If you were a plant, what would you be?

Green thumbs do not have a strong presence in my gene pool, and lately I’ve had a particularly unlucky streak with the new pot plants I’ve so enthusiastically acquired on Saturday-morning jaunts to Bunnings.

It would be convenient to blame the recent heatwave, our oppressive Queensland summer weather, but deep down I know that I just never get the water–light balance right (nor can I seem to discourage the cats from digging up our planter boxes, the little shits).

I’ve killed a string of pearls and several little nerve plants, their delicately veined leaves curling up and eventually disintegrating to nothing. Our parsley and sage have died, and a sedum is on its way out — I over-watered it, the Internet tells me.

The only plants still flourishing — or, let’s face it, surviving — are the mint and the succulents, as well as a gifted Zanzibar gem that keeps on keeping on despite the ravages of kitten teeth, recycled air, and a haphazard watering ‘schedule’.

This year, I’ve been feeling withered and desiccated, too, like a pot-bound fern yellowing at the tips and failing to draw nourishment from the boxes in which I’ve found myself. I keep thinking about the memes that have crossed my screen describing humans as house plants with more complex emotions. Perhaps, after the ‘unprecedented events’ of 2020 spent trapped inside a 13-inch screen for vast periods of time, reduced to a cluster of pixels in the so-called Zoombie apocalypse, we all simply need more air, sunshine, and water.

But do you feel like something else is going on?

I’m guessing I can safely speak for many people when I say that this whole year has been a bumpy ride in terms of unlearning and renegotiating our social worlds. The spaces available to us — both physical and virtual — to interact with one another have puckered and expanded in response to changing directives and a constellation of personal circumstances: employment status and workload, family dynamics, new or existing health problems.

We’ve borne the brunt of distance and isolation as well as the urgency of new intimacies and intrusions upon our downtime and personal spaces. If you’re anything like me, it’s come as a shock at times to reach for the support you’ve long taken for granted and find only empty, stale air. In other ways, the sudden whomp of oxygen afforded by somebody’s absence or remoteness has come as a curious relief, unexpected warmth, safety, and reassurance flooding in from previously quiet corners to fill the void.

Significant change of any kind is exhausting.

But the realignment of satellites in your own little cosmos?

I think this particular variety of world-weariness taps a deeper seam than videoconferencing fatigue or hug deprivation. If personality is actually contingent on context, what sustenance do we want and need when we’re yanked abruptly free of the complex root systems we’ve spent a lifetime establishing and maintaining?

What have you discovered about yourself this year as the interpersonal furniture of your life has been rearranged and then rearranged again?

For me, as other pressures have mounted — and as some relationships and opportunities have receded and others washed into shore — I’ve been surprised by how much more loosely I grip my expectations about regular contact and interaction. I’ve realised I’m much less social than I’ve always assumed, that I crave and cherish time alone, that perhaps some friendships were more habit than must-have. I’ve newly recognised the need for quality interaction over quantity, the art of conversations that enable dialogue rather than encouraging diatribe. I want to work on slowing down, taking a less reactive approach to messages and emails, thinking more carefully before saying yes or no, having the courage to respond: ‘I wish you all the best, but I’d prefer not to be involved.’

But how do I communicate these realisations and new, fragile boundaries to the people around me?

Imagine, I keep thinking, if humans came packaged with a little label or plastic garden stake bearing clearly printed care instructions:

Place in a warm spot inside your heart but out of the direct sunlight of constant interaction. Water on a weekly basis with meaningful conversation. Responds well to a dusting of pet photos and reading recommendations but may atrophy in the presence of a competitive dynamic. Experiences growth beneath the surface that may not be visible above ground. Will stop putting out feelers if she gets no response. Naturally prickly.

Maybe it is unkind or reductive to think of people this way (I’ll be the first to admit, though, that I’m probably a cactus), but I believe we would do well to more clearly articulate our needs or the conditions for our ongoing nourishment and survival — and to more deliberately look out for signs of growth and decay in the people in our orbits.

If you were a plant, what would you be?