- I walk back in time
- the door is opening wide
- take me home to you
‘A strong emotion is like a storm. If you look at a tree in a storm, the top of the tree seems fragile, like it might break at any moment. You are afraid the storm might uproot the tree. But if you turn your attention to the trunk of the tree, you realise that its roots are deeply anchored in the ground, and you see that the tree will be able to hold. You too are a tree. During a storm of emotion, you should not stay at the level of the head or the heart, which are like the top of the tree. You have to leave the heart, the eye of the storm, and come back to the trunk of the tree…’
(Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Master)
THE TREE stood on its own in a shallow dip, holding on, quietly. We passed it twice as we tramped the well-trodden path from the Brontes’ family home in Haworth, towards the ruined farmhouse of Top Withens – supposed inspiration for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The day was unusually still and bright – for this early in April; for this high up on the Yorkshire Moors.
“I wonder if Emily knew that tree?” said my companion. “I am sure she must have – it looks more than 150 years old.”
It was a strange and thrilling thing: to be here, looking at this shabby, crumpled tree, covered in lichen, bent over at the hip, as if crippled with arthritis, but still standing, weathering all its storms – and to stare into the face of history.
I have written about the Brontes before, here. The world is still obsessed with them: their gothic excesses, their prodigious, precocious talents. And Emily, wild child of the moors -dead at just 30 years old, in 1848 – was the most extravagant and untrammelled of them all.
The Japanese seem particularly enamoured: old wooden way posts to the Bronte Waterfalls and Top Withens are marked both in English and Japanese. It seems incongruous – too exotic by far – for such a quintessential Yorkshire scene: bleak and bare, even in the happy sunshine of our April visit.
The heather was still dry and dead – the path still waterlogged from winter storms and rain. There were certainly plenty of walkers about. Much happy chatter – dogs running, children shouting. But beneath it all: a well of silence. A quiet expanse of emptiness. And the blunt and beautiful Yorkshire moorland caught me, as it always does, and made me stop in my tracks, hold my breath.
In the middle of it all – unassuming, hanging back from the crowd, just as Emily herself did, according to sister Charlotte – was this solitary tree. A little anchor between past and present. Between the living and the dead.
I think Emily DID know and love this tree, as she loved everything that moved and grew on the moorlands where she lived and roamed. I am sure it gave her solace, in the middle of her wild wanderings – her desperate escapes from the difficult and suffocating life she lived, as an unmarried woman, in a Victorian time, in a buttoned-up country Parsonage. And if she didn’t, it doesn’t matter. Because I love this tree now. For the moment of sweet anchor it offered: on an ordinary day, in a perfectly ordinary life.
Hole in the stone wall
Window on another world
THE CLUMPS of snowdrops in the garden and in the park. Stems of daffodils, standing to attention on the high banks, yellow crocus in fat bud, lining the avenues. Even the squat and star-shaped leaves of bluebells, already lying in wait for their moment, later in May, in the little local wood. Everything tells the same story – down to the sour clods of mud, stuck hard on the bottom of boots, and the feathered fringes of my Thursday dog’s fur. Spring is on its way. And even the thinnest ray of sunshine, filtering through our grey northern clouds, brings a little skip to the heart, a lightness to the step.
We follow the seasons particularly closely, in a creative arts project I help to run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for people with dementia and those who care for them. Bringing in the fruits of autumn – pumpkins, squash – and the signals of winter – bare branches, images of snow – helps stabilise us all, within the rhythms of the natural world. It is a concrete reminder, to minds that may be confused, and hearts that are sometimes sore with loneliness and worry, that we can always rely on one fact: the world that disappears, like Persephone, deep into the underground at the end of every year, will always return, come the spring.
Snowdrops are the first harbingers. Then, hot on their heels, come the gaudy yellows of narcissus, the soft mauves, whites and blues of the woodland flowers, and then the heavenly mass of forest bluebells. Everybody loves spring flowers.
And though there is talk in our sessions, sometimes, of a dark and wintry mood – of sadness at things lost: a once-nimble mind, a youthful body, friends and family that may be dead or far away – there is always a ready access to joy. People with dementia are often more direct, less inhibited, in their emotional expression: as if the pipeline to their mind, which has grown furred and blocked, has been re-directed, opened wider, straight into their hearts.
Singing, writing song lyrics and poetry, and dancing to the powerful rhythms of spring, brings genuine delight to this group – and to those of us who lead it. Always, people’s humour is diverting. Always, their creativity surprises and delights. Always, their own words and ideas are faithfully recorded and celebrated. In the last two weeks, new beginnings have been the dominant theme. Spring is calling everyone to attention.
Snowdrops have brought forth a tune of survival…”Snowdrops, snowdrops, snowdrops…Soft white petals, musty and sweet…smells like winter…pushing through the earth… Heralding the spring!” Parallels between the natural world – and the human need and determination to survive, to thrive, whatever the odds – are never far away. “The light makes the shoots come through/Coming out from the dark earth/Flowers dancing, swaying, springing back/They won’t break/I won’t let them…” The whole of life is starting to pulsate. “One bird feeding… a whole flock comes gliding… dancing through the sky.” “Lovely to feel the sun on your face…What a relief!… Spring has sprung.”
My colleague, singer songwriter Fran Woodcock, co-presents the dementia-friendly Our Time workshops and provides all the glorious music that accompanies our exploration of images, words and movement. Visit her website here.
Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, has pioneered all the dementia-friendly work in the theatre. Her latest triumph is a ground-breaking festival of theatre for people with dementia. Read about it here
late winter haiku
clamped against the cold
bird in the bare black branches
Deep winter stillness
Two limbless trees embracing
Sighing for the spring
THE LITTLE HOUSE sits on my bedroom shelves all year round, quietly gathering dust. Barely an inch square – its frosted cardboard walls shabby and peeling, the hint of pink glitter at its lower windows hardly convincing – this house is nearly 90 years old. Less a decoration, more a holy relic. But I love it dearly. Because this belonged to my mother Kathleen, one of the few objects of hers that still remains. And every time I look at it, it reminds me of her.
Once a year it is brought downstairs – displayed amidst the winter candles, placed on the tree, and lit, for a few weeks, in a hazy glow of memory and glory, before disappearing back upstairs, as another year turns.
Kathleen died in 2005, at 82 years old. She grew up in urban Lancashire, at a time of hardship and austerity, between the two world wars. Her mother died young, so she was brought up by her grocer dad and a rather fierce and forbidding Aunt Lil. There was no money for luxuries. It was a somewhat punishing, gloomy era. And as a result – even when her circumstances eased, and she had a family of her own – mum acquired a habit of self denial and thrift that persisted for the whole of her life.
My sister-in-law told me once that when they took my parents on a trip over to France, to stock up on food and wine from the bulging French hypermarkets – even as my father loaded the crates with chablis and fruity reds, the one thing Kathleen chose was a big bag of salt.
Unsentimental and practical to a fault, the only time my mother became openly emotional was when she remembered her childhood. Home, I got the impression, was not a particularly happy place. Despite having two close cousins living not far away, she was a rather wistful, lonely little girl. In light of which, the little cardboard house gathers a symbolic poignancy, as well as dust.
But Kathleen compensated her grief in spectacular fashion, by turning into a vivacious, fun-loving, adventurous – and rather wild – young woman. She met my dad in her early 20s, and they married soon after.
“She used to run all the way to work – run everywhere”, he said, as he recalled – not long before his own death in 2010 – his first glimpses of my mother. “I had never seen anyone so beautiful, so full of life.”
Determined to create a big family of her own, after the fracture of her early life, Kathleen went on to have three children – I am the youngest, with two older brothers – and to establish a household that was hectic, noisy, chaotic. Full of shouting. Full of laughter. Teeming with life.
And that house was never busier than at christmas and new year, when there were parties and gatherings of various haphazard and gleeful proportions. None of which seemed to phase my mother, who simply didn’t stand on ceremony of any kind.
If you came to our house, at any time of year, then you knew what you were in for. There was always delicious food, but sometimes erratically presented. When two schoolfriends came for tea once, she cut the first slice of home-made apple pie proudly at the table – only to reveal a large, scrunched up lump of silver foil, which had been carelessly abandoned at some point during pie preparation, then somehow sealed under the crust and cooked, alongside the fruit, to emerge, in a triumphant swirl of steam, when the pie was opened.
There were certainly gifts at christmas time – but scantily wrapped, in paper re-cycled from the previous year, or the year before that. There was a tree – but the decoration was lopsided, gaudy. And somewhere in the branches, was the frosted cardboard house – miraculously surviving, season after season, with the least possible care given to its status or preservation.
One of my brother’s friends would make the pilgrimage up to our house every year during the holiday season, standing, without invitation, at the front door, having escaped his own family, where everything was rather dull and ordinary. Occasionally we would apologise to him, when some argument kicked off at an inopportune moment. His eyes would shine. “I like it when you argue”, he said. And he meant it.
But things come full circle. The noise and the hectic subsides. My own immediate family – just myself and my grown up daughter – is small and very calm in comparison to mother’s mayhem. We don’t go in for big parties during the darkness of winter – preferring to go out into the world to do our wassailing, and then disappear back through the bright red door of our house, and into the blessed quiet.
It is 11 years since mum died, and the world still seems an unnecessarily serious place, without her sense of fun and her peals of giddy laughter. There will always be a mother-shaped absence in my life. Still, there is beauty and comfort in the ritual of the seasons turning – tealights and candles burning through the dark winter nights, waiting for the return of spring. A house full of light in the absence of the sun. And mum’s miniature house, dusted off, and lifted downstairs to be among the twinkle. Reminding me of my indomitable mother, and of the little girl she once was : holding, as we all do, to the fundamental need for the light, the welcome – and the warm winter refuge – of HOME.