We were at the beach. The smell of fake coconut pierced the air while the sea gulls sang their sometimes-frantic song. I was just getting to the good part of my book when my niece declared, “Aunt Katie, I’m watering my garden.” I broke my gaze to stare at her creation. She held the red Solo cup with two hands as salt water spilled out of the sides. Her “crop” consisted of dried seaweed brush with some stray Goldfish crackers mixed in for good measure. “It’s very pretty, Carrington. What are you growing?” She replied, “Let’s see . . . cucumbers, watermelon, and peppers, just like you.”
I didn’t always have a garden, but this spring I knew it was time. I’ll never forget the way the dirt felt as I slid my hands into the earth. It reminded me of the comforting touch of cool sheets when my legs burrow into the crevices of my bed. I didn’t realize how much I needed to feel the earth on my hands until it actually happened.
Something woke up inside me that day, like a bear entering the world again after a long winter’s hibernation. I’ve read that Grizzly bears can hibernate for up to seven and a half months without food or water, a natural aspect of their survival. My hibernation occurred for years in my house while plagued with chronic illness. But unlike the bear, my very personhood deteriorated as my hibernation stripped me of my humanness.
A Lesser Human Being
I recently finished the novel Unbroken, which is based on a true story about an American WWII veteran. Louis, the protagonist, endures a few years of unthinkable suffering that would test the bounds of any human spirit. He spent weeks lost at sea in a tiny inflatable raft, fighting off sharks and riding forty-foot sea waves in a typhoon. Once he hit land, he was daily tortured by a particularly cruel prison guard who was eventually accused of some of the worst war crimes of World War II. The author, Laura Hillenbrand, writes,
. . . the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness. To be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind . . . . Without dignity, identity is erased.
Whether it’s a prison guard beating you or a doctor smugly telling you that the symptoms of your tortured body are all in your head, there is a common denominator for this kind of suffering. Hillenbrand says it best: “One American airman . . . described his state of mind that his captivity created: I was literally becoming a lesser human being.” Powerlessness takes many forms, but the idea is the same: we are vulnerable when we have no authority. When we aren’t ruling, we’re being ruled.
The worst part of chronic illness isn’t the pain or the isolation—those are symptoms of the root problem. The worst part is the disconnection from myself, from being fully human. It’s taken me years to view my body not as an enemy but a dear friend and to undo the harm of well-meaning but dangerous humans who not only questioned my lived experience but also worsened it. The lack of trust in my body and other humans has led to lack of trust in other areas of my life. I doubt my abilities and myself. I become more timid. I question if I’m ready to plant a garden.
My gardening tasks have become a daily liturgy for my body—to recite what’s good, to mourn my losses, and to regain dominion and authority. When I refill my gardening tin and feel the heaviness of gathered water slowly pull on my arm, I remember. I remember that same arm methodically bouncing a basketball down the driveway. I remember the girl in grade school who was so gifted with a bat and a ball. I remember I’m human.
There are no lessons on how to breathe, how to sleep, or how to rule. That sounds strange, I know. We’re used to hearing how our bodies have automatic functions but not necessarily our spirits. There are some things that make us distinctly human, and ruling is one. My niece shows me her need—and right—to rule when she waters her make believe garden as much as my hands do when they come into contact with the bare earth. I needed the feeling I got in my garden that day as much as my body needs food and my heart needs love. It was as natural as sleeping, as breathing air. I became more human that day because I took one more step into regaining my ability to rule.
 Hillenbrand, Laura, Unbroken (United States: Random House, 2014), 188.
 Hillenbrand, Laura, Unbroken (United States: Random House, 2014) 189.
Cover image by Gabriel Jimenez.