In September of this semester, I made one of, if not the most, significant purchases of my 21 years to date: a houseplant.
But this purchase wasn’t just your standard, run-of-the-mill desktop succulent (though don’t get me wrong, I have one of those too). This was a glorious fern, with slender green branches overflowing from her pot and smelling of earth and living things; carefully selected from her almost-but-not-quite as equally formidable peers at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.
Late September in Ann Arbor is an unequivocally wonderful time of year. The city becomes the setting of those homey-feeling movies I watched as a child, the kind of films where kids run through crunchy leaves to catch the school bus and the perfectly-coiffed mother has a plate of fresh baked cookies on the counter every afternoon.
Late September in Ann Arbor is when color-coding class notes is exciting, not draining; when every fleeting moment of eye contact from the boy who sits by the door in class feels like a budding new love affair; when I’m suddenly grasped by the all-consuming desire to buy a houseplant for my room.
A fern is not a freshman year of college purchase — where would it have fit in my South Quad dorm? Would it live between the mini-fridge stuffed with bags of Franzia and the piles of undone laundry? A fern is also not a sophomore year of college purchase — the year seven friends and I crowded under the roof of a shoddily-maintained house with squirrels living in the walls and a dishwasher overgrown with mold; when we huddled together in the living room in winter to try and stay warm while the windows rattled from lack of insulation. Junior year, perhaps, but the one semester I spent in Ann Arbor during this era was too largely spent anticipating the next semester abroad to even contemplate committing to something as serious as a houseplant.
So here I was, late September in Ann Arbor, a senior with a Kerrytown apartment finally nice — or rather, clean — enough to justify buying a fern. I was feeling in love with life in the way that I always am during this time of year, thrilled to be back in my own college town after a semester abroad, ready to set down roots for a while.
And so my new fern friend entered my life.
Said purchased fern took her rightful place on my mantel. Yes, my room this year has a MANTEL — seems fake to me too. In her new home, my fern nestled between stacks of books and other colorful knick knacks I crowded around her. An old doll swiped years ago from my grandma’s extensive collection, a $2 ceramic jar from Salvation Army, an old perfume bottle, all came together to create the perfect bohemian scene — framed against a backdrop of an old map of Paris, lest anyone forget that I went abroad.
For a week at least, I wouldn’t shut up about my new houseplant. Owning a plant, a real plant that’s not a minimal maintenance succulent, felt huge. Assuming sole responsibility for a living, growing thing was a task that I was ready and able, excited even, to take on.
And it wasn’t all giving, either — my new fern friend contributed just as much to my life as I exchanged in the currency of water and the opening of blinds. A room with a living, green entity feels drastically different than a room without. My personal space was alive, revitalized, reflecting the buoyant late September energy I was feeling toward school and life and things to come.
But somehow September has a way of ending, and October also has a way of stumbling by, and before anyone seems to have time to consciously process it, it becomes November in Ann Arbor.
And November in Ann Arbor is fundamentally, monumentally different from September in Ann Arbor.
November in Ann Arbor is when the sun starts to set at 5 p.m., when you walk out of class and it’s already night and the tips of your ears are somehow always freezing. November in Ann Arbor is skipping class to try and catch up for another class and falling deeper into a hole of being behind — the constant pressure of impending deadlines building up until the only task that feels doable is curling up under comforters in bed. November in Ann Arbor is when the shadow of job and internship applications becomes unavoidable, hovering ominously over the collective college consciousness and making its presence known at every possible opportunity. Friends sit across from each other at tables in Espresso Royale or the Ugli, so wrapped up in their own anxieties and thoughts that conversation feels stifled, fake and forced. November in Ann Arbor, in a word, is bleak.
Four years later, this bleakness still catches me by surprise. I was raised in an eternal summer — in the valleys of Southern California where the sun washed out and blurred together months. November was but an abstract concept. Growing up, I’d pictured the joy of September; an image pieced together through books and back-to-school displays in Target that sung the praises of orange and red trees and apple cider. Christmas movies and Budweiser commercials had given me a romanticized view of December with fresh, beautiful, clean white snow and carols and falling in love at skating rinks.
What lay in between, however, was an entirely new animal. Nobody makes movies about November.
And November is somehow even worse this year — because I can see the physical manifestation of the month in my fern, the friend that I purchased in that wave of late September optimism and sunshine. She’s a little brown around the edges these days — I’ve watched as the leaves at the tips of her branches crisp up and flutter down. The promise my fern exuded during those early autumnal days feels a bit diminished, dried up, passé.
Which of course makes me feel enormously guilty. I probably haven’t been watering her enough, or maybe too much? I definitely don’t always remember to open the blinds before I leave for class in the morning. As November has worn me down, it’s also worn down my capacity to look after living beings — whether that be my fern, my friends, or myself. November tends to feel like an excuse to draw into myself and listen to Bon Iver for a month, without investing myself in the opportunities and people and going-ons around me — a hibernation more acceptable in previous years when I didn’t have a living, green entity dependent upon me for her very existence.
But I think my fern is going to pull through. On closer examination the other day, it’s really only the tips of a few branches that have gone entirely brown, and there’s even a few sprigs of fresh growth poking out from the pot. She’s definitely struggling a bit more than she was in late September, but also most certainly still alive and fighting.
My fern and I are still helping each other out. I’ve been trying to water her more regularly, and she’s still putting out some nice green living energy into my personal space during a time of year when everything else can feel gray.
And — most importantly — November is almost over. Which, I think, can be agreed upon as being a very good thing. And as much as I believe that November is just a universally bad time for the houseplants of the world, I also simultaneously have a feeling my fern is going to love December in Ann Arbor.