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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Broad Beans

IT IS the last day of spring and – with the 1st of June tomorrow – the theoretical dawn of summer. But you would not think so, if you stepped out into my Leeds garden today, with its cool, unfriendly breezes, and if you saw the array of plants, giant poppies chief among them, who are steadfastly refusing to pop their swelling buds, because it’s just not warm or sunny enough. After the colourful heat of early April, with its dizzying display of spring blooms (now finished), this is a mighty disappointment. But I have a single consolation: the broad beans. There they sit, in a mouldy old grow bag, by the back door. All sprightly green, with pretty white flowers, and a single, bold, black eye at their heart. Even though they are placed right in the pathway of the wind, as it comes bowling down my narrow driveway from the road, they are utterly undaunted: every time a gust pushes them over, up they bounce again, jaunty as you like, hardly a leaf or flower head out of place. Indomitable. That’s the spirit.

For seven years, from 2003 to 2010, I kept an allotment – a patch of wild, weed-infested clay – hidden behind an unprepossessing row of council flats in a downtrodden part of North East Leeds. Despite its unpromising location: it was a little piece of paradise. (Apart from the politics of The Allotment Committee, which were a nightmare. But isn’t that always the case?Where two people and a clipboard are gathered together…)

I took on my plot in direct response to a crisis in my life – the terminal cancer and death of my husband Tim. When you are a long-term carer – as I was, for ten years – you are in a strange kind of isolation from the rest of humanity. There is “normal” life: and then there is the prison that serious illness creates – a prison of the body, a prison of the mind.

I started digging my allotment because I honestly did not know what else to do. Turning the earth, making things grow, being outside, gave me a primitive sense of purpose and renewal. Amidst all that dying – a feeling of being alive.

But the truth is that I was never much good at growing vegetables. My overgrown piece of land was colourful and pleasing, certainly – full of rampant flowers, a tiny, fecund pond, and an old glorious shed. But productive? Feed the family? Avoid ever having to darken Tesco’s doors again, for fresh fruit and veg? Not exactly.

Oh, I made lots of charts about crop rotation, about the particular needs of the cauliflower, the potato and the pea, and I set about with netting, twiggy pea sticks and bamboo stakes as if my life depended on it. But honestly? I never really got the hang of it, and I never really cared. That little plot of land saved my sanity, restored my health and strength, and for that I will always be grateful.

In the end, I gave it up for the same reason I began: grief, loss and change. In 2010 my darling dad died, and I lost all heart for growing things for quite a while. I turned my back on the garden that had once restored me, and found solace in other places entirely – re-discovering my love of languages, travelling back to Eastern Europe as I had done in my youth, enjoying the city, and the company of others, with the same zeal I had once felt for being alone with my trusty trowel and spade.

But things go in circles – they have rhythms of their own – like the sea and the tides and the seasons themselves. Since I have been ill myself, over the last year or so, the urge to dash off to bright lights and foreign cities has ebbed away. At least for now. I find pleasure, once more, in the  immediate wonder of the natural world around me: in the cheerful broad beans right outside my back door.

Actually, the one crop I did have unfailing success with, whenever I popped their seeds in the ground, was the bean. It was my father’s favourite vegetable – mine too, I believe – with its curious velvety texture, its delicate, sophisticated taste. So I am delighted to see these beauties appear for me now. A message of resilience. Of memory, and of hope. (And of a damn good broad bean risotto, just waiting to be cooked…)

Read more about my allotment in ‘A Handful of Earth’ published by John Murray in 2007, and still widely available online.