Lost in Conurbation

“Stone walls do not a prison make
Nor iron bars a cage.”

wrote Richard Lovelace, back in the 1600s.

I’d sometimes wondered, passingly, how true that was.  Could the human spirit rise above physical incarceration and fly free, despite all?

Life – considerate as ever – has given me the opportunity to find out.  Not, I hasten to add, that I have been walled up in some dreadful prison cell.  I’m free to come and go as I wish and my surroundings are clean, dry and comfortable.  It is, nonetheless, a cell.

I will be living, through the rest of spring and summer and well into autumn, in a square white room.  There is a tiny shower room, but all other aspects of life must be accomplished here.  Where once I had rooms, now I have corners – one for cooking, another for sleeping, an eating, relaxing and working area.  Where once I had a garden to tend, stuffed with nodding daffodils, bluebells and tulips, I now have a single pot of hyacinths on a white windowsill.   Where once I watched the sun set amidst distant hills across the Somerset Levels, now it drops below a tower block across the car park from the one I live in.

My windows look out on to other blocks of flats.  A hollow-eyed woman with dark hair sometimes peers out from the one opposite.  A gaunt man coughs and gasps in the window as he drags at a cigarette from the room below hers.  Beyond the blocks are housing estates on two sides and roads on the others.

Yes, it would be easy to sink into self pity in this sterile, soulless, monotone place.  On my first night here, I lay in bed listening to the sound of traffic, far below, on the dual carriageway that leads to London – a soft, irregular swishing sound that rose to a crescendo and fell away again.  It could almost have been taken for waves, breaking on a pebble beach, I decided, before noticing that this gave me no comfort at all.  I’ve never much enjoyed the sea – too wide, too cold, too unpredictable.

I have with me the few comforts and essentials I was able to cram into a relative’s small hatchback and a few sticks of furniture I’ve borrowed, or bought from local second-hand shops.  It’s a world away from my lovely cottage, my dear friends and my contented life over in the west.

So is my spirit broken by this cruel exile?

Slightly battered, perhaps, in these early days of readjustment, but far from broken.  This has become an exercise in actively seeking out the positive.  Since my arrival two weeks ago, a froth of may blossom has covered the narrow strip of wilderness – a haven for dog-walkers and fly-tippers – that separates the estate from the trunk road, so that I now barely see the lorries and vans hurtling towards the city.  Tiny bluetits cling impossibly to vertical brick walls outside my window as they gather some form of sustenance from them.  Beyond the flyover, a single green field can be glimpsed obliquely from one window, if I position my chair carefully.

The greatest help, though, has come from the two little children I have come here to be with.  They and their mother have been permanently uprooted from their home, in the most traumatic of circumstances.  They, too, are living in temporary accomodation nearby, but with no hope of returning to their home and friends.  They have lost so much, yet they teach me, each day, about positivity and optimism.

“Grandma has a lake in her garden,” the six-year-old informed his mother, referring to the drainage ditch that crosses the small piece of grassland beside the flats.
Scale is unimportant. For us, now, it is a river, with meanders and tiny waterfalls created by twigs and leaf litter.

His three-year-old sister can easily spend ten minutes peering with total delight into a patch of wild violets she found there, stroking its petals reverently, or having earnest conversations with a passing beetle.

Even in my room, their imagination and creativity fills the space with magic. Image may contain: indoor A side table became an enchanted forest home for the fairies for a while.

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A garden, bath and sofa were created in a box for their toys.

For all of us, now, Life insists that we build our own joys and delights and that we trust to its bounty and goodness to allow my little family to heal and rebuild their lives, so that I can ultimately return to mine.

I won’t be the same person who left, though.  There is richness in this experience that will stay with me forever and I am deeply grateful for it.

 

 

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Mother

Bag Gypsofilia Seeds, Gypsophila, BagIt was Mothers’ Day here yesterday.  I say ‘here’ meaning the UK, because I know other countries celebrate it at other times.  Our Mothers’ Day changes each year – something to do with Easter wobbling about, which is something to do with the moon, I think.  Never really figured out what or why because it never really interested me that much.  All I know is that it often more-or-less coincides with my birthday, which means my offspring tend to send me some sort of greeting on one or the other, but rarely both.

This year the two dates were separated by a few weeks.  All three remembered the birthday.  For Mothers’ Day I received a text message and two phone calls, plus a DVD which arrived a week ago, it’s computer generated Amazon gift message proclaiming it to be an extra birthday/Mother’s Day gift.

I just didn’t rear the kind of kids who splash out on expensive mail order bouquets, trawl through Etsy for the perfect personalised gift and quirky card or spatter Facebook with multi-coloured ‘best mum ever’ photo collages covered in hearts and anaemic-looking teddy bears.  For that I’ll be eternally grateful.

No longer having a mother in the physical realm, I spent my Mothers’ Day communing with Mother Nature in my garden.  It was a glorious spring day and I was blissfully happy, up to my elbows in deep, dark loam, planting out a new herb bed, enjoying the nodding daffodils and clearing the grass from the ever-expanding clumps of primroses and cowslips that beam up from every cranny and corner.  My garden had a gift for me, too – a beautiful little tumbled crystal, just lying on the earth’s surface and waiting for me to find it.

In the evening, I sat down to watch the gift DVD – a sci-fi film called Arrival.  My youngest had selected it for me because he knew I would love it – intelligent, very cleverly constructed, with some fascinating takes on how language, communication and – most important of all – time itself works.  One line shone out and left me buzzing by the end.  It was something like: Imagine writing a sentence, using both hands, and starting from both ends at once.  You’d need to know everything that the sentence was going to contain in advance and you’d need to know exactly how much space to leave so that it met up perfectly.  You’d need to know the future.

Yes, my kids don’t shower me with trinkets on Mothers’ Day, but they know me very well.  I’m one lucky mother.

Morning Glory – Memento Mori

IMG_20150816_092603William Wordsworth may have famously wept to see daffodils ‘fade away so soon’.  Lucky he didn’t grow morning glory.

This is the first time I’ve grown them – nursing the tiny seedlings, transplanting to pots and finally planting them outside.  All that messing around for plants that will vanish at the first frosts, never to return.  I don’t normally bother with annual plants, but that perfect blue drew me, and there was a bare archway in the garden in need of some cover.

The flowers, when they finally appeared, were certainly worth the effort.  They are perfect, stunning, beautiful, and very brief.

IMG_20150913_090045All through August, and still now in September I’ve opened the bedroom curtains each morning, eager to see how many flowers have appeared.  Sometimes only one or two, sometimes ten or more.  After breakfast I’m outside peering into the flowers, drinking in their incredible colour and feeling such gratitude for their presence.  By lunchtime, though, they are fading fast.  Visitors who arrive at two or three in the afternoon are told, “Oh if only you’d come an hour or two earlier, you would have seen them.”

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All that remains is a crumpled stump of a flower, the petals turned in on themselves, as if ashamed of the toll time has taken on their beauty.

It’s an absurdly short life, isn’t it?  Half a day of glory and they’re gone.  Certainly there are more blooms to replace them the following morning, but still there’s something curiously poignant in the energy and perfection crammed into those short lives.

A bit like us, really…

I always rather liked the idea of adding memento mori  to portraits – the skulls, fading flowers, clocks or hour glasses placed on a side table or held in a hand, to remind the wealthy sitter that ‘this, too, shall pass’, that the fine body and sumptuous clothes are a temporary casing with a limited future.

Gloomy?  Perhaps you’ll see it that way.  To me it seems just fine.  I’m here, in this particular body and life for a few brief decades before moving on.  I don’t measure my value in quantity of years, but in quality of life.

So my morning meditation with my morning glory flowers is a mixture of gratitude for the beauty and perfection of this short life, of determination to make the most of every day – every half day, even – and a calm assurance that there will be countless more flowerings of consciousness to come.

Lime Cottage’s garden goes large

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Watering my plants, aged 2

I’ve adored plants for as long as I can remember.  Walks with Grandma Grace on the Sussex Downs were always magical, as she told me the country names for the wild flowers we spotted.
“Those are Milkmaids, in their little bonnets,” she’d say, or, “That’s Jack-by-the-Hedge.  This is Bird’s Foot Trefoil.  See how the flower looks like a little sparrow’s foot?”

I found the names and the flowers equally enchanting.

When I was still too young to read, she bought me the Observer Book of Wild Flowers.
“I know it’s rather grown up for you,” she said. “But I thought you could tick the ones you see, very lightly with a pencil, until you’re bigger and you can read all about the flowers.”

I loved that book.  It went everywhere with me and spotting a new specimen was always a tremendous joy.

Grandma Grace is, naturally, long gone.  What fun she’d have in the garden of Lime Cottage, though, if she were able to visit.  There are some cultivated plants here, of course, but much of the colour and beauty is provided by the native species she loved so much.

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Yellow Loosestrife at Lime Cottage

The spring brings Bluebells and Herb Robert.  Forget-me-nots follow, then Yellow Flags, Foxgloves, Soapwort, Yellow and Purple Loosestrife along with sundry Cranesbills, Speedwells and Dead Nettles.

Most are welcome (Bindweed and Goosegrass less so) but just occasionally I’m thoroughly perplexed by some unfamiliar arrival.

This spring a very vigorous something began to entrench itself in the centre of a flowerbed.  I couldn’t decide whether it belonged on the compost heap or deserved a place in the garden, but since I was curious, I gave it a stay of execution and waited to see what it would be.

The leaves were soft and downy, their shape familiar, but I couldn’t recall seeing anything quite like this.  With the most amazing rapidity, the stem became a trunk and the plant was peering down at me from at least 8 feet in the air.  I’d never seen anything like it.  Even if I’d been able to hack through it, by now I had no intention of doing so.  It’s sheer rampant energy and determination had earned it a place in the garden.

Clusters of buds began to form.  Now these DID look familiar – I’d seen this species many times before, but only at a tiny fraction of the size.  The clusters of buds multiplied by the day – there must be several hundred now.  Each day, I’d hurry down to see if any had opened.  If this was what I thought it was, I would be in for a spectacular show.

Yesterday I finally got my reward.  This huge beauty was smiling down at me.

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Out came the Concise British Flora (the Observer Book having long since vanished) and I hunted for a species of mallow that grows like a triffid.  There it was – a Tree Mallow!  Apparently they’re very rare in England – only found occasionally on Cornish cliffs.  How it had found its way into my garden is a complete mystery.

It’s not perhaps as tidy as its cultivated cousins, and it has certainly laid claim to a huge patch of ground, but I’m delighted with my ‘tree’.  It flowers, the book tells me, from July to September, so it seems that I’ll have a flower-filled summer.

Being biennial, it will go out in a blaze of glory – leaving as suddenly as it arrived.  I have a feeling, though, that its offspring will return.

Wise, sometimes then, to wait before making a judgement.  So glad I did.