it is dawn and my wife is coming to bed and she has been watching a film about the life of charlie parker
and the air in the bedroom is silent while she undresses and the light is there at the side of the curtain beyond her head
and she tells me his body gave up of drink and drugs when he was 34 and I decide I am awake and go to the kitchen for a drink of water
and the sky in the north is translucent like a lake translucent like a lake though it is only 3 am
and when I go back we lightly hold hands as we sometimes do until the first to be falling asleep begins to twitch and tonight it’s Sonya
and I withdraw my hand and lie back looking at the ceiling I am aged 51 years and nine months and nine to ten days
This is a short essay I wrote for the Scottish Poetry Library, Poem for the Week.
The tenderness and sincerity of this poem, a remembrance of a moment of love within a lifetime of love, always touched me. Though the details of the interiors are sparse – no Proustian brocade for Tom – it conveys an Objectivist sense of common belonging. The wee journeys from room to room, and sense of a world beyond the curtains, resonates when so many people are cooped up in their homes. For me coronavirus is an illness that torques inside my body at night, exerting a force on the lungs, making my head feel dark with pain, so the dawn is a relief. It will be different for others.
Tom offers love – his for Sonya – a specific setting we can enter – some of us recalling the address the poet lived at and imagining the very window – just as there is a real window which Sorley MacLean looked to the west from, in ‘Hallaig’. Acts of witness matter in times of crisis.
The poem recalls Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, which elegises Charlie Parker as a bodhisattava. Here, in a tenement in Glasgow, grace lies in the quotidian modesty which, in turn, comes to rest within elements that change eternally – light, air, water, love – as the poet wanders through to the sink. Isn’t that true of life now: I see the sun on the frosty roofs from my flat in Hawthornvale, same as it ever was, and yet.
That last line, fixing himself and us in time, could easily be the prelude to one of Tom’s poems about the Gulf War. He felt such passionate anger at those mass bombings, the history of suffering. Tom had a democratic sense that the events visited on one body could be the suffering, or love, visited on any. As Elaine Scarry says, if there is pain in the room then that pain is in someone. It is the same with love and those hands touching, which remind me of the hypnic jerks that would pass through my wife’s body as I held her at night.
The poet sometimes writes their own grave poem without knowing. I don’t read Tom’s poetry often – it’s like holding a pebble freezing cold from the burn – but I depend on it to scour my thoughts from time to time. I read the struggle for clarity and truth as relating, intimately, to the striggle for breath, in Tom’s poems as informed by his asthma. To risk the imitation: prose uses a lot of air, poems get by on a few breaths. My breathing is laboured tonight, as the virus slowly heals. I am 54 years and nine days old.
We will need a poetry that has this kind of sincerity, to witness and navigate this crisis, as it forces itself into our lives, alters everyday behaviour, changes the way we stand in relation to one another, how or whether we hold hands. There are far, far, worse days to come. The anguish of harsh choices, the folly of steps not taken. There will be new heroes, but war imagery is inadequate to this kind of crisis, as anyone with an illness knows. Only the most radical kindness will suffice. And Tom would want it said: the truth is, society already decides who doesn’t get necessary care and protection and it has done so for years – whether and how that changes from now on is something we can all decide.
As one in a series of posts by people reflecting on walking, healing and the Coronavirus, this is Natalie's. She has written more here.
One day past Spring Equinox, it’s hard to know where to begin. I’m so far behind. With excruciating guilt, I stopped composting veg peelings last month for the first time in decades. Both of the one cubic tonne size composters in the garden were over-spilling. They would have been turned and turned into crumbly compost and spread as a mulch across all the veg beds. A thin blanket of fresh nutrients, weed barrier, and warmth after the cold of winter. I’d neglected them, and still I just can’t face the task.
I know where to start, be present. Stand silently and barefoot on the earth and breathe. Lie on the grass and feel my body supported by the earth, look up at the blue sky and breathe. Ground myself and listen to what the ancient voice at the back of my mind is saying, with constancy.
I don’t have the energy. The thought of moving a few tonnes exhausts me. And there is another tonne of topsoil in a bag from last year. It’s been squatting a bed since it was delivered, hyab-ed over the garden fence. Another project left undone. It needs barrowed around the garden. I’m not sure how much is a mental block, how much physical. When did I lose my energy? I need it back. Undone projects are symptoms of feeling overwhelmed: I was living too fast. So much mess to clear up. No-one but me to do it.
Back to basics. Just observe. Observe the life around me. Tread carefully, be gentle. Except maybe with the bind-weed. Surely it must have some use other than infuriation and strangulation? The nettles will soon be big enough to make spring tonic soup. The comfrey leaves will soon be big enough to cushion the seed potatoes.
For months I have found such solace in Being Inside and Being (relatively) Alone. After years rushing around multiple therapy gardens, juggling multiple tabs open in my mind, worrying, worrying, worrying about people and plants, hearing my voice speak too much, becoming glib, parroting information, I had to crash into stillness. I started calling the fragmented parts of me back home again. My motivation to ‘do something, do more’ left me. I didn’t go outside. I didn’t go into my garden. I decided to retrain as another kind of therapist. I saved money. An escape route was planned. That’s postponed now.
Yesterday I saw the first bumblebee flying drunkenly around the garden, fat bottom in the air, deep into the daffodils. The day before my nephews and myself listened to a robin singing for a lover, singing the perimeter of his territory, prospecting for a nest.
Thirteen years ago my name rose up the list and finally, after a decade waiting, I was allocated an over-run allotment plot in a rundown allotment site in a low income area of Glasgow’s Southside. I started to tend a garden.
Today I will go back to my garden. I will spend some time just being and observing. Full circle. I started to garden because I knew I needed to be intimately connected to Mother Earth every day. I will make a new start.
The inaugural Day of Access was held on June 16, 2019, at Meall Tairneachan, The Thundering-one Hill, Perthshire. Four disabled people were given vehicular access to an altitude of 720m., with the support of Forestry and Land Scotland, John Muir Trust Heart of Scotland, and Kynachan Estate. This manifesto was read aloud at the highest point.
The Declaration of Meall Tairneachan: Precepts for the Remediation of The Body and The Land
“When we think of the need for a disability access we often think only of accommodations of a spatial character – ramps, signage, parking spaces – but we forget the need for accommodation of the varying temporalities of the body…”
there can never be an excess of access
“you want us tochange the gate? – but what would a disabled person do up there?”
the chronically ill are among those most alienated from wild nature
if people could access the landscape equally would there be such a thing as “landscape”?
access should kindle a sense of belonging, even for those who are house-bound
for the chronically ill wild land remains a paradox: exhausting challenge and domain of healing
the issues of wounded nature and human suffering are adjacent
always try to carry a line ahead of you so as to not cross into all the pain that follows
the chronically ill understand a world defined by depleted resources
imagination unlocks the gate in the deer fence
who decides where you can go? Access is defined in culture before it is enshrined in law
like the loss of a limb, the loss of access enhances perceptions
access need not be physical: the imagination engenders
affiliations to places, species, and ecosystems
what will come of introducing vulnerable bodies into vulnerable ecologies?
there are different paths – they don’t all reach the summit
deficiencies in the legs may lead to gains in the eyes
a bed may feel like an immense landscape
a mountain may be hidden with one hand
the meaning of a mountain doesn’t reside in its summit
for some the hill is Medusa turning them to stone
try to be moss for a few hours – lie still like a patch of lichen
or collapse like a recumbent stone
everyone has the right to throw the blanket in
the ill are like fairies – they fold a different measure of time into the hill
from the moment a community considers access for the chronically ill their concept of Nature alters
our purpose: to forge an alliance between human healing and ecological remediation
rewilding, place-awareness and disabled access are acts of imagination
Day of Access is the avant-garde of the place-aware movement
Day of Access gifts a body a story that has become unlikely
returns a mind to the narrative of the wild
Day of Access offers public forestry a new purpose
the new hill tracks benefit neither wildlife nor people with constrained walking: vehicles are no longer only a means to access bloodsport thrills, dams, or minerals
the wheelie’s enemies: stiles & locked gates
those who have campaigned all their lives for equality may be dismayed by talk of vulnerability
as much as law it is kindness and respect that enable access
Day of Access has the audacity to ally need and pleasure
in Day of Access the poorly carry limits with them in their legs, but their eyes are free to wander
The Road of Access leads to The Hut of Place-awareness
photography: Mhairi Law (colour); Sam MacDiarmid (b/w)
While some of us cannot get outside to wander along hedgerows and visit gardens here are some notes for healing walks, from Grigson's The Englishman's Flora. The names of plants speak to human complaints and hopes. Some plants have gathered more than one name. Some names make one want to hold a stem to a particular part of the body – the letters shape a salve. The names speak to a time when nature was our pharmacy. Medicine has evolved, but nature is still our cure.
This text, by Rachel Smith, offers some meditations on movement for those who are bed-bound. They also exist as audio here. The photos are by Hannah Devereux.
The words are scores, starting points for explorations, or bed dances – because dance can be anything. You can work with the whole score, a part, or one sentence or phrase.
Prolonged time in bed can leave us feeling disconnected from our bodies, estraned from the environment. These scores were begun while I was bed-bound with a lupus flare up, when my bed was my dance floor. I offer them as companions to coax you into movement, no matter what that looks like, whatever shape it takes.
In a culture that privileges ends, goals, and summits, these scores explore the small and the still. They remind us that there is a whole world, a complete landscape, here, in our bodies. Through these investigations we regain access to our interior lives, our sense of self
Our bodies hold a memory of every landscape we have known. Inside our muscles and bones are the paths, hills, dunes we have walked along and around, or which we have seen and allowed ourselves to be immersed in. Know your body like you know the land.
These movement mediations, or scores, were begun while I was bed-bound with a lupus flare-up.
My bed was my dance floor.
I offer them as companions to coax you into movement, no matter what that movement looks like, however tiny it is. you can work with the whole score or just one part, or even (and especially) just a sentence or phrase.
A lot of time in bed can leave us feeling disconnected from our bodies, disconnected from the environment. these scores remind us that there is a landscape in our bodies.
Our bodies hold a memory of every landscape we have known. inside our muscles and bones are all the paths, hills, dunes we have walked, the places in which we have seen, heard, and allowed ourselves to be immersed
Through these gentle movements we may regain access to ourselves.
run the fingertips of one hand over the palm of the other. feel the skin of your body-land.
trace the rivers and tributaries that criss-cross the plains of your palm; the hills and valleys that emerge when you slightly open or close your hand.
explore this changing landscape. be curious about parts you have never been to, the ravines between the fingers, the hummock of each joint. sense each of the 27 bones that make up the strata of your hand.
move back and forth between hands, each one in turn explorer and explored. turn them over, continuing your finger-tip walk.
explore the body-land. notice any changes in terrain or temperature.
track the grooved paths between ligaments, the raised lines of veins.
circle the crags of your knuckles, how they change shape as you clench and unclench your fist.
press the finger-tips of each hand against each other. interlace your fingers at the middle joint and then at the base, first symmetrical, then exploring the ways your fingers can weave together, the ways they can dance.
rub the palms against one another.
hold your own hand.
space and sky
start with your jaw. yawn.
open and close your mouth, starting small, and then gradually wider. play with the ways your jaw can move - side to side, crossing over, opening and closing.
breathe into the joint where your jaw meets your skull, rub it gently if it is tight. breathe into the muscles that surround it. loosen the hinge with movement and breath. fill the cave of your mouth with breath.
breathe in the sky.
take a moment to notice the back of your head on the pillow. the weight of your head sinking down. feel the embrace of your pillow, soft grass on a summers day. very gently, very slowly, roll your head from side to side, as much as feels right. feel the contact of your skull on the pillow changing as you move. luxuriate in this a while.
now, if you can, slowly tilt the head forward and back, again feeling the contact of your skull on the pillow shifting as you move. breathe into all the joints of your neck, the bones and tissue between the bones that make this movement possible. as you gently move the joints feel space open between each vertebrae.
now place your hands on your chest. as you breathe feel your lungs fill with sky. notice how your lungs become spacious, ready to fill again.
run your hands over your ribs, the ridges and hollows, this container of sky which rises and falls with each breath.
gently lift your shoulders towards your ears, as little or as much as you can, then relax them back down. do this a few times. feel the space that is created between your shoulders and your ears.
play with moving them together and separately, and then roll them in tiny circles, moving back and forward between the two, gradually bringing more sky into your shoulder joint.
now begin to lift your arms up and out, a little at first, finding your range. feel the space of your armpit, give it lots of sky. begin to move the arms, stretching a little, folding a little. open and close the elbows, slightly at first. breathe into any stiffness. breathe into the space in your joints.
flex and circle your wrists, in movements big and small. stretch and bend your fingers. spread your hands wide, look at the sky through your fingers. play with this awhile, then come back to your body-land, the support of mattress, pillow.
be filled with breath and sky.
a spine meander
begin with your back. it may be easiest if you roll onto your side. rub your hands over the parts of your spine you can reach. if that’s not possible, take your imaginary hand and let that do the feeling for you. keep it matter of fact.
be a rock climber, sensing the different surfaces of the rock, the bits that jut out, the crevices, holds and dips.
rub your hands over your neck bones and upper back. reach around and rub your middle and lower back, your sacrum. below that is your tail, tucked deep inside your pelvis
now, very slowly, move your spine from side to side. start small and gradually increase your motion, if that feels comfortable. breath into the places that are stiff, places where you can bend. curve, arch and round your spine, playing with how bending or curling one-part effects the rest - a small bend in your neck ripples down through your lower back.
feel how your spine is not just the bones that you can feel and rub, but rather a stem that lies deep inside your body.
notice how your pelvis is connected to your spine through the sacrum. your pelvis is a bowl of bone. play with rolling, circling, tipping it.
notice how rolling your pelvis ripples through to your neck. how moving your pelvis, even a little, causes your ribs to respond.
your spine is an eel, long and sinuous, curving back and forth. breath into the dance of your spine, this stem of bones connecting your head and tail.
lie still and let the bones of your spine settle.
for days when no movement is possible
there’s nothing to do.
make space for the part of you who thinks you should be moving. tell it it’s ok to lie still. right now, just for today, not moving is all we’re doing.
ankle and toe dance
move your hands. begin to move your toes. ankles. wrists. toes talking to your fingers.
create an ankle and wrist duet.
move as little or as much as you can, exploring what it might be to find a position that is comfortable, whatever that can be at this time.
cross and uncross your legs, or bend you knees a little more, change how the pillows are. make micro adjustments, knowing that a small movement of your elbow, a curl of your neck can help find a way in to your body-land.
a way of being here in this bed, this body, these sheets, this mattress, befriending all of it exactly as it is.