In Search of a Clear and Crushable enemy
IMAGE: Kate Presley
Leah Kuenzi is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. She now works as a college instructor and nonprofit grants specialist in the Atlanta area. Kuenzi’s other interests include running very slowly, cheese-intensive cooking, and starting (but rarely finishing) home improvement projects.
Despite my ineptitude with plants, their care and maintenance are some of the only safe topics of conversation left between me my mom in the pandemic era. So when the necessity of being at home for an indefinite period of time led me to believe that a spruced-up home office would diminish my considerable existential and day-to-day dread—which incidentally collided with the realization that my mother, an avid gardener, was on the verge of being lost, if not already gone, to QAnon—I decided to try again, with both my mother and plants. Maybe, I thought, I could hold on to her in this way, that chatting about watering frequency and lighting conditions for potted herbs could somehow help her keep just one foot in the red-clay earth of reality.
Call it the spirit of January, of starting over, that compelled me. For a brief and fleeting moment,
I felt willing to give 2021 a chance. Just after the new year I reached out via text message, which is generally my preferred method of contact, but especially with those who are likely to, without warning, begin screaming about the evils of 5G. I kept my request simple, no room for other subjects: I would like to grow some basil and parsley in pots inside my house. Should I start from seed or buy an established plant, do you think? This was the bait for her to say that the plants you buy in nurseries are often half-dead, and not likely to thrive, so why don’t you take some of mine? While she didn’t exactly invite me to visit, she said I was welcome to come get the plants any time that I was over this way, which I never am, because my hometown is an hour south of where I live in metro Atlanta. So I chose to read some version of warmth and enthusiasm into her words, and replied, I would be very grateful for a parsley plant and some basil seeds. Thank you for your offer. Maybe next weekend we could sit outside and visit for a bit? The first weekend in February, I loaded my little empty pots into the trunk of my car—I had selected them for the fact that their colors complemented my office walls—and hit the road. It was cold but sunny and the clouds moved quickly across the sky as I sipped my can of sparkling water and drummed my fingers against the steering wheel, a little faster and harder the closer I got to the overgrown hedges and long gravel driveway of a place I used to call home.
As I had hoped, the gardening activities provided a good reason to stay outside for most of the
afternoon. I felt like a kid again as my mom and I stood across from one another at her little planting table on the back patio. Together, we used an old jam jar and a plastic yogurt container to scoop soil from a massive container of the stuff that is stored underneath the table. She spread her palm across the top of the basil pot and I placed seeds between each of her fingers, pushing each one down with my pinky. I said as little as possible, every word a possible point of entry into a conversation that would ruin some small sense that this had been a positive visit. We listened, instead, to everything but each other: the wind chimes and the leaves and the neighbor’s dog barking.
I wore a mask inside to use the bathroom before I left, slipping inside quickly while mom was in
the garden picking some kale for her dinner. Over the past several months of fraught visits, I’d become mostly accustomed to the mask ridicule that she doled out in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Sometimes, a quick look towards my face followed by a long silence did the trick. Other times she met me with a look of anger mixed with terror that most people would reserve for a crazed gunman. The mockery—comments such as “Wow, this salsa is so good. Do you want some? Ha, never mind”—was somehow the easiest to take, because it felt less piercing. But I could not deny that all of it was destructive to my mental health, to normalize and dismiss such behavior. She intruded into my thoughts literally hundreds of times per day. I won countless imaginary arguments against her. I blamed myself, then absolved myself, then the cycle started over. I vowed all my free time and any extra money to organizations and causes focused on information literacy. I called myself a coward. I called my mom a miserable fucking moron, and imagined saying these words aloud to her both quietly and very slowly, emphasizing every delicious syllable. I decided to stop talking to her. I blamed myself again. I decided I’d hang up if she uttered a single word of something I had asked her not to discuss with me. I made excuses for ignoring my own boundaries. I dreamed of going to the Capitol and burning it to the ground myself. I had a recurring nightmare in which Tucker Carlson and I were forced to commit a crime together, and so for the rest of our lives had to share a terrible secret. I woke confused, teetering on the edge of reality. The only terrible secret that my sleep-addled mind could grasp was that I should have done something to stop my mom, but couldn’t.
In the bathroom, I grounded myself in the world and let my thoughts recede like the waves
of an ocean I imagined the soothing sounds of. I made note of the cool feeling of the linoleum against my feet and the bright teal of the walls, and reminded myself that thoughts and feelings are fleeting that I don’t have to become entangled in them all the time. I took five deep breaths, in through my nose and out through my mouth, before I stood and zipped my jeans.
Outside, I lingered near my car, torn between competing impulses: one, to get inside and drive
away as fast as I could, and the other to move back into my childhood bedroom and make it my full-time job to pull my mom back from the deep. Mom put the flat cardboard box filled with my plants and supplies into the trunk and I swung the hatch shut. At a fraught Thanksgiving-ish dinner in November, she had expressed anger over the absurdity that someone at the CDC would tell a free American not to hug their family. Outrage, yes, but I also noticed how her voice wavered at the end of her sentence. There were a lot of things I could and should have said, but I just agreed that I missed hugging my family.
In February, though, I opened my arms and held my breath. I had forgotten the feeling of the
bony ridges of her spine against my fingertips. When I stepped away and breathed in deeply, I could still smell her hair, thick with lavender and sweat.
There was no asparagus at the grocery store today. I got broccoli instead. I know you’d like the
dinner I made tonight—whole wheat couscous, roasted vegetables, feta, and roasted almonds with the edges just starting to burn. Just a smidge of feta for you, because I know you’re trying to stay off dairy. We shared the meal outside on the porch with our friends and somehow got to sharing photos of our high school days, passing our phones around the table. This might sound mean, but you’re getting to the age that you no longer look like the version of you that inhabits most of my memories. If you stop looking like you, how long before I stop looking like me?
I went to bed early to continue reading a novel called Red at the Bone. In it, the fifteen-year-old
protagonist named Iris gets pregnant and is kicked out of her Catholic school. The mother of her unborn child’s father insists on tutoring her every day so she doesn’t fall behind academically. The older woman is stern and demands excellence, dedication. She insists that Iris will go on to do something great. She says, “There’s nothing haunting you,” and it only occurs to Iris after the older woman has passed years later, that she should have asked, “What haunts you?” And now that question is rattling around in my head. As children we cast our parents in certain roles, assume we know who they are, and why. Is being haunted only for the old? What do you think that you know about me?
The plants are not doing well. A fly infestation has taken root, though I have become quite adept
at killing them. First thing in the morning, I stumble out of bed and down the hall to see how bad the problem has become. From the doorway I can see that their numbers are considerable. Smashing my hand in a sweeping motion against the walls of the pot is infinitely more satisfying than spraying them down with a mixture of castile soap and water, though less effective. The stragglers who have avoided my wrath flee to the wall, around the back of the hanging shelf, or to the back side of the pot itself. I sniff forcefully onto the dirt like an angry bull, which dislodges the ones that are still trying to hide. Smash. Spritz. The air goes still in my wake. How grateful I am for such a clear and crushable enemy.
The subject of QAnon is one I will not broach here. It deserves no more space. If you’re not
already watching in horrified, rapt attention, Google can do that dirty work. As for my mother, I believe that her indoctrination stems from the convergence of her decades-long track record of conspiracy leanings, intersecting with the fact that there is now a centralized source and audience, especially on the internet, for this kind of thinking. The evolution of my mother’s beliefs—the things that over the years she has come to believe as absolute, unequivocal truths—is a chilling example of the algorithms used on social media platforms, which feed information to the user based on previous clicks. I use this “technology” to add books to my reading wish list. If you liked this, you might also like this. My mother seems to be using it to permanently assimilate the most vile, cynical beliefs about humankind.
When I was born in 1990, my mother chose not to have me vaccinated, and claimed religious
exemption to bypass the systems that would have otherwise required it. She believed that my older brother Hans had suffered an adverse reaction to a routine childhood vaccine, which with enough time and “research” eventually mushroomed into a deep mistrust of nearly every conceivable form of modern medicine. (It should be noted that I’ve never heard an explanation of the alleged reaction—neither has my brother—and he is just fine.) In the 1990s, anti-vaccine ideology was considered fringe science at best, and socially condemned by most communities. The doctors I’ve worked with as an adult to get up-to-date on my vaccinations are routinely shocked to meet someone with my story, given my age. You’re how old? And your mother chose not to have you vaccinated? There were a few doctors in California and Germany (why is it always California and Germany?) who were pushing the kind of information she was looking for to validate her fears, but it wasn’t easy to come by.
It didn’t stop with the medical realm; conspiracy thinking is a vast web. In the early 2000s, my
mother was convinced that the 9/11 terror attacks were jointly orchestrated by George W. Bush and other members of the Illuminati, and that the planes being flown into the World Trade Center were merely a distraction from the fact that explosives had been detonated from inside the buildings. The purpose, of course, was to create a pretense to wage “forever wars” against terrorism in the Middle East that would enable the US and its wealthy elite to pillage the region’s resources, particularly oil. (Don’t tell her that I now recognize some grains of truth in this one.) Around this time, I vaguely recall a radio program that echoed from her bedroom during her midday rest (probably broadcast out of California or Germany) in which these kinds of ideas were discussed and given credence. But when the hour was over, it was back to the real world, and there was no place for her to stew indefinitely in that kind of toxic soup.
There have been other theories, too—the existence of a U.S. government-controlled weather
machine that created Hurricane Katrina comes to mind. I can’t actually recall the “logic” of this theory, though there must have been some explanation. On the occasion that she spoke about these theories in mixed company, she was all but certain to be met with looks of confusion and condemnation. Now, an idea such as the COVID-19 vaccine containing a microchip created by Bill Gates to achieve world domination is likely to find at least one sympathetic listener.
My older brother Hans, who lives with our mother, warned me of his concerns in October 2020.
He broached the subject obliquely by saying that he believed she would be voting for the candidate I’d been volunteering nights and weekends—calling and texting voters in swing states—to defeat. He expressed his reticence to engage her directly in a conversation about her Election Day leanings. Hans, who has a Master’s of Science in biotechnology, doesn’t do so well with our mother’s longstanding tendency to disregard basic facts, scientific and otherwise. He thought that I—who over the years had shown some willingness to at least listen to her—might be a better person to engage and attempt to disarm her.
After all, there are other things that our mother cares about: women’s rights, environmental
conservation, income inequality, antimilitarism. Tethers back to the state of mind she occupied before anti-vaxxers went to bed with white nationalists, and my mother became a rare example of someone who does a political and ideological 180 degree turn. I’d always heard that people became more conservative as they aged, but this was so far from what I considered within the realm of possibility. Each time I thought of trying an alternate path of dissuasion, I froze, certain I was about to enter a portal into some fresh hell. I could deal with the pandemic conspiracies, lock them in a box as a troubling but rational-within-the-irrational iteration of beliefs she’d been cultivating since before I was even born. But what if I found some horror, some demon, that I could never unsee?
Since the early months of the pandemic, I’d spent our increasingly infrequent phone calls asking
her leading questions, subtly inserting carefully-phrased, non-judgmental critiques of her ideas. But in October—the final days left to talk her out of voting for the devil—I had four panic attacks in four days, and my failure to dissuade her, which seemed likely, would have added more heart weight than I could have managed. I mustered only the simplest sentiments, comments like, “There’s simply no evidence for that,” and “But what are his credentials? For every doctor and scientist that you’re listening to, to there are a hundred—a thousand—saying the exact opposite,” and “My parsley is looking a little more vibrant today, I think it’s about to sprout a new leaf,” and “Maybe we could just talk about what’s going on in our individual lives.”
Basically, I said nothing.
Do you remember when I was in graduate school, maybe about a year into my program, and
you couldn’t ever remember the name of the degree I was pursuing, so you finally wrote it down on a legal pad and tucked it inside the little cubby in your desk? That bummed me out at the time. The mundanities of day-to-day living are so rote, but only to the people inside that small bubble of reality. Why should you have been expected to know? Now I see the tenderness in that, how wanting to know is so much bigger than not caring to ask. When we talk these days, I try to stay away from questions. Statements are safer. “I’ve been meditating a lot,” and “I’ve been experimenting with new vegan recipes,” and “I can’t imagine a world in which I care so little for other people that I can’t be bothered to wear a piece of cloth over my face.” Each time we say goodbye, I wonder if maybe, just maybe, the next time we speak, there will be some sign that you’ve really heard something I’ve said. That wondering feels dangerous and hot in my hands, where I can feel my pulse beating hard for minutes after I put the phone down.
I’ve become more invested in the death of flies than the life of my plants. Under my constant
regimen of soapy water and a naturally occurring pesticide spray made from the seeds of the neem tree, the minuscule basil sprouts have withered. The parsley leaves have yellowed and show signs of shriveling. The flies reproduce faster than seems possible, but I am undeterred. This is a problem with suggested remedies that are methodical and easy to follow. Mix equal parts apple cider vinegar and water in a wide, shallow dish and place next to your infected plants. Water plants exclusively from the bottom, as fungus gnats thrive in the warm, damp soil at the surface of the pot. It may take some time, but results do not vary.
This is not the first time I’ve attempted alchemy with my mom and plants. I’ve been looking for a
way into her garden world for years, searching for a new shared language. There were the tomato plants of 2013 that eventually went to the birds—literally. An afternoon of planting in 2015 left me with a triangular flower bed in my front yard which, although now overgrown with weeds, still produces some lovely purple iris and red crocosmia blooms each year. Before, however, the biggest problem we faced was that we weren’t especially close. We shared the kind of perfectly-fine-but-nothing-special relationship dynamic held by countless mothers and daughters. That I once viewed this as a problem makes me laugh today. What I’d give to have average back.
There are other plants and moments of time through which I’ve sought a deeper connection to
my mother, though I’ve forgotten them entirely now, because the relationship remained un-deepened, and the plants have long since perished.
Maybe we can just let go of the big-big things. I just want to talk about the little-big things. Can
we do that? Here are some of mine from today: potting soil stuck between my toes in the dwindling afternoon sunlight. Fibers of a mandarin orange stuck underneath my fingernails. A blackhead stuck in my chin. A chunk of blood that floated away from my body and down the shower drain. A packet of Chick-fil-A ranch sauce. Brian Doyle’s words about the hearts of whales and hummingbirds and humans. A mosquito crushed against the prickly stone of the front porch, the reverberation in my elbow. My running shoe sliding in a patch of mud at Twin Brothers Lake. Three Advil. A new bottle of facial cleanser. A twitching muscle in my left ankle. The breath in my lungs all the way down to the tips of my fingers.
The flies are gone and the plants are dead. One evening in May, while spraying the parsley
plant with neem oil, I accidentally snapped its one remaining stem in half. I stared for a few moments in disbelief. A gnat buzzed in my ear and brought me back. Foliage might have regrown, but that seemed unlikely if not impossible based on the overall health of the plant, so I put the pot outside and told myself that maybe the root system would rally. It didn’t, but it’s still sitting there, because you never know for sure with plants, and I can’t bring myself to toss it into the little ditch in my backyard. The basil never really became a plant at all, and although my mom gave me a little plastic baggie of extra seeds to replant if the first germination didn’t pan out, I haven’t replanted them. The empty pot of dirt—textured all over with tiny channels and indentations that now encase the corpses of the scores of fungus gnats that perished by my hand—is sitting on a little rolling stool under the window in my office. With the plants gone, the flies died off in time, their numbers dwindling until killing the them was no longer a source of satisfaction.
Ultimately, I still wanted plants in my office, so I’m trying again. Again. Without her, this time—
the silence a widening hole between us. From my research—conducted late at night with no company but the glow of the computer screen and the asthmatic purring of my cat in my lap—I settled on a snake plant, a jade plant, an aloe plant, and some devil’s ivy. To discourage a reinfestation of fungus gnats, I added layers of small pebbles to the tops of the soil. The added weight discourages nesting, and those that would try are not able to push through to the surface. The snake plant has gone to a better place, but the other three are surviving—dare I say thriving—in my care. The aloe plant has recently sprouted an offshoot, which I’ve learned is affectionately referred to as a “pup.”
Where Google leaves me wondering, I have my brother Hans, who is himself an expert
gardener. Recently, I had a scare with the jade plant when it went a bit limp and rubbery. I noticed a fly or two buzzing around and braced for war. Hans’s advice for healing the plant was simple: “I would try putting it outside on a sunny day. Sunlight can help with numerous problems.” His words made me think of something I’d heard on a podcast about confronting and disarming conspiracy theorists, which I’d listened to years ago when my mom was just my mom, and it was easy to dismiss her seemingly harmless ideas as nothing more than colorful quirks. People who are subscribed to these beliefs may spend hours a day in front of their televisions or computers, buzzing on outrage and fear of imagined apocalypse and societal collapse. One of the hosts suggested that a simple disarmament strategy might be inviting the conspiracist to notice—really take note—of the discrepancies between what’s happening on their screens versus what’s happening when they open their front door. Have they ever witnessed any of these terrible supposed realities with their own eyes? Because I have opened the front door of my mother’s house many times, I know that when you do, this is what you’ll notice: the thrum of a bird’s wings as it swoops down for a worm, the wind against your cheeks and the Bradford Pear trees, and, at this time of year, the smell the tuberoses that are just beginning to blossom.