S is for Summer

Froth, Tails and TS Eliot

(The holy grail: searching for a remedy for Post Cow Parsley Syndrome)

I woke late on Friday (or should I truthfully say, even later) and when I pulled back my curtains, what should I discover hovering only a few feet away, but the most beautiful, handsome and magnificent barn owl? Having given me a long, greedy and admiring spectacle of him in graceful suspended flight, he then further obliged and dramatically plunged 20 feet down into the long flowering grass. Seconds later he re-emerged and perched (he must have been unsuccessful as his claws were empty), as if for photo opportunities, on one of the temporary sheep fence posts.

The long grass has now been cut (Mr B did a Ross Poldark on Saturday afternoon – fully clothed, I hasten to add, as well as wearing ear defenders and using a Stihl power tool! Mind you, having just folded up the washing, I now see why the original took off his shirt and used baby oil… clearly Ross knew only too well that once those damn hairy grass seeds get stuck in your shirt, it takes a heck of a lot of scratching and poking to waggle them out). So now the barn owl doesn’t need to hurl himself into the unknown, neither does Bramble need to walk on hind legs to catch a glimpse of us as we play hide and seek in the long grass. All of which is rather a shame, and which bring me to my theme…

The worst thing about June is that it is now proper summer – and if it is a damp – or in this case, a damp and hurricanous squib, then that…  is …  it, if you know what I mean. The great thing about April and May is that you know that it is all just starting; everywhere there is life and new growth, buds and birds, green of every hue and you know that the best is yet to come… In my mind, the floral emblem for this leap of nature, the very apotheosis of this is Anthriscus sylvestris: cow parsley to you and me. When you look out over the fields and see the margins laced with white froth, aaahhh! Oh to be in England in deed! I get this enormous Chekhovian surge of post-winter hope as I know that the glorious summer lies literally just round the corner, in fact, like the swallow, it has already arrived! Perhaps truthfully, the Chekhovian bit is just plain relief. Relief that you have made it through another long winter. A winter which we try to convince ourselves turns the corner after Christmas, but in reality trudges out through January, February and all of March. (Snowdrops are gorgeous but they are winter flowers and crocuses in my opinion are just a cruel tease). Here’s the thing: T S Eliot was wrong, April is not the cruellest month… a bad June is!

So, what to do now that the cow parsley – my absolute favourite wildflower by a country mile and also the very emblem of the English summer – is well and truly over?

I wonder if one can CBT oneself out of mourning and try to find a favourite wildflower for every month? That way you can roll with the seasons and celebrate with joy in every stage of the journey. That is the answer: find a flower with such impact and significance that one can look out on the wettest, windiest, greyest and coldest of even June days and still be cheered at its prospect, in the way that I was literally transported with delight by our neighbourly barn owl.

So I set out this morning, with Bramble, on a holy grail; searching for the answer to my Post Cow Parsley Syndrome. Like our well-thumbed copy of Search for Spot, I set out determined to find flower of the month…

Was it in the grass meadow? No!

Was it in the farmer’s field of beans? No!

Was in along the disused railway line? No!

Was it along the stream by the old mill? No!

Was it in the specially grown wild flower meadow? Well…

I did walk past an inordinate number of beautiful, delicate dog roses. Arching up through the flowering elder and other trees lurking in the hedgerows, it flowered from hip height all the way up to the top of the canopy. As I followed the river the different roses ranged from deepest pink to purest white. All fresh, delicate and pretty, like the softest, daintiest bunting, swagging its way along…

Nah!

It doesn’t work!

They don’t have presence. It’s the same with cranesbill, the wild geranium – such a beautiful find among the meadow grasses – it does make you say “wow!’ out loud, but it is not enough to make you stop in your tracks and drink in the scene, speechless and full of wonder. Not enough to make you long for it all year long…

One of my favourite writers, John Lewis-Stempel*, claims to have made peace with the seasons. It is probably a little drastic, but here is how he did it. He decided to only eat and drink what he found or grew on his farm or in the surrounding countryside. Here smugly, is where his journey led him:

Usually I find midsummer, to borrow Vita Sackville-West’s phrase, a “small despair,” because from this day forth the darkness begins to grow more lengthy each and every day. But not this year. If one has fed oneself by the seasons – admittedly with a little help from one’s relatives, from careless drivers and from one visit to Waitrose – then one knows the rhythm of natural life, and that the truth of natural life is both mundane and joyous.

The darkness comes.

It goes.

And that is it.

Well, bully for him! Not sure how that helps me, nor indeed if I really believe him. Perhaps the nearest I have got to that is feeling a whiff of relief last year that the days were getting slightly shorter, or rather that dawn didn’t happen quite so alarmingly early. We had old curtains up at our bedroom windows which were so old that the lining had rotted through and they were letting in the light – the dawn light – which came blasting in at whatever scary time before 5. This, plus tamoxifen insomnia, combined with an overwhelming sense of not-keeping-up-with-the-garden nor indeed the rest of life, left me completely wiped out by the time we got to July. And so, for the first time ever, I was not altogether alarmed at the prospect of slightly later mornings. BUT, hey! This year I am prepared: I have belts and braces; thicker new blackout curtains, eye shades and an SOS text to a local gardener; so bring on the sunshine, the long days, the flowers, and especially the sunshine!

No, John Lewis-Stempel can eat his wildlife heart out. I know that in all honestly, I am not going to take up hedgerow cuisine, (while youngest child would love to shoot and catch for the table, indeed, by way of boosting finances and reducing vermin and pests, he is already on that particular mission, but after the fun of skin-a-rabbit, the barbecued cadaver was not up to snuff and the only other mouth it fed was Bramble’s), anyway, this part of Oxfordshire only does rabbits, deer and pheasant – with a bit of badger road kill – and you can’t dollop those on your pasta penne, can you? No, even given my love of hedgerow floral scrumping, with all its glorious seasonal variety, I have yet to find a genuine solution for my PCPS.

My sister, often a good source of diverting anecdotes, is equally, if not more, seasonally affected, and she has done not a little R & D around the subject. Most notable of which was her curious behaviour / survival tactics on returning to her then home in south-east London after her 2 weeks’ holiday in the south of France. She was so undone by hitting the end of summer, that she went out, bought a tray of bright pink cyclamen, filled a bowl with them for each room, brought in the log basket, lit the fire, drew the curtains and holed-up to wait for Christmas.

“Embrace the winter!” was her clarion call. “You can’t fight it, you have to go with it!” she yelled down the phone with evangelical zeal.

“OK girl!” I replied feebly. “That’s brave – hitting it head on! But aren’t you a tad premature? It’s only the first week of September!”

 

More recently, probably due to the fact that her son is no longer a toddler and can therefore open the curtains, said sister purchased a special S.A.D. lamp from John Lewis (no relation to my author) and while it definitely helped her get out of bed in February and March I am not sure it sorts out the PCPS! Still, I am not sure that she is as bothered by hay cutting, nor the passing of cow parsley as I am. She is too busy hoeing weeds on her cut flower patch. She shares her allotment with some classic neighbours who themselves are a rich vein waiting to be tapped. Cock-fight-John has a diverse collection of lean-to’s, huts and sheds, in at least one of which are some chickens which look like they have just heard someone ring the bell. On the other side, OCD-Reg (more kindly known as Reg the Veg) has such immaculate rows of veg, so tall and utterly weed free, that you wonder if there are other powers at work on his plot. But Reg does serve up a very welcome and down-to-earth cup of tea and digestive biscuit. While his patch is intimidating, his words are encouraging and few, “Never give up!” he calls from the depth of his very tidy lines.

My smug and indulgent SOS text to a local gardener has not been replied to, so I am heading out into the buffeting cold winds, armed with secateurs, loppers, ladder and twine, to take on my herculean task: subduing 2 particularly “vigorous” roses. A word of wisdom: do not grow “Rosa A Generous Gardener” (real name) on anything smaller than a church tower. Our nice polite pergola is so dwarfed by the roses that it looks about as useful as the 18 inch stonehenge in Spinal Tap. In our 40 mile-an-hour winds, my artful tying up and green twine have been rendered completely pointless and the 12-15 feet triffid rose bracts are flapping and swaying about violently; randomly seeking to flail anyone or anything stupid enough to walk in striking distance. So far, the gentle clematis, the gorgeous luminous delphiniums (record height this year) and the trusty beech hedge have been mercilessly attacked. I am going out now. I may be some time.

 

*Lewis-Stempel, John, The Wild Life – A year of living on wild food

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P is for Perspective

I see that tonight on BBC1 at 8.30, is the film Damilola, Our Loved Boy. Playwright Levi David Addai has written this TV drama to show the truth behind the sensational headlines that shocked the nation 16 years ago; the bright, 10 year old boy coming home from computer club who was stabbed and died alone in a dirty stairwell in South London. When asked in the interview what he hopes to achieve with the drama, Addai responded: “I hope it does the family justice, because when everyone else moves on, they are the ones who are left.”

Similarly, this coming Sunday is Remembrance Sunday. In the act of honouring those who gave their lives in either of the world wars or conflicts since then, we rightly say, “We will remember them.” Well, let us also remember and honour those who were closest to them, who lost them and who were or are still left, and who have to go on shouldering the loss…

Which brings me to the subject of the week – Perspective. They are my new perspective: friends and neighbours “who are left”. I hope they do not mind me mentioning them in this context. I hope that, because they are living, breathing, flesh and blood, they do not feel reduced in any way by playing this rôle in my life. But it is true; in addition to everything else that they are and do, they do provide me with my ultimate perspective.

I have done a lot of mulling on this notion of perspective, believe me. And where I have got to is this: much, if not all, of perspective derives from comparison. “But comparison is the thief of joy!” my 13 year old son enjoys warning me, “beware the chasm of comparison!” And rightly so – often unfavourable comparison does steal what joy one could have. But, what if the comparison renders one enormously grateful? Could there be occasions when comparison becomes if not the giver of joy, then at least the protector of it?

For example, I am genuinely grateful that there were 3 other beds in my post-op ward, because the inhabitants of those beds, even if they never moved or spoke to me, were an endless source of very positive (from where I was lying, obviously) perspective. One dear woman’s predicament nearly broke my heart. She had no one to be there for her when she “came round” because her father was in another hospital having suffered a stroke, her mother was no longer alive, and her “partner” of 10 years or more had buggered off when she got her diagnosis. She had to endure a full hysterectomy and there was no one there to cheer her on as she recovered. The rest of us all did our best from our prone and plugged-in positions to spread the love and share our little hoards of goodies with her – via the no-nonsense nurse, who did at least have the use of legs and limbs if not vast wells of sympathy or compassion – it was quite moving actually. In that instant, I was struck how my normal – having a husband who cared for me and actually wanted to be there during and after the operation – was such a privilege, and clearly not one that I should be taking for granted.

On another occasion, the woman in the opposite corner bed, was a little hard of hearing, so in a scene which even the writers of Carry on Doctor would have been hard pushed to write, the senior registrar took the brilliant precaution of drawing the paper curtains… Only then did she proceed to enquire, at the top of her voice, about the particulars of the patient’s sex life, and more specifically, whether she would miss her vagina, as coincidentally, they had had to take most of that out too, while they were in there removing all her other tackle. Well, let me not embarrass us all by drawing out the implications, but let’s just say, I found a whole new source of appreciation which had heretofore been taken for granted!

At this point I am just itching to share my favourite quote on the subject, which is nothing if not flippant, but nonetheless has come in very handy in our family, even in the most tragic and pressing circumstances… It is one of many great moments in the “rockumentary” film, Spinal Tap (a firm favourite) and occurs when the band is visiting Graceland. They are all standing around Elvis’ tomb, trying to harmonise, with devastating effect, (one of them quips,“in the same key, I think!”). Then they give up and get all philosophical and one of them says, pointing at the headstone, “That’s a bit of perspective.” They all nod in agreement and then pause for thought until another pipes up and says, “Well, yeah! Too much ****ing perspective!” It has now become a family catch phrase, amazingly (given my colourful language – the deterioration of which is itself worthy of a whole chapter) and fortunately (given the frequency with which it is quoted and the genteel nature of many of the hearers), without the fruity adjective. In fact, “Too Much Perspective” might be a better title for this blog.

Anyway, I digress. Back to my perspective on the post-op ward… More recently, recovering from my second mastectomy and while still floating around somewhere just below the ceiling (two tramadol as it turns out, is at least one too many, in addition to my intravenous opiate!), I heard a certain gentleman, masquerading as a member of the surgical team, telling the woman hiding behind the curtains in the bed next to mine, that they had just removed both her ovaries and her womb. When she gasped in surprise and horror, he just said, “Well, we had to. It is something you will come to terms with. There’s no point in getting worked up about it. OK. One of the team will see you tomorrow.” Or words and sentiments to that effect. And with that he turned tail and marched off. Even in my otherworldly state, I knew that this was not an adequate surgery de-brief. Had I not had the mental capacity of a goldfish, I would have thought to call after him, and see that he at least faced disciplinary proceedings. As it was, all I could do was to literally pull myself together/down from the ceiling and with great concentration of effort call for the nurse and ask her to look in on the woman in the next bed, who I thought might be a bit upset.

By way of contrast, a good friend happened to be in hospital at the same time as me, and being a private patient was therefore very much alone in her room… but far from this being a privilege or beneficial, in her case, I actually think she was deprived of these strange encouragements and therefore had all day to contemplate only her own misfortune!

And so you see, I think there is a case to be made for perspective, or favourable comparison, if one is left feeling sincerely grateful!

But these are historic examples of perspective and with time I have come to see the comedy amongst the tragedy, and they are not the full breadth of my vision. I must also include a more contemporary perspective; the friends and neighbours I see on a regular basis, “who are left” or are having a much longer, harder and more painful journey than me.

One such is Norman*, who runs a shop locally and has 2 daughters. His gentle, kind, and wise wife underwent cancer treatment for over 5 years. Hers started well before mine and continued long after mine had finished. But Polly* is no longer with us, or rather, more to the point, with Norman and their daughters. They are the ones who are left. When I see him as I drive through the town I always come to a sort of full stop. I feel gagged all over again. I feel as if I have no right to say anything on any subject (least of all this one) to anyone. And therein lies the tension. In some ways I feel compelled to write about the stuff that this journey has thrown up.  Especially, I hope that in some small way it will be a help or a comfort for others going through it; even just a flicker of recognition for a reader so that they do not feel so alone on such a tough journey, would make me happy. I want people to know that you can live life while facing cruel uncertainty, that you can laugh as well as cry; love and be loved…  and that life doesn’t necessarily stop when it comes into much sharper focus. I am at pains to show that there are even good, precious things to be found on this journey that are so much harder to find if you are on an easier path. But then, in the face of someone who has actually lost someone, I sort of screech to a halt and all my recollections, memories, laughs and tears seem to literally pale into insignificance. I feel guilty even, of trivialising and belittling a deadly (literally) serious subject, the final chapter of which I have not yet had to face. And I feel guilty for surviving. I have no business going into their shop, turning up like a bad penny, buying presents, being cheerful, frankly, just being, when Polly cannot even be here at all. In my head I become a symbol of unfairness; a physical representation of what Norman has lost but others have not. And then I see the elder daughter coming home from school, growing into a young woman now, and more of the consequences of her loss begin to dawn on me and gnaw away at me: I want her to be going home to a mum who asks after her day, who tells her how pretty she is looking and who helps her choose clothes or make-up on a Saturday morning. But I am absolutely powerless to help her in her journey. My story is of no use to her, in fact, my story might even make things worse for her. I want to reach out and fill some of that maternal gap, but I keep my distance, knowing the offence I might cause or be. I can only hope and pray that one or two really good mother figures come into her life and fill some of those holes…

I have another equally regular and local source of perspective – as well as inspiration: our conscientious, cheerful and humble Archie*. Archie’s wife, Milly*, has and is being treated for benign but growing brain tumours, (they suspect that they are the direct result of the radiotherapy treatment she received when she was a child). The latest offender is a growing tumour that is wrapped around her optic nerve. As I write, they are waiting to hear the surgical team’s proposal; her recently scheduled operation was cancelled for the second time, as the surgeon was not happy with the risk to benefit ratio. And yet, Archie and Milly have found a way to live in the face of this. What I have had to do only on the odd occasion, they do on an hourly, certainly daily basis. In Archie’s words, they live and savour each day, as if it is their last. They celebrate all the good things in life and they know who loves them. He keeps saying, “What else can you do?”, which is typical of his humility, grace and amazing attitude. I really do not think that is has occurred to him that he could respond very differently getting bitter and resentful, or wasting the precious good times by feeling sorry for himself and by being an absolute bugger to live or work with…

Well, I am no philosopher, and I know that comparison can be very unhelpful (so for example, I do tend to steer clear of Facebook: all those glamorous holidays and brilliant careers have a detrimental effect on my sense of self-worth and well-being – pathetic hey? But sadly true!) However, I have noticed that hanging out with people who have a harder time than me, makes me more appreciative of who and what I do have. I feel enriched and empowered as I discover afresh the good things that I can enjoy or share. Equally, I have noticed that sometimes, socialising with those way “better off” than me (financially, that is) can be a bit less feel-good; I find I can come away feeling perhaps a little hard-done-by, sometimes even ashamed (haven’t worked that one out yet) but certainly somewhat disenfranchised. And so, there we will leave the matter:

“At the going down of the sun, we will remember them.”

And let us also remember those who are left; who have loved and lost. Not because our compassion does them any good, but because it benefits us: because we live happier, more content lives, celebrating and savouring what we have, rather than mourning and missing what we don’t have.

*names changed for obvious reasons

POST SCRIPT

I think it worth noting that this is not all pure speculation and I have actually experienced the boot being on the other foot. I found myself very firmly “on the other side of the fence” as it were, a few months into my treatment, where, for once, it was my pain that was the source of another’s perspective, helping someone else get through their “stuff”. As it turns out, it didn’t make me feel smaller or used in any way, it just made me laugh. In fact, a bit like “too much perspective” it became the source of another family catch phrase.

My unique and wonderful Australian sister-in-law, who singlehandedly filled the top half of the freezer with cooked food for us all, should be on the stage. If only someone would do us all a favour and write down most of what comes out of her mouth – Victoria Wood could have only dreamed of this kind of material. Some of my longest and deepest laughs – invariably ending in tears so hard and extreme was the mirth – have been with “V” as we call her. Legend has it (well, that is, her daughter Becky is a most gifted story teller) that she even retracted a texted party invitation by blaming the initial invite on a slip of the paw by the family dog! Let us just say that Veronica has the great gift of making people laugh: and most of the time, it is intentional. One of her best gifts to me (freezer food aside) throughout this gruelling journey came in a phone call that went something like this, (please read in your best Aussie accent):

“Oh hi Rachael! How you doin’? You ok? How’s the hair? Oh, still bald! Oh dear! How many more chemos to go? What, five? Heck! Then radiotherapy for how long? Five weeks! Oh heck! Right! Yeah, well, you just need to know that whenever I think of you and what you are going through, it cheers me right up!”