Monday, September 14, 2009

A Measure of Order

Warning: Political rant.

I don’t think of myself as a control freak, and anyone looking in on my garden probably intuits this right away. It is what a neighbor once described as “kind of wild-looking,” which, I suppose, was her euphemistic and diplomatic way of saying it was in need of a good mow. She followed this pronouncement by leaning forward and adding, “Some people like that sort of thing.” Perhaps she meant to comfort me.

I don’t know why my garden isn’t very neat. Lord knows, I seem to spend enough time in it, nipping here, tucking there. And still it looks like I feel that first blissful moment when I take off my bra at the end of the day, sort of sprawly and untamed, and happier for it. I hope that wasn’t too much information for you; I am obligated to report the truth.

Even so, a little control can be a good thing, though I tend not to think about it too much if things are going well. When that’s the case, I can kid myself into thinking I can take it or leave it—much like a bowl full of cheerios: tasty, but not tasty enough to mope around craving it. But of course when I want or need control and can’t have it, my view on the matter changes and I get a little panicky and cranky. Anyone who has ever tried to care for someone with Alzheimer’s knows what I’m talking about. It’s like trying to stop a train running over a loved one and you find that no matter how hard you push, and shove, and scream, and try to throw that damned track, you are helpless in the face of it. Nothing breaks your heart more completely than not being able to save someone.

The garden teaches us where we stand in the matter of control, which is to say we may think we’re in charge, but the minute our backs are turned to the landscape other forces take over. Crabgrass sprouts, fences fall down, squirrels eat hoses, drought takes a favorite rose. The whole universe is in a constant state of decay, and the best we can do in the garden is to stay that hand for just a little while. We are kidding ourselves if we think it is more than this.

And a garden that is a little bit untamed is one thing, but total decay is another altogether. A garden that has been allowed to decay completely is neither garden nor wilderness, but something in between that is dysfunctional and sad.

I woke up melancholy on Friday. It didn’t help that it was September 11th and no matter to which station I tuned the radio, there were somber tributes all day long. Don’t get me wrong—I think it is our duty to remember the fallen, and not just those who perished that day, but those who have perished at the hand of violence throughout the long history of mankind, the innocent and heroes alike. May we never forget them.

It doesn’t take much to make me tear up these days. I don’t pay it a lot of mind when it happens, recognizing it for what it is: grief, working itself to the surface, where the air is clear and fresh. But hearing the re-hash of collective national pain was almost more than I could bear, and so I went out to the garden to get away from it.

But things didn’t get better in the garden. In fact, everywhere I looked, I saw the evidence of failure, of hard work undone by a few short months of benign neglect. And I wondered, what is the point of it all? Why can’t you just finish the planting, the hardscaping, the nipping and tucking and see it finished? Why does it always require your attention to keep it neat and tidy? Why, after all our hard work to get it just so, does it always begin, almost immediately, that steady state of decay? Why can’t we just fix things and be done with it?

So, instead of working, I sat down on a bench and let my gaze rest on the scraggly, ugly, nearly leafless plum tree that has never borne a single fruit. And I thought about why I’d awakened in melancholy. I thought about the nasty politics of the past few weeks surrounding the issue of public health care and I wondered why it is that we can’t just fix things in this country and be done with it? Why, instead of making forward progress on grown-up issues in a civil manner, do we always seem to be mired in name-calling and fear-mongering? Why do the profiteers of hate, who trade in the currency of fear—you know who they are—why do these forces of decay always sneak back into the garden and take over?

Our country can do better. It is not disloyalty to say this. Don’t we say it of our own gardens? Don’t we look around at them, even when they are at their best, and think, “Yes. Good. But I need to take care of ...”?

Don’t we do this? Don't we love them still for all their warts?

By any objective standard, we do not have the best health care in the world—I don’t care how much we like to pat ourselves on the back and say so. We can be loyal fans and cheer all we want for our team, but we could stand some improvement here and there. The World Health Organization ranks our country as 37th in the world for health care. France is number 1. Yeah, yeah, yeah--there are those who say the WHO results are biased. What results aren't? But there is an attempt there to have an objective set of criteria applied instead of mere rhetoric.

How about this anecdotal evidence: I can’t speak personally for the countries between France and the US, but I can tell you that once, in the middle of the night, a French doctor made an emergency visit to my Parisian hotel room, administered an EKG, gave me some medicine, and charged me $100 US. And I had no insurance there and I am not a French citizen.

Now, try to picture that happening in this country. I can’t, and I am a US citizen and have good health insurance here. Imagine how it would be for the uninsured.

Now, compare and contrast: I scratched my eye once, working in my parents' garden. I went to a minor emergency care unit at the hospital in their hometown, where I waited in a crowded room for three hours to see a doctor. He put some drops in my eye and took a look at it. I was billed $500 because it was out of service care.

It is not my intention to start a debate about the pitfalls and pratfalls that will befall us if we start to tinker, but how about we settle down and talk about improvement on the system? I’m not saying it won’t be hard. I'm not saying that there isn't a lot that needs to be worked out. I’m not saying there won’t be sacrifices made. I am saying that we can do better, and that we need to stop the shouting and finger-pointing and get some grown-up work done. I am saying that we need to stop being afraid of change. I am saying that if we stand around and do nothing, then the forces of decay set in. Truthfully? I think they’ve already started.

So I’m sitting there, thinking about all of this, thinking about Alzheimer’s, thinking about drought, thinking about that damned plum tree and how much it has grown to represent failure. Then, because it was on the radio in the background, I start thinking again about those firefighters that rushed into those burning buildings on that fateful day so many years ago. And I think about our nasty national squabbling and the due we pay the profiteers of hate, and wonder if it dishonors that sacrifice.

I think about how we’ve let things get out of control, about how we've let decay creep into the garden. 

I rose suddenly from my bench and went to the storage shed, where I pulled out an axe. I went into the shop, grabbed a file, and sharpened that axe. I meant to cut down that tree.

It wasn’t easy. The roots were twisted and curled in on themselves, thick as sausages, hard as greasewood, impossible to reach. I dug and hacked at them, and then did it some more. I pushed on the tree and bent it clear to the ground, but still it would not quit, and so I took the axe and slashed at those roots again, and again, and again. I grunted. I yelled. I cussed. Sweat spilled into my eyes and fogged my glasses, and my heart pounded wildly until I thought it would burst, but I kept swinging that axe. All my frustration and anger of the past year were concentrated in the sharpened edge of my tool.

And then finally, with a sound like a sigh, the tree let go the earth. I felt no sadness for it.

After it was all over, I cut the root ball and branches off and hauled them to the trash. The trunk I saved for a project somewhere down the road. I cleaned the axe, slipped the protective cover over the blade, and put it back in its place in the storage shed. Then I wiped the sweat from my eyes and had myself a cold drink of water. The tremor I felt was a measure of order returning to my pocket of the universe.


  1. A very thoughtful rant. Great garden metaphor.
    My daughter got extremely ill while living in Bogota, resulting in 5 doctor visits, lung x-rays, a couple sets of blood tests and several prescriptions. I dreaded to find out what all that doctoring would cost. The grand total? $60. And she felt her care was very fine.
    A year later, when she was back home and needed to have her wisdom teeth removed, she flew to Bogota, where it cost $200 rather than $2000 - much less even including the airfare(and partly justified beause she was able to visit her Colombian family and friends.) She had a consult one day and surgery the next. Here she would have waited at least a month.

  2. Well said Susan, I'm glad you don't regret axing the tree. Do you have something in mind as a replacement?

    We probably all have stories to tell about out experiences with our health care system. Like the time a doctor's office kept hasseling me to send them a check even though a check was in the mail from my insurance company - not enough, B.S. They were going to send it to a collection agency - blackmail...

    I also avoided the media on the 11th. Yes we need to acknowledge what happened and those who lost and suffered, but we don't need to wallow in it.

  3. I think our gardens are a lesson from God that we are NEVER in control!
    This change of seasons makes me a bit melancholy. My Dad and I shared the love of gardening, and I'm finding it difficult to see the changes in my garden as the seasons change and not have him here to share it with. I went through this when my Mom died, too. I call it my "Firsts Sadness", every time something happens without them for the first time, it makes me terribly sad.
    Having gardened and lived this long, though, I know this too shall pass.
    Hope you are feeling better soon!

  4. No one rants as beautifully as you do.
    I hope that our country has the courage to cut down its own dead trees, and that the next tree you plant will bear abundant fruit.

  5. Lovely rant, Susan! Thank you. No coincidence, I guess, but I let just a teeny bit of rant creep into my latest post, having spent the last week in the compassionate grip of--gasp!--government-run healthcare. No death panels, no rationing of care, no calculus at all except the kind that says if we have patient x with symptoms y, z, and gamma or rho, how do we (a) figure out what's wrong and (b) return him to health? As one of the uninsured, I wonder where I'll turn if I need that kind of help. Maybe I should start sharpening my axe....

  6. This has been my favorite piece on Bicycle Garden. I want to read it over and over.

  7. Nice post. It really can be discouraging, all this bickering and b.s. The last week was especially hard. Perhaps I should fell a tree myself. I'm glad you brought some order to your part of the world at least.

  8. Just found your blog through my daughters blog 'digging' and love it! I loved your rant on health care, since I've ranted on that for years, just love the way you write! I'll be checking back often! Thank you, June Tarr

  9. Yes, indeedy. I once had a Mexican doctor come to my room in the middle of the night. He gave me an alcohol bath, a shot an stayed for over an hour. He refused to charge us because "he was so sorry I had gotten sick in his city." I want health care in this country to get humane again. NOW.

  10. Thank you. It's times like this I'm glad the Web exists so I can read writers like you.


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