A Typical Day
It’s 2 in the afternoon on a Sunday when I see Mei-Lian, my landlady’s Gardner, squatting beside the bushes outside my apartment. A quiet 60-something woman from Mainland China, she greets me with a warm, “hay-wo.” She’s holding a pair of long arm plant clippers in one hand and fresh plant cuttings in the other. Over the years, I’ve noticed that she’ll prune a plant that’s not overgrown but ignore the one beside it with dead leaves. I glance at the blooming Bougainvillea just to her right and feel a slight shiver run up my spine. The thought crosses my mind that it could be the next victim of Mei-Lian’s hit-and-miss pruning approach.
I moved into my current apartment from the unit below, despite it being smaller and more expensive, in part because of the view of this Bougainvillea. I loved how its cinnamon-magenta flowers fill the left side of the window, blocking my view of the Hollywood Squares-like apartment complex across the street.
“Hello,” I say back to Mei-Lian with a slightly forced smile. Normally, I’m happy to see her but the thought of my Bougainvillea getting over-pruned triggers a kind of rigidity inside me. I go inside my apartment and pour a glass of chilled green tea, hoping my mood will do the same – chill. But for good measure, decide to call my landlord to check that he remembers our agreement that the Bougainvillea not be cut down. Minutes later, after a short but pleasant conversation with him, I’m assured by him our agreement still stands. Relieved, I go take a nap.
Thirty minutes later a buz saw wakes me up with a jolt. It can’t be…I think to myself, rushing outside in a surreal combination of post-nap daze and hyper-alertness.
“What are you doing!!?” I yell, “This bush doesn’t need pruning!!”
Mei-Lian, standing at the top of her ladder, moving the saw through the Bougainvillea from left to right, turns it off to answer me. Smiling she says, “is k, is k…bett now.”
Enraged and a bit nauseas, I can taste the bitterness of adrenaline. “What are you doing!!!!???,” I repeat, in the vain hope that words, if conveyed with intensity, can be as effective as actual physical action to stop her in her tracks.
But it’s no use. With a nervous laugh, she turns on the saw and finishes the job until the once blooming beauty is reduced to a woody nub.
I walk away, feeling betrayed and disrespected. How could this happen? I had an agreement? I went back to my apartment, dropped onto my couch and sobbed, feeling unheard, disrespected and powerless to protect something I cherished. I thought bad things. Hurtful things. I knew that Mei-Lian was not malicious, and that there may well have been a miscommunication between her and the landlord. (In fact, this turned out to be the case).
In thinking about it a short time later, I don’t know what was more painful, not having control to stop someone from doing something that was hurtful, or feeling rage toward a peaceful and gentle person.
Her action, whether wrong or right, brought out the worst in me. I got a taste of the animal within. I think this is what was MOST painful, that the thing that enraged me, Mei-Lian’s unwillingness to stop an action that was causing distress, was the very thing that I did toward her in response.
During our interaction and moments afterward, I continued a verbal assault on Mei-Lian in my mind. At one point, even referring to her as “those kind of people don’t care…”
Thinking further, I realized that by framing our interaction in terms of them/us I felt better about myself.
What an ugly and important thing to see in myself, how easy and convenient it is to objectify another person so I can feel better. Not a great moment for me, but actually a really useful moment to remember.
Slippery Slope to Intolerance
Isn’t this a kind of slippery slope from indifference to intolerance that can lead to hate and even hurtful action. Slippery because the smallness of it makes it so subtle, as to tell oneself – I’m only human, I have the right to be upset…blah, blah, blah. And there’s truth to that, a lot of truth. I am only human – we are all only human. Feeling emotions is are part of being human.
It’s what happens after that, the story we tell ourselves and hold on to over time that’s the tricky part. The slippery part.
Have you ever noticed that it’s often victims who speak up against injustice – as they should. But the voice that’s often missing is that of the bully accepting responsibility.
Would that change, I wonder, if more of us saw our part early on?
Time Heals All Wounds If…
They say time heals all wounds. Maybe so. But I think in order for that to happen, we have to be diligent to try and see our part BEFORE and INSTEAD of blaming others. We have to take care to not hold on to the boxes we put others in. It’s our choice whether or not we keep them there in our mind and hearts.
As of today, the Bougainvillea has completely grown back. But as for my pride, I’m working to keep it pruned, not to a woody nub, but not overgrown.