Tag Archives: aging

Stumbling Up the Garden Path

You can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt. – Author Unknown

This quote sums up my path to gardening.  I was never a plant person.  I am a visual artist; a painter, a sculptor.  I make things with my hands.  Plants make themselves.  I never quite got other people’s fascination with gardening and plants.  After reading May Sarton’s works many years ago, I admired her patient passion for her garden, but still didn’t understand it or envy it.  My attitude was that plants, domesticated to a garden setting, are needy.  It takes a lot of time and attention to cultivate them to your liking, and then when you turn your back, they go ahead and do what they want anyway.  When you are making visual art you bend your medium to your will and then it stays that way; much more gratifying to my impatient nature.

What drove me to gardening was psychotic dementia; not mine, my father’s.  The last few years of his life were grim with everything no one wants to see an aging parent go through.  You especially don’t want to go through it with them, but I was my father’s caretaker, determined to do the right thing.  As bad as it was for me, it was far worse for him; I suffered, he suffered, then I suffered again for him.  My support system included comfort food, red wine, therapy, and pharmaceuticals, but after a few years I began to feel like I was losing ground right along with my father.

One day I went to Home Depot and parked down by the garden center because there were more spaces there.  On my way through the garden area, I noticed some plants.  They were robust and green and somehow appealing.  I did my other shopping and when I came back through the garden area, I stopped and actually looked at the plants.  As I stood there I felt a little bubble of calm arise in me.  I hadn’t felt calm in a long time.  Whether is was some neurological effect in my brain caused by the wavelength of the color green, or the concentration of newly minted oxygen in that environment, or both, I suddenly felt . . . good.  The longer I wandered around looking at plants, the better I felt.  I bought some and took them home and planted them.  I was doing hopeless crisis care-taking at the time, and the act of planting those little plants, then watering them, then checking on them every day to see how they were doing, was pure pleasure and a balm like no other.  It was care-taking with hope.  From then on, when things got tough, I planted plants.

I knew nothing about plants, so I put a lot of wrong plants in the wrong places for a long time.  My artist’s eye was simply drawn to certain plants and how they looked.  My art is all about pattern and texture and structure, so that’s what I was attracted to in plants.  I squandered some good plants due to my horticultural ignorance, but I did pay attention and learned by experience.  Color was of little interest, so flowering plants weren’t my thing; just the play of light on form and texture, and the juxtaposition of line and shape.  My garden was a green art work I was building, and unlike my other works, this piece was just for me.

Now several years later, my father is gone, the art market that once supported me is gone, but the garden and I are still here.  Someone is quoted as saying, “Unemployment is capitalism’s way of getting you to plant a garden.” I had already started a garden, but unemployment has been a boon for it.  Planting, moving, replanting, pruning, weeding, fertilizing, watering, puttering, and simple plant gazing can easily become a full time job.  It certainly is a full time education.

Here are some of the things I have learned about gardening:

There are micronutrients in soil which can only be absorbed into the human body through the tender tissue underneath one’s fingernails and between the toes.  These nutrients contain chemical compounds which enhance positive mood and sense of well-being.  For this reason, gardening gloves and shoes are ultimately a health risk.

When one becomes a gardener, the occurrence of rain shifts from a non-event, or a nuisance, to a cause for humble celebration.  Rain ceases to be a mere meteorological event and suddenly looms large as a beneficent blessing from the gods, a nurturing gift that plants and the people who grow them appreciate only too well.

Plants are Buddhists who don’t have to practice; they just are.  They do not rush, nor can they be rushed, because there is no such thing as the future to a plant. There is just the now.  I think that is why I feel so calm in the presence of plants; they do not reflect any feelings of want or frustration and certainly don’t validate them in me.  We tend to project a lot of our feelings onto plants and our relationships with them (especially when it comes to weeds), but that is our problem, not theirs.

Plants devotedly mind their own business, and therefore are exceptionally good at what they do.

The most important thing I have learned from gardening is how much I have to learn from plants and about plants.  And how good they make me feel whether I learn anything or not.  At the very least, I can bury a lot of troubles just by digging in the dirt;  without gloves and wearing flip flops.



My father was always a suspicious type, never trusting anyone about anything.  When we were growing up, he constantly warned us about the people we associated with, the places we went, the activities we got involved with.  The world as he saw it was full of treacheries, both deliberate and accidental.  His paranoia embarrassed me; it was too eccentric, and too self-centered.  It annoyed me that he felt so large in the scheme of things that he assumed the rest of the world was always thinking about him and how to take advantage of him.  

After we all left home, my father bought 50 acres out in the countryside and built his dream house.  His driveway was almost a mile long and wound through huge live oaks and uncleared scrub.  The clearing where he placed his house was ringed by live oaks, with clear pasture beyond.  It was an idyllic natural setting, as quiet and peaceful as one could imagine.  The first floor of his house was almost all floor to ceiling glass, so from the inside one could see all the surrounding nature.  By the same token, one could easily see in from the outside; an amazing degree of exposure for a man so mistrusting.  Thankfully, there was no one out there to see in, not for miles.

All the same, my father always left some cash on his kitchen counter so that if upon returning home he looked in the window and saw that the money was gone, he would know that someone had broken in.  For thirty years that money lay there.  Every time I saw it, it irritated me.   He didn’t ever seem afraid of anything, and he was usually armed, so his constant expectation of villainy seemed more about his disdain for Fate.  If somehow, somewhere he had a date with an inevitable thief,  he was going to be prepared when the guy showed up.

Maybe this all began when he was a fighter pilot in WWII.  People were truly gunning for him then.  A certain reasoned paranoia was wise for a soldier, and it kept him alive, no doubt.   He escaped being robbed of his life then, and perhaps decided at that young age that non-trust of others was a useful survival skill.  That was what he tried to teach us, anyway.

Maybe it was amplified by my mother’s death at age forty-four.  She was driving to the beauty parlor and another car pulled out from a side street right in front of her.  The braking distance was too short and my mother’s car slammed into the front end of the other car.  My mother died 10 days later from the internal injuries she suffered.  The other driver walked away.  That was a grand larceny if there ever was one.

After that my father had years of failed relationships with other women.  He was handsome, successful, elegant, and superficially a true Southern gentlemen in his treatment of women, and the girlfriends came in a steady stream.  They also inevitably left.  He drove them crazy.  He was always suspicious of where they went and what they did.  If they went to the store to get something, he would time their absence, and if the drive took longer than he had previously clocked it (I’m not kidding), they would be interrogated upon return.  One could say that he was afraid they might rob him of his trust, but since he never trusted anyone, they had no chance.  

To my knowledge my father was never robbed in the sense that he always anticipated, so his paranoia was really prescience, a foreknowledge of what was to come.   At some early age he got a glance through the folds of time, and saw thievery in his future.  It should have come as no surprise then, when sometime in his seventies, dementia and psychosis began stealthily taking his mind away from him.  He is now eighty-six and the robbery has been severe.  At first it was just short term memory and a few words here and there, but now it has been everything.  His career, his dream home, the ability to drive and manage his financial affairs, all life long pleasures, personal independence – all gone.  He can no longer read, or even watch television.  He needs full time help to take care of him, so his much cherished privacy is gone.  He has to be fed and also wears a diaper, so even his most basic dignities have been stolen.  In lucid moments he tells me he wants to die because he has nothing left, but his ability to do that on his own is missing, too.  The only thing the thief hasn’t taken is his perfectly healthy heart, which goes on beating and shackling him to his emptied out existence.  The scale of this heist absolutely justified a life long fear of being robbed.

Caretaking comes with it’s own kind of thievery, so he was actually right to warn me all along.  First I was robbed of my father as I knew him, then over the years I have lost sleep, time, personal and professional opportunities, health, and friends.  Fatigue and depression are my constant companions, and they leave little time for anything else.  I feel like I’ve lost my identity as an artist.  People no longer ask me about upcoming exhibits or what I’m working on; they ask me how my father is.  My identity as a caretaker is not a good fit, either.  I feel vague and uncentered most of the time, not to mention scared, angry, frustrated, sad, and resentful, depending on the moment.  Despite years of my father’s warnings, I never believed him and so I was unprepared for this.  He was the one always guarded, and yet it ultimately did him no good.  The thief slipped up on him undetected and leisurely set to work, so why should I, the non-vigilant, have been spared?

Both my father’s anxiety about thievery, and my outrage, are ridiculous, of course. Our lives are only loaned to us at birth – we know we have to give them back someday. Because of that, all of our stuff, large and small, tangible and intangible, is also only on loan. We don’t get to take any of it with us. Neither do the thieves. So what’s the problem?

Like my father, I have a strong heart, physically, and hopefully, emotionally.  Someday when this thief is gone, I hope I will be able to find myself in the ransacked mess that he has left behind.   My father’s only hope is that he will just finish the job.