A garden far removed

The garden is so tired, yet the summer is not done with us, and so it attempts growth.

A green pumpkin hangs tenuously onto the fence, a withered vine feigns support. I have no idea what it keeps it alive.

A tomato plant blooms, as does a pumpkin vine far from its original planting. Bees buzz, searching for autumn pollen.

They do not know that the harvest has past. Their efforts are ceremonial, I suspect.

The yellow cherry tomatoes that, during August and September, burst before they were ripe, hang whole and deliciously on scrawny vines that droop over the wire fence. Blossoms of the garden flower mixture, 60 cents at Buck’s Hardware, press against the wires, faces gaunt and hopeful, like prisoners of war awaiting liberators. Perhaps the kitchen scissors will give them their freedom, if I can find something to hold their stems.

The fence goes back to April, a wall to protect the plot from the raccoons, ground hogs and rabbits that ravaged gardens of prior years. The old gate fell apart several weeks ago and I’ve not been of a mind to fix it. The garden is like the final act of the play, when the ticket taker retires to the back room for his Four Roses, and the passersby are free to wander in and take their pick of the entertainment, to catch the closing scene.

As far as I can tell, not one critter has bothered, save the brown snake I disturbed one day and sent him on his way. All 12 inches of him turned on me, opened wide his venom-less mouth and went on his way, and I on mine. I’ve not seen him since, yet I watch for him. I have learned to always watch for the snakes.

More threatening are the acorns. The mast is heavy this year and blankets the ground like a marble-factory truck overturned on the Interstate. The nuts are massive; they smart when they fall on my noggin and sound like gunshots when they hit the metal roofs of the garage and house. They ping and rattle down the incline six feet above my office ceiling and clog the gutters. Families of wild turkey wander in from the forest  and feast on the bounty in the driveway, where my Scion’s tires accomplished released the meat. There are white-tailed deer, as well, and I suspect they claimed one of the four golden delicious apples the adolescent tree bore this year.

This morning the breeze is warm and leaves green, I could mistake it for summer, but it is October, and a third of a way through it, at that. Uneasiness is in the air, and the heavy mast and white tips of my fingers, afflicted with Raynauld’s Syndrome, tell me a cold winter is coming.

There will be logs to cut, split and stack, leaves to rake and yard items to put away. That’s the outside work; inside myriad projects beg completion—two books to write, edit, design and publish, video projects and freelance work.

I feel like that old garden. I am hanging on to the past life of the workaday world, but my hands, the carpet of acorns and fence of dying vines tell me that world is past. I was retired in a flash, but the spots of that flash still cloud my vision and perspective. A bit of summer fans the hope that someday I will return to full-time work, but I know those hopes hang by withered vines; come the first frost, the gourd will drop to  white-crusted earth with a thud that will wake nothing, not even the snakes.

Those snakes haunt me, imprison me in my lair. They bit me so viciously in the past, I cannot help but distrust them and fear their presence. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” King David lamented. Like David, I lament, too:

This isn’t the neighborhood bully
    mocking me—I could take that.
This isn’t a foreign devil spitting
    invective—I could tune that out.
It’s you! We grew up together!
    You! My best friend!
Those long hours of leisure as we walked
    arm in arm, God a third party to our conversation.

(Psalm 55:12-14, The Message Bible)

If plants have feelings, I wonder if they will sense betrayal when I rip them from the October soil, drop their bones into the yellow wheelbarrow and add them to the compost pile? Their fruit harvested, their work done, their bodies wracked with the pain of October, devalued, discarded … “We grew up together! You! My best friend!” Will that be their lament, as it was mine?

Or perhaps, like the snakes that I fear so much, the plants don’t feel regret, pain or shame. They just slither about their kingdoms, hissing and going to and fro, seeking who they will deceive next.

If so, I elect to feel their pain. I will feel the pain of October and beyond, to the grave.

unde malum

This much I have learned, pain exists that we might understand the heart of the gardener.

We handle it better as we age, and a good thing, too, for there is much sadness and pain in this garden far removed from Eden.

This is how things end …

They say the stuff of which you are afraid rarely happens. Like being tossed into a pit full of snakes, developing an inoperable tumor that will bring a painful death, or being an empath locked in a room full of narcissists.

I always worried that I’d get to be this age and lose my job and health insurance.

And it happened. Out of the blue. One minute, I am working on a project for the Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners. The next minute, the boss and HR administrator are in your office with a stack of papers for you to sign and boxes for all your personal items.

Fifteen minutes later, you are heading down the road wondering how you are going to tell your spouse that your employer can’t afford to pay you and has no work for you to do. She married a reject, a loser.

The biggest fear, of course, is health insurance. It is insanely expensive, especially at this age. It’s become one more way that big business takes advantage of the downtrodden. The flurry of phone calls at all hours of the day and night regarding my online inquiry is like the harrassment a man receives after winning the lottery. Except I didn’t win this lottery. I held the pink, losing ticket.

The first matter of business was finding a way to protect our assets by having some manner of health insurance in place. Being a Christian, I was able to buy into the cost-sharing ministry of Christian Health Care Ministries. That and faith will be my “insurance” for $150 a month. It’s not insurance, but at least I won’t have to pay a penalty for not being in the system.

Searching for a job is a depressing job at any age, but when all the decision makers are in their 20s and 30s, and you are 63, it is a futile exercise. They are conditioned to believe that the only persons capable of doing and thinking are those of their own camp, who hold master’s degrees and have no value or knowledge that was not gained at great financial cost to their parents and themselves.

Yes, my  hair is gray. No, I don’t have the bachelor’s or master’s that the $9-an-hour, part-time job demands. But what of the 40 years of experience? The projects completed? The race almost run?

Some application processes immediately reject your online application if you don’t have the requisite degree. A person I once knew and who encouraged me to apply for jobs in a university told me to just go ahead an lie about the degree and then explain in the interview. That’s wrong and it tells the employer that you are a liar.

Then again, in our culture of looking out for Number One, of getting ahead at all costs, of doing what is right based upon the situation, lying is commonplace, even expected. Indeed, it might tell the employer, most likely a 30-some with a master’s and $150,000 in school loans, that you are resourceful.

Authentically phony. That seems to be gold standard for success.

We elect presidents and congressmen and other elected officials upon information that has very little truthfulness. We purchase products based upon reviews that are slanted by the reviewer having received free goods in exchange for the favorable review, and we sign up for services marketed with flashing lights, swooshes, motion graphics, starbursts and explosions. Life and selling the goods of living have become a video game.

Those who market the stuff of which this life is made specialize in superlatives, frosted air bubbles, perfect arrogance and pick-pocket, carnival barker tactics. I am as fearful of delving into that culture as I am of being unemployed at 63. Even as I write this, I feel a twinge of embarrassment and hypocrisy; why should I, as a writer, ask of you the most precious things you possess at this moment, your time and at least partial attention?

You may be on the clock and reading this, in which case I am stealing not only your time but your employer’s money. Or you may be reading this rather than spending time with your spouse or children. Stop reading if these are the cases. Focus on what is important.

I think that is the message that Ruth and I speak here, finding and focusing on what really matters. As INFJs, we struggle with defining that. It is always just on the tip of our tongues, but we can’t speak it. It will be an epiphany of purpose when that day comes.

We’re frustrated by the fact that there is so much clatter and noise out there, so many social media channels filled with time-wasters and attention grabbers that being quietly authentic is as scary as losing a job at the age 63.

My lovingly, beautifully ironed shirts and handsome ties have hung in the closet unworn now for six weeks; I am a T-shirt and jeans writer these days whose greatest ambition is to find a check in the mailbox or email offering a job interview. I live in the aftermath of a fear realized and navigate my way around the snakes in this pit and narcissists in the room, praying that the inoperable tumor will not be the last act in this drama.

All our working years we dream about that day we will retire, the party and the “gold watch” that will tick off the carefree hours of our retirement. An economy of instant gratification and short-term profits, buoyed by mass marketing and lies, has pretty much wiped out that dream for most middle- and lower-income Americans. We were always expendable, disposable commodities, and as we age, we are all the more so. One can always find a reason to discard that old thing and replace it with the new one that just arrived in an email pitch.

Not much else to say on this matter, it hangs like the scent of dung in the humid air of a summer day in dairy country. You eventually get used to the stench, the idea of being “prematurely retired” rather than unemployed, of realizing that not all journeys end with a party and that most of our fears are realized eventually, otherwise we have wasted our lives fearing and not really living.