June 14, 2007 at 4:03 pm (Uncategorized)

“Today I am going to be much too busy to play,” my three-year-old son, Andrew, told me this morning. “I am going to be weeding and weeding the whole day. I am going to dump many wagon loads of weeds.”

From what fertile field did Andrew’s newfound horticultural impulse grow? I’d like to blame his interest in weed control, planting, and watering on a visiting grandparent or on a young buddy whose parents are avid gardeners. But, no, it’s me Andrew has seen, spending hours in our yard, pulling out three years’ worth of weeds, trimming the sprawling apple tree, and plucking the dead stems out of the poppies.

As loyal readers might remember from a blog entry I wrote last summer, gardening has never exactly been my forte. I’ve liked a lush lawn and a well-planted garden as much as the next person, but I’ve never made having a nice yard a priority. In the past, if I had a spare few minutes, I would have picked up a book, called a friend on the phone, gone for a walk, or pretty much done anything besides stoop down and yank out handfuls of unruly weeds. My husband Jay has shared my disdain for yard work. While the other men of the neighborhood seem to like nothing more than revving up the weed whacker in the early hours of a Sunday morning, Jay claims still to be traumatized by compulsory adolescent weeding. (I used to have a lot more sympathy for him until I recently learned that his parents paid – paid, I said – him to weed.)

However, a couple of months ago, Andrew’s wonderful babysitter, Andrea, introduced the idea of a vegetable garden. My son loved the concept of growing food from the ground. Andrea agreed to do all the work. They took on a substantial job. The vegetable bed was so overgrown with weeds, that it took days of hoeing, digging, and ripping to clear it. Then Andrea had to erect deer-proof fencing. Propelled sheerly by the guilt of letting this heavy work fall all on Andrea, I went out in the back one Friday evening, and started hacking away at the unfinished section of their vegetable bed. It was tough going. Given three years’ worth of license, the weeds had established root systems that felt and looked more like concrete bunkers than plant material. Jay came outside to watch me work, and soon gave me a look like he either wanted to check me for a high fever or else run away, far from the bags overflowing with weeds.

But I liked it. It surprised me how much I enjoyed clearing the ground and making way for new growth. I liked it so much that I returned the next evening. And then again. Once Andrea and Andrew’s vegetable bed was finished, I started weeding along the side of our long driveway. Beneath the mats of wild greenery, I found irises, desperately in need of the light the weeds were blocking. I noticed that the apple tree was producing fruit. A rhubarb plant sprang to life in the back yard. I borrowed a friend’s lawnmower and tackled the thigh-high weeds that had made our entire backyard nothing more than a hangout for snakes and deer. In the process of mowing, I uncovered enough deer poop to sculpt a small mountain. Then I started clearing out weeds in our front yard. With a few more days’ effort, we might no longer have the worst yard in Helena.

We’re lucky that the previous owners had been astute and environmentally conscious gardeners. Beneath our tenancy of neglect are the remains of their carefully crafted plan. Most of the front is xeriscaped, a fancy way of saying that it was planted and designed not to need irrigation. All I’ve had to contend with are the ambitious weeds poking up through the mulch and rocks in front. There are lovely perennials– poppies, lavender, irises, a flowering yucca cactus, a massive oregano bush, and a bunch of other plants I can’t name – that have emerged, unbidden. My sole focus has been yanking out the weeds that distract from these beauties. So far, I’ve filled about 15 garbage bags of weeds. I feel like I haven’t even made a dent.

But I like it – that’s the very odd thing. Before this strange new period, I’d never done an honest day’s yard work in my life (except when I was forced – unpaid, thank you very much – to mow the lawn or rake leaves as a kid), but I find myself making up excuses to go outside and weed. My zeal has even shocked the neighborhood. “What happened to neighbors I knew and liked,” the man next door said, when he came across me rooting among the irises. “Did aliens abduct you?” Then he offered me some chives and cabbage seedlings.

I don’t think I would have enjoyed trying to tame the thicket of our yard if I hadn’t been forced into chronic town, or life with a chronic illness. Ever since I was diagnosed with sarcoidosis three years ago, I have had a difficult time finding a way to be outside. Before I got a disease that damaged my heart, lungs, and joints, Jay and I spent as much time as we could hiking. We would meet after work to climb the steep trails of Mt. Helena and Mt. Ascension – two of the peaks that frame our small city. Or we would go on long bike rides into Helena’s valley, where we would whiz past farms and fields of cattle. (Unfortunately, many of these family farms are now being rapidly subdivided in new housing). When we moved overseas to a small Pacific island nation Palau, we shocked the local folks by riding our mountain bikes in stifling tropical heat on the bright red dirt roads that cut through the jungle. We also kayaked and camped along the entire length of the country, sometimes paddling over twenty miles a day. I love being outside. I love the warmth of the sun on my skin. I love the smell of pine needles slowly drying over the course of the summer. I love hearing the birds in the trees above me. I love the feel of my feet in the dirt.

But ever since I’ve gotten sarcoidosis, I haven’t had the physical capacity to go on jaunty hikes or bike rides. I’ve gained so much weight on the prednisone that I huff and puff on our stairs. I can’t imagine scaling a mountain. Plus, we had a child at almost exactly the same time I was diagnosed. Even if I had never become ill, I’m sure we would have had a much harder time backpacking across a national park with a young boy, or carting him along for a twenty-mile hike on a Saturday. Unfortunately, I’m not much of one to go outside and sit and read. I need to be doing something, or else I just fixate on the sun possibly giving me melanoma or on how I should be walking some of my extra pounds off instead of staying parked on my tush. Oddly enough, gardening brings me outside and provides just enough activity that I don’t feel decadently lazy, but not so much activity that I’m sore and can’t move the next day.

Even better, doing yard work allows Andrew and I to be outside together. While Jay is healthy enough to go hiking with him, I am proud to have found my own way to interact with Andrew outside the walls of our home. Andrew putters in the mud, while I work. He digs trenches with his assortment of toy earthmovers, and then fills the ditches with water. He brings out “our materials,” as he calls the rake, shovel, and hoe. He bears buckets of sand from his sand box and then calls me over to try his imaginary “tomato soup.” He loves loading up his red Flexible Flyer wagon with weeds and then towing the wagon over to the “flower mill.” That’s not a typo. I made the mistake of assuming he was pretending to be taking the detritus of our yard to the flour mill. But, no, Andrew was quite specific that at his mill, weeds are converted into flowers. If only. As much as I used to dread the prospect of weeding, I have found that gardening is a blessing: it has allowed my son and I to talk about flowers blooming and trucks digging in an unstructured way. I can explain how plants need sunlight and water to live. “Just like me,” Andrew exclaimed on hearing his first botany lesson. He does his work; I do mine. It’s better than me following him around the yard trying to organize his play, like I used to do. Three year olds need time to get dirty, stir up mud food, and pester their mothers to keep filling up the watering can “just one more time.”

The other unexpected joy of doing yard work is that it gives me a sense of accomplishment. As all of you with chronic illnesses or living with someone afflicted with one know all too well, so much in chronic town remains undone. I could fill several volumes with ideas for writing projects I don’t succeed in even beginning. Jay has hundreds of home improvement projects that are thwarted by my trips to the emergency room to check an episode of arrhythmia or by my needing to spend a Saturday in bed instead of staining the deck. Maybe it’s silly to content myself with entirely clearing a patch of weeds, instead of pushing myself to do something of more “value.” But the activity of gardening clears my head and energizes me, instead of exhausting me to the bone like trips to the gym do. Plus, I get to take out frustration on the concrete roots of the weeds. “Stupid sarcoidosis,” I think loudly in my head, as I hack at the greenery as if it were a rattlesnake, not a hapless patch of dalmatian toad flax. However funny I must look whispering and flailing at my weeds, red-faced from the exertion of turning over the earth, it helps. (I read recently about a study that showed that gardening lowers blood pressure, too.)
My time in the yard also connects me to something beyond myself. I’m not saying that I’m chatting with God in the backyard (I’m pretty certain even God would want me to complete a few more weeks’ worth of weeding before tromping around in the tall grass), but I do feel a little less scared of dying from this disease when I ponder the interconnectedness of the small universe beneath our apple tree. I am definitely not going to morph into one of those gardeners that go for perfection. I don’t want to be spraying pesticides in the name of having straight rows of flowers. I just want to be out there, digging my fingers into the dirt, trying not to hack a worm apart inadvertently with my shovel, or bury a ladybug beneath a mound of weeds. I’m not going to follow the sorry example set by our city commission, which last week voted to approve a “deer management” plan that involved luring deer to city parks and then shooting them at close range. It was mostly the lawn nuts who yelled loudly enough to get this plan enacted. I like watching the deer and knowing they, me, and the burgeoning crab apples are somehow linked.

I suppose the biggest lesson to take away from my newfound hobby is that living in chronic town necessitates change. Right now, I’m not up for climbing mountains or racing my bike. I hope to someday be ready to do so again. But, as much as I miss my more macho pursuits, I have to admit that the view isn’t bad from the back yard, and I feel at peace with myself (unless I’m imagining a weed as a granuloma in my heart). I’m also proud of myself for being willing to try to change. I could just sit inside and feel sorry for myself, so I’m glad I’ve been able to let myself explore new turf.

To survive in chronic town, we have to set aside (temporarily, I tell myself) pieces of ourselves. But if we’re lucky, new loves and new joys will grow in the empty spaces. There just might be a flower mill waiting to convert the weeds of our sickness into blooms of new life.

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