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After a long dry spell without access to a pool, we are longing to swim. There is still the shock as warm flesh hits cold water, and a sharp intake of breath once I have inched in deep enough to lean out into the first lunge. It feels as though my skin is being stroked by silk as I acclimatise to the cold. I remember how it feels good, as I dry off. Sunshine and the sea breeze toast my skin, drying beads of salt water. The smell of the sea, mingled with sun cream makes my nostrils flare with pleasurable associations.

Seagulls fly low overhead, scanning for fish and chips. I can hear the squeals of both children and adults as they encounter cool water. My companions swim at the far edge of the ‘marine pool’. Just beyond is the sea. All around me, there is a burble of happy holiday sounds.

In full sunshine, the landscape of sky is inked in cobalt blue and the sea blends olive green with Prussian blue. Later, overcast, it has a different colour palette. Hazy bands delineate pool, the Severn estuary, windmills and industrial silhouettes of Wales behind. Then there is sky and a few distant smears of cloud. Bands of neutral tones mark each layer, with hints of pink, blue, brown and green. The sea recedes, shimmering silver grey.

In the garden studio where I am sitting in three dimensions, a squirrel grabs onto my trousers, and climbs up my leg. “You look like Snow White”, someone quips in the Zoom room, watching the wildlife come close in my screen. This squirrel has become bolder, in search of my stash of almonds. Papers scatter, when she eventually ventures onto my desk, locating my horde. She tries to open the glass jar, but it is resistant to her sharp teeth and dextrous paws.

Our lockdown guests made friends with this grey squirrel, naming her Squiffy. She also visits next door, where she is known as Clara. Easy to identify, with a cut-short tail, inquisitive expression and beguiling eyes, she has become a frequent diner at our bird table, and from my hand. She likes black sunflower seeds, almonds, is partial to acorns, loves to chew on a peach pit, but is mad for hazelnuts.

Squiffy’s presence adds delight to my day, and a bit of magic to the garden, but in my head, I hear the voice of the militant squirrels in Dom Jolly’s ‘Trigger Happy TV’ shouting, “Give us your nuts!”

These hands belong to a close friend, who lives in a care home. He often struggles with confusion. His life was impacted by a sudden event. Surgery and a spell in hospital followed. Both the original event and its treatment were traumatic. Some months later, a sudden improvement in his condition gave him more awareness of what had happened to him. This ‘insight’ in itself, a greater realisation of the radical changes in his life, might be described as another layer of trauma.

During the Corona virus pandemic, he has been stoical, and is cared for brilliantly. However, he has been deprived of regular visits from friends and family. These visits usually provide hugs, support, a sense of orientation, identity, and a feeling of being loved. A phone call for someone with this kind of impairment just doesn’t communicate well. Now visits are possible again, but under very strict protocols. I am present, yet at 2 metres distance, for a short time, outside. I wear a mask, that doesn’t reassure like a smile. I watch the hands that I can’t hold, notice the finger-nails I can’t clip, and feel for those who are denied the proximity of loving touch.

Like a crime scene, the victims of accident or predator sometimes lie in my path. I imagine each feather marked with an exhibit number, a chalk line around the body. The path that meets the road is closed off one day this week, with real police tape. “There has been a shooting,” word passes between dog walkers. Accident or not, a tragedy will probably be playing out in two households, as a consequence.

On this theme, there are a couple of gems available to hear on BBC Radio 4, which unfold some of the consequences for everyone involved after a crime has been committed. ‘This Thing of Darkness’ is a 8 part drama, written by Anita Vettesse and Eileen Horne. It follows a forensic psychiatrist’s conversations with an accused man, and members of his family, in an attempt to unravel what happened. Told from the psychiatrist’s point of view, it reveals her thought processes as she listens for glimmers of truth among the facts. It also includes characters inside a therapy group process within a prison. It allows us to see the nuanced and complex causes of what happened, and the feelings of everyone touched by the incident.

‘The Punch’ is a 5 part documentary series following the impact after one young man was convicted of manslaughter, for killing another with a single punch. We hear about the impact of the death both on the person convicted, and the family of the victim. It gives an inspiring insight into the process of restorative justice. The outcome of the meetings between the convicted, and the parents of the victim is remarkable, but does not diminish the morass of difficult feelings on both sides.

I rarely foray beyond the distance of a dog walk. Travelling on the tube is now a novel experience. Passengers, disguised by paper, cloth or moulded fibre masks stay divided, moving along the platform as though pushed away by negative magnetic poles. We step on the train like a game of Connect 4. We make strategic moves to sit in seats that block consecutive diagonal or straight rows. This deliberate spacing interrupts the flow of my micro interactions. I notice how the separation amplifies a feeling of estrangement. Those without masks have become renegades, subject to stares from the obedient. I try to expand the expression possible with eyebrows, wonder if anyone knows I am smiling? A man plugged into headphones opposite me in the carriage has shaking shoulders. I am concerned at first by what looks like sobbing. Then the angle of his head lifts, and I recognise laughter. Perhaps this conceal is a great relief to the introverted, to those who prefer to travel incognito. I notice that I can slacken my jaw, rest the crinkles that habitually pinch into a smile. I value the street currency of nods, benedictions of kind looks, and mirrored grins from the colourful. I enjoy paying my way in “Good mornings”, and exchanges of friendliness with open faces. The absence of choice makes me feel uncomfortable, the ushering in of fear growing from this distance. The other may now be perceived as a source of threat, but the real risk of infection is unknown. In this new world order I am being cautious, but I choose connection, touch and self-revelation.

 

Rachel, who died last year, is commemorated just under a hammer and sickle, and opposite an ‘Om’ sign. At first Bob kept a coffee table memorial with a photograph and flowers to honour his beloved of many decades. The walls are still alive with some of Rachel’s paintings; and on the mantelpiece, photographs hark back to her wilder days of travel, and radical politics alongside Bob.  She still remains close to his heart, on his left bicep. He has also commissioned a local potter to make a plaque for the garden wall. This will continue their tradition of non-conformism, as a non-religious way to remember her life, and the important place she held in their family. For many of us, there is no longer a set way to remember those who have died. We can choose our own ways to mourn, to mark each significant date, to make space for our responses to the absence of loved ones. I love Bob’s characteristically thoughtful approach – a tattooed portrait, as a significant way to mark the pain of his loss, and the plaque to make a dedicated place to remember.

Before a grief tending session, we recommend connecting with support. We suggest checking in with someone before and after a group. We often ask, “How resourced do you feel?” Responses to this question vary, and sources of support can range hugely too. They may include some very general terms like ‘nature’, ‘friends’, and ‘my community’, as well as more specific ‘my cat, therapist or partner’, or reveal an absence of dependable support. The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective focuses on “building relationship and trust” in transformative justice. Their work includes those whose need for support may be affected by a history of abuse, isolation and oppression. Mia Mingus writes an exploration of ‘pods’ and ‘pod mapping’ for the collective, which illuminates some very common gaps in support networks. “Most people have few solid, dependable relationships in their lives.” Mingus goes on to say, “Although ‘community’ is a word that we use all the time, many people don’t know what it is or feel they have never experienced it… Asking people to organize their pod was much more concrete than asking people to organize their ‘community’.”

I used the ‘pod mapping’ worksheet to identify my own sources of support. It was a really useful exercise. I wanted to look at my ‘pod’ in the context of grief in particular, but also reflected on maps for other themes. My grief ‘Venn diagram’ features particular people, inspirations and practices. A few key people overlap in several of my ‘pods’. These are the ones who stand near the centre of my life in multiple roles. They are often my first port of call to witness tears of sadness or joy. I find it helpful to consider, who I can really count on. ‘Chosen family’ is also an important part of my own queer social network. Widening my pod identified people with shared interests to connect with for reciprocal support. I found it helpful to get clear about what feeds me, and where there are sources of emotional credit to draw on when I need it, as well as the places that could use more resilience building.
See The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective for pods and pod mapping article and worksheet.

I am falling horizontally towards the wooden floor. In the moment that this takes, I have enough time to know that this fall isn’t going to end well. My arms, which were yanking at something, are now strangely absent. I see the floor, then mortality punches me in the face. The sound of the crash wakes Dexter. I am confused. There is blood, and a gap in my jaw. I wonder if I have broken my nose, and reach my hand across the floor-boards in search of my tooth. “Help. Help. Help,” I cry out. The impact lands slowly, with shaking, and a new awareness of terrible vulnerability. Dexter, unexpectedly awake, rests on the stairs with me, and holds my hand. He is well versed in emergency protocol, speaks in a gentle tone. Carer/cared for roles reversed, “Don’t worry,” he soothes, “it’ll be okay.” His voice comforts me, like a turmeric latte. Cocooned in the immediate aftermath, my other helpers navigate what to do next. My inner monologue trickles back. “I disregarded that ‘stupid’ warning. Why was I rushing? What a ridiculous pratfall. You should be more present. What have I done? What does it mean?” I float into the dental chair, the patient who makes everyone else wait. The dentist peers through his visor at my crooked tombstone teeth. Behind the protective layers all I can see are two kind brown eyes. “I’m feeling wobbly, and might cry,” I confess. “It’s okay if you cry,” he says. This permission allows me to sink back in the chair, and I listen to ‘Staying Alive’ pulse through his speakers as my tears fall. I am very glad to be alive, grateful for this kindness, even as he wields the pliers to retract my tooth. My head swimming with anaesthetic, I hear a distant little voice say, “Thank you.” “You’re very lucky,” he replies. “It could have been a lot worse.”

We watch through June, and into July for the perfect moment. The cherries will be at their sweetest, most abundant and usually have dropped in price. Originally a friend with Polish heritage demonstrated how to make cherry vodka. It has become an annual tradition now in our house. We save jars with large openings, from passata or cloudy apple juice. It gives me satisfaction to peel, or scrub off the labels. I wash the cherries. Then, with each one, I make an incision from top to bottom. I winkle out each stone – not exactly keyhole surgery. Although you can just prick them. The pile in the colander diminishes, as the mound of wounded cherries increases. My thumb nail wears down until it feels bitten. My hands are drenched with red juice – like blood, sticky under my nails, staining my cuticles. Tony fills the bottles almost to the top with cherries, then pours vodka on top – making sure that every cherry is covered. Once the tops are screwed on tight, we put them away. They will reappear as Christmas gifts or treats. The alcoholic cherries will be eaten with ice-cream. I don’t drink alcohol, but cherries are one of my favourite fruits. I enjoy the seasonal ritual, gorge myself with cherries in the process. In the winter months I will remember the plump crimson tang of summer fruits.

“Everyone is broadcasting. I’m seeing what comes when I listen,” Julie says, in one of our characteristically candid conversations. I like to think of my time, energy and expression in terms of ‘input’ and ‘output’. I try to find a balance. There are times to speak out, to be heard, and there are times to receive. However, what I heard in Julie’s words is a more provocative enquiry. What happens when I listen more deeply? How can I sit with what’s uncomfortable in me enough to hear the other fully? How can I tune in to the voice of the unheard? What happens when I make space to listen to the unknown? At home I listen to a muffled city scape of footsteps, distant shouts, rumbles of passing cars, and fragments of electronic beats. Out on the marshes, I listen to birdsong, weather and the rustle of leaves. I open my ears to inspiration that blows in on the wind, and the energies of the land.