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Plants as a metaphor for change

David Bowie wrote a song about it. Barnes and Noble has numerous books on the subject. And Netflix has at least thirty movies that promise you’ll make it after you watch them. What theme do a musician, a bookseller, and a streaming service have in common? Exchange. I have heard that it takes twenty-one days to change a habit, maybe, maybe not. Change, in itself, is a reality and there are many ways to deal with change.

How do we see the change in our own lives? Sometimes the change can be so small that it feels like nothing is happening. Think: lose weight or quit smoking. It may seem like you are taking 5 steps forward and 10 steps back. Other times, the change can be brutal and fast. Think: an unexpected death, an illness, or a visitor from the past. Perhaps one of these situations has resonated with you and created a change in your life. Many of us know how to measure changes in life: pounds lost on the scale, the number of days without smoking, how many days of exercise, etc.

But what about the change that is happening around us all the time? How can we see it and how can we use it? In January 2011, I started aggressive chemotherapy and denied what the drugs would do to me. I knew I was going to lose my hair and even though I read about all the other side effects I thought, “no, I’m in good shape, this is not going to happen to me. I was wrong.

About a month after starting treatment, I received a nine-inch potted plant from a friend in Minnesota. He was in his eighties and was caring for his wife who had Parkinson’s disease. The planter contained four different species of plants; it was green and perfect for my little apartment. I put the plant on a table by the window and watered it every Sunday. As the treatment continued, the plant prospered and eventually flourished. I, on the other hand, was not thriving. Of course, all the hair fell out, then neuropathy began, followed by ringing in the ears, loss of taste, and extreme fatigue.

The plant became my metaphor for change. The sicker I got, the more I prospered. I found it edifying to see the beauty in such a small container. Over the years, I noticed that the plant was having problems. I tried different locations in the apartment, more water, less water, more sun, less sun, but nothing seemed to work. He was still alive, but with little growth. A few years passed without even blooming. At the same time, I was also changing. My hair grew back and, like the plant, I struggled to stay above the ground. When I moved into a new apartment, I repotted the plant thinking it needed more space for the roots. It stayed alive but did not bloom yet and did not maintain much growth.

Four years after receiving the plant, I moved into a house and put it in the front window. He had finally found his happy place. Today, six years after receiving the plant, it is in a twelve-inch pot, still in the front window. It is twenty-four inches tall and extends in a fifty-five-inch circle. The plant blooms at least once a month. The man who sent it to me lost his wife and about a year ago, I lost him. The last time I saw him, I told him the story of the five-year-old plant, but I think he barely remembered sending it.

The plant that had served as my constant reminder that change is right in front of us, always. The plant did well, then it struggled, then it did well, then it struggled, and now, it is blooming. The plant had served as my constant reminder that change is right in front of us, always, and that as human beings, some days (weeks, months and even years) we can flourish and others we can fight.

Sometimes I stand by the plant and look out the window. As it stands, I stand tall. I am in awe of her beauty and persistence despite the odds against her. This fall, I looked out the window and saw a tree in the front yard covered in the most spectacular orange leaves I had ever seen and I almost cried. It came out of a postcard from Vermont and I live in North Carolina. It is now February and there are no leaves, just empty branches. Like the plant, the tree also changes. I remind myself that it will soon have new leaves. The tree, like my plant, is another illustration of how change is right in front of us, if we only take the time to notice it.

The plant has become my metaphor for change. What will your metaphor be? What can inspire you around you to do, face, accept and embrace change?

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