This morning, while washing a few dishes left over from last night and getting my morning coffee together, I glanced up at the window above my kitchen sink and noted, with some dismay, just how poorly my two ivy plants are doing. A week or so ago my friend Pennie noticed that they were not doing so well (well, “they’re dying” were her exact words). I’ve been too busy and/or preoccupied since to address the problem.
The two plants have grown together over the past 7-8 months, their vines becoming hopelessly intertwined. Over the past month or so, the color in the leaves has gone from a vibrant green to a pale greenish-tan, the texture of the leaves becoming dry and papery, the vines themselves looking wooden and inflexible. I’m not yet sure what’s wrong, but my best guess is that the roots are rotting a bit, and the vines are dying as a result. Either that or they're choking each other out, but I think it's the roots. They’re mostly in shade throughout the day, and I may have been over-watering a bit the past couple of months.
So later tonight I’ve got to take 15 or 20 minutes to take them out back, prune off as much of the dead growth as possible, and get them into more direct sunlight to get the soil a little less sludgy and encourage them to grow. Before it’s too late.
These two ivy plants came into the house when my kids received their first holy Communions over the past few years. One each, one year apart, as a symbol of their faith. Of course, neither kid ever bothered to do much in the way of tending to their ivy plants, and Christine has something of a Black Thumb, so the task of keeping them going has fallen to me. There are folks who would find this a bit ironic, I’m sure. I’d say that’s because they can’t be bothered to look deeply enough, but whatever. I digress.
As a symbol, ivy=faith is a bit too “on the nose” for me: Tend your faith, and it will grow. Ignore it, and it will, over time, wither away. But while it may be a tad direct and obvious it’s also appropriate. Symbols are useful mostly because they give us a way to examine things that are ephemeral or difficult to grasp -- principles, concepts, emotions, abstractions -- by assigning aspects of these concepts to concrete, real-world objects or situations, and drawing parallels between the two. And lately I’ve encountered events in my life where the symbolism of ivy may be useful.
George Carlin said “Scratch a cynic, and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” This is something I’ve come to understand about myself over the past decade or so. Most people would describe me as a cynical person, someone with a somewhat mocking attitude about the world at large and institutions in general. A wise-ass. Nice, but edgy. But as was recently pointed out to me by a friend who I deeply respect, despite a sort of crunchy exterior I am both an idealist and an optimist, perhaps a bit too much of both for my own good. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt time and again, assuming best intentions for whatever action or lack of action they take.
I guess when it comes to people, you could say I subscribe to the Anne Frank perspective: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Of course, a lot of folks would say “Well, look how that turned out for her.” But regardless, that’s my take on the world. I really do think people in general try to do the right thing when they can. Or at least, I want to think that. The fact that it doesn’t work out that way so often leads to quite a bit of disappointment on my part. Disappointment in people in my life who claim to represent certain ideals, but who ignore those ideals when they’re not convenient. Disappointment in institutions that claim to uphold principles that I hold dear, but that make it clear that those principles are only of worth when they are useful.
And thus the cynicism. The snarky reaction of a wounded idealist.
I’ve lost a lot of faith in some people I placed a lot of trust and affection in over the last few weeks, and also -- as a result -- in an organization I hold in high esteem because it purports to uphold ideas and concepts that I hold dear and try to live by. And as an idealist, and an optimist, loss of faith in people and institutions I believe in is a very bitter pill to swallow. It takes a lot for me to stop giving the benefit of the doubt to people or institutions I care for, and once I’ve crossed that line it’s very difficult to get past.
I’ve been told I’m carrying a chip on my shoulder about this stuff, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it as carrying a weight, a burden. I really want to let it go, move on. It’s just that simply letting go is not that easy for me, and never has been. Not because I'm holding a grudge, but more because I have trouble giving up on the possibility of a better resolution. And when events get discussed again they can feel startlingly fresh with just a few words. I'm a passionate person, and I get stirred up easily. I need to let things lie still for a while before I can let them go. I need to know things are dead and finished before I can bury them. I don't close doors easily, nor burn bridges, not because I want a pound of flesh, but because I still hold out hope that what I feel can be made better.
I realize this is, in some ways, foolish, and that the most likely result in the long run is disappointment. More disappointment. But I can’t help myself. When I’ve wronged people around me my principles, my ideals, compel me to directly address those I’ve affected with my behavior, to try to soothe those I’ve impacted with my choices, to try to fix things. I foolishly expect that others I’ve invested with my trust and respect will do the same. More often than not I’m proven wrong in these expectations. But regardless, that’s how I approach the world. It’s not an easy path, but it’s the one I’m on. And I realize the only one I’m hurting with this is myself.
So, back to the ivy. Those plants are pretty much dead, so part of me just wants to chuck ‘em, maybe buy a hardier decorative plant that I won’t need to work at to keep healthy, or that I won’t need to tend to in order to restore to health. But I think their roots are still OK down there, somewhere, under the damage, and it’s worth the effort to try to fix things, to cut away the dead growth and encourage them to grow again, healthy and green.
The ivy grew for a few years, but apparently it didn’t grow in a healthy way. Maybe it grew on a foundation that couldn’t support it. Or perhaps it was tended incorrectly. Too much attention. Not enough. It’s dying. Maybe it would be easier to just say screw it. Rip out the roots. Destroy what’s left. Or I can prune it back. Try to protect the roots, give them a chance to grow again, grow in a better way this time around. Try to figure out what I did wrong last time, and learn. Maybe I’ll be disappointed. Maybe the damn thing will die anyhow.
But I guess it’s in my nature to just try anyhow.
Now Playing: Patty Griffin, "Flaming Red"