When I was 25 I acquired a new set of stepsiblings but for a period so brief I can recall the names of only three of the four. In fact, almost everything about that fourth is fuzzy, except I do remember six, short, simple words he once said. We were in my stepmother’s dining room with her other children, her brothers, her brothers’ children, plus my dad, when the Fourth and his wife were asked about their upcoming trip to Trinidad and Tobago. No idle holiday, I soon found out, this 3-week trip would be the fulfillment of a dream years in the making. I was intrigued and impressed by the couple’s chosen destination, and feeling more positive about this family yoked to mine, I asked the two what drew them to Trinidad and Tobago, what it was like and what they knew about the culture and history. Considering all their planning, it was not, I thought, a confusing line of inquiry, yet both looked at me—clearly confused. Then, the Fourth spoke the short and simple words I have never, ever forgotten.
“We are going,” he said, “for the ferns.”
Had the Fourth told me that he was going to Trinidad and Tobago for the Encaphalartos woodii (the rarest plant according to google) this entire conversation might have been easily forgotten. But ferns are not at all rare. They are, in fact, quite common and a fern sighting or a fern reference (they do happen) would bring his words back until they and the plant became (like, perhaps, Trinidad and Tobago) forever linked in my mind. Mostly, like an involuntary tic, his words disappeared as quickly as they came, but every once in awhile I would catch them, turn them over, and find, to my great surprise, how the passing years had changed them.
On the day that I first heard them, I laughed. Who wouldn’t? Pretty much everyone else at the table. Of course, they all had the advantage of knowing about this couple’s hobby and they were also not coffee-shop lingering, humanity grads who, due to an overexposure to postmodernism, had been rendered unable to distinguish sincerity from mock sincerity.
But the Fourth’s sincerity was not at all ironic. It was: sincere. Realizing this, my reaction turned to disbelief and then to distaste. Could an entire culture really be overlooked for a fern?! I was horrified, slightly.
What I personally knew about Trinidad and Tobago was, admittedly, not much. Steel drumming. Calypso. And, mostly, that the words Trinidad and Tobago are terribly fun to say. This all made me no better citizen of the world than the Fourth’s ferns made him, but I was twenty-something and in no need of solid grounding from which to judge. But just a few years later, thanks to some random fern sighting, I discovered that this was no longer true. Now deep in my twenties and having not yet single-handedly made the world a better place, my once endless capacity for judgment had given way to a kind of float-your-boat tolerance. About the best I could muster was the indirect, mild disapproval of something like, “…not really what I would do, but….”
Back then I was still enamored with choice. Each decision—good, bad or neutral—made me feel more like a grown-up and I was blessed with the clouded vision that makes choosing easy. By my mid-thirties, though, the view was beginning to clear. I could see the doors opening but, now, also the ones closing. Implications and consequences crowded the landscape and I was suddenly aware that the time to recover from a wrong turn is limited. To amp things up, I add a husband to the picture and then three children. Together: four more wants to account for, four more opinions, needs, ideas and schedules. So one day I spot those green lacy fronds and catch myself wondering what it might be like to be driven by something so simple (and, arguably, “green”). In my fantasy I see a life, a beautiful easy life, guided by ferns. Where to vacation? How to spend a “relaxing” Sunday? Follow the ferns. What’s my screensaver? My icon? What book for my coffee table? What theme for my daughter’s birthday? Ferns. Ferns. Ferns. And Ferns.
At one time funny and appalling, then foreign but begrudgingly acceptable, then the cause of an unexpected and humbling lurch of envy, the words of the Fourth have become, in an admittedly oddball way, a bit like the height marks on our kitchen doorway tracking, not my kids’, but my growth, and not by inches but—by way of ferns.
So then, what about now?
I’m 44, I have a fern (good for indoor air according to one fern reference), and I am now in on the secret, having experienced the quiet pleasure of settling into oneself like a half-drunk cup of tea into a saucer’s crimped ring. In all the decades leading up to this, no one ever told me about this upside of aging (it’s possible, yes, that I wasn’t listening) but now that I am here, I get it: there is something strengthening and nicely freeing about age 40. Yet, I have a problem. Our ever more wobbly world insists on rattling mine. As a writer and journalist, this rattle started before the 2008 crash and before the treasonous malfeasance of our current 112th U.S. Congress. It began when the confluence of technology, profit-as-gospel dogma, and an out of proportion need for entertainment reshaped my profession so that it is no longer art school that parents most fear, it is journalism school; so that staff writers are endangered and to make ends meet, the writers who had hoped to uncover the truth, are becoming the publicists asked to cover it up; so that my old job description, writer and editor, is accurate but staid and my new one, communications professional, is dynamic but utterly nebulous. Though, I must confess that I do like the sound of the new title, with its added bit of polish. But I also know that to any shyster that polish glints like gold.
Critics are now talking about it, people have long been feeling it: This opening up of information is breaking down communication. There’s too much; we are fatigued. Sources are held to no standards; we are mistrustful. Even worse, each one of us can now hear only the story that we want to hear. Of all the signs of “The End,” this one, just maybe, could actually be it. When words don’t work we either fight or we suffer, and neither is particularly preferable. But also, listening to the stories of others is what brings out the best in us. When we stop listening, I hold out no hope for what we will become. So now, when some fern or another brings those words of the Fourth fluttering back into my head, I can think of only one thing to say: “Please, tell me more.”