When trouble is the teacher…

A butterfly’s delight, these Mexican petunias became my drudgery.

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Some trouble we bring on ourselves. Not intentionally, perhaps, but the result is the same. Trouble.

Yesterday, I followed the advice of my favorite pharmacist—Suzy Cohen—and purchased some capsaicin arthritis pain relief. It is a topical analgesic that contains 0.15 percent capsaicin, the compound that puts the heat in hot peppers. My husband says it acts as a counterirritant, supposedly because it causes inflammation (or irritation) in the skin to reduce inflammation (or pain) in the joints. However, he suggested that it merely distracts the body from the original pain by introducing a new irritant. Whatever! My thumbs and I were ready for some pain relief, as summer weeding had exasperated my joints as I plucked weeds one by one.

I failed to notice the instruction that suggested trying the capsaicin in a small area and immediately doused my thumb joints with the liquid, rubbing it in. My skin quickly absorbed the solution; I imagined the relief beginning. Since my hands were the target, I couldn’t follow the line of instructions deemed important enough for all caps: IF MEDICINE COMES IN CONTACT WITH HANDS, WASH WITH SOAP AND WATER. But since my plan was to don my garden gloves to do some weeding outside, I figured I was safe. I wouldn’t be rubbing my eyes or any other body part with my hands.

As I warmed to the task at hand—literally—I began to notice a burning sensation in my thumbs. It quickly worsened such that I dropped my rake and pitchfork, peeled off the gloves, and ran into my house without taking off my nasty garden shoes. I washed my hands with soap and water. The burning sensation continued, and I noticed spots on my skin that suggested the emergence of tiny blisters. I grabbed the medicine’s box and noted this: “If severe burning sensation occurs, discontinue use immediately and read package insert for important information.”

My drug of choice—once, anyway.

Of course, I hadn’t noticed the folded paper inside the box before. (I also didn’t notice the warning, “Flammable keep away from fire or flame.” Yikes. I put this on my skin?) The pertinent portion read: “Discontinue use immediately if you experience severe discomfort. If this occurs, remove excess product by washing the affected area with soap and water.”

I had done that to no effect.

I continued reading: “If you cannot wash away the residue completely with regular soap and water, try using dishwashing liquid or cooking oil at room temperature.” (Emphasis mine. Really? The company has to suggest room temperature oil as opposed to hot grease? Seems that burning grease might work as a counter-counterirritant…)

However, I obediently poured canola oil (at the suggested room temperature) over my thumbs and gingerly rubbed it in. Then I poured on some dish soap and rubbed that in. Some easing of the burn. I held my hands under cold running water. Ahh. But as soon as I removed the oil, the soap, and the cold water, the burning sensation continued.

I read some more: “You can expect the discomfort to subside completely. Stop use and contact your doctor if you do not experience a significant improvement or if you experience blistering.” The discomfort had not subsided completely, but it had lessened. The brewing blisters seemed to have faded into mere freckles. Whew. No doctor’s visit had to be fit into my agenda. I poured more dish soap onto my hands, rubbed it in, and left it. My skin seemed to drink the soap, and it did offer some relief.

As usual, my husband was right. The capsaicin was a counterirritant and effective in the sense that I was so distracted by the intense burning of my skin that I barely noticed the pain in my thumb joints. Success!

I returned to my weeding project and intuitively knew not to wear the gloves, which meant my day’s task would be left undone, as the area contained poison ivy, my nemesis I only dare attack wearing complete body armor.

The capsaicin incident reminded me of another trouble I had brought on myself, although the problem took years, rather than 30 minutes, to manifest itself. It came with no warnings on the box or folded instruction sheet, just the promise of pretty purple flowers and the butterflies attracted to them. The Home Depot Garden Center employee suggested this lovely, innocuous looking plant, along with a delicate yellow butterfly weed plant so that we could feed and attract butterflies. Well, the butterflies came, which meant the caterpillars came, which meant the plants looked as if they were eaten alive, which meant one of my children “weeded” out the “dead” yellow milkweed plant. The purple Mexican petunia remained.

It remained but appeared rather pathetic. Even in our spring and early summer droughts, it would produce little purple flowers daily, but the plant itself would slowly wilt throughout the day, drooping and the releasing its little flowers to the ground. Death seemed imminent. But in the morning, it would look strong again and somehow it would reproduce its blossoms—rain-refreshed or not—and the pattern would repeat. I had planted it in an area that already contained canna lilies, agapanthus, society garlic, and jasmine.

Because I have been buried in schoolwork for the past three summers (and because of my severe tendency to react to poison ivy), I merely admired the quaint little flowers. But the past few weeks, as I have been diligently attacking weeds and trimming bushes, I happened to notice that these purple flowered plants had gotten out of hand. They had spread throughout the garden box and overtaken everything except the jasmine (which trumps everything). I casually mentioned to my husband that I might remove the petunias, and he agreed that they had gotten “a bit” out of control.

Just “a bit” of an understatement, thank you very much. It took all morning plus all my strength, a shovel, a pitchfork, three heaping wheelbarrow loads, and loads more patience to remove the “innocuous” plant. The woody, amazingly strong and prolific plant had dug both deep and wide and deceitfully woven itself among the jasmine vines. The wilting, wimpy plant reluctantly releasing purple petals like teardrops was just an act. I had been completely taken in and later paid the price. I am still checking the area for new sprouts of Mexican petunias and yanking them as soon as I see them; if I am diligent, I can prevent another takeover.

It works for me!

This summer I have had the luxury of working in the yard a couple of hours every day. Typically, my summer lawn-work experience has been one and done—because I have encountered poison ivy despite my best efforts to avoid it and spent the rest of the summer nursing my skin back to health and the rest of my life admiring the scars it left behind. But I’ve discovered a few things that have kept me free of rashes and enabled me to enjoy, truly, the great outdoors of my front and back yards. (The secret to my success? Wearing long-sleeve shirts, long pants, long socks, substantial shoes, and gloves; bathing immediately afterward with Grandma’s Poison Ivy & Oak Bar; and dabbing a bit of high-potency rubbing alcohol anywhere I start to itch. So far so good…)

I have meticulously—or by stream of consciousness, actually—worked areas of our one-acre wooded plot of the world and feel God, the ultimate Gardener, working in my heart as I work the land. I get the sense that I am living one of Jesus’s parables by doing so. After spending three years on my master’s degree, engrossed in being a student and a teacher, I find getting off my computer—except for the joy of blogging—a holy reprieve, despite the heat, the mosquitoes, and the ever-threatening poison ivy (and my deep fear of spiders and snakes). Each day as I pull weeds and prune branches, I get an unspoken lesson from the One Who Loves Me.

The Master Gardener has a lot of work to do in my heart, and I believe letting me play master gardener is one tool He is using this summer to accomplish that.

Most troubles I am encountering as I work in the yard are simply a result of time and neglect. But I caused the capsaicin and petunia troubles. Not on purpose, of course, but had I gathered all the facts before acting, I might have saved myself the trouble. In truth, the capsaicin incident likely occurred because I donned gardening gloves, which exposed the treated area to heat, magnifying the capsaicin’s effect. (Though I admit I have not tried it again even without the gloves.) Had I done some research before planting the Mexican petunia, I would have discovered it a pervasive, prolific plant and likely would not have purchased it.

Hindsight is 20-20. Trouble is a great teacher. It has taught me (though I am not a student anymore) that I must do my homework before taking action whether it is be medicine or new plants—or making life decisions.

But I’m hoping to get the rest of my life lessons this summer from the Master Gardener rather than troubles I’ve brought on myself.

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