Freedom Calling?

haiku

and now we are free

when all I feel is sorrow

so much has been lost

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Yesterday, Saturday 4 July 2020, was dubbed “Super Saturday” in England. A grand lifting of lockdown. The pubs re-opened. The hairdressers. The restaurants. People queued from early morning for their pints, and to get their unruly hair cut. But the theatres stay shut. Some for good. The musicians are silenced. Live arts have disappeared behind a zoom screen and into the archives. I don’t feel much like celebrating.  I stay at home, sit in my shed in the early morning – listen to the gusts of cold, unseasonable wind, shaking it by its rafters – and wonder how the world became so out of joint. So splintered to its core. Even the singing birds fail to lift my spirits today. Sometimes the only answer to the question is sadness itself.

 

 

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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Walking Back Home 5: A View from the Shed

AUGUST ALWAYS runs away from me. I find it such a curious – and rather downbeat – month: everyone is scattered to the four corners, the days are amorphous and sprawling, nothing conforms to a routine… And there is always a hint of melancholy. The whisper that summer will soon be over: time to get busy and go back to school. And oh, the slow, soft dying of the light.

Anyway, the “walk” this time is really no such thing. It is a view – from inside my tiny, scruffy shed, onto my equally scruffy and overgrown garden. What can I see? An elegant though rampant plum smokebush, Cotinus “Grace”, one of the first plants I grew in my very first garden – bought for me as a birthday gift from my mother, and so always reminding me of her. (I plant a new one, wherever I go.) And next to “Grace” is a tall Crocosmia “Firebird” – strong and scarlet and entirely splendid  – transplanted from my long-lost allotment and redolent of hot, sticky summers spent there, digging the heavy Yorkshire clay to exhaustion, then lounging  against the wall of another mighty shed, and forgetting myself in the cheerful chaos of a semi-wild urban space, away from home and reality and every grown-up chore.

Being in the garden always does this to me – reminds me of places, people, times gone by. As film maker and remarkable gardener Derek Jarman once wrote, “I walk in this garden, holding the hands of dead friends.” I do that too. And it doesn’t feel sad or regretful to me – rather, it gives me strength,  fills in the gaps of my life, and puts the beautiful solid ground back beneath my feet.

It is good to be a solitary, I think. Time to gaze and wonder – floating away from the worrisome world and back to the centre of the self. To stillness. The garden is a real aid to this dreaming.From my perch in the shed, I watch masses of bumblebees working the pollen on a shaggy lavender bush. And look up at the skyline to see the trees of the little local wood, where I walked my dog, day in, day out, for 13 years – the dog whose ashes are now scattered there under  a big old holly tree. (Although in my mind her spirit still dances a jig of freedom –  scrabbling through the undergrowth and leaping over fallen tree branches –  always in pursuit of the squirrel-that-got-away.) Sometimes, I just look at the sky itself, and that is enough. Shape-shifting clouds in a vault of blue. Or grey, as the case has often been, this particular August. No matter. Sky is sky.

I do love to be among people – but it’s always such a relief to return to being alone. Perhaps that’s the writer in me, naturally introspective, with a teeming and unruly inner life.  There’s so much going on in my head, being exposed to the contents of other people’s for too long is tiring and overwhelming. The garden provides a useful corrective to this – wordless, mute.

Last weekend I broke the rule of a life time (which is never to talk to more than one writer at a time – it makes me far too nervous!) and spent two days mixing with a huge gaggle of writers at Swanwick Writers Summer School in Derbyshire, England – a kind of holiday camp for would-be novelists, crime writers, travel journalists and essayists of all ages and temperaments. The food consumed, the pints downed, the heated conversations had, were prodigious, dizzying. By the end of Day Two, I could feel my head begin to burst with the relentless over-stimulation.

But put me in a room, as a tutor with a particular subject to teach, and a bunch of people ready to write, and I am in my element again. The short course I taught this time was “Diving for Pearls: Writing about Loss and Recovery”. Circumstance has made this a recurring theme for me – with rather too much personal experience of it for my liking. But everyone, young and old, brings with them their shadows and griefs. And they have a light to shine. The people at Swanwick were particularly generous and courageous with their contributions. Making pearls from plenty of hard grit.

Meditation is a natural thing for me – I practise a sitting and walking form of it almost every day. And then, when I am outside with the flowers (and the weeds), the garden practises it back on me. But there is a particular stillness that falls, I find, when people sit in a shared space and write together. “You have ten minutes to write something about ‘A Pleasurable Thing’…” I say. “And now ten minutes on ‘A Moment of Loss’.” The heads go down. The pens – or laptops – spring into action. A perfect silence settles in the room. And magic happens. Always.

People are endlessly inventive, fascinating, surprising….And yet it is so lovely to leave them and return to the shelter of my rickety little shed. To some solitary wondering. To the strange disorientation of August: summer’s last quiet breathing out, before the busy, busy breezes of September put a different juice in my veins altogether.

A Handful of Earth/Barney Bardsley, is still available here:

http://amzn.to/1LaWt8Z

Old Dog/Barney Bardsley, is published by Simon and Schuster:

http://bit.ly/1MsD3zF