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

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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

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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.

 

 

Shopping List

Coming out of Lockdown –  a  Confused New World

It’s now over three months since the Corona Virus lockdown began in the UK. There have been so many words written about this, so many opinions shouted, so much hurt and resentment, and most of all – such deep, deep loss. I am a quick thinker – but slow to come to any conclusions. It will take me a long time to figure out what all this means. All I do for now, is take one shaky step at a time: to live my life, stay reasonably well and sane, and reach out – from a distance – to the people, and the things, I care about most. Some people are rushing out into the world, hurling themselves off cliffs, crowding beautiful beaches, and piling into parks in a boozy throng, now that restrictions are beginning to ease. Not me. By nature more cautious, I wait. And still I wait. Trying to figure out how to shape a new life, from the ashes of the old. One thing that has been a unifying force for me and for my young adult daughter, who currently lives at home with me, has been the joy of the weekly grocery delivery. Lists and online slots have become her unique selling point in the household, and there is much excited talk of what to order, what to cook, and how to nourish ourselves in this depleted, exhausting time. Here is a poem based on that premise. I have no joined up eloquence to express what is happening. So a simple list will have to do.

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Shopping List

1. Out of stock/currently unavailable:

The faces of friends, of family and colleagues, wreathed in smiles – poised for argument, or song.

A  touch of the hand in welcome.

Interrupted conversations.

The noise of the theatre: the five minute call.

Soft steps of the T’ai Chi, walked together, as one.

Happy dancing.

Happy drinking.

A beer in the little local bar.

Bus journeys. Train journeys. Plane journeys.

The sea.

Freedom to fly: in body, in mind.

Another country.  Many countries.

Budapest. Ireland. The North Yorkshire Coast.

All my dead beloveds.

My old dog. And other dogs, too.

The beat up gold Toyota Yaris, sent for scrap in January. Would have been useful now.

Courage to go where I please, unmasked, and carefree, and open.

The wildness of the world, beyond the hedges of my garden.

An appetite for reading.

A keenness to study.

A mind that can focus.

The energy to dream.

Stepping out.

Stepping forward.

Stepping up.

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2. Unexpected items in bagging area:

Animals taking over city streets, as the whales start to sing again.

My old shed – tidied and cleared, after years of neglect.

Fairy lights sparkling in the dark, wellington boots standing  to attention.

Tomato seeds planted in tomato cans.

Lettuce plants raggedly greening.

Inertia.

Toothache and patience. Paracetamol and codeine. Moxa and deep red wine.

Raging against injustice.

Rebellion and riots.

Forty thousand dead – and rising.

A black man dies at the knee of a white policeman: fire in the Minneapolis streets.

Eight minutes, forty six seconds. ∗

Justice demanded, statues start to topple.

Frenzied voices, confused agendas.

Moments of calm.

The kindness of strangers.

Deliveries and phone calls.

Solidarity in the distance: disembodied zoom calls. Echoing. Frozen.

Self care, snoozing, sleepiness, exhaustion.

Mother and daughter, together.

Comrades in the kitchen, politics in the living room.

Stillness.

Moonlight.

Netflix.

Sunshine.

Silence and sorrow.

And the bitter-sweet song of the birds.

∗ On 25 May 2020, George Floyd died on the street in Minneapolis, after being arrested and handcuffed, with a policeman’s knee pressed on his neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds, suffocating him to death. #BlackLivesMatter

 

 

 

All Around My Shed

Angelica and honeysuckle by Molly McGee

A room of my own…  The allotment shed from 2010. How such places save us, during lockdown.

Six weeks and counting

Six full weeks have now gone by, of our Corona Virus lockdown. I, along with many colleagues, stopped running our theatre, movement and writing classes on 16th March 2020.  The British government – disastrously late and negligent in so many ways – imposed official restrictions only from 23rd March. But the people themselves, especially those working in theatre, saw the dangers of such intense face to face contact somewhat earlier than that. In a game of whispers and anxious uncertainty, we retreated behind our individual doors and waited. Twenty thousand hospital deaths later, and still we wait – for a vaccine, for the rate of infections to fall, for the tide of events to turn in our favour, and, in the face of all this death, for life to begin again.

Strange days and sweet consolations

The days, I notice, are passing quickly in our isolation. One minute it is breakfast – my favourite time, for nothing in the world is better than a fried egg sandwich and a strong fresh coffee – and then, suddenly, it’s 6pm, and a glass of cold white wine is calling. (Food and drink has become a national obsession, judging by my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and I am certainly no exception.) Yes, the days are fast – and kind of blurry, in their constrained similarity, one to the other – but the weeks are slow. And the months are slower still.

Are we really still in April? The warm dry weather, under clear blue skies – the blueness more intense, they say, because the pollution levels have dropped so steeply – is suggestive of early summer, rather than mid spring. But the calendar confirms it. Sunday 26th April. And on we go. Maybe for many weeks to come.

Taking a leave of absence

There is always so much, in the realm of the mind, that I could be attending to, in all this enforced free time. There is a new book, that I am meant to be working on. Hungarian grammar to be studying. All those long-neglected classics from Tolstoy and Dickens, Austen and Eliot, that I could be reading. And some of this is happening, I promise. But my diligence is scant, my attention span short. My brain has taken temporary leave of absence, and thought patterns are vague and inconsequential. I keep connected to the groups that I run – send T’ai Chi videos, meditation audios, writing exercises, and messages of support. But all, of course, from afar, when physical presence has been the very touchstone of my teaching and performing, for the past thirty years.

But going through a global pandemic is perhaps not the best time to be productive. Indeed, it feels like an achievement of sorts, just to stay on a reasonably even keel. To cook, to garden, to tend to the domestic domain, seems so trifling a thing, compared to the frontline work of doctors and nurses, and the struggles among those who are ill with the virus, who are doing their best to recover. But there is something to be said, for just getting through this, I hope. To quote Kurt Vonnegut “If you can do no good, at least do no harm.”

Something I noticed, right at the beginning of this crisis, was the power of the small, to relieve tension and settle the mind. Noticing tiny changes in the garden. Watching the birds. Savouring the taste of a simple meal. And smallness continues to be the key – at least for me. Little and tangible achievements in the present moment, are genuinely keeping me well. Weeding a small patch of overgrown border in the garden. Planting pea seeds in a pot. Washing the bathroom floor. Clearing a space in the corner of the bedroom, to place a pleasing display of candles and nightlights, where there was once just an abandoned muddle of  stuff.

Busying the body, settling the mind

When the mind could simply explode with the enormity of what we face – the body takes over to soothe us: hands get busy with practical household tasks; and legs take us walking, through the woods, round the block, up and down the stairs, out into the garden. Shakespeare may indeed  have written King Lear during the plague years – and the subsequent theatre lockdowns –  of the seventeenth century, but I remain content with a quieter, more humble ambition. To simply survive these days – and to see the people I love and care about, do the same.

 

 

How the virus is changing our world

Strange things are happening all over the world. A jellyfish swims serenely through the clear and empty canals of Venice. A bear stalks the city streets in Spain. A coyote is photographed peacefully dozing  in broad daylight by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Jackals howl in Tel Aviv. Elephants in India cross a normally busy road junction – the whole herd safe in the knowledge that not a single car will hit them.

Humans, meanwhile, find solace in the virtual world they have created, when the real world has slammed shut its doors. Even my older brother, a confirmed technophobe of many decades standing, has taken to Facebook with alacrity, to name his Top Ten albums and favourite films. The choices have caused consternation and fierce debate.

Lockdown brings surprises of all sorts. When ringing a local government office over a Council Tax query, I expected the usual polite coolness. But I am greeted, unexpectedly, by a sudden friendly laugh at the end of the phone. The man, when he recovers himself, is, he assures me, the right one to speak to, it’s just that he’s working from home, and his dog – just as my call was re-directed to him – had burst his new bean bag, and scattered the contents all over himself and the rest of the room. Like that bean bag, we are all undone. Nothing is as it was. There is no business as usual. The world is upside down. And, inside the huge human tragedy which has caused this upending, there is, quietly, much to celebrate and enjoy.

 

All around my shed(s)

Ten years ago, I tended a rough old allotment plot. It saw me through the illness and death of my husband (and I wrote about it in A Handful of Earth). I learned that digging the land could be a deep and sustaining cure for sadness, and for grief. When I gave up the allotment, I also had to relinquish the ramshackle, but magnificent old shed, which had come with the smallholding. How I loved that shed, and would sit on its step for many a happy hour, gazing at the peas and beans and wild flowers around the frog-filled pond in front of me.

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A room with a view. Door step dreaming on my allotment, many years ago…

I have a shed in my own back garden, too. But I’ve never used it, or enjoyed it, the way I did the one on my allotment. Through the years it has become a dumping ground for old pots, rusty shears, abandoned netting, and half used bags of compost. But one day, during lockdown, I peered in the doorway. Before I knew it, I went into a minor frenzy of clearing and sorting. For the first time in a decade, I can step inside now. There are photographs. There is bunting. There is a certain jaunty, shambolic cheerfulness in the air. And the making of this space, the simple making do, with what I have, and where I am, has left me more peaceful, more content. The book has not been written. My reading list is long, and untouched. The future is uncertain. I miss my travelling – my colleagues and my friends. But at least I have this little shed, and it feels like some kind of marker of hope and happiness and fun. My daughter has ordered fairy lights. The first toast, after lockdown, with the first visitors who come, will be, of course, all around my shed. And how sweet that taste will be.

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The Solace of Small Things

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SOMETIMES WHEN I wake in the middle of the night – which I invariably do – I go through a calming repertoire, to try and coax myself back to sleep. Breathing meditations. Reiki hand positions – one hand on the heart, the other on the solar plexus – to settle my nervous system. (See Reiki and the Anxious Mind) I conjure memories of mountains and the sea. The faces of beloved family and friends.

But last night, I simply asked for one word, to help me through these difficult days and nights. The word that came – unprompted and immediate – was DELICACY. What? I shrugged my shoulders and fell back asleep.

It is rare that I remember any of my nocturnal adventures, my wild dreams and waking ramblings, by the time the morning comes. But today was different. Delicacy. There it was again. A message from the ether. But what could it mean?

Times of Crisis and Extremity

There have been times in my life before, when the pressure has built over time, and become extreme and constant. There were crisis points in my husband Tim’s ten year struggle with cancer, when I felt my body and spirit ready to crack open with the strain. And then there was the terrible fear and stigma of the AIDs era, when I watched three young men die in quick succession, after trying, along with a valiant bunch of close friends, to nurse our stricken pals at home, through raging fevers, night sweats, skin eruptions, opportunistic cancers and pneumonia. How hopelessly inadequate we all felt, locked in a culture that both ostracised and demonised the people dear to us, in the hour of their deepest need. How ill equipped were the hospitals (!) And how frightened we all were, of becoming infected ourselves, as well as losing those we loved.

Together, Alone

The Corona Virus is different. When my husband got sick, and died in 2004, I felt lonely, isolated, and out of step with all my contemporaries, as they built their careers, their relationships, their families, with healthy and unsullied ambitions for the future. My only ambition was to get through each day, somehow intact. And when my friends were dying in the 1990s, we all felt outside the culture, betrayed by the country we lived in. Those were the days of anti-gay propaganda, of scaremongering public notices on television, with images of icebergs, swirling mists, and doom laden voiceovers. But the Corona Virus is no bigot. It picks on any and all of us. And in this strange new world, we are all vulnerable, all scared and alone. Together.

Week Three of my own self imposed lockdown is over. A pattern begins to  emerge, of good days, followed by bad; of energetic mornings, leading to deadened afternoons; of a constant underlying fatigue, which has nothing at all to do with work achieved, or energy expended, and everything to do with Fight or Flight – because what do you do, when you can’t run from the threat, or beat it? You collapse a little inside, and you surrender. Sleepiness as a constant companion, feels natural to me, in an unnatural context.

Wise Words and a Helping Hand

Like everyone else, I am reaching for mechanisms to cope, when my usual weekly rhythm of teaching and theatre work – which is such an extravert and people-friendly endeavour – has skidded to a halt. But as a writer, too, solitude comes easily to me. By nature an introvert, staying at home is hardly a problem. Until staying at home stretches into the foreseeable future that is, with no option of breaking the quarantine, without putting myself – and others – in danger.

It is memory and previous experience which comes to my aid now. I remember one particular encounter at traffic lights, nearly twenty years ago. The woman standing next to me was pushing a pram with a new born baby inside. The baby was very sick – there were oxygen bottles and tubes, tucked in among the soft toys and the fleecy blankets. I knew this woman slightly, and had heard about her baby. And I knew, too, that the baby was not expected to survive much longer.

At the time, my husband was coming to the end of his life too, and I was tense, exhausted, near despair. As can happen at times like this, two near strangers, with nothing to lose, and no thought of the usual self protective conventions, reached out and revealed their inner selves, by way of consolation.

I found myself confiding in this woman, who listened, kindly and calmly, before offering me a piece of advice. ” This is what I have found in my situation. The thing to do is to notice and appreciate the smallest details of your life. What is it that brings you pleasure? The bigger picture is impossible right now.  But you can enjoy a brief ray of sunshine, the sound of a bird, the smile on a friend’s face. All you have is what you have right now, in this moment, with each passing breath. And it’s precious.”

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The things she was saying are commonplace now, with the growth of the mindfulness movement, and the increasing use of meditation as a tool for calming the over-anxious mind. But at the time, the way she spoke felt rare. I have never forgotten our brief encounter, and – yes – the delicacy of her words. There was real wisdom in her philosophy, which had been learned and practised in extremis.

The Delicacy of Small Delights

The baby did die, not longer afterwards. My husband died too. But this woman’s words live on in my mind. And now, in domestic lockdown, I find myself practising what she preached: being grateful for the taste of good, simple food; enjoying the way the sunlight catches the acid green of new spring growth in my garden and in the nearby wood; finding time to study and to read; discovering the delicacy of small delights, in a world where anything bigger than my own house and back garden, feels overwhelming and out of control. I am learning to honour the breaths that I take. In such troubled times, it is not selfish or frivolous to take pleasure in the everyday beauty of our lives: instead, it feels more urgent, more compelling than ever before.

 

 

Just One Voice

“Just one voice

Singing in the darkness

All it takes is one voice

And everyone will sing”

(Barry Manilow)

Blackbird singing

A FEW YEARS ago, I was in a state of quiet panic. My beloved dog had just died – not long after my father, who was, again, a precious presence in my life, now gone. My daughter had been very ill. I held things together, day to day, but in my mind, everything was falling apart. Early morning, just before dawn, was the worst. I would wake, all of a sudden, heart thumping, still trapped in thunderous nightmares, not sure who I was – or where.

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But all through those lonely summer days, I had one feathered companion. Through the open bedroom window, a blackbird sang to me, every single morning. One of the first of the dawn chorus to give voice, his beautiful melodies soothed and settled me, made me ready to face the day. He seemed to sing, not for his sake, but for mine, and it was a deeply healing experience.

Ever since those strange panic days, I continue to wake early. I have learned to settle myself better, and my need of the blackbird’s song is less urgent, more celebratory than medicinal, though always a gift.

Small comforts in times of crisis

One week into domestic lockdown, as we move inexorably deeper into national and global crisis, I find myself consoled by the smallest of details. After waking, there is the quiet panoply of birdsong – not just Mr Blackbird, but the squabbling sparrows who nest in my hedges, the warble of the wood pigeons in the nearby wood. At 7 a.m. our ancient boiler kicks in, and hot water flushes through the radiators to warm our day. Then the builder across the road arrives in his van: loud rock music blaring from the open window. And with that – I am up. The new day has begun.

Builders’ rubble

I find that the things which once irritated me, are now curiously consoling. Take that noisy builder, for example, with his loud conversations on the street, his endless house repairs – and the constant deliveries of concrete slabs, huge bags of cement, fluted roof tiles and wooden beams and struts.

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The intricacies of this renovation, which has been going on for months now, are beginning to fascinate me. Hemmed in by the need to stay confined to the house, the soap opera occurring across the street, and clearly visible in every detail through the front window, has become a regular source of free entertainment.

Green, green grass of home

Meanwhile, out the back, the scene is a very different one: and balm for the soul. I love my garden. It is a little wild, often somewhat unkempt, but full of green promise. And never more so than now. Just past the Spring Equinox, everything is springing into growth. Scrambling clematis. The uncurling of ferns. Flowering currant bushes – their acrid scent, strangely invigorating. Clumps of narcissus. The sharp blades of iris and monbretia. Snake’s head fritillaries, hanging their pretty heads in shy celebration.

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To stand on the grass and simply breathe deeply, is such a privilege: watching the blue vault of the sky above, and feeling the solid earth beneath, and knowing that we will, collectively, survive this terrible time, and that nature itself will help us do so.

It is not just the birds that are singing, of course. On balconies in Italy, the people sing their arias of hope and resilience. On council estates in Scotland, they are belting out ‘Sunshine on Leith’. And in Northern Ireland, the bingo teller perches on a roof top, to call out the numbers to an attentive but quarantined estate.

Sound of silence

Yes, everyone will sing. But now, more than ever, we also have a chance, maybe even a deep need, to be quiet. No airplanes. No traffic. Just our own hearts beating. The great poet Pablo Neruda understood this, and articulated it in his poem, ‘Keeping Quiet’:

“Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still

for once on the face of the earth,

let’s not speak in any language;

let’s stop for a second,

and not move our arms so much.

***

It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines;

we would all be together

in a sudden strangeness.

…..

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

***

Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go.

 from Extravagaria by Pablo Neruda, translated by Alastair Reid (Noonday Press)

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