I Love Me, I Love Me Not

July 7, 2021 / Zuena Karim

When the last petal falls, I run to the garden.

1. Sprout - intransitive verb.
I. To grow, spring up.

My mother always had the greenest thumb. Her tenacity for gardening consumed our house with a myriad of greens. One step into her garden turned into a venture for picking fresh produce like plump tomatoes, squash, and aromatic herbs to prepare homey meals. While the vegetables found a comfortable home in our soil, we cultivated our own home arboretum, nurturing flower seeds next to the frenzy of overgrown plants. When summer came around, we placed the seeds in spots with adequate sunlight, nutrients, and water. Soon enough, they began to peer out of their coats, elongating towards the sun.

However, germination is a fallible process. Unlike my mother, I had a weaker aptitude for plant care. I was prone to either under or overwatering the seeds, unable to tune into their needs. I felt a particular draw towards the premature flowers all the same. To thrive, they must be in an environment that's optimal for their unique demands — mirroring the way I sought a place that I could sprout. They needed just the right amount of water, sunlight, and compost — just like how I sought reassurance, support, and a niche where I could grow. Yet I would continuously let the wrong hands determine where to plant me, and I struggled to lay down my roots. My shyness and lack of self-esteem left me wandering from one perspective to another, metamorphosing my thoughts with each negative encounter. I wandered the earth as an ungrown seed with cynical whispers that showered my head.

I grew in a place where my inner voice intertwined with unhelpful opinions from an unsupportive culture. I felt the looming pressure to fit into traditional South Asian criteria. I latched onto the words of boastful strangers who intended to put me in a constructed place. I saw the women in my family face an ultimatum between motherhood and a career. 

My mother spent hours in the garden every day, reconnecting with her past self that didn't internalize others' judgments. In her realm of nature, she departed from the noise and movement of daily life, finding consolation in the breathing leaves. She channeled the woman who grew where she planted herself rather than allowing herself to be replanted in an arid place. The same murmurs around my mother wedged their way into my internal monologue. They formed a problem rooted in my desire to be an independent woman in a culture that rejected this idea. At times of defeat, they sounded convincing, and I buried myself in the barren soil. The contaminated stream of thoughts cast me into a defeatist and unwelcoming territory that felt inescapable.

However, my mother escaped to the garden. The murmurs dissipated as she spoke to her green companions, finding the comfort that she never received from an overbearing culture. From healing with the plants, she provided me with the warm, tender encouragement that I struggled to find within myself. It was her voice that watered me on my journey to discover the spot where I would sprout.

II. Grow - intransitive verb. 1: (of a living thing) To undergo natural development, to progress to maturity.

Under the August sun, before I journeyed to college, my mother and I made our way to water the sprouting buds, which gradually inched taller toward the sunbeams. Roots marked their territory, rosettes matured into leaves, and petals rose through inflorescence. A myriad of flowers thrived in our flower bed, revealing their true colors. We sat under the shade of our patio, admiring the sunshine glimmering off the petals and plants dancing with the gusts of wind. The quiet of the suburbs made the moment serene. My mother wrapped her arm around my shoulder, gently unwinding the malevolent whispers in my head. She would remind me that I am deserving of love and kindness despite any shortcomings, as neither the words of others nor my failures define my self-worth.

When I entered college, I desired to free myself from my restraining mindset. Echoing my mother's words, I searched for a niche where I could anchor my roots and shoot towards the sun. I didn't expect my exploration to succeed overnight, but I hoped to grasp onto hidden confidence to mingle with others. Yet, on my first day, I found myself suffocating. While eager students made their way outside to enjoy the start of school festivities, I slipped through the crowd, tuning out the chatter around me as I looked for a place to breathe. Although I sought to break away from the norm of weakness, my timid nature confined me to the walls of my dorm room. I felt as though I failed my quest even before it began.

The voices slithered back into my mind, clouding my perception to believe in my capabilities. I briefly detached myself from the fear of falling, but it was only a matter of time until I surrendered my confidence to my spiraling thoughts. I believed material success was the golden ticket towards severing the reins of cultural restraints. However, subconsciously associating accomplishments with affection and support often left me in the dark, as I treated every failure as a barrier to kindness.

A speech replayed in my head as I lived through iterations of the same narrative time and time again: It was wrong to be ambitious and self-sufficient. It was even more preposterous to think I could reach toward the sun with my feeble demeanor. Perhaps I needed to forgo pursuing my passions because there was never a place for me in the first place. I found myself in an environment where I couldn't grow, let alone see a distant light.

When I paused this speech, however, I had to wonder: Were these words truly my own or a product of discouraging interactions of the past?

III. Blossom - verb.
2: To come into one’s own.

The moment I returned home, I ran with my mother into the garden.

When we visited our arboretum, I found that my mother propagated parts of her past self to bloom in the fertile earth. Despite the unkind whispers, my mother chose to pursue her career along with motherhood. As I needed not choose one over the other, she reminded me that I am in control of deciding my ultimatums. My niche was not beneath the blanket covers in my dorm room, nor the mindset that withheld me from blooming.

As I navigated towards fulfilling my aspirations, I found myself surrounded by people whose words overwrote the bleak script in my mind. I came across a newfound niche and decided to plant myself in a place that filled me with warmth. The encouragement of my peers, whom I grew alongside, and the wise guidance of my mentors flowed inside my ears. Their constant affirmations removed the painful thorns residing within me. Soon, their voices began to feel like my own inner thoughts. The voice inside my head bloomed into one that loves me for who I am, my true essence — not my accolades. It renounced worldly success as the ticket to receiving kindness and acceptance, giving me instead the courage to break away from cultural barriers. My mother watered me, but their support was the sunshine that helped me flourish. My petals were in full bloom, and I found warmth inside my head.

But flowers are fragile beings. After the flowering phase commences, they can quickly wither without the proper amount of moisture.

In the moments I faltered, the voices of my mother and friends muted my prevailing worries, resurrecting the latent power within myself. As my environment nourished me to flower, I realized the supportive environment I sought was never miles away. I discovered the self-love that always resided within me and realized I could flourish anywhere with the strength of my roots. Though I sometimes wilted, I had scattered seeds of myself along the way. When they found a nurturing environment — one where the water of the kind voices defeated the contemptuous whispers — I began to sprout once again. ■

By: Zuena Karim

Layout: Katie Lichter & Xandria Hernandez

Photographer: Leah Bloom

Models: Gigi Feingold & Jillian Shwartz

HMUA: Anna Strother & Lily Cartagena

Stylists: Jordan Teliha & Nicole Grayson

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