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What Growing My Own Food Has Taught Me About Living Intentionally While Navigating MS

Living Well

November 24, 2021

Content created for the Bezzy community and sponsored by our partners. Learn More

by Ashley Memory

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Maria Gifford

Fact Checked

•••••

•••••

by Ashley Memory

•••••

Maria Gifford

Fact Checked

•••••

•••••

Sustainable living not only helped me improve my health with multiple sclerosis, it also brought community and a sense of purpose.

After 20 years of living with multiple sclerosis (MS), I retired early from a stressful job in college admissions in May 2017. At 49, I was determined to reclaim my life.

A long commute and relentless deadlines had taken a toll on my body and mind. J.P., my fiancé, encouraged me to move to the country.

As much as I loved the invigorating air of the forest, the city girl in me feared missing the conveniences of urban life with its trendy grocery stores, fine restaurants, and chic department stores. And living so far away from entertainment — plays, movies, and concerts — I worried I would be bored, especially with the financial limits of my small pension.

At the same time, I longed for something more fulfilling.

I ended up relocating to rural North Carolina, not far from the rolling hills of the ancient Uwharrie Mountains. A couple of months after moving, J.P. and I married in a small ceremony on the deck of our unfinished house.

As we held hands, I looked out over sweeping views of pine, cedar, and oak trees with equal parts fear and excitement. I knew that my life was about to change.

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New beginnings

One morning, I woke up early and watched a small deer amble through the woods. Just one hoof at a time, she moved like she appreciated the earth, bending her head gently as if giving thanks for the beautiful summer day.

I found myself wondering if maybe this little deer knew a better way to live, beyond the constant race to achieve and consume.

Sure enough, as the months passed, I found the rewards of my move on my well-being, were far greater than I ever could’ve imagined.

Sustainable living not only helped me reduce my carbon footprint, improve my health with MS, and save money, it also brought community and a sense of purpose.

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Starting with a garden

After so many years spent inside an office with my body cramped over a computer, I ached to spend more time outdoors and plunge my fingers into the warm soil.

While I walk without aid, my legs tire easily and I suffer from chronic fatigue. I couldn’t tend a long traditional garden because of the exertion required, but one day J.P. surprised me with a truckload of pine timbers to build a smaller, raised garden bed.

“Remember that bridge replacement project over the Betty McGee Creek? These are from the old bridge. They were headed for the landfill,” he said, the construction foreman let him carry away as many as he wanted.

We planted raspberries and blackberries first, favorites of mine because they may reduce inflammation associated with MS, and their tart sweetness adds a delicious zing to my salads and pies.

Next, we planted vegetables — cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes. Before long, I didn’t miss those urban markets because I had more fresh lettuce than I could’ve ever bought back in the city.

Less waste, more living

Dead leaves, once a nuisance in my city life, now became a blessing. We bought a leaf composter at the flea market and used it to grind up dozens of bags of oak leaves. We started our own compost pile, where I discarded apple peels, moldy bread, and other kitchen waste. In turn, the ground leaves and wormy soil from our composting enriched our gardens.

In our first year growing raspberries, we harvested enough to make two pints of jam. In our second year, our blackberries exploded, yielding more fresh fruit (and jam) than we could eat on our own.

In my new world, I found so many uses for what I used to carelessly throw away. Cardboard boxes were perfect for transporting pies; egg cartons, ideal for starting seedlings; large yogurt containers, excellent vessels for sharing berries with friends and family.

I now pause before tossing anything — whether pill bottle, pie tin, or shoebox — because I know I will be able to find a new use for it.

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Sharing food and building community

My Quaker friends at Science Hill Friends Meeting, my new church, descended from farming families and were thrifty and resourceful. When a few people learned that I had started canning, they gave me boxes of supplies from their own stashes.

I was thrilled, especially as the pandemic had stirred a new interest in domestic comforts and drove up the price of glass jars. I returned their generosity by bringing my new friends blackberry and raspberry jam.

Bill, another friend from church, gave us four blueberry bushes and seeds for a new variety of pumpkin, and we enjoyed trading recipes for cobblers and pies. Other plants flourished, especially cucumbers, zucchinis, and pumpkins.

While our tomato plants never produced an abundance, my friend Ann’s garden saw more sunshine than ours, and she happily shared her tomatoes with us. We responded by giving her one of our fig trees, which is now thriving and will provide fruit for years to come.

In addition to gardening tips, my new friends passed along a secret known only to locals: A nearby farmer who grew corn always reserved one acre just for the community. In early July, anyone in the area was free to carry away as many ears as they like, and there was plenty to go around.

We were blessed with far more than food, however. When we built bookshelves for our study, we used the wood from poplar trees on our own land. As this wood was naturally straight and lightweight, I was able to help J.P. plane it and set the shelves in place.

Living intentionally

What I savor most about my new life is the slower pace, which has allowed me to live more intentionally. I think more carefully now about what I need versus what I want, and I’m finding that I want and need less than ever before.

I don’t miss the fancy grocery stores of my past because my food tastes better and, without preservatives, it’s better for my health too.

Although I live miles away from traditional entertainment, I don’t long for those things at all. And I’m far too busy to be bored. There are new donkeys each spring. Every year brings new varieties of fruits to grow and recipes to exchange.

I have more time for exercise now, such as brisk, short walks that rejuvenate my body and improve my mental health. With more energy to spare, I’ve also started teaching workshops on poetry and writing, activities that sharpen my mind and cognitive function.

I laugh a little harder and I cry a little more easily now because I take nothing for granted anymore. The pandemic has underscored the importance of relishing every single hour of life.

I used to worry that my MS would render me completely helpless, but I don’t have time for such thoughts these days. Yes, I may move more slowly, but I take help when it is offered, and I try my best to be grateful and honor the natural world every day.

Article originally appeared on November 24, 2021 on Bezzy’s sister site, Healthline. Last fact checked on November 22, 2021.

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About the author

Ashley Memory

Ashley Memory lives in southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina, surrounded by the mystical Uwharrie Mountains. She has written for NBC THINK, Wired, and The Independent and is currently working on a memoir about finding love and happiness while living with a chronic illness.

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