I put the plant clippings in a dish of water and, within a week, the bedroom of my Brooklyn apartment smelled like mold and rotten fish. When I set it up a few days earlier, the dish was too deep for the plants to stand with their roots submerged so I filled the bottom with smooth white stones and seashells. I thought it was beautiful with the fresh green plants bobbing from the surface and the white shells and stones covering the bottom. But then a white film developed on the water and tiny black dots appeared on the plants’ roots.
“Do you smell that?” asked my husband, Mat.
I lifted each plant to investigate, carefully ran them under water, pulled transparent slime from between the roots.
Earlier that year Mat and I boarded a plane to Benin, a small country on the southern coast of West Africa, to take steps to move there permanently. We were entering the complete unknown of buying land and building a house. It was our fourth visit and we’d spent months there at a time trying it out, but this time was for real. After six months, we came back to New York to pack and leave the apartment where we have lived for eight of our 10 years in the city.
My plants have always been my favorite part of my apartment. They are, more than the brightly colored walls or the orange and yellow hammock in the living room, what makes it feel like home. Each time I handle them in the delicate stages of their lives, I am aware of their fragility. It is like the buzz of energy I get when I hold a stone or a newborn baby. I am in awe of the fact that I remain capable of handling new life despite daily encounters with minutiae. How can such contradiction exist?
Our flight to Benin in January was delayed three times because of snowstorms. When we finally made it there, we fell in love with the house we were renting and the neighborhood and the city, Abomey-Calavi (aka Calavi). I found Audre Lorde poems that mentioned Calavi (Taste my milk in the ditches of Chile and Ouagadougou/ In tema’s bright port while the priestess of Larteh/ protects us/ In the peppery markets of Allada and Abomey-Calavi) and I felt I was on the right track.
I found a new French teacher. Mat found a Fon teacher (local language and ethnic group of Benin). We met a group of young Beninese people, new friends that felt like our tribe. Reporting and writing began to take off after months of frustration- I did stories for Al Jazeera and HuffPost. We searched for land to buy.
But everyday I wondered: What am I thinking? Moving to a new country, joining a completely new culture, building a house? Is this the brilliant “creating my own life/defining my own destiny” move I imagined or just plain delirium? Will hindsight make me scream at the ghost of Joy past wishing I had only saved her when I had a chance?
These are beginnings and endings. They are everywhere all the time, embedded in millions of micro junctions that make up each moment. But moving, picking up an entire life and transporting it to another continent, to a culture completely different from your own, gives beginnings and endings a certain hue.
There are deaths big and small- the difference between a tiny green plant who has lived in a dish of water for a few days developing mold and an old friendship fraying at the edges because neither party knows how to comprehend the literal and figurative distance taking root between them.
There is no looking away. Just holding the experiences delicately in your fingertips and washing away what is dead, making space for new life.