Flowers of Spring

THE CLUMPS of snowdrops in the garden and in the park. Stems of daffodils, standing to attention on the high banks, yellow crocus in fat bud, lining the avenues. Even the squat and star-shaped leaves of bluebells, already lying in wait for their moment, later in May,  in the little local wood. Everything tells the same story – down to the sour clods of mud, stuck hard on the bottom of boots, and the feathered fringes of my Thursday dog’s fur. Spring is on its way. And even the thinnest ray of sunshine, filtering through our grey northern clouds, brings a little skip to the heart, a lightness to the step.

We follow the seasons particularly closely, in a creative arts project I help to run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for people with dementia and those who care for them. Bringing in the fruits of autumn – pumpkins, squash – and the signals of winter – bare branches, images of snow – helps stabilise us all, within the rhythms of the natural world. It is a concrete reminder, to minds that may be confused, and hearts that are sometimes sore with loneliness and worry, that we can always rely on one fact: the world that disappears, like Persephone, deep into the underground at the end of every year, will always return, come the spring.

Snowdrops are the first harbingers. Then, hot on their heels, come the gaudy yellows of narcissus, the soft mauves, whites and blues of the woodland flowers, and then the heavenly mass of forest bluebells. Everybody loves spring flowers.

And though there is talk in our sessions, sometimes, of a dark  and wintry mood – of sadness at things lost: a once-nimble mind, a youthful body, friends and family that may  be dead or far away – there is always a ready access to joy. People with dementia are often more direct, less inhibited, in their emotional expression: as if the pipeline to their mind, which has grown furred and blocked, has been re-directed, opened wider, straight into their hearts.

Singing, writing song lyrics and poetry, and dancing to the powerful rhythms of spring, brings genuine delight to this group – and to those of us who lead it. Always, people’s  humour is diverting. Always, their creativity surprises and delights. Always, their own words and ideas are faithfully recorded and celebrated. In the last two weeks, new beginnings have been the dominant theme. Spring is calling everyone to attention.

Snowdrops have brought forth a tune of survival…”Snowdrops, snowdrops, snowdrops…Soft white petals, musty and sweet…smells like winter…pushing through the earth… Heralding the spring!” Parallels between the natural world – and the human need and determination to survive, to thrive, whatever the odds – are never far away. “The light makes the shoots come through/Coming out from the dark earth/Flowers dancing, swaying, springing back/They won’t break/I won’t let them…”  The whole of life is starting to pulsate. “One bird feeding… a whole flock comes gliding… dancing through the sky.” “Lovely to feel the sun on your face…What a relief!… Spring has sprung.”

My colleague, singer songwriter Fran Woodcock, co-presents the dementia-friendly Our Time workshops and provides all the glorious music that accompanies our exploration of  images, words and movement.  Visit her website here.

Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, has pioneered all the dementia-friendly work in the theatre. Her latest triumph is a ground-breaking festival of theatre for people with dementia. Read about it here

 

Advertisements

Up on the moors with Emily Bronte

“Emily loved the solemn moors, she loved all wild, free creatures and things.” (Literary News, 1883)

THE BRONTE SISTERS are much on my mind this autumn. This year, 2016, marks the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth: and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I teach a creative writing session every Wednesday, is celebrating with an eclectic season of readings and re-imaginings of her work. My writers, meanwhile, are setting free their imaginations, to invent poems and prose, inspired by the mighty and evergreen themes that Charlotte and Emily in particular examined, with such forensic intensity. Freedom and incarceration. Love and loyalty. Solitude and surveillance. The passions and confinements of women. Life: and the very-present shadow of death.

Last week I ventured over to Haworth, former home of the Brontes,to tread the ground which gave rise to such a powerful and enduring literary canon. Leeds, in West Yorkshire, where I live, is only a hop and a skip away from the high stone village, where the Brontes spent their childhoods – and which forms a bold, symbolic backdrop to all their writing. I took the train from Leeds to Keighley, on the Skipton line. Then a glorious steam train from Keighley to Haworth(ignoring the beer festival which took over most of the carriages en route). A steep old walk from the station, through the well-kept park, and up the narrow cobble road of the village, took me to the Parsonage itself: once the Bronte family house, now a museum and proud keeper of the Bronte flame.

Inevitably, the Brontes have become a heritage industry of great value. Tourists flock from all over the world, to catch a glimpse of the buildings and landscape immmortalised in ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. But it is October. The weather is closing in, and the visitors are melting away. And on a clear autumnal day such as this was, the beauty and the elemental starkness of Haworth shone through with compelling force, unclouded by crowds and cameras and chatter.

So there was the Parsonage – grey and sturdy. Across the courtyard garden – the cemetery. Down a small slope – the church, where all the Brontes, save Anne, are buried. And, just a short walk up through the churchyard – a meadow, walled with blunt Yorkshire stone. Beyond that – the crags, the wild bare expanses of the Moors themselves. (See the photo above). This was what Emily would have seen, looking out of her Parsonage window. These indeed were the “heights”, the bleak and “wuthering”,”blustery and turbulent”, hills. And it stirred me, to see them.

Of the two writing sisters – Emily and Charlotte – Charlotte Bronte is, to me, the most sophisticated and subtle, by far; and of the two women, Emily – who died so young, so troubled – is by far the wildest. It is Charlotte I would read, for insight into the human condition. But it is Emily I would invoke, if I found myself fearful, spirit flagging, heart weak. She was a girl devastated by losses and grief (as her poem “Remembrance” so powerfully reveals); she was unable, it seems, to overcome her pain, and to function fully, in the way that Charlotte somehow managed to. And yet, when she travelled to Brussels with Charlotte, the head of the school where they enrolled and taught, Monsieur Heger, described her – with remorseless sexism, but telling psychological insight – thus: “She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty…”

Emily died in 1848, one year after ‘Wuthering Heights’ was published. She never knew the extraordinary effect it had on generations of readers to come. It is a deeply imperfect piece of writing. But it is a clenched fist to the heart and the stomach. It has real power. Full of contradictions, Emily herself – profoundly shy and yet physically courageous, chained to her moors and yet flying high and free in her imagination – was tender to the last. She died just three months after brother Branwell. The housemaid said, “Miss Emily died of a broken heart, for the love of her brother.” She was so small and thin, her coffin was only sixteen inches wide.

The last words must be hers, channelled though Catherine Earnshaw, in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and I like to think of her, running hell for leather, like her alter ego Catherine, across the boundless heather she invokes so passionately.

“Oh, I’m burning! I wish I were out of doors – I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free… I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills…Open the window again wide, fasten it open!”

Wave Haiku

deep winter darkness

winds howl – the bare earth deafened

still waves rise like hope

IT HAS BEEN impossible to find adequate words to deal with the atrocities in Paris – and now the UK government’s decision to drop bombs in Syria. But always it is nature that leads me back towards the essentials – and back to a sense of possibility, of stability and peace. Hence this haiku. The wind is whipping around our house right now, and our lights burn against the darkness. The seasons turn. We will see the sun  again.

I wrote something recently in the Guardian theatre pages about work done at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, to support refugees in our city. Here is the link –  the hand of friendship 

Meanwhile, the waves rising gently in the photograph are from the Northumberland coastline. It is the mighty Bamburgh beach in winter time.

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

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?