when words seem worthless

listen for the wood pigeon

calling to your heart

When I was growing up, the wood pigeon’s cooing was a familiar sound in my parents’ Essex garden. Today, as August begins, and another  retreat is called for, from the confusing world of Covid 19, I sat for a few minutes in meditation, on the orange cushions in my back room, overlooking the garden. So tired. So very, very tired. And the thoughts –  a beating incoherence in my head. Through the open window, I heard the fleeting distant sound of a wood pigeon, quietly warbling. It reminded me of then. Of childhood. And of now. Late adulthood. Many missing people, many years flowing in between. But, in the sound of the bird, for a few precious seconds – all one.

Walking Back Home 5: A View from the Shed

AUGUST ALWAYS runs away from me. I find it such a curious – and rather downbeat – month: everyone is scattered to the four corners, the days are amorphous and sprawling, nothing conforms to a routine… And there is always a hint of melancholy. The whisper that summer will soon be over: time to get busy and go back to school. And oh, the slow, soft dying of the light.

Anyway, the “walk” this time is really no such thing. It is a view – from inside my tiny, scruffy shed, onto my equally scruffy and overgrown garden. What can I see? An elegant though rampant plum smokebush, Cotinus “Grace”, one of the first plants I grew in my very first garden – bought for me as a birthday gift from my mother, and so always reminding me of her. (I plant a new one, wherever I go.) And next to “Grace” is a tall Crocosmia “Firebird” – strong and scarlet and entirely splendid  – transplanted from my long-lost allotment and redolent of hot, sticky summers spent there, digging the heavy Yorkshire clay to exhaustion, then lounging  against the wall of another mighty shed, and forgetting myself in the cheerful chaos of a semi-wild urban space, away from home and reality and every grown-up chore.

Being in the garden always does this to me – reminds me of places, people, times gone by. As film maker and remarkable gardener Derek Jarman once wrote, “I walk in this garden, holding the hands of dead friends.” I do that too. And it doesn’t feel sad or regretful to me – rather, it gives me strength,  fills in the gaps of my life, and puts the beautiful solid ground back beneath my feet.

It is good to be a solitary, I think. Time to gaze and wonder – floating away from the worrisome world and back to the centre of the self. To stillness. The garden is a real aid to this dreaming.From my perch in the shed, I watch masses of bumblebees working the pollen on a shaggy lavender bush. And look up at the skyline to see the trees of the little local wood, where I walked my dog, day in, day out, for 13 years – the dog whose ashes are now scattered there under  a big old holly tree. (Although in my mind her spirit still dances a jig of freedom –  scrabbling through the undergrowth and leaping over fallen tree branches –  always in pursuit of the squirrel-that-got-away.) Sometimes, I just look at the sky itself, and that is enough. Shape-shifting clouds in a vault of blue. Or grey, as the case has often been, this particular August. No matter. Sky is sky.

I do love to be among people – but it’s always such a relief to return to being alone. Perhaps that’s the writer in me, naturally introspective, with a teeming and unruly inner life.  There’s so much going on in my head, being exposed to the contents of other people’s for too long is tiring and overwhelming. The garden provides a useful corrective to this – wordless, mute.

Last weekend I broke the rule of a life time (which is never to talk to more than one writer at a time – it makes me far too nervous!) and spent two days mixing with a huge gaggle of writers at Swanwick Writers Summer School in Derbyshire, England – a kind of holiday camp for would-be novelists, crime writers, travel journalists and essayists of all ages and temperaments. The food consumed, the pints downed, the heated conversations had, were prodigious, dizzying. By the end of Day Two, I could feel my head begin to burst with the relentless over-stimulation.

But put me in a room, as a tutor with a particular subject to teach, and a bunch of people ready to write, and I am in my element again. The short course I taught this time was “Diving for Pearls: Writing about Loss and Recovery”. Circumstance has made this a recurring theme for me – with rather too much personal experience of it for my liking. But everyone, young and old, brings with them their shadows and griefs. And they have a light to shine. The people at Swanwick were particularly generous and courageous with their contributions. Making pearls from plenty of hard grit.

Meditation is a natural thing for me – I practise a sitting and walking form of it almost every day. And then, when I am outside with the flowers (and the weeds), the garden practises it back on me. But there is a particular stillness that falls, I find, when people sit in a shared space and write together. “You have ten minutes to write something about ‘A Pleasurable Thing’…” I say. “And now ten minutes on ‘A Moment of Loss’.” The heads go down. The pens – or laptops – spring into action. A perfect silence settles in the room. And magic happens. Always.

People are endlessly inventive, fascinating, surprising….And yet it is so lovely to leave them and return to the shelter of my rickety little shed. To some solitary wondering. To the strange disorientation of August: summer’s last quiet breathing out, before the busy, busy breezes of September put a different juice in my veins altogether.

A Handful of Earth/Barney Bardsley, is still available here:

Old Dog/Barney Bardsley, is published by Simon and Schuster: