Grief and Gardening: The Defiant Gardener

Rhododendron periclymenoides, pinxterbloom azalea, blooming in the backyard, May 2020

Normally, this time of year would be busy with garden tours, workshops, talks and lectures, plant swaps and sales. In past years, my garden has been on tour for NYC Wildflower Week. Two years ago I spoke at the Native Plants in the Landscape Conference in Millersville, Pennsylvania. Last June I hosted the most recent of my Pollinator Safaris in my garden.

I had multiple engagements planned for this Spring, and into the Summer. I was going to speak on a panel about pollinators in NYC. This past weekend would have been the 10th Anniversary of the Great Flatbush Plant Swap, of which I was one of the founders. I would have been doing hands-on workshops on gardening with native plants in community gardens.

This year there is none of that. The reason, of course, is the global pandemic, COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV2.

As I write this, I have been working from home for 8 weeks. The same week I started working from home, the first death from COVID-19 was recorded in New York City. Now, less than 2 months later, nearly 20,000 are dead.

We still have 200 dying every day. This is not anywhere near “over”.

The language and lessons of trauma – and recovery – are what we need to embrace right now.

Unavoidably, for me, have been the parallels with the AIDS epidemic. Unparalleled disparities in wealth built over decades, and systemic racism sustained over centuries, ensure that the epidemic does not affect all equally. A corrupt administration targets those it considers its enemies, cynically allowing who oppose it to die, a deliberate genocide.

In March of 1996, I had just started reading Walt Odets’ “In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS”, the first book I read which gave voice to feelings shared by many of my cohort, gay men of a certain age: survivor guilt, and a spiritual crisis which has ravaged many of us. I wrote:

March 1996 

so far surviving
what will it mean to be alive
having outlived generation after generation
decades of death
the explosion widening until, finally
and yes, with some grim, righteous satisfaction
finally noone can truthfully say
they are not also affected

imagine how it will be
when your closest friends are strangers
when long ago you gave up hope
of growing old together
as everyone you’ve loved, and despised
has died, seven times over
when you’ve learned, and loved, and lost
and learned, loved, lost
and …
When each new friend is met with the knowledge
that they too will leave soon
but it no longer matters
because, you think, you’ve already grieved their deaths too

the corpses pile up
against the walls you’ve built around yourself
walking along familiar streets
past the bars, your old haunts
you see tombstones, crosses, ashes
and you’re not safe, even in your own mind
especially at night
when the walls must come down
and you must remember the dead

you want to believe you’ve come so far
but it hasn’t even begun

This is where we are – where we all are – now. Our bodies cannot physically sustain for months on end our initial response to the sudden changes we experienced with the epidemic. When we must survive, even against a low-level persistent threat, our brains rewire themselves. We are collectively immersed in what is aptly called endurance trauma.

But I feel no satisfaction from it.

I am grateful that both my husband and I are able to work from home. We continue to adapt, in both large and subtle ways, to being forced to be around each other nearly constantly.

For my part, I take advantage of every good weekend day, and long daylight hours, to garden as much and as long as I can. I have been removing non-native plants – mostly the Iris and daylilies – to make room for planting more native plants. And, for the first time in years, to grow some food crops.

Since there would be no Great Flatbush Plant Swap this year, I decided to give away the plants as I removed them. I have been giving away plants from my own garden for weeks, now. While my initial intent was to solve a problem I had in my garden, it’s turned into much more.

I’m having conversations with neighbors and passersby, checking in with each other about how we are handling the situation. These visits often turn into mini garden tours and educational talks about how to garden for habitat, inviting even more life to co-reside with us, healing the urban ecology as we nourish our own connections to the natural world.

The Front Yard, May 2020

Whatever green people can grow sustains them psychologically. These new “victory gardens” are a form of defiant gardening, which Kenneth Helphand so beautifully wrote about in his book of the same title. It is a way of coping with, and defying, endurance trauma.

The following comes from an open latter I wrote on October 15, 2001, barely a month after the September 11 attacks, to Joanna Tipple, then pastor of the Craryville and Copake Churches in New York State.

As I tend my garden, I recall how it was a minute, a day, a year ago. That flower was, or was not, blooming yesterday. This plant has grown over the years and now crowds its neighbors. A label in the ground shows where another plant has vanished. Should I replace it, or try something new? I weed. I plant. I water. I sit. The garden asks me to see it as it really is, not just how I remember it, or how I wish it to be. Gardening continues to teach me many lessons. Gardening is my prayer.

So I must be in the world. Remembering what was. Observing what is. Hoping for what can be. Acting to bring it into being. When we struggle to understand, we question what is. Science can ask, and eventually answer, “What?” and “How?” It cannot answer the one question that matters, the question for which Man created God: “Why?” Now, as with each new loss, I ask again: Why am I here? Why am I alive?

The only answer I’ve come across which satisfies me at all comes from Zen: The purpose of life is to relieve suffering. Not to relieve pain, or grief, or loss. These cannot be avoided. But to relieve suffering, which we ourselves bring into the world. Because death is senseless, the only sense to be found is that which we manifest in our own lives. The only meaning there can be in life is what we impart.

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.

We are enduring, now. Whether we know it or not. Whether we acknowledge what we feel, or not. We must also do more than endure. 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.

Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene for YES! Magazine, from a self-portrait I took of myself in my backyard.

Related Content

NYC in the time of COVID-19

2020-04-06: Grief and Gardening: A Feast of Losses
2020-04-13: Correspondence, April 2020

I adapted some of what I wrote on the blog, and several of my tweets on this subject, for a short post on McSweeney’s: “Do Not Deny What You Feel“. The McSweeney’s piece was later picked up by YES! Magazine. Search for “Flatbush”. or “AIDS”.

Grief & Gardening Series
  1. 2006-09-04: Grief & Gardening #1: 1, 5 and 25
  3.  2006-10-08: Grief & Gardening #3: Nihilism and Squirrels

    and the most recent additions:

Other relevant blog posts


Off-Topic: Vows

Two years ago, on May 19, 2012, I married my husband, John. These were my vows:


I don’t know what I can say to you that I’ve not already said.

In front of family, friends, neighbors, and community, I can say this:

Today is not a beginning – We began many years ago.

Today is not an ending – There is much more for us to explore together.

I am grateful, that having moved apart, our separate journeys prepared us to come together again, and see each other with new eyes.

I love you, more than I could have imagined I would ever love anyone.

Today is a milestone on the path.

I want always to travel that path with you.

“We began many years ago”
John and I first met nearly 30 years ago at one of the then-many, now long-gone, gay bars in the East Village.
“having moved apart”
Somewhere explained in an earlier blog post. I moved from the East Village to Brooklyn
“our separate journeys”
Both John and I have spoken publicly about being in recovery. Speaking for myself, I needed a lot of work.

We’ve been “together” for 17 years or so. (John keeps track of these things.) We’ve been living together for 14 years. A few years ago, as the possibility of legal marriage in New York state seemed increasingly likely, I “pre-proposed” to John. I told him that, if and when it became legal in our home state, I would propose to him. He initially objected, “What if I want to propose to you?!”

In the Summer of 2011, marriage equality became law in New York state. The next day, we had a voice message from a couple of our straight neighbors: “When’s the wedding?!” All the pressure to marry came from straight friends and neighbors.

In the Fall of 2011, I ambushed John with a “surprise engagement.” I secretly gathered family and friends, and proposed to John on our second floor porch. We shared dinner after at a nearby restaurant.

Many years ago, when our partnership had not yet been secured, I vowed to John: “I commit to exploring relationship with you.” I maintain that vow.

Related Content

Bees, a Mockingbird, and Marriage Equality, 2009-05-22
David Joseph Wilcox, 1957-1996, 2008-01-22


Wikipedia: Marriage Equality Act (New York)

Robert Guskind Memorial Gathering

Update 2010.01.03: Corrected all links to the old Gowanus Lounge domain to the new memorial domain.

The close of the Robert Guskind Memorial Gathering at the Brooklyn Lyceum on Saturday, April 4, 2009
Robert Guskind Memorial Gathering

Last Saturday I attended the Memorial Gathering to celebrate the life and work of Robert Guskind and mourn his passing. A recap, with thanks to the many organizers and contributors, is on Gowanus Lounge. My contribution was baking 20 dozen cookies for the event:

Cookies, Guskind Memorial

Steve Duke of Blue Barn Pictures compiled a video tribute of Bob’s own photos, recorded interviews, and video footage. It was surreal to see him up there on the screen – There he is! – speaking to the camera, just like I remember him, as if it was a bad joke and he would step out and great us. Intellectually, I recognize that feeling as dissociation, a manifestation of denial, and part of the grieving process. That understanding doesn’t diminish how it felt to be there that afternoon.

There were a lot of speakers. Some whose words stuck with me:

  • Jake Dobkin spoke of meeting Bob for the first time and being surprised, first that he was not a 20-something geek, and second that Bob treated him with respect, as an equal, despite their difference in age. Being Bob’s age myself, I was struck that “young people” still get shit from “older people,” but ageism is bidirectional.
  • Brenda Becker nailed it when she described Bob’s love of “broken” things, such as Coney Island and the Gowanus Canal, and his ability to see the beauty in them.
  • Marc Farre, a friend of Bob’s since their college freshman days, spoke at length. He provided important biographical background, and shared insights gained from practically a lifelong friendship. He spoke of Bob’s hunger for “transcendence.” He also admonished us (with more passion and anger than my words here convey) that the details of Bob’s death don’t matter, that whatever we write of Bob’s life or death, it’s really about us, the writers, and not Bob.

The event ran much later than I expected, well past the original 5pm scheduled end time. I stayed late to speak with others attending, and helped (a little) clean up.

When I RSVP’d, I indicated that I wanted to speak. Baking all those cookies was itself a kind of meditation. Line a cookie sheet, scoop out balls of dough, roll or shape them, place the tray, set the timer, remove the tray, remove the cookies, cool and wipe the tray. Repeat 20 times. So I had thought a lot about what I wanted to say.

But I hadn’t written anything down until Miss Heather informed me that I would be second up to speak (I was third, I think). I scribbled some notes, and scrounged a wireless connection to lookup my own blog and copy some lines from my remembrance post. I’ll try to recreate here some of what I spoke about.

I knew Bob only as “Gowanus Lounge,” as he knew me only as “Flatbush Gardener.” I related some stories about our early email correspondence, our few meetings. Mainly I talked about recovery, which – as I learned only after his death – was an important aspect of Bob’s life, and something we had in common.

Two weeks ago was my 16th sobriety anniversary. But sobriety, or abstinence, is not the same as recovery. Recovery is not black and white, it’s not binary. I got sober because drinking was interfering with my recovery, my need for which reaches from childhood with multiple, intertwined, roots. For me, sobriety was just part of my journey through recovery.

Recovery chooses life. Those choices take many different forms, as varied and creative as we are. Recovery is complex, and highly individual.

I don’t know whether this is identification or projection, but I believe that Bob and I also shared a difficult relationship with community. Community can be a source of connection, and a source of betrayal. My model of recovery reflects that struggle:

  • I can’t do it alone.
  • I don’t have to do it alone.
  • I don’t want to do it alone.

Our online personae are lenses, which necessarily magnify some aspects of our selves while leaving others in the shadows. I’ve been online a long time, and I’ve developed some skill of inference from this medium. I only knew Bob from Gowanus Lounge. But from what I could see through that lens, I believe that Bob was choosing life, that he didn’t want to do it alone.

I wish we’d had more time.

I hate seeing photos of myself. In my mind, I’m still young and thin. I’m neither these days. Here’s a photo of me speaking at the Memorial, taken by one of the many other Brooklyn photo-bloggers and Gowanus Lounge contributors who also attended the event.

Photo: Meghan Groome, Liberty on 10th Street (a fellow Brooklyn garden blogger), megunski (Flickr)


Related Content

My Flickr photo set from Saturday’s event

Memorial for Robert “Bob” Guskind, April 4
Remembering Bob, 2009-03-14
Robert Guskind, founder of Gowanus Lounge, 1958-2009, 2009-03-05


Gowanus Lounge

At the Robert Guskind Memorial Gathering: Heartfelt Thanks and Fellowship, 2009-03-06
Robert Guskind Memorial Gathering: Saturday, April 4, 2009-03-27


Best View in Brooklyn
Brooklyn 11211
Kinetic Carnival
Liberty on 10th Street
Lost City
Make No Assumptions …
Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn
Pardon Me For Asking
A Short Story

Bob Guskind, megunski (Flickr photo set)

Growing 387 trees for the National 9/11 Memorial

A video interview with two of the people who are charged with growing nearly 400 trees that will populate the plaza of the National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan. The Gardeners for Recovery Cobblestone will reside on the street-level plaza somewhere among these trees.

Speaking are Ronald Vega, Project Manager, National September 11 Memorial Park, and Paul Cowie, Consulting Arborist, Paul Cowie & Assoicates, Montville, New Jersey. The “gothic arches” Vega mentions are also reminiscent of the architectural details of the twin towers.

Related Content

Gardeners for Recovery Cobblestone Campaign
My other posts on 9/11


Films, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center

Seven years


This morning I went to Battery Park to sign my name on a beam which will be used in the construction of the National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero. This beam-signing opportunity runs through 6pm today, and again tomorrow, September 11, from 10am to 6pm.

I went alone. The collective spirit of those assembled felt strange to me. People waiting to enter were talking with each other, laughing, catching up. For many of these people, it seemed to be a reunion, or even more causal, like a ride in the elevator.

Strength and Honor

Those of us who arrived before 10am had to wait nearly two hours to sign. Everything had to wait for the arrival – and departure – of Mayor Bloomberg. He played the role of the bad dinner guest, who arrives late, so everyone else’s food is cold, and lingers far too long, straining the patience of even the most gracious hosts.



While I was waiting, reporters trolled through the crowd. Shortly after I arrived, I was interviewed briefly by 1010WINS, a local radio station. They asked my name, asked me to spell it out, asked me where I worked. Then they asked me, something like: When you think about that day, what comes to mind? I looked up at the sky, as blue this morning as it was that morning. My eyes filled with tears. I choked out a response: It’s an atrocity. For anyone to do that in the name of their god is an atrocity.

Ground Zero, September 27, 2001
Ground Zero, September 27, 2001

They also asked what I was going to write. I told them I was going to write the name of the Memorial Cobblestone Campaign I started: Gardeners for Recovery.

Eventually we got to actually wait in line, instead of muddling about in the cattle pen on the sidewalk. Some of this drudgery was relieved by the company of a bulldog. His name was 6, the number. With his underbite and watery eyes, he reminded me of a deep-sea anglerfish. He was very sweet and affectionate. His person said he hated to get his picture taken, but we seemed to have developed a rapport. Perhaps it was the butt-rubbing and ear-fluffing that won him over.

Bulldog 6

Each of us was given a commemorative marker with which to sign. A magnetic template on the beam constrained the area in which we could write. I had hoped to write the statement of the cobblestone campaign I started:

Gardeners for Recovery recognize the importance of gardens and gardening for individual, community, and global healing and recovery.

Reflections card

There wasn’t enough room for that, so I simply signed it with my name and that of the campaign.

My signature

At that point, I had waited so long, I didn’t know what to do next. I was actually shaking a little, so I sat down on a park bench just outside the signing area. I half-collapsed when I sat down. Each beam weighs 4 tons. I was feeling the symbolic weight of what we were all doing there this morning, why each of us felt, in our own way, we wanted to do this.

Beam Signing

When I left the beam-signing area, I walked over to The Sphere. Battered and bent, it was relocated from the plaza of the World Trade Center to Battery Park. It will eventually be returned to the site when construction is completed.

The Sphere, Battery Park, September 2003
The Sphere, Battery Park, September 2003

The radio guys had asked me if signing the beam would make a difference. I don’t really believe it does, certainly not one signature. I told them, “it’s a gesture,” an expression of the hope for recovery. Maybe the collective weight of all those signatures can have an impact, can make a difference on someone. Maybe we can reflect on our own collective responsibilities as a people, as a nation.

The Sphere, yesterday
The Sphere

Flags, flags, flags … flags waving everywhere. I understand the impulse, yet I don’t feel it as a defiant gesture. It feels like a concession to me. That we have no greater symbol than our nation’s flag makes me sad. What evil has been committed in the name of that flag? How is it any different from the evil committed against us seven years ago?

Anti-war graffiti on the base of a statue of George Washington in Union Square Park, September 24, 2001
Anti-war graffiti on base of statue, Union Square Park, September 24, 2001

It has taken far too long to reclaim that void. It will be several more years, and billions of dollars, before we can really reclaim it. I am comforted that the vision for the memorial is essentially a garden: a plaza filled with oak trees, waterfalls plunging into the earth where the towers stood, stairs to lead us down into the earth, where we can be surrounded by emptiness and the white noise of the leaves of the trees and the rushing waters, where we can be alone together, and reflect.


Related Posts

Gardeners for Recovery


National September 11 Memorial
The Sphere

Coda, Spot: Our Lady of Abundance

Label, “Our Lady of Abundance,” inside the lid of a reliquary box by Grace Gunning.
Detail, label, "Our Lady of Abundance," inside lid

1) An endnote, or final word, in which the author elucidates what has come before.
2) A few measures or a section added to the end of a piece of music to make a more effective ending.

This afternoon we picked up Spot’s ashes and brought them home.

She died three weeks ago. By the time we got her to the veterinary emergency room, she was already gone. In that emotional haze, we had to make a decision about what to do. We chose individual cremation. Three days ago, we got the call that her ashes were ready to be picked up.

John and I had discussed what container we might use for her ashes. We thought of a small, bronze triangular nested box inscribed with Celtic designs which we bought a couple of years ago. But we didn’t know how much … material the box would need to hold. I didn’t think it could be very much. Then I remembered we had the reliquary box. I bought it for John. He’d kept it first in his apartment, then we had it in our first apartment. We hadn’t found a place for it since we moved into our house three years ago, but I remembered seeing it recently inside one of the opened, still unpacked, moving boxes.

Reliquary box, "Our Lady of Abundance," Grace Gunning, 2000

Over the past three weeks, John and I have gone through the familiar phases and states of grieving. I told John last night that, over the past three days, the main feeling for me has been, “I want to bring her home.” I know that “she” is gone. There are layers to the emotional acceptance of that loss.

When I re-read my first diary entries about her, what’s remarkable is that her personality was so present in them. She was always affectionate. When I came home, she demanded my attention. But however hungry she was, she insisted that I first pick her up and “schmoosh” her. She would purr, deeply and resonantly. Then I could set her down and she could eat. That I was able to give a flea bath to a strange cat without her fighting me was all about her gentle, compliant, trusting nature. Even the vet would always remark how calm and cooperative she was.

The most difficult moments have not been the physical reminders of her: her toys, her brushes, her scratching post, her bowls, her litter box. Gradually, we’ve packed these up and put them away. The absences have been the hardest. When I leave the house, she doesn’t follow me downstairs, trying to sneak outside. When I come home, she doesn’t greet me at the top of the stairs. When I go to bed, she’s not there to “tuck me in.” She’s not there to paw my face in the morning and wake me up.

I peeled back some of the final layers of acceptance today. I called ahead before we drove over: “We’ve never done this before. I don’t know what to expect. Is there a bag? A box?” The woman I spoke with said there’s a bag inside a metal box. It was more thoughtfully elaborate than that.

There was a paper bag tied with a ribbon. Inside the bag was a condolence card and some promotional literature (not so thoughtful) from the pet cemetery where the cremation was done. Also inside, green tissue paper wrapped a small metal tin, something like what you might keep loose tea in. We had brought the reliquary box with us, but the tin’s size and shape wouldn’t fit inside. That’s as far as we explored it at the E.R.

Gardener’s corner in the backyard
Gardener's Corner

When we got home, I went and sat in the backyard. It was a sunny day, and it was still early enough in the afternoon that the house wasn’t yet shading the gardener’s corner. After parking the car, John came and sat beside me. Here I carefully opened the metal canister. Inside this, more green tissue paper wrapped the bag containing her ashes. John opened the lid of the box, and we placed the small, green package in its center. I remarked, “She always liked the sun.” We cried and held hands for a few minutes.

The reliquary lid didn’t quite fit over the little green package. When we got back inside, I took it out of the reliquary and started unwrapping the tissue paper. I wanted to reshape the bag to better fit inside the reliquary. I was also curious, and knew I needed, to see the ashes themselves. When I got to the last wrap, I got a glimpse, covered it back up, and held the package in both hands, tears running from my eyes. John asked, “What is it?” I said, “I don’t know what I was expecting.” Consciously, I was expecting my mental image of “ash”: gray and dusty, powdery. Instead, it was white, chalky, gritty with tiny fragments of bone. I wasn’t ready for that. Another time, I’ll be ready to unwrap that final layer. I wrapped it with some ivory cloth as a shroud and returned it to the box.

I appreciate all the comments, cards, and phone messages we’ve received. What I write now is not to diminish anyone else’s beliefs, nor the sentiments they’ve expressed. I don’t believe in anything. If there were a heaven, animals would be there. If there were angels, they would be animals. But I don’t believe in heaven, or angels, or gods, or any life other than the one I’m living.

Death is final. I knew that as Spot was dying in my arms. I knew that her limp tail – which had been so expressive of her presence and personality – meant she was already gone from us. I don’t know how much she was aware of at the very end, when we were driving her to the E.R., and I cradled her in my arms, and she cried out for the last time, and I lifted her up and turned her face to mine because she couldn’t do it herself. I hope my face was the last thing she saw, but I’ll never know. I know she was gone from us as the last breath left her body and her heart stopped beating beneath my fingers.

Despite my skepticism and disbelief, I have come to accept that spirituality and ritual are important to me. The box itself holds layers of memory and meaning which make it an appropriate resting place for Spot’s remains. I bought it six-and-a-half years ago, when John and I had not yet moved into our first apartment together. I was still living in my garden apartment on 5th Street in Park Slope, where Spot had found me. John and I were well underway in our adventure of exploring relationship with each other. Spot was there to nurture us on that journey.

John and Spot on the couch in the 5th Street apartment
John and Spot

On September 10, 2001, John and I went on vacation upstate. The next morning, from a distance, we watched our world change. For that week, we were ambassadors, representatives of New York City and all that had happened there. When we met people upstate and they learned where we were from, their faces and postures changed. Some were brought to tears. Like it or not, we carried a responsibility everywhere we went.

I think it was in Kingston where I found the box in a gift store. They had a couple of these reliquary boxes, and I wanted to buy John one. I bought some chimes there with him, then he went outside. When I saw that this one was titled “Our Lady of Abundance,” I knew this was the one. “Abundance” was a word we used deliberately and frequently at that time to try to describe the richness we felt in our lives, as well as the challenges we faced in accepting it.

The title of the box is stamped into the inside of the lid. It’s signed with a power tool on the underside.

Inside of upper lid

Today this box became a true reliquary, holding the relic of Spot, that time when we were learning to accept abundance into our life together, and the memories of that terrible week.

Related Posts

Spot, February 23
My Flickr photo sets of the box and Spot


Grace Gunning, Copper Reliquary Boxes

15 Years Ago Today …

… the World Trade Center was bombed.

At 12:18 p.m., terrorists detonated 1,500 pounds of explosives in a rental van in the parking garage of the World Trade Center, blasting a crater five stories deep and half a football field wide. While the terrorists fled the area after lighting the bomb’s fuse, they left behind six victims, including a pregnant woman, and one thousand injured people.

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center will also memorialize those killed in the first attack in 1993. I invite you to join me in supporting the memorial through the the Gardeners for Recovery cobblestone campaign I started:

Gardeners for Recovery recognize the importance of gardens and gardening for individual, community, and global healing and recovery.

Check out the Gardeners for Recovery widget near the top of the sidebar on this blog. There you can get more information, track our progress, or contribute. We’ve already raised $300. I will match the first $500 contributed toward the $1,000 goal: every dollar you contribute is worth two.

Related Posts

Announcing the Gardeners for Recovery Cobblestone Campaign, September 2007
on 9/11
on Ground Zero
on Recovery


The National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center


Update 2008.03.15: Added follow-up post: Coda, Spot.
Update 2008.02.25: Added a rare photo of me and Spot together.

My partner, John, with our cat, Spot, taken two nights ago in an examination room at the vet’s. She died in my arms earlier this evening around 6:30pm.
John & Spot (Black and White)

Spot found me in the garden, in the backyard of my apartment on 5th Street in Park Slope:

A beautiful young black cat found me at the end of my day in the garden. He started going for the container I’d just planted. He was friendly, but when I realized he was licking up some organic fertilizer I’d spilled I realized he/she was starving. (It does smell good, like the original MilkBones [dog biscuits]). So I gave him a bowl of milk. He/She was purring so hard his tail was shaking. Only a white spot on his chest, otherwise black. I named him “Spot”. I’ll look for him tomorrow. If he’s around again, maybe I have a cat.
– Diary entry, November 11, 1993, Veteran’s Day, F Train en route to dinner

I didn’t realize it at the time, but she represented, or embodied, a peak of synchronicity in my life. I was three and a half years into my recovery, and less than eight months sober. In therapy the previous night, I had mentioned that I was thinking about getting a cat, or two. After this first encounter with Spot, I was off to see a dance performance that evening which explored the connections between veterans of war and survivors of sexual violence. The following Monday, I was starting my first session of a gay men’s therapy group.

Spot moved in with me on Saturday. I spoke to Jonathan [my landlord] Friday at work to ask him if it would be okay if I got a cat. Saw Julia [landlady] working in the garden Saturday morning. While we were inspecting and talking, I saw a black form moving behind the fence.

I called out: psss-psss-psss … Spot leapt to the top of the fence (or climbed) and walked along the top directly to me. I took her into my arms and she (female, confirmed) started purring. I left her with Julia while I went inside and prepared the can of food Renah [a work colleague at the time] gave me Friday at work.

Bought everything for her on Saturday. Saturday night discovered she had fleas, so wouldn’t let her sleep with me. Gave her a flea bath, changed bed-sheets and clothes, dusted the rug. She was not happy about the bath, but remarkably cooperative. I came away with no scratches or bites.

Remaining health concern: diarrhea, foul-smelling, and may be caused by her fondness for milk.

Long day today: first session of the group (first for me) is tonight. I won’t get home until after 9pm probably. Spot will freak?!

Need to make up “FOUND” posters for the area, just in case someone’s looking for her.
– Diary entry, November 15, 1993, Monday, Subway, en route to work

Later that evening, around 8:30pm, riding home on the F train:

Home to Spot. Incredible what an emotional anchor she is for me right now. Anchor is not the right word. Alternatives: focus, tether, center … ballast …

I’m not going to put up “Found Cat” signs tonight. I don’t want anyone to answer. I don’t want to give Spot up. She’s just a cat I’ve known for only four or five days. I just want to go home to her …

When John and I began exploring relationship together, Spot adopted him as well. She was a great comfort to him as he dealt with his mother’s terminal illness, and especially after her death. John called her a medicine cat, an apt description.

She found me in the garden, and Spot always wanted to go outside. She often accompanied me when I was out in the garden. Here she is in the backyard of my apartment on 5th Street in Park Slope. This was in May 2002, the last set of photos I took of the garden I was leaving to move with John to our new apartment.
Spot in the garden on 5th Street in Park Slope

Here she is on the deck of our apartment on 6th Street in Park Slope, where John and I first lived together.
Spot the Cat

Here she is in the backyard of our new home two years ago, acting like she owned the place, which, of course, she did. She was skeptical at first, but eventually allowed that she was pleased that we bought her a big, old cat house.
The Backyard

Outside yet again, on the front steps here. I have several shots in this series, trying to get her to look at me. This is the closest I got. Note the tail curl. She wasn’t having it.
Spot on the front steps

This is the earliest photo I have of Spot. This is from 2001, in the 5th Street apartment.
John and Spot

This is a typical posture for her. She spent a lot of time lying on John’s chest, close to his heart, while he was himself prone on the couch or bed.
Spot and JohnSpot and John

Here’s a rare photo of me and Spot together. (Only at John’s insistence.) Rare not only because I’m usually the one behind the camera, but because she wouldn’t often settle down on me. In this photo, she’s wedged into the the nook between me and the sofa cushion. We’re also playing one of our games here. If one of us stopped petting her before she was done, she would reach out with her paw, cup it around the edge of our hand, and pull it back toward her face. I would often respond by “squooshing” her paw, as I’m doing here, and telling her how evil she was. You can see from her face how that upset her.
Spot & Xris

I’ll close with this photo of her. She’s sitting on the floor of my tree house, the second floor back porch on the back of our house. Her tail was the most expressive part of her, and I recognize the little curl at the end of it visible in this photo.
Spot the Cat

You can see more photos of her in my Flickr set of Spot.

She followed me across 15 years of recovery, healing, and growth. She was so much a part of my life, and John’s, and of our life together. We will have other familiars, but none like her. The house is empty without her. I miss her terribly.

I’m open to comments. I especially invite anyone reading this who met or knew her to leave a comment with a memory or reminiscence about her. John and I both will welcome that as a way of memorializing her.

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.