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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The Solace of Small Things

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SOMETIMES WHEN I wake in the middle of the night – which I invariably do – I go through a calming repertoire, to try and coax myself back to sleep. Breathing meditations. Reiki hand positions – one hand on the heart, the other on the solar plexus – to settle my nervous system. (See Reiki and the Anxious Mind) I conjure memories of mountains and the sea. The faces of beloved family and friends.

But last night, I simply asked for one word, to help me through these difficult days and nights. The word that came – unprompted and immediate – was DELICACY. What? I shrugged my shoulders and fell back asleep.

It is rare that I remember any of my nocturnal adventures, my wild dreams and waking ramblings, by the time the morning comes. But today was different. Delicacy. There it was again. A message from the ether. But what could it mean?

Times of Crisis and Extremity

There have been times in my life before, when the pressure has built over time, and become extreme and constant. There were crisis points in my husband Tim’s ten year struggle with cancer, when I felt my body and spirit ready to crack open with the strain. And then there was the terrible fear and stigma of the AIDs era, when I watched three young men die in quick succession, after trying, along with a valiant bunch of close friends, to nurse our stricken pals at home, through raging fevers, night sweats, skin eruptions, opportunistic cancers and pneumonia. How hopelessly inadequate we all felt, locked in a culture that both ostracised and demonised the people dear to us, in the hour of their deepest need. How ill equipped were the hospitals (!) And how frightened we all were, of becoming infected ourselves, as well as losing those we loved.

Together, Alone

The Corona Virus is different. When my husband got sick, and died in 2004, I felt lonely, isolated, and out of step with all my contemporaries, as they built their careers, their relationships, their families, with healthy and unsullied ambitions for the future. My only ambition was to get through each day, somehow intact. And when my friends were dying in the 1990s, we all felt outside the culture, betrayed by the country we lived in. Those were the days of anti-gay propaganda, of scaremongering public notices on television, with images of icebergs, swirling mists, and doom laden voiceovers. But the Corona Virus is no bigot. It picks on any and all of us. And in this strange new world, we are all vulnerable, all scared and alone. Together.

Week Three of my own self imposed lockdown is over. A pattern begins to  emerge, of good days, followed by bad; of energetic mornings, leading to deadened afternoons; of a constant underlying fatigue, which has nothing at all to do with work achieved, or energy expended, and everything to do with Fight or Flight – because what do you do, when you can’t run from the threat, or beat it? You collapse a little inside, and you surrender. Sleepiness as a constant companion, feels natural to me, in an unnatural context.

Wise Words and a Helping Hand

Like everyone else, I am reaching for mechanisms to cope, when my usual weekly rhythm of teaching and theatre work – which is such an extravert and people-friendly endeavour – has skidded to a halt. But as a writer, too, solitude comes easily to me. By nature an introvert, staying at home is hardly a problem. Until staying at home stretches into the foreseeable future that is, with no option of breaking the quarantine, without putting myself – and others – in danger.

It is memory and previous experience which comes to my aid now. I remember one particular encounter at traffic lights, nearly twenty years ago. The woman standing next to me was pushing a pram with a new born baby inside. The baby was very sick – there were oxygen bottles and tubes, tucked in among the soft toys and the fleecy blankets. I knew this woman slightly, and had heard about her baby. And I knew, too, that the baby was not expected to survive much longer.

At the time, my husband was coming to the end of his life too, and I was tense, exhausted, near despair. As can happen at times like this, two near strangers, with nothing to lose, and no thought of the usual self protective conventions, reached out and revealed their inner selves, by way of consolation.

I found myself confiding in this woman, who listened, kindly and calmly, before offering me a piece of advice. ” This is what I have found in my situation. The thing to do is to notice and appreciate the smallest details of your life. What is it that brings you pleasure? The bigger picture is impossible right now.  But you can enjoy a brief ray of sunshine, the sound of a bird, the smile on a friend’s face. All you have is what you have right now, in this moment, with each passing breath. And it’s precious.”

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The things she was saying are commonplace now, with the growth of the mindfulness movement, and the increasing use of meditation as a tool for calming the over-anxious mind. But at the time, the way she spoke felt rare. I have never forgotten our brief encounter, and – yes – the delicacy of her words. There was real wisdom in her philosophy, which had been learned and practised in extremis.

The Delicacy of Small Delights

The baby did die, not longer afterwards. My husband died too. But this woman’s words live on in my mind. And now, in domestic lockdown, I find myself practising what she preached: being grateful for the taste of good, simple food; enjoying the way the sunlight catches the acid green of new spring growth in my garden and in the nearby wood; finding time to study and to read; discovering the delicacy of small delights, in a world where anything bigger than my own house and back garden, feels overwhelming and out of control. I am learning to honour the breaths that I take. In such troubled times, it is not selfish or frivolous to take pleasure in the everyday beauty of our lives: instead, it feels more urgent, more compelling than ever before.