The Ubiquitous Garden Metaphor

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This summer I’ve been gardening. Lots. Hours in the yard on weekends and in the evening. See, I’ve always wanted perennials—a flower garden thick with coneflowers and black-eyed Susans and daisies (among the 20–30 other species I covet). So I’ve expanded and refreshed a few neglected beds out back and for the past few weeks have been digging two sprawling beds in front.

It’s a slow, deliberate process, and I’m relying only on hand tools for the job. Spade creating shape and shovel turning soil. I break the grass’s hold with my hands, pull its roots away, crumble earth with hand and rake, add compost, cover with wood chips, and wait to plant this fall.

My time in the yard gives me time to think about my diabetes. But…have I come up with a brilliant extended metaphor for gardening and diabetes? Something such as, “Soil is like the endocrine system, and one must nurture the soil just as one must nurture the body”? Hardly. I don’t know that I could. In truth, I gave it a shot and there were too many holes in my logic.

What keeps recurring, however, is how important process is—the diligence, dedication, patience, and time required in learning to do something successfully, whether it be creating a garden or managing diabetes. And this is what I find fulfilling about gardening, and, yes, even about managing diabetes.

At any given moment in the garden, the reward is presence, a mindfulness. I pay attention to the soil, noticing only what’s going on within a three- or four-foot radius. At the same time, however, I must carry with me the larger picture of what I’ll be doing in five or six weeks when I’ll get the flowers for fall planting, how I’ll ensure their health throughout the winter and in the spring, and what I must do throughout the years to come to keep the garden healthy and beautiful. This is also, I believe, how a person with diabetes needs to pay attention to the world. The present moment is important—today’s blood glucose, today’s meals, today’s exercise, today’s medicines. Yet the long-range vision is just as necessary—lowering HbA1c, preventing long-term complications, visiting doctors, and so on.

My diabetes doesn’t keep me from doing the things that I love, it just adds a few more steps. It’s good for me to be out in the garden. Yes, there are practical matters inherent in preparing to spend two to four hours digging beds in 90-plus degree heat. I check my blood glucose, remove my insulin pump, make sure there’s enough Gatorade or other fast-acting carbohydrate drink on hand, and remain hydrated with water. I monitor my blood glucose at least once an hour—more often if I’m doing really labor-intensive stuff—and I remind myself that I won’t necessarily feel low if I go low. Although I am learning to make better distinctions between physical exhaustion from the work I do—muscle fatigue, hunger, etc.—and the weak-legged and mistake-prone mode I often get into when a low is coming on, I know that I can never rely solely on how I think I feel. The symptoms often overlap. And, for low blood glucose, there may not be any symptoms. It’s frustrating, but, as always, it’s once more to the monitor.

I’ll just suck it up, stick my finger, survey the transformation taking place in my yard, and remember a quote from Peter Sellers’s character Chance in the 1979 movie Being There (a movie worth watching, by the way): “All is well, and all will be well, in the garden.”

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