………….he not busy being born is busy dying :
It’s alright, Ma.(I’m only bleeding). Bob Dylan …………….
“It has been a quiet week, here on Lake Wobegon. It snowed twelve inches on Tuesday”.
So begins my favourite Garrison Keillor radio story. I’ve written about it before, in another context, because it’s a story about stories, about storytelling and storytellers, and the covenant between audience and author/performer. About expectations and surprises, about truth and falsehood. Which is more important now than at any time in my life, as we stumble through the sleep of reason in which monsters are born.
I suspect there will be a lot of quotations in this post which I’ve been struggling to start for about two months. Ready-to-wear ideas may well be what you get, instead of the bespoke ones that are, more often than not, eluding me. I can envy Keillor, who, whatever his doubts about what came next, always knew what the first sentence was going to be. And that what followed would be about ‘the quiet week’.
It’s been a horrible year here in the UK. It snowed on Wednesday. Things went on getting worse.
Who wants more? Thought not.
Six weeks ago I started a programme of chemotherapy. I wasn’t prepared for the lethargy or the mental tiredness. I thought I was already mentally tired by the unchanging circumstances of ten months of shielding/lockdowns/self-isolation. Though I suppose it was some kind of practice. It would be so easy to catalogue the frustrations of 2020 and would serve little purpose. Everyone else has been there. I’ve grown spiritually and physically agarophobic as the world has consistently shrunk.
I dream of going out to an actual shop and buying things with physical money. I’d like to have trips out to places that aren’t hospitals or surgeries….though every now and them they’re the highlight of the week, because they involve meeting people I don’t know, and having conversations, and, often, a laugh.
Which reminds me that two poetry residentials I’ve booked and paid for have been cancelled (and the hotels that would have hosted them have just gone into administration; my heart goes out to the staff); our annual trip to Skye has been indefinitely postponed. I miss the sea, the hills, and the creative buzz of it all. Poor me.
How to switch this around?
I have one friend, a singer/songwriter/performer/teacher/artist in his early 80s. He’s started these days to talk about not having much time left. Another friend, not quite 80, just emailed me and his post included the phrase ‘in the months that remain to us’.
I’ve been reading recent work by David Constantine, and by Martin Zarrop in which, quite co-incidentally, they share a trope. The business of hill walks you could once manage but know now that these days you can’t. And also the business of walks you you used to do with close trusted friends who are now dead and gone.
Then there was the Christmas card list. I realised that so many friends have died and so many addresses are dead-letter boxes that I need to start again with a new address book. A real book. Which brings me to the first quotation
………….he not busy being born is busy dying
In my early 20s I suspect I didn’t hear the ambiguity of it, any more than I did in The Who’s lyric ‘hope I die before I get old’. To which I now say a fervent ‘amen’. Because I understand, now, that getting old isn’t the same thing as the passage of time, and that dying is about not being born, every possible minute. For years my partner and I cared for elderly parents, one way and another, and I watched as their worlds shrank, physically, as did their curiosity. Slowly and inevitably they stopped taking any notice, stopped listening, stopped reading, being interested, talking. They were just busy dying.
I’ve decided I want none of it. I can learn from Solzhenitsyn and his take on Epicureanism, especially in One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. The idea that happiness lies, at least in part, in taking inventory of the day and identifying how it could have been much worse if X or Y had not happened or didn’t exist. And then focussing on X or Y. Things that made life better. An extra bowl of kasha. A bit of hacksaw blade. Building a wall.
What did I do in 2020? I have a house, I have a garden, a field beyond the garden, a view beyond the field. I have a garage full of bits of timber and power tools. In February three days of incessant horizontal rain worked through the gable end and round the kitchen window and poured in. So when the rain stopped, I got out the gear and repointed all the damage, and replastered and painted inside. I enjoyed it. Most of it.
The weather was nice this summer. I repained a lot of the outside woodwork; when it rained I decorated indoors or resprayed picture frames.
On a whim, via the cobweb and Facebook I invited folk to send me poems inspired by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s wonderful, artful poem Swineherd. Scores of people sent me poems, and then Bob Horne of Calder Valley Poetry suggested that we make a book of them, which involved asking Kim Moore to select the 26 best ones in an alphabet of occupations we’d leave When all this is over.
It’s only just struck me that probably every single submission involved a future of being left alone. You’d have thought that lockdown might have inspired dreams of crowds, of festivals of concerts. What most folk seemed to dream of was travelling alone, and almost invariably, in wild places or on the sea. Yes. My dreams too, I realise. But there you are. A book out.
I missed physical poetry courses, but I’ve been, virtually, to Garsdale Head with Kim Moore, to Sneaton Castle with the Poetry Business; I’ve joined in Joe Bell’s project To heal the mutilated world …and that was terrific…as well as Winston Plowes’ and Gaia Holmes’ Muse-li courses. And every Monday night, via Zoom, there was the Albert Poets’ Workshop. What else…oh yes. Tom Weir and I will be zoom-workshopping together, hopefully right through 2021. A lot of extra bowls of Kasha.
Then there was the field. It’s been fallow most of the time for the last 50 years. Next doors’ started to reclaim a patch in 2019. Dug out decades of crap (including substantial car parts), tons of bindweed and bramble and nettle, constructed raised beds, planted veg.
I was less ambitious and elected for wild flower meadow patches. We really should have asked the farmer, but no one has done anything with the field for half a century, and anyway……this year I decided to start another patch.
One August afternoon this year, Freda, the field’s owner decided to clear it all out. No idea why, but one morning there was a JCB scraping off decades of tangled briar, and we were rumbled. In the end I put into a poem which conflates events over two summers, but which made me happy when I made myself do it last November
It turns out
she’s been watching from her bedroom window
on the gable end side of the house which, officially,
does not exist. It turns out it was the smoke.
That and the red tee shirt in her field. Her husband,
himself a burner of fields, was keen on trespassers.
Its her field now, fallow fifty years, a seething sea
of bramble, bindweed, cowparsley, twitch and dock.
Every seven years, her husband (much older and now dead)
would assert his right of way, sometimes by burning,
one time with a greatbladed JCB that scraped it bare.
But now he’s dead, his rights of way have lapsed.
Next doors’ dug out a fair sized patch of field,
put raised beds in, planted spuds and onions and kale.
I cleared out my own; dug out miles of poplar roots,
asbestos sheets, old nettles, briars, furnace bricks,
rusted car parts, chicken wire, dug and raked,
ordered wildflower seed: rattle, corncockle, poppy.
Let mounds of dead leaf, root and thorn dry out,
and had a day of fires. Which is is when she saw me
from her bedroom window. The blue smoke, red shirt.
Came round to our front door with her nephew,
Kev, a big lad with earrings, hair like Johnny Cash
and letters on his knuckles. She said
she’d been watching from her bedroom window
That’s my field you’re burning. What’s going on?
I could have taken her round to look, but
her seeing Tony’s vegetable garden
didn’t bear thinking of. I’m seeding wildflowers.
I should have thought to ask. I meant no harm.
I bought her the packets to see.
Kev got back in the van. I’m Freda, by the way
she said. Freda Parkin. Would you like to do the field?
There we are. Busy being born. As to dying before you get old. I think they may be the same thing. It’s taken me two months to write this. I feel outrageously happy to have done it. Happy enough to end with two quotations, both from Tony harrison.
Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting
The tongueless man gets his land took.
When all this is over, I think I’ll have one of these tattooed on my arm. And maybe another on the other.