A few weeks ago I was being the worst version of myself. I was cranky and short tempered and trying to hide from stressing about some imminent change hovering over the horizon of my life, which always leads to me being cranky and short tempered and the worst version of myself. I was stuck on a pretty vicious emotional carousel, willing my horse to go faster and faster but having no real control over either his speed or our destination. My husband has loved me long enough to recognize the symptoms that lead to me becoming the worst version of myself and so he lovingly banished me from our house and sent me out into the beautiful Florida winter of January to get my head straight, stare some demons in the eye and pray for mercy.
And that’s how I ended up traipsing around the botanical gardens down the street from our home all by myself a few weeks ago. I took along a book I was reading about self-compassion (thoroughly smirking at the irony), my journal and a blanket and found a sunny but not too sunny spot to do some serious soul searching and demon staring. It was good! It was hard! It was helpful and it was exhausting.
Before I left that day, I took a little meander through the gardens, consistently getting lost because my ability to maneuver around unfamiliar environments is very close to my ability to bend down and touch my toes: a lofty goal I consistently strive for but will never fully achieve. I happened upon a huge clump of beautiful bamboo. A mini forest of perfectly smooth, round reeds shooting up towards the sky with persistence and knocking together like nature’s wind chimes every time the breeze kicked up. They were massively impressive and powerfully rooted. But they were scarred. People throughout the years had etched their names into their reedy flesh and left their marks.
Posted next to the bamboo forest was a sign which read:
“Please DO NOT write, scratch or etch on the bamboo canes. This permanently damages the bamboo and makes it more susceptible to fungi and diseases. Thank you.”
I stood staring at the sign for a few minutes, processing what had occurred over the years. Sure enough if you looked up high above the carved names, you could see the beginnings of rot on those branches. The sign was telling the truth. The bamboo was dying. I looked back down at the names and proclamations etched on the plant. Susan, Ashley, Ben, Nicole, Matthew, Joanie loves Cha-chi (just kidding). And I noted how faded the sign looked and how fresh some of the marks looked and I marveled over the fact that someone could read that sign and then decide to leave their name anyways.
I felt a little bit of righteous anger. (Hello. Enneagram one here, nice to meet you.) And I felt a twinge of sadness for the bamboo forest that simply wanted to defy gravity and reach the sun. And as I turned to walk away, I continue to turn the question over and over again in my head, “Why did they do it? Why ignore the sign, despite it warning and your eyes seeing you would indeed be causing the plant damage?”
Now, I’m not naive. I know there are a certain group of people out there who truly believe the rules exist simply to be defied. They haunt my nightmares and they are the reason I stay far away from anyone between the ages of 12 and 17. But all of those names, hundreds of names, they couldn’t all have been poorly supervised kids, who apparently carry knives in their pockets. They couldn’t all have been “the rules are meant to be broken” people.
Some of them painstakingly scratched their names out because they simply needed to be seen, to be known, to leave their mark on the garden. To force the world to acknowledge they were there and they exist. And that is a very human concept. We do it all the time. We carve our names on the patches of dirt we pay a mortgage on. We scratch our names out onto our careers. We etch our marks into each other.
And while the desire to be known and seen is valid and even divine, it’s not always to the benefit of those we carve on. We do damage to one another sometimes when we drag our pens across one another. We see them wince and grimace in pain as we do so, we see the sign, we see the damage others have done, and yet we do it anyways. It’s like we can’t help it…because we can’t. Human beings were meant to know and be known. This side of heaven, that desire and subsequent action can lead to some pretty deep scarring which can lead to disease, and in the case of poor hygiene, maybe even some fungi.
As I left the garden that day, slightly less cranky and infinitely calmer, I marveled at the new year stretching before me. New Years, that blessed annual system reboot we all cling to as the cure-all for the messes we got ourselves into the year before. I made a resolution as I climbed into my car to leave less harmful marks on the ones I love, on the earth I walk on and the people I bump up against. I made a resolution to leave my mark on the world by loving a little better. I made a resolution to care a little more thoughtfully about the quality of the air I breathe and the amount of waste I leave behind. I resolved to leave only the best marks possible on my son as he grows up and learns to carve his own name in large block letters on the world.
I resolved to attempt to heed the sign and do as little damage as possible on this side of heaven. I resolved to take care of the bamboo and watch how high it can grow.