Hannah Stephenson, “The Aloe Vera Grows Ragged”

The Aloe Vera Grows Ragged (from The Storialist)
Hannah Stephenson

Break the barbed plant to heal a burn.
The aloe vera grows ragged but
is not wild.

Plants are half-asleep.
Sleep is what breaks time into sentences,
drowsiness is how sleep reaches for us.

Sleep is a many-tentacled thing.
Everything is a many-tentacled thing.


Some things in life are simpler than they first appear. But what does that mean? So we approach an aloe vera plant. It looks “barbed” and “ragged.” Must be overcome to get its healing power – oh wait. It’s broken easily and can be used for healing immediately. As “ragged” but not “wild,” it speaks of civility more than we do.

Maybe that’s the half-sleep of plants: a serenity which trusts the world is accessible, that growth can be assumed. Sleep is not entirely irrational. Rather, “it breaks time into sentences.” If all we were was wakeful, if wakefulness itself did not need to be achieved, we’d have no way of organizing our lives in the most basic way. Breaks to the plant, or even our lives, allow us to be present.

There’s a catch: “drowsiness is how sleep reaches for us.” One might wonder why sleep as death isn’t a catch, too. It is, and also breaking a plant isn’t the same thing as organizing our own lives. Those are two other problems, but the powerful, binary logic of saying that truth is simple, fostering growth, nearly eliminates them. It doesn’t matter if death provides breaks, because such breaks enable us to see others’ lives as a whole. It doesn’t matter if plants are torn apart for our sake, as they serve our needs. There’s a selfishness and a coldness to the healing of the first stanza.

Only “drowsiness,” that state between sleep and wakefulness, smashes this picture. You can’t say plants are drowsy. They are what they are. We, on the other hand, fluctuate in being ourselves. “Sleep reaches for us,” and we don’t really organize our lives with sleep, not like we break a plant. We don’t have the control that would make simplicity worthwhile. It is also not clear we grow. Maybe we’re dragged down by tentacles.

The turn to “sleep,” “everything,” and many tentacles, though, is a positive development. If one thought healing comes with truth, that’s not quite accurate. It comes with time and a recognition of just how complicated things were and are. Sleep is ultimately restfulness. The problems we confront are too large to tackle in one day, and that’s fine.