Hello From the Hudson Valley
Sue, Lower Hudson Valley, New York
The other day Michael went out to purchase more masks (we are required to wear them in public places such as shops as well as if social distancing is not possible)... someone had told him the little petrol station in town was selling them. We live oblivious to much that happens around here so we hadn’t realized the village was giving a parade to honour first responders who have been so helpful, generous and brave in their service to the community which sits in what has been such an infected New York county.
Just as Michael arrived in town, the parade was coming through. Fire engines full of firefighters, ambulances driven by Emt workers as well as other vehicles full of honorees. Lining the streets were so many people clapping and cheering... but they were crowded in shoulder to shoulder... not observing our social distancing guideline telling us to keep at least 6 feet apart. While it was community spirit on display it was also, sadly, a foolish thing to do. We couldn’t help but wonder how many of the closely standing bystanders would fall ill with the virus and would require the services of the parade participants forcing them to put themselves further in harm’s way and adding to what must be exhausting schedules.
Bumpy landing on the south coast
Catherine, Sussex, UK
Life is slowly assuming a rhythm, of sorts. It has taken a while because of the settling-in of chattels and people. Junior 2 and I are beginning to know how to dance around one another in the kitchen, and I am learning when to keep clear of Junior 1. As there are no more boxes to be unpacked (at least not until other things have been done to the house, which can't be done until the shutdown ends, I can buy the materials I need and the Juniors - who have come into a windfall and so are now solvent - move on) I have been tidying my tiny boxroom of a temporary study and set to once more with writing.
What I am writing, and have been for the last six or so years (I can remember the exact, thrilling, moment when I began but, curiously, not the year), is the history of my family. My mother's side, that is: I don't feel sufficiently connected to my father's, although I have researched it in outline. The maternal story begins in the 1500s and so far ends in 1979 (thus encompassing, amongst much else, my time at That School, from which, like wild creatures from a trap, we fled to Vermont, the Isle of Wight and anywhere else deemed far enough away.
The progress through the centuries has been thrilling and, at times, terrifying. I have relived, alone, awful times as well as lovely, carefree, always-summer, in-love times; it has been a bit like I imagine psychoanalysis to be - but without the benefit of a therapist.
Now that I have started writing again I thought I would share a drop of the results of my sleuthing with you, dear diary. Here is a photograph of my grandparents, her brother and sister. They lived through terrible times in the Soviet Union and beyond, and this was the last time they were able to muster any finery. My grandmother was finally, after almost 20 years of pleading, allowed to follow her daughter out, while my grandfather was killed there - though not before he could write several years of the most wonderful letters to my mother, stranded on her au-pairing visit in England by the outbreak of WWII. I have them all, except for the last page of the last letter, which makes it all the more poignant.
I began writing it all (some 2.5k pages, so far) for my daughter, but now it will be for her forthcoming son, too. If I don't write it down he will never know.
From Rural New York
Sandy Connors, USA
The garden has been occupying almost all of my time these days for we have had just the most glorious weather here ~ trimming boxwood hedges and bushes, raking, transplanting, clearing up the back of the property that borders the beautiful open fields which once was used for grazing a lovely herd of milking cows. Patrick has finished the sturdy open fence with a gate, so we can get out to the fields for walks and putting out garden debris.
Yesterday two ‘Chili Red’ wooden folding Adirondack chairs were delivered by Home Depot for the incredibly low cost of $8.59 for a man and his wife to bring them to my home in their SUV ~ both man and wife wore masks, and I suppose they enjoyed the drive and opportunity to make a little money, but so very little! The chairs are now out in the back of the yard facing the fields where deer, fox, coyotes, birds and geese roam. A meandering creek wanders along the far edges of the field where the dogs and I love to explore, but we have such a problem here with ticks that carry lymes disease, that one really must wear boots or sturdy shoes with long protective socks and tick spray, and both the dogs and cats all have tick and flea medicine which keeps them safe as well. So when I see beautiful photos of everyone in the UK tromping over hill and dale with out a care in the world, I feel such a pang of envy for it isn’t possible to do that here not only because our lands are almost all privately owned and not available for one to walk about on, but because of the danger of getting lymes ~ The ticks are so tiny like a little black speck of pepper, and they can get imbedded in ones skin before you realize they are there and then you have to go to the doctor to remove them carefully and get put on an antibiotic, just in case, etc. Last year I had to have four ticks removed and it is quite worrisome.
This morning I heard Trump say that there will indeed be a second wave of deaths from the virus, so we must all remain vigilant, but some people are relaxing about masks, and being nearer to one another than advised. I haven’t been out to the farm store or market in over a week so I will have to go out for a few things in a day or so.
Again, I read all the stories my fellow journal keepers are sharing with great interest, sometimes delight, or sadness, and gratitude for it is always welcome to hear how common the ways in which we are all coping most days!
Thoughts from the Top of the Hill
Linzy, Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire
I am sure everyone who contributes to this lovely journal is so glad that it's here, providing a home for our thoughts and experiences during these strange times. I was wondering this morning why reading and writing here has been so therapeutic and I think it is the simple fact that it is a safe space. What we write is not subject to the aggressive criticism so often found on social media. I have completely given up trying to express any views on Facebook, after a couple of unpleasant incidents. It's an opinion regularly voiced these days, that people will express online antisocial views about others which they would never dare to say face to face. It's not just being online though, as this journal demonstrates, it is more that people feel they have the right to be critical of others in an open forum.
It's natural therefore that there should be a reluctance to get into political opinions here. One writer said he deleted a long post which he felt might upset some people and I have certainly held back from expressing anything which could be considered controversial. However, now that even Michael Gove has hinted that the government may have 'made some mistakes' in its handling of the crisis, I feel it's not inappropriate to mention that there have been some disquieting reports on the scientific advice informing government policy (or vice versa), leading today to the formation of an 'alternative' SAGE committee. Will we have two lots of scientists giving advice? Will they agree with one another or will it be test tubes at dawn on Youtube? It is of course quite ridiculous to talk of being 'totally led by the science' as there must be many scientific opinions about all aspects of this situation.
Also today we have some more newspeak to learn. TTT is the UK government's strategy, standing for Test Track and Trace (is that right?) whereas TTI is the Scottish government's term, meaning Track Trace and Isolate (or Interrogate, as my husband suggested). Apparently someone may come to your door to tell you that you need so self-isolate for fourteen days and this may happen more than once. Add to this, learning that R means Reproduction or was it Reinfection? Obviously I need to watch the video of all the little red and blue figures again...
It is fair enough that we old people may have become confused by all this jargon, however carefully we watch the daily briefings. I am very annoyed, however, with this new theory that the over 70s will take to the streets in protest at being kept on lockdown when everyone else is allowed out. Not likely, I will not be taking to the streets or anywhere else until every last molecule of the virus has been eradicated.
I hope the journal will still be here - thanks to everyone!
Nicky, Vermont, US
Yesterday I was cutting up chicken for the dog at the kitchen counter when a huge crash startled me. Cars colliding on the road? Our new metal fire pit tipped over by the wind? But it was noisier than that. I couldn’t imagine. But obviously we had come to no harm, so I gave the dog his lunch and then went out to investigate. I walked around the house looking for something large that had blown over. Nothing. Then I found it: a bird. But a big bird. A hawk? An eagle? It had slammed into the living room window and dropped onto the lawn below. I hoped it had just knocked itself out so I left it alone for a couple of hours, but it seemed unlikely that it would survive the crash, and I thought its head was at an unfortunate angle.
The truth is I really didn’t want to have to pick it up and do something with it. Then I had an idea. My painting teacher is a naturalist and she likes to have skeletons and skulls and even feathers to sweep a page clean after using an eraser. I called her and she said I bet you ten to one it’s a Ruffled Grouse. They are really just another kind of chicken and they slam into houses and cars with great frequency. I sent her a picture of it because I was still hoping it was an eagle or hawk so she would come and get it. But it was indeed a grouse. Often called a partridge in Vermont, she told me, pronounced pat-ridge.
I left it for another hour or two and then I got up my courage, grabbed the snow shovel and picked the grouse up and gingerly carried it off into the woods. She assured me that some creature would be very excited to find it for supper. Bears are mostly vegetarian, but known to eat meat this time of year when the berries and corn are not yet grown and they’re hungry. Or it could be eaten by a fisher cat which eat medium size mammals. They have a bad reputation, probably earned by eating people’s pets, and they are shy, so I’ve never seen one. Don’t really want to. I’m resisting the temptation to go into the woods and see if indeed some creature ate the grouse.
And the miracle is that even though it slammed into the window and left a mess and a hole in the screen, it didn’t actually break the window. So we were lucky, but the grouse wasn’t.
Then and Now
I am still surprised at how many people find isolation, which I prefer to call solitude, so difficult. Perhaps, though no valetudinarian, I have something in common with Mr. Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma, to whom the idea of a mile-long drive in a snug coach was anathema, and who couldn’t quite see the need to stir far from a nice bowl of gruel and his own living-room. But then, as a writer, I’ve always found it possible to drop from the social energies of teaching and the demands of life into long patches observing, reading and, as Mark Twain put it, sometimes sitting and thinking, or sometimes just sitting. But just sitting and watching or drifting is a prerequisite to the possibility of writing. Well, ‘waiting for inspiration’ which is what poets are supposed to do is a fool’s game. It doesn’t much matter what hieroglyphics the blank piece of paper attracts at first; they can always be changed, but the blank sheet in itself can be as alienating as Pascal found the terrifying spaces of the cosmos.
But if one is going to have the possibility of writing, one must not be doing anything much else. The space-time must be reserved for a special idleness, and if a poem comes out of it, one can pretend it was a productive special idleness. Was my time wasted when I daydreamed out of windows, made another cup of Nescafe, lit my pipe again - and nothing at the end of it. I don’t think so. By the way, it must be twenty years ago that I last lit my pipe, though I have occasionally taken it out of a drawer, looked at it and smelled it, as if it were Proust’s Madeleine, carrying the ghostly scent of poems written and unwritten, or poems being printed on my clanking old Vicobold in a damp cellar forty years ago. And one of my suggestions to the many who are suffering from insufficient contact with those they care about is, however falteringly, to write something down for them about the lives they once had which are lurking in the shadows. Rescue something from the dark. I tried very hard to persuade my father to write about his Lincolnshire childhood. He refused. “I would only be telling lies,” I think he said. So all the characters and scenes he loved died with him. And, by so dying, they have been cheated of a little extra shelf-life to make us smile or cry for them.
I am not just thinking of the dire Mr. Woodhouse, but of the enforced solitudes of the past, when travel outside the radius of a few miles was a serious undertaking and life was both constricted and freed by the locally loved and known. I think of my great-grandfather, Henry Scupham, a stonemason, whose only real expedition in a long life was to go to London to see the Great Exhibition with his wife. I doubt otherwise that he moved outside a fifteen-mile radius of his market town. How awkward I am; would I really give a personal damn if all planes were grounded for ever, or if I never went to London again? I don’t think so. And if I don’t use my isolation productively, that is my own stupid fault.I could learn, properly, the names of the stars and constellations, the flowers and the garden insects; I could properly identify more trees by their leaves and bark - there is much ‘thinginess’ of the world I am ignorant of, and I am aware that poets skate by on a tide of half-truths and analogies which they try to charm their readers into believing!
And how can one be isolated with a roomful of books. I have just finished for the umpteenth time the wonderful, witty, sardonic novels of Thomas Love Peacock. Let me recommend them as a tonic, their diagnosis of society’s ills and his suspicions of the ‘March of Intellect’ run as true today as they did 200 years ago: Nightmare Abbey, Headlong Hall, Gryll Grange, Crotchet Castle and Melincourt - the last with the delightful Sir Oran Haut-Ton, the Orang Outang who becomes an ornament in the best society, though regrettably unable to speak. An accomplished flautist, though. The illustration is By F.H. Townsend. As for poetry, Peacock once wrote: “A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in days that are past... The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backwards”. Well, this crab headed his contributions ‘Then’ and ‘Now’. But the problem is that for makers then is now! More on this pleasing conundrum some time.
Words from Wood Lane
Susan Neave, Beverley
The last remaining stripped door in the house has been painted. When we moved here all the woodwork had been stripped, with mixed results. Nearly thirty years on we still had one door upstairs in its raw state, the rest long since repainted. Not sure why. Maybe it was guilt at the thought of how long it must have taken the previous owner to coat everything in gallons of nitromors and scrape and sand. The brass handles on the oak dresser have been polished (not by me) and I’ve got round to applying the Danish oil I bought a couple of years ago to the top of the kitchen table. The garden is under control. None of this is because we have run out of other things to do during lockdown. Both of us have several months of writing ahead. It must be because we can’t go pebble hunting on the beach, see friends or relatives, visit interesting houses or go on holiday. Instead we can tick things off the longish list of practical things to do one day. Some of these don't take long to do. Just a case of getting around to it.
From the Editor
I’m sitting in the greenhouse writing this, as it’s not that warm outside today. I’m surrounded by seedlings that will need planting out soon, and dahlias coming up well in pots. Some wonderful names... Dracula, Karma Fuschiana, Night Butterfly, Art Deco, Ariko Zsaza, Orfeo, Mexican Star, Senior’s Darkness.
Well, the latter could be appropriate for threatened Senior Lockdown later this summer. Will all over seventies accept house arrest or will they (like the good sixties rebels they are/were) defy authority and march on Downing Street? Actually I don’t think such a lockdown is likely to be imposed... too many power wielding, important and useful over seventies. Such as various politicians, the senior members of the royal family, David Attenborough, Mick Jagger, Richard Branson, Mary Berry... I could go on forever. What would the streets look like without older people ? Would the world get used to it? Warwickshire University suggest lockdown for all over fifties! Well that’s Boris incarcerated for a start. And most of his cabinet! And Keir Starmer.
And... well, again, the list is endless.
There are people I’d like to see, there are places I’d like to visit, I would like to have Jack back gardening, but so far, apart from worrying about others and the world (as I do on sleepless nights) Peter and I are perfectly at ease with a simpler life. But that is sustained by others continually putting themselves at risk (delivery persons, friends and family collecting bits and pieces for us, all those who keep things ticking over as well as the NHS.) We are grateful. And there is another dahlia called Senior’s Hope...
It’s actually getting rather warm in here, and cat Bertie has just arrived to tell me it’s lunchtime. Goodbye Dahlias!