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

 

Sleeping Girl

WHEN I got married in 1991, a friend I had met whilst training in dance at the Laban Centre, five years before, gave me a small sculpture, moulded in metal. It was a girl, sitting cross-legged, her long back folded over her hips, arms tucked tight in, head resting on her feet. She looks tired, but peaceful. Maybe she has been dancing – a lot – but now she has dropped to the floor and is motionless and quiet.

“She reminds me of you”, said Tricia. Now the girl sits on my bookcase, next to the buddha, where I meditate each morning. And, 25 years later, she is resting still.

Two years ago I started to experience a succession of problems with my health. After 20 years of watching significant others fall ill and die, it was my turn to struggle, and -temporarily, thankfully – fade. It was a scary and salutary experience. When I started these columns in spring, 2015, I wrote about the need to get strong again, to return to health. ‘Walking Back Home’ became a recurrent theme – treading the familiar pathways in my beloved home county of Yorkshire, to bring power and vitality back to wobbly legs; some roots back to an unearthed tree.

This year feels very different already. Despite ongoing physical adjustments, I feel better, stronger, calmer. I knew, from the first week of January, that what was needed now, more than anything, after a sparky and chaotic previous year, of both personal rehabilitation and professional outreach – was a long period of quietness and reflection. Just sitting still. Judging by the tumult across the entire globe: it’s what all of us need right now. But I can only start with myself.

I was meant to fly abroad in the first week of January. A kind and generous friend had paid for me to stay with a group of people in a warm villa, under blue skies and in  a welcome sun. But a recurring ear inflammation meant I couldn’t risk the flight. So I stayed home instead. There was, inside me, a curious restlessness. No reason that I could pin down. Just a sense of a pit opening up, despite my smooth transition into the New Year. I did all I could to stave it off. Cleaned the house (a rare event). Cooked nice things. Kept my hands busy and my mind fastened on quotidian comforts. All of which worked – to a degree.

Then came January Week Two. On Monday – the death of David Bowie. On Thursday – the death of Alan Rickman. And suddenly the darkness had a name.

David Bowie means a multitude of things, of course, to countless people. He was – and remains – a shape-shifting genius, who will fill the questioning minds and hearts of generations for many years to come, with his wonderful,soaring music and his beautiful, ever-changing face.

For me, his influence came early. 1972. I was 16. Gawky, awkward, thin and tall. I wasn’t pretty and I didn’t really fit – either myself, or the world around me. Then Ziggy Stardust burst onto the small screen and into the record shops, in all his angular, androgynous, extra-terrestrial glory. Singing wildly off-key. Snaggle-toothed. Sexually ambivalent. Inside just one skinny boy from Brixton: a whole heap of beautiful strange. And that was it. I was no longer alone.

Every girl needs a hero/ine – and I found mine in Bowie (and later, Patti Smith, to stand magnificently alongside him).

But more important by far – she needs a mentor. A guide in how she might live. In how to make her own star shine brightly. How to be rigorous, honest, brave. Ten years after the Starman first fell to earth, in the mid-1980s, I was working as a theatre journalist in London. A tall actor with a strange face and a startling voice – part husky whisper, part sardonic, menacing growl – kept hoving into view, on stage and on the television. Alan Rickman.

This was long before his breakthrough role at the Royal Shakespeare Company as Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But already he had a pedigree. A powerful presence onstage – and a compelling personality off it. There was always a stillness, a command, in his presence. A forcefield of compressed energy, which coiled invisibly around him. He was formidable.

I interviewed him once for Drama Magazine. Whilst we never became close friends, he was certainly a kind and concerned presence in my life, on and off, for the next 20 years or more. And as all mentors do, he pointed the way forward. He saw through all flimsy argument. Alerted me to the limitations of journalism, and – unwittingly, maybe – ultimately led me to a complete change of direction in my life. He was the first to initiate me in the physical power of the Alexander Technique, the first to convince me of the wonders of dance and movement – of the beauty that lies beneath the spoken and written word. He was, as the world now acknowledges, a true artist – and, as he has done with countless others besides, he helped encourage the artist in me, at a time when I was young, chaotic, and, truthfully, a little lost. I am forever in his debt.

Giants in human form walk among us everywhere, of course, some of them famous, like Bowie and Rickman, many of them unrecognised, “ordinary”, neighbours.  But it is rare that we lose two of them in the space of a few days. It will take us time to process their true worth and meaning. For now, it is enough just to sit still, like the little dancer on my bookcase, and wonder – at the strangeness of it all.

Live in yourself. There is a whole

deep world of being in your soul,

burdened with mystery and thought.

The noise outside will snuff it out.

Day’s clear light can break the spell.

Hear your own singing – and be still.

from: Silentium by Fyodor Tyutchev, translated by Robert Chandler (The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski)