Living with a chronic illness means that you have to be able to change plans based on how you’re feeling. If you don’t want people to see you as an unreliable flake (especially if your illness is invisible, like mine), you have to plan ahead and be ready to get things done on your good days so that you can take care of yourself on your bad days.

Sometimes, all that planning and preparing starts to feel like drudgery. So, when I wake up on a beautiful early spring day feeling like a human being, it’s hard for me to stay inside. So, I don’t.

Yesterday, I threw out all my plans to work on freelance work and do the grocery shopping. I took the dogs out and worked in my garden.

It doesn’t actually feel like my garden yet. I’m starting the second year in this house, but I purposefully didn’t make any alterations to it last year because I had no idea what would come up. Now, though, I’ve seen the garden through an entire growing season, and I know what to expect.

Whoever planted this garden did not read the helpful little tags that come with the plants. Short plants are growing in the back of the beds, and tall ones in the front. Bushes that are going to become absolutely huge (they are still little for the moment) were placed smack dab in the center of both front beds.

And holy crap, there are crocuses everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love crocuses. But they are placed in random spots, and often behind things that will grow taller than them (crocuses are short little dudes) by the time they bloom.

So yesterday, in my migraine-free state, I dug almost every single clump of crocuses up. It took me a good three hours of digging. Some, I’ll give away. The rest I plan to resettle at the front of my garden beds, where I’ll be able to actually see them and enjoy them. (The few clumps I didn’t dig up were the ones already at the front of the beds.)

It felt good to work my body, to get my hands dirty. I hardly ever wear gloves, unless I’m working with plants that have thorns. I like the tactile sensations of gardening, the feel of roots and leaves. And the smell of rich earth is like the smell of books to me—I could inhale it all day.

And so that’s what I did.

A gift from the New Zealand sky

“The Milky Way” by andyspictures

The first time I touched the universe, I stood outside the Paparoa Marae near the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, surrounded by dozens of people I barely knew. I was thirteen and almost ten thousand miles from home on a three-week trip with People to People Student Ambassadors. After our traditional Maori dinner of meats and vegetables slow-cooked by heated river rocks in the ground, I looked up at the sky.

The milky way, clear as the sun during the day, spread out in gentle waves above me, and I am sure that every single star visible to the naked human eye from the Southern Hemisphere burned its mark on my soul. I felt like I must be looking at a photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, because I couldn’t believe something so beautiful, so expansive, so true, surrounded me.

My world stood on the edge of change. In a few days, I would experience my first kiss under those same stars. In three weeks, I would return to the United States and start high school. In two months, the World Trade Center would fall and my country would launch a war that would, in many ways, define my adolescence.

Left alone, I would have been happy to sit outside in the cool winter air, staring up at those points of light. The longer I looked, the more individual stars became clear, each one a gift from the night. In return, I gave something to the night that I still cannot put into words, something beyond words.

I didn’t understand the significance of that exchange right then, but from that moment on I tried to get back to that feeling of complete connection with the universe. I wanted to feel like I was a part of something, like I mattered, like my words mattered.

I mostly failed for the next seven years. Things seemed to disconnect all around me: in domestic politics, environmental degradation, an ongoing war that echoed Vietnam, the angst and endless existential crises of teenagehood, a failing belief in the religion I’d grown up with. It took another trip across an ocean for me to find that feeling again in its purest state.

On that second trip I finally understood the gift, the wisdom the stars meant to give me: You do not need to travel across an ocean to touch the universe. You simply have to be open, and it is easier to be open when you have crossed an ocean, don’t know anyone, and are worn down and ragged from travel and jet lag. But if you know your walls are there, you can choose to take them down, and the stars will reveal themselves to you wherever you stand.


Nature blog: Tying up some loose ends on Heaven’s Hillside

This post originally appeared on April 15, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.” This is the final entry.

As our early spring progresses, more and more plants pop up every day on the hillside. The robins are singing this morning, and there’s a slight breeze. The sound of a neighbor’s lawnmower drones on behind the birdsong, wiping out the sound of cars on the highway. It’s cool, but it’s the kind of cool that promises heat later in the day. The stinging nettle now completely blocks off the back half of the yard, and the Japanese honeysuckle is about to go into bloom. The rose of sharon shrubs have shed their seed pods entirely and unfurled leaves all up and down their gray-brown branches.

A budding black willow tree

The black willow. You can also see the dead tree of heaven and a Boston ivy vine.

What I assumed was Japanese honeysuckle vines climbing the trees of heaven nearest my house are not. Now that the leaves on the vines have grown, I see that they are broad, flat, and triangular, nothing like the long, thin leaves of the honeysuckle. I think it’s Boston ivy, also known as Japanese ivy or Japanese creeper. Another invasive species introduced from Asia. Boston ivy got its nickname from its use in that city on the sides of brick buildings. By allowing the plant to climb the sides, it provides shade and reduces heating costs in the summer.

In looking closely at the tops of the two trees of heaven closest to the house to try to figure out what kind of vine was climbing them, it looks like one of them is actually dead. If it isn’t dead, at the very least, it’s dying. It doesn’t have any buds. I didn’t notice at first because its branches intertwine with a few other not-dead trees of heaven. It’s bark has fissures on it as well, which is a sign of age in trees of heaven. They only live about fifty years, so it’s not surprising. The one next to it is probably not much younger.

Boston ivy is growing along the right-hand fence, though there it appears to be much thicker and vibrant. The vines growing on the trees of heaven don’t seem very healthy, though, as not many leaves have grown from the vines. I wonder if this has anything to do with the chemical the tree of heaven releases to impede the growth of other plants. In addition to the Boston ivy, common ivy, the dark green ivy frequently seen covering the slopes in front of homes, also grows in my back yard. The stinging nettle and various other plants keep it in check. Before I moved to Pittsburgh, common ivy was the only type of ivy I’d ever seen.

After clicking through almost every tree on the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources online list of common trees of Pennsylvania, I finally deduced that the not-dead tree is a black willow. Its leaves hang down from the branches in long, graceful clusters. A chunk of the willow’s trunk hangs off, like a gaping wound, but otherwise it seems healthy. The wound doesn’t go deep, so I hope no insect invaders nor fungi find a way to take advantage.

A new bird song that I haven’t heard before picks up. Although it’s become harder to see birds in the foliage of the yard, they chase each other back and forth constantly. I catch flashes of movement, a wing, a tail. Even now my presence doesn’t bother them, when it did in the winter. They zip around, back and forth, back and forth. Today it’s the sparrows chasing each other, but I hear at least half a dozen species chirping and singing. I imagine it’s good to be a bird in the spring time.