Grow Write Guild Prompt #4: Inspiration

I work in the third poorest city in the United States. I came to Camden, New Jersey in the mid-1990’s an idealistic community organizer out to change the world.  I was determined to help fix this city that sits on the Delaware River and looks directly across at Philadelphia–yet, feels a world apart.  Camden has many struggles, not the least of which is wrenching poverty.  Children go hungry while families struggle to make ends meet.  Violence and murder frequently occur.  Abandoned businesses are shuttered and dilapidated housing litters the landscape.  Time Magazine once featured a story on Camden entitled, “Who Could Live Here“.

As difficult as it was, I wanted to live there. I wanted to be the change that I wished to see in the world.  Everyday I searched for signs of hope among the ruins.  I found it in a small community garden in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city.  I remember driving down the block past the drug dealers and boarded houses only to discover an oasis tucked behind an empty warehouse. I had stumbled upon a beautiful garden.

I gazed upon the rows of produce growing amidst the surrounding decay.  I grew dizzy from the sweet scent of melons and the vibrant colors of the peppers, tomatoes, and bean plants. Everywhere I looked-everywhere that my eyes could see-were lovely colorful flowers growing in the adjoining vacant lots that populated the street.

I had never thought of gardening as an act of defiance before, but this was a garden of enormous courage.  Camden is a brutal place.  A broken place. All around it is pain and ugliness. However, the guardians of this community green space had refused to give up.  They would not let the beauty be taken from them.  Their small garden was a victory over suffering and proof of the power of the human spirit. 

I had found what I was looking for.

Unfortunately, the ensuing years have not seen much change in Camden.  Abandonment, poverty and crime still dominate the scenery.  However, the community garden movement continues to grow.  In addition to the urban farming serving this food desert, the Camden Community Garden Club provides greening and beautification services around the city.  The Camden’s Children Garden, born out of the resident’s hard work and efforts, offers horticultural experiences and imaginative play opportunities along a four acre spread on the city’s waterfront.  Camden’s community gardens are special places that provide sanctuary, nutritious food, and a chance for urban dwellers to explore and discover the natural world.

I take inspiration from these green spaces everyday.  When my work becomes too hard and my soul begins to weary of the challenges I turn to the gardens for sustenance and renewal. I look to the garden for hope           



Full Circle

Gardeners instinctively know that flowers and plants are a continuum and that the wheel of garden history will always be coming full circle. —Francis Cabot Lowell

I always knew that I was adopted. My parents were very open about it.  They actually enjoyed recounting the story of how we became a family.  My dad, especially, loved to  reminisce about the day when he and I first met.

A long time ago on a brutally hot August afternoon, my young parents received a phone call from that a baby was available for placement. They immediately jumped into their sweltering car and impatiently drove the long few hours to the adoption agency. My dad remembered how nervous he and my mother were.  It didn’t help that they were greeted at the door by a stern looking Mother Superior.  She led them past the many  imposing religious statues to a room at the end of the hall.

The nursery was large and open with pleasant murals of Mother Goose characters dotting the walls.  The room was filled with all manner of babies.  There were rows upon rows of white cribs containing infants waiting for adoption.  My dad remembered glancing over at a small crib pushed way back into the far corner of the room.  Peeking out of the railings were two of the biggest blue eyes that he had ever seen.  He smiled at the baby and her blue eyes.   She smiled back at him.  The French have a saying for such meetings–coup de foudre, or clap of thunder. At that moment, my father felt something shift in his heart and he became filled with the certainty that this baby with her blue eyes was his child.

Sure enough, he was right.   That baby was me.  My parents were led to my crib and they took me home with them that very day.

A few months ago, I sat in a small office at a long table signing papers to legally  adopt my own daughter.   I couldn’t help but recall the first day that she and I met.  I had recently completed my home inspection process when I received a call about an available baby girl. The social worker arrived at my house a few days later carrying a tiny bundle wrapped tightly in a large fuzzy blanket.   Peeking out from under that blanket were two of the biggest most beautiful brown eyes that I had ever seen.  I smiled.  I heard the clap of thunder and, at that moment, something shifted in my own heart.  I knew with such a strong certainty that this was my child.  And, she was.

She is.  Bella and I are now a forever family.  She is mine and I am hers–just as it was meant to be.  My life has come full circle. 



Cancer Does Not Make You Brave

One day, while I was living my life and busy working my way down my To Do list, my doctor stopped me in my tracks by announcing that I had cancer.  Invasive cancer of the breast.

Well, talk about a wake-up call.  You cannot be numb to cancer. You don’t sleepwalk your way through cancer.  At the very least, chemo doesn’t allow you to just go through the motions.  Cancer gets your attention.

So, I sat up and paid attention. But to what?  Other than the endless doctor visits and the careful dissemination of complicated medical information what should I pay attention to? What did this huge bombshell dropped upon my life signify?

I don’t suddenly have the desire to live fast and play hard because I had a brush with death. I do not want to run with the bulls or climb Mt. Everest.  I still need a Valium to enter an airport let alone jump out of a plane. My dreams after cancer aren’t bold and loud. My dreams are smaller and more intimate.  I want to be a good mom and grow a beautiful garden. I want to spend more time reading, daydreaming and laughing with friends. Yet, I feel that I am under constant pressure to be amazing. Many people seem to have the expectation that I should set out to accomplish big and extraordinary things because I had the misfortune to get sick and the good fortune to survive. I sense disappointment when I fail to deliver an exciting how I overcame cancer story. You know the ones,  the survivors who ran marathons, sailed the ocean all alone on just a dingy, or quit their job to run an organic farm types of story. 

 Don’t get me wrong, I know that I courageously faced my disease.   I endured the horrors of treatment. In spite of cancer, though, I am still me, timid and a bit unsure.  I survived with grace and dignity, but cancer hasn’t made me brave

This is not to say that the experience did not resonate or offer life lessons. It did. There is something profound that happens to your psyche when faced with the reality of a potentially fatal illness.  It changed me. Cancer did, indeed, leave its impact, but I don’t quite know what that is yet.  That is why I decided to start writing. To put pen to paper or, in this case, fingers to keyboard.  I want to understand what my cancer means to me. What I mean.  Therefore, I write and I wonder where these questions will lead.

Closing the Garden Gate

 I once wandered my lovely garden teeming with life.  The verdant hills covered with flowers of vibrant shiny hues and the soft whispered scent of perfume.  My spring beauty made me blush.

Then I got cancer. 

The doctors quickly went about razing my garden.  Treatment left behind cracked desiccated earth where nothing will ever flower.  I closed my garden gate.

There will be no more dancing in the sun.  Nothing will grow here. No longer will I play in the dirt or feel the rain fall on fresh green tendrils of possibilities. Spring has left my garden.

No, Cancer is Not a Gift

Breast cancer has become the Cancer Du Jour in this country.  The “IT” cancer, if you will.  There are benefits,  auctions, and television specials devoted to the the subject.  In the summer and fall, millions walk for the cause. In October, specifically, it seems as if the entire country turns pink.  Nowadays, a bald head and a pink ribbon can turn a woman into a cause celebrity.

When I was sick I received cards proclaiming, “You Make Cancer Look Good” or, my personal favorite, “Chemo–All the Cool Kids Are Doing It!”. Really?  All the cool kids are getting chemo?  I consider any situation involving a kid and chemo to be tragic.  As for adults, I do not believe the poplular cliques aspire to inject poision into their veins. Chemotherapy is designed to kill cells in your body. The treatment leaves lasting damage to your brain, your heart and your joints.  Undergoing chemo is not something that calls for a cute Hallmark card. 

Once, upon seeing my bald head, a co-worker commented that cancer was a blessing in disguise.  A vehicle for personal transformation.  She looked me dead in the eye and proclaimed that my cancer was a gift.

Really? A gift? Well, I don’t see it that way. I was pretty happy before.  I wasn’t looking to transform my person. In fact, I liked my breasts and ovaries just fine, thank you.  I was grateful for the life I was living. My work was interesting and I was blessed with a loving family and friends.  Besides, since it wasn’t my birthday or any other special occassion, I wasn’t really expecting a gift.  I certainly did not want breast cancer.

So, for the above well-intentioned co-worker and other misinformed well-intentioned folks, I submit the following:

No, Cancer is NOT a gift

No one wants to open a box of Cancer for their birthday

It is not bright and shiny like a diamond ring

I cannot bring Cancer to my friend’s annual gift swap (I’ll trade you a Stage 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma for that lovely cashmere scarf…)

It is not an appropriate re-gift

Cancer is not eligible for a refund and cannot be exchanged in stores (as in–can I return this cancer for a head cold?)

It cannot be recycled, Freecycled or upcycled

Cancer does not sell well on EBay

You can’t hide it  in the back of your closet to sit and gather dust

Worst of all, Cancer’s return policy sucks


A Little Denial and a Heavy Dose of Pesticides

In my last blog post, I wrote about living with the fear of a breast cancer recurrence.  In 2008, I was diagnosed with the disease and I opted for a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy.  I hoped that did the trick, but I can’t be sure. Therefore, I live with uncertainty. My uncertainty is a lot like weeds in a garden. They are the troublesome spots of blight in an otherwise attractive flower bed.  Uncertainty, and the ensuing anxiety it causes, are not easy to tolerate, either.  I think that in our society we treat our fears like many gardeners treat their weeds–with a bit of denial and a heavy dose of pesticides.

By definition, a weed is a plant that is considered undesirable, unattractive and bothersome.  However, any plant that is unwanted is thought of as a weed. I once read that a rose can be a weed if you are attempting to grow corn. Weeds are not the right plant for us or, not the one that we had hoped for.  They may offend our sensibilities and upset our desire for control.  We dislike them intensely.  To rid ourselves of weeds, we spray them with all sorts of questionable chemicals just to eradicate their presence.

Uncertainty can be just as unpleasant as a weed.  People would much rather live in a world that makes sense and offers us a guarantee of a perfect future.  We believe that if we look right, act right, and do all the right things, than nothing bad will ever happen to us. 

If a seed of doubt does dare to pollute our perfect garden-well-we rid ourselves of it just as quickly as we rid our backyards of any unwanted plants.  To keep from feeling our uncomfortable thoughts we may abuse chemical substances, or engage in unhealthy behaviors. An evening spent mindlessly watching an episode of the Real Housewives is preferable to feeling unpleasant emotions.

I believe it is this very lifestyle of denial and our convoluted need to create shiny happy places with nary a weed to be seen that is causing us more harm than good.  Our sedentary escapist existence along with the abundance of chemicals, toxins and pesticides used to rid our lives of weeds are changing, or, at the very least, disrupting our natural human condition.

Take the case of breast cancer, for example.  Even though no potential carcinogen in the pesticides and fertilizers used to keep our gardens green are definitively linked to the disease, many of these chemicals have been found to cause breast cancer in mice.  Why is it that  immigrants moving to industrialized nations  develop the same rate of breast cancer as we have within one generation?  Is it the herbicides we spray on our lawns, the weed killers used around fruit and vegetable crops, or the unhealthy ways we push aside our fears and other negative emotions?  Perhaps, it is all of these that are contributing to the root cause of breast cancer’s explosion.

I find it helpful to understand that when weeds stop growing it means that the garden is dead.  Weeds thrive on good soil, lots of sun and regular water–all elements of a healthy garden.  I am not saying that a garden does not need tending, however, who is to say that the yellow flowers of a dandelion which splatter a green lawn are necessarily a bad thing?  It is the same way with uncertainty and fear.  While it is true that these are unwanted emotions, they do help us to appreciate our lives a whole lot more.  It is what pushes us to grow and keeps things interesting, engaging and fulfilling. Imagine if we knew what to expect at all times in our lives.  My guess is that we would become very bored.  Anxiety is the cost of a meaningful life, one which is uncertain and which implores us to abdicate control and live in the moment in order that we may find joy.

Recently, I read an interesting article about the benefits of dandelion weeds.  The plant features in Asian, Middle Eastern, and European traditional healing practices as well as in contemporary herbal medicine.  According to the University of Maryland, the dandelion’s leaves may play a role in improving immune system function and in promoting gastrointestinal health. 

I have also recently learned that psychiatric counselors are now more apt to advise their patients to treat anxiety with meditation and as an accepted part  of life viewed with loving compassion rather than prescribe a sedative or other types of pills.  I think this is good advice. It makes more sense to me than denial and will probably lead to a better quality of life.  

I suggest we shut off our televisions, throw away our Round Up,  and enjoy a spot of dandelion tea.

Stuck In The Weeds

After cancer I turned to gardening, my new found hobby. I had fallen in love with it and I had fallen hard.  I adored the beauty of a flower garden. I found solace in the gentle buzzing of insects. I soaked up the sweet aromas wafting through the air.  I was hooked.

Each day I tended to the tasks of the gardener–digging, planting, harvesting, and weeding–there was always a need to weed.  I did not let a day go by that I did not weed my garden.  I hated them. I was frustrated by dandelions with stubborn roots.  In spite of my swollen arm, the result of lymphadema caused by the removal of lymph nodes, I pulled and pulled at them. Yet, the occassional weed continued to rear its ugly head.

One evening, after a particularly strenuous day spent working in the garden, my thoughts filled with frustration and I began to cry. Intense angry tears.  I wondered what was the matter. Why was I so upset?  Why couldn’t I just relax and enjoy my garden?

At that moment it occurred to me why I was so obessed with getting rid of weeds. I associated them with failure, with fear and with cancer.  I understood that weeds are invasive, crafty and persistent.  Despite my best efforts to the contrary a weed seemed to always stand at the ready hoping to overtake my garden.  Just like cancer.  Despite my best efforts to remain healthy the disease could hide in my body waiting to overtake my life.  How was I supposed to live with that? A furture without any guarantees?

The realization terrified me.  Cancer has a way of  doing that. Of getting your attention.  It is its very own special brand of a wake-up call.  So, then, how did I go on knowing that there is a chance that the illness could return?  How did I move forward in spite of my fears? 

As was becoming my habit, I looked to my garden for answers.

My garden patch taught me that weeds do happen.  Amidst the beauty of the flowers they are inevitable.  Weeds crop up like uncertainty and invade my thoughts.  A gardener can do her level best to keep them at bay–just as a cancer survivor can do her best to remain healthy.  Yet, nothing in a garden is perfect and nothing in life is sure.  I knew that I had to give up the struggle and accept the unacceptable.  I had to live with the knowledge that I will die one day and it may be the cancer that kills me.

Though that revelation was not the least bit easy for me, it did release me from my prison of fear.  I understood in a way I never truly did before that it is important to live for today, hope for tomorrow and stay present in the moment. To accept the good and the bad.

Therefore, I wake up every day and I plant my  flowers and tend to my garden.  I still pull weeds, but I no longer sweat the occasional dandelion that pops up now and again—just as my doubts flare up from time to time and my fears of cancer’s recurrence returns.  I use those moments as an opportunity to remind myself to breathe.  To take the time to seize the day, hold tight to the ones that I love, and always to stop and smell the flowers.