Let’s blow away some cobwebs and find some new horizons to explore! Here are two opportunities to join very different reading experiences with me.

First of all I’m DELIGHTED to say that I’ll be joining the poet Holly Wren Spaulding as guest host for a very special four week online workshop centred round reading Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.

As Holly says, ‘we need this book: to open our hearts, to mend old wounds, to give us courage, and to show us the way through great pain and uncertainty and upheaval.’

This is a chance for readers and writers from around the world to come together and both read and listen to these important poems. Reading aloud together – even online – allows a special engagement with the work, and there will be time for writing exercises too.

The course – with 90 minute workshops (recorded if you can’t join), and readings – costs $215, and you can find out more and sign up here – but do be quick, the places are going fast!

Secondly, I’m pleased to be back running my Reading Round sessions again in September. These are for people living in Kent, because although we will be beginning online, I am hoping we will be back meeting in real-life at some point.

The Reading Round group with special guest, the poet Martina Evans

The Reading Round group is a very special thing – designed and funded by the Royal Literary Fund, it allows participants to listen to a short story and a poem read aloud (by me) and then we have a discussion about them. It’s such a rich and energising experience, as one participant last year wrote: ‘What a treat Thursday mornings are, I look forward to them very much and I am learning so much from you and from the group. It is an enormous privilege to be able to attend.’

The group quickly filled up last year, with a waiting list, but we do have a few places open for 2020/2021. Do email me -readingroundtw@gmail.com – if you are interested. This video will tell you a little bit more about the scheme. Other important details are that it’s free (thank you RLF), will start on 17th September on Thursdays during school holidays, 1.30-3pm.

Just some of my junk, and yes this is all part of my five year plan!

We are in the middle of a downsizing frenzy at the moment, as we’ve just put the house we’ve lived and played in for the last twenty years and the big question is… how have I still got spices in my cupboard dating back to the last century?????

Poetry railings – just one of the things I’ll miss!

I do clear out sometimes, I promise, not that it feels much like it at the moment. I’ve had lots of useful advice from friends who have been through the same thing:

  1. Take photos of objects that have meaning but won’t be staying with you
  2. Go slowly
  3. And of course, via Maria Kondo, ask yourself – does this spark joy?

The problem has been with the things that do bring me joy but also bring a sense of responsibility because somewhere along the line I’ve been entrusted with them. But, surprisingly, another act of joy has come into play – finding the right new home for them. Freecycle has been my friend, but some things require more thought.

Take these cups and saucers. They were ceremonially given to me years ago by my granny Hereford, and with a story. My dad was a very young soldier during WW2 and when it finished, he bought his mum a fine china tea service with his demob money. Like the ‘parlour’ in the front of their house, it was too special to be used everyday and only came out on noteworthy occasions. (Imagine a whole room officially deemed ‘too good to use’!)

That wasn’t to say this tea service didn’t mean anything though – even now I could almost put my hand over these cups and feel a vibration of both pride and filial affection. And the truth is that they have been treasured as much by me as they were by my granny.

However, the cups and saucers have travelled with me now through several house moves and two countries and have still rarely been used. Did I want to take them to yet another home?

Having checked that no one else in my family wanted them, I had a brainwave. We have a gorgeous cafe in Tunbridge Wells, Juliets, that uses vintage cups and saucers. Did the lovely Juliet want them? Yes, she did.

Here are my cups making new friends in the window of Juliets!

So now I can go visit my cups and saucers as many times as I want and see them being used at last.

A toppling pile of memories here… I love it.

Just as they should have been all along. I like to imagine the secrets spilled over them, the laughter, the news, and all the friendships. Best still, my dad, when he was alive, loved Juliets – he couldn’t believe just how beautiful all the yummy mummies he saw there were. My granny would have tut-tutted, of course. But I think she secretly loved tut-tutting, that well-known song of grannies everywhere…

I’m delighted that my poem, Seeds, was chosen by the powerhouse poet Hafsah Aneela Bashir for her wonderful new project, The Poetry Health Service. This website – subtitled Panaceas By The People For The People – takes you through a number of colour based questions which are soothing in themselves before you get your ‘panacea’ – a poem read just for you!

Do try it, and let me know what poem you get.

Like most of us, I’m guessing, my diary is pretty empty these days. Even counting the Zoom meetings, drinks and quizzes BUT… I’ve taken a huge leap of faith and got myself a new diary which begins at the end of June.

empty page
Who knows what will be happening then? And to cheer me up, I bypassed my normal black to go for a splash of colour because, let’s be honest, every little bit of excitement helps right now. I can’t be the only one.

orange diary

So here’s a little diary poem for you.

An empty day

It’s hard to remember the excitement
of having only those few free hours,
reading with only a neighbour’s cat
padding into the garden to break
my concentration, sleeping in the sun,
news headlines muted as a blackbird
sang somewhere at a safe distance –
not knowing then the fear of losing
myself somewhere in lockdown,
to think I once called that empty.

*Just one word rhymes with orange apparently. And that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “sporange,” an uncommon botanical term for a part of a fern.

fern

Thank you for so many kind comments after my post about spending time in hospital as a result of Covid-19. I’m so grateful that it proved useful to so many people, and as well as the things suggested in that last post, I hope this second  post answers some of the many questions I’ve had from people worried about being admitted themselves, or for their relatives. And that some of these links might help you – they seem quite trivial but sometimes the little things make all the difference because they are what we can actually control. And just as reassurance, I’m on the mend now. Here I am outside in my garden yesterday:

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Yes, I could take my phone with me. I’m not sure if this is the rule for all hospitals now, but it was a definite comfort blanket because it was a way of keeping in touch with home as I obviously had no visitors. Luckily one of the paramedics who took me to hospital told me to take my charger, otherwise I wouldn’t have thought about it. Looking back, it feels almost funny that I took my phone charger but not my toothbrush or anything useful. However, the hospital provided me with a plastic toothbrush and sachets of toothpaste, shower gel and shampoo. I didn’t brush my hair for the whole time I was there but I don’t think anyone cared. I certainly didn’t.

*

I have had so many questions about breathing and I keep having to repeat that I’m not an expert – what’s true is that when you are in this situation, suddenly everything you take for granted somehow feels more difficult. Now I’m recovering I’m finding this youtube video by a Qigong teacher called Peter Deadman so helpful – I can’t remember who passed it on to me, but thank you.

*

There wasn’t much nature around in my hospital room funnily enough. But I started to hunger for it, so I listened to birdsong recordings and watched bird videos again and again. There are lots out there, but these two were ones I found and which really helped me.

  1. The different birdsongs from the British Library website here.
  2. And this one was just lovely and long so I didn’t have to keep pressing anything  – here 

 

*

Feeling grateful at this time felt so counter-intuitive but I know how important it can be from my work in writing and wellbeing. So when I was ready – and I did have to work through resistance! – I made gratitude lists in my head. Small things at first then bigger and bigger then in no order at all – the jug of water by my bed, the oxygen I was on, the nursing staff who were keeping me on track, the scientists who invented all the machines I was plugged into, the person who had thought of painting on of the walls bright green, having nurses and doctors from the Phillipines, Kerala, all over the world – even one from the same street as me… I can’t tell you how much it helped.

 

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Another thing that kept me going was singing to myself. Now, I’m not a singer, perhaps this was an advantage of being in isolation, but I would recommend knowing the words to a song or hopefully two. You can even pick something a little more sophisticated than mine which ended up being Wind the Bobbin Up! This was partly because I’d received this beautiful video of my little grandson listening to his uncle Joe play it to him just before I went in. I sang it again and again, using all the gestures – even pointing to the window and the door, the ceiling and the floor. There was definitely something about the containment of getting to the end of a song, and also the rhythm that was so soothing. I’m not sure if I can listen to it again for a little while though.

 

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And lastly, I’ve been interested in how my point about being careful about the messages you send has resonated with so many others who’ve similarly spent time in hospital. I want to make clear that I did love getting messages, I just didn’t have the energy to respond, or even actually read them especially if they were long. The ones I particularly loved were simple photographs of friends and family having a nice time – although many people said they were worried afterwards that might make me feel bad. But I wanted signs that life was going on out there. I wanted trees, funny dogs, babies, flowers, the sea and I particularly yearned for people smiling. All the things that weren’t really happening in my room at the time.

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So, don’t be like Sarah – take your toothbrush and hairbrush as well as your charger. Breathe lots. Learn some songs. Listen to birds outside while you can as well as recordings. And don’t judge yourself. We’re all doing the best we can, and if you want to watch nearly all of Love is Blind, well, at least you know that you are not alone.

love is blind

 

But mostly, of course, I really hope that none of this is needed for you. As everybody keeps saying, stay at home and wash your hands. And know how lucky we all are that we have such wonderful doctors, nurses, nursing staff and support staff in the NHS ready to help us if the worst happens. As well as our delivery drivers, our supermarket staff, our pharmacists, our police, our warehouse workers, and all the other really important people who are keeping us going right now.

THANK YOU ALL.

 

 

 

 

 

This isn’t a post I’d ever want to write, but it’s also a post I’m delighted to write. Because I’m now home from hospital after recovering from serious virus-related pneumonia. I’d been ill for a week beforehand so had – luckily – been in isolation, I’d felt I was recovering but then started coughing non-stop, became breathless and eventually dialled 111 who sent paramedics.

I’ve been trying to work out how I can usefully share this information with everyone – I certainly don’t need sympathy now. Yes, it was one of the most scariest, loneliest and grim experiences I’ve ever had, but I’m one of the lucky ones. SO LUCKY.

However, there are things I learnt which I can share – so please do feel free to ask any questions you may have. I know there’s a difference between reading cold information and talking to someone who has been through it so I’m happy to talk if I can, although it  does feels important to say that this virus affects people in completely different ways. There’s not one answer to anything, but I’ll be happy to share my personal experience if it might help you. So here’s some of the things I learnt or was told…

  1. When you’re coughing, sit up if you can. Yes, it’s exhausting, and I just wanted to lie down and wait until it’s over, but as soon as I was told by a clever nurse to sit up, I could feel it was the right thing to do. I’m sure there’s science here if anyone wants to share, but one thing was that it allows phlegm to form which is better for your lungs.
  2. Drink water, water, water. A raging thirst was one of my symptoms but it’s also essential to get better.
  3. Have Vitamin C, as much as you can healthily stuff down you. I’ve developed an obsession with oranges.
  4. Do as many breathing exercises as you can bear. I love my yoga so I thought I’d be fine here, but the breathing it seemed I needed to do was through the mouth (now counter-intuitive to me) and out through pursed lips. One of the things I learnt is that breathing is everything. Everything.

And if you have a friend or relative going through this, here’s what you can do.

  1. Be careful with the messages you send. I was getting many concerned messages from friends and relatives that I just didn’t have any energy to deal with.  The truth was that I was concentrating on my own journey, rather than wanting to reassure others, so I either ignored them – sorry! – or sent a quick xx. The irony is that I loved reading most of them, often again and again, but I couldn’t manage answering SO be aware of this. Don’t overwhelm with your concerns, however well-meaning, but – if this is a close friend – do stay in touch. Just a picture of a tree, a dog or a sunset was magic, together with a quick line to say I was being thought of, no need to reply. One dear friend whatsapped at 3am to say she was awake and if I was, then she wanted me to know I wasn’t alone – that helped more than I can probably ever manage to tell her. MAKE IT CLEAR YOU DON’T EXPECT HEALTH UPDATES OR REPLIES, and if this isn’t a close friend or relative, then wait until they come out of hospital. Harsh of me, but I didn’t have the space to become part of someone else’s drama.
  2. Don’t expect them to bounce back. I’ve been home three days now and can only just manage walking up and down stairs without needing to rest. I might even think about reading a book soon – I certainly couldn’t have written this before. Recovery is a disappointingly long journey.
  3. Let them talk about what they’ve been through if they want. You’re all alone in the hospital room for what seems forever. Things go round and round in your mind, not all good. I’m very aware that there’s a temptation sometimes to want to draw a line under an experience like that, there are narratives we want to hear and those we don’t. I’m lucky. I have a partner and friends who have let me tell them exactly how scared I was, without wanting to immediately turn it into a ‘well, thank goodness you’re OK now’ story. Yes, I am OK, but all the dark stuff is somewhere inside now too.
  4. You don’t beat Corona. This isn’t a war story – you can’t be plucky and brave and fight it off. I might have thought this once, but I know now that I’ve lost my confidence in my own strength. I hope it comes back eventually, but the truth is that once the virus gets you – and it doesn’t seem to discriminate – then you just have to wait it out. Some people will have mild symptoms, others more ferocious. Never make someone feel as if they should have done more not to get it. BUT ALSO STAY HOME. This is serious.

AND LASTLY, oh God the NHS. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. Those nurses and nursing staff at Pembury Hospital were amazing. I could tell exactly how scared they were to come into my room – I was a danger to them after all – but they still did. Every time. With kindness and compassion and professionalism. I will never stop being grateful to them. When this is all over, let’s not forget who it is exactly that we can’t live without.

 

Well, what strange times we are in. And although I’m one for seeing the silver lining wherever I can, I’m struggling at the moment. Small kindnesses, for sure. I do like your hat…

photo-1533055640609-24b498dfd74c

So it’s good to see some of the creative responses that are happening. Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman, for example, are offering free creative writing prompts here, and writer Carolyn Jess-Cooke is planning an online literary festival via twitter.

My friend, Sally Beazley-Long and I have paired up to play a little game using her art history expertise and my literary passion. I’ve been giving her poems and stories to match with paintings, and vice versa. We thought it would just be fun, but the results have been wonderful. A whole new layer to both the painting and the poem. Here are some:

For Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still…

cindy

I matched Dorothy Parker’s short story, A Telephone Call.

And for William Stafford’s A Ritual to Read to Each Other, Sally gave me Marc Chagall’s Le Champ de Mars, 1955…

chagal

We paired Ellen Bass’s Eating the Bones with Jan Steen’s The Fat Kitchen. OF COURSE WE DID!

Steen, Jan, 1625/1626-1679; The Fat Kitchen

There are more that we’ll share over the next few weeks, but it’s such a lovely way of looking a bit closer than we might otherwise at both the poems and stories AND the paintings.

These are seeds that can only grow. And tomorrow I’m going to be planting real seeds out in the garden. Even in the rain, actually especially if it rains!

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Bloody poets, sometimes they say exactly the things you need to hear. Take this line from Rumi – “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?”

Life’s a bit ‘exciting’ at the moment, with colds, infections, bad tempers … and that’s just me. Let’s not talk about A&E visits, house moves I can’t be there to help with, work weeks away and then there are the excitements ahead of being a granny etc etc etc. So when I woke up AGAIN feeling both busy and poorly, I was tempted to put off doing something poetic this morning, even if it was for the loveliest of things – the launch of  the Samsara Retreat and Yoga centre in Kent.

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That’s when that Rumi quote above flew out of a book I’d picked up and hit me. But not only was there the chance to be polished, there needed also to be time spent thinking what I want to do. So I took a cup of tea into a quiet spot and thought – what DID I want to do.

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So I got into my car and drove to Samsara, and set up a poetry tree so people could enjoy the poems I’d already selected for them, even if I couldn’t stay. And on my way there, the sun started shining, I found lanes I hadn’t driven down before, saw lambs, and apple trees in blossom, and when I got to the beautiful beautiful retreat centre Lorraine and Dipu have created so generously, I felt so lucky to be even a small part involved.

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Bloody poets. Bloody lessons. But look how gorgeous these poems look on the tree. New leaves, every one of them.

And yes, Rumi was one of them. And yes, this was the poem…

The Guest House
(Translated by Coleman Barks)

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.