Thoughts on the Garden

‘It is too late,’ I keep thinking, ‘to be publishing a book.’ By which I mean that doing anything at age 65 is less than optimal, particularly something new. Publishing a book includes all sorts of noisome extras, like publicizing the book, aspects of which are enjoyable, it turns out, but costly in terms of energy.

What a pleasure to read to 40 appreciative people in a Phoenix bookstore. Still, there was the trip and the extroversion energy output. No, I would not have missed it for the world. Still, there is this bittersweet reality to the whole thing. I should have done all this earlier, I keep thinking. But I have always been thinking that, more or less. Everything takes too long and comes too late, particularly if you are disabled. Such has been my experience. And at least I have had that…experience, a life. And what, any sensible person would ask, is the alternative?

If there is anything I like about myself these days, it is my propensity to roll my wheelchair out to the garden and sit and stare at the raised vegetable beds. Thing about a garden, it has built-in pressures. Weeds, for example. They have a botanical mind of their own, and left to their own devices, they will take over. So time is of the essence. Knit one, pearl two, fertilize three and so on. It is a fabric, the vegetable crop enterprise, one thing dependent on the other, and time waits for no man. I must remember to plant the little onions, the seed onions, soon. They have their own internal seasonal clock, these things do, and they are unforgiving of tardiness. So, yes, there is that pressure, yet there is also this other experience. Letting go of the pressure. The tomatoes being the best case in point.

I bought no plants this year, sprouted no seeds, just let sloppy gardening take its course. Volunteers, the unintended offspring of last year’s tomato crop, have sprouted from old plant detritus. I have a habit of just plowing under…well, plowing may be overstating what can be managed with a hand trowel…the vines and leaves and miscellaneous remnants of exhausted tomato plants. Something about the process fascinates me. I mean, the vines look so big. Yet as soon as they dry, begin to rot slightly, this huge green pile of crop residue collapses into nothingness. A bit of hand chopping pummels the hollow dry stems into the ground. And it’s all over.

Except, of course, for the seeds. Which famously can pass through the human intestine, a municipal sewage plant, and months or years of storage in some compost aging bin…only to sprout, when conditions are right. Which explains what is happening in my garden, unplanted but not unwelcome seedlings bursting with botanical life. Not to mention actual tomatoes, which I expect to eat within a couple of weeks. Phenomenal, in case you don’t know.

But these are details. When I park my wheelchair by the raised beds, the particulars do not matter. They occupy no part of my brain. The latter being remarkably free and unconcerned. I am experiencing an essence, the feel of life happening. The energy is almost tangible. Certainly, it is powerful and compelling. And utterly eccentric. Only a nut would do this sort of thing. It is not a thing of beauty, a vegetable garden. A joy forever, yes, but only in the eye of the agricultural beholder. Something about it is me, this garden watching, and it is a product of my life, my disabled life. And so utterly peculiar and indefensible and inexplicable that there is nothing to do but repeat the experience.

Anyone writing about disabled life owes a debt of gratitude to Melanie Reid, the spinal-cord-injured columnist from the Times of London. We are writing from opposite ends of the disabled experience. Injured in 2010, she is recording the battle to fight new limitations, to heal her own neurology. While enduring the day-to-day struggle to accept what she has. At her stage of experience, I simply did not have the ability to do such a thing. Having been injured later in life, she already has a career in writing well established. And she is solid enough in her own being to maintain a sense of self and not succumb utterly to shame. None of this was true for me in my early 20s, the years after my shooting. So I am immensely grateful to her for recording the savage days of the newly paralyzed. At the moment, there seems to be no one else in mainstream journalism who is doing anything close.

But watch the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner. Who knows where his writer’s intelligence will take him in coming years? Like Melanie Reid, his career was well established when Al Qaeda gunmen mowed him down during a reporting assignment in Saudi Arabia. I wonder what private mark remains of his shooting experience…anxiety, distraction, nervousness? But that is me. As for Gardner, he keeps working the beat. Fluent in Arabic, irrepressibly adventurous, he has things to do and keeps doing them. Hassled by Kenya Airways for AFD (attempting to fly while disabled), he has allowed colleagues in The Mail to make the story into a story. Good.

They are both younger, these people, and I watch them much as I regard the vegetables in my garden. The torch, if one can call it that, is passed. Moving in opposite directions. The intensely personal, or what appears to be, account of the daily struggles to have a life with what is left of a body. She spares no details, our Melanie. Well, a few, I guess. But most of it is out there for all to see, the humiliation, degradation and general downward pull of a crippled body. Suicide, she openly acknowledges, is never far from her thoughts. Yet acquiescing horrifies her. Terror of losing control of her bodily functions. Physical pain. Envy of the able-bodied. It’s all familiar ground for me, yet her candor is not. Better, Melanie Reid seems to grasp that what is particular about her experience, even the most isolating moments, belongs to everyone.

I owe much of my life’s freedom to the political agitation of disabled people who were further down the road of life. Yet it is a road. And what Reid describes is important. I had some exposure to disabled politics in the 1970s, and today I wonder where the movement has gone. Doubtless the answer is complex. But part of it lies with the process that Melanie Reid chronicles. You cannot organize and politically effect anything until you tend to your own garden.

And speaking of Gardners, the BBC’s Frank still has work to do. In the midst of wholesale slaughter in Syria, he just conducted a pivotal interview with one of that country’s most powerful, now former, generals. He is simply working with what is left of a body…and without trying, paving the way for others. I would say the same for my years in Silicon Valley. Although without the passion. Or at least, the same passion. Technology writing was a way to make money, nothing more. And now that’s over. And like Candide, I am left with my garden.

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