I am sitting in our greenhouse while a gentle rain falls outside. I am sitting with the flowers I repotted today in the hanging baskets and window boxes that will decorate the deck, but which now are staying in here. It’s been a cold spring. It’s May 22, and there are no leaves yet on the birches. The elderberry bushes at the edge of the forest and gooseberries in the orchard are the only things showing a little unfurling green. But I am warm in this humid, light-filled, humus-smelling shelter, gravel beneath my feet, sitting in a canvas folding beach chair Craig just brought home for me from Ulmer’s Drug and Hardware. I can hear birdsong. It is all around, the birds really going at it, singing like there’s no tomorrow, building nests, chasing off intruders into their territories. So much to do in the short sub-arctic summer, and they are doing it. I’ve spent a lot of time here this last week. It’s one of the places I’ve felt most at peace, besides the beach I walk to town sometimes, or the forest and swamp trails within a mile of my house. I’m not what you’d call a meticulous gardener. I’m more of a Latvian gardener in the style of some of my friends back in the old country. My window boxes are made of scrap lumber, unvarnished. The table holding the long boxes of nasturtiums is made of old gray plywood supported by three defunct tires.
This afternoon, I picked up a book that I keep on the ledge of the greenhouse. It’s a book by a poet who was a meticulous gardener, a New England gardener, and it’s his words that sent me back to the house to get my computer and to call Craig to ask him to pick me up a folding chair so I could write in the greenhouse. The book is called The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden. It’s by the poet Stanley Kunitz. Yes, a century in the garden, for real. He died at 101, and he wrote the book, with the help of a friend, at 100, at which point, he was still gardening (and writing poems). The photos in the book show opulent gardens of his Provincetown, MA home, Victorian spill-over gardens of anemone, foxglove, bearded iris, things we can only dream of up here in the north. And yet I do dream of them, and my plan this year is to consolidate my perennials into just a couple beds I can actually nurse along into exuberance. Perhaps if I content myself with less, something opulent and lush will grow up in that more intimate space. Nevertheless, I am comfortable in this rustic, non-opulent, funky greenhouse with its piles of pots, its rough-cut lumber beds of soil Craig and our friend David dug from under the elderberries. They hauled the dirt from under the thicket in salvaged five-gallon pails I use for tomatoes, and I mixed that dirt with composted fish from a farm up the road and compost from our own heap and fish fertilizer. Ragged old pieces of shade cloth keep the young plants warm at nights, as the temperature still dips down into the 30’s. I’ve been calling this a recalcitrant spring, and in town you hear a lot of moaning. When I consider the temperature in other parts of the country right now, I truly feel like I am orbiting some other, shyer sun.
Recalcitrant spring, recalcitrant body. This has been a rough patch of life this last couple months. I don’t want to belabor the physical body issues, but the short of it is that the malaise I wrote of in my last post was at last diagnosed as an Helicobacter pylori infection in my stomach, which has given me an ulcer and reflux and shortness of breath and other spooky symptoms. I have felt, oddly, much like I did when undergoing chemotherapy nearly three years ago. Then, as now, I could only eat certain foods, felt uncomfortable in my body much of the time, breathed hard after climbing a set of stairs. My usual physical routines have been interrupted, and so I’ve had to slow down. This has had its blessings, I admit. Instead of running, I’ve been walking a lot with the dogs. But the most calming, healing thing has been to come to the greenhouse, to tend to these plants. It hasn’t been easy to keep my equilibrium, as the healing process is never linear, with its good days and bad days and frustrations and fears and hopes and let-downs. And yet this morning, Craig reminded me to consider all that I do have, to be present with all that I can do, and so I have tried.
I have avoided writing in this blog, as I’ve struggled to find the meaning in feeling so lousy for so long, and frankly, in not handling it with much aplomb or grace. But something shifted in the greenhouse when I picked up the book by Stanley Kunitz and read this: “There’s a conversation that keeps going on beyond the human level, in many ways, beyond language, extending into the atmosphere itself. Weather is a form of communication. There is an exchange between the self and the atmosphere that sets the tone for an entire day. The changeability, its overwhelming range of possibilities, exercises a more defined influence on human moods than perhaps anything.” In the greenhouse, that conversation is plain to me. It is no longer the conversation with the body, and that is a relief right now. The conversation manifests as the rhythm of the rain, which waxes and wanes, and as bird-spats, the robins, the fox sparrows, the varied thrushes, and humidity and the smell of damp, rich soil. No matter what is happening in my body, I can be part of that conversation, an eavesdropper or a participant. And more than that, I can listen for what it might mean, what I can learn.
This is the paragraph in the book that truly turned me back to this writing, to writing in this greenhouse where I am not only having a conversation with the page, with the imagined reader, but with everything going on outside me, even with the plane that just took off and headed to Anchorage. Wise 100-year old Stanley wrote: “The storm we had the other day was rather spectacular; I felt it was somehow a message. It seemed so threatening at first, and then suddenly it was just a little downpour. And then it dissolved into a quite peaceful late afternoon. I interpret it positively. I had felt a sense of foreboding, certainly for the last few months, and psychologically this seemed to say, ‘Stop thinking negatively about whatever’s happening now. Find out what you can do, and do it.’”
What a relief to read those words, to know that another human being had felt “a sense of foreboding, certainly for the last few months,” and yet had continued to tend his garden and write his poems. This is the (one of the) lesson(s) of illness and of healing. No matter what ails, no matter how small the range of possibilities, you “find out what you can do, and do it.” During chemo, on good days, I worked with my sister in her garden. On bad days, I circumabulated her lawn. On really bad days, I admit, I sat on the couch with my niece and watched Say Yes to the Dress, reality TV at its horrid best. Now, as then, true solace isn’t found inside the house, and God knows it’s not found on the Internet, Googling symptoms, anti-biotic failure rates, and side-effects. Right now, all of those things I’ve accumulated in this life, the furniture, the sentimental rocks, my mother’s tea cups, the rows and rows of books, the knowledge, the clothes, the telephone, they feel a world away, even though they are just up the driveway. All I need is this cheap canvas chair, the songs of these birds, this shelter from the rain, the life of these plants I’ve tended from seeds, the dirt under my fingernails, and this one book open in my lap. Soon I will walk out this door, and head for the kitchen to make dinner and to take my nightly medicine that is doing its good work to clear the nasty bug out of my gut. But as I learned during cancer treatment, there are many kinds of medicine, and a pill can’t heal the whole person. The path to healing is a labyrinth. The medicine of the greenhouse can’t heal an H. pylori infection just as a garden can’t cure cancer, but it can heal the mind’s equally painful malaise. It can suggest an alternative to self-pity, to despair for what’s been (temporarily) taken away. “We have storms and stresses and positive indications and negative indications that affect us every day. Each of us is a very sensitive keyboard.” So sensitive that a molecule of compost scent can balm the spirit, or a harsh word can untune the soul.