The Promise of a Garden

SO HERE we are in high summer. A baking hot July day, with the neighbourhood children going wild with excitement, as they launch themselves madly into a paddling pool – and even my resident frog is finding it a wee bit too warm to sun himself, as he usually does, on the little tiles at the side of his pond. Today he sits wisely in the shade, and occasionally dives into the water, leaving just his little beaky head peeking out, to see what’s going on in his immediate surrounds. The glorious poppies in the picture above, bloomed briefly and magically in late May, then were blown to smithereens by rain and wind and cold. Well, this is England. Full of weird contradictions – in government, in the people, and even in the weather itself. But on we go.

T’ai Chi and the path of peace

I never would have thought, in spring 2020, when we first went into lockdown because of Covid19, that I would be teaching all my T’ai Chi and Chi Kung classes online within a few months – and that a hitherto unknown and uninteresting (to me) platform called Zoom, would be my only means of connecting with all the students who longed, like me, to continue stepping quietly through the world, via the flowing sequences of this lovely Chinese movement practise. It was, however, a life line, and I have only just finished a long few months of Zoom teaching, that started properly in September 2020, and ended in mid July 2021.

Judging by the new wave of Covid infections sweeping the UK, I feel it will not be the last of these curious – but strangely peaceful – online sessions. And I have already booked in some dates for the autumn. (See my Breathing Space page)

Finding our way back to each other

Teaching T’ai Chi/Chi Kung at Slung Low’s Wild Conference, Temple Newsam, Leeds, Summer 2019

Still, how I long to be in a big group of people – outdoors or indoors – and teaching them the magic of T’ai Chi, stepping with them quietly and steadily, feeling the sense of communal power and connection. The last time this happened on a large scale was at the Wild Conference in 2019, organised by the mighty Slung Low Theatre company in Leeds: a big celebration of the arts, of conversation, of movement, dance, music, theatre. (And with lots of colourful waving flags!) Moving as one body, on a high green hillside on the Temple Newsam Estate, in the early morning, is a joyful memory that stays with me still.

And yes, slowly, we are finding our way back to one another. I made my first tentative steps into the studio at the beginning of July. Masks on, hand sanitisers at the ready. But nonetheless, a physical connection. Real people. In real time. In a three dimensional space. Strangely disorientating, and tiring. But deeply reassuring.

And the beat goes on

Outside Leeds Playhouse, July 2021. Standing between posters for the new show.

Tomorrow sees another big leap forward. Rehearsals begin at Leeds Playhouse for The Promise of a Garden, directed by Alan Lyddiard and devised and performed by the Performance Ensemble. How I love this maverick company – made up exclusively of older performers, story tellers, dancers, writers, space scientists, teachers and much, much more… This large scale, new production – twice cancelled because of Covid – is, as its title suggests, all about the garden, and everything that it means to people, on a physical and metaphorical level. Yes, there will be T’ai Chi in it! And dance. And deeply personal human stories, soulful music, and a big colourful set.

The Performance Ensemble celebrates all life, the dark and the light, from beginning to end. As the Chinese saying has it: “When a human being is born, there is a ripple on a still pond. We go on our journey and when our life is over, there is another ripple on the pond, and the spirit returns.”

Live theatre has had it particularly tough during the pandemic. It is still in a precarious state. And who knows whether Covid will leave our company completely alone, to bring our magical dream of a garden to full fruition this time? But we must step forward somehow. And, as a garden lover and maker myself, I can think of no better way of doing so, than through the medium of flowers and trees, through the seasons of winter, and on into spring and summer and new growth. From night into the light. Nature has all the answers: if we listen, tread carefully, and dare to be bright and bold as those poppies; to flourish again – and again, despite all the odds. This, after all, is the promise of a garden.

The Promise of a Garden will be performed at Leeds Playhouse, from 18- 21 August 2021. Tickets can be booked here.

Taking a Breathing Space

Morello Cherry in bloom, May 2021

Why wait to be happy? When you walk it is possible to walk in such a way that every step becomes nourishing and healing. This is not difficult. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Springing into bloom

ALTHOUGH it is pouring with rain here in Leeds, as we go into the merry month of May, spring is still doing its thing, with foliage leaping from every branch in my garden, buds bursting on the peonies and mountain cornflower – and the beautiful blossom of the Morello Cherry presiding, with a pure white majesty, over the whole terrain.

When the weather is fine, I love stepping into the garden in the early morning, to practise some T’ai Chi or Chi Kung. Just me and the blackbirds. The Covid Pandemic has meant that I have mainly been walking solo through the gentle steps of this practise. But one of the unexpected bonuses of lockdown has been the discovery of Zoom, and the ability to share the work with people from all over the country – and from Germany and Hungary, on occasion, too.

There are advantages to moving quietly in your own space – but in the (virtual) company of others. For the shy or unconfident mover, it can be unexpectedly liberating. So on I go, running several Zoom classes each month, on a Tuesday evening and a Thursday morning, and they continue to nourish and sustain me – and those I teach – in these hard lockdown times.

Stepping outside, treading gently

Still, it will be a great pleasure to finally come face to face with other people again, all moving together in what is such a quiet and contemplative way: a meditation in movement. So, there are outside get togethers coming up too, and a tentative plan to meet indoors in July. You can check out any of the dates and details on my Breathing Space page. And if you are curious about my own – very particular – approach to movement, then the Dancing page goes into my history a little bit too.

For me, the movements of the T’ai Chi and Chi Kung are deeply embedded in nature – and they take their inspiration from the four elements, from Taoist philosophy, from birds and from animals. Beautiful images like Big Bird Spreads its Wings and Wild Goose Flying serve to inspire, both in their names and in the movement they describe. And its been a deep joy to spend the past 30 years of my life, exploring the deep layers of vitality that these ancient practises contain.

Do join me, this spring, if you fancy a Breathing Space from the considerable challenges we are all facing right now. Take a simple step… As the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh writes, why wait to be happy?!

Details of how to book a class, or to be in touch for more information, are all included on my Breathing Space page.

A Garden of the Mind

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I shall be a gardener

IN 1925 Attila József, one of Hungary’s best loved and most famous poets, wrote a simple poem called Kertész leszek – I shall be a gardener. This is the first verse:

Kertész leszek, fát nevelek

kelő nappal én is kelek

nem törődök semmi mással,

csak a beojtott virággal.

I shall be a gardener, I’ll grow trees

with the early sunrise – I’ll rise too.

And nothing else will bother my head,

except my tenderly grafted flowers.

But Attila was not a gardener. And he grew up far from any garden or flower. Born into abject poverty in the ninth district of Budapest – a tough, industrial, working class corner of the city – Attila lived a semi-feral early life. A self-confessed street urchin, he scrabbled to survive. His mother Borbála died of cancer when he was still in his teens. His father, a soap factory worker, had abandoned the family long before. Attila and his two sisters were like wild flowers, pushing through the cracks in the tough urban pavement.

Minden beojtott virágom

kedvesem lesz virágáron

ha csalán lesz, azt se bánom,

igaz lesz majd a virágom.

Every flower that I have planted

will be my favourite one of all

and if weeds grow – I won’t care

each flower of mine will come true

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Planting myself in the soil

Attila got some schooling in the end, when his brother in law paid for him to attend. He even went to university, with dreams of being a teacher: but he was sent down for writing poetry deemed seditious by the state.

He travelled and studied in Vienna and Paris. He read Hegel and Marx, joined the – then illegal – Hungarian Communist Party in 1930, but was expelled from that too, for being too maverick and independent a thinker.

Tejet iszok és pipázok,

jóhíremre jól vigyázok,

nem ér engem veszedelem,

magamat is elültetem.

I shall drink my milk and smoke my pipe,

and closely guard my own good name,

no danger will ever reach me now,

I’ve planted my very self in the soil.

If the world should end…

How Attila longed for the peace and quiet of the garden. But it was never to be his. He suffered terribly from depression and schizophrenia. He was abjectly poor his whole life long. His brilliant mind was tormented to death. On the 3rd of December 1937, he died under the wheels of a train on the railway tracks at Balatonszárszó, whilst staying with his sister. Was it an accident – or suicide? He was just 32 years old.

Kell ez nagyon, igen nagyon,

napkeleten, napnyugaton –

ha már elpusztul a világ,

legyen a sírjára virág.

This is needed, so much needed,

with the rising and with the setting sun – 

and if the whole world should one day perish,

may there be flowers laid on its grave.

In the century since his death, Attila József’s exquisite poetry has become embedded in the very soul of the Hungarian people. He never grew flowers – never planted trees. But the poems that he wrote, created a garden of the mind, as profound in impact as the desperation in which they were written.

*This was written in response to a mighty project with the Performance Ensemble, directed by Alan Lyddiard, with whom I regularly write and perform. It is called The Garden and will be a month long installation and performance in Leeds Playhouse, in the spring/summer of 2021. We will be exploring all things to do with the garden – from a single flower pushing through the ruined pavement of a bombed city, to an idyllic lush green oasis of flowers, trees and fruit. We all need a garden. In our minds and in our hearts and bodies. May that garden flourish.

**I have a long and loving connection with the beautiful, troubled country of Hungary. If you would like to read more about that, please take a look at my Blog and Features archive elsewhere on the website. And here is another piece about the remarkable Attila József Poems and Pálinka.

Lost and Found: Back to the Garden

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The Rising Sun

A woman steps outside into the garden. She takes off her shoes and stands barefoot on the grass. It is early morning and the ground is wet with dew. A blackbird sings from the top of a high branch. He serenades her as she begins to move. Turning her face to the east, she lifts her arms slowly to shoulder height. This is the Rising Sun. And the day begins.

Walking with dead friends

As she moves through the sequences – as familiar to her as the air that she breathes – she calls forth her disappeared. Here is the husband, dead from cancer at 47. And here, the mother, who loved to garden, and who danced on the lawn of her life, barefoot and wild-eyed. Here comes the father, who taught her stillness and peace. And the best friend – who died young of AIDS, but not before he sat in many gardens with her, and reminded her how to laugh.

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Dancing the T’ai Chi

Ward Off Danger, Push Away. Step Back, Repulse the Monkey. T’ai Chi, Yang Style, Long Form. Life is a series of new beginnings. The Big Bird Spreads Its Wings – into a wide blue sky. Life is a dark mass of endings. The Snake Creeps Down into the Water. Shoot Out the Arrow. Pick the Lotus Flower. Find what is good and valuable in your life, and show it to the world with pride. Then leave that world, with grace. And don’t look back.

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For Remembrance

She takes her finishing steps and, placing her feet together, fist in an open hand, makes a final bow. As she leaves the garden she runs her fingers through the foliage and flowers she has planted with loving intention. Autumn flowering cherry. Cotinus ‘Grace’. A flush pink rose which bears her mother’s name: Kathleen’s Rose. The orange and scarlet crocosmia, upended from her previous garden, now sprawling, profligate, in this new paradise. A scrambling clematis, called for her grandmother, the gentle Elizabeth. Dogwood. Bamboo. Spiky fern. Delicate daisies. Lavender. Wild strawberry. And rosemary – for remembrance.

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The turning of the seasons

This is summer: the season of fruit and flower and casual abundance. Soon will come autumn, to cut down the sickly excess. And winter will follow. The dying season. Letting go. With luck, there will be another spring, and each of these plantings will bud and flower again. And she will step back into the garden, and – kicking off her shoes – stand barefoot once more. Ready to move through the seasons of her life, to honour the dead, salute the living, and be grateful, if for nothing else, then for the very air she breathes.

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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.

 

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

 

 

 

Reiki in the Garden

We are stardust, we are golden

We are billion year old carbon

And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

(Woodstock/Joni Mitchell)

SOMEONE in our road has bought themselves a cockerel. Now, we may have a little wood barely a hundred yards away – and North Leeds is known for being green and well-wilded, but it is, nonetheless, a built-up and urban environment. So it feels distinctly strange to hear this bird cock-a-doodle-doing at all hours of the day (though never at dawn, to my knowledge). Strange, but comforting and calm. He is a distant memory of countryside holidays as a child. A jaunty reminder of haystacks and farmyards. A full-throated connection to all that is green and pleasant and good in my imagination. He was crowing today, when I walked out into my sunny February garden to do a bit of digging and tidying up. And I was pleased to hear him, alongside the busy sparrows that are starting to build their nests in the high hedge by the Reiki Room door.

Escape to Earth

I learned to garden late in my life – was forty before I had my own little patch of land and rambling allotment. The garden came to me at a time of great sadness and loss and it helped me heal, no question. I wrote about it in a memoir  – A Handful of Earth – and in a recent blog – The Art of Stillness . The exquisite pleasure of digging the earth, the rich smell of the soil, the sturdy beauty of emerging shoots, of lacy patterned leaves and richly coloured blossoms, filled my senses and restored me to strength, both physical and psychological.

Then, as the years went by, and a new life began to unfold – one of theatre and travel and writing and teaching – the garden retreated in my mind. There is a season for everything: and I was starting a mid-life season in the city. Leeds. London. Paris. Budapest. I had “no time” to garden, and it became, for a while, a place of quiet rebuke. Overgrown hedges. Weedy borders. Pot bound herbs with sorrowful, drooping foliage.

Reiki and Remembering

But over the past couple of years life has changed, once again. A broken shoulder – depleted stocks of energy – and a new inward-turning direction, as I have turned sixty,* has taken me away from all that external adventuring, at least for a while, and has made me quieter… Brought me back to the garden. More specifically, it is Reiki that brings me there. Reminds me. Settles me back, closer to the earth.

For the one thing Reiki does is tune us into our “true selves”. (Reiki master Frans Stiene has written about this in his book “The Inner Heart of Reiki”. See On Books and Being). Embarking on Reiki treatments – and even more so, being attuned and trained as a Reiki practitioner – is deeply calming, but also precipitates great change. It brings us more in line with who we are really meant to be. Shines a quiet light towards our own truth, whatever that might be. And the truth for me is – I am becoming a gardener again.

The Fresh Air Cure

Reiki helps enormously with anxiety and low mood (See Reiki and the Anxious Mind). Warm hands laid on your body, through clothes, in stillness and with kind attention, is immensely reassuring. And it turns our focus towards ourselves: seems to ask the silent question, how can we care for ourselves better, once the Reiki treatment is finished?

One sure way to restore both mood and health, is to be outside. Drinking in some fresh air. Feeling the sun – or wind and rain – on your face. And, if you have a garden, planting something in the ground, as if you are planting yourself back in the earth. Without your own garden to play in, there are still walks to be had, parks to sit in (like our local Roundhay Park, pictured above – and bonny in every season). There are always trees to stroke, and the sky to gaze at.

My T’ai Chi teacher has the tiniest garden, on an inner city road in Brixton, South London. His front yard can be seen from far and wide – the small wall shored up with earth and planted with all manner of abundant green. “If I had no garden”, he told me once, ” I would plant seeds in the palms of my hands.” He was speaking in metaphor – and the image has remained powerful in my mind.

No more so than now: when my own hands flow warm with Reiki – the so-called “universal energy”, accessible to all, if we choose to tune into it – and I find myself not just being guided to work alongside other people, in therapeutic endeavour; but being led back to the garden, too. I feel the urge to enjoy whatever natural resource I can, whenever I can. It’s all there, all around us: earth, sky, water… Crowing cockerels! Food for the soul. And a feast for the senses. A great aliveness in the world around us, in every waking minute.

To book a Reiki session with me go to my Reiki in Leeds page.

*In Japan, home of Reiki, sixty is seen as a particularly significant age.  Called kanreki – kan = circle; reki = calendar of years – this age marks the full cycle of the Eastern zodiac calendar. It is a time to celebrate one’s achievements – and to forget life’s troubles. One is said to enter a new stage of life, having thrown off earlier shackles, and bearing now all the joys and possibilities of a newborn.

 

Elizabeth Sings

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HAIKU

Elizabeth sings

Too long her voice was silent

Her throat swells open

The image here is of a Clematis Montana ‘Elizabeth’ in my May back garden in Leeds. It has taken a few years to establish, and its flowering was delayed by a long winter. But now, here she is! The haiku celebrates the May blossom. It also commemorates my beloved paternal grandmother, who had the most beautiful contralto voice. I am named after her. I, too, sing.    My grandmother and I, each in our very different ways, were silenced for long periods of time, by circumstance, sex or (in her case) class. Difficulties not withstanding,  both our voices have been heard. To all Elizabeths everywhere: sing on!!

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

 

Wave

MUCH of my professional writing and thinking is based on memory: a meditation on how to integrate a complex past with the puzzling challenges of the present day. It is the work of a memoirist, to excavate love and loss, at a deeply personal level – and those are the kinds of books and features I have been writing over the past ten years. But I am struck right now by this challenging quote from André Gide:

“Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realise that tomorrow’s joy is possible only if today’s makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the preceding one.”

Maybe it is time to write and live in a different way – more tuned into the present tense, less concerned with the echoing chambers of an ever-increasing yesterday?

The end of each adult decade, for me, has seen turbulent change: at 29, a total change of direction, from journalism into contemporary dance and theatre; at 39, a flight – with a terminally ill spouse and a young child under my wing – away from the urban chaos of South London, to the green Northern hills of Leeds; at 49,a bruising, but vibrant, re-entry into the workplace, after my husband’s death from a vicious cancer: with the digging of a garden and an allotment there in the background, to steady my shaky boots. And now, at 59, after two years of my own poor health – the inevitable final ebbing of a personal wave of energy – it’s time to take stock again. A new decade beckons.What will it bring?

With a country divided and bitter, after the disastrous European Union Referendum, and Brexit, two things seem critical in this moment: finding small ways to be kind and constructive to each other, whether it is to smile at the face of a stranger, or take a warm blanket to a drop-off point for refugees in Calais; and – starting to live, quietly and positively, in the immediacy of each day, exactly as it unfolds. Looking back with bitterness won’t change a thing. Catastrophising about the future makes us nothing but prisoners.There is a more subtle way to break free.

I have just read, for the second time, Simon Fitzmaurice’s extraordinary memoir, ‘It is not yet dark’. A young Irish film maker and writer, Fitzmaurice writes of his unexpected and cataclysmic diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease. And he does this with candour, poetic clarity, and a total lack of self pity or recrimination. He also, with an acute awareness of a new and constant companion – death – on his young shoulders, chooses to write, as he lives, in the imperative of the present tense. Even his memories are written as contemporary accounts. There is no time to lose, for any of us. Fitzmaurice knows this, reminds us, urges us on. And, oh, the wonder he conveys, the beauty of simply being here, now, in the world. “I’m burning with this life” he writes.

And I realise that I am too. Burning with it all. So let the tide of energy – my strange, half-looking-back,struggling-to-catch-up,ever-changing fifties – go out fully now. A summer of rest and play. And at the autumnal turn of that tide, I shall be sixty. Ready, as the buddhist philosophers would have it, to “be more curious than afraid”. Ready to meditate more, dance more, garden more, write more, teach more, sing and travel more. And all in the beautiful, ever-vital, ever-changing present. I hope to see you there.

‘It’s Not Yet Dark’ by Simon Fitzmaurice (Hatchette Books Ireland)
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray)
‘Old Dog’ by Barney Bardsley (Simon and Schuster)