Sanity is a relative term.
As a caregiver, getting out of the house is difficult and often impossible, so one of the things I do to preserve what’s left of my mental stability is to correspond with friends. People, by the way, often say they wish they could do more to support Jack and I as we deal with this Parkinsonian nightmare. Their texts and emails are actually the best thing they can do.
Their short notes are windows which allow fresh air to blow away the stagnation that is care giving. Their words bring a brief, but essential taste of life outside the prison of Progressive Supernuclear Palsy. Their concern is a reminder that life does indeed go on, that somewhere the sun is shining, or the wind is howling, or rain is falling gently on mountainsides. Reading their notes, I remember that people are dealing with their own challenges, and finding their own moments of joy. One such friend is my old dive buddy Hugh who, with his lovely wife, lives in British Columbia. While our scuba diving days are over, we have remained good friends in no small part because of the many incredible moments we shared in the Mexican Caribbean.
I do my best to include in my return emails to Hugh some non-Jack related news. I do a poor job meeting this goal. Most of my missives are nothing more than a litany of whining complaints. Last week, in an attempt to include one simple paragraph that did not mention Jack or the VA, I told Hugh about my plans to work in the garden. I do not remember the exact sentence, but I used the term Zen gardening. My buddy responded by gently pointing out that it might be an exercise in futility to attempt to maintain a Zen garden in the presence of my 140 pound dog whose feet are as large as dinner plates. Certainly I did not need to set myself up for more futility in my life.
His comment made me laugh. Something, by the way, which I crave. A friend doesn’t need to read or respond to my rants. I’m only venting, blowing the bad juju out of my system. But, make me laugh and I will love you forever. His comment also made me realize that I had not properly explained what I meant by Zen gardening.
As often happens with communication between friends, thinking about my response forced me to clarify my own thoughts, and I stumbled upon a somewhat disturbing truth.
My idea of Zen isn’t that different from what western psychiatry calls disassociation.
Let me, in my usual rambling manner, explain.
My yard is small. I rarely trim anything. I’m serious. I viciously attack the wild morning glory that threatens to consume the entire yard, have been known to shout, “Get off of her!” as I rip the clinging tendrils from ferns and lilies. But, everything else, I let grow where it chooses. Espaliered trees and shrubs make my stomach actually ache just to look at them. I like my garden blousy and overgrown and just a little wild.
So, how on earth does this image fit the concept of Zen gardening?
Those of you who follow this blog know I have a bad back. Scoliosis as a child, full-spinal fusion, chronic back pain now that I’m old enough for arthritis to set into the two discs of my back that actually bend. My gardening abilities, therefore, have been severely curtailed. No more hauling wheelbarrows of dirt, or lifting pots. Even digging a hole big enough to plant a small tree takes me several days of effort, and a few extra doses of Aleve.
This physical challenge has led to what I call Zen gardening. Even with my handy three-legged stool, and with almost everything in the yard in pots and horse troughs and anything else I can find that raises the plants off the ground, I can only work for short periods of time. I have learned to ignore the weeds and overgrown lawn and focus on the tiny portion of the yard on which I am currently working. I deliberately fall into the experience of the pale green unfurling fronds of my Australian fern in its cobalt pot. I block out the dandelions in the background and the pony-sized hole the dog has dug under the camellia bush behind the shiny blue pot.
I narrow my focus, one might even say disassociate, from the reality outside what I choose to experience. These momentary respites are what I call Zen gardening.
It occurs to me that I do this all day long. Not just in the garden.
For instance, it takes about seven minutes for Jack to get up from his lift chair, shuffle sideways two steps, turn and lower himself into the wheelchair. I no longer brace him in any way when he does this. He has fallen into me enough times that I have finally learned my lesson. During these transfers, I deliberately step back out of the fall zone. I stand, or sit, and wait for him to get where he’s going, or for him to fall at which time I call the fire men to come and get him up.
These transfers happen dozens of times a day. To and from the toilet. To and from the table. To and from bed. I use these brief period of time to remove myself from reality. I don’t know how else to explain it. I re-experience clouds gathering over the ocean from a walk earlier in the week. I see again early morning rain on a fat succulent in a wrought iron pot. I remember a Caribbean dive when a pair of spotted eagle rays swept past and when I reached out and entreated them to return, to my joy they turned in a wide fluid curve and flew through the turquoise water directly to me to play and frolic.
In those moments, I am no longer in an overheated house watching my husband work his way inch-by-careful-inch from one chair to another. I have escaped the prison of Parkinsons.
I do not know if this ability to mentally step outside reality is a blessing or a curse. Is it Zen or is it insanity? I do not know. But I believe it is a necessity for me right now. To paraphrase John Lennon, I will continue to pursue whatever gets me through the night.