On and on and on

Today, at 6pm, Wales goes into another lockdown until November 9th. It will be slightly different from the first one in March / April because apart from the half-term holiday week schools will stay open at least for some year groups and there is no limit on the amount of time we can spend in public spaces exercising. However meeting friends inside or out is forbidden and only essential shops will stay open. The idea is to slow the virus transmission before it gets out of hand and to have the same rules across the whole country for clarity. It makes sense even though where I live is one of the safest parts of the UK. Although I live in Carmarthenshire which locked down one of its bigger urban areas, Llanelli, a while back I am right on the edge of the county and within easy walking distance or both Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire which have amongst the lowest levels of infection anywhere.

Today is also the day when I can be virtually certain I did not bring Covid-19 back from my daughter’s. She lives in a medium risk area, works in a school, my granddaughter goes to a different school and my grandson works in a restaurant. I decided that when I got home the sensible thing would be to keep myself to myself for a while. I have done essential shopping and banking but only dropped cakes off at the workday I should have been to.

I should have been helping build walls for the roundhouse

Before I went to my daughter’s you may remember that I had visited my lovely neighbour for a cup of tea (which turned into a glass of wine!) only to discover later that her Dad, who had visited a day or two before me, had tested positive for Covid. I therefore isolated myself to ensure that if I had picked it up from her I didn’t pass it on. So apart from the 5 days of my trip to England I have already been in self imposed lockdown for 4 weeks! The novelty is definitely wearing off!

I had several treats lined up for the next two weeks – a Permaculture group meeting at a smallholding I have wanted to visit for ages, a lunch out and walk on the beach with friends and a haircut. All postponed.

Poppit sands where we were planning a walk

It isn’t that I have nothing to do. There is always work to be done inside or out. On Monday I collected the library books I had requested as they had been waiting for pick up for ages and I knew another lockdown was coming. Handing in one bag through the door and being given another whilst wearing a mask hardly seemed like a big danger to either me or the librarian! So I have books to read and there are plenty of crafting materials on hand.

But I have to admit that none of it makes me eager to get up in the mornings and the grey damp weather isn’t helping. Tomorrow night we revert to GMT from British Summer Time, putting the clocks back an hour which always confuses my body and upsets the dogs. It also signals that winter is just around the corner with its short dark days. I want to hibernate!

If any of you spot some energy, enthusiasm, mojo – call it what you will – going spare please pick it up and send it to me. I could do with some!

Retreating

When I was working (many moons ago!) one of my colleagues told me that she went on retreat in a local convent two or three times a year. I was intrigued and she tried to explain to me what it was she found so useful from the experience. I kind of understood intellectually but struggled to imagine how it might feel.

Walking the dogs this morning I started to connect my experience of lockdown (which is still pretty much in force here in Wales) with going on retreat. I haven’t followed the horarium of a monastic day but a rhythm has developed which includes work (housework, gardening, decorating, time in the workshop); socialising via the internet; reading; and times to be quiet (yoga, dog walks and crafting in the evening). I have been less secluded from the world than on a retreat but because I live alone apart from my pets there has been a lot of silence. My dogs ensure I go out for walks, my cats give me cuddles and they all entertain me, but great conversationalists they aren’t! So I have spent more time alone with my thoughts and have had fewer means of distracting myself than usual. No longer can I find something to justify a quick trip to the shops or arrange to meet a friend for coffee.

In the early weeks it was fine. I did what I always do and kept busy. I had already planned to do some decorating and bought the paint. There were seeds to sow, veg beds to clear and planting out to do. The weather was glorious. My head was full of lists, plans and ideas. I finished my library books. I noticed that I then chose old favourites to read. Books of short chapters with gentle, amusing tales – Deric Longden and his cats, Jeanine McMullen and her small country living, Peter Mayle in Provence. I needed to be occupied but couldn’t settle to anything demanding. Knitting simple jumpers for charity was fine, complex patterns were beyond me.

Then matters in my daughter’s marriage came to a head and she decided she needed to get out whatever the long term consequences. She has the support of an amazing group of friends who helped her find a house to rent and enough furniture and equipment to live in it in reasonable comfort as well as giving her emotional support and encouragement. Apart from being one of the guarantors that her rent will be paid despite her low income, there was nothing for me to do practically. But emotionally my head was full to the brim! It was weird being unable to follow my instinct and rush to her aid. She was coping well, had all the support and help she needed and I would have been putting myself at risk for no good reason. I could commiserate, encourage and send love by Whatsapp from the safety of home. A hard but excellent lesson in sitting on my hands!

Rumbling in the background has been concern for my son’s brother in law who has been in intensive care on a ventilator and a lung machine since early April with Covid 19. It began to seem that whilst he could technically be kept alive indefinitely the decision might have to be taken to let him die. This weekend he finally improved, was brought out of his induced coma and is being taken off the machines.

Now that the dramas are easing my mood is shifting again. There are still projects I want to do and I find myself almost hoping restrictions aren’t eased too much too soon – not just because of concerns about a ‘second wave’ but because I don’t want to be faced with responsibility for making choices about how much time I spend on my own here getting on with things and how much I go out and about or entertain visitors. I have been surprised how much I have got done when there are no distractions. I have quite enjoyed the solitude. Yesterday I picked up a book on garden design I planned to re-read back in March and a philosophy book the librarian picked out for me on my last visit, also in March. Both had lain on the chest in the sitting room untouched, reproaching me for my laziness. Once I started on them I found I was enjoying them both. The garden one requires me to stop and think about applying the ideas and the philosophy one needs digesting so I read a little bit of each in turn!

I am lucky. I have a loving family, good friends, kind neighbours, a comfortable home, a garden I enjoy, a secure income which is enough for my needs. Even so I have found lockdown hard at times. There have been times of loneliness, worry, frustration. I have learned things about myself. Some have been good things; my resilience and ability to pick myself up when I am feeling down, my ability to cope with extended solitude. Others less so; my need to be always busy, my impatience, my bossiness. And some are just interesting; how much I have to learn about gardening, how my reading choices changed.

I am looking forward to being able to see friends again, to have a hug, to go to the library, to shop for things I want to see and feel before I buy. But I am also grateful for the experience of confinement. I have had no temptation to do an online search for retreat houses (of whatever religious persuasion) but I am beginning to understand better why some people do.

Protective Custody

Some ‘conversations’ I have had recently have reminded me how lucky I am to be experiencing ‘lockdown’ where I am.

A friend’s sister, who has some mental health problems anyway, is living in one room in a shared flat with no outside space and is really struggling to cope.

Carolee, a retired professional nurserywoman who writes a brilliant and informative blog about her garden (read it here)commented on my post Magnificent May ‘Such a pretty “jail” during this lockdown.’ – an interesting turn of phrase.

I also recalled that until this pandemic I had only heard the term ‘lockdown’ in relation to prisons when there was rioting. This extract from an article in The Guardian newspaper confirms that my memory was fucntioning correctly.

“It was only in the 1970s that “lockdown” began to mean an extended state of confinement for inmates of prisons or psychiatric hospitals, and thereafter any period of enforced isolation for security. Originally, in 19th-century America, a “lock-down” was a strip of wood or peg that secured the poles or a raft together when timber was transported by river. It is therefore a wistful irony that our present condition is named after a mechanism that once ensured the reliability of travel in the great outdoors.

• Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.”

Those three strands combined to make me reflect on the harshness of our prison systems.

I can wander at will around my house allowing me to change my position and which walls I am looking at. There is plenty of space for me to have books and craft materials to occupy me. I can have devices connected to the internet and stay in touch with family and friends whenever I like. I have my pets for company and comfort.

prison cell
a cell in Swansea jail

Nor do I have to put up with company I do not want, For me, sharing my space with someone can be tricky even when I love them dearly! To share with a stranger would be a nightmare.

Any time I fancy a cup of tea I can make one. I can decide what meals I want to eat and when and make them exactly to my taste.

When I look through the windows I see green and trees and flowers. If I want to go outside I can and I can choose to sit, to exercise or to go for a walk. No-one tells me that I must come back in. I can garden which is creative but there is also lots of evidence that having our hands in the soil is beneficial to our health.

swansea prison
Swansea Prison on a main road in a built up area.

I know that I am not alone in finding that even so it is hard to remain cheerful all the time. I dread to think how I would cope if incarcerated in prison. I suspect I would either become mentally ill or run amok! No wonder that so many prisoners are ill, either physically or mentally; that attacks on, and injuries to, prison staff are so frequent. Taking away all those choices also creates institutionalised individuals who will find it hard to cope when released which could be a factor in recidivism. Of course criminality must be punished and society has to be protected but I am beginning to realise that the way we currently go about achieving those ends may not be humane let alone the best. I have no idea what would be a better solution – I just have a clearer understanding of the problem. I will be interested to hear your views.

Lessons from Lockdown

When our children were babies my husband worked for a while as an Audit Assistant with the local Council. It was a small Council and Audit got various jobs that didn’t really belong to any department or took up slack when other departments were unusually busy. One day he was asked to review the insurance for all the Council vehicles before it was renewed. ‘Just think of the worst accident you can imagine and make sure we would be OK’ was the instruction from his boss. His scenario involved a bin lorry, failed brakes, a steep hill between busy shops and with the Council Offices at the bottom.

More importantly it made him think about our lives. What could go wrong? What would the consequences be? Did we have the ‘insurance’ to cope? From then on he was known for his ‘belt, braces and a bit of baler twine just in case’ approach. That seemingly trivial task at work became a foundation stone for our lives. We didn’t become fearful or paranoid, just determined to think about our resilience and try always to have plan ‘B’.

IMG_20200503_134445519
Soft fruit gives a lot of yield for little effort

We agreed that we would try to accumulate useful practical skills going as far back down the process as possible and to do so using only the most basic equipment. I knew how to sew but learned how to mend, do patchwork using recycled fabric, sew by hand as well as machine, relearned how to knit and crochet, then to spin and to dye using natural ingredients (I am not very good at either but know enough that I could become competent). John added DIY and building to his ‘O’level woodwork then did a weekend course in blacksmithing. We learned to garden and to cook with what was available rather than starting with a recipe and buying the ingredients. Foraging increased the range of foodstuffs we could use. Preserving kept summer foods for winter use. We kept poultry and pigs for meat and eggs.

The spinning wheel I have been lent and the workshop

I hope I am not giving the impression that I live (or have lived) some buccolic idyll of self sufficiency. Complete self sufficiency is a myth. It is also part of the ‘I’m all right Jack’ bunker mentality of the survivalists. I happily accept gifts from neighbours, shop from local farms and buy staples like flour and sugar from the supermarket. I enjoy eating bananas and lemons that will not grow in the UK. I heat my home predominantly with electricity and since heat is needed mainly when the sun is not shining I need the National grid to take surplus power when I have it and sell me some when I need it. I use more than I generate so I am dependent on other suppliers particularly over winter. I prefer to use hand tools but am realistic about the efficiency of powered ones. And so on.


Allowing kales to self seed looks messy but gives me an early crop for no work. Small ones for salad and big ones to cook.

The last few weeks has been the first big test of that resilience for a long time. I have coped pretty well. Not pefectly so there are things I need to think about but on the whole well enough. I am of course lucky to be retired – my income is not dependent on me being able to work. I don’t have young children to care for and school or entertain. Having a mortgage free home in the country with a large garden has been a great blessing and is partly down to luck and partly to hard work and choices. Food in the garden, hedgerows to forage in, preserves and a well stocked freezer mean I have had plenty to eat and gardening, crafting, dogs and a home to look after have given me plenty to do.


Workdays and permaculture groups have made me lots of friends

Getting to know my neighbours, building a wider community by joining in things and volunteering means I have had plenty of offers of help with things like shopping and lots of electronic contact with others. My washing machine stopped working with a smell of hot rubber and some expensive noises just after lockdown started. I could have ordered a new one online for home delivery but I suspect it can be repaired and I know a very competent man who will come and look at it – but not at the moment. My neighbour has been doing my washing each week since and has been pleased to help me since she was becoming embarassed about asking me to drive her children to clubs when she had two of them needing to go in opposite directions at the same time. Of course I have missed being able to go out and meet friends for coffee, walks on the beach, visitors coming here, workdays… but I haven’t been lonely or felt vulnerable.

So where could I do better? I didn’t have enough pet food to see me through even the original 3 week lockdown. I buy dog and cat food in sacks from the farmers co-op but in future I need to have an unopened sack of each as well as the one I am using. That means I also need to make sure there is space for them in the new utility room. I can adjust my diet to suit what is growing but it is harder to do that for the animals! I also went to the vets and got some more of the pain relief medicine Orchid needs. I was a bit over cautious there as the bottle will finally run out tomorrow but even so I need to keep a better supply in future.


C&M have closed the trust shop but between 10am and 2pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday they are open to take orders called through the window. They put everything requested together in a box which is put outside the door for the customer to pick up.

I have been going to C&M for fresh fruit and veg, butter and cheese. I decided a few years ago that potatoes, onions and carrots were not worth growing. Potatoes because I always miss some when I dig them up and get ‘volunteers’ the next year which outcompete the things I am trying to grow, onions because they came out the same size as the sets that went in and carrots because the local carrot root flies get them all. This year I have been able to get some manure to improve my veg patch and am planting lots of leeks instead of onions. I had intended growing some potatoes in pots which I could empty completely when I harvested them but missed the seed potatoes. Butter and cheese I can start keeping in the freezer. So I just need to tweak my growing and storing. On the other hand by shopping there I have been supporting a local business – a balance to be struck.


preserves have been a boon

The other thing I have needed to buy is milk. I have been thinking about that gap for a while and had a go at milking a goat at a friend’s place a while back. Going back into livestock isn’t something to do on a whim or for an unusual event but I do need to have another think.

Of course if this goes on for much longer I will run out of other things, there will be other breakages and breakdowns. My hair needs cutting and since I had it cut short I no longer have slides and clips to keep it out of my eyes. A dental appointment has been postponed. A former neighbour died and I was unable to go to the funeral – it should have been a ‘standing room only’ affair but must have been very small instead – not a fitting send-off for a very popular and respected man.

Sometime fairly soon lockdown will be eased if not lifted and I will be very glad. I will enjoy a trip into Cardigan to have a coffee, meet friends, go to the library, buy some more knitting yarn and restock at the supermarket. I will get my hair cut, my tooth filled and my washing machine repaired. But I owe a huge debt of gratitude to that imaginary bin lorry!