Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Exercise in Optimism

This weekend I got in a bit of a snit. If I'm going to hurt all the time, I thought, I might as well get something accomplished. Basically, it was a tantrum. So I decided to finish putting in my vegetable plot. It's only 4 by 16 feet, but this season small is good. Last season I had pain and devastating fatigue, but no diagnosis. The garden went neglected. This year, I have pain and slightly less devastating fatigue. But I also have a diagnosis, some helpful tools, and Vicodin. What more does a gardener need?

I'm titling this post "An Exercise in Optimism" because with the disease I never know week to week, day to day, or sometimes hour to hour, exactly what my body will let me accomplish. The garden I plant today my languish untended tomorrow depending on what the disease does. Lately I'm thinking that optimism really should have a verb form. So often optimism is an action, not a feeling.

Currently my biggest challenge is the sacroiliac joint--where my hips attach to my spine. (This is why the rheumatologist is keeping the psoriatic arthritis diagnosis on the table. The S-I joint is a common site for this particular autoimmune arthritis.) So bending, squatting, and getting up and down can be a challenge. Luckily, the involvement in my hands and knees is still mild, so for now I can get by in the garden using my kneeler. It has handles I can use to lever myself up, and because the kneeling platform is a couple of inches off the ground I can use it even in heavily planted beds without crushing everything. Best of all, when you flip it over, it becomes a bench. Nice!

Isn't it great? And so Episcopalian.

And that nifty tool you see on it. The best weeding tool I've found so far. Weed fork and trowel combined. A serrated edge for sawing through little roots or cutting off baby weeds below the surface. A nice thick grip that's easy on the finger joints, and that little curvy part that keeps it from slipping when you push it into the soil.

Of course, these accommodations don't change the fact that everything is different. Methotrexate makes you sun-sensitive, so sunscreen is now a must, not an option. I've never been able to do anything--gardening, painting, cooking--without ending up covered in whatever medium I'm using. So now I'm not just dirty after gardening--I'm greasy and dirty. But the biggest change is my sense of productivity.

Just about everything takes longer when you have arthritis, and gardening is no exception. Add to that a dramatic decrease in stamina and the limitations imposed by pain, and projects that used to take a few hours can take days or more. By working slowly and carefully, I planted my beans, set out my tomatoes, and replanted the spots where the early crops failed to sprout. But I still struggle with intense frustration over how little I accomplish. Then the grief reprises. Then the guilt--because I took the "old me" for granted, and because I'm such a whiner when other people are worse off than I.

The only antidote to this mental masochism seems to intentional gratitude--a truly challenging discipline for a Type-A like me who still doesn't want to admit that everything has changed. It's a bit easier to be grateful when I read my blog-land friends who have more advanced or more intense forms of arthritis and have long ago had to entirely give up activities they love. Even so, it's mechanical, the way I give thanks, but maybe God still honors that. Lately, I'm determined to give thanks especially for the moments that can drive me to tears--the moments spent lying in bed and slowly moving each part of my body so that I can get up, or the moments awake in the wee hours (in the spare room so I don't wake hubby) waiting for the clock to tell me it's OK to take another Vicodin. It's my hope that this "unconditional gratitude" will begin to work in me what St. Benedict called "conversion of life"--the transformation of my deepest self into more of God's vision for me.

So did I pay for my exercise in optimism? Well, yes, I did. The woman who used to work 8 hours a day in the garden has gone off somewhere, replaced by a woman who struggles with stairs after a two-hour stint among the tomatoes and peas. On Monday, the physical therapy aide reminded me to "work to fatigue, not to pain." But this athletic young man also assured me it takes time to make the adjustment. The gentleness of his voice said, forgive yourself, be kind to yourself. With all the advice being offered to me these days, I think that's the advice I need to take.


  1. Active optimism. I can wrap my mind around that. Thanks for the lovely post. I'm a gardener too, and I know just how difficult doing this thing that once brought such easy joy can be. It's wonderful that you're gardening again this year in spite of arthritis. Sure, there will be "payment" days. But when fall comes, you'll be able to bite into a sun-warmed tomato, fresh off the plant. And that's sheer joy.
    My best wishes to you. Thank you for your kind comments on my blog.

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  3. Optimism does have a verb form, silly. Optimize: "v.(tr) to find the best compromise among several often conflicting requirements, as in engineering design" (taken from