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When something outgrows you
A friend gifted me a vanilla strawberry hydrangea (paniculata) three years ago, and it has finally grown taller than I am.
I planned for this to happen someday. I purposefully planted it outside my kitchen window and near the patio so eventually I could enjoy the huge blooms while I make my coffee in the morning, and gain a little privacy as I walk to the raised beds.
But this week, it took me a moment standing under it to realize the time had come; a plant that started at approximately a foot tall was looming over my head at over six feet after I had cared for it.
As a gardener, this moment was a significant first for me. Emotionally, we don’t expect small things to outgrow us, even if logically we know it to be true. We don’t expect to look up at something we helped to grow with a sense of awe that it no longer needs us in the same way.
I trimmed off some lower branches that drooped during the last rain and kept only the strongest stems that can hold up the heavy blooms. Other than that, I don’t have to baby it anymore. It’s got strong roots developed from good soil, bright sunlight, and enough water. I get to admire it now from my kitchen window with no real maintenance.
Fruits of my labor.
You see where this is going, right?
Our children outgrow us, and when it happens, there’s a moment when we recognize we no longer have to culitvate their lives for them, and we can sit back and admire how far they’ve come, and of course, help them if their leaves start to wilt. (Okay, that metaphor didn’t end the way I expected, but you get the picture).
The garden has taught me that empty nesting is a bittersweet time for awe, joy, nostalgia, reflection, observation, rest, rejuvenation, and the cultivation of a new stage in my own life.
But most of all, standing under that plant, I breathed a little deeper since something bigger than myself had taken over after I had done my part. As the plant provided me shade, I felt safe under its blooms, almost sensing its gratitude for helping it reach this point.
Even creative work outgrows us, and maybe we outgrow it, too, in a way, since our writing style changes over time as we learn. My debut novel, THE WARNING, came out in June, and is slowly creating its own roots and finding readers. Some have already sent me messages about how much they loved it. It’s so weird that an idea I had almost ten years ago is now in bookstores across the U.S. and I have no real control over how much it grows at this point in the process. It has outgrown my effort. Every new reader that I hear from brings me that same sense of awe and connection. You never know where your creative work will end up, and who will be inspired by it.
However, an acquaintance said something striking to me recently, that I’d like to unpack. They said watching me achieve my dream made them feel bad and like their life was too small.
I didn’t know what to say. Their raw honesty struck a note, so I gave them a pep talk (even though they gross way more than my teaching salary and writing combined) since I knew it was more about them and not about me.
But an inkling of shame and anger washed over me for a quick second, and I had to check my inner compass. Was I not supposed to dream big so other people didn’t feel bad? Fuck that. I’m a dreamer by nature—it’s how I survived and thrived through a rough childhood. Plus, I work my butt off teaching high school English full-time while writing since I’m the sole provider for my family. And who said I’m done dreaming?
I had to put up an emotional boundary so their insecurity didn’t become something I was stuck carrying.
So my message this week: Don’t let anyone dull your light. Fill your life with people who shine in their own ways, people who aren’t insecure or ego-driven, but who are inspired to live their lives authentically, so you can cheer each other on. And stand in joy and awe when they reach for the sky no matter how tall they get.
This topic reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from The Phantom Tollbooth:
“Does everyone here grow the way you do?" puffed Milo when he had caught up.
"Almost everyone," replied Alec, and then he stopped a moment and thought. "Now and then, though, someone does begin to grow differently. Instead of down, his feet grow up toward the sky. But we do our best to discourage awkward things like that."
"What happens to them?" insisted Milo.
"Oddly enough, they often grow ten times the size of everyone else," said Alec thoughtfully, "and I've heard that they walk among the stars.”