny humans to keep alive.
So my heart sank as Hadley spent the whole afternoon chatting about her flower. "I'm going to show it to Nana on Friday. Miss Theresa says if we take care of it, it will get so big we can plant it in the ground!"
We set the blue pot on the side table near our sliding door where I proceeded to ignore it for the next week, until Hadley said, "Mama, why is my flower brown and sad?" I Googled basic care for zinnias, silently cursing Miss Theresa for getting my kid's hopes up that this flower would do anything other than wither and die.
The verdict: full sun. And of course, water.
I moved the half-dead plant from our unsunny dining room to the table on our deck, where it made a nice centerpiece and I would hopefully remember to water it. It spent a large chunk of the day shadowed by the spreading leaves of our honey locus tree, but I planned to move it back and forth to a sunnier spot every few days.
The zinnia was already perking up after just one afternoon in its new home. Maybe this little flower would rebound and survive after all.
But then its leaves started curling again. I eyed it out the kitchen window while I stood at the sink, scrubbing the cutting board. Its vibrant pink leaves were turning pale, like someone was slowly turning out the lights on it. The flower stretched to the right, toward the full sun I knew it needed. I'll move it tomorrow, I thought.
But tomorrow, it rained. Three days of storms later, Hadley's zinnia was dead. I had forgotten about it outside, a tiny thing contained to a pot that was never meant to weather storms. And so the zinnia drowned a silent death, water pooled in its saucer.
"I think I need to water my flower, Mama," Hadley said as she gently lifted the wilted plant and tried to force it to stand upright again.
"Um, I don't think that's the problem," I said, as Reagan stuck her pudgy toddler finger deep into the muddy potting soil.
I carefully explained that even though Hadley had loved her flower and taken such great care of it, her zinnia wasn't meant to make it through such harsh weather while it was still in a pot. We hadn't put it in the right spot. We had forgotten about it. I had made a mistake.
Hadley nodded but didn't seem to believe me. She continued checking on the zinnia and watering it every day until finally, when Reagan dumped the whole pot out into the grass one afternoon, she shrugged and walked away from the whole mess. "It was dead anyway, Mom," she said, looking at me like I was too old to not understand how the circle of life works.
I was pleased with how well Hadley accepted the inevitable. I don't think I have her gift for acknowledging what is and moving on.
It was impossible for me to see the zinnia as just another plant I had allowed to die. I'm incapable of taking an average life event at face value without attaching deeper meaning. So in my head, this tiny dead plant stood for something more: my writing life.
Sun is what that zinnia needed. I knew that, and I did nothing. I left it out in the storms. I gave it what I could of my limited time and attention, and it still died.
This is my fear about my writing, that these days of giving it a minute here or a minute there won't be enough. It's wilting, mostly dead. There's nothing I can do to bring it back to life; even full sun won't help it now.
I'm sprinkling water over something that will never grow again, when what I should be doing is dumping the whole thing on the ground and walking away with a shrug.
But then, life gave me another story about a plant.
"I think something's growing in the compost pile," I tell my husband one night after dinner.
I've just returned from the backyard where I scraped the day's food scraps off the cutting board into the dirt pile in the corner.
I may not be any good at keeping plants alive, but I feel particularly earthy when I bring food out to the compost. That night, I lingered long enough to notice a thick vine winding its way across the pile of decomposing watermelon rinds and banana peels.
The compost itself was something of a mistake. We were optimistic enough to start a vegetable garden three years ago. And hey, if you're doing a garden, why not have a compost pile? The junky corner of our yard, surrounded by an odd rectangle of half-buried stones we inherited with the house, seemed like a good enough place to toss all our organic matter and see what happened.
The garden is long gone, but the compost pile lives on. Years of eggshells and coffee grinds and dinner scraps built up into an ingrained habit. The soil that's there now is rich in nutrients and completely untouched, aside from the occasional turning over with the rusty shovel that leans against the back fence.
Apparently something we've thrown back to the earth has decided to return in plant form.
"It's gotta be cucumbers or squash," Jacob says. "Maybe even pumpkins." He digs the vine out of the compost and moves it to old garden bed, now covered with weeds. We place a wire cage around it for good measure, to deter the neighborhood rabbits, though it doesn't seem to need our protection.
Two weeks later, another vine stretches across the compost pile. This one we leave alone. It would seem our dirt is intent on sprouting vegetables without our help.
I ventured outside again last night, dropping a mushy zucchini and a pile of strawberry tops into the pile. The vine is enormous, the food bouncing off heavy leaf canopies like rain off an umbrella. We've decided it's an autumn vegetable, something large.
Whatever it is, it's wild and it's thriving.
So maybe writing is more like the vine in a compost pile than a dead zinnia. Maybe it doesn't need perfect conditions, the right amount of time and attention.
Maybe if you throw it your scraps as often as you can, turn the words over every once in a while, something wild will grow so large, it cannot be stopped.