SMALL SNIPPETS • Resilience From My Nonnie

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There is something inherently renewing about the spring–in bearing witness as the land reawakens from its slumber. I find it fundamentally healing to watch as fields that seemed barren only weeks before suddenly teem with new growth. The life that laid dormant through the long harsh winter months  becomes perceptible once again.

I may be aging myself in this admittance, but one of my favorite things is to be outdoors with my hands in the dirt–tending and planting. I love to be surrounded by growing things. In the winter months I fill my house with plants. I find it essential to be surrounded by the vitality of their greenness, especially in the later parts of the year as the leaves fall away from the trees and the skies darken.

Perhaps it is because I am the granddaughter of a former florist and a woman with the greenest thumb I have ever seen. I swear that she just wills plants to grow and they manifest in lush vibrancy just to please her. My Nonnie (Connie Miles) has the most beautifully landscaped yard. It belongs in a lifestyle magazine and the floral arrangements that she grew from seedlings–which she and my younger cousin Avery collected by hand–for my wedding were immaculate in their beauty. They were picturesque in their elegance and simplicity, straight out of a Jane Austen novel, exactly as I had rather ridiculously requested.

In addition to a natural affinity for plants, my grandmother is the most resilient person I know–a gift she imparted to me. I am sure that somewhere deep inside the labyrinth of my mind some synapse has formed to subconsciously connect my grandmother, plants and resiliency, melding them together until I need only see one to enact the other. This gift of cultivating the intrinsic magic of plants is one that I daily thank God she passed on to me.

I will be eternally grateful for this invaluable lesson because I, like my Nonnie before me, was chosen by life to live within a world of grays–to reside within long, drought-filled seasons of sadness. Neither of us were given ideal childhoods but it was not our childhoods that cemented us as residents of the wilderness. We both received that citizenship as adults, in sterile, harshly lit doctor's offices. It is almost comical how fitting that old colloquialism "same stuff, different day" panned out between us, binding us together in ways that even our shared genes could not. 

It was a diagnosis that thrust each of us firmly into what I think of as "The After"–not diagnoses of each of us, but diagnoses of our children. Her After arrived in the form of a leukemia diagnosis and mine in the form of an autism diagnosis, nonetheless the wilderness came for us both. Though decades separated us, we both clung to our babies while the devastating storm of those monotonously read words whirled about us, hurling us each out of our old lives, our before lives, and into the After. Now, that I live within the wilderness I often wonder if she knew in that moment that nothing would ever be the same again. I did not. That is a lesson that would come for me over and over again.

The thing that most people misunderstand about living within chronic grief is that it is not always unhappy. There are good days–glorious sun-soaked days.  There are hours, months, years even where everything is bright and blue, aching in its crystalline beauty. There are periods where you can almost forget that you now live in the After. 

You can almost forget, but it is always there. A niggling sense of unease, an uncanny prickling on the back of your neck reminding you that things are not quite as they should be. Then, just like that, something happens–something small, infinitesimal, just the briefest of glitches, but it is enough to jolt you back into the glaring reality of loss.

The storms of the wilderness are devastating. There are no soft spring showers here, only vicious, unrelenting monsoons. They come upon suddenly, with almost no warning. The sky is not quite as blue as you had thought it was only a moment ago. In fact, it appears to be almost hazy and a noticeable grime overtakes everything. A thin sheer coating that dilutes the vibrant colors that were present only moments ago. In an instant, the heavens open and release the violent torrent, raining down the debilitating remembrance that you live in the After. The keening soundless lament that rises from the depths of your soul as the sudden fullness of this remembrance bears down upon you. It is akin to a gale force wind that will cripple you to your knees, where you will stay broken, drained, disillusioned and numb–so barrenly numb.

My Nonnie knew this lament well and perhaps she unconsciously sensed that it would come for me.  Possibly that is why she worked so hard to instill resilience within me. She taught me this lesson in a million ways, all seemingly unconnected at the time. She taught it to me through her Miles family motto of perseverance. Little did I know that her constant encouragement and unwavering determination was teaching me to view failure through the lens of progress.  She was teaching me to take the harsh realities life hands each of us and to greet them with intrigue and determination. She encouraged my natural creativeness, teaching me to value creativity as important and to utilize its cathartic release regularly in my day-to-day life. 

I could write an endless list of the ways in which my Nonnie demonstrated resilience, but I think it is the most important lesson that resilience is a practice. It must be cultivated. It is a choice, not a bottomless reservoir that some have access to and some do not. This is the rationale behind why I choose to surround myself with plants and gift them to others. This practice of resilience is especially important to remember when the vicious storms of life encroach.

My favorite house plant is a spider plant, or more properly a chlorophytum comosum. It is not classically beautiful or brightly flowered and its leaves are long and spindly resemblant of a spider. I love this plant for it's vibrant green color and lush fullness but most of all for its resiliency.

Chronic grief can be sneaky and it manifests in a myriad of small seemingly insignificant ways. For me it often presents itself in the form of apathy. In the same way that impending thunderstorms can be detected in the eerie stillness of the skies and earthy scent of soil in the air, I have learned to detect the incoming onslaughts of grief by the slow encroachment of apathy into my demeanor. When disillusionment seeps in like a heavy fog and the bilious tendrils of lethargy creep into the corners of my life, I know that a storm is impending. 

It is during the times that everything around me suddenly seems  tedious and futilely unimportant that I am most grateful for this particular plant. I have learned that it is in these moments that I most need to call on upon the inherent magic of my spider plant and utilize its resiliency as my own.

Often when I am caught in a storm of the wilderness, I neglect to care for the things that are important to me. I do not mean the basic everyday things. Like most people who live with chronic grief, I put on a highly functional front. In fact, the more efficient and functional I appear on the outside, the larger the turmoil raging inside generally is. It is an odd paradox of perfectionists–another trait that I share with my Nonnie, that can be highly advantageous when managed and utilized as a tool but incredibly destructive when left unreined. It is when I suddenly stop caring to water my plants, when I no longer have the energy to work on my community projects and everything I care about seems pointlessly vapid and utterly meaningless that I know a storm is impending. 

When I am overwhelmed with grief I often stop watering my plants. All of my houseplants are resilient, purposefully chosen for this characteristic, but my spider plant–he is a trooper. That guy can come back from anything. He has been to the brink more times than I care to admit. I have neglected him to the point that his leaves have shriveled and dried, hardening to brittle brown stems. 

I never give up on him, though. Or rather he never gives up on me. When the storm abates and the skies clear and I return to tending my plants, he always returns to me. His leaves grow back, regaining their vivid color and lushness and he produces the most delightful offshoots that I often replant and gift to those I care for.  

To me, this plant's ability to bounce back is the essence of resiliency–not the ability to live within a state of perpetual happiness but the ability to pick yourself up and keep going when you feel as if you have nothing left. 

Perseverance is the family motto in the Miles home. Try, and try and try again until you master the task at hand, or a new, better path presents itself. This is resilience–an unquenchable perseverance of the soul to rise. 

This is the gift that my Nonnie passed along to me in many ways, but especially in sharing her love of plants to me. It is more than just a love of plants that she gifted me, but a love of nurturing and growing living things. She taught me not only how to access my own resilience, but how to cultivate it and to pass it along to others. In the same way that each of us can garner resilience from the environments that we create for ourselves, we can lend it to those around us when their skies darken.

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