I read Rainer Maria Rilke to my plants. They’re two small bushes, lime and Meyer lemon. This year is the first I ever thought seriously about growing something, tending to it, watching over it. I have been too good for too long at letting plants die in their original pots. We bought rose bushes last summer I never planted. They scorched in the July Texas sun, and every so often I would feel a sadness come over me when I looked at them. That’s how it feels, I would almost say out loud. Overwhelmed, and scorched by the sun, by the heat of the rush and bustle.
I learned later that it was also the slow creep of depression, settling in along my veins, my brain quietly putting its seratonin production on bedrest. Without knowing it, my body rearranged itself to survive. It is a miracle that they do this; it is a miracle that so often we do not notice until much later.
So this winter, so new to the feel of a daily pill and a gulp of water, so unsure of how to permit myself to walk slower through a quick world, I bought these plants. I positioned them near a south window. I let them drink in the winter sunlight and overheated our living room by pulling up the blinds for hours at a time. The lemon tree flowered quickly, filling me with a strange sense of achievement. Of course, when I stopped to think about it, what had I done? But I didn’t worry myself with it too much. I watered and I lifted the blinds and I took credit for the first tiny lemon that sprouted. I felt a sense that the season would turn around for me. I would get better, heal quicker, return to my usual pace.
And then I forgot to water the lemon tree. The lime tree is vigorous, pushing upwards with new leaves almost daily, though it is stingy with blooms so far. But the lemon, in all its exuberant growing, had five or six tiny lemons on it immediately, small and green and perfectly shaped.
And I forgot to water it, and those beautiful tiny lemons, signs of my imminent return to some mythic normal, fell off. A branch or two turned brown, the green shrinking back further and further into the main stem.
I wept and fretted. I brought the trees outside. I repotted the lemon tree. I watched in apprehension to see what would happen.
The tree is still alive, and it’s still flowering. I can’t get those first lemons back. I can’t take credit for its living; though I’m some part of the story of its first losses.
What is this all about?
When the first lemons fell, and I felt the salty taste of despair in the back of my throat, I remembered having read that reading to plants, or playing them nice music, can help them grow. I reached for the first book of poetry I could grasp – the collection of Rilke, a daily reading. I opened to that day. And it said:
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins behind you.
Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.
Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.
The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.Sonnets to Orpheus I, 4
It’s Rilke who said that so much of everything that is most true, most important, is unsayable. And poetry is the gesture, the promise, that though we cannot say the unsayable, we can glimpse it, we can approach it.
I feared the loss of the lemon tree. I feared the loss of a myth of returning to normal. I feared slowing down permanently in a world where the pace quickens, quickens, quickens.
I read to the trees still, read to myself while reading to the trees. I read it out loud to the backyard and the fading Texas sun. And now it’s been a few months of learning the companionship of depression and its unpredictable arrival. I do not know that I will come back to a place I’ve been before. I do not know that I wish to.