Slowing Down

It happened when I was gearing up. Having given up my placement with Carbon Landscapes in Wigan as it was too office based I had returned to volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust closer to home and got the conservation internship at Brockholes.

One hundred per cent practical outdoor work, and just a 6 mile cycle ride away at a place I know and love, it promised to be my dream job. I’d completed my first 10k race in New Longton and was training for the City of Preston 10 miles. I was also preparing for my Taekwondo grading, on the Spring Equinox weekend, to gain my blue belt.

Then it struck. A series of lightning-like strikes. I’d heard the thunder. The first rumblings from China, the news the storm was getting closer, that it had hit Italy, Spain, France, arrived in the UK. We joked about it at first. Me with my perpetually runny nose, like a toddler, in spring, due to my hay fever. Anyone who coughed or sneezed, “I haven’t got coronavirus.” We’d seen it on the news but it didn’t seem real, like our little island with its green hills and fresh air granted some form of immunity. We’re British, right? We won the war. Then people started getting sick and started dying.

Around a fortnight ago hand washing or using antibacterial gel before eating became mandatory. On Monday the 16th of March when I was out with the Mud Pack at Brockholes the next step was stopping sharing PPE. No more slightly musty gloves from the collective stash. I was given my own hi-vis in preparation for beginning my internship on the Thursday. Still we worked together building a hibernaculum for great crested newts and ate our lunch outside on a day bright as coltsfoot.

On Tuesday the 17th of March we received an email saying we could no longer share lifts in the van or meet together inside. On Wednesday the 18th of March, another glorious spring day, I went out on another work party planting sarroccoca and eleganus amongst the daffodils on the rock garden on Avenham Park. There was little joking, even amongst the guys from Preston City Council, who were helping out. Everything felt ominous. Still, it came as a shock when I got home to find out all LWT volunteer work parties had been cancelled until the end of April along with my voluntary internship.

In some ways it was a relief because I live with parents who are over 70 and in ill health. I’d been torn between the choices, if I was to continue volunteering, of moving out or risking their lives. So I accepted it was for the best I isolated with them, just going out to do our shopping and to exercise.

Still, I was bitterly disappointed. After winning the struggle to give up alcohol and manage my anxiety without it, and feeling I was finally coming home from my exodus with Carbon Landscapes to the place and the job role in my local landscape where I truly belonged… this!

Yet, I also felt, in some ways my gods had been preparing me for it. If I hadn’t given up alcohol there is no way I would have coped with the situation or with the responsibility of looking after my parents. When considering whether to quit my placement I’d heard a clear voice telling me to “come home.”

Another point is that, at the beginning of January, after I had a mild attack of exercise-induced asthma as a consequence of running my fastest time of 25.21 for 5k on the Avenham Park Run, Gwyn told me during this Taekwondo belt (green with a blue tag representing growth toward the skies) I needed to ‘learn to breathe’. Since then I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend time in stillness, focusing on my breath, in my morning and evening meditations, but not always managing it.

(What has struck me and many others is that breath is central to this situation on many levels. Coronavirus attacks the lungs and those who get seriously ill face a battle for their breath which, in some cases, can only be won with the aid of mechanical ventilators, and in others not at all. The places worst hit have been cities where the air is badly polluted. Now flights have stopped and most people have stopped commuting by car, the skies are clear of contrails and air pollution has dropped.)

At first, after all that gearing up, I felt like Wily Coyote poised in mid-air off the edge of a cliff with my legs still running. Over the past few days I have been striving to ground myself, to slow down, to process the changes, to find space to breathe. Not easy when surrounded by panic.

My first response was to hit the news and social media to find out what’s happening and what everyone’s doing, leading only to tight chest, shortness of breath. To rush to formulate my own words, to share poems addressing the situation. Like I have some kind of gods-given responsibility… whilst aware of adding to the din of others doing exactly the same and increasing the massive strain on the internet that we forget is causing air pollution as we don’t see the power stations.

“Slow down,” the message kept coming through, from the stopping of traffic the virus has caused. As I ran more slowly, no longer worried about beating my best times, happy to be in the moment, feet steady alongside the Ribble in time with her flow where the daffodils watch with sad beautiful faces.

“Slow down,” as I began to take my time in my parents’ garden instead of rushing through the tasks. Appreciating the sunlight on the pastel colours of the hyacinths and the scent of the magnolia, the steady chuck of spade in earth and textures of compost from the bottom of the heap rich from years of decay.

“Slow down,” every time I sat before my mantlepiece in my bedroom where I keep altars to my deities, feathers and stones, to which I’ve recently added photos of my family ancestors knowing I’ll need their help.

I had developed a new routine based around prayer, writing, housework, gardening, shopping, and exercise when lockdown struck. It didn’t hit too hard as I was already living under those rules.

I’m anticipating a greater slowing. Right now I feel like I’m in ‘defence mode’ with my main prerogatives being to tend to the needs of and protect my vulnerable parents and to maintain my own health. I have also offered to run deliveries on my bike for family and friends, including the older members of my poetry group, if they end up isolating either due to illness or the government order.

An important point of support has been the Way of the Buzzard Mystery School online journey circles and coaching calls. I have been involved with Jason and Nicola’s drumming circles at Cuerden Valley and the Space to Emerge camp since they began and have appreciated being able to continue getting together to do journeywork and discuss the current situation from a shamanistic perspective.

With my daily routine and a support network in place I’m hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. If the UK follows Italy’s curve it is possible that my friends, family, and myself, may be not only be slowed down but locked away by illness, that we may be halted by the life-or-death battle for our breath. That we may have to face the final stopping – death – as usual a topic few think or talk about.

I’ve long had a plan for my funeral but am aware it will be invalidated by these circumstances. There is a huge lack of information about what will happen to the bodies of those who die of coronavirus in the UK. How they will be dealt with, where they will go, how their passing will be acknowledged.

Yet this great slowing gives us time to pause for thought – about the fears we’d rather not face and the solace we can find in each moment of these spring days so beautifully bright in contrast.

It was not the storm

that broke me or the storm
before it or the storm before it.
Ciara, Brendan, Atiyah, even
distant Ophelia or Freya.

It was not the winter storms
of 2013 – 2014 before storms
were given alphabetical names.
It was not the St Jude storm,

the London or Birmingham
tornadoes, Storm Kyrill – killer
of 11 people, the Great Storm
of 1987 or any of the storms

before I was born in 1981.
It was not the cliché of the storm
within although winds have swept
through my branches broken

my fingers swayed me that way
and this like a sapling turned me over
like a hay wheel rattled me like
a bag on a barbed wire fence.

Rain has flooded my landscape,
rising up over my pagodas and bins,
my fountain and its four nymphs,
washed away all my bridges,

receded to leave a mottle of reed,
rainbow puddles to splash wellies in,
birches surprising in their reflections
like Rimbaud illuminated in 1876.

It has cleaned and cleansed me.
My Taekwondo belt is blue and green.
I am learning O Jang I but I do not
call myself Master of the Wind

for I do not know what broke me –
childhood bullying, a neurotic father,
a defective gene or something deeper
within? But it was not the storm.

*Arthur Rimbaud wrote his Illuminations in 1876.
**O Jang means ‘Wind’ and it is the fifth pattern in WTF Taekwondo.
***I wrote this poem in the aftermath of Storm Ciara during which the Ribble broke her banks at Avenham and Miller Parks and further upriver.