‘A little gray horned toad came out of the darkness. Right round he twisted, stretched out his neck, and spoke to me.‘
Tohono Indian from the book ‘I, the Song’
This was the summer of the feral cats, seven of them. No longer scared eyes in the ditch, the first one was a fierce tomcat; Blotch and he brought his friend; a hissy unfriendly tabby called Nano. Nano, my psychotherapist husband says, suffers from a confused and disorganised attachment system, the result of some trauma when she was a kitten.
I tamed their kittens with food, milk and eventually touch, listening to their different ways of communicating I consoled myself that even if I didn’t write I had befriended these cats and found homes for them.
I facilitated creative writing groups online with hospital staff, providing a space for people to write, not about the virus but, as a rest from that, we wrote about our sensual memories, colours, smells, our bodies, creatures and landscapes that soothed us. Those hours provided an oasis of steadiness and ease for us all.
But as the months went by I felt worn down, disturbed when I saw a child spacing out her toys so they were socially distanced, and I found it hard to breathe when I witnessed a four-year-old boy wearing a mask for hours, not taking it off even when his mother told him to. When I tried to talk about my concerns, a friend shouted me down. This alarmed me more than the virus and reminded me of growing up in Ireland in the seventies. Sr. Anne the head nun in secondary school sneering at me when I questioned some theological certainty.
‘How dare you, a girl, question holy men?’
And how confusing it was to work as a movement therapist in the nineties, the stories of abuse, torture and terror from the industrial schools, the boarding schools, the asylums and the mother and baby homes in the bodies and silenced voices I was working with and yet there was nothing about any of this in the media.
It is okay to talk and write about those past abuses now, at least some of them, but what can’t we write about now? And even as I think this, there is an attempt by the government to seal up the records of what happened in some of those mother and baby homes.
The veil of censorship within and without is an issue that writers have always struggled with and the reason many of them were banned, imprisoned and are still imprisoned today.
It has taken me a lifetime to be able to sing and write because for so long my voice was silenced and after my friend jumped down my neck I began to get pains in my jaw, gripping it too tightly and biting back what I wanted to talk about, think, question and explore.
When our trauma is reactivated some people become chaotic, others become rigid and controlling, others aggressive or frozen. I began to freeze and of course, that blocked the creative flow.
And like everyone else we had our issues as a family to contend with. A car crashed into my daughter’s car and though she was not physically injured it took weeks for her to recover from the shock. My sister’s son ended up in ICU with his rare autoimmune disease. A friend tested positive for the virus.
I did what I did in the nineties when there were issues I could not speak about, question or even understand, I began to move and dance and use my voice.
As I moved into the distress in my body and jaw, there she was, the four-year-old child I once was; seriously ill in hospital with viral pneumonia, none of the antibiotics had worked and I was finding it hard to breathe, never knowing when they would come with the trolley, the giant needle rattling in the kidney dish, not knowing what they were going to do with me next nor when I could go home. Another child on the ward wouldn’t stay in the bed, ran screaming after her mother when she tried to leave, kicked the kidney dish away and bit the head sister’s hand. How I admired her. I was a good girl and did what I was told. I coloured in my colouring books, and watched the door at visiting hour, desperate for my mother to arrive in her creaking leather coat, her red lipstick and the squeak as she pulled the orange plastic from a new bottle of Lucozade. Of course, that child within me is alarmed when she sees the world turning into a hospital where she has no say and is not consulted on the decisions being made.
If my friend had just listened to my distress and concern for the children, I might have been able to remember and tell her that story and she probably had a story herself which would have helped me to understand why she was trying to control what I thought and said.
How vulnerable it is to be human. I worry for all young creatures and the earth they are being born into.
There are days when I want to give up, it is all too hard, why bother writing and trying to communicate, no poem, no work of art will save us now. Then I read Poetry At The End Of The World, by Leny Strobel and the poem penetrates to my soul. I am soothed by a documentary film My Octopus Teacher. I work with Fiona my friend, a film director, to make a tiny poetry film.
I read Danusha Lemeris’s poem Small Kindnesses and try to be kind.
I gather in the harvest, pears, apples, elderberries, grief, gratefulness, strangely this October the pear tree has blossomed, even as the older pears are getting ready to fall. I cradle the flowers in my hand and pray that people will stop calling the children disease spreaders.
I gather up windfalls, sad that I can no longer dance, touch and unexpectedly connect to patients with late-stage dementia.
The starlings chitter in the old spruce, the greenfinch comes to the window to tell me that the bird feeder needs to be filled.
I begin to write about being a lonely child in a hospital, unable to run away. I write about my Navaho teacher and her description of a way they address the crisis in her culture.
‘We sit in a circle and each one names and describes the issue as they understand it,’ she said, ‘then each of us retreats into the forest to reflect and listen and slowly an original and soulful way to work with the crisis emerges.
The peoples of the Amazon have told us that our Western civilization is destroying the earth. That we have never really listened to them to discover who they really are and how they have learnt to live in harmony with the forest and the land.
I need that now, to take my place in the circle and to listen, especially to the voices being silenced within and without, and this is a vital and urgent reason to write, to try to communicate truthfully about what it is to be me now, writing to you, and to read and listen to what it is to be you and what shaped you.
To find some peace then as fear lessens, and we can pause, reflect and listen to the intelligence in nature- to the octopus, the cat, the bee, to the bacteria, microbes and viruses that make up our world, to listen deeply and not assume we have the solutions and answers, to not assume we even know what the question is.
Lani and Fiona’s poetry film is shortlisted for the O Bhéal International Poetry Film Festival 2020. Live streamed Sunday 29th November at the Winter Warmer Festival, online. https://www.facebook.com/obheal.poetry/
Poetry At The End Of The World by Leny Strobel
Small Kindnesses, Danusha Leméris
‘My Octopus Teacher’ is a 2020 Netflix Original film directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed. Craig Foster, as himself, capturing a year he spent with a wild common octopus.
‘This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on Earth‘ Nemonte Nenquimo (The Guardian. 12th October 2020)