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.

Lost and Found: Back to the Garden

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Elizabeth Sings

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HAIKU

Elizabeth sings

Too long her voice was silent

Her throat swells open

The image here is of a Clematis Montana ‘Elizabeth’ in my May back garden in Leeds. It has taken a few years to establish, and its flowering was delayed by a long winter. But now, here she is! The haiku celebrates the May blossom. It also commemorates my beloved paternal grandmother, who had the most beautiful contralto voice. I am named after her. I, too, sing.    My grandmother and I, each in our very different ways, were silenced for long periods of time, by circumstance, sex or (in her case) class. Difficulties not withstanding,  both our voices have been heard. To all Elizabeths everywhere: sing on!!

A Little Light

THE LEAVES are now almost gone from even the sturdiest bush in the back garden –   dropped, all of a sudden, in the day’s gusty winds, from branch to bare earth. The hour has gone back. We are in the darkest moment of the year. This is when I start burning candles. A pumpkin sits on the window sill – uncarved, giving off its natural orange glow. My energy draws deeper and deeper in, towards the core. I should be hibernating: as should we all. And in some ways, I am. My limbs are getting heavier, eyelids drooping earlier and earlier in the day. I make my soups and stews. I wrap my feet in soft blankets and my neck in fleecy scarves. Natural nesting instincts, to assist and soothe, as the year drops away towards the shortest day. Then step by step towards spring.

Despite these sleepy instincts, my working life at the theatre – West Yorkshire Playhouse – has recently been busier than ever. Many workshops to run on the creative engagement programme – much plotting and collaborating with clever artists, musicians and drama practitioners – to take theatre, dance, poetry and music, out to communities of local people. And to bring them home to us.

The human imagination is a wonderful and mysterious thing. Through these busy weeks I have seen over and over again, how inventive and creative even the most challenged of people are, if they are just given a little nudge in the right direction. I have watched an older woman fall in love with a harp – handling it for the first time during an arts session, and almost falling inside it, as she coaxed the sounds of flowing water from its gently yielding strings. I saw, at the UK Dementia Congress, how vital sensory stimulus is, to someone coping with dementia, when a delighted delegate stopped by our stall, picked up pebbles and shells and driftwood and talked of her need to feel her way, through a world grown strange and different, in so many ways. Just yesterday I noticed the puzzled looks on the faces of my Wednesday Creative Writing group, as I set them the impossible challenge of writing a two-minute play in three acts (“That’s 40 seconds an act!” someone protested); then watched them just as quickly pick up the mantle, and set to work – pens flying across the page in conscientious endeavour. The results will be magic. I know it.

I  inwardly bemoan my failures too. There was the man with learning difficulties whose distress at a particular misunderstanding I just couldn’t decipher or mitigate; the woman with dementia, whose feet failed to really connect with the ground  in one of my movement sessions – because I couldn’t find the right words to connect her with the earth; and there are the colleagues whose astonishing skills I cannot always harness to my own, as we go about our work together. It is always a shot in the dark, this creative work… And what is it that we do, after all, in theatre – both on stage and off? We encourage ourselves, and the people who come to us, to soar a little, out of everyday life, into a different world. A world of possibility, of struggle overcome – of fleeting, occasional, palpable wonder.

One dear colleague, John, sent through a poem  which puts the whole endeavour beautifully into words.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
Christopher Logue

If we achieve anything in the world of the arts, then this would be the aim, after all. A little light in the darkness. A little light.

John Mee is one of the creative directors of Alive and Kicking, a dynamic, fun and sparky theatre company working in schools in and around Leeds, and bringing delight to many a child’s mind and heart. Their new show The Museum of Untold Stories, is booking now. Find them here

Our Time is a programme that I work on with John and with our wonderful colleague and manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Nicky Taylor, to inspire creativity in people with dementia. Read more about us here

Riot in the garden

Happiness is… Forgetting to tend the garden, and letting it, well, bloom. Peony profusion, and so much else. Happy May Bank Holiday. Which I shall spend, variously, reading, drinking white wine, staring at flowers – and then, off into space. Join me, in the quest for a more peaceful and indolent world.

My book A Handful of Earth (John Murray) explores this notion more thoroughly. How the garden heals us…

Poppies

Poppies are probably my favourite flower. I love the technicolour brightness of them. I love their furry, sexy, serrated leaves. I love the way the fat buds lurk in a mass of foliage, waiting, waiting, waiting…. for their moment to BURST out, in full technicolour, one lucky and glamorous day in May. Perhaps most of all, I love that they are both powerful and fragile, all at the same time. It seems, every year, that the minute my poppies come into bloom, they are savaged by sudden winds and rains, and resort to bending their gorgeous heads – bloodied, unbowed – as long as they possibly can, before shedding, dropping, disappearing for another year, sometimes after just a few days of flowering. They are a wonder.

I still wait for this year’s beauties to appear. Spring has been slow in its dawning. I stalk them in the garden, day by day, inspecting for buds, stroking their camouflage greenery, willing them to come out and join in the party, to break suddenly and stridently into song. The picture here is from last year’s crop. They are Tim’s poppies: grown and then transplanted from my old house, to the allotment, to my new house, all from a small plant given to me years ago by my husband, as a present for Mothers’ Day. So they hold a special place in my heart. They live on, though he couldn’t. They seem to shine in his honour, his memory, holding his curious mix of shyness and belligerence. And aren’t they bonny, with their red-orange skirts, their bold black hearts? Real warrior flowers.

This Bank Holiday weekend I have hardly been in my garden at all – though I feel fingers and toes itching to do so, the minute I finish writing this – because I have been up to my neck in a theatre festival, TRANSFORM 2015, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was a wonderful event – full of international artists and cross-cultural conversations – which will form the seedbed (gardening term unintended, but entirely appropriate) for future collaborations between Leeds and the cities and countries of the world. The thing about theatre folk, however, is their tendency to talk. To be LOUD – if not onstage, then certainly off it. So now I want to be silent for a while. Now I am turning, once again, to the quieter form of theatre right outside my kitchen window: the green stage and sweet scenery of my own city back garden.

Everything is looking very lush and verdant now: the acid greens of the euphorbia, the sharp sword leaves of Crocosmia Firebird – which will, come July, rival the poppies with its sharp, scarlet, trumpeting blooms. The birds are going crazy for the birdseed: hungrier than ever, now that they are making their nests and raising their young. Swarms of warring sparrows swoop and squabble over my birdbath every morning; blue tits and coal tits swing insouciantly from the fat-filled coconut shells; and my favourites – the blackbirds – hop and bounce across the grass, in search of the juiciest grub, the fattest, sleepiest worm.

Every week I go walking in Roundhay Park, north east Leeds, with my dog friend Badger, whom I borrow for the day each Thursday. Last week we suddenly found ourselves caught inside a great shaggy circle of shining black crows, all intent on their foraging, down at ground level, on a large open slope above the glittering lake – and quite oblivious to the hapless dog and human trapped momentarily in the middle of them all. What would they be, this gathering of satanic masters: a convention, a concatenation, a coven? Whatever the word, they had a certain pleasing menace about them: and a natural dramatic presence. Theatre in the round. Black crows in Roundhay Park. Theatre, said Augusto Boal, quoted by a Lebanese activist at the TRANSFORM festival this last weekend, must be a “rehearsal for the revolution”. I just wonder what those birds – never mind the humans – are plotting to overthrow first?