This Doesn’t Have To Be the End

Seedlings sprouting on a forest floor.
Photo by Rain Yan on Unsplash

Recently I had one of those deep, rare, life-giving conversations with a close friend–“close” of course being somewhat of a flexible word these days, as I’d barely seen this friend for months, as I barely go anywhere and I barely see anyone.

Nevertheless we saw each other and we had this conversation in which we talked about each other and our friend group and what has happened to us, and how as a result we have all grown apart. Some of this was COVID-related, some of it wasn’t, but regardless it happened, and now here we are sitting on my couch processing it. My friend said that she understands and accepts the fact that everything changes, and people grow apart and leave, and et cetera, but she just wished that this particular moment in our lives had lasted longer, had hoped it would.

I agreed, and then immediately realized that I didn’t quite agree–it was more of an “I agree, and also.”

The “and also” is this:

I’m glad that our culture is starting to move towards a place of recognizing that all relationships (platonic, romantic, sexual) do not need to last forever, and that it’s not a “failure” if they don’t; that we can be glad for the good times we had with someone while acknowledging that they have moved on, or we have moved on, or both; that we should never pressure others to stay in relationship with us or to have that relationship look the same way it did before; that people can drift apart without it being anyone’s fault or responsibility; that all of this is Normal and Good and Healthy.

This is a good baseline, I think, but I would like to take this understanding some steps further, particularly in light of These Unprecendented Times.

Over the past year and a half, a lot of things have changed for me and around me and within me, even. One of those is that I’ve come to recognize my lifelong connection with plants and the natural world and have started to develop a sort of spiritual practice around this. Right now I’m noticing an impulse to defend or justify what I just said somehow, as if anyone reading this is going to be upset by it and need some sort of reassurance that I’m not one of “those” people, whatever that means to them. I’m noticing the impulse, but in all honesty I don’t really care to engage with it. It is what it is, and what it is, is that I’m a Jewish atheist who also uses meditation and ritual as a way to enhance my mental and physical health and I focus that practice on nature. Whatever I’m doing, I’ve been doing in some form since before I even learned to read; now I just do it with intention, which makes it much more powerful.

One of the things that my connection with the green world has shown me is that not only is everything in life constantly changing, it is changing in the form of cycles. Cyclical patterns show up everywhere in nature and in our lives–the cycle of day and night; the cycle of the seasons; the cycle of water moving through the air, the ground, and living things; the cycle of birth, life, and death; the cycle of ecological succession; the cycle of civilizations and nation-states and regimes.

That a pattern is cyclical doesn’t necessarily mean it looks the same each time. My garden grows, produces, and dies in a cycle, but the plants are different each year. They would be different each year even if I stopped tending the garden and let it reproduce itself however it wants. Cycles don’t continue forever, either. If you build a house where a garden once was, the cycle of that particular garden ends for good, even if the cycle of ecological succession will eventually reclaim the land where that house stood. In five billion years, when our sun becomes a red giant, all life cycles on Earth will end–but new ones might start on planets further away from the sun as they warm up and potentially develop the conditions necessary to sustain life as we know it.

Thinking of life’s many changes, especially the painful ones, as cycles opens up entirely new ways of understanding them. Over the past two weeks, the first frosts came. Seemingly overnight, every single leaf on my sprawling squash vine summarily died, collapsing to the ground, conveniently revealing exactly where all the unharvested squash still sat. You could say that the plant is dead, or at any rate fast approaching that state. You could also say that the plant lives on in the fruits I’ve left curing in my kitchen, or the seeds I saved from one that I ate already, or the massive web of decaying roots that are, even now, nourishing the soil that once sustained them. You could also say that in May, when I bring out those seeds and sow them anew, the plant will live again.

The same plant? The same life? Maybe not. Does it matter? Maybe not. This doesn’t have to be the end for my squash plant. Maybe this doesn’t have to be the end for you and me.

As a therapist practicing during the pandemic, one of the perspectives I’ve tried the hardest to instill in my clients and in myself is that perhaps this isn’t the time to come to grand, definite conclusions about who is and isn’t still a friend or what our interdependent lives will or won’t look like. Believe me, I want to know those things for certain as much as anyone. But it’s like looking at a patch of soil in January and trying to divine which seeds lay hidden within it, which ones will sprout come spring and which won’t, which will grow to maturity in the summer and which will die off as seedlings.  You might know what you planted there or what grew there last season, but you have no way of knowing what will survive or what’s been planted there by nature herself. Maybe that lettuce you never harvested before it flowered has sown itself without your help, and in the spring you’ll have fresh salad waiting for you. Maybe the blackberry cane that you planted ten feet away has decided it likes this spot better, and instead of producing berries for you, it spent the whole season burrowing its roots towards this particular patch of soil, and this is where you’ll have your berries in the summer.

These are things I think about a lot around this time of year. When my plants die every fall, it feels like a part of me dies with them. But as I try to remind myself, most of them haven’t even died—they’re really hibernating. All winter long, my perennials—rhubarb, sage, thyme, fig, lemon balm, monarda, strawberry, anise hyssop, echinacea, every single tree, and many more—are very much alive, waiting for longer and warmer days. Not all of them come back each year; plants have lifespans too, and sometimes, for lack of a better phrase, shit happens. But as long as their roots are still alive and the temperatures don’t drop beneath certain thresholds, this doesn’t have to be the end.

So naturally I think, too, about my hibernating friendships.

My first year as a gardener, I think I assumed that any plant that dies all the way back to the ground—stems and all—is just dead. I’m pretty sure I composted some perfectly good herbs because of that. But some I didn’t, and I was shocked the following spring when their completely dead-looking branches suddenly sprouted new growth. Same goes for the dahlia corms I’d forgotten about, some little trees that dropped all their leaves as soon as I’d planted them, and a scraggly blueberry bush. Outdoors, nature provides most of what her leafy children need to come alive in the spring—sunlight, water, nutrients, beneficial fungi and bacteria—so these sudden resurrections are par for the course.

When it comes to the social cycles of human life, though, it’s not quite that simple. Sometimes our connections with people die back to the soil, and they rarely spring up again months or years later without any effort from anyone. Maybe that’s one reason we tend to think about them so categorically: “Well, I haven’t talked to so-and-so for months. That’s too bad, but I guess people move on.” We think of our relationships as either alive or dead, and what’s dead stays dead—a cicada that has completed its breeding cycle and expired.

But maybe interpersonal connections are less like cicadas and more like perennial plants. In some climates, some perennials don’t go dormant at all, and stay leafy and very much alive all year round. (That would be nice, but that’s not where I live—not ecologically and not socially either.) In others, they shed their leaves and wait out the winter as bare stems and branches. Other perennials die all the way down to the ground and bide their time as living roots, waiting for the right conditions to spring forth again.

Another thing I often remind my clients is that we humans find uncertainty more unbearable than almost any certainty. Some part of us would rather believe that our friendships are over than that they might or might not be, a Schrodinger’s cat that is both alive and dead until we open the box. It is, on some level, easier to say, “Well, sometimes friendships just end and it’s no one’s fault and that’s just the way it is” than to wonder what would happen if we reached out.

When I say “easier,” I don’t mean that we’re intentionally “taking the easy way out,” or being “lazy,” or anything else. I mean easier cognitively. Simpler. Fewer precious resources demanded in the brain. We are all, intentionally or otherwise, a bit thrifty with our mental resources these days. It’s a shortcut, not a moral failing. Try to thank your brain for being as efficient as it can, given the situation.

Here’s what helped me. I don’t know if it will help you or not, and maybe you’ll find it too harsh, too tough-love, so take what you want and leave the rest.

What helped me was realizing that it costs me just about nothing to text a friend and say I miss them and would love to catch up sometime soon, would they like to come over for dinner or go for a walk. Realizing that the pain of having that text go unanswered, or answered with a “no,” ultimately hurts much less than the cumulative pain of going day after day slowly coming to understand just how much I’ve lost. Realizing that for all I know, any moment—this moment—could be the moment I reconnect with someone I’ve barely spoken to in years, and all it really takes is a relatively small effort on my part and a comparative response on theirs. Realizing that I don’t like the version of myself that leaves a garden untended and then complains that it’s not growing what I wanted it to.

As I said, cycles don’t have to look the same each time around. None of this is to say that it’s always possible to drift away from someone over a period of months or years, and then drift back and continue on together as if it never happened. With some people it’s like that, with others it isn’t, and it’s probably a coin flip which way it’ll go with any given person.

Fall is sad for me every year because it’s still an ending, and those plants that I tended for half a year still aren’t coming back in the same form again, and winter still sucks. Being so isolated sucked. Sucks.

So let that sit.

The friendships you had before the pandemic are gone. Grieve them. Let them go.

The person you were before the pandemic is gone. Grieve them. Let them go.

The life you had before the pandemic is gone. Grieve it. Let it go.

The friendships you had before the pandemic can start anew. Nurture them. Let them grow.

The person you were before the pandemic can live again. Nurture them. Let them grow.

The life you had before the pandemic can begin, renewed. Nurture it. Let it grow.

This doesn’t have to be the end.

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This Doesn’t Have To Be the End