After months of hearing, thinking and talking about only the one thing, it is completely wonderful to be able to share some good news with you.
Firstly, I’m delighted to be one of the winners of the Coast to Coast to Coast pamphlet competition with my manuscript Let’s Dance. This is the brainchild of poet and artist, Maria Isakova Bennett and her books are a little bit special, as they are all handstitched in silk covers.
And also this feels even more of a celebration because some of the poems in Let’s Dance began last year as part of a writing residency at the Alde Valley Spring Festival, and this year I’m very proud to be part of the Summer Festival there too, working with the artist Perienne Christian. Her work is stunning so I’m already inspired, and hopefully we will be able to meet in person at the Festival in Suffolk later this year. The Alde Valley Spring and Summer Festival is a very special event, and this year it has gone online so do take a look. Here’s a memory of writing at that time…
A third thing to say is something that has been so important to me that I want to mention it now but come back to later as I’ve so much to say! It was a real honour to be asked to write a module for The Literary Consultancy’s Being a Writer programme. My module centred around Dealing with Self Doubt and Imposter Syndrome – something I wonder if writers ever get over. Perhaps not as this quote from John Steinbeck illustrates:
I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.
There are things we can do though to help us keep going, and it was so interesting to explore all these, and to work out which were the best ones to fit into the programme. It was fabulous to work with the team at the Literary Consultancy, and I quickly found out how much they cared about the whole project so I do hope it helps people. If you have done the course, do let me know how you got on with it, and if you haven’t, it’s here!
And lastly, one of the ‘other’ things on my mind recently, as I’m sure it has with you, are the issues raised by Black Lives Matter. It really is a time for me to listen and read and learn more. Here are just some of the books I’ve been turning to, and would recommend:
However, as this great article shows, there is a danger that ‘When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs” so I’m also happy that, through a favourite ex-student at the LSE, I’ll be mentoring two black students on their academic writing. I’m lucky that I have transferable skills, but also fully intend that any mentoring is two-way.
It’s a privilege to be able to write all of this post, but also it’s important for me to recognise that I’ve been working hard to get to this position. One of the things that being in hospital and yes, recovering, has shown me is that I need to do what’s important to me – poetry, words, art, nature, sustainability, learning and being part of helping everyone reach their potential. I’ll be learning to say NO more this year if things don’t feel right.
Oh, and I forgot cake. Here’s another reminder why I’m so happy to be part of Alde Valley again this year…
We are talking about earthquakes
when we pass the waterfall of foxgloves,
I’m sure they weren’t there before, you say,
pausing to take a perfect Insta shot
and as I imagine red shadows slinking by
with freckle splattered purple hands,
I’m about to tell you how Shakespeare’s father
was a glovemaker, when you hand me your phone
and I take it without thinking – your phone
in my bare hands. Was touch once this easy?
I watch your face catch my expression.
Our weekly walks meander on paths
around every topic, with shortcuts
to those things we don’t share with others.
How many times has this very phone
spilt out its secrets to me but still you lean
across our safe distance to snatch it back,
you even pretend not to see the care I take
to wipe my fingers, the foxgloves waving
at us like tiny megaphones as we walk on.
If you’ve been walking round my town recently, you may have seen poems like bunting hanging outside a particular house. You may have been one of those I’ve overheard saying, ‘What are these?’, or even, ‘Only in Tunbridge Wells!’
Well, I’ve been very proud to have been that ‘mad poetry lady’ in the ‘mad poetry house’ and thanks to all my other mad poetry friends for letting me put their poems up for everyone to enjoy. I lost count of the photographs taken, people stopping to enjoy them, and even an impromptu reading as one woman read them out via Facetime to friends in Spain. I was particularly touched by one couple who said they came by every day to read one poem a day.
Funny how these things happen. I knew when I came out of hospital, I wanted to do something positive and as a writer, words are what I can use. And then one day, I wrote this poem (below) which was actually inspired by a yellow postcard I do have stuck rather inelegantly above my computer. It was only when I read the draft back that I realised I was telling myself what to do! It’s like the old saying has it, ‘I write to find out what I think’.
The poems are coming down tonight so I wanted to write this post, not just to find out what I think but to remember it too! (Thank you to fellow poet, Jess Whyte, some of whose photographs I have stolen to use above.)
Today I wonder whether to hang
bunting on the railings outside my home,
each triangle a dot or a dash
for passers-by to read in any direction.
I’ll watch them through my window,
see how their faces change as they realise
it’s a code that only some will break.
Above my computer is a yellow postcard
of a letterpress Morse alphabet.
Sometimes I tap words out with my fingers,
and as my hands remember the dance
of when they’d waltz on my old typewriter,
even my sleek silent keyboard shudders along
with every swing and ding of the carriage return.
We don’t catch strangers’ eyes these days
and it’s this I miss, those snatches
of conversations that won’t even take place
until later, in my mind, I fill in the gaps,
I’ve never told anyone this before but—
That for the first few weeks after you get out of hospital, you’ll turn into Bambi, wobble on your legs, trip over your feet, tremble at every loud noise. Even as you think you’re getting stronger, there will be days when you fall back until it’s as if the words stay alert have been written on your heart.
That you won’t be able to stop thinking about your hospital room, and who might be lying in the bed now, and how their family might be feeling. Even when you’re doing other things, you are still half in that room and half in the world. You are not sure which feels more real.
That your hair will fall out in handfuls. You’ll look it up on Google, and feel better when you see this is probably a result of those high fevers you suffered. You’ll even pull out the clumps in your hairbrush for the birds to use in nests, until later you’ll start wondering if your hair still contains the virus, if you’re contaminating nests, if birds will start dropping down dead from the sky.
That it’ll all be your fault.
That you’ll feel continually ashamed as if you’re contaminated, dirty.
That people will whisper about you as you go by. She’s the one who… Even when strangers come up to you in the park and say how happy it made them to know that it’s possible to recover from the virus, you’ll hear the whispers. She’s the one who…
That the night before you have to go back to hospital for your six week x-rays, you can’t sleep at all. You’d thought you were getting over it but you realise that the whole thing happened so quickly first time round – the ambulance, the oxygen, the visors and PPE that the nurses had to put on to even bring you some water, the messages from people who still didn’t realise what was going on, the lack of any control you might have on the situation – that it might just happen again.
And even though you go to where you are told to go in hospital, even though you have all the right forms, the radiologist still casually looks at your notes before spotting that one word ‘covid’ and shouts, STAND BACK, and then makes you walk at a safe distance behind him. The rest of the waiting room stare at you, shuffle a little away from the chair you’ve been sitting on. There’s no point in saying that you’ve had two negative tests and you may be the safest one there because you still feel ashamed, and you understand their fear. How you understand that.
That your fingernails have ridges on them now and you can’t stop looking at them. It’s as if your body has been tattooed with where the virus got you, and it’s strangely fascinating.
That you will find yourself surreptitiously judging how much your friends and family can take when you talk about what you went through, how you feel now, what still makes you scared.
That you’ll keep saying, I’m so lucky, I’m so lucky, but actually you’re thinking, why me, should I have dieted more, was I too careless, what did I do wrong.
That you will feel you have to relearn so much about how to be alive, and especially how to breathe. Having to rely on oxygen has made you lose confidence in your body’s ability to do it on its own. You buy an Oximeter online, and catch yourself sneaking off far too often to test your oxygen levels.
That, medically, you’re left on your own. You have to get your information from Google, from survivor forums, from the articles your friends send you and you wish you hadn’t read but that you’ll pass on. You realise no one knows anything, not even the doctors, and that forever in the future, you’ll wonder if every illness, every pain you feel, is due to the virus.
That you feel a strange connection towards everyone who has been hospitalised like you, and you realise it’s the same connection you feel when you hear a Bedfordshire accent. It’s as if all survivors belong to the same landscape now, the maps of your life have been redrawn.
That you remember when one of your best friends was diagnosed with cancer and he told you that he felt he’d entered into a different world, he’d crossed a line. That was then, he said, this is now. I don’t belong in the ‘then’ any more. You’d thought you’d understand properly what he meant. Then.
That to begin with you will think people are mad when they tell you that you might have PTSD. Because surely that’s for soldiers who fought in Vietnam, people who have suffered serious abuse, everyone who has gone to the edge. Even after you agree to talk to a therapist, you’re still apologetic – it was nothing really – until in one of the sessions, you admit to yourself for the first time how close you came to dying. And then you cry with the relief of not having to hold it in anymore.
That you will realise that you don’t have to be anything, do anything to make other people feel better. You will go a bit crazy – order rose wines, Liberty fabrics, hardback novels, poetry books, dark chocolate – just because YOU feel like it. You’ll drink champagne in the park and not care if you’ve turned into a character from Absolutely Fabulous because you want to celebrate being alive.
That you’ll take it for granted that you can breathe without thinking.
That there will eventually come a time when overhearing how really it’s just like a bad case of flu, that it’s been so positive for us all, that wouldn’t it be lovely if it could go on forever, does it even exist, will no longer make you shake. Instead, you’ll find something to agree with there. Because it has been good to slow down. You grow seeds, make a dress, send handwritten letters, write poems. You take it gently, and you laugh again. So much laughter. How good it feels.
And that one day you will be able to hear an ambulance go by, to think of that hospital room, the nurses, and you won’t immediately flash back to your experience. You’ll have created enough distance to be able to stand back and wish that person well. With all your heart. And you’ll make sure that you do that – every time and with all your heart – because whoever they are, you and they belong to the same landscape now. It’s not the one you’d choose but it’s yours. You’re making a new map, and you have no idea where it might take you.
When I was talking with someone recently about feeling ‘over-whelmed’, I had the sudden urge to look up what ‘whelmed’ means.
Definition of whelm
1: to turn (something, such as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something : cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2: to overcome in thought or feeling : OVERWHELM
whelmed with a rush of joy
— G. A. Wagner
: to pass or go over something so as to bury or submerge it
Hmm… somehow I thought it might be more positive – like we all hope one day to ravel ourselves together, or to become hibited, or to have our spirits pressed. But no matter, it danced its way into one of the many lockdown poems I’ve been writing recently about what’s going on right now. I’m going to share my practice on here more – there, if I say I’m going to, I’ll have to do it. Enjoy!
Top hat and tails
When we ask each other what we miss most
the answers spin off like arabesques:
crowded pubs, hugs, a train to nowhere
essential, evenings in sold-out theatres
forgetting real life, planning holidays.
Then there are the second drink answers:
enough years to play with grudges, politicians
who aren’t out to kill us, a tomorrow
where we might finally make that difference,
but maybe the more interesting question
is what we will take with us into new normal:
having time to pick up a dictionary and look up
whelm – to be swept beneath by a wave. Over
under, we’re cheek to cheek now, swimming
into the future, backwards and in high heels.
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.
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.
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.
What’s clear is when it comes to Coronavirus is how little anyone knows. But that doesn’t stop us talking about it on every news channel, every news headline, every socially distanced corner. I am trying to wean myself off my current 24-hour addiction to news updates because although it’s hard – especially as I’ve reached the angry stage – one of the things I’ve been realising is that my recovery isn’t just about the body. It seems this virus affects the mind as well. So reading this article by Fiona Lowenstein in the New York Times was a revelation that came at exactly the right time for me.
I was filled with a strange gratitude that it wasn’t just me who couldn’t ‘bounce back’.
Since then several of us ‘survivors’ have found each other and banded together, exchanging truths and experiences knowing that we will understand things that maybe others don’t or would rather not hear.
Because it’s not pretty.
As Nicholas Coleridge said on the Today programme, coronavirus is like a “very dirty computer virus, infiltrating every part of your system, and contaminating all your files”.
There’s also an unhelpful feeling – or maybe it’s just me who feels this – that I need to be a cheerleader for recovery, a walking symbol that you can go into hospital with this ‘dirty virus’ and come out happily the other side. And of course I have, but the truth is that everyone is extraordinary – after all we’re all adapting to this weird normality, getting on with our lives as if we’re not stuck in some kind of horror movie where to touch someone is to potentially kill them.
And while of course I feel lucky, what I don’t know yet is what special gifts the virus might have left for me long-term.
And. Do. Not. Google. This. Trust me.
So when a good friend told me today, ‘be gentle, very gentle,’ the phrase kept echoing round my head. Not least because there are so many good things I’ve loved recently and I don’t want to forget them. In fact, it feels more important than ever to enjoy them.
So here’s a list of five things that have taken my mind off things and brought me pleasure recently, because, let’s be honest, my one attempt at making sourdough bread didn’t quite fill me with sparkles.
Hmmm…. So here are some altogether prettier things – I hope that you enjoy them too!
THREE BEAUTIFUL THINGS. My friend, Clare, has gone back to writing her blog of three small good things. I read these avidly every day, and remember why my whole family call her ‘beautiful Clare.’
GOOD LIFE-AFFIRMING BOOKS. I loved The Women in Black by Madeleine St John, an Australian novel set in 1960s department store, and then moved on to Kate Bradbury’s The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. This is a non-fiction account of how she turned a decked garden in Brighton into a wildlife (sort of) paradise. I think it would be impossible to read this book and not be inspired. I’m now the proud owner of a bee hotel as a result, and if you are the handy type, here she is showing how to make one.
My next book up is Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers. I have it on my Kindle, but via Twitter, I learnt that the Newham Bookshop have signed copies in stock. These videos she has done with her family (including her husband David Gilmour)are pretty special too when there aren’t book launches to be enjoyed.
CHOCOLATE. Of course, of course! One of the really lovely presents I got from someone who knows me very well was this box of special chocolates made by Charlotte Flower full of seasonal foraged flavours – ladies smock, wild garlic, sea buckthorn… I’d show you the actual chocolates but I’ve eaten them all! Charlotte is still making and sending chocolates out at the moment so do have a look at her website. And when we are back to some kind of normality, perhaps we can all meet on one of her workshops?
ONLINE COURSES. Oh my god, if this isn’t an example of how we all adapt then I don’t know what is. The joy of finding I can still do yoga with my beloved local teachers (turning my camera off so they don’t see me slacking off during plank pose), but there’s also the chance to try things I might not otherwise have been able to. I had the happiest two hours last Saturday doing a herb workshop with Hackney Herbal – oh, I thoroughly recommend it! I learnt so much and felt afterwards as positive as if I’d been digging bare handed in the soil. I’m also tempted by the courses on offer via the Edinburgh Botanical Garden and Oxford University – at last a chance to drop in, ‘when I was at Oxford’..!
And of course I may do none of them, but just knowing they are all out there and I COULD study electronics or botany opens up the world a little (Also, NOT doing them gives me the same thrill as skiving off school once did…)
GOOD PODCASTS. I know you all listen to so many of these already, but one that’s just started and I’m LOVING is Melissa Harrison‘s The Stubborn Light of Things. It’s uplifting and beautiful, full of the kind of detail that makes you look again at ordinary life. But closer this time, and from a different angle. Also there are only three episodes so far, so there’s that strange but welcome feeling of having to wait for good things to happen. Patience. Patience. Gently. Gently.
Oh, and go on one more….
SEEDS. Just look at my runner beans. They don’t know they are starting their lives in second-hand loo roll homes, and heck they don’t care. Because for them there’s a world out there and they are eager to HIT IT. Preferably with red flowers wound through their hair. See the difference in just a week… my babies are growing up fast.
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:
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.
- The different birdsongs from the British Library website here.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
- 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.
- Drink water, water, water. A raging thirst was one of my symptoms but it’s also essential to get better.
- Have Vitamin C, as much as you can healthily stuff down you. I’ve developed an obsession with oranges.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.