by Ethan Jacobs
On my windowsill, there’s a small jar of water filled nearly to the brim. Soaking just below the surface is the end of a leek – the bulbous white part of the plant that TV chefs forbid you from using on account of its bitterness. It’s been there for a few weeks now; beneath it, slender white roots like jellyfish tentacles dangle suspended, their tips just touching the bottom of the jar. On the other end of the stub, flat green shoots the color of lemongrass have started to emerge. They form a slight protrusion, a milder version of the lumps you might see on the head of a cartoon character when they get whacked with a mallet. Still, it’s enough to let you know that the leek is alive and well.
Seeing something you devoured days earlier coming back to life is as disconcerting as it is uplifting. I don’t know if there’s ever been a lovable zombie – maybe Lazarus – but it doesn’t hurt that this reanimated leek is nutrient-rich and fine with being eaten again, rather than biding its time before having your brains for dinner. Because of this, I find myself rooting for the stub on one hand, and on the other, wondering what else I might be able to resurrect.
Not long after the leek experiment, an onion tail found itself wrapped in a damp paper towel on my counter. Next came a scallion; a mint stalk; some thyme and basil sprigs; ivy vines I’d snipped during a walk: a pineapple top and a hunk of ginger the size of my thumb. The jury’s still out on the ivy, but the rest all grew roots. When you’re hot, you’re hot.
It seemed like a shame to stop there, so I moved on to seeds. I hollowed out chili peppers, gutted a tomato, and soaked legumes. I probed an avocado seed with whittled-down wooden chopsticks before submerging half of it in a matching jar next to the leek. If a global pandemic, a potential third world war, and the Queen’s death were truly a harbinger of end times, I reasoned, best to have one of each plant to start over with afterwards. One after the other, the seeds sprouted, swelling for a day or two in their damp napkin cocoons before pushing out mutant roots of varying length and girth.
Over the days and weeks, my curiosity gradually gave way to obsession. Fearing that I wouldn’t have enough soil or space for all the seeds I was tending, I started looking into DIY hydroponics. I cut slits in damp sponges and buried sprouts in their crevices without any real certainty that they would thrive there. A cheap blender I’d bought a few months prior became a de-facto compost maker, turning all the rotting food scraps I fed it into rich, nutritious sludge. I sprinkled that and coffee grinds – a vestige of the caffeine that fueled my obsession – over anything with a stem like holy water in my daily botanical rites.
I’ve grown things in the past: I helped tend community gardens and spent countless summer afternoons under the sweltering Carolina sun managing a raised-bed plot with my mom when I was a kid. But there’s something about jury-rigging a garden from inside a cramped studio apartment that raises the stakes a bit. Maybe I should get a life.
A few years ago, a friend recommended a book to me – Ikigai, by Héctor García. At the time, I was working my way through a drawn-out existential crisis and the book, whose subtitle is The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, seemed like it might expedite the process.
In the book, García talks about Okinawa, a Japanese island prefecture and one of five global “Blue Zones” touted by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner for its dense agglomeration of centenarians. Buettner’s research into the lifestyles of Okinawas revealed a couple of things. For one, plant-heavy diets, moderate exercise, and community involvement all seemed to create the ideal conditions for long life. The first two seem like common sense, and being part of a community affords us a few extra sets of hands to catch us when we fall.
A slightly harder-to-work-out finding from Buettner’s research was that Okinawas are avid gardeners. This is also true of other Blue Zone members, such as the Sardinians of Italy and the Ikarians of Greece. Each of these cultures cultivates or forages for much of what ends up on their plates. And while it’s great that these civilizations have been bastions of the farm-to-table movement since before it became a trend, you’d think that if gardening alone was extending their life expectancy, we’d have all caught on by now.
You can’t really read Ikigai without going down a separate rabbit hole, that of logotherapy. The concept’s premise, developed by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, is that humans are mainly concerned with attributing meaning to their lives.
In his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl used his experiences as a Holocaust survivor to say as much; he observed that a prisoner’s ability to survive seemed to be connected to their capacity for holding onto a sense of purpose. While held in various concentration camps, Frankl saw his wife, mother, father, and brother die, saying nothing of the countless other prisoners he watched perish. During that time, in the face of unthinkable suffering and uncertainty as to whether he would ever be free again, Frank leaned heavily on courage and love. Perhaps more importantly, he found value in purposeful work: doing things in such a way that his actions were always inextricably linked to some future goal. It saved his life.
Understanding Ikigai – and, by proxy, how some folks manage to live so long – suggests that longevity has less to do with what people do than why they do it. Taking care of plants on a plot of land certainly amounts to moderate exercise, particularly compared to what most of us do in a day. It’s also a labor-intensive way to make sure you’ve always got food on your table. But if food and fresh air is all you’re taking from it, you’re missing the forest for the trees. The Okinawans have known for generations what I’ve only recently started to realize: it’s accountability that’s keeping them alive.
Each time you see a sprout bursting from a seed or a green shoot peeking out of a scrap, there’s a sense of magic, as though you’ve conjured something from thin air. Here, you’ve taking something small, dry, and lifeless – it may as well have been a pebble – and breathed life into it with little more than water and attention. It’s funny, you were ready to call it “waste,” this thing that ostensibly at the end of its life, repurposing a word that describes an action to describe a thing in order to exculpate yourself. Unsightly and indelible, your instinct is to chuck it, oblivious to its instrumental value, saying nothing of what it has the power to teach you.
Thankfully, you resist that urge realizing that it wasn’t you alone creating the magic. In an instant, it hits you that this tiny thing, a veritable Adam of your labors, always had life in it. Suddenly, you’re accountable: you’ve got a purpose. It’s on you to keep thin thing alive, to do everything within your power to help it flourish. It’s your Lazarus.
But beneath the surface of your glowing altruism – wanting to see a living thing make it – lies the hulking iceberg that is your ego. You surely care about that fledgling sprout that someday could become a hearty talk abundant in fruits, grains, or herb leaves, but if you’re honest, that plant – this entire process – is really just a drawn-out progress report.
Each new centimeter of stem is a confirmation of having done things the right way, another golden star from Mother Nature. Every wilted leaf or brown spot is a reprimand, a passive-aggressive warning that if you don’t get your shit together, the outcome will be irreversible. Each plant ends up becoming a reflection of life itself, reminding you to prune dead leaves as you should the extra baggage in your life, or to take a step back when it seems like you’re grasping for control.
Assuming a seedling dies on you, it’s hard not to internalize your failure as a reflection of your capabilities and competence as a human. But the flip side is that when you see the product of the energy that you put into something, no matter how small, result in thriving, it’s an indication of self-growth. You’re learning. You’re becoming stronger. You’re flourishing, as it flourishes.
I’ve gotten into the habit of voyeuring – looking into the windows of the lives of friends and acquaintances. I never stay long, just a moment – enough to get a glimpse of what I’m missing out on. Some now have a kid or two. I have a cat. Many are married or at least engaged. I’m neither. Others are settling in well professionally, cozily ensconced in senior positions doing things that struggle to explain, that I struggle to understand. I have a small stable of freelance clients, some of them haven’t paid me in months. I was talking to an old college friend at a wedding a few months ago. He said he couldn’t imagine living as I have – my twenties spent calling a mélange of far-flung countries home; flying by the seat of my pants for lack of a clearer path. Whoever I have one of those chats, when I’m reminded of the diversions our lives have taken, I get a pit in my stomach.
Figuring out what you want out of life is a burden. It’s paradoxical and, I guess, maybe a bit Sisyphean. I’ve always believed that if I figured things out, I’d alleviate any existential burdens I shoulder forever. But I’m realizing that the closer I feel I’m getting to finding my purpose, the more I being to scrutinize. “Is this what I enjoy? Does it have a purer form that might bring me a more perfect sense of fulfillment?” I reckon it’s an evolutionary itch humans will never fully scratch, a sense of doubt about whether we’re doing all that we could. So as we slog through that morass of self-actualization, wondering if “this is really all there is,” it’s nice to have little reminders that, wherever we are in life, we could be doing worse, or that there’s room to do a bit better. Finding purpose will do that for you. It might just save your life.
Ethan Jacobs is a freelance writer and writing instructor. He grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the temperate climate allowed him plenty of time outdoors—much of which he spent gardening with his mom. He has had works of short and flash fiction receive runner-up and honorable mention recognition, respectively, and has also had a series of shorter “dispatches” published internationally. Follow him on Instagram @ethanajacobs.