Autumn leaves

The little Sumach tree in my front garden sends out a last shout, before shedding its finery for a long winter sleep. A message of joy – and surrender.

Letting go…

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.

Breathing in…

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.

The Promise of a Garden

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

Teaching T’ai Chi/Chi Kung at Slung Low’s Wild Conference, Temple Newsam, Leeds, Summer 2019

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

Outside Leeds Playhouse, July 2021. Standing between posters for the new show.

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.

Taking a Breathing Space

Morello Cherry in bloom, May 2021

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.

A Garden of the Mind

AEB70473-5D76-4C06-A5A2-7E7632AC302B_1_201_a

I shall be a gardener

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Lost and Found: Back to the Garden

94D83EE0-37FA-41FB-BCC9-677385FE91D2

The Rising Sun

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.

7C8180CC-E879-429E-9586-91DEE92B5D4D

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.

09E05562-9F82-482D-AD59-746691BB18F4

For Remembrance

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.

182A343F-BD0C-45C1-A58B-88761EF06858

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.

0BB19014-D27D-4F57-BA6A-20E3C9414F9C

New Yellow Raincoat

Soldiers Fields, Roundhay, Leeds, October 2020

“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. 

He reads the poem himself here:

Green Tomato Chutney

‘A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars’/Song of  Myself/Walt Whitman

Seeds of hope

ON 30 APRIL 2020, I planted some tomato seeds. Gardener’s Delight – an easy-to-grow, heavily cropping variety. I had been waiting for these seeds to arrive by post for four weary weeks. This was the beginning of lockdown in the UK. Suddenly everyone was re-discovering the green, and ordering seeds and plants and compost, desperate to make something grow in a time of death and dislocation. I joined the queue for online ordering, and then: silence. Just as I was beginning to despair, through the disinfected letter box they plopped. I got busy with some little pots along my kitchen windowsill: never more aware of the power of these little seeds to inject new growth into a moribund situation – and a simple kind of happiness and hope.

I was right up against the deadline – Sow from January to April, the back of the packet instructed – and wasn’t at all sure the seeds would take hold. But they did. Little leaves sprouted from each pot, with their jagged, jaunty outlines, and that familiar hot tomato smell. 

Tomato seedlings in tomato cans. The circle of life.

Potting On

I potted them on, and the astonishing spring warmth and sunshine strengthened their sense of purpose – and mine, too. I cleared out my old shed in the back garden. I remembered the wild allotment I had tended for seven years after my husband died, and which had re-purposed my life, digging me back into my own resilience and resolve; and I started to re-create some of that fruitful wilderness again, on a miniature scale. I hardly left house and garden in those early weeks, was rooted to the spot, feeling the pull of place – the soil beneath my feet – to help keep me standing and steady.

The tomato plants kept growing. In June I planted them in big pots by the back door: underneath the notice that read “Dear Delivery People, thank you for your help! Please leave parcels on the table by the back door” – subtext, “And don’t come any closer!” The contrast of this plague-type declaration, with the green, growing loveliness of the tomatoes, was not lost on me. I hoped the sight of them gave those poor harried postmen a second of uplift. It certainly did me.

 

The plants have been denuded of most of their crop now, but still they stand guard!

Rain, rain, rain

Tiny yellow flowers appeared, then the hint of a little green fruit. The leaves sprawled across the red doorway. Profligate growth, that made me greedy for more. the fruits appeared and they started to swell. Then came the rains. And the early spring heat turned to biblical soakings, day after day after day. By August the sun was still reluctant to appear.  Like the weather, I sickened, and a serious tooth infection, then a brutal, bloody extraction laid me low, in body and mind. In the outside world, the early promise of the pandemic – of bringing everyone together, in solidarity and kindness – had ruptured like my wretched tooth, with mad recriminations and a running amok on beaches, in pubs, at airports and borders. Anger replaced the warmth of fellow feeling, of staying put and staying well.

Nature’s jewels

Yet still my little tomatoes grew. They swelled and shone and dropped gracefully from their stems, like small green jewels. It was a gift just to look at them – which I did, early every morning, flinging open the back door just to check they were still there. Still standing. They always were.

 

Green tomatoes on a white plate on a green cloth in the garden room. Perfect.

Of course, they never had a chance to ripen properly and turn red. Too much rain on our northern hills, from June, through July and August too, and not enough heat or sun. But still they existed: and they felt like a lucky charm. A sweet silent companion through those tense and haunting lockdown days. Their very greenness a rebuke against despair.

Green tomato chutney

Yesterday, on 5 September, I harvested my tomatoes. With a certain amount of ceremony and satisfaction, I cut the the branches of fruit and brought them inside, to the kitchen where they started their little lockdown journey. I made green tomato chutney.

 

This is the pan and these are the fruits. Let’s cook!

To be honest, the haul wasn’t exactly huge. Enough for just three modest jars full. And I’m not sure that the chutney itself is the finest in the land. But I really don’t care. The pathway those tomatoes took me on, from April to September, from seed to fruit to harvest, was a lovely lesson in persistence and resilience. This is what takes us forward: never our grand designs, but small things, quietly savoured. Nature’s bounty. Back to the garden.

 

August

FC9752F4-4C97-40B4-A217-BB220F13DB88

haiku

when words seem worthless

listen for the wood pigeon

calling to your heart

When I was growing up, the wood pigeon’s cooing was a familiar sound in my parents’ Essex garden. Today, as August begins, and another  retreat is called for, from the confusing world of Covid 19, I sat for a few minutes in meditation, on the orange cushions in my back room, overlooking the garden. So tired. So very, very tired. And the thoughts –  a beating incoherence in my head. Through the open window, I heard the fleeting distant sound of a wood pigeon, quietly warbling. It reminded me of then. Of childhood. And of now. Late adulthood. Many missing people, many years flowing in between. But, in the sound of the bird, for a few precious seconds – all one.

Freedom Calling?

haiku

and now we are free

when all I feel is sorrow

so much has been lost

2F0FE80C-3505-41BD-8A7C-B3A0E8DDDD99

Yesterday, Saturday 4 July 2020, was dubbed “Super Saturday” in England. A grand lifting of lockdown. The pubs re-opened. The hairdressers. The restaurants. People queued from early morning for their pints, and to get their unruly hair cut. But the theatres stay shut. Some for good. The musicians are silenced. Live arts have disappeared behind a zoom screen and into the archives. I don’t feel much like celebrating.  I stay at home, sit in my shed in the early morning – listen to the gusts of cold, unseasonable wind, shaking it by its rafters – and wonder how the world became so out of joint. So splintered to its core. Even the singing birds fail to lift my spirits today. Sometimes the only answer to the question is sadness itself.