Much of the time writers are alone – with their pens, their keyboards, their thoughts and their dreaming. But sometimes they come together, write together, dream and talk out loud. When that happens, in a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect (rather than ego and competition), it is both joyful and nourishing. The WordPlay workshops that I run – via zoom and email – on occasional Saturdays throughout the year, was an idea born of necessity during the pandemic, when none of us could meet in person. It kept a sense of community and of shared endeavour. Now that things are opening up again, WordPlay is still going strong.
Our latest session, with the theme of Darkness and Light, happened on the very eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some of that darkness permeates the writing. But there is light too – memories of dawn in the desert, and a sensual love poem, celebrating first light, gentle kisses – and hope for the future.
Loving the Words
Two of the writers joined me recently, to read from the anthology compiled from the workshop writings, and you can listen to the whole thing here, on Leeds broadcasting station East Leeds FM: Love the Words.
To read two of the poems, and for more information about the workshops, take a look at my WordPlay page here.
In these dark times, it is important to acknowledge how difficult things are. Perhaps more important still, to remember the light, and to look for it, wherever we can. As March goes out (rather fiercely – with alternate snow and sunshine – in Leeds) and April approaches, it does me good to recall some of the words of Emily Dickinson, in her sad-sweet poem, A Light Exists in Spring:
A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period –
When March is scarcely here
A Colour stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.
The next WordPlay workshop is on the theme of TRAVELLING and takes place on 7 May 2022. More information here.
Snowdrops in the rain, back garden, Oakwood, February 13, 2022
Bright spots in a winter terrain
IN TIMES of trouble, I always return to the earth. Walking outside in my garden, or in the local wood, is a gentle reminder that life goes on, regardless: and the simple turning of the seasons gives me sustenance and strength. That was particularly true this week, when I took my first steps out with a friend, after recovering from Covid. We strolled around the Upper Lake in Roundhay Park in Leeds. A swan glided silently past, its snowy plumage perfectly matched by the clumps of tiny snowdrops, which nodded their wise little white heads under the nearby trees. Bright spots in a dull winter terrain. I felt reborn.
The same thing was true, too, in 2005, when I wrote a diary in book form, of my allotment, to which I escaped, day after day, digging my way back to strength, following the death of my husband Tim, after years of living with cancer.
Witch hazel stretching its yellow fingers, Oakwood Garden, February 13, 2022
Returning to the earth
It is rare that I return to that book – A Handful of Earth – to see what I was planting then, what I was thinking and feeling. But I did so today, curious to read what February was like, nearly twenty years ago, and to remember who I was, at that different moment in my life. February 2005 was mild apparently, just like this year. And I was excited then, too, by possibilities, after a long, difficult time… ‘the earth is pulsing with life. Beauty is all in the becoming.’ In a repeating echo, I sang my praises to the sharp little shoots of snowdrops , their ‘flower buds swelling within the ranks’, and raised a cheer to ‘the humble broad bean’, which turns into a surprisingly pretty spring flower, ‘white clusters with a black-eyed blob at their centre’, before the pods swell and ripen into my favourite summer vegetable. (I have no allotment now. No rows of sturdy veg to harvest. But there are still some broad beans in pots outside my back door, a fond memento of when I dug a bigger, wilder terrain.)
Although my husband had been dead for a year by the time I wrote my diary, there was still more dying to come. My mother was in hospital in February 2005, and wouldn’t survive much longer. I wrote of taking bunches of daffodils into the hospital to gladden her tired eyes. And my father, too, was sickening, with an undiagnosed lung cancer, from which he later miraculously recovered. My heart was heavy back then, and with good reason.
And yet, and yet… Amongst this heavy toll, there was a miraculous lightness of being to be found, in the tender growing shoots of vegetables and flowers, and out on the brown bare earth, walking, watching and wondering. So even though I was lonely in my grieving, I drew my hope from the sheer determination of nature to pull through – no matter what. And I pulled through, too.
Flowering blackcurrant, bursting from its buds, Oakwood, February 13, 2022
Turning our face to the sharp clean air
In 2022, the toll of illness, death and dying is not limited to isolated individuals any more. Covid has brought a collective sorrow and grief; a kind of shared loneliness of body and mind. Unlike so many, I have been fortunate to survive my own brush with this vicious virus. Fortunate to be able to turn my face into the sharp, clean February air, and to plant my feet on the late winter earth. To feel its solid support. To walk. And to wonder again.
In Dr Gavin Francis’ wonderful little book on Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence, he writes that ‘The word “physician” can be rooted back to the Greek physis, meaning “nature”, and phuo, which means “to grow”. Just like a plant, what we need in order to grow back into wholeness is a “regime” of the right nutrients, the right environment, the right resources, and to be undisturbed.’ The nature cure. It has always worked for me.
Digging with my pen
When I emerged from a ten year process of caring for a husband with terminal cancer, I turned first – and still turn – to the earth for sustenance and recovery. Then in 2005, I picked up my pen and wrote about it. First, for an article in The Guardian, called Blooming in the Shadows, which excited more comment than anything else I’ve ever written. Then the article grew into a book. A Handful of Earth. After a long time in the wilderness, I came back into the garden of words. And now, after another hiatus over the past few months – culminating in Covid itself – I start to write once more. Beginning again. Always beginning. And it is the final few words of that long-ago Guardian article that I repeat like a mantra, whenever I have lost my way in this life. It’s simple. Just go back to the earth. “Let your garden hold you, and it will.”
‘A Handful of Earth’ was published by John Murray. Copies available here.
‘Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence’ by Dr Gavin Francis, is published by Profile Books.
AT THE START of lockdown in March 2020, I wrote a piece about the consolation of a blackbird, called Just One Voice. I had forgotten this entirely, until I searched for a stock image of my favourite bird, perched so prettily in the picture above, to go with this new blog. How cyclical life is… And the symbol of the blackbird keeps returning.
Shriek of survival
SOMETIME in spring 2021, deep during the Covid restrictions, I noticed a blackbird with a damaged leg, coming to feed in my garden. His right leg was splayed, and the back claw twisted up behind, as if he had caught himself fast, in wire or brambles. But although he wobbled a fair bit when he landed on the bird table, or took pot shots at the bird feeder in the tree – intended for the tinier sparrows and bluetits, with their more petite dimensions – he got around with surprising speed and dexterity. He was also fond of a scrap: flying fearlessly at any rival blackbird, and sending them packing, in a shriek of ink-black tail feathers. He always won. Now there was a survivor, I thought, and I started to look out for him each morning. Stumpy, I called him. My ruffian pirate bird.
From lockdown into the noisy world
Then spring turned to summer, and I lost track of my birds – my garden – myself, for a strange long while. From staying quietly at home, teaching Chi Kung classes online, editing and writing, gardening and growing, I was plunged back into the ‘real world’, teaching in-person classes behind the bewildering muffle of a mask, and jumping into the rough and tumble of a high-stakes, and very beautiful, theatre production – which went on to exceed expectation, and to have full and appreciative audiences, but which exacted a heavy physical and emotional toll on those involved. We just weren’t used to being together, cheek by jowl, for long rehearsal days, still in the shadow of a global pandemic. It didn’t take long for me to become disorientated and exhausted.
I thought I had weathered the Covid crisis pretty well, being, by nature, quite self contained, and content in my own company; introspective and at home in my tiny study, or gazing out of the kitchen window at the green. But when I walked back into the city centre – and the rehearsal room of the theatre – socially distanced, masked and wary, I found its noise, its ego, its physical and psychological exertions, simply too much to bear.
The lessons of illness
Throughout the autumn of 2021, I was unwell and worried, somehow ‘beside myself’ in every way. Health scare after health scare – an ultrasound for ovarian cancer (all clear) – a recall from a routine breast screening (a simple cyst) – a suspicion of bowel cancer (unfounded) – all knocked me for six. Mysterious stomach pains left me breathless, laid me low. A muted panic and claustrophobia lurked at the back of my brain. My ankles were inflamed – dancing was impossible, even walking too far, a tricky proposition. An old tooth infection reared its painful head. My body was screaming at me. Stop! Retreat! Slow down! And so I did. First, I got my neglected garden into shape, chop, chop, chop. And, with the guidance of skilful complementary therapists – a reflexologist, an acupuncturist, an osteopath – as well as my beleaguered GP, I brought my battered mind and body back towards balance. Throughout it all, the quiet beauty of T’ai Chi and Chi Kung and self Reiki gave sustenance, when I was at a very low ebb.
I started to ‘live small’ again, looking out of my kitchen window every morning, searching for the unstoppable regeneration of nature, of the four seasons, of the ebb and flow of weather and light. I was searching also for Stumpy, who seemed, by the onset of winter 2021, to have disappeared entirely.
I presumed him dead: disappeared into the pandemic night, as too many people – and pets – of my acquaintance have done, during this dark and endless time. But I was wrong. One morning in December, I saw him again through the window, fighting like hell with a fellow blackbird, over the remains of a cut up apple I had thrown down with bird seed, the evening before. His claw was still bent back and out of shape. His right leg was still skewiff. But, with his sharp yellow beak pointed sharply forward for action, and his orange rimmed eye beady and determined, he was still marking his territory with determination and verve. And he gave me, in that moment, such a surge of strength and exhilaration. It is possible, he seemed to say, to survive a bad time – to come back bouncing, even if a little crookedly and off centre. He comes to the garden every morning now, to take first pick at the seed and fruit I take out, and to see off all contenders as best he can.
New year, new beginnings
Now it’s January 2022, nearly two years since Covid 19 first struck. Once again, we weather a new – Omicron – wave of infection. Once again there is uncertainty, anxiety and a sense of a deep wounding of the individual and collective mind and body. But wounds can heal, damage can be made good: difficult experiences can be accommodated, and ultimately absorbed into the inexorable imperative of life itself.
I have been writing a new book about the body, called Phoenix Rising, started before the pandemic, but all the more relevant now, which deals with just this theme: of rising again from illness or tragedy and learning to flourish in the most difficult of times. And Stumpy the blackbird has become a grumpy and battle scarred lodestar along my writing – and healing – way.
Sweet solitude and dreams of spring
So now here I am, back in solitude and the land of Zoom for a little while longer. My body, like so many other bodies, has been rocked and challenged by recent events, even while staying (so far) Covid free. But the natural world once again absorbs me: the dank winter garden, which is already showing tentative new shoots of spring, roots and uplifts me. I watch the cycle of life, including the neighbourhood killer cat, who recently ran off down the lawn with a plump pigeon in its jaws – and who was, I am sure, responsible for the flat black corpse of a rat that I found, to my alarm, by the autumn flowering cherry tree, but who has yet to have any murderous luck at all with the indomitable might of Stumpy: truly a blackbird for our times. (I have tried to take his picture many times, but he remains notoriously camera shy…) Sunrise today in Leeds: 8.19 a.m. Sunset: 16.09. One minute of light gained every single day. Savour it. Walk (or fly) towards it. And remember this: ‘ If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so…The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance itself.’ (Alan Watts, quoted by Brainpicker on Instagram.)
After a summer of action and wild theatre adventures, with a major production at Leeds Playhouse of ‘The Promise of a Garden’ with the Performance Ensemble (see my previous blog) – complete with a big cast, a huge set, and an ambitious vision – all put in place at great speed, just as we were coming, blinking, out of Covid Lockdown – I find myself turning inwards and settling into quiet. This is partly because of health issues: the body has a way of slowing us down and making us pay attention; and partly due to the natural rhythm of the seasons.
High summer has turned to autumn. The winds are gathering. The leaves are falling. In traditional Chinese medicine and movement – in acupuncture and T’ai Chi/Chi Kung – this is the season of the Lungs and Large Intestine. Letting the old go, in order for new energy to have space to grow. In this quietness I realise that the external, ‘yang’ energy of the theatre – so often chaotic, fractured and noisy – must turn now to the internal ‘yin’ of writing, meditation, and nurturing my own health and peace of mind.
Teaching too – both creative writing at Leeds Playhouse, and T’ai Chi/Chi Kung in independent classes in Leeds (See my Breathing Space page for details of the latter) – remains a source of nourishment and delight. We teach what we want to learn. And people’s creativity never ceases to amaze me.
Finally, too, I have welcomed people back into my Reiki Room, which has been closed for nearly two years, due to the enduring Covid Pandemic. Reiki can be sent ‘distantly’, in some strange, mysterious, quantum physics kind of a way!, but nothing beats hands-on treatments to me.
Sometimes, someone elects to do a mixture of T’ai Chi/Chi Kung and Reiki within one Reiki session, and that happened this last week, bringing a sense of new life – the life of the breath – into the room, and helping to deepen a sense of warmth, of the healing nature of the Reiki itself.
It is impossible to know how people receive Reiki: it is different for everyone; and what the practitioner feels, may be entirely at odds with the way it is absorbed by the recipient. Verbal feedback afterwards is helpful, but sometimes too soon. The effects ripple out over the following days and weeks.
Receiving these words, via email, from my most recent client, was then a perfect and unexpected gift. After months of isolation, and of being unable to share these simple techniques in my own room at home, this feels a particular validation of our shared human intent – to seek a nurturing connection between us, and a sense of simple kindness. Soul food.
“Doing a few chi kung exercises to start a reiki session is like building a firm foundation for what is to come. The exercises offer a gentle way to release tension, get in touch with the breath and feel grounded. The reiki sessions are a way to relax, slip into deep peace and be held within supportive waves of energy. Afterwards you feel refreshed and revitalised and any stresses and woes do not seem that important anymore. The Covid risks are minimised by taking lateral flows, open windows and sanitising. I’m sure there is a correlation between feeling relaxed, cared for and supported, and boosting the immune system, something that is vital to us all, for the winter months ahead.”
Look after yourselves – this life is precious, and all we have. Breathe in, let go. Be still.
SO HERE we are in high summer. A baking hot July day, with the neighbourhood children going wild with excitement, as they launch themselves madly into a paddling pool – and even my resident frog is finding it a wee bit too warm to sun himself, as he usually does, on the little tiles at the side of his pond. Today he sits wisely in the shade, and occasionally dives into the water, leaving just his little beaky head peeking out, to see what’s going on in his immediate surrounds. The glorious poppies in the picture above, bloomed briefly and magically in late May, then were blown to smithereens by rain and wind and cold. Well, this is England. Full of weird contradictions – in government, in the people, and even in the weather itself. But on we go.
T’ai Chi and the path of peace
I never would have thought, in spring 2020, when we first went into lockdown because of Covid19, that I would be teaching all my T’ai Chi and Chi Kung classes online within a few months – and that a hitherto unknown and uninteresting (to me) platform called Zoom, would be my only means of connecting with all the students who longed, like me, to continue stepping quietly through the world, via the flowing sequences of this lovely Chinese movement practise. It was, however, a life line, and I have only just finished a long few months of Zoom teaching, that started properly in September 2020, and ended in mid July 2021.
Judging by the new wave of Covid infections sweeping the UK, I feel it will not be the last of these curious – but strangely peaceful – online sessions. And I have already booked in some dates for the autumn. (See my Breathing Space page)
Finding our way back to each other
Still, how I long to be in a big group of people – outdoors or indoors – and teaching them the magic of T’ai Chi, stepping with them quietly and steadily, feeling the sense of communal power and connection. The last time this happened on a large scale was at the Wild Conference in 2019, organised by the mighty Slung Low Theatre company in Leeds: a big celebration of the arts, of conversation, of movement, dance, music, theatre. (And with lots of colourful waving flags!) Moving as one body, on a high green hillside on the Temple Newsam Estate, in the early morning, is a joyful memory that stays with me still.
And yes, slowly, we are finding our way back to one another. I made my first tentative steps into the studio at the beginning of July. Masks on, hand sanitisers at the ready. But nonetheless, a physical connection. Real people. In real time. In a three dimensional space. Strangely disorientating, and tiring. But deeply reassuring.
And the beat goes on
Tomorrow sees another big leap forward. Rehearsals begin at Leeds Playhouse for The Promise of a Garden, directed by Alan Lyddiard and devised and performed by the Performance Ensemble. How I love this maverick company – made up exclusively of older performers, story tellers, dancers, writers, space scientists, teachers and much, much more… This large scale, new production – twice cancelled because of Covid – is, as its title suggests, all about the garden, and everything that it means to people, on a physical and metaphorical level. Yes, there will be T’ai Chi in it! And dance. And deeply personal human stories, soulful music, and a big colourful set.
The Performance Ensemble celebrates all life, the dark and the light, from beginning to end. As the Chinese saying has it: “When a human being is born, there is a ripple on a still pond. We go on our journey and when our life is over, there is another ripple on the pond, and the spirit returns.”
Live theatre has had it particularly tough during the pandemic. It is still in a precarious state. And who knows whether Covid will leave our company completely alone, to bring our magical dream of a garden to full fruition this time? But we must step forward somehow. And, as a garden lover and maker myself, I can think of no better way of doing so, than through the medium of flowers and trees, through the seasons of winter, and on into spring and summer and new growth. From night into the light. Nature has all the answers: if we listen, tread carefully, and dare to be bright and bold as those poppies; to flourish again – and again, despite all the odds. This, after all, is the promise of a garden.
The Promise of a Garden will be performed at Leeds Playhouse, from 18- 21 August 2021. Tickets can be booked here.
Why wait to be happy? When you walk it is possible to walk in such a way that every step becomes nourishing and healing. This is not difficult. (Thich Nhat Hanh)
Springing into bloom
ALTHOUGH it is pouring with rain here in Leeds, as we go into the merry month of May, spring is still doing its thing, with foliage leaping from every branch in my garden, buds bursting on the peonies and mountain cornflower – and the beautiful blossom of the Morello Cherry presiding, with a pure white majesty, over the whole terrain.
When the weather is fine, I love stepping into the garden in the early morning, to practise some T’ai Chi or Chi Kung. Just me and the blackbirds. The Covid Pandemic has meant that I have mainly been walking solo through the gentle steps of this practise. But one of the unexpected bonuses of lockdown has been the discovery of Zoom, and the ability to share the work with people from all over the country – and from Germany and Hungary, on occasion, too.
There are advantages to moving quietly in your own space – but in the (virtual) company of others. For the shy or unconfident mover, it can be unexpectedly liberating. So on I go, running several Zoom classes each month, on a Tuesday evening and a Thursday morning, and they continue to nourish and sustain me – and those I teach – in these hard lockdown times.
Stepping outside, treading gently
Still, it will be a great pleasure to finally come face to face with other people again, all moving together in what is such a quiet and contemplative way: a meditation in movement. So, there are outside get togethers coming up too, and a tentative plan to meet indoors in July. You can check out any of the dates and details on my Breathing Space page. And if you are curious about my own – very particular – approach to movement, then the Dancing page goes into my history a little bit too.
For me, the movements of the T’ai Chi and Chi Kung are deeply embedded in nature – and they take their inspiration from the four elements, from Taoist philosophy, from birds and from animals. Beautiful images like Big Bird Spreads its Wings and Wild Goose Flying serve to inspire, both in their names and in the movement they describe. And its been a deep joy to spend the past 30 years of my life, exploring the deep layers of vitality that these ancient practises contain.
Do join me, this spring, if you fancy a Breathing Space from the considerable challenges we are all facing right now. Take a simple step… As the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh writes, why wait to be happy?!
Details of how to book a class, or to be in touch for more information, are all included on my Breathing Space page.
IN 1925 Attila József, one of Hungary’s best loved and most famous poets, wrote a simple poem called Kertész leszek – I shall be a gardener. This is the first verse:
Kertész leszek, fát nevelek
kelő nappal én is kelek
nem törődök semmi mással,
csak a beojtott virággal.
I shall be a gardener, I’ll grow trees
with the early sunrise – I’ll rise too.
And nothing else will bother my head,
except my tenderly grafted flowers.
But Attila was not a gardener. And he grew up far from any garden or flower. Born into abject poverty in the ninth district of Budapest – a tough, industrial, working class corner of the city – Attila lived a semi-feral early life. A self-confessed street urchin, he scrabbled to survive. His mother Borbála died of cancer when he was still in his teens. His father, a soap factory worker, had abandoned the family long before. Attila and his two sisters were like wild flowers, pushing through the cracks in the tough urban pavement.
Minden beojtott virágom
kedvesem lesz virágáron
ha csalán lesz, azt se bánom,
igaz lesz majd a virágom.
Every flower that I have planted
will be my favourite one of all
and if weeds grow – I won’t care
each flower of mine will come true
Planting myself in the soil
Attila got some schooling in the end, when his brother in law paid for him to attend. He even went to university, with dreams of being a teacher: but he was sent down for writing poetry deemed seditious by the state.
He travelled and studied in Vienna and Paris. He read Hegel and Marx, joined the – then illegal – Hungarian Communist Party in 1930, but was expelled from that too, for being too maverick and independent a thinker.
Tejet iszok és pipázok,
jóhíremre jól vigyázok,
nem ér engem veszedelem,
magamat is elültetem.
I shall drink my milk and smoke my pipe,
and closely guard my own good name,
no danger will ever reach me now,
I’ve planted my very self in the soil.
If the world should end…
How Attila longed for the peace and quiet of the garden. But it was never to be his. He suffered terribly from depression and schizophrenia. He was abjectly poor his whole life long. His brilliant mind was tormented to death. On the 3rd of December 1937, he died under the wheels of a train on the railway tracks at Balatonszárszó, whilst staying with his sister. Was it an accident – or suicide? He was just 32 years old.
Kell ez nagyon, igen nagyon,
napkeleten, napnyugaton –
ha már elpusztul a világ,
legyen a sírjára virág.
This is needed, so much needed,
with the rising and with the setting sun –
and if the whole world should one day perish,
may there be flowers laid on its grave.
In the century since his death, Attila József’s exquisite poetry has become embedded in the very soul of the Hungarian people. He never grew flowers – never planted trees. But the poems that he wrote, created a garden of the mind, as profound in impact as the desperation in which they were written.
*This was written in response to a mighty project with the Performance Ensemble, directed by Alan Lyddiard, with whom I regularly write and perform. It is called The Garden and will be a month long installation and performance in Leeds Playhouse, in the spring/summer of 2021. We will be exploring all things to do with the garden – from a single flower pushing through the ruined pavement of a bombed city, to an idyllic lush green oasis of flowers, trees and fruit. We all need a garden. In our minds and in our hearts and bodies. May that garden flourish.
**I have a long and loving connection with the beautiful, troubled country of Hungary. If you would like to read more about that, please take a look at my Blog and Features archive elsewhere on the website. And here is another piece about the remarkable Attila József Poems and Pálinka.
A woman steps outside into the garden. She takes off her shoes and stands barefoot on the grass. It is early morning and the ground is wet with dew. A blackbird sings from the top of a high branch. He serenades her as she begins to move. Turning her face to the east, she lifts her arms slowly to shoulder height. This is the Rising Sun. And the day begins.
Walking with dead friends
As she moves through the sequences – as familiar to her as the air that she breathes – she calls forth her disappeared. Here is the husband, dead from cancer at 47. And here, the mother, who loved to garden, and who danced on the lawn of her life, barefoot and wild-eyed. Here comes the father, who taught her stillness and peace. And the best friend – who died young of AIDS, but not before he sat in many gardens with her, and reminded her how to laugh.
Dancing the T’ai Chi
Ward Off Danger, Push Away. Step Back, Repulse the Monkey. T’ai Chi, Yang Style, Long Form. Life is a series of new beginnings. The Big Bird Spreads Its Wings – into a wide blue sky. Life is a dark mass of endings. The Snake Creeps Down into the Water. Shoot Out the Arrow. Pick the Lotus Flower. Find what is good and valuable in your life, and show it to the world with pride. Then leave that world, with grace. And don’t look back.
She takes her finishing steps and, placing her feet together, fist in an open hand, makes a final bow. As she leaves the garden she runs her fingers through the foliage and flowers she has planted with loving intention. Autumn flowering cherry. Cotinus ‘Grace’. A flush pink rose which bears her mother’s name: Kathleen’s Rose. The orange and scarlet crocosmia, upended from her previous garden, now sprawling, profligate, in this new paradise. A scrambling clematis, called for her grandmother, the gentle Elizabeth. Dogwood. Bamboo. Spiky fern. Delicate daisies. Lavender. Wild strawberry. And rosemary – for remembrance.
The turning of the seasons
This is summer: the season of fruit and flower and casual abundance. Soon will come autumn, to cut down the sickly excess. And winter will follow. The dying season. Letting go. With luck, there will be another spring, and each of these plantings will bud and flower again. And she will step back into the garden, and – kicking off her shoes – stand barefoot once more. Ready to move through the seasons of her life, to honour the dead, salute the living, and be grateful, if for nothing else, then for the very air she breathes.
“The quality of being: When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself.”
(Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind/Shunryu Suzuki)
LEONARD COHEN’S was – famously – famous and blue. But my new raincoat is canary yellow, and known, chiefly, just to me. It is my totem for this autumn and winter, an article of faith that, come rain or shine, I shall open my door and go walking. (As the picture above shows: today it was definitely rain.) Yorkshire is well known for its wet and windy weather. But I have lived in Leeds since 1996 and have never – until this week – owned a proper raincoat. Now that we are in a second lockdown, with a wave of virus washing over the city this September, it became clear to me that the only way out of this mess is through it. Through the woods, through the wild and the cold, and out the other side. Somehow. And the new yellow raincoat was the result.
World tilted off its axis
Early autumn sent my head into a spin. Indeed, the whole world was tilted off its axis, once again, just as we took our first tentative steps into a more social, connected, “normal” physical reality. Being pushed back behind the walls of our houses, behind the muted microphone madness of Zoom, and the mushrooming of email and internet traffic, felt bleak. There was no hot and sunny and exceptional spring to uplift us this time round. Just the encroaching darkness, the inevitable fall – of leaves, of energy – into autumn and winter.
The kicking of chairs
Since I had spent most of August nursing a recurrent tooth infection, followed by a dental extraction of almost medieval ferocity, this wake up to a new shutdown, felt mean and unfair. I was ready to play out now, damn it! A massive dose of self pity left me cross and unpleasant in mood. So restless. Chairs were kicked. Water got spilled over keyboards. There was shouting: at no one, at the world, at myself. Counting my blessings – I didn’t have Covid, I hadn’t lost anyone to the virus – didn’t seem to help.
Go take a walk
To the rescue came the raincoat. In the nick of time. Such a simple, obvious choice: to see things as they are, not as I would like them to be. And to do something about it. Throughout the whole of the Covid 19 crisis, my appetite for reading and for writing has been vanishingly small. Some of the very things that have sustained me thus far in my life have felt difficult and out of reach. I have turned instead to small, practical tasks. Sorting out the cupboards under the sink (for the first time since we moved in, in 2006). Making tomato chutney. Getting back to the garden. Taking a simple walk outside.
I love to walk (Walking the Hill Road) but have always been a fair weather rambler. I am easily beaten back by the darkness and the cold. But the weather in this world of ours is no longer fair. So what choice is left? Walk anyway. Feel the rain. See the beauty in the grey clouds as well as the blue sky. Seek sustenance from the one constant in all our fractured lives: the earth beneath our feet, the sky above us.
Soldiers Fields, Roundhay, Leeds, late September 2020
Everything is going to be alright
The Irish poet Derek Mahon died this week. His wonderful poem ‘Everything is going to be alright’, was quoted regularly at the start of lockdown. “There will be dying, there will be dying…” He acknowledges the dark here, certainly, but he celebrates the light more, writing his words in a “riot of sunlight”, and giving us a warm glow on the gloomiest of days. For he knows this: “The sun rises in spite of everything/and the far cities are beautiful and bright.” Although my own city basked in sunshine earlier this week – today, the brightest object in my world is that new yellow raincoat. But that’s enough. It’s more than enough. Walk on.
‘Everything is going to be alright’ is published in Faber’s New and Selected Poems by Derek Mahon.