everything green everything new

on houseplants and the myth of starting over

We started to buy houseplants when the winter wore into spring. First we just talked about them a lot. Everybody else, it seemed, had houseplants. They bloomed out of other people’s photos on instagram, spreading across the frame, caressing the furniture, turning beige and brown rooms green. On Zoom, my therapist’s face and torso appeared framed by lush greens in a sunken white space, huge plants like indoor trees. It looked like she lived in paradise, or at least in a photo in an old magazine. Through my grubby little screen, her room looked like a room full of kindness, where people might lose and then find each other again in the leaves. In the long scroll of photos of other people’s homes in my phone, these green rooms appeared as places in which both forgiveness and surprises could be possible. A plant store opened one block over and I lingered by the window every time I passed it. 

I bought Thomas a plant for his birthday; I felt reckless and irresponsible as an employee repotted it for me in the store, cheerful and capable, her nails caked in loamy thick dirt. One plant became two and three and four and then we were carrying a six foot tall palm in a thirty-pound ceramic pot up the five flights of stairs to our apartment. But once it was inside, it made the room so green. After we got the plant situated, we stood back and stared at it. It felt like starting over, like we had somehow successfully made this small space, and therefore perhaps also ourselves, new.  

Last summer, during a particularly difficult week, Thomas had made collard greens and black-eyed peas, the traditional southern New Years meal, for dinner. He saw it as a declaration that we could start a new year whenever we wanted to, even on a random Sunday night in July. Any day could be a day for starting anew. It was a nice sentiment, but it didn’t work, of course; things went on exactly as they were already going. But the plants now dominating our space made, and still make, me feel the way I had hoped that that meal would. Maybe starting over just meant becoming unrecognizable enough. Maybe making oneself new means making everything green.

Ideas of green are often intertwined with ideas of youth. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poem on which Lowery’s movie is loosely based, shows up on a lot of high school and early college English syllabi. It’s a poem assigned over and over again to people who are new to being people, people standing on the threshold of adulthood. Other texts touching on green and greenness often take up space in these same curricula. Green or greenish texts also frequently appear in myths told to children. Shakespeare’s comedies and romances, concerned with the queasy and transformative green worlds in which coming of age is the order of the day; fairy-tales set in more sinister green spaces like the deep woods; fantasy series such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia depicting magical green otherworlds; the fable, or horror story, about the woman with the green ribbon around her neck (also referenced in Lowery’s film): All these are told to young people, passed down in classes, in bedtime stories, and in whispers at slumber parties. The Bible’s old testament opens in a green world, a place of abundance and brand-new life. The sprouting possibilities of youth are then closed down by the acquisition of knowledge. It is possible to read that story— green and then exile from green, green innocence and un-green knowledge— as an allegory for aging.

Green’s connection to youth and newness is obvious; the metaphor stands up without needing explanation. Green is the bright shoots out of the ground in spring, the world waking up from winter, the thick and lush growth before harvest and decay. Green is abundance and renewal, whatever has not yet been used up, the actions before the consequences. “Green” can be employed as a pejorative for someone when they are inexperienced, but, like all insults that have to do with youth, it has some envy stuck in its teeth. We are green when we start, untried and un-ruined, setting out on an open road. 

The Green Knight, the movie, is a coming of age story. The poem, by contrast, is not so much one. Despite its perennial presence on high school English syllabi, Gawain and The Green Knight is a story about a man who is already a man, accomplished, admired, and grown. The story is about a lot of things — human fallibility, the fear of death, mortality, lust and temptation and sex games, courage and honesty, dishonesty and forgiveness— but it is not really about the transition from childhood to adulthood.

But if the green of the poem is not coming of age green, the green of the movie — which is in shorter supply than I wanted it to be, but nevertheless threads clearly through the narrative — is at least partly that green, the green of Shakespeare’s transformational forests. It is the green at the moment of change that asks a previously sheltered child to take their place as an adult with a role in and responsibility to society.

The greenest parts of the movie are sinister, rather than springlike; they take place in menacing woods that partially or entirely blot out the light. But these are also the most exciting parts of the movie, the scenes that throb with the sense of something about to happen. The adult world in the green woods is full of monsters and dangers, which means that it looks, to the person entering it, like a party. Sometimes that’s exactly what it is. Maybe half an hour or so into the movie, Gawain rides through a huge doorway, away from the place he has lived his whole life. He heads out into the unknown to meet his fate. A title card reads “The Journey Out,” naming a new chapter in an old-timey font. This was when the movie began for me. I felt that familiar lift behind my heart, like the feeling when an airplane begins to leave the ground. Here it is, I thought, here we go, now it’s really starting

The green in coming of age stories is the green that promises the future is bigger than the world I have known until now. Lots of coming of age stories, particularly twentieth-century American ones, are about getting to the next place, going from the small town to the big world. The green world is a decidedly non-domestic realm, the place where one is free to form a self independent of the family or community in which one was raised. Gawain rides out of the castle, out of the town, away from his uncle and his mother and the small circle of acquaintances who have known him since birth and watched him behave like a child. The heart lifts and the world expands; we are going somewhere new. 

My obsession with green probably also starts as this sort of coming of age story. My parents moved us to California— a place where the summers call themselves gold and are mostly brown — when I was very young. Some summers we would travel to the east coast to see their family and friends. Every time we did, I was astounded by the greens there, the thick vines and trees and hedges and scruffy lushness around parking lots, the greens of small roads and watering holes and old backwoods growth. Even in the cities, in New York before I lived here, green sprouted from the streets and the parks and the empty lots. The color green came to represent an elsewhere that I equated with the future. It is probably why I still want to open my mouth and swallow whole the greens that appear alongside the highways in the summer. 

I moved to New York when I was eighteen. My best friend was older and had already lived in the city for a few years, and I took the subway downtown to see her as soon as I arrived. I don’t remember what we did that first night; it is long enough ago that it fades into a vague, bright triumphal blur. I remember that it was raining, and that I stepped in a puddle, and that I was happy, my heart bursting out my chest like some monster of joy.

The part I do recall with perfect clarity is that I slept on the futon couch in her living room, and when I woke up, the first thing I saw was green. Her window looked out at the empty lot behind the building. It was full of trash, and by any normal measure disgusting, but trees grew through it and reared up over the low buildings around it. Green vines climbed up from the ground, pushing their grubby and determined stalks into view. Weeds the color of paint reached up for the fire escapes. I had arrived in a bright green place; I had arrived in the world. This was the seam, the forest, the space where things happened. 

I was in a coming of age story then, or I thought I was, and coming of age stories are green. I believed I was starting over, or perhaps that I was starting for the first time. Sometimes I still pretend I’m in that same story. It’s that time of year now, the season of new beginnings and back to school, and the greens bloom out of empty lots and in the narrow spaces between buildings. I filter out my vision to only look at the green; I edit down the text so that, like every year in September when the weather turns, I can pretend that it is a fresh chance at the world.

Recently, after a couple months of uncertainty about the fate of the houseplants, the palm in the corner by the window began to send up bright new stalks. Soon, they unfurled into vibrant leaves, and we rejoiced at the unlikely event that we had brought this green thing into our house and not killed it. Every few days, I spray all of the plants around the room with a little bottle of filtered water and I imagine that they sigh and expand in gratitude. Like all new beginnings, this is a useful lie I am telling myself, a guilty convenience. I am choosing not to look at its pitfalls, at the ways it is full of holes. I am choosing to ignore the ways that almost every idea of a clean break and a new start is flimsy and culpable, showing up with dirt on its hands. 

It’s easy, looking back now, to see what’s hideous about my own coming of age story. There’s almost always something monstrous about innocence; how it is revered, how it is preserved, and how stories about it act as rituals for this reverence and preservation. It is easy to look back and see the cracks in something, the ugliness in all the beauty I once thought I was owed. It’s simple enough to see it from far away. But up close, it all just looks green.

this is griefbacon’s weekly public essay. if you enjoyed this, maybe consider subscribing? this month I’m writing a long essay about The Green Knight and the color green, over a series of posts (you can read some of the others here) that will eventually come together into one big and hopefully coherent piece (in June and July I did this same thing about couches).

before you go: it’s been a horrible few weeks in so many ways. if you have the means to donate to help people out, Imagine Water Works is doing great work on the ground in Louisiana for hurricane relief, and Jane’s Due Process is doing important work for reproductive rights in Texas. If you have the funds, I highly recommend directing some towards these organizations, and others like them.