July 12, 2013
Maryland
Throwing in the trowel

When I was 6 or 7, my parents took my two sisters and me on a sultry summer evening to Greenbelt Lake. To my short self, the knoll near the lake was a vast hill, and there was nothing better than dropping to the ground and rolling down it. My sisters and I tumbled like logs, squealing and delighted to have an evening with our father, a law school student at the time. In our apartment, we had to be quiet so Daddy could study. At the lake, we could go wild.

That day, the hill was covered with grass clippings, dried by the sun. We were ecstatic when Dad began to chase us around, threatening to stuff us like scarecrows with the dried grass. My fast sisters escaped, but I was his happy victim, covered from head to toe with grass clippings that shot from everywhere — behind my ears, in my hair and out of my sleeves and shorts.

When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t see. My mother rushed me to the pediatrician. I do not remember their conversation, but my mother recalls the terror she felt when he asked, “What happened to her?,” and she had no clue. One tear squeezed from one swollen eye. The doctor realized that I was having a reaction to poison ivy, which must have been in the grass clippings.

Afterward, my childhood featured poison-ivy run-ins and misery. I had allergy shots and lectures on avoiding leaves of three. Eventually, I moved to the District. For many years, I didn’t face its wrath.

But 17 years ago, my husband and I bought a house on a three-acre wooded lot near Annapolis. I had forgotten my earlier suffering and soon took to gardening once in a while — only to encounter my leafy nemesis and, in turn, to throw in the trowel. Over time, the yard has become a shambles. We have raised six kids in the interim, so shambling has become our way of life.

More recently, though, I’ve been dealt a chronic pain problem, with nerve damage to the tongue. I remembered something I had learned from a friend, a feng shui practitioner. When we bought our house, she had made a feng shui analysis, revealing that our master bedroom was the locus of creative energy and that if we wanted to avoid having more children, we should move to a different room and make the bedroom my office.

I appreciated — and ignored — her advice. Two years later, I was three months pregnant before I realized that, in fact, a baby was on his way.

A few weeks ago, I sat on my deck in the sunshine, crying because of the stabbing pain in my mouth and wondering what more I could do to cope. Then I remembered the feng shui teaching that our inner health can be affected and changed by our exterior environment.

I looked around the brambles, where I spotted a pain vector: abundant, fat, huge-thorned vines that were choking the life out of the trees and flowers I had planted so long ago.

Feng shui moment: Eradicate the thorns, and my stabbing mouth pain would be eliminated.

I clothed myself from head to toe in protective gear and spent a cathartic afternoon tearing up the place. I cut down thorn bushes and enlisted my husband and his bushwhacker. I made piles of brambly brush, which he dragged into a gully in our woods. By the end of the day, the yard was revealed — clean, sharp and orderly. And while I was at it, the tongue pain had faded, thanks to the distraction of gardening.

Finished, I wrapped a gloved hand in a plastic bag and carefully removed my gardening garb, putting each item into another plastic bag and dumping the entire ensemble into a load of hot water in the washing machine.

The next day, telltale red spots erupted on my ankles and calves. A few days more and they were between each finger and creeping up my forearm. By Monday, widespread blisters ran from forehead to toe. My dermatologist called in topical steroids — one for the face and one for the body. By Wednesday, I was in her office, picking up a prescription for oral steroids, the only reliable treatment for people who have an allergic reaction to poison ivy. By morning, one eye was swollen shut, and my hands were too stiff to bend.

I ended up at an urgent-care center, where a doctor said there wasn’t much to do but to let it run its course. Cold compresses for the eye, he suggested, an ointment for the body and a prescription-strength antihistamine for the swelling and itching. I’d seen this doctor before, and I appreciated his humor and the advice he gave to my husband, my caregiver for the day.

“You can help her. No laundry, no dishes, no cooking, no chores for at least three months,” he said. “And no weeding.”

As for feng shui, I’ll add that to my list of alternative and complementary medicines. I’ll keep a secret garden in my mind, and let the weeds fall where they will.

Janice Lynch Schuster, Riva