New Yellow Raincoat

Soldiers Fields, Roundhay, Leeds, October 2020

“The quality of being: When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself.”

(Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind/Shunryu Suzuki)

LEONARD COHEN’S was – famously – famous and blue. But my new raincoat is canary yellow, and known, chiefly, just to me. It is my totem for this autumn and winter, an article of faith that, come rain or shine, I shall open my door and go walking. (As the picture above shows: today it was definitely rain.) Yorkshire is well known for its wet and windy weather. But I have lived in Leeds since 1996 and have never – until this week – owned a proper raincoat. Now that we are in a second lockdown, with a wave of virus washing over the city this September, it became clear to me that the only way out of this mess is through it. Through the woods, through the wild and the cold, and out the other side. Somehow. And the new yellow raincoat was the result.

World tilted off its axis

Early autumn sent my head into a spin. Indeed, the whole world was tilted off its axis, once again, just as we took our first tentative steps into a more social, connected, “normal” physical reality. Being pushed back behind the walls of our houses, behind the muted microphone madness of Zoom, and the mushrooming of email and internet traffic, felt bleak. There was no hot and sunny and exceptional spring to uplift us this time round. Just the encroaching darkness, the inevitable fall – of leaves, of energy – into autumn and winter.

The kicking of chairs

Since I had spent most of August nursing a recurrent tooth infection, followed by a dental extraction of almost medieval ferocity, this wake up to a new shutdown, felt mean and unfair. I was ready to play out now, damn it! A massive dose of self pity left me cross and unpleasant in mood. So restless. Chairs were kicked. Water got spilled over keyboards. There was shouting: at no one, at the world, at myself. Counting my blessings – I didn’t have Covid, I hadn’t lost anyone to the virus – didn’t seem to help.

Go take a walk

To the rescue came the raincoat. In the nick of time. Such a simple, obvious choice: to see things as they are, not as I would like them to be. And to do something about it. Throughout the whole of the Covid 19 crisis, my appetite for reading and for writing has been vanishingly small. Some of the very things that have sustained me thus far in my life have felt difficult and out of reach. I have turned instead to small, practical tasks. Sorting out the cupboards under the sink (for the first time since we moved in, in 2006). Making tomato chutney. Getting back to the garden. Taking a simple walk outside.

I love to walk (Walking the Hill Road) but have always been a fair weather rambler. I am easily beaten back by the darkness and the cold. But the weather in this world of ours is no longer fair. So what choice is left? Walk anyway. Feel the rain. See the beauty in the grey clouds as well as the blue sky. Seek sustenance from the one constant in all our fractured lives: the earth beneath our feet, the sky above us.

Soldiers Fields, Roundhay, Leeds, late September 2020

Everything is going to be alright

The Irish poet Derek Mahon died this week.  His wonderful poem ‘Everything is going to be alright’, was quoted regularly at the start of lockdown. “There will be dying, there will be dying…” He acknowledges the dark here, certainly, but he celebrates the light more, writing his words in a “riot of sunlight”, and giving us a warm glow on the gloomiest of days. For he knows this: “The sun rises in spite of everything/and the far cities are beautiful and bright.” Although my own city basked in sunshine earlier this week – today, the brightest object in my world is that new yellow raincoat. But that’s enough. It’s more than enough. Walk on.

‘Everything is going to be alright’ is published in Faber’s New and Selected Poems by Derek Mahon. 

He reads the poem himself here:

Shopping List

Coming out of Lockdown –  a  Confused New World

It’s now over three months since the Corona Virus lockdown began in the UK. There have been so many words written about this, so many opinions shouted, so much hurt and resentment, and most of all – such deep, deep loss. I am a quick thinker – but slow to come to any conclusions. It will take me a long time to figure out what all this means. All I do for now, is take one shaky step at a time: to live my life, stay reasonably well and sane, and reach out – from a distance – to the people, and the things, I care about most. Some people are rushing out into the world, hurling themselves off cliffs, crowding beautiful beaches, and piling into parks in a boozy throng, now that restrictions are beginning to ease. Not me. By nature more cautious, I wait. And still I wait. Trying to figure out how to shape a new life, from the ashes of the old. One thing that has been a unifying force for me and for my young adult daughter, who currently lives at home with me, has been the joy of the weekly grocery delivery. Lists and online slots have become her unique selling point in the household, and there is much excited talk of what to order, what to cook, and how to nourish ourselves in this depleted, exhausting time. Here is a poem based on that premise. I have no joined up eloquence to express what is happening. So a simple list will have to do.

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Shopping List

1. Out of stock/currently unavailable:

The faces of friends, of family and colleagues, wreathed in smiles – poised for argument, or song.

A  touch of the hand in welcome.

Interrupted conversations.

The noise of the theatre: the five minute call.

Soft steps of the T’ai Chi, walked together, as one.

Happy dancing.

Happy drinking.

A beer in the little local bar.

Bus journeys. Train journeys. Plane journeys.

The sea.

Freedom to fly: in body, in mind.

Another country.  Many countries.

Budapest. Ireland. The North Yorkshire Coast.

All my dead beloveds.

My old dog. And other dogs, too.

The beat up gold Toyota Yaris, sent for scrap in January. Would have been useful now.

Courage to go where I please, unmasked, and carefree, and open.

The wildness of the world, beyond the hedges of my garden.

An appetite for reading.

A keenness to study.

A mind that can focus.

The energy to dream.

Stepping out.

Stepping forward.

Stepping up.

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2. Unexpected items in bagging area:

Animals taking over city streets, as the whales start to sing again.

My old shed – tidied and cleared, after years of neglect.

Fairy lights sparkling in the dark, wellington boots standing  to attention.

Tomato seeds planted in tomato cans.

Lettuce plants raggedly greening.

Inertia.

Toothache and patience. Paracetamol and codeine. Moxa and deep red wine.

Raging against injustice.

Rebellion and riots.

Forty thousand dead – and rising.

A black man dies at the knee of a white policeman: fire in the Minneapolis streets.

Eight minutes, forty six seconds. ∗

Justice demanded, statues start to topple.

Frenzied voices, confused agendas.

Moments of calm.

The kindness of strangers.

Deliveries and phone calls.

Solidarity in the distance: disembodied zoom calls. Echoing. Frozen.

Self care, snoozing, sleepiness, exhaustion.

Mother and daughter, together.

Comrades in the kitchen, politics in the living room.

Stillness.

Moonlight.

Netflix.

Sunshine.

Silence and sorrow.

And the bitter-sweet song of the birds.

∗ On 25 May 2020, George Floyd died on the street in Minneapolis, after being arrested and handcuffed, with a policeman’s knee pressed on his neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds, suffocating him to death. #BlackLivesMatter