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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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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