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The Poplar

Some advice for troubled times

This is clearly a difficult time in every regard, and I’m sure you’ll all be experiencing some hitherto un-dreamed-of challenges, whether it’s being separated from your loved ones, losing your job, or fearing for the safety of those around you. So it is especially important in this time of great stress and uncertainty to look after yourself and each other. Every element of the herculean task that faces our society is worth thinking about, in detail and constructively, but NOT ALL OF THE TIME. We need to know the consequences of our decisions, and it is only right that as informed and critical citizens of the world we take this very seriously. But it can sometimes lead to the feeling that you’re responsible for the world’s problems or the decisions of those around you, but there is only so much responsibility YOU can take. BE KIND TO YOURSELF about the decisions you make, the failures you perceive, and the lack of control you might feel.

It’s a messed up world and we’re all just trying to do the best we can to live and love and be loved. So rest assured that any decision you make was the right decision at the time with the information you had. Have faith in that and BE KIND TO YOURSELF.

Mindfulness is absolutely no substitute for security and control, whether that be financial or social or anything else. And I’m one of those cynics that has a sinister feeling that mindfulness is one more strategy to keep the cows happy, ignorant of their power and happy to be exploited for their labour. BUUUUUUT, it can help!! Especially in times of crisis like this. It can help to give you a wee holiday in your head, some space for the competing thoughts and emotions and fears. But it all comes down to BEING KIND TO YOURSELF. Know that we will get out of this together and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not amazingly productive right now. Hellloooo?? We’re fighting a pandemic here!! It’s pretty bloody stressful. So today, I want you to take some time to do something that will make you feel better: have a bath, go for a walk, dance in the kitchen to your fave tunes (this always works for me), watch your favourite film, whatever works for you! We have to stay sane so that on the other side of this crisis we can continue to be human, alive and loving, intelligent and critical, brave and strong.

I’m not at all religious but the mindfulness session where we try to wish everyone (including ourselves) happiness and to be free from suffering I found to be extremely spiritually liberating—it gave me a feeling of calm and peace knowing that I was directing my thoughts this way. Maybe it would help give you a feeling of connection to those around you. It's number 7 from this playlist of excellent guided meditations: 

In the last few days I’ve made journeys up and down the country, from Oxford to the Lakes and then back again, moving out of Oxford and then driving to Bristol to collect my brother before heading back to the Lakes. It was my grandmother’s funeral yesterday (a month after my grandfather’s), and so we were all returning to the Lakes anyway but the recent events have given the travelling an air of urgency, uncertainty and fear. I had to use everything available in my empathy/argument arsenal to persuade my mum and her sister not to have a wake for their mother. This was heartbreaking but I truly believe it was the best course of action. If we want to do all we can to ensure others are not in the same position as our family, but before their time, then we have to prevent the spread of this virus. In Italy, funerals go unattended; there is a shortage of coffins, and instead of being buried or cremated, bodies are sealed in rooms and families quarantined. It would be deeply deeply wrong in celebrating the life of a loved one to cause the death of someone else’s, directly or indirectly.

Loss and grief are always tough, and this has been compounded by the current climate of genuine and understandable fear and anxiety. But it was Oma and Opa’s (as we called them) time to go, and I am so unbelievably grateful that they died before even seeing a glimpse of the virus on the horizon. Caring for them and visiting them in the care home in which they lived would have been all but impossible. My heart goes out to those who are in this position, trying to stay optimistic and deal with the powerlessness of not being able to care for your loved ones.

There are reasons for hope, though. Across the country support networks have sprung up to help support the vulnerable, elderly or self-isolating. The lives, jobs, and wellbeing of millions is at stake, and the uncertainty of this is extremely troubling. But every potential issue thrown up is slowly but surely being addressed. This will never be in time, and will never be sufficient, but try to have faith in the fact that the impact on everyone’s lives and livelihoods is trying to be mitigated.

I have deplored the actions and ideology of the current government more than anyone but I am trying to take them at their word that they will do “whatever it takes” to help to reduce the impact on the lives of the people of this country. Of course, they still need to be challenged; their measures need to be scrutinised; and they need to be pushed to offer more and to do it more quickly. But I believe the best thing we can all do is to put whatever mistakes were made in the past behind us and to work systematically and constructively towards dealing with this problem now. After the event, in hindsight, we can judge and assess what years of austerity has done to our society, what it meant when we were faced with the deadliest and most virulent enemy for generations, and how many lives were lost because of it. But now is not the time for that. On the other side of this crisis, and I do believe there will be another side, people will ask themselves about the political decisions we made collectively—about the sort of country we said we wanted to live in, and what this meant when our way of life and the systems that are supposed to support us came under immense pressure. But this will and can all be done after the event.

For now, we have to stay sane, we have to work together, and we have to celebrate the few positives that might come out of this: the realising of what is important in life, the more time spent with or talking with loved ones and friends, and the capacity of us all to be strong and courageous in the face of fear and uncertainty.

The funeral that we did manage to hold yesterday was extremely moving, not least because of the stress and anxiety everyone is feeling in the current situation. Mum and her sister Julia had written a beautiful eulogy that really captured the love of life that Oma embodied, her kindness, energy, and love for her family. We really got a sense of who she was, and why we will all miss her so deeply. Particularly colourful moments for me are the excerpt from a letter from Oma to an estate agent, advising that if the agent responsible for the house they were buying was uncooperative, he could “go boil a haggis”; and a general sense of her resilience and high spirits with long periods looking after three girls alone while her husband was working abroad. Finally, one of my cousin Hanna's most prominent memories was a useful piece of advice Oma had learned from her grandmother: the difference between drinking wine and drinking beer. Drinking wine is a dainty task and it must be sipped, Oma said. When drinking beer on the other hand, you must imagine you are in the Sahara desert and that you are parched; beer must be gulped.

When reading through her letters and writings, Mum and Julia found a book of poems Oma had written. Delicate and precise, they are often moving, and frequently capture moments and memories in experiences of colour and light or texture and touch. The poem that my brothers and I read at her funeral is called "The Poplar" and was inspired by the memory of Rosalind, their daughter who sadly died aged 11. The poem is accompanied by a short note that records its context: Rosalind had persuaded Oma away from her tasks in the kitchen one day to come and look at a poplar tree in the sunshine and breeze. It’s a reminder to treasure these moments, glimpses of beauty, sunshine on a tree. These small things help us to see the big things.

The Poplar by Mary Threlfall

Hurry, come and see

How the sun shines on that tree

Leave the dishes, they can wait

See the poplar standing straight

With the breeze it bends and sways

While on its leaves, the sunshine plays

Hurry, come and see

Hurry, hurry, come and look

Hang your apron on the hook

See the leaves all green and silver

In the wind, they shake and shimmer

Hear the soughing and the rustle

All is movement, all is hustle

Hurry, come and look

By the poplar now we stand

Eyes are shaded with a hand

Gazing upward at its height

Applauding all the sounds and sight

Of a tree, beautiful to behold

Worth more than a pot of gold

Hurry, look and see