Behind posts, articles, conferences and social media, there’s a backstory. Have you kept up with the digital correspondence between Ranters Scott Beuerlein and Marianne Willburn? You can start here, or go back and find the entire correspondence at Dear Gardener.
19 October 2023
Your last letter presented me with more writing prompts than a 9th grade midterm. I should have grabbed the laptop and a spare hour the evening I read it, but life intervened as it always does, and the weeks fly by so quickly. I gather the weeks haven’t been flying by quite as quickly in Cincinnati.
I hope that the off-the-charts sciatica and back pain that you have been
social media sharing enduring doesn’t stop you crawling over to the laptop this morning and clicking a few links to find my letter. Though it may seem cruel to poke you (at least it’s not literal), I am probably not the first gardening friend to welcome you to the inner circle of L4/L5/SI/Sciatica.
It’s a special group of people. The few, the elite, the chronically bending.
I would imagine that over the last couple of months (for you were obviously bravely dealing with this when I came to Cincinnati for Plant Trials Day), you have been looking at your gardening friends and suddenly understanding why they walk with that lopsided hitch, and grimace when you hand them an especially heavy dinner plate. And you suddenly, deeply, unreservedly, understand.
You must admit that, for all the crazy stunts you’ve pulled at the tops of trees, or three feet below grade, or to impress Michele, you’ve been quite fortunate over the course of your [relatively] pain-free decades on this planet. Especially as a gardener. Especially as a writer. For that is another merry band invited into the circle. Those that sit on their arses for a living.
As much as I wish someone had shown me a Venn Diagram of these converging career choices, I would have instantly and arrogantly dismissed it. Who knew that beating yourself senseless for six hours a day then sitting for another three to write 800 words about the bruises would have a damaging effect upon the spinal column?
I don’t know about you, but I am finding the whole process of aging both humbling and impossible to talk about. Humbling because, despite what everyone tells you as a sweet young thing, you resolutely believe (until the first big uh-oh moment) that you will be different.
Damn, you really believe it. That stretching is for dancers and runners and overachievers who wear unattractive shoes. And that you’re getting plenty of exercise hauling pots around, digging holes, and blowing out disks.
I’m not saying you were ever a sweet young thing, but I know you were a young thing.
It’s also humbling because, as the Naïve and Once Supple begins to understand the mysterious workings of the human body through various trips to sterile rooms that smell of rubbing alcohol, we begin to understand the enormity of everything that has to function correctly just for us to step into the shower. And suddenly walk-in bathtubs and grabber tool commercials are on our radar, and our toes aren’t.
And that doesn’t make any sense at all. Because we’re sweet young things. Everyone knows it dammit. And this should have all been solved by the yoga we’ve been finding time for once every four weeks. Why didn’t it? And while we’re yelling questions at the sky, why does the 20-something tattoo on our 50-something upper arm that once read Resilient, now look like it spells Deficient?
So that’s the humbling bit. But the ‘impossible to talk about’ bit is worse, because it’s such a personal and profound journey, and no matter how old you feel, there’s someone a little older next to you saying “You ain’t seen nothing yet baby” and rolling their eyes back into their head. Which is completely true, and so damned irritating and not a little frightening.
I think we all fall into one of two groups – a) those who age and say little to nothing about the true state of their cartilage; and b) those who won’t shut up about it. And both are problematic.
Those in the first group are wonderful, terrible spirit animals for the young because they lull them (once you and me) into false assumptions. I have several in my life that I love dearly.
These Auntie Mame incarnates may have silver hair and loveable laugh lines, but since their M.O. is mixing endless cocktails during a skydiving/hiking holiday in Machu Picchu, we naturally assume they’re invincible….just like us. And that they feel….just like us. We don’t see the half empty bottle of ibuprofen or the yoga mat next to the bed. Or hear the profanity in the morning.
And they ain’t talking. They’re too busy living.
So when we start to get the silver hair and the loveable laugh lines, but find ourselves in bed for three days with back spasms after a [once normal] 10 hour day in the garden…and a sleepless night because we had an apparently wicked glass of wine after nine o’clock and how dare we…well we don’t know what’s going on. We’ve basically been lied to by our spirit animals. That hurts.
The second group….well the second group is the one we run from at the party, in the break room, or at the family gathering. As much as we want to be Auntie Mame and lull a new generation into false expectations of a blissful old age, many of us turn to our inner Eeyore. I have real worries I’ll head this way. Based solely on the glassed-over look in Michael’s eyes the last time I related my chiropractic session, it’s seriously on the cards.
Every once and awhile there’s someone in the third, much more elusive group. Some otherwise stoic Auntie Mame who breaks the fourth wall and educates us briefly but pointedly. While trying to get their foot in a stirrup or their parachute on, they admit that it freaking hurts to do things like that when you’re 82. And that it didn’t use to. And furthermore, that reading glasses are a pain in the ass.
My dad was one of those. He was the man who, on his deathbed – on oxygen – commented (with a laugh no less) on how terribly convenient ears were as you aged because they not only held your glasses on, but your hearing aids and oxygen tubes. Had he lived a year longer, he could have added ‘COVID mask’ to the list. I live in hope for a similar attitude, as I technically have half his DNA. But the dark side is strong and I’m a weak Jedi.
All this to say that we are not invincible, and we ain’t twenty, but there is hope. Even for the crazy pain that has finally caught up with you and a life lived hanging from trees with a chainsaw in your teeth.
No really, there is hope. Both Michael and I are on the L4/L5/SI/Sciatica journey with you along with probably ¾ of our mutual friends who’ve worked the soil all their lives. That kind of pain brought my insanely stoic Marine to tears on more than one dark night at 3 am.
But here’s the inconvenient truth. It only got better (without constant medication) when we both started paying attention to an anti-inflammatory diet and a flipload of targeted muscle-building exercises and stretching [aka Operation Linda Hamilton]. Oh and a couple shots to bring down the crazy and let the body get back to healing. I still see the chiropractor once a week to get the SI back in place until Operation Linda Hamilton has succeeded in reestablishing ripples where wobbles have taken over.
Gardening. It’s not for wimps. But if we choose the life, we’ve got to lean in.
Yours in cortisone and kale,