Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Now & Then (Corononavirus)

walks for the future
   lessons from the past 

are for the future
   are for the past

Mostly these blog posts only dip a foot into the personal. They rarely touch on the moment of their composition. They look back to work on chronic pain and imaginative access to landscape made last year, and forward to work on paths and walking that I am making during this residency. The nature of the residency may have to change.

though life narrows
the walk is wide open

In this one post I wanted to register now and then, meaning: what's to come and what we're in. Coronavirus.

what’s for you will
not walk by you

Each morning I write a short poem at my desk. Most days I have my feet in a bucket of warm water which helps to ease the residue of muscular pain that I wake with. No big deal. I started the habit of writing these morning poems on Hogmanay; it would be good to make it through to the end of the year.

a walk is something to take with us
as we leave it behind

When I read a few weeks of them together then the practice of writing something short every day looks like more than it is: Dailies allow a moment to reflect on time from a personal point of view, but then sometimes history sticks its nose in to all of our lives at the same time. 

there’s nothing left of us
but our paths

In this post I want to include a few of these morning poems and note the arrival of Coronavirus. We don't yet know what this event will mean. It is changing every day. 

Celebrating social and creative walking it's impossible not to wonder what the next few months will bring. I already know a friend who knows someone in isolation after returning from a holiday in Italy. And now Italy is in lock down. And soon, to some extent, we will be.

when we are walking our body is living
when we stop walking it begins dying

For those of us in a high risk group this is an event we've been expecting, or dreading, since swine flu. The question was always when, not if, this would happen, especially as climate breakdown exerts an impact. 

I'm aware that there are people who attend PFA health walks who will also have reason to be worried. Some walkers will need to self-isolate.

the news used to come in 
the room at walking pace
now it trips and rushes

Most of my work just now is planning visits to these groups, meeting walkers, and preparing a program of Day of Access events for May and June. I'm also co-ordinating some school workshops in late April. I wonder which of these will happen? I'm already postponing plans. The next few days or weeks look like a path into a different world. 

Contagion is a particular measure of time and space that we're no longer used to. Like rumour, it flicks around us. The sun is shining on the rooftops and the world appears the same as it ever was, and yet...

death is at the centre
of life, not its end

I don't think these daily poems need any notes, though some will be obscure as they come from chance meetings, memories, or dreams. For now I wanted to set them down as a record of the first phase of the virus and the arrival of The Emergency. A record is what any poem is. I will update and add to this post as the weeks pass. I wanted Dailies to mark how the virus intruded in our ordinary lives and, seemingly, how it will change our world, and how we adapted.

We'll all see how our work and health is affected. We'll hope to get through. We'll hope to be walking in the Autumn.

things to share


An event like this, in which the state is mobilising to protect us, and we need to learn to alter our behaviour, is a reminder that for years we've been living the slow contagion of climate breakdown and refused to take similar measures. That has felt unlikely to change in the ways that were necessary. These fevers move at different speeds, but only if we measure them in terms of human time.

The gains made in such crisis are the basis of the new society that will be created from the old one by all of us.


I developed symptoms for coronavirus on March 16, which sharpens the edge. I caught it two days before my 54th birthday. So far I have been through much worse in the past. It will affect everyone differently – we hear reports of typically, but illness is as individualised as our smell. Everyone with auto-immune system illnesses is living in a heightened state: do what you can to show solidarity. I know some friends who have had to give up their carers and manage alone, as the risk of human contact is too great.

For me, after it was established, the illness came on in waves, once in the afternoon, and then worse at night. In a way I've lived this before, when I had swine flu for 5 months, and then was bed-bound for the following 3 or 4 winters with the kind of pneumonia symptoms that are now widely reported. Back then I got no hearing from GPs or specialists. 

For some, with a virus such as this, the membrane between life and death becomes thinner – you feel your breath thin and shallow, the alien pressure on the lungs, as if one was submerged deep in the ocean, and the weirdness of the virus pulsing through the immune system and breaking on the brain. 

Now that experience is being lived by hundreds of thousands of people. The trauma of fear is also meeting with the trauma of grief and loss, as individual cases that touch families are woven into a web of “news”.

My thoughts go out to everyone on the same path. We need to create a movement of radical kindness. It begins in our sick bed, or at home, looking out of the window, noticing and valuing ordinary things. It becomes a politics of empathy in which all change is possible. 

I know many people with immune system conditions who aren't being offered protection or care. I know people who have been disabled and persisted in working, often in precarious circumstances, because the system refuses to integrate them. I don't know if that will change, but it has to. 

I know that some people have longstanding experiences of these kinds of illness, and of the constraints of isolation, which society can learn from. To adapt a culture to such a cultural and economic shift requires learning from people who made similar journeys in the past. 

March 30, day 14: I was able to go outside for the first time in two weeks. I thought I was safe from the virus, but knew rehabilitating my lungs will take some time.

April 5, day 19: another spin cycle through the virus, as the immune system cannot cope with a full recovery yet and needs to impose fatigue, to insist on rest. As many people have reported, it can take some time to heal.

It takes so long for tips to circulate: yesterday a friend told me, don’t spend all day lying on your back, it compresses your lungs. So I watched Catch 22 and some Harry Potter, lying on a pillow mountain, on a futon, looking along the floorboards to the screen. It does help. Today, on the news, we’re told Boris Johnson is probably being turned over to lie on his front. How slowly the information reached us and how it depends on the famous being affected.

April 7: my third week, recuperating again. For people with my condition, ME, the average – take 1,000 typical cases and stick a pin in the middle to find the mythical average – seems to be around 6 weeks. 

This morning David Aaronovitch was sharing his experiences of being in ICU, critically ill, to offer insights into our Prime Minister’s situation. People benefit from acts of witness. We need to hear what it really feels like to have an illness, to have a tube in one’s throat, to be dependent on the care of others. 

I couldn’t help thinking back to when Aaronovitch doubted people with ME/CFS were medically ill. Pain is something we each feel as intensely real, within ourselves, but for some the concept of the typical is simply a way to elevate their own suffering or pain and relegate others. 

Boris Johnson’s illness will help more people understand the impact of this virus, which is so varied. All the guff about his courage or strength of character means nothing. He is perhaps learning – finally – what it is to be vulnerable and that boisterous enthusiasm and flags, puppyish talk of fighting spirit, and nodding furiously towards mythic historical events, are not the same as endurance and perseverance. 

I can think of thousands of people who could give lessons in what it means to recover – or endure – because they experienced the equivalents of CO19 before this mass event grabbed the world by the balls. The discipline of the will in convalescence is sometimes the need to do nothing, to rest, to be still, and even, sometimes, to give in. Those who survive being on a ventilator will need a year or more to recover. Many people will come down with post-viral illnesses. Many will need to learn what it's like to manage their lives with limited energy, fatigue, pain, and constraint. Many will enter a benefits system that is deliberately hostile. The definition of what is typical will shatter into many differently shaped shards.

There are a host of other voices we should be hearing from. If our culture was attuned to healing then there would be more people lying on their tummies and doing breathing exercises. For now, arses in the air is where we're at.

April 21: this is my day 34. My breathing is still at around 50%. Sleep is shallow, with panting and waking muzzy headed. I know others who have had the illness, or the after-effects, as long. The lungs feel as if they are in a new gravity, a thicker gravy. The days are slow, the hours fast, and there's a necessary period of quiet collapse each afternoon.

May 6: day 49, no better, no worse. Stuck in the middle with you.

I feel lucky.

this is the decade
   when saying it

   make it happen


overnight my legs’re
between celebs
the ballerina
dated a plumber


do too
much little

tie in
a lie in


the path 
of intention
the path
of resolution
the path
of correction


what’s to switch off
stung tissue?

stick a match to
that wad of sage


the crystal comes
with me   as
does the pain


the snow fetches back
her walk for candles

to pen imagined flowers
through the dark hours


either get your feet wet
or build yourself a nest

in the thick of 
those dark branches


exchanging emails
with my Mum

saying not saying
what covid can mean


wash your hands
for as long as

it takes to sing
The Killing Moon


poverty, storms, floods
and a plague

but save us, please,
from Genesis


to brook
a Flemish cold

almost worth it
for the pun


close to the sandpiper
has shabby down

lack of fear’s
a symptom of winter


this being a crisis
the ministers meet

around a coffin-
shaped table


to add
a stone

to blossom

14.III.20 (grave poem)

stick a pin
in the plan

until it can


shelter in place
make a list

of "freckle" pass-
words for loved ones


the new Mantel
arrived with the symptoms

at least I know
how it ends


boom times
for the Savonnerie
of Marseilles


here it comes –
how many days

have those tulips
in that water?


the scent of 
my birth-

day hyacinths
is to die live for


where you sat
sipping a spritz

by the canal
dolphins are swimming


if your life

is normal
something's wrong



the odd walker
on the path

with an aura
of danger


her reiki hands
feel a steely-blue
strangeness – alien-
ness not auf Mars
but animals



or cancellation


the self

the world


“the greatest dignity”
– an invisible medal

(I should tell
my pals the sparrows)


how do my lungs feel?
like a three-week

old party balloon
covered in fag-ash


the old trade:
seeing the same boats

in the same berths
for bastard lactic legs


I’ll call it my grianan
this futon I drag

around the room
in a fold of sunbeams


the thistle-tweaker
or painting-by-
numbers bird



the mouse is getting
to feel at home

how soon ‘til we
exchange poems?


the streetlights
flickering over the firth
seem so far away


if the deer crashing
through the trees
towards us was

fate then the dog
following on behind
must be life?


how many people
died cause they

weren’t told to lie
on their tummy?


she says every

carries col-
lateral beauty 


you break up
with the virus
then it gets
back together
with you worse


she says she heard
the pear trees talking

after a much needed 
manure mulch


cupped hands cover
the cup of smudge

still smoke lisps
through my fingers


in his game
each cell with
one or even
no neighbours
died of loneliness

i.m. John Conway

take your water
with a pinch
of ascorbic

do as the tea
says: breathe


at the zoo 
the talk is of

feeding animals
to animals


take a blow cinders
blue fingers
and blue toes
how strange
to have shadows


picture the punch-
bag between you
then let go


it’s safe to sleep
on the lion

when the lion
is asleep


the ink silence
of my pandemic note-
books lit up
with pictures cut
from LRB back issues


he says he hopes 
I am as healthy 
as a cucumber
so I sit a little longer
in the window sun


Lesley dreamt I sang
‘Nearer my god to thee’ 

strangest of all
with a beautiful voice


I wouldn’t throw
bills in the bin

when I’ve a shelf
they can go on


life with lock-
down (37): more

notebooks, brassier
birds, less breath


the sag 
of the quilt 

must be
my knees fault


my sparrows can
fledge in a finger’s

width of mortar
between stone and rone


he says this is
its latest and for

the time being
final form


when were you
last happy BF?

you mean when
was I last safe GF?


gab to the mirror
there’s a friend

to make with
a finger of dust



a friend’s


the term
of a birth


the dog’s bound to
not want the gulls

to have the scraps
of bread he doesn’t


in the quiet night
the glue’s put
right the teapot


share   (a breath)

(pop)   a bubble


eachy peachy
one side says
no better

pear plum
one side says
no worse


at 60 you have 6 
problems so they say

at 70 you have 7
and 54 at 54


a wheelchair
could be got

but could
it be pushed?







use of oars
makes squalls

let her drift 
(keep lookout)


the same idea
has arrived

in other words
and a different name


leg stretches
into possibilities

does this breath
get me out?


days in the week:
scant good in
a slew of bad


you’re never sure
if the wasp’s in 

the hanky ‘til it’s 
out the window


for this first-waver
long chain replication

pushes the pain
through day 60


flipping the journal
recto to face

recto to pass in-
to spikes of pain


amy’s cold water
cure works for

pain as well
as melancholy

for Amy Liptrot

growl if you’ve
more chance 

of getting meds
from a vet


the first apple 
speaks as it ripens

the second apple 
listens as it falls

the third apple under-
stands as its eaten

after Mandelstham

the sun blanket
pegged out

all night
in the storm


my wee world
will stay wee

but what of
my hurt heart?


those swimmer’s arms
forced you far
dream dragged you back
draped in wrack
buried in sand


she dreams we
held hands
in the undersett
of a tartan rug


look! (silly –
there’s no-one to

see) a perfect
wonky avocado


if you can walk
a half mile
places connect

if you can walk
100 yards
then that’s it


meng, tr. duh
when the oracle

says don’t ask
I’m saying nothing


the drawing gone wrong

becomes the loveliest

paper for lists





do as              the river

does:                  flow a-

round           the boulder





counting the days

‘til the back 

channel meds 

pop through

my letterbox





the voices of Hannah Peel

and Sarah Mohr-Pietsch

are the music





I can see the sea

but it’s so long


since I could walk

to the harbour





here’s to love,

pure breath, and


a bolt of sun

up your arse





it was OK to sink

in the water

then but this

time you’ve to learn

how to kick





down in the defile

among rocks and thorns

starved of light

a tree speaks

words of dust





raise the arms

over the head

palm-to-palm finger

tips holding a beam

let the body open





the postures

we make


the postures 

we take


the postures

we keep





the tiger

in the tank


(the thorn

in the paw)





snuck behind 

the cause


is the cause

of the cause





filling out my PIP

form in pencil


there’s no tick-box

for ‘in the sun’



The photos were taken on recent walks.


  1. great poems Nat.. hope this is not going to be your swan song.. we are all in suspended animation all over the world.. time to fight back.. find out what caused this virus and treat it.. medically - but like you say also socially.. interesting that "coronavirus" means literally the "Crown Virus".. maybe an independent Scotland should consider becoming a republic,.,. and rejoining the EU - maybe that would get rid of this Crown Virus ? Just a thought..

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