“There is light in the darkness,” reads the final line of my favorite poem by my father, Cesare. Indeed, there is light — there is always light — but sometimes it murmurs faintly in bleak blotches, at best, when you’re standing at the entryway of a seemingly abysmal pit with nothing but a broken matchstick in your pocket.
Over the past two years, within the clutches of this dreadful pandemic, I have suffered more loss and anxiety than a child with a skinned knee forced to kneel on a bed of salt. By this, I refer to the tremendous heartache that has been plaguing me from the death of loved ones — the most recent of which was that of my 14-year-old Labrador and best friend, my Billie Holiday.
After struggling with liver cancer for three months, Billie took her final breath as I held her tightly in my arms on my bedroom floor at precisely 11:11 p.m., exactly 111 days ago. “One…. Hundred… Eleven… Days.” — I reiterate and lament, as I obsessively count the days since she made her way to that elusive Rainbow Bridge in the sky.
Until now, the very sound of her name (or the simplest flashback of her helpless body curled-up like a black bean in a white womb of frailty) leaves me in tears.
“You must be careful,” often cautioned my parents as I was growing up, “of taking care of your own heart and saving some of it for yourself.” You see, taking care of others has always been my greatest passion in life — in fact, it is through taking care of others that I am fueled and inspired to create art. Unfortunately, losing the ones I love is something for which I have yet to find a cure.
Death, they say, is merely the beginning of eternity, and while I fervently believe in heaven and the afterlife, I continue to languidly ruminate over the all-too-human “whys,” “what fors” and “what ifs.” If death ends a life, for instance, what becomes of our relationships? Do they die, too?
It’s in these moments of grief and soul-deep contemplation that an angel appears like a lightbulb over my head — an angel in the form of my mother, Jean Marie, sweetly prompting me: “It’s the simple joys in life that matter the most.” Alas, the simple joys… Simple, yet often too swift. If I could hold on to a single perfect moment with my teeth, I swear I would gladly suffer a grindingly noisy and hideously painful smile for the rest of my life.
But I digress.
To paint a clearer picture of how I fell in love with plants, let me tell you about my current environment. I live in a family compound where my bedroom extends into a balcony overlooking the main road. In our home, we are a very close-knit family of seven impassioned and intense artists who take care of over 30 adopted stray cats, 10 dogs (at one point or another), and nearly 100 children who visit my studio for art workshops.
At the height of the pandemic — behind quarantined windows — I began my desperate attempt to heal my broken heart and seek a semblance of light amidst the darkness.
Initially, I took my first step by detaching from technology and spending time meditating, praying, listening to music, reading new books, exploring yoga, creating more art, and trying to find my “center.” It wasn’t long, however, before my innate need to take care of something other than myself came pounding on my heart’s door.
Thus began my love affair with plants. Plants have always been so mysterious to me — enchanting, delicate and almost mystical. Plants do not require technology, but rather are the literal seeds of life. Plants are like mythical creatures that I can hold, behold, touch, smell and taste with my bare hands. Plants allow me to get down and dirty, to reconnect with earth and contemplate the inevitabilities that narrate life.
By so doing, plants quite literally ground me, and remind me of the indomitable spirit that exists in everything and everyone — even in the face of death.
Some might think it absurd that I would take on an additional responsibility during such emotionally trying times, but plants, to me, embody so many of the spiritual beliefs that we often neglect when our calendars and schedules are bursting at the seams. Plants, naturally, remind us to breathe. They remind us to slow down, to smell the roses, to live and let live, and to simply… be.
It seemed only natural (pun intended) that I soon transformed my balcony into my own little piece of paradise by collecting and cultivating plants. The first was an “Elephant Ear” plant that my boyfriend and I carefully brought home from a roadside stall along a narrow enclave in Cavite. The next was a nursery-bagged bundle of “Yellow Bells” from my mom. From there, the varieties grew, and my quaint yet magical pocket garden was born.
From Mexican and Vietnamese Wildflowers, to Lantanas, Mini Roses, Peace Lilies, Snake Plants, Spider Plants, Wishbone Flowers, Forget-Me-Nots, Bromeliads, Lavender, Alas-Quattro, Orchids, Fiddle Leafs, Turtle Vines (and even cutely-potted weeds!), my family of plants is comprised of nothing out of the ordinary — and yet, my healing experiences with them have been extraordinary.
Like myself, plants require gentleness, patience and care. And, like each of us, their magnificence is held mainly in the hands of the divine.
Life, despite all its complexities, is not about what we see, but what we feel. It is in our hearts that sheer energy and love can live forever. As Morrie Schwartz wisely professed: ‘Death ends a life, not a relationship.‘
Music, I’ve learned, is something that can revive a plant — as well as long, in-depth conversations, which I often demand and impose (at this point, I am fairly certain that my plants are bleeding from their ears). (Or pistils? Stamens? Leaves? Branches? Maybe even roots?)
See, by surrounding myself with these viridescent little miracles, I am constantly reminded of energy, which is strengthened by love. When we give love, we allow the energy of life to live on far beyond the physicality of death.
This very realization brings me to a state of mindfulness and “presentness” that weathers the stormy seas of my mind. It quiets the many voices and noises of doubt and worry. By surrounding myself with plants, I am provided, both physically and spiritually, a new environment for my artistic processes — one that invigorates, energizes and adds vibrancy to the humdrum of mental mayhem.
There is a French saying that I hold dear: “La floraison de l’esprit.” In English, this translates to “The flowering of the spirit,” which literally and figuratively defines my relationship with plants. In my journey with them towards self-healing,
I have come to realize that the spirit exists in everything. Life, despite all its complexities, is not about what we see, but what we feel. It is in our hearts that sheer energy and love can live forever. As Morrie Schwartz wisely professed: “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
Leaves may fall, petals may wilt, but there is always hope. If we keep ourselves deeply rooted in our faith, the sun will come out tomorrow — and although the road ahead may still be littered with shards of glass, you never know what glints of light might reflect from them. This, to me, is the poetic magic of plants. They remind us to be present, to be still, to be grateful for the here-and-now, and to allow light to penetrate into the darkness.
After all, as my dad lovingly reminds me, “Life is not perfect, but it’s filled with moments of perfection that we must embrace.”