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.

 

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.

 

 

Work Ethic?

THIS WEEK I had an email from a brilliant young Hungarian poet, whose writing I sometimes translate (See Poems and Pálinka) and who has a brain the size of a planet and a work ethic to match. We were discussing a new European collection of poetry to which we had both contributed. I asked how he was – “I’m overworked as always…maybe it’s an addiction I should get checked out.”

He was joking, of course, but it made me think. When people come to me for Reiki they nearly always talk of pressure: stress at work, commitments at home, a sense of a mind and body in overdrive, leaving them less able to relax and enjoy themselves, leading, ultimately to illness and distress.

‘I’m far too busy…’

This is a trap I’ve fallen into in my own life too often. A sense, even as a maverick freelancer – or maybe because of this precarious status – that I must chase to keep up. That there is always a danger I will be left behind, as everyone else forges successfully ahead. A foolish compulsion.

Yet the times when I resist this false comparison, the endless forward motion and competition – with others, and, more crucially, with myself – are the times when I become truly contented in my own skin. Sitting watching the birds. Writing a card or letter to a friend, instead of tapping out yet another email. Taking time to make something delicious to eat. Walking in nature. Conversations with others. Playing my ukulele (Progress is slow there – but I am getting better!) None of these things make me money. I will never be rich. Far from it. But abundance is surely not measured in bank notes, or in the number of hours clocked up, chained to the office desk? Down time, “lost” time, dream time – is such a beautiful and life enhancing thing.

A broken system

A lot of the work I do, outside of my Reiki and independent classes, is with two big institutions: one a theatre, the other a national newspaper.  I love the projects and the writing that they foster – am committed, body and soul, to the powerful creative collaborations that they engender. But I notice that the people who work within these big buildings are often hopelessly over-committed, even overwhelmed, by the amount of things they have to cope with on a daily basis.

Emails don’t get answered, because they are lost in an Inbox that groans at the seams with demands and diktats. The phone passes instantly to answerphone. Even face-to-face, there is a sense of these valiant worker bees permanently hovering on the wing, primed for the next task, and the one after that, ad infinitum.

Then they leave the office uneasy, knowing that their “To Do” list has barely been touched. And if they are ill – and surely this system is only destined to make people ill? – then they know,  that the workload accrued will have doubled and tripled in their absence.

Isn’t it time we did things differently, somehow? Switched off the computer. Switched back on to ourselves?

The hand of kindness

Twenty years ago, when I was doing some movement coaching for drama students in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, I used to worry about their extreme levels of anxiety, their chaotic young lives. What these people need isn’t drama training, I reflected: it’s therapy.

This was the start of a journey for me towards the healing – as well as creative – arts. It led to using gentle movement for people living with dementia  and running workshops for refugees and asylum seekers. And recently it has brought me to Reiki. A compassionate touch. Relief from the needless stresses that others lay upon us – and that we lay upon ourselves.

I have been to two funerals in the past two months.Very different people: one a university administrator, the other a primary school teacher. Both of them extremely conscientious and hardworking. But  what people talked about most, and appreciated above all, as these dear people’s lives were celebrated, was their kindness and friendship. Kindness is what people will remember you for. It is what will draw them to you. And above all else, it is vital, in this speeded-up, stressed-out, ever-more-edgy society, that we are kind to ourselves. Sit down now  – look at the birds, smell the fresh air. Cherish your one and only, your very precious life.

Reiki and the Anxious Mind

The sensitive soul

WHEN I WAS a child, I used to drive my ebullient mother wild with frustration. At the slightest upset, the tears would flow. I was ultra aware of atmosphere – worried by raised voices, by any hint of disharmony. “Oh stop crying! You’re too sensitive!” my mother would wail. She wasn’t scared of a good scrap herself. But me? Always one skin less. As I have developed in my adult life, to work, as a writer and teacher, with groups of people who may themselves be vulnerable in some way, this sensitivity has served me well. And when working as an artist on solo projects – memoir, features and poetry, drawing deeply on my own inner life – the tendency to brood and be introspective has also been a plus. But it comes at a price.  Particularly when the outside world ramps up the threat. At such times, having a nervous system like a highly-tuned sports car, is no longer an advantage: it is, instead, an extra worry and a burden.

When things fall apart

Death and serious illness never came near me when I was growing up. But by the time I got to my thirties it was all around me, like a stormy sea. Close friends were getting ill and dying from AIDS and cancer. Then, at only 37, my husband also got sick. We hadn’t been together very long, and had a very young child. But illness is no respecter of circumstance, and he was diagnosed with a thymoma, a rare and incurable cancer of the thymus gland. Death was certain – though he spent ten years keeping it at bay, determined, as he was, to see his beloved daughter grow to be eleven, before he left us. Those ten years were a minefield of treatments and of physical suffering for him: and, as his primary carer,  I was also exhausted, and psychologically battered. It took another ten years to recover. But somehow, my mind never got back to a state of utter balance. The adrenaline alert I had lived with for so long, just kept on pushing and pulling in the background, disturbing sleep, and mood, even as I made a new and creative life for myself and my daughter.

Reiki to the rescue

Many techniques have helped and enriched me through these challenges and depletions – from T’ai Chi, to acupuncture, to massage and meditation. They bring balance, a sense of peace, moments of exquisite harmony. But when I started investigating Reiki, it wasn’t really any of those things that I was seeking from it. I had recently fractured my shoulder. I wanted help with the pain. I wanted to feel physically comfortable again. Physiotherapy had helped enormously – thank goodness for our National Health Service. Painkillers played their part. Codeine can be a godsend when your body is screaming for respite. But Reiki seemed to go deeper than that. As I investigated further, receiving treatments, and  finally becoming trained and attuned myself as a Reiki practitioner, I realised that my whole nervous system seemed to be quietening down. And that the new composure was there for good!

Fight or Flight

A herbalist I consulted a few years back said that my adrenal glands were depleted – leaving me anaemic, weak and unsteady. It was years of living with the red alert of serious illness – I had got used to my nervous system going into “fight or flight” mode at the slightest provocation. My stomach would lurch with anxiety, even when faced with fairly mundane problems or challenges. Somehow, I could never switch off. The “sympathetic” part of my nervous system – preparing my body for action, pumping blood to the heart, speeding up breathing – seemed to be just too busy, all of the time.

Rest and Digest

After a few months of working with simple, profound Reiki techniques, I noticed something different. My stomach refused to lurch in anticipation of new or unexpected events. I felt quieter and more steady, deep inside myself. And this different way of being wasn’t going away. It was mine, now. It was me. My “parasympathetic” nervous system, which allows for inner equilibrium and a steady calm, was coming into play. Reiki seemed to be helping that happen.

Helping Hands – Quiet Mind

Apart from skilful intervention from a Reiki Master during this steadying-up period, I learned how to lay hands upon myself. Before sleep, I laid two hands, side by side, palms down, over my heart area; then over the solar plexus; and finally, on the belly. Feeling the warmth. Keeping the hands still. Feeling the mind quieten into rest. Upon waking – I did the same thing again. I now do this every day and every night, without fail. And if I wake in the night from bad dreams, or a racing mind, something to which I have always been prone – then again, I place my hands over my heart. And a softening begins to happen. And back to sleep I go.

Caring for Self and for Others

We are living in anxious – and, indeed, violent – times. The ability to be quiet and calm, to switch off and replenish the inner self, seems to be getting lost in a clamour of loud voices all around us. It is a delight to find something that does NOT shout; that is simple and steady and always available. The warmth of the hands – of the life force or “ki/chi” itself – finds its way to the heart. And lets us know that everything will be OK. If we let it. If we learn how to do it, and to keep on doing it, all through our lives. Reiki is just one way to find this inner stillness and balance. It is a beautiful form of self care – and of care for others, too. A quiet mind, in a quiet body. A little bit of “yin”, to the “yang” of the outside world. If YOUR mind is overburdened, and your body tired and depleted; maybe Reiki can help you to drop some of that weight, and travel a little lighter through your days.

I offer solo treatments in my Reiki Room in Oakwood, Leeds, West Yorkshire. If you would like to find out more, take a look at my Reiki In Leeds page here.