Monday, January 17, 2022

Where Were You?

There was a thing going round Instagram last week, asking people what they were doing on 20th May 2020. For those readers not in the UK, that's because it turns out members of the government, including our badly-made-puppet-sack prime minister (no, I will not write his name) were holding parties behind the closed gates of Downing Street, having a fine old time, letting off some steam and making the odd comment about work so it could be passed off, if questioned later, as a "work meeting". 

With wine. And nibbles. 

And there I find myself briefly in step with the party goers (bet you never thought I'd say that!) as I too was having wine at work meetings. The difference being that my work meetings were being held weekly, via ZOOM, so I was alone in a makeshift office, after putting in a full day's work, sinking a bottle of wine whilst inwardly banging my head against the desk as various people asked if I could "put more content online".

Me. With my limited skills, no tech support and isolation as the rest of the team are furloughed? Yeah, sure. 

I don't have an Instagram picture for 20th May, but I do have one for 3 days later where my insomnia has reappeared (always a bellweather for my state of mind) and I'm reading for research purposes, trying to work at FOUR FUCKING A.M. IN THE MORNING. 

I can remember, clearly, cycling into the office so I could oversee a project that would have collapsed and an intern that would have been penniless if I hadn't let him in to work because the furlough scheme was too restrictive for him to receive it. The deserted streets that were eerie and freeing at the same time. 

It felt like the weight of the building rested on my shoulders. It's future depended on my ability to pull everything out of the bag. The ceaseless grant applications, the project management, the reporting, the now-weekly board meetings, the panic over no income, the relentless-endless emails, an hysterically-unreasonable artist. Needing to keep the volunteers updated and happy and not feeling isolated or worried about the museum. Needing to keep my colleagues at home in their gardens happy and not worried or isolated or feeling like their jobs were in jeopardy. 

Not seeing my parents. Not seeing my son. Not leaving the house. Not going to gigs or galleries or just the pub for a game of pool and a pint.

I can remember, clearly, cycling into work and wishing there was oncoming traffic for me to steer in front of because then I would never have to deal with this shit again. By 20th May these thoughts were so persistent as to frighten me. I stayed away from train tracks. By the end of May, I'd confessed them to 2 people - N and an exceptionally good friend - and started the process of getting help. 

Do you know what my "help" consisted of? 6 weeks of being talked at by a chatty Irish therapist who, at the end of it, pronounced me cured because I could crack a joke. 6 weeks prescription of a mild antidepressant that was stopped after that with no warning or message from the doctor. 2 weeks signed off from work with my boss and the artist both contacting me on the 11th day to arrange a meeting. 

So no, I don't remember what I was doing on the 20th May 2020. I just remember losing my mind so hard, I wasn't sure I'd ever find it again. It is still a work in process.

I have sat and looked at this post for a long time. Truth be told, I don't know how to finish it or whether to post it. I am not the only one who will have felt their own minds unravel during 2020, so many people did and so many unravelled to a place where they couldn't put themselves back together again. So that is why I'm angry. I am angry on behalf of everyone who did what they were told, only to find that the people telling them what to do felt so completely above the rules themselves. 

The people trying to get some air and space and freedom from their tiny homes who were moved on and made to feel like criminals. The people robbed of time they can never have again. The people weeping behind a bathroom door because they were homeschooling and trying to work and cooking endless fucking meals with no relief in sight. The people who lost jobs and the people who kept jobs that were suddenly 100 times harder. 

I am angry that my Dad lost his last year under lockdowns, without freedom and time with the grandkids. I'm angry that my son worked through all this in a sector and with people that those members of the government at those parties thought were expendable. I'm angry so many of us broke and are still breaking under the weight of it all.

Anger is, of course, an entirely self-defeating emotion. You don't win battles with anger, and you never change anyone's mind with that white-hot energy blinding you. I needed to put it down somewhere. Here is somewhere. Here will do.

Monday, January 10, 2022

January Blathering

 A truly wondrous thing happened yesterday…brace yourselves…we opened the attic hatch!

I know. Extremely brave of us. And I say ‘us’ loosely because it was just N up the ladder. I don’t do ladders. 

Anyway, when we brought the house back in 2019, we’d been completely stymied about how to open the hatch (don’t laugh). Then my neighbour had given dire warnings about the depth of the insulation and how he’d had to have it boarded over before he could use it. So we pretended it didn’t exist until this year when I had a small, totally reasonable, meltdown about how much I hated tripping over the boxes of Christmas decorations in July and other assorted detritus of life that were better placed in an attic out of sight and reach of toes. 

This then prompted an overdue January clear out of things upstairs. So many things that a black bin back was required for the first time in about a year (I really do try to keep our general rubbish levels down). Do you do a Big January Clearout? It's incredibly cathartic, almost a meditative act if you don't go at it like a bull in a china shop, which only results in more, broken, stuff being thrown away. 

Tiny Wee Mabel giving the world her best side-eye as she's
cross about the cold turn the weather has taken

I'm no Marie Kondo (gods forbid) but I do like the process of opening a corner/cupboard/drawer/box and working through the contents one by one. Looking at them and recognising that, if they've been in there 5 years and never looked at, it's time for them to go. In my case yesterday, that was scraps of fabric, a box of rusty pins, varying lengths and tangles of embroidery threads, remnants of wool not long enough to make anything with, wrapping paper that was too creased and crumped and sellotape-marked to reuse, broken buttons and knitting needles, and other random items that I'd once thought would have a purpose but turned out not to have. 

Where once there was an overspill of chaos and failed projects, there is now a contained order in labelled boxes on neat and clean shelves. It won't last but while it does, I go and stand in front of them every now and then just to appreciate the scene. 

It's representative of the more ordered me I like to tap into every now and then. She doesn't make an appearance very often. 

Just a happy Boo in his box. 

Also on the agenda at the weekend was a visit to the wedding venue. After a false start with a place that looked enchantingly like an Ewok village but had no wheelchair access or facilities beyond some basic toilets, we finally hit upon a place that has enough of a Wild Place look about it for us to be happy. 

As you can be sure there will be a lot more of that in the months to come, I'll leave it for the time being. Once we've got the Great Guest List Row out of the way. 

Last night I started crocheting myself a hat. I've been at a bit of a loose crafty end since finishing the last Attic 24 CAL in time for my Mum's birthday back in December. I've taken the time to do some repairs (pockets in jeans, buttons on shirts etc) but my next crochet project (which I can't mention here in case they read about it) won't start for another couple of weeks. I'm not doing the CAL this year as I feel I need to use up the wool I already have rather than buy another big bag of more. 

Glowering skies over the allotment

Plus my ears were really really cold when we were doing root cuttings at college last week. A fascinating process and I'm really hoping the phlox I used actually take. The soft-wood cuttings we did a few weeks back did very well until they did too well and I didn't pot them on in time, so they died. The leaf cuttings are just sitting there as if to say "What?", practically shrugging at me. I love the process of taking cuttings but I'm not convinced the plants are so keen. 

Anyway, my ears were cold and I don't have a hat, so I'm making myself one out of fetching dark red wool that's quite fluffy and has a wee bit of sparkle in it. I was given the wool years ago, so it's nice to finally have a purpose for it. 

In other news, I'm unofficially doing Dry January, alcohol being one of those inflammatory things that I'm trying to avoid, as well as Buy Nothing January, which is not something being marketed far and wide as A Thing, but the result of noticing that, really, I have everything I need, so why buy more? Honestly, I'm feeling very virtuous and smug about it all. Veering dangerously onto the path of Puritanism? Nah. Too many rules. Just an attempt to live more lightly on the planet. 

Took a walk in the park and successfully identified a 
Prunus serrula (Tibetan Cherry) by it's bark. 

I signed up for the George Saunders newsletter. Heard of him? He wrote one of my favourite books, Lincoln in the Bardo, a few years back and I've got his latest, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, on order at the library. He releases an e-newsletter every week or so (if you're on the free list, which I am) and he set an intriguing writing exercise yesterday, involving a word and time limit. I may try it later this week. 

On the subject of books, I read John le Carre's Call for the Dead yesterday, which was slim but excellent. It's interesting that as uninterested in the Cold War as I am, he can still draw me in and I'm a little in love with the shambling Smiley. And I'm also ploughing through Pandora's Jar, despite not being particularly interested in Greek mythology. But Natalie Haynes is a chatty writer and entertaining to boot, so it doesn't feel like a slog. 

And here I shall leave you to return to some proper work. As much as I enjoy letting free a long stream of blather, there are things to attend to. As we plunge into the dark and rainy second week of January, I wish you all a good one. Hope it's full of warming meals, warming fires and warm toes. I'm off to throw a jacket potato in the oven. 

Ditto this Cornus alba 'Sibirica'. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

The Muddy Truth of it All

Allotmenting in winter is the very epitome of playing the long game. The termperature and the short days have sent things underground. Plants that were vibrant during the rest of the year are now dormant, hibernating as solidly as any dormouse. Leaves that created patterns on the ground and provided much needed shade during the summer are now rotting in a leaf mould bin. The architecture of trees is revealed, the shades and shapes of the trunks. 

What was softened and hidden is now hard and revealed. Including your own failings. 

It takes bravery to garden a space at this time of year. A trusting that it will all come good and be green, life-filled and lively once more. Bravery in sowing precious seed, trust that the seed knows it's thing better than you do and will come up right on cue. 

Bravery in stepping back, leaving it to its own devices. Trust that it will all come good in the end. 

This week, my bravery and trust wavered. Perfection stalks social media, even in the allotment community. Close ups of adorable sheds, seed heads and perfectly raked raised beds. Rows of gleaming, newly-cleaned tools, all hanging in neat rows.  Bulbs have been planted and lovingly recorded. Some are even showing off their sweet pea seedlings. And I'm as guilty as the rest! Focus in tight, crop out those inconvenient bits. 

But still, I'm scrolling through, feeling the panic rise because Mine. Does Not. Look. Like. Theirs. 

So, let's have a little honesty about allotmenting at this time of year. When the mud clags your boots and sudden hail showers sends you into retreat. When the wind is so cold, even thick gardening gloves can't keep your fingers warm, and the sky looks malevolent. 

When you arrive one morning and find that the weather has whipped the weed suppressing material off the beds, the brassica nets are flapping and the damned slugs have eaten eveything in there anyway.

When the pile of manure seems bigger than your house and the fruit cage has fallen apart overnight. When even the perpetual spinach has wilted under a sudden frost and your good secateurs break. When the bamboo canes spill out and poke you in the eye and the only green is the grass and the onion sets. 

When the pile of deadwood at the bottom of the plot no longer looks like an enchanting wildlife haven, but a soggy, dank mess of a yup of stuff. 

When you are digging out bindweed roots longer than your arms and you slip over, dropping your flask of coffee and it is the last straw and you sit on the wet ground and consider crying at the sheer volume of stuff there is to do.

That is allotmenting in winter. This is, sigh, my allotment in winter.

Ye gods, it's a slippery, muddy, disheartening mess. I'm trying not to be embarrassed by it and my untidy ways.

But. Take heart! Yes, the membrane is ugly but there are insects and slow worms hibernating underneath it. Birds are hopping amongst the dead wood yup and picking out insects, berries and grubs for their dinners. Bamboo canes can be retamed, fruit cages rebuilt and secateurs replaced. The decimated brassicas will make excellent compost. 

Now is the time to make plans. To be up there with pencil and paper, measuring tape and ideas. 

There will be a cut flower bed, the bulbs will shock with a sudden appearance and the wildflowers make a reappearance. I plan on mixing up the planting this year, so there are no more regimented  rows of onions/peas/courgettes/etc, but a smorgasboard of edible things, intersperced with ornamentals. The deadwood yup will be transformed into a deadwood "hedge" that provides some privacy from the towpath. An additional bed will be dug in and the first of the fruit trees planted. 

I will even make a start on conquering the next quarter of the plot. Digging out the grass that's currently wilting under cardboard and membrane. Then I'll mark out the asparagus bed (the one thing that can't be mixed-planted) and set about making that productive. 

Plans plans. This is the waiting time. The being brave and keeping trust time. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

So, What Now?

At some point, in the blissful Before time, when we were locked down but hopeful that 2021 would be the best year EVER, I’d decided to upend my career to see if I could develop one where I ran my own little nursery and basically got to spend every day with plants. 

So I duly jacked in my secure salary, my employer’s pension contribution. Waved goodbye to colleagues I loved working with. Set up freelance to free up (ha!) time to train. Joined the WRAGS scheme. Signed up for an RHS Level 2 course. Spent lots of time at the allotment, practising. Asked my doctor if anyone was actually going to do anything about my arthritis. 

Well, no. No they weren’t. Because it didn't exist, see? Oh, well if I was going to insist - and I was - they’d book a scan but they wouldn’t find…ah. 

They did find. They found extensive arthritis in both feet. Extra bone is growing where extra bone is not necessary. It rubs against the tendons, aggravating them like a persistent toddler, making walking HARD. Making yoga impossible. Making the idea of being on my feet all day laughable, then cry-able.

When I was working in a museum, on my feet for great parts of the day, I could lie on the sofa at night and watch the nerves in my feet jump with such severity, my feet twitch and leap of their own accord. Whilst that's a good trick, it is more than a little freaky. Freaky feet! It's every girl's dream. Most shoes are unwearable (and a plague on those designers). I will never run a marathon. 

To be fair, that last was never going to happen regardless, but now I have a cast-iron reason why it's not. Win!

All throughout 2020 and 2021, I watched as appointments were pushed back and back and further back. I need is a steroid injection but for that I need an MRI scan and there we hit the sticking place. When the poor receptionist called early December to tell me that it was being cancelled again (third time) with no new date in sight, I actually cried and tried to plead my case. Nothing doing. Orders from management. 

Notice how it’s never management who make those cancellation calls. 

Now, this is not the NHS’s fault (although I shake my fist in the general direction of  “management”). It just is what it is in a time of pandemics, sneaky dismantling of the NHS and the chronic underfunding and undermining of what’s left of it. Fault aside, this kind of thing does tend to bring about a reckoning. 

I am living now with two chronic conditions: my under-active thyroid (I like to think of it as the only lazy part of me) - which is an auto-immune condition - and the arthritis (likewise). Which will only spread and worsen with age I, literally, can’t run from this. It needs facing and adapting to. 

So I am. I no longer do yoga (all those downward dogs and planks are Too Much) but I do Pilates and my teacher is aces at helping me adapt postures. I don’t walk too much but I do go to the gym and do core strengthening work: the aim is for seven thousand steps a day because then I’m not in too much pain the next day. I go to the allotment but only for an hour at a time. I am as physical as I can be with the resources I have to hand. 

Obviously, if I feel like hiking up a bloody big hill, then I'll do it anyway and deal with the consequences the next day. I am stubborn like that. And I like being on the top of hills. Or deep in mossy woods where the very air is green and light.  

There's been a lot of research and consultation, which has led to me kicking wheat, sugar and dairy into the long grass. Which is ironic because it will feel like I’m eating nothing but long grass as I up and up my vegetable intake. Right now, my craving for sugar is so bad, I've been staring at a pot of honey for 30 minutes before eating 3 humbugs left over from Christmas. 

Who has humbugs at Christmas? Before you ask, yes I do also quite enjoy a Werther's Original. I know

Sadly, that idealised dream of running my own nursery, where I wore sensible but flattering no-nonsense dungarees, I rocked some adorable plaits and my face was permanently shining with good health and cheer, has had to come to an end. I need to be, as N so very often pleads with me to be, sensible. You can’t be on your feet all day when your feet don't work properly. My brother in law is a gardener and he regularly clocks 30,000 steps a day. That would finish me off. I’d need a week to recover. In fact, I did do over 30,000 steps in London and exactly that happened. 

Employers take dim views of such things. So what can I do? 

I'm trying not to post a gloomy, woe-is-me piece. A public breast-beating at the unfairness of life. Life is unfair and I’ve done all that in my own private time - I’m done with it now. Come on Collett*: refocus, recentre. 

Also, I do like a new beginning. It gives me the excuse to buy notebooks and pens that come with the promise of Potential. I can clear my desk and rearrange it, creating the optimal space (there is no such thing, I know). I can sit in my lovely soft-pink office chair (a complete indulgence and tres not practical)

So, what can I do? My little consultancy is still running, because if there's one thing I'm good at, it's sitting down and telling people what to do. This year, I'm developing some training courses and resources, which is both fun and exciting. What else can I do? Well, I can do this. I can write. 

And boy, do I write. Here, there and anywhere that stands still long enough for me to put ink on it. My WhatsApp messages are veritable essays. If I'm asked to create a plan for a room or a garden, I write one. Sitting down with a blank page and hours to fill it makes me giddy. Give me a moment to think and then I'm away, 4 fingers (I'm no touch typist) galloping across the keyboard like wild horses. Thank god for spell checks because they sometimes have the accuracy of wild horses, i.e. none. 

As I type, the 90% complete first draft of a potential first book is sitting next to, waiting for the finish and the first of many, many edits. Want to see a sample? I'm just going to put this PDF first page here and then run away and hide through the sheer embarrassment of admitting publicly that I've written something. 

I like the little thrill of a new adventure, wondering what I’ll be like at the end of it. This one is still unfolding, still developing and I don’t know what will come of it at the end. Perhaps nothing, perhaps something. 

Whatever does, I should be able to do a respectable amount of sit ups at the very least. 


*A family phrase, usually employed when one of us needs to pull our socks up and just flipping well Get On With It, despite various hurdles and things to overcome. Can also be shortened to CoC, which has the added benefit of looking (and sounding) almost rude. Hey, you take your giggles where you can. 

Where Were You?

There was a thing going round Instagram last week, asking people what they were doing on 20th May 2020. For those readers not in the UK, tha...