Nothing Teaches Patience like Jade Plants

A master gardener I am not. I do like gardening, though, and have been known to form strong attachments to particular plants. The rose bush beside our front door, for example, has a long history, beginning in the back yard of a pie-shaped lot in Grosvenor Park, Saskatoon, and then continuing in a small square of dirt in a seniors’ complex on Berini Drive, where my mother had reluctantly acquiesced to inevitable downsizing.

A lifelong gardener, she tried to make this limited living bearable by claiming what little space there was for growing flowers. When even that meagre space was cut, she asked me to adopt the rose bush. Within a year, my father had died, and she had moved to a nursing home. That was over 25 years ago, and until this past summer, the rose bush lived on next to our front door, a bright red statement of the need for beauty, always.

That rose bush has a story of its own, but that’s for another day.

So, about the jade plants—that story begins over 10 years ago when my sister surprised me with the gift of a slip from the large jade plant she had cherished in her condo for decades. Once its roots had become an encouraging tangle at the bottom of a water glass, I gave it a dirt home in a clay pot and took it to my office where I hoped that abundant east sunlight would help it thrive. It did, too—in the manner of jade plants, which is everlastingly slow.

Never having grown one before, I hadn’t realized that jade is in the business of living for the long haul. Goodness, but they take their sweet time to put out new leaves. And it is sweet, because the green of those new leaves seems the very embodiment of hope, tender yet firm, utterly unlike the wraithlike green of new willow leaves in spring.

Large jade plant in Broadway Roastery, Saskatoon
Jade Plant in Broadway Roastery, 8th Street, Saskatoon, SK

But then nothing about jade is insubstantial. Its leaves are almost ¼ inch thick, even at birth. Stems, too, are solid. Jade plants can grow to tree-size with veritable trunks, as I have seen elsewhere. I was disappointed to discover just how slowly jade grows.  

 Eventually I took my little jade home, gave it a larger pot, and wished it well in our living-room window. For a few years, it was happy enough. It branched as it should, adding new leaves, pair by pair. I was proud of it – and of myself. I liked my new plant friend. So when it began to drop leaves that had odd brown spots, I was dismayed. It was no longer as beautiful, with those gaps along the stems, and nothing I did seemed to make it feel better.

Doctor Google assured me that jade plants are easily propagated, advice I viewed with some skepticism, having found no adequate help for my plant in the first place. On a day when my patience, never in abundant supply, collided with one of my impulsive raze-it-all-to-the-ground moods, the jade plant was declared not worthy of its space.

Fortunately, I remembered some instructions about propagating jade. Instead of tossing the whole plant into the compost bin, I cut it up and put the pieces away in solitude to let their open wounds dry. Once the sliced ends had scabbed over, I dunked them in rooting compound and stuck them into dirt.

“Do what you will,” I told those remnants, “grow or not grow. Your choice. I can always find other plants. For the time being, I give you all a spot in the sun and an occasional drink of water.”

Three small beginning jade plants, one of which is still a mere chunk of stem.
Taken in 2017

For weeks—I have no idea how many—the wounded jade plants sat there in the dirt, meditating for all I know. Occasionally, I glanced at them, half afraid to hope. Then there was the morning I noticed the tiny beginning of new leaves at the top of one plant and then on another. Does it seem strange, maybe even ridiculous, that I felt an uprush of emotion quite out of proportion to the miniscule sign of life? I could have bought a nicely shaped healthy jade plant at some nearby store. I didn’t need these misbegotten, misshapen plant beginnings.

Yet I was absurdly happy for every one of them, even the two absolutely barren stems that after months have still shown nothing but a slight green swelling at the top. Several of the cuttings are now clearly growing; their new leaves are big enough that I’m anticipating the next pair. Daily I look for progress and plan which ones I’ll keep and which will become gifts or find their way to some charity sale. I’m reassured by the green upthrust of life that continues, no matter how sharp the knife or how rude the transplanting.

Taken in 2019. This is the plant that began in the coffee mug in the above photo.

On good days, when the sun shines, I dare to consider that similar patience might yet see the healing of more human cuts and the emergence of new growth in relationships that have dropped too many leaves.

Wearable Prayers

Twice within as many weeks, family members asked me, “What’s a prayer shawl?” I had been working on something vividly red, and my family assumed that I was crocheting another baby blanket or larger afghan, my usual projects for those times when my hands require repetitive motion while our mouths and minds catch up on family news. I hadn’t anticipated the question, nor did I have a ready answer.

I should have. After all, I had never heard of prayer shawls until just over a decade ago, some years after joining the church we still attend. In one service, an older woman who chaired a ladies group explained to the congregation that they were crocheting/knitting prayer shawls for people connected to the church who were ill or recently bereaved. She had brought several shawls with her and our pastor prayed a blessing on the shawls.

For me, this was an entirely new practice, yet it made immediate sense. All my life, I had heard prayers spoken for others. The particular Christian milieu in which I had spent my childhood and early adult years was characterized by a strong belief in the efficacy of prayers. The prompt response to any story of grief, loss, and illness was “we’ll be praying for you,” and that was not a reflexive, clichéd “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” No, the promise of direct prayer was sincere and literal, based on the conviction that God expects such prayers and will respond to them, albeit not always in the ways that we might wish.

Connecting intercessory prayer, as it is named in devotional language, with a physical object seemed intuitively right—grief and fear often do leave the body cold. So, I thought, in this church, prayers come with hugs, some actual, some embodied in yarn. And I also began making prayer shawls, not many and, at first, designed for specific persons whom I knew well and loved.

rocking chair, shawl, cushion, plant
The first prayer shawl I made – Photo by Helma Voth

The question “what’s a prayer shawl?” asked by two different people made me rethink the whole project. Why should a shawl be linked to prayer? And if such a gift matters, why should it? It was time for research.

The seemingly recent practice of making prayer shawls was begun by Janet Severi Bristow and Victoria Galo in 1998, with the following purpose: “Prayer shawl. Peace shawl. Comfort shawl. Mantle. . . . . These are a wearable hug crafted with love and intent from maker to recipient.”

“Shawls . . . made for centuries universal and embracing,

symbolic of an inclusive, unconditionally loving God.

They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace,

mother, hug, shelter and beautify.”

(Janet Severi Bristow)

            So that explained all the pattern books for making prayer shawls—and the one I bought includes several blessings to accompany the gift of a prayer shawl.

red shawl in process, pattern book

But where did the idea for a prayer shawl come from? Was there a longer history here? Vaguely familiar with Judaism’s use of specific garments for prayer, I began my research in the Bible.

And yes, in Numbers 15, the prophet Moses instructs the people: “Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commandments of the LORD, that you may obey them.” Hence the tallit, which is a “large rectangular shawl made of wool, cotton, or synthetic fibers. In each of the four corners of the shawl are strings tied in a particular pattern, called tzitzit.” Before putting on the tallit, a specific Hebrew blessing is spoken, and particular actions are prescribed for the handling of the shawl. Thus, the prayer shawl is simultaneously a garment of ritual worship and a personal submission to the care of God. 

The belief that ultimate comfort comes through divine care is made real by a simple gesture of gift and warmth. Grief and illness leave most of us helpless: we cannot restore the dead to life nor can we make illness miraculously go away. Time is needed—long days of feeling lonely, managing pain, being helpless—to process irrevocable change (even should the illness be eventually healed, one does not return to what was). Hence, the prayer shawl.

It is a physical, touchable thing, made by hand, a slow, deliberate process. Every stitch has been made out of love, giving comfort and solidity to the one who wields the hook or needles, and then giving the same to the one who receives the shawl.

I shall make more prayer shawls.

“For it is the love and kindness of human hearts through which the divine reality comes home to us, whether we name it or not.”

George Merriam

Postscript: It seems that not only books, but objects fall into the right hands at the right time. I had given the red prayer shawl pictured above to our church’s supply—to be given out as need arose.  Months later, it so “happened” that our pastors gave the shawl to someone who had just been admitted to the local hospital’s palliative care ward. They did know that the individual was a dear friend of mine; they had not known that I was the shawl’s maker.

Now, in the mysterious fashion in which objects exert their influence even at a distance, I am also comforted by that red shawl, knowing on whose shoulders it rests. My fingers recall the tension of the yarn as it curled over the hook and slid through the next loop—compassion weaving itself through ache and loss toward comfort and healing.