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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Just One Voice

“Just one voice

Singing in the darkness

All it takes is one voice

And everyone will sing”

(Barry Manilow)

Blackbird singing

A FEW YEARS ago, I was in a state of quiet panic. My beloved dog had just died – not long after my father, who was, again, a precious presence in my life, now gone. My daughter had been very ill. I held things together, day to day, but in my mind, everything was falling apart. Early morning, just before dawn, was the worst. I would wake, all of a sudden, heart thumping, still trapped in thunderous nightmares, not sure who I was – or where.

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But all through those lonely summer days, I had one feathered companion. Through the open bedroom window, a blackbird sang to me, every single morning. One of the first of the dawn chorus to give voice, his beautiful melodies soothed and settled me, made me ready to face the day. He seemed to sing, not for his sake, but for mine, and it was a deeply healing experience.

Ever since those strange panic days, I continue to wake early. I have learned to settle myself better, and my need of the blackbird’s song is less urgent, more celebratory than medicinal, though always a gift.

Small comforts in times of crisis

One week into domestic lockdown, as we move inexorably deeper into national and global crisis, I find myself consoled by the smallest of details. After waking, there is the quiet panoply of birdsong – not just Mr Blackbird, but the squabbling sparrows who nest in my hedges, the warble of the wood pigeons in the nearby wood. At 7 a.m. our ancient boiler kicks in, and hot water flushes through the radiators to warm our day. Then the builder across the road arrives in his van: loud rock music blaring from the open window. And with that – I am up. The new day has begun.

Builders’ rubble

I find that the things which once irritated me, are now curiously consoling. Take that noisy builder, for example, with his loud conversations on the street, his endless house repairs – and the constant deliveries of concrete slabs, huge bags of cement, fluted roof tiles and wooden beams and struts.

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The intricacies of this renovation, which has been going on for months now, are beginning to fascinate me. Hemmed in by the need to stay confined to the house, the soap opera occurring across the street, and clearly visible in every detail through the front window, has become a regular source of free entertainment.

Green, green grass of home

Meanwhile, out the back, the scene is a very different one: and balm for the soul. I love my garden. It is a little wild, often somewhat unkempt, but full of green promise. And never more so than now. Just past the Spring Equinox, everything is springing into growth. Scrambling clematis. The uncurling of ferns. Flowering currant bushes – their acrid scent, strangely invigorating. Clumps of narcissus. The sharp blades of iris and monbretia. Snake’s head fritillaries, hanging their pretty heads in shy celebration.

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To stand on the grass and simply breathe deeply, is such a privilege: watching the blue vault of the sky above, and feeling the solid earth beneath, and knowing that we will, collectively, survive this terrible time, and that nature itself will help us do so.

It is not just the birds that are singing, of course. On balconies in Italy, the people sing their arias of hope and resilience. On council estates in Scotland, they are belting out ‘Sunshine on Leith’. And in Northern Ireland, the bingo teller perches on a roof top, to call out the numbers to an attentive but quarantined estate.

Sound of silence

Yes, everyone will sing. But now, more than ever, we also have a chance, maybe even a deep need, to be quiet. No airplanes. No traffic. Just our own hearts beating. The great poet Pablo Neruda understood this, and articulated it in his poem, ‘Keeping Quiet’:

“Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still

for once on the face of the earth,

let’s not speak in any language;

let’s stop for a second,

and not move our arms so much.

***

It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines;

we would all be together

in a sudden strangeness.

…..

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

***

Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go.

 from Extravagaria by Pablo Neruda, translated by Alastair Reid (Noonday Press)

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