On Activism

Following is the text, edited slightly, of my contribution to a keynote address to hundreds of attendees at a conference in October of 2000. The occasion was the Fourth Annual Breaking Walls, Building Bridges (BWBB), an annual conference by, for and about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. 

From 1999 to 2002, I was a member of the steering committee of a recovery (chemical dependence and other) advocacy group called SpeakOUT. Among the opportunities that offered me was participation in the planning committee for BWBB. 

The 2000 conference theme was Activism. Rather than bring in an outside, expert “activist” speaker, the planning committee chose to hold a group keynote of the conference planners themselves. 

With my increasing involvement in advocating for and organizing around issues of greenspace, sustainability, and community through gardening, I think this is on-topic for this blog. For me, it’s a timely reflection on where I’ve been and what I’ve done to guide me in my current and future efforts.

I am not an activist. 

This is not modesty. I just don’t think of myself that way. I don’t think of what I do as activism. Activists do things I won’t do, or can’t do, or would never think of doing. Activists are heroic, even mythic, beings. What they do is beyond my reach. 

When I was a boy I would fantasize about being a hero. I could be walking along a bridge, and hear someone calling for help from the water below, and jump in and save their life. I could know I’d done something good and important. I could know that I mattered, that I could make a difference. 

In elementary school the best I could do was read to younger kids at the public library, and organize a fund-raising drive for the local animal shelter. When I was 14 the best I could do was tell my parents one Easter morning that I wasn’t going to church with them because I was an atheist. In high school the best I could do was refuse to recite or stand for the “pledge of allegiance” during morning home room because I didn’t believe in “one nation under God” or that there really was “liberty and justice for all.” In college the best I could do was organize a gay student rap group so I wouldn’t be the only gay person I knew at school. 

In each case I never felt that I was doing anything special. I did what I felt I must do. It never felt like a choice to me. I never felt courageous doing any of these things. 

These examples predate “gay cancer,” GRID (Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease), AIDS. I’ve lost countless scores, probably hundreds, of lovers, friends, neighbors – and heroes – to meaningless deaths from AIDS, as well as suicide and drug overdose. I have to ask: Why am I still alive? 

Since there’s no life after this one, and no divine purpose, how can my life have any meaning? I’ve concluded that the only meaning to be found in life is that which we give it. The best I can do is try to leave the world a better place than I found it, through my words, my actions, my spirit. I have no choice. It’s what I must do. 

Some say “The end justifies the means.” Don’t believe it. Those who say so would only take credit, and none of the responsibility, for changing the world. So much unjustifiable violence is done in the name of Family, Nation and God. The end is nothing. The means is everything. How we do things is more important than whether we succeed or fail. How we live our lives is heroic. 

Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi holocaust, wrote “What is to give light must endure burning.” Light doesn’t justify burning. Light transcends burning. How we celebrate ourselves transcends what we must endure and survive. It serves only our enemies – and serves us least of all – to be polite, nice, and “normal,” to be unassuming and inoffensive, to be silent and invisible. 

Every one of you, by being here today, whatever it took, is a hero to me. Shine on.

Garden #2, Park Slope, the 1990s: The Container Garden

Photo of the planting area and several containers and benches at Garden in Park Slope. The view is roughly east-northeast. Note the fences marking the edges of the property, the trellis against the rear fence, the diagonal path leading to it, and the concrete in the foreground. The planting area from the concrete to the fences is only 10′ deep and about 15′ wide. Most of its edge is hidden by plants and containers. You can see the edge of the first stepping stone on the path to the trellis.
Visible in bloom are, left to right, Corydalis lutea (low yellow mounds), Allium (tall purple/pink “space balls”), hybrid Aquilegia (yellow and red), and Iris siberica (deep blue/purple). If you view the full image you can also see the blooms of chives in the strawberry jar, hardy Geranium in front of the tall Allium, and Centaurea montana, to the right of the trough. There are at least two other flowers blooming visible in the photo, but I’m not sure what they were.
Photo taken: May 26, 2002. The garden is 10 years old in this picture. This is one of the last photos I took of this garden before I moved to Garden , also in Park Slope, with my partner.

In 1992, I moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn from the East Village, Manhattan.

How much to say about that move? It was neither easy, nor smooth, for me. For many reasons, it was more about abandoning myself, leaving unhealthy things behind, than feeling that I was moving toward anything new. To really let go, to allow my true self to emerge, I had to leave empty space in me and around me. I could not continue living where I was.

I knew it was important that I have some kind of outdoor space in which to garden, even just a patio. At first, I looked for a new apartment in the East Village. But I couldn’t find anything I could afford on my own, and I had lived alone long enough to know I wasn’t ready to try to share with anyone. Though I rarely travelled out of Manhattan, I decided to start looking in Brooklyn, specifically in Park Slope because I had heard it was a gay-friendly neighborhood (it is).

It was difficult to leave the East Village garden behind. After ten years gardening there, it had become a luxuriant and peaceful oasis. I had learned about the qualities of light and shade, how the shadows fall at different times of the year, the importance of selecting plants by form and foliage before flowers, the rhythms of life in a garden. Though everyone who lived in the building enjoyed it, I knew there was noone who lived there who cared about the garden, or understood it, as I did. My ex-lover had moved out of the city years before. I would have to walk away, knowing that I had created something beautiful, and hoping that someday someone would take my place as its caretaker.

I came to be the first tenant of a young couple who had just bought a brownstone in Park Slope. (Actually, we’re all about the same age; we were all so young then!) My apartment was the ground floor of the building, the garden apartment, with the entrance under the front stairs. Out the back door of the bedroom was a small, attached room, and beyond that, the backyard.

My landlords later told me that one of the things which sold them on me was my response to that outside attached room. Everyone else who saw the apartment suggested “I guess you could use this for storage?” When I saw it, I exclaimed “A potting shed!”

The backyard was at first intimidating. It was an unbroken expanse of battleship-gray concrete extending the width and back to all but the last ten feet of the property. There, on the only exposed ground, were placed (I would not say “planted”) five shrubberies: a juniper, a pine, and five azaleas which bloomed, one week out of the year, a seering magenta. Amidst these was distributed a mulch of pine bark the size of dinner plates.

This tabula rasa was a chance to start another garden from scratch. It had more sun and light than the shady East Village garden, even full sun during the summer. I could grow things I had only dreamed of growing: daylilies, Iris, Allium, and more. There were new challenges, lessons to learn, skills to acquire.

I learned how to garden in containers. I learned what “drought-tolerant” and “constant moisture” really mean. I learned how to make and recycle potting mixes in bulk, cheaply and efficiently. I learned that cedar is not signifcantly more “rot-resistant” than pine when in constant contact with soil, and figured out how to reinforce and preserve wooden containers to get a few more years out of them.

I learned to cope with, adapt to, and celebrate the ecstatic chaos of children in the garden. There was, of course, the idyllic sharing in the beauty of flowers, leaves, and insects. There was also the competing needs of two active boys playing basketball and fragile, ill-placed pottery. The basketball won on more than one occasion. I learned to garden defensively. And there was the afternoon the younger watched me plant and label a shipment of plants. It was not until I was almost done that I realized that, while I had continued, he had carefully removed all the labels from the plants and placed them back. He grasped the significance of what I was doing and emulated me. He had not yet learned to read. The plants gew and thrived, anyway, however anonymously.

I lived and gardened there for ten years until 2002, when my partner and I moved in together at another apartment in Park Slope.

A closer view of the planting area taken two years earlier. The diagonal path is not yet overgrown. In the foreground are some of the afore-mentioned broken pots, used here as decoration along the brick edge.
Photo taken: May 27, 2000

A tableau of plants in five different containers. The container on the left is a cedar planter; the red-leaved plant spilling out of it is a Heuchera. In the foreground is a plain old terracotta “azalea” (3/4 height) pot planed with herbs: sage, rosemary and thyme, I think. Behind that is a hand-thrown Guy Wolff pot planted with a zonal geranium (Pelargonium). The container on the right is a teak planter I had just finished planting; a poppy and a pale-flowered violet are blooming in it. Behind them all Hemerocallis “Hyperion” spills out of a wooden tub planter, hidden in shadow.
I built the teak planter from a kit from Wood Classics, an employee-owned business in Gardiner, New York. The slats are loose; they still have popsicle sticks beween them to maintain even spacing when the container was filled with soil.
Photo taken: July 4, 2001