I grew up next door to a vegetable garden. It was quite large. At least 6 or 7 acres. I can remember the smell of the produce growing after the rain washed the heat off the plants. The spiciness of the cabbage and that unique smell from the cauliflower. I can remember the way that peppers smell still hanging from the bush. Green beans, corn, and pumpkin. There is a noticeable tang that comes from the leaves of any vegetable plant. Anybody that farms can tell you this. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a smell I would never forget. I would yearn for it, and the sight of fog lifting itself from the fields as the sun burned away the heavy, damp spring weather.
I joined the army in the year 2000. It was a practical choice. My family didn’t have any money and I wanted to go to college. It was either factory work for the rest of my life, or do this for 4 years, call it quits and cash in. I didn’t foresee the epic mistake that I was about to make. When I first joined, things were, for the most part, copasetic. You did your job. People stayed out of each other’s business, and time kind of ticked away. My unit received orders for a peacekeeping mission to Kuwait. All seemed well. We were told we were to be given ammunition, but not allowed to fire it. If we accidently fired one round it would be a big deal. We got there, settled in for some nice desert sun, then 9/11 happened.
I won’t go in to it too deep. Everybody has their “Where were you when it happened?” story. But I will say that things started to change quite dramatically. Our leadership began a campaign with each other that was all about ‘Who could make their unit more prepared’. It wound us up pretty tight. Training happened often and unexpectedly. Then Saddam decided to have a little fun.
During my time in Kuwait, there were several air raid drills. They were designed to prepare us for an attack from Saddam. For decades since the gulf war in the 90’s they were there for training purposes to rehearse for the real thing. This was the year 2001. Before our invasion into Iraq and Afghanistan. One summer afternoon we heard the siren blare, and it was not a drill. Iraq had launched an active scud. We were told to get into bunkers and await further instructions. It was the most terrified I have been and will ever be. No person on earth should ever feel so helpless in their own future. My thoughts had been reduced to a never-ending repeat of ‘This is how I’m going to die. I’m going to get blown to smithereens. I don’t want to die like this’. On the other side of bunker, in gas masks, I could see hulkish figures heaving heavy sobs. Grown men crying, reduced to a primal, consuming fear. I wanted to go home.
The scud missile had been deemed a test by the Iraqi’s. It was detonated over their own land. I was safe, but I was not the same person when I came out of that bunker. I had been shown that my life was worth nothing more than the heartbeat inside my uniform. I had done nothing in my life worth merit. Nothing worth noting. In that half an hour inside that bunker the reason for me living had been reduced to nothing more than a target for another countries missiles. It was a thought that I would learn would follow me around for some time to come. Most veterans I talk to can relate to this.
When I got home I struggled, as most veterans do, trying to fit in to a place that I had outgrown. I tried several different hobbies and I tried to make music. I used my college money and went to school. I got a degree in a dying industry. I was flailing pretty hard. I had fun doing it, but something was wrong. I felt out of place, disconnected, used up in a way. I picked up rock climbing. I got married to the love of my life. We moved into a small house in the city and we got a dog. I got a good job where I was paid well, but the feeling of being disposable never left me. I sank into depression and the torment of feeling useless and ashamed. Then, more than anything, I wanted to revisit my childhood and get lost in the innocence that was there.
I began to yearn the smell of wet earth. I began craving the feeling of earth on my bare feet. I wanted to be in the silence that follows a storm. I wanted to watch rain drip off verdant leaves. I wanted to feel the dampness come off a field of vegetables. I wanted to smell the spiciness of tomato leaves. Above all other things: I wanted to watch things grow.
I started small, with only a couple of plants. A few corn stalks and a few tomato plants. Most walk-in closets have more space than my first garden did. I planted the seeds directly in the ground. I decided that even though I knew it would be easier to start them indoors, I liked the idea of the seed going in the ground.
When my first tomato plant popped its little jagged leaves out for the first time I was hooked, but it was more than simple pride in mastery over nature. It was more than a feeling of anticipation of harvesting my own tomatoes. I felt in control of something. I was responsible for something. I felt connected to something. I felt connected to the earth. I was growing my own nourishment. I was tending the very thing that was keeping me alive: Food.
As my garden grew I found myself looking at it after my night shift at 6 in the morning. I would spend an extra half hour in my small backyard while the rest of my neighborhood slept. It was strange how I loved to just look at what was growing. As the sun came up and revealed the dew drops on the green leaves a feeling of peace would come over me. I knew that no matter what happened while I slept, these plants would still be here. It didn’t matter if it were rain or wind or any summer calamity, the tenaciousness of the vines would endure. I learned from the plants. I learned that catastrophe happens to all living things. Whether it’s a scud missile, or a tomato worm, life will continue to try and bear fruit. Life in the garden began to reveal a reflection of how my life should be. I had been handed a rough deal, but not the roughest. My plants felt no self-pity, neither would I. My garden would always be there as a testament to how tenacious I should be in my own life. My garden would always try to overcome any obstacle to bear its fruit. My time to bear fruit was just beginning.
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Your wife or significant other, or baby mamma is expecting. You do a little shopping to prepare. You go to the baby shower to show support and love. You even go to the birthing classes with her, sit there and have pretend contractions with her breathing through them and focusing your center of mind for the big day. You are responsible and you want what is absolute best for your little bundle. You are proud and happy. You are excited and ready for the challenge of parenthood. You feel like there are going to be obstacles in your way, things to learn, but you are ready to face them and overcome them. So, why is it everywhere you look, society is telling you that you are doomed to be this fumbling idiot that doesn’t even know how to put arms through sleeves? On the racks of clothing, accessories like mugs and t-shirts with print on them. They all say that tired old trope: “C’mon daddy you can do this, it’s just a diaper!” “This shirt is daddy-proof” “Me+mommy= one broken daddy!” Why is it everywhere you look, you are confronted with this “monumental challenge” of being a father? Why does Hollywood depict first time dads with such glaring ineptitude? How about we do a little exercise and let the predefined roles play out theoretically. To a woman, motherhood comes naturally. I’ts easy. Cooking and cleaning and wiping butts and kissing boo-boos and putting the baby to sleep. And feeding the baby, washing the baby. Doing the baby’s laundry. Changing the baby’s diapers. To the father, Everything is foreign. He can not be trusted with anything. He is distracted by sports and cigars and other women. Caring for little things is for wusses and sissies. He forgets to feed himself, how could he possibly remember to feed another human being? He is rough and dirty and will most likely harm the child accidentally. Who is this unfair to? What kind of behavior does this endorse? Where is the truth in this? How do we fix this? Why is it in our society as a whole we try to push the father, and the role of fatherhood in to this caricature of caveman stupidity, while mothers are naturally perfect, caregivers that are totally in tune with what to do, all the time, forever? Have you ever seen my wife when my son chokes on something? I feel like this contributes in a small, yet profound way to gender inequality across a whole, and here is an example: Changing stations in a men’s restroom. What’s the deal? Is it because we just couldn’t be bothered with caring for our children’s cleanliness? Most fathers, at least the ones I know, would gladly change their baby’s diapers. Its part of being a good parent. So why no changing stations in the Men’s restrooms? Does it take a stretch of imagination to ponder why women resent fathers for not changing the baby in the airport?
At my wife’s baby shower, there were two totally different conversations being had with either of us. If my wife was talking to someone, they were telling her to relax and take things slow, one day at a time. “Let things come natural. When the baby sleeps you can sleep. The baby will tell you what it needs. Don’t be afraid.” If someone was talking to me it was a conversation that was totally different: “Are you ready for this? It’s a big change! Don’t forget to help out the Mrs. It’s stressful, so be prepared. You’re going to do a lot of drinking! Just remember, don’t drop the baby!” It’s as if people forget that first time parenthood happens to both partners. My wife was actually less acquainted with childcare than I was, as I had helped care for my two youngest siblings. I knew what a hungry cry sounded like, what a tired cry sounded like, what a painful cry sounded like. She didn’t, yet everyone, even people that knew me, were so quick to lump me in to this clueless idiot stereotype. I’m not saying that parenthood effects both parties equally, no. The female still has to carry the baby and all that good stuff, making motherhood far more trying and complex. What I’m trying to say is, that once that baby comes out. The learning curve starts, equally.
Fatherhood is tough. Parenthood is tough. You are already thrust into this foreign role of caring for another human’s life. And not just being responsible for their health, education and emotional stability, you are indirectly responsible for the role they play in the world and the impact they have on their community. I mean, we still talk about Hitler’s parents. Should we really continue to harp on the role of fatherhood and depict it pretty much the same false way in our movies and literature?
Most guys I know, and a couple girls, are great fathers. Wonderful fathers. They are Providing and caring and responsible. Not afraid to learn. Fluid and flexible. Compassionate and resolved. Committed and devoted. They make the best of a situation. They aren’t afraid to play with toys, or get lost in a childhood activity. This is what fatherhood is. Now whats the difference between that and motherhood? (after the childbearing of course). That’s just run of the mill parenthood, and most males and men I know fall in to this role as naturally as can be expected.
According to the direct needs of the child, the pressure to be a good mother is just as strong as the pressure to be good father. We (responsible human beings) don’t need extra antagonizing to remember that when we become parents, there is someone that needs us in a profound way. We all know that Stereotypes hurt. Prejudice hurts. Lately I’ve been quite proud of how humanity, at least in America, president notwithstanding, has tackled inequality and begun a transition into understanding that we are more diverse than we originally thought. Slowly, but surely, stereotypes and prejudice are becoming relics of past generations. Today you can have a vagina and be a tremendously wonderful father. We must put these “stupid dad, inept father, Dad’s only good to go to work and make money” stereotypes in the same box labeled “weak woman, women can’t drive, women don’t make good scientists”. We need to tape it up and store it under the ‘Shit we don’t need in our lives anymore’ category.