Social media is a rich source for subject material lately. The latest meme craze is about interdependency. I’ve seen memes about how American rugged individualism and the pressure to be independent is about making you buy more stuff. I’ve seen ones that say it’s an excuse not to help others. I’ve seen ones about why societies formed, so we could pool our resources and help one another. They all agree that success lies in having a network.
This is especially relevant to people with invisible disabilities. Asking for help is hard, but because we look fine, no one knows we need it so it’s seldom offered. We like to show how independent we are, but we need help from others—we can’t do it all on our own.
I learned a lesson about interdependency last week when I took on a garden. I moved to a new neighborhood recently, and my neighbor to the east, Steve, is maniacally sociable. He’s forever hosting potluck gatherings and connecting people who can pool resources. Every time I buy something new, he natters at me for not asking to borrow it first. He has a huge backyard with a fenced garden that has log-bordered beds in a neat row, as enticing as an empty swimming pool.
At a recent potluck, I mentioned how it was getting late in the season; were he and his wife planning to plant the garden soon? He said the garden had belonged to their tenant (their house has a basement apartment), and they only used part of it now that he had passed away. Steve asked if I’d like to use one of the beds. Would I! After I claimed a bed, several other neighbors asked for one, and our community garden was born.
I knew getting my garden bed prepped for planting was going to take some labor. I figured I could do it gradually over several evenings, maybe moving one wheelbarrow load of topsoil a day from the stockpile outside the fence. My first evening out, I loaded the wheelbarrow with a shovel, surprised at how easy it was to lift the soil and tip it out into the wheelbarrow. Then I picked up the wheelbarrow handles and discovered how the whole thing balances on the front wheel. The barrow tipped sharply and my left arm, which is reinforced with a rod and 8 screws, twinged so hard that I heard a sound in my head similar to that of a light-rail train taking a tight turn on metal tracks. I dropped the handles and left the wheelbarrow where it sat.
The next day I mentioned this to my young, strong neighbor to the south. He’s temporarily carless and I’ve been driving him around for several weeks. It wasn’t so hard to ask him for a favor. He gamely wheeled the topsoil over to my bed and tipped it in. I used a metal rake to mix the compost-rich dirt into the underlying sandy soil. Other neighbors out in their yards noticed us working and came over to get started with their own gardens. A companionable work party formed. I have a limited tolerance for standing, but someone had thoughtfully set out two plastic chairs for people to take breaks.
After the third wheelbarrow load of topsoil, my arm twinged painfully, reminding me of yesterday’s insult. I didn’t want to quit for the night, but it really hurt. Steve noticed me struggling and took the rake from my hands, and two other neighbors joined him while I sat and watched many hands make light work. My garden was ready to plant in half an hour. I said to the men, “I know I took on more than I can really do, but I want to play too.” Steve said, “And we want you to play with us. No one is going to be around the whole summer; we all have to look after each other’s plants sometime. You’ll do your part.”
The garden is not a subdivision with individual “properties,” it’s a group effort. We all have our own projects, but none will succeed without help from the other gardeners. It’s a perfect metaphor for how we need to live our lives.
Not only do we need help from others to manage our invisible disabilities, we all have something to offer as well. Next week I’m taking my friend Diane to 3 physical therapy appointments. She just had a bilateral knee replacement and if anyone understands how hard rehab is, it’s me. I coached another friend through therapy after 2 joint replacements and spinal surgery. When my friend Susan totaled her car in an accident, I drove her to work until she was able to replace the car. I’m not a bottomless pit of need, I’m a useful community member. Maybe not useful in all the ways one can be, but useful enough.
We tend to devalue our own contributions. It’s important to remember, when we “want to play too,” that others probably really want to play with us. Don’t be afraid to take that first step toward interdependency.
The Internet is just waking up to something we’ve known for ages, that it really does take a village. Finding your village is hard, and I know many of my readers suffer from isolation and disconnectedness. Let’s start a conversation here about what we’ve done right and what we’re still struggling with.