The Invasion of the Fern Plant

close up photography of fern leaves

We were in the front yard on a late summer afternoon. The sun dangled low in the sky before dusk approached; the temperature was right at that sweet spot before you needed to put on another layer of clothing in the chaparral biome of Southern California. My two younger children squealed from where they played together on the sidewalk with their motorized Audi and Hello Kitty cars, requiring me to look over every couple of seconds to check that they hadn’t wandered out into the street. Ethan, my oldest, stood loyally by my side, waiting for a way to be useful in my latest garden project. I was on a rampage. It was summertime and I had the next two months off and a mile-long list of tasks I wanted to accomplish around the house. Closets to clean. Files to organize. Walls to paint. Roses to fertilize, garden beds to weed. These projects are never-ending.

Me: (on my knees, gloves on, pulling out the roots and stems of an overgrown fern plant) I can’t believe I passed by this every day and didn’t notice how it was growing over the rose bushes and the Peruvian lilies. Have you ever been so busy that you don’t notice something?”

Ethan: Um, no.

Me: Shoot. I guess that’s just a stupid adult thing?

Ethan shrugged.

The fern was stubborn, its roots firmly planted in the ground, fronds intertwined with the old thorny rose bushes that my father-in-law planted, the ones I was apparently killing with my lack of a green thumb and inattentiveness. I got too close to the thorns and scraped my elbow, drawing blood. Dirt flew into my eyes. Weird bugs crawled out of hiding. In my fury of yanking out the fern plant, I was impatient and pulled out too many of the Peruvian lilies in the process. The rainbow sorbet rose bush, the most fragrant of them all, was completely engulfed by the insolent ferns. I couldn’t believe the audacity of this uninvited plant spreading its spores on my property.

How did I not notice?

How could I walk by something every single day and not see it? It made me wonder what else I was oblivious about in my life.

When did I become a stupid adult?

I am not a handy person. But neither was my late husband, so I don’t feel completely bad. I’m trying, though. Two years into widowhood and with my youngest child finally potty trained, I am emerging from the thick fog of grief and the daze of early motherhood, ready to tackle projects on my to-do list.

I give myself pep talks. Come on, Teresa. You can figure this out. Use that college degree to problem solve. What tool in this garage will help you to pull out those damn ferns?

I use unorthodox gardening methods. Okay, okay. The truth is that I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Once I had been trying to weed a planter for days. It was my first attempt in my post-fog to fix up the garden. I was barely making any progress. Days into it, my dad casually remarked that I wasn’t getting it done because I was using a square shovel–for things like cement–and I needed to use the round one.

Thanks, Dad, for waiting until day 5 and ungodly amounts of sweat to pass on that knowledge. But now I know!

Sure enough, the round shovel did the trick, and lo and behold I had it in my garage the entire time, unbeknownst to me. It’s amazing what we don’t see right under our noses. It’s also fascinating to know that with the right tools, life can be a lot easier.

A day into my fern project, my dad came around and raised an eyebrow at the sight of my gardening. I told him that despite the hack job, it was the effort that should count. I’m a gardener-in-training. I claim to be nothing more.

This fern project has been bothering me for going on two weeks now, ever since I noticed that it completely overtook the colorful flowers with its boring and intrusive green fronds. I’m still not done getting rid of it, but I’m close. There’s a big gap in the planter and I will need to buy a new rose bush to fill it in. I know nothing about roses, so it is likely I will buy something and then kill it within the first month and then have more fretting to do in the near future. I’m worried the lilies are gone forever–my father-in-law planted them, and we take them to the cemetery for Kenneth and his parents on a regular basis. There is sentimental value attached to these flowers, and I tore them out like an idiot. The fern plant basically set off a cascade of problems, and none of this would be happening if I had only seen it sooner, before the damn thing grew out of control.

I swore to Ethan that I would never, ever let that fern plant grow wayward again. Sometimes Ethan chimes in with his 8-year-old perspective when I am going over my big plans and thoughts, but often he just listens. Ethan does not understand my adult afflictions, but his presence is a useful reminder that life doesn’t have to be this way.

I thought about children in general. Recently I confiscated the Incredibles band-aids that my kids love to use for decoration (you know, like sticking them on a wall and watching me explode in all of my OCD-ness). I thought I was going to outsmart the kids for once and hide the band-aids in a make-up drawer. A completely new location. Surely this would stop the band-aids-in-random-places problem in my house.

Yeah, it didn’t matter. They immediately noticed the band-aids were missing, and they found the new location within the day. These kids are like hound dogs with excellent noses for tracking. They know when there is something new in the pantry to devour like termites. They spot a delivery box at the doorstep before I even turn the ignition off in the car. They see the lady bugs crawling on the cucumber plant leaves. They know just when I’ve made my bed, so they can run into my room and cannonball themselves onto the neatly tucked-in blankets, wrecking the pillows I lined up for aesthetic appeal. They know how to drag sand into the house–always a few hours after our cleaning people leave. I’d say it was just kids being kids, but why can’t they ever do it the day before? Why is it always the day of, as if they wait for the most opportune moment to soil a newly mopped floor? Between them and the dog, I don’t have a chance in this house.

Kids notice everything. Everything. Maybe that’s why they take it so personally when the adults overlook details in their lives.

We all start out like them: simple, slow-paced, with attention to detail (of course, on our terms). It’s amazing how a kid can spot a teeny tiny spider in the corner of the shower and use it to hold up a teeth-brushing routine before bedtime, but they can’t remember to flush the toilet. There is definitely choice involved in what children choose to acknowledge. But at least they are seeing these details and making a choice. Half the time us stupid adults don’t get that far.

Over time we leave behind our childhoods and grow into adult lives. We become busy. So busy that we frequently forget to see what is right in front of us. Sometimes we forget big things. We might neglect the people in our lives. We take these loved ones for granted. We make assumptions and get carelessly comfortable with people. Our relationships become strained by our inattentiveness and sometimes we don’t notice until it is too late.

We don’t see projects that need to be done. We might forget small things, like fern bushes and filling the gas tank and picking up those supplies your kid’s teacher requested three weeks ago, which of course is due first thing in the morning and you already have a meeting to be at.

I am deathly afraid of becoming just another stupid adult. The truth is, I’m kind of a control freak. Not in an unhealthily-attached-to-outcomes kind of a way. I have come to terms with the unexpected nature of the universe. But I am super crazy about managing my personal effort. I don’t like to live passively. I demand hard work from myself. Always. Often something like an overgrown fern plant is enough to drive me crazy with thoughts that maybe I’m not trying hard enough in my life.

And yet a fern plant seems like a small thing in the grand scheme of life, right? Like maybe I’m making too much of a big deal about it?

But I hate the idea of drifting so far away from the childlike qualities that embodies the ideal of what human beings could be. I hate to think that I am devolving into a jaded and overworked stupid adult on a fast descent toward death.

I am convinced that I can outsmart whatever it is that turns us into stupid adults. I let these questions and thoughts swirl around in my head, churning and brewing and simmering into something I can unpack in my desire to find meaning and set personal intention.

I’ve come up with a few conclusions (faster than I’ve taken out that fern plant, sadly.)

First, adults are riddled with the enormous task and stress of prioritizing our lives. We have too much to manage. Insane amounts of responsibilities. Infinite possibilities; the propensity for piling too much onto our plates. Some of this is unavoidable. I have three small children and I’m an only parent. There’s no getting around most of the work I have to do on a daily basis, but there are ways that I can be more strategic about my time. The fern plant fell off my priority radar, but I probably needed to make it at least a little bit of a priority before it got to be a problem. It was miscalibration on my part. I can do better.

That brings me to my next point. Priorities need to be recalibrated, and you have to do this often. Different seasons require new priorities. As we get better and stronger, our priorities shift. Attention should be redirected to weaknesses and places in need of growth. Some activities in our lives are temporary; projects don’t last forever. Life isn’t stagnant. Conditions are always changing and we have to be ready to respond accordingly. Recalibration is about living strategically.

I used to get frustrated with myself for having to constantly tweak my schedule and habits and perpetually feeling like I was falling short. It felt like I was chasing my tail and living as an inefficient person who couldn’t nail this adulting business. Surely I must have been doing something wrong, I thought. Now I feel like having a flexible approach that involves constant recalibration is the only way to manage an impermanent life. I’m no longer convinced that I was the problem. This is just what I have to work with.

There are general understandings about myself that I have become attuned to over time. Trial and error, the only way to live, I suppose. I get bored with monotony. Simple strategies like changing the format of my to-do list or changing the time that I go running during the day can help me stay focused on what I need to do without losing interest. Creating a short list of tasks I absolutely must do–the bare minimum– helps me feel content with my productivity for the day and can help me avoid the debilitating effect of discouragement. I track my habits, set annual goals, and make seasonal bucket lists. All of this helps. I journal and reflect often about my progress, problem areas, and what I’d like to do better.

And yet the pesky ferns still creep into my life.

Recently I was fretting over the work I wanted to get done around the house. Naturally I have a list for house projects. A list for work. A list for writing. A list for experiences. I have lists for lists for lists for lists.

My dad heard me going over the house list and he rolled his eyes again. “Teresa, Rome wasn’t built in a day you know.”

I rolled my eyes back.

But really, it’s not just Rome that wasn’t built in a day. It’s not just houses that can’t be fixed up in a day. A human being isn’t developed in a day. It takes us a while to figure out how to live. We spend our entire lives learning the ropes of how to become a fully enlightened human–some of us never figure it out– and then we die.

That’s okay, I think.

Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better do better.”

I feel like this is all part of the adventure of life.

Keep learning. Keep doing better. Keep trying harder. Learn to spot the invading fern plants. Slow down. Be intentional. Be kind to yourself.

We don’t have to be stupid adults.

We can choose to retain some of that childlike wonder that we once embodied. Zen Buddhists refer to it as the “beginner’s mind.” This is the idea of looking at the world as if you saw everything for the first time. Noticing details. Being present for the experience and maintaining curiosity. No matter how old we are, we can still channel this beginner’s mind.

It’s just a matter of whether or not we think the effort is worth it.

I think it is.

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