The Virtue of the Potted Fern
Liesl Jobson

It’s not easy organizing a bookshelf, one that’s been moved from a back room to your bedroom because your South African relatives are coming to stay. Your skoonma (mother-in-law) is allergic to house dust mite. (The next entry in Die Suid-Afrikaanse Skool Woordeboek is skoonmaak­-to clean.)

You should get a maid, she says.

Prepare to be ruthless. You’re working in the dark. And you must write the rules for this activity yourself. Like the rules for entertaining foreign in-laws, they do not exist.

Keep The Complete I-Ching (this is fallacious as the nature of the oracle is open-ended) away from Children Are From Heaven (they're not). Do not mix Healing Back Pain with The Story of O (and do not--under any circumstances--try this in your own home).

Similarly, discourage contact between City of Djinns and Learn to Speak Zulu (the African and the Indian were never happy bedfellows).

Preferably, set The Courage to Be Rich apart from Music in the Classic Period (Beethoven perceives that Suze Orman has a tin ear) and specifically, separate The Wizard of Oz from both The Complete South African Health Guide (references to tinnitus offend the tin man) and The Kruger National Park (this bothers the lion).

If you must, group Conducting the Elementary School Choir with The Satanic Verses and The 30-Day Fat Burner Diet with Good-Bye to Guilt. (A modicum of tolerance may be temporarily exhibited.) In contrast, whilst it may appear logical to set The New Oxford English Dictionary beside Noah Webster, an hour of bickering will promptly disabuse you of the notion of their compatibility.

Block your ears when you throw together How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, A Pacifist’s War and Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Understanding. Disregard the howls of protest that emerge when you combine John Grisham’s Bleachers with J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

Experiment with different combinations. Nothing is permanent. However, multiple failed attempts to obtain satisfactory resolution should point you towards the monthly charity book sale held by The Deaf Education Center. They will not be troubled by the raucous clamour, the untuned voices. Be practical. Persuade them to take the bookshelf too.

A potted fern beside your bed will prove a significantly quieter option.

Ignore peculiar looks when, walking around Abraham Lincoln, plant tucked under your arm, you seat yourself on a public bench. Overlook stranger’s stares. Now, peruse the ultimate in erotic literature:

Open gently the dusty green leaves.

Decode the delicately furled spine; consult the star signs in each powdered whorl; translate the love letter tangled in the maidenhair.

Finger each fiddlehead with a tender touch; ponder its humble virtue.

First published: May, 2004
comments to the writer: Knob'