On the Danger of Terrariums

A few years ago, I became fascinated by terrariums. Living in a town home without a yard, space is at a premium, and terrariums are like a travel-size garden in your home. Once you’ve selected your container (typically glass), you can fill it with whatever moves your spirit: river rocks, moss, dirt, sand, shells, feathers, twigs, plants; the list is endless.

The distinguishing feature of terrariums is their miniature effect. Encased in a glass bell can be an entire world. High-end terrarium makers will concoct entire scenes to populate their terrariums, and they are true living works of art.

The miniature worlds created in terrariums give the illusion of total control. The terrarium’s maker controls the contents, the arrangement, the water schedule, the sunlight, the soil mixture, and so on and so on. The maker can create the appearance of perfection, devoid of ugliness or disorder.

What makes for an impressive terrarium produces in us something very different. Indeed, the pursuit of the appearance of perfection tends to only produce pain. Almost a decade ago, my then-partner sat me down one June evening and confessed a nine-month affair. In retrospect, there were a few signs, but really not many. You have to give him credit for his duplicity. When I consider the events of those days, I no longer focus on the unparalleled violation of trust; I focus on my own strange reaction. I didn’t yell. I didn’t rebuke. I didn’t even cry. Like Boxer in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” I decided the problem could be worked out. I could work harder. I could control everything. In a peculiar, emotionally-retarded reaction, I tried to assuage his guilt.

It can only be said it was a prolonged, stunning repression. It took me almost a year to understand and acknowledge that it was not my problem and that I deserved better. I can only explain the intervening year as an effort to present a picture of perfection, a picture of total control. Such was the power of appearances that an otherwise intelligent, independent person tried to repress the equivalent of a psychic bomb. Why did I not stand up from the couch on that June evening, utter the choicest of curse words, and walk out the door? Shock may explain the first few hours and days. Weeks maybe. But, at some point, I chose the appearance of a perfect happiness over dealing with the greatest pain I ever encountered.

I look back on that time with great sadness, but, through that pain, I learned important lessons. Everything isn’t always perfect. You can’t control it all. Such basic lessons, but we continually screw them up. We badly want things to be just so, and, when life does not give us our desires, some of us engage in acts of psychic self-immolation. Lost, hurting souls that would be well advised to just let go. Just let go.

The danger of terrariums is not selecting the wrong plant or choosing the wrong arrangement. It’s the idea that we can create and control a thing of beauty. That we can achieve perfection. Terrariums need oxygen and water and light and tending. They are not hermetically sealed. And neither should we be. We have to accept imperfection, recognize that we cannot control every facet of our lives, and embrace the sometime ugly realities of life.

At that point, we become even more beautiful.

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