When I first moved into this house nearly sixteen years ago, I approached landscaping it with the zeal only a the new homeowner can muster. Among my more impractical purchases was one of those tiny, highly manicured junipers that look like the plant version of a poodle. It was maybe three feet tall.
I had no idea what I was in for, of course. I put it slightly to the left of my living room window, many feet below it, and then went about the business of running around after my toddlers and, later, school-aged children. Sure, it got a little shaggy. But it was a mini-poodle tree, right? I’d get around to trimming it back to its original shape eventually.
Sometime in the last year, I opened my eyes to realize my miniature poodle-tree had grown not just to the height of the window, but to the top of it too, maybe 12 feet or so tall. Not only that, but wanting to break out of its enforced poodle existence, it grew lumpy and unattractive, intruding on the walkway between the driveway and the house. I trimmed it back, but its poodle underbelly held only brown juniper needles. I tried to find its original shape until finally I gave up.
And I started thinking murderous thoughts about it, picturing me and it and a chainsaw. I imagined how bright the front of the house would look without it. Instantly, I felt guilty. I’m the kind of person who lets a fennel seed that randomly finds its way between the bricks in my front steps grow rather than pluck it out. It wants so much to live, I think. Who am I to end its bid for life? (Bugs that make it into my house get gently escorted outside. I live pacifism on a local level). So you can imagine that the thought of taking down a shrub that I placed there with such love and care filled me with guilt.
Nonetheless, the desire for its demise was real.
I was raised Catholic and educated by nuns who told me that to think a sin is the same as having committed it. So when the juniper started to show unmistakable signs of ill health, turning a sickly yellow at a rate it never has before (cooling fall temperatures notwithstanding), I knew immediately that I was killing it with my mind, or possibly with the leaking power steering fluid I had let stain my driveway (fifteen feet away and not uphill from it).
I am no stranger for finding my guilt in almost any situation. I blame myself for traffic jams and weather patterns (until I catch myself) and just about everything my children do. It’s such a natural part of my thinking process that I wouldn’t have thought about it twice but for a series of cartoons I saw on Facebook about, of all things, why sexual abuse survivors feel guilty. I’ve never understood why they would, so I let myself read through. Although I am not a sexual abuse survivor, the explanation of why people sometimes feel guilt in the face of victimization, which I’d never heard before, rang so profoundly true it reverberated inside me like a song I once knew by heart. One panel said, “Guilt can be a way of taking control again. Blaming yourself for what you did or did not do feels bad but is a way of making you feel safe and in control.”
My god. The story of my life.
I am a fairly introspective sort, so I have long known about my issues of needing to feel in control. They are due to things that happened when bellbottoms were in style (the first time) and don’t bear much recounting. But they’ve colored my daily experience and my character, informing how I feel at the DMV and when I drive by a cop or when I am being ignored by a clerk on the store. Wanting to be in control peppers everything in my life. So, of course, it would stand to reason that I would give myself this oversize role in everything, all the way to the imminent demise of the once-poodle juniper.
I always thought that my need to find my role in everything (bad, usually) was a sign of immaturity. Children, after all, think the world revolves around them. What if I’d never progressed beyond that childish egocentrism, never learned to understand that I am not that powerful or significant? It was a predictably negative interpretation of the facts. What if, instead, by ascribing me a role in the rain and the spilled juice, my subconscious has been merely trying to reassure me that I am not weak and vulnerable anymore like I once was? Sure, there might have been kinder ways to do it, but the mind does what it can. Faced with stark terror at being in a world where I controlled nothing, it now comforts itself by placing me in a world where I control practically all of the bad things that happen, preferring to cast me as Maleficent than as the lowly victim that gets squashed in the first act.
The juniper in front of my house is dying for reasons I can’t understand and can’t affect. It was one of the first expensive landscaping items I ever bought in this house and I have loved it deeply. I was so proud of it. I thought it made the house look fancy and well-tended, like a place fit for someone who’d “arrived.” It has served me well and I have tried to care for it and give it a good home. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about its death, but most likely, I am going to take it down.
One thing I do know I won’t do, though, is tell myself that it’s my fault. Because I’m just not that powerful. And that’s awesome.
See the whole series of cartoons that inspired this post: click here.