Devan Boyle, Opinion, Stories
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Ballad of the Hothouse Flower

by Devan Boyle

Mrs. Witterly is of a very excitable nature, very delicate, very fragile, a hothouse plant.

Nicholas Nickelby

Or, seasonal habits of the highly sensitive. I sometimes refer to myself as a hothouse flower. In unkinder terms: fussy, a whiner. There’s a part of me that needs coddling, thrives under optimal conditions of heat and light, is sensitive in the extreme to its likes and dislikes, no matter how big or small. I need exact directions, a little handholding, an extra sweater, a handkerchief to sniffle into, the right kind of pants, information about the immediate future— when do we get to go home? will there be a place to seat? who is going to be there? Having no other option in the interest of my sanity, I’ve come to think of these predilections toward comfort as essentially positive traits, with positive outcomes. I fancy that there is a grace to my delicacy, the noble sheen of a wish for a better, more pleasant life in my constant need to monitor. If I’m paying attention in the right ways,  these tendencies create more ease and creativity in managing my day-to-day life. My attunement to sensory details and atmospheric data make me a valuable employee, a kickass hostess, and a pretty good friend.

And yet. A hothouse flower has connotations of weakness, a reliance on others to supply the caretaking, a fundamental inability to endure the endless barrages of unforgiving nature. And these hothouse parts of me, with their proclivity for sunlight, warmth, freedom of movement, absolute tenderness, endless encouragement, loathe and fear nothing quite so much as the coming of winter. I have come to understand that I am a creature best suited to luxuriate in sunlight. Cold weather descends and I fold like a house of cards. Gone the long summer walks, gone the sundresses and shorts and breezy tees of spring, gone the crisp novelty of fall. Frost kills and I crumble, right around this time every year. My bravery is no longer aided by the magic of the holidays, the spiritual peaks and valleys of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the darkest nights of the year, the most poignant. It’s the second week of January and my predominant thought now is that winter sucks. I’m dehydrated, sore, tired, snotty. I don’t know what to do with my hair. Getting dressed has become nothing short of a heartbreaking, tedious chore.  Too many layers involved, too much scratchiness, stuffiness, not-quite-rightness. Static electricity lurks everywhere with its pointless, non-warming energy. I could write a separate essay on the torture device known as a winter coat. My resolutions are tried and tempted, it’s cold as fuck but with no snow to speak of, everyone’s relationship is falling apart under the sudden cease of holiday pressure and before the insidious crawl of February toward Valentines’ day. My skin is somehow dry and breaking out at the same time, there’s stubble poking through my tights, my sweatpants need to be washed every two days because I sweat through them in the middle of the sleepless night. Finding matching socks is a trek across the icy landscape of living room and kitchen.

In short, everything feels like a trial. Everyone is pissing me off, including myself. The news is even more horrible than usual. I’m restless and closed in, craving space, but doing much of anything feels like too much.I almost cried today because I couldn’t make my braids look like they do on Game of Thrones. My health insurance bill was four times what it was in December and I don’t know why and I need to call people and email things to fix it and I wailed for an hour and a half after realizing this. I’m an idiot child struggling through this life sometimes, doing way less than my best on most days and some days just surviving. And maybe doing that requires some strength that is integral to the hothouse flower. Some hardiness that is fueled, not thwarted, by this need for creature comforts. I take comfort in this sense of unconventional strength.

A hothouse flower of a different colour mused to me last night, in light of Hebdo, in light of every dark and brutal and chaotic thing, in light of this narrowing of the year to a pinpoint— on the essential meaninglessness of life. I was only partly joking when I offered hedonism as a possible answer to this riddle, that our only purpose, really, and the only meaning, is to seek what brings us pleasure. There is a part of me that absolutely believes that this way lies salvation. Filling your life with what is most beautiful and stimulating to you is a crucial function of a healthier life more free of needless suffering. The animal warmth of my body, my socked feet lying on his moving chest, the hum of a house in winter, time softly ticking from eleven to midnight. And I’ll take that over meaninglessness any day, but hedonism has its limits.

The challenge, for any hothouse flower, is to learn how to water and sun and feed yourself— for me that means finding ways to have lots of leafy greens, exercise, orgasms, dancing, and pleasure even in the dead of winter. It means striving for those things that give me the best chance, whatever they are, from vitamin d supplements to a space heater. I sat in the sauna at the Y today, finally experiencing the miracle of sweat, breathing in and out, drinking water out of jar I’d found half-frozen in my borrowed car. For just these things I felt deeply grateful, and of course once I started I thought of many more. My blessings are incalculable. In the locker room two women started talking about their hair together, swapping ways to wear it while undergoing cancer treatments and beyond them. It was a brief, warm interaction. One woman recounted her first shortest ever cut, visiting Germany in 1989, the year the Berlin wall came down, how she walked out in the street after her friend cut her hair, how she felt the air on her scalp, how she caught sight of herself in a store window and was transfixed, not recognising herself.

Suddenly my braids seemed less important, this clutch that winter has on my hot little heart less strangling. It is okay not to know what to do with your hair, your room, your clothes, your life. It’s okay not to know what to study or who to date or how to live. It’s okay just to sit, and pay attention to what your stupid little magical body needs and just try to answer that need. Sometimes that’s really the only thing you can do. Put on another goddamn coat already and get ready to grow.

Image via balloon time.



Devan Boyle lives and writes in Asheville, North Carolina.

This post first appeared on her blog.

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