The Day the Killing Stopped

I used to be a killer.

It’s hard for me to admit that. I never wanted to be a killer. But it just kept happening. Things kept dying in spite of my best efforts. And by things, I mean plants.

The first time it happened, the victim was a healthy aloe vera plant. It wasn’t sickly. It wasn’t circling the drain. I just happened to notice a few bugs in the soil, so I stuck the plant outside, hoping the critters would find a better place to call home.

Unfortunately, the temperature dipped below freezing that night. Such is life in the NC mountains (where I was in college at the time). The next morning I discovered the limp corpse of my aloe vera plant. Cause of death: freezing.

But that was a fluke, right? A blip. Not entirely my fault. Up until that point, the aloe vera plant had been totally alive. So okay, an accident. It happens.

I don’t fully remember the next plant, but I think it was a casualty of a long-distance move, too much time spent in a hot car. And it was followed by a long string of slowly dying plants.

I didn’t get it. I followed the instructions that came with the plants. I did exactly as they directed. Why were the plants always dying under my care? I’ve always loved nature. I was the kid who grew up outside, playing in the dirt and climbing trees. I felt at peace lying in the grass, staring up at the sky. Why was nature rebelling against me?

Then. One day. Something changed.

It was a gray fall day when my husband and I were wandering around the garden section at Lowe’s. A shelf full of small purple plants caught my eye. They weren’t in great shape, but I recognized them, vaguely recalling them gracing the yard of a childhood home. An employee saw me looking at the purple heart plants and called over to tell me they were fifty percent off.

My husband wandered over to me. “We can get one if you want.”

“I don’t know . . .” Images of previous victims flashed through my mind.

“Hey, at least it’s already half dead, so you won’t feel bad if you kill it.”

My husband’s confidence in me was overwhelming. We bought a plant.

I took home the tiny little sprout and separated out the dead portions, putting what was left in a new pot with fresh soil.

“Please don’t die,” I whispered as I gave it a good drink of water, promising it I’d do whatever I could to give it a fighting chance.

And something amazing happened. The plant lived. Not only did it live, it thrived, growing rapidly and producing so many tendrils, I’ve made half a dozen more plants from cuttings.

What happened? It wasn’t that this half-dead plant had a miraculous ability to live (although I’m nearly convinced it’s immortal). Something powerful changed in me: I stopped following the instructions.

Once I started doing my own research online, I realized how wrong the instructions that come with each plant actually were. One told me to give the plant a cup of water every week. But here’s what I later learned: the amount of water a plant needs depends on the temperature, the humidity of the air, and the water retention of the soil, just to name a few factors. So by following the directions with all the other plants, carefully doing exactly as they instructed, I was destroying my plants.

I’m happy to report that since the day I got the purple heart plant, I have managed to nurture not only that plant and all its descendants, but five other plants as well.

So if you want to know how to keep something alive, whether it’s a plant or a relationship, here’s my advice: throw away the instructions.

This is what a non-dead, very happy, sunlight-loving purple heart plant looks like.

Revenge Is a Man’s Work

Confession: I like a good revenge story.

I mean, who doesn’t love a twisty tale of personal justice? In fact, my current work-in-progress has a significant revenge theme. And as with any manuscript I write, I tried to think of revenge stories (books or movies) that had a similar thread for comparison.

As I pondered the options, I began to notice a concerning trend. Most of the stories I could think of featured male main characters, some of whom are avenging female family members (Taken, e.g.). The ones with female main characters are centered on how they’ve been wronged by a man (First Wives’ Club, The Lauras), and more often than not, they’re humorous in nature (Fried Green Tomatoes). Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies comes close, but I’d consider that more self-defense than calculated revenge.

With a little research, I found more woman-led stories, but most of the women are teen girls (True Grit, Carrie) or highly-trained professionals (a detective or assassin, like Kill Bill). The average-Joe-gets-revenge narrative seems limited to men, for the most part. You know the theme I’m talking about, the one where the totally normal guy is wronged in some way and starts doing his research, creating a murder board with pictures and strings connecting them, gathering evidence as he plans his hit list.

I couldn’t find anything like that with a woman in the lead, so I asked my husband what he could think of. He mentioned Orphan Black and Killjoys, which are closer, but they’re sci-fi tales. They’re already squarely beyond reality, set within the realm of imagination. Is that the only place to find female revenge-seekers? Does a woman have to have special powers or live in an alternate universe to enact revenge?

I’m sure there are stories out there of average women getting revenge for an injustice not involving infidelity. I don’t claim to have read every book or seen every movie with a revenge theme. The problem is, those stories are harder to find. They don’t represent the revenge themes you find in popular tv shows and movies. In those, serious revenge is best left to the men.

And that bothers me. Of course it does.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a “I’m gonna take out his cheating self” narrative, and I love a good sense of humor. But is that all women get? When it comes to mystery/suspense fiction, women are already more likely to be victims than heroes, more likely to need rescuing than to be the rescuer. The suspense world is full of books with that same old trope of the the pretty dead girl who needs a man to get justice for her. Yes, women tend to be more physically vulnerable, but statistically, men are more likely to be victims in every crime except rape. (Check out these stats, especially page 9.)

Maybe that’s why I feel compelled to create strong, intelligent female characters. I want women like me to be able to embrace a narrative in which women aren’t simply the victims but are the heroes of their own story. They say write what you know, and an intelligent woman at the helm of her own ship, that’s a reality I know.

The truth is, I’m lucky enough to have some incredible, strong women in my life. If I ever needed justice, my money’s on them to get it for me. Sure, there are some awesome men in my life too. But when it comes to taking care of business, there’s one thing I know for sure: don’t ever underestimate a woman.