It has felt like a long winter this year. Not the most severe winter, though we’ve had some extraordinary storms that brought two enormous poplars crashing into the garden. But a persistent winter—despite the primroses making it above ground for Imbolc, the greenery has returned slowly and the red hazel buds, catkins on the willow, and daffodils are all later this year than last. But however time feels, it keeps moving and already we’re at the Spring Equinox.
This Spring, unlike the ones of 2021 and 2022, may have come later, but we are beginning to look toward another kind of blossoming. In some countries the grip of the pandemic seems to be relaxing. Even if we don’t know how long this promise will hold, and even though it comes with the prospect of Omicron becoming endemic, there’s a sense of hope.
In online workshops and courses with writers for the last two years there has been a growing feeling that we were in one long winter, regardless of the season outside our doors. This year, there’s a hope that the Spring outside might coincide with an internal Spring.
So much has changed. Covid has sent the human world a shocking warning of how broken our global ecology is. The swallows are returning to our gardens with their warbling song joining that of other song birds, but our voices as writers are forever marked by this experience of isolation. Zoom has been a salvation in many ways, but it is not tactile, it is not embodied or sensory. The poet Gill McEvoy puts it powerfully in her poem
For so long world frozen over, mouths locked,
saliva shrivelled, tongues stilled,
trapped in ice.
Dreaded spectre of the telephone,
no news and nothing to say.
Terrifying, the need to free our tongues,
loosen the stiff muscles in lip and throat,
unfreeze our blocked hearts,
to speak again.
Into the numb air, into our empty ears,
the sound cracks off like gunshots.
The need to speak again
I’m someone who loves silence and solitary periods. I’m writing this at the end of a week alone in a tiny apartment on the Brittany granite coast, facing a turquoise sea. While I’ve been away it hasn’t occurred to me to play music or watch videos. Apart from a short conversation to check in with my daughters in South Korea and the UK, I haven’t spoken to anyone all week. I could go longer, especially when I’m deep in flow.
But there’s a rhythm to this kind of voluntary silence. It’s not comparable to being forcefully cut off from our normal interactions and encounters for weeks, months, years… And it is not like being in limbo, not knowing when we will next see loved ones. And not accumulating ordinary daily experiences, so that when we do finally meet up, we wonder what to say to each other.
Isolation is not only corrosive for our mental health and conversations, it is also insidious. It casts a spell on some of us. As much as we miss loved ones, it’s also easy to get comfortable with living in pyjamas, not having to catch trains ot make arrangements. When we spend a lot of time in our own heads, we can acclimatise to the withdrawal, begin to normalise being cut off.
Writers are those who witness to whatever is going on. Reflections on the impact and meaning of this pandemic could take a decade or more to be written with any cogency. Huge crises are hard to see with even a modicum of clarity when we are in or only on the cusp of emerging from them. But we know how it feels to lose contact, to be silenced, to have no new material from life, to forget what it’s like go into a coffee shop. We’ve witnessed loss in so many forms. And writers are, above all things, witnesses. We need to tell the stories, write the poems, keep the record, imagine how things might have been different, how they could be different in the future.
In the tragic Greek myth of Philomela, after King Tereus has raped his sister-in-law and cut out her tongue to silence her, she weaves the story into a tapestry to bring to her sister, Tereus’s wife, Procne. Some silences have to be broken, even when the stories appall and disturb us. While some of us have been getting too used to withdrawal, others—from health workers to van drivers to minimum wage, zero hour contractors—have had no rest in the last two years. Others have died, many in care homes where policies effectively condemned them for being old. Mothers have given birth without partners and, in some countries, under conditions that have taken birthing rights back half a century or more. Pre-school children have missed out on a whole life phase of early socialisation. Older children have suffered with levels of stress that will mark a generation.
There are a lot of stories to be spoken and heard. Terrifying as it is to unfreeze our blocked hearts, we need to speak again.
The need to touch again
Spring is such a sensual season. It’s associated with romance, blossoms, bees pollinating, insects at work, colour and fragrance. Everywhere, life is exploding—in bud, in leaf, in frog spawn and bird’s nesting.
Have you ever been in a toy shop with young children only to encounter notices everywhere, commanding: ‘Do not touch’? How impossible is that? The last two years of our lives have been a series of such notices. Don’t shake hands, don’t hug, don’t kiss, don’t touch any surface that you don’t absolutely have to…
In the powerful and disturbing folk story of The Handless Maiden, a young woman is first ‘accidentally’ sold to the devil by her father, then loses her hands. Later she marries a king and is given silver hands and has a child, but things go wrong again and she ends up once more handless, living in the forest with her child. It’s a story with endless layers of metaphor and meaning about wounding and healing. The maiden’s hands finally grow back when she risks her life to save her child from drowning. Wholeness come after reaching out for the sake of someone else.
Now Spring is here and the world seems to be re-opening. How do we grow back our hands? And how do we reach out as writers for the sake of others, or for the earth herself?
The need to embody again
Zoom has been a blessing and will continue to be a great tool for bringing people together across distances, but life isn’t virtual. Spring calls us not simply to get back into nature, but to realise that we are nature and so we need to live bodiful lives in order to thrive.
If The Handless Maiden is the archetypal story of our wounded selves in need of healing and touch, perhaps Rapunzel is the story par excellence of social isolation. A pandemic is a frightening event, but our fear levels have been massively increased by poor reporting and the vicious polarisation of echo chambers on social media. Locked in with only technology to access the world, we are both grateful for the link but also at the mercy of its propensity for drama, conflict and fear-mongering.
In the story of Rapunzel, Frau Gothel is also full of fear. If she doesn’t keep Rapunzel locked away she will no doubt lose her. Rapunzel too lives in fear. Her only perspective on the world is what she has been told. What has our access to the world been over the last two years? What has mediated it? And what has that done to our lens on the world?
During times of isolation, those of us with gardens, allotments or any scrap of wildness or parkland in our lives have been fortunate. This Spring, I’m looking out at our wild garden and wondering what I can learn from it as the world slowly opens.
We are new to gardening—or returning to it after a long break. But we’re hoping the pruned apple trees will flourish and we’ve already seen that this place is rich in wild herbs to forage—calendula, oxeye daisies, yarrow, ground ivy, nettle, dandelion, plantain and many more… There are pots of other herbs on the balcony—sage, thyme, lavender, rosemary, borage…
We chose this place for the forest around it, the river running through it and the herbs that make their way into our food and teas and tinctures and salves. In the five year plan (a work in progress inspired by a permaculture course) there are intentions for vegetable beds, more alders and willows in the area that floods in winter, a compost heap, rain capture and, in time, spaces for writers, perhaps with a fire pit so we can tell stories under the stars.
The need to listen again
It feels important that the plan is about listening to the plants and insects already out there; important to ask: What does this place need? I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, which insistst that growing plants doesn’t have to be about taming nature:
I sometimes think we’ve allowed our gardens to be bowdlerized, that the full range of their powers and possibilities has been sacrificed to a cult of plant prettiness that obscures more dubious truths about nature, our own included.
And also suggests that plants make themselves attractive to humans or other species in order to get us to assist and propagate them. He argues that plants encourage us to work for them in return for their offerings of sweetness, intoxication, beauty or control. I’d add that there are other things plants offer to this relationship—a full range of tastes as well as sweetness, and medicines, to name two. But the interesting point he’s making is that the relationship is not one-way. And it is essentially a relationship of paying attention, of listening to the plants rather than reducing them to commodities.
While we have been in isolation; while we have been speaking less, we may have found ourselves handless or isolated in our towers of fear. We may have found such listening extremely difficult. But now, the difficulty is how we return to the world without losing what we’ve learnt. Leaving the towers may mean going back into a wider world that we’ve become comfortable withdrawing from.
I haven’t been to a café for as much as a cup of coffee since February 2020—that’s 25 months. Such a simple thing. That’s where I’m going to start, on the outside terrace of a Brittany café. And then I’ll write about it—a journal entry, a small act of becoming a different story—one that isn’t locked away and lived virtually.
The need to break open the shell
In the Druid telling of Spring Equinox or Alban Eilir (the light of the world) there’s a ritual of ‘breaking the shell’ based on the use of eggs as symbols of Spring. The egg is a safe and nurturing space, but at some point the chick needs to emerge. At some point the space inside the egg is not so much a healthy boundary containing all that is needed and with space to grow, but a constricting cage.
Two years of on/off lockdowns have had a contracting effects on every aspect of life—emotional and intellectual as well as physical. Some people will have very good reason to keep sheltering, but many of us need to break open the shell.
When my youngest son was born a friend drew a picture of daffodils and irisses with a verse from The Song of Solomon written over it:
See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
There are so many stories out there to hear and to tell. However carefully and safely we re-engage with the world, it’s time to
loosen the stiff muscles in lip and throat,
unfreeze our blocked hearts,
to speak again.
It ia time to greet the Spring.
Marina Sanchez says
Happy Spring Equinox to you, loved ones and the writing community:)
Let’s cherish, protect and stand up for our freedoms so that they are never taken again.
Love and hugs
Thank you Marina — love that word ‘cherish’ 🙂
What a brilliant piece – two years and a lifetime of thoughtful care in the making.
I noticed this weekend that birdsong has returned to the dawn and next Saturday the clocks ‘spring forward ‘ as they say – so yes, let’s do the same too.
Thank you, Mark
Springing forward feels right 🙂
Anne Dunford says
You’re so right Jan – Zoom haas been a blessing but life isn’t virtual and the coming of spring and the garden demanding our time reinforces that fact. Over the last two years I’ve become more and more grateful for the hours I can spend in the garden. Yes it’s hard and sometimes back breaking work, but it restores the soul. Handling plants, dividing and moving them , nurturing things from seed – all this has helped to compensate for the lack of human contact.
Thanks for your inspiration which has helped so much during these strange times.
Anne Bateman says
Such a beautiful, inspiring and timely piece Jan. Thank you. To reread and savour. I will think of you drinking your coffee on the pavement terrace. Enjoy.
Thank you Anne — Brittany has had a major spike in Covid after a long period of calm so still waiting for that coffee 🙂
Really agree Anne – I find just getting into the forest shifts my perspective from the contracted one of so much virtual life and the longing for contact.
Paula Greenwood says
Gill’s poem puts into words how I am feeling. Slowly thawing, emerging again into a different world. There’s talk of the new normal but I am not yet sure how I fit into it. We all have our stories to tell of the last couple of years and how it has affected us collectively and individually and yes, it is difficult to get back out there and break out of the shell.
This reminds me of a song by India Arie. It is called “Break the shell” and she sings. “ Life’s going to hurt but it’s meant to be felt. You cannot touch the sky from inside yourself. You cannot fly, until you break the shell.” It is one of my favourites. You can find it on you tube.
I always look forward to your posts Jan, you write so eloquently. I always feel both inspired, thoughtful and nourished after sitting with a nice cup of tea to read them. Thank you.
Thank you, Paula
Gill’s poem really struck me deeply too — the images are so apt.
And love that song lyric –the image of only flying once we have broken through the shell is perfect for Spring and for how so many people are feeling.