A Month in Lockdown London

A month in Lockdown London

Early morning walkers are wrapped up warmly against the nipping wind that dances below the sun and tosses infrequent April showers across the country. The warm winter has brought green aphids out to suck on my roses. Every morning I brush them off and say thank you to the ants who are trying to devour them as quickly as they appear.

Walking past our local supermarket, the wind added to the chill of watching the long line of one-person one-cart each distanced apart, shuffling along the wall around to the waiting guard at the store’s entrance. It still feels too dangerous to shop there and not all right to ask someone to go for us. So we stay close to home shopping in the village and getting used to doing without the simplest things. It has been two weeks since I saw Philadelphia creme cheese in the dairy cooler. This week there is no mayonnaise and I pluck the last bag of risotto rice from the shelf.

Listening to the daily news bulletins from the government it is clear that they are not ‘telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’

Health care workers, transport, postal, delivery and essential service personnel are becoming increasingly distrustful of, and frustrated by, the government. There are no state governors here to overturn and bring clarity to the federal shambles. The major of London, Sadiq Khan, the son of a bus driver, needs union pressure to catch up, trying to make all transport workers safer and promote the use of face masks for public places where the correct social distancing cannot be kept. His frustration is palpable on the news clips where he is seen. Since before the weekend a shipment from Turkey of Personal Protection Equipment for medical personnel had been promised. Today we learn that it was only officially asked for on Sunday! and is now due (again) to arrive today. Turkey – the country once demonized to help win the Brexit vote.

Beech Tree in the Wilderness of Regent’s Park

This is week four of our London shelter in place and the government has decreed at least three more weeks. But over this weekend with the Spring sun shining and the air warm, there was a casual feeling from people that this will not affect them. We walked through a wilderness area of Regent’s Park, where couples and families were picnicking under the trees, hanging out where old London tramps like to make their camps. Impromptu soccer games were played, though the goal posts and nets are all put to one side of the pitches. Hardly anyone was wearing masks but we were. The last of our table napkins have been turned into masks. A bag on the front door holds more fresh napkins from friends. They are waiting, cocooned like caterpillars to metamorphose into white butterfly masks.

From Table napkins to Face masks Photo by WSM

Mr Habtu works for Addison Lee the car hire firm. His hours are rough and spontaneous and he is still working. Who are the people who need his services? He has a wife and three growing boys to support. Every time I see him drive away I worry more than a little and yet am grateful for him that he has a job, is able to work and provide for his family.

This morning another book arrived through the letter box. ‘The Great Influenza’. Written by John M. Barry published in 2004 and picked up as one of the three books by G.W. Bush as a vacation read in 2005.

On opening it up I am immediately caught and it looks like Thomas Cromwell’s death in ‘The Mirror and the Light’ may have to wait a little longer. Glancing through The Great Influenza I am stopped by the end. Though one is not supposed to quote from books the two concluding paragraphs bear repeating at this moment in time.

“Those in Authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart.”

And there is hope in the world as we read of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand managing her country through this crisis followed by the delicious news that the governments of Poland and Denmark are refusing to give financial aid to companies that are registered off shore.

Primrose Hill is embraced on three sides by The Regent’s Park, the Canal and then the railway heading away from the city center. Walking home through the park we paused on the bridge over the canal. In these last few weeks the canal water has become so clear that the shallow bottom was visible. The sunlight was strong and sparkled through the trees while the ducks flew in pairs along its path. Such is the stillness of the air that for the first time in twenty years we can hear the trains clatter quietly by – leaving us all behind.

The has been A Letter from A. Broad. Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.

Easter Weekend 2020

Easter Weekend in London brings news and time for reflection.

Some days swirl by in a non-specific haze, leading to a confusion of thought, and a seeming inability to get anything done, so that the by day’s end one wonders what did actually happen. Like older relatives and parents who cut out articles from the newspapers and mailed them to us, we now swap internet links and stories. “I thought you might be interested in …” and we often are.

Thomas arrived for my birthday. He had been hinted at, noted, ordered from our local book shop and was wrapped up to serve beside a pot of coffee for breakfast.

Thomas at Breakfast

Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror and the Light” brings Thomas Cromwell’s life to an end. For three days and nights I managed to resist him, continuing to read an evening chapter from “Jock of the Bushveld” an old favorite book of my mother’s.

But before even a week was over, I had picked up the hefty tome of 880 pages. I said (to myself) “I’ll just take a peek”, as if “I’ll just go for a drink with him. It’s nothing. I can get up and leave whenever I want.” But now Jock is laid aside, and Thomas has my heart and mind. I love him, more than a little bit, and am infinitely in awe of and grateful to Hilary Mantel. I am not alone. Others I know read him in this gifted time of solitude. We will go with him to his end and close the book with sadness.

When Susan Sontag published ‘The Volcano Lover’ in 1992, she went on her book tour. I was fascinated with the history and had lots of questions prepared for speaking with her at KPFA, Pacifica. But as the conversation relaxed and drew to a close, I asked about living alone in New York City. “Are you ever lonely?” “How could I be,” she responded. “I have two thousand years of history in my library.”

Here in London we both have small libraries crammed full of books that we cherish. We are both re-readers, I returning to history while he explores science. Though I’m a one-at-a-time gal there are at least seven books piled behind “The Mirror and the Light”.

My father would have been in his 70’s when I was first old enough to become conscious of his reading habit. And for him, too, this age was a time of re-reading books that he welcomed back into his life as long lost friends.

Saturday morning began in the new quiet, but by noon a helicopter began to circle overhead. There is no Prince traveling from one palace to another, and the air ambulance is hardly needed now that the London streets are almost empty of traffic. This is the police, boys with their toys, circling Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park looking for those, oh no, sunbathers and loiterers. Later, when we take our walk a police patrol car is cruising The Broad Walk. They are not walking to give a face to their presence, nor even on horseback when I might get lucky with a bag full of droppings for the compost pile.

The evening news program brings the government representatives out to the podiums with their daily bulletins. Mathew Hancock, Minister for Health, speaks his coverup nonsense “Maybe the NHS are hoarding gowns and masks which is why there is a shortage.” Priti Patel, the Home Secretary says, as one does when knowing there is a need for an apology but not ready to give ground, “I’m sorry the situation makes you feel that way.” As of this writing 8 national health doctors – all of them UK immigrants – have died. The number of nurses to have died is unknown. Today at over 11,000 deaths, England is set to overtake Italy in the number of Covid-19 deaths.

On Easter Sunday morning, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson was discharged from St. Thomas’s Hospital and driven to Chequers, the country seat of the current Prime Minister. Whatever one feels about this Prime Minister we are grateful that one more life has been saved. And so is he, giving public thanks to the nurses who cared for him; particularly Ward Sister Jenny McGee, from New Zealand and Staff Nurse Luis Pitarma from Portugal – again – immigrants.

Easter Sunday is when some look for a miracle. Not necessarily the one of a life returned, but possibly of the recognition in this moment of gratitude by the Prime Minister, for the nurses, doctors and all staff working in the health service. Doctors may cure but it is the nurses and hospital staff that keep us alive.

Old into New – again

A strange part of all of this is trying to accept that my job is to be out of the way, not on the ‘front line’ – not helping. But what to do? what is next? The table napkins are next, the first one already torn and sewn to make a face mask. I take up a needle and mother’s cotton threads while listening to history unfold itself again.

I bow my head over the work as a gentlewoman would in the Tudor time of King Henry and his Lord Privy Seal, Sir Thomas Cromwell.

This has been A Letter from A. Broad. Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.

Week Two of UK Lockdown

And it continues. We listen to the wireless almost hourly for news and watch the BBC ten p.m. evening broadcasts each night for updates on the UK Corona virus figures. And with such intense scrutiny it is clear that something is happening at ‘Auntie’. Over the last two years the BBC has seen budget cuts of up to 80 million pounds. This has caused the loss of 450 jobs from its news and story departments. Those BBC executives who still have their jobs warn that the corporation is facing an unprecedented threat to its future. The National Union of Journalists has said the BBC was facing an “existential threat”, while the sharing of radio bulletins across the BBC will result in further job losses. Newsnight, a nightly, popular political program will lose a dozen personal, production of its in-depth films will be halved, and its investigative journalism diminished.

There is also an effort to reduce the number of on-screen news presenters, which brings up the question of where is Huw Edwards, the main BBC News anchor? Even beloved Clive Myrie is rarely seen. The news presentation team is now almost entirely women and that raises another question of pay scale equality.  Commenting on changes due to the Corona Virus situation a memo reads… “We’ve tightened hygiene and safety measures. Our presenters are now doing their own make-up.” And it shows.

On Friday Sir Keir Starmer was elected the new Labour Party leader. He gives his speech trying to be as passionate as he can, (not his strongest suit) and with the transmission through one microphone to another and then to the airwaves his words loose a certain panache. Thankfully his somewhat swept hair will be a change for the cartoonists who are getting a little bored by Boris’s haystack haircut. But we wish Starmer luck with uniting the Labour party and in the parliamentary collaboration with the conservatives that must come at this time. 

For my allotted daily exercise I alternate between riding a rental bike and walking in Regent’s Park. A four mile cycle around the outer circle is pretty good. I am alone and not so nervous as there is less traffic and the car drivers and fast bikers now travel with a little more consideration. At the North West corner of the park sits Grove House, the first of the six gated, fenced and locked villas built by Quinlan Terry between 1988 and 2004. All of them are owned by one Sultan or another to be close to the mosque, while in town. Before Grove House there is a small stretch of parkland. The daffodils have begun to fade here and an old elm tree lies fallen on its side. A pair of lovers, wrapped in their winter scarves are standing close. She is hesitant but he pulls her towards him. He wants to feel her body through the rough wool of their heavy coats. I can’t help but smile as I see them. He, ever watchful, catches my eye and with an almost apologetic grin asks that I understand. And I do.   

It is a sunny Saturday morning but I am missing lemons and cumin. Risking the disapproval of our neighbors, I walk to Shepherd’s Market in the village. Regent’s Park Road would normally be bustling with activity but this Saturday is different. There are only a few people out on the street and those that are zig-zag across the road to keep at a distance. Two young people almost take themselves off of the pavement as they pass close to me and we smile. I can’t tell if they are being considerate of me or careful of themselves. At the market, a notice reads that only one customer is allowed to enter the shop as another one leaves. I stand behind a middle-aged man who is struggling to be patient with the older gentleman balancing a cane and two bags of groceries while climbing into his motor buggy. There is another queue outside of the butcher’s shop with people standing a discrete distance from each other. They are silent. There is no chatting for that would necessitate people leaning closer to each other.

It has been over a week since I was in the chemist’s shop. Another older man is standing outside the door, gathering himself as he slowly leans on his cane to walk home. Inside the chemist’s there is now a big wood framed plastic partition across the counter which it is clear will stay long after the virus leaves. I wonder about these solitary men, for now that the pubs are closed they have no place to belong, alone within the company of others. In London it is easy to half-close your eyes and see Hogarth’s England with all of humanities foibles etched on our faces. The experts say we are still two to three weeks from the peak of this virus. Tonight on the television and radios around the country the Queen will speak to the nation, gathering us all to a greater unity of purpose. And within the silence of the street maybe there is hope as we listen to the robin calling out for love once more.

This has been a Letter from A. Broad written and read for you by Muriel Murch. 

  • Huw Edwards surfaced again via Twitter on Monday. Thanking the National Health Staff for all of their care while he was ill with pneumonia.
  • And as of this posting Boris Johnson is stable with oxygen in St. Thomas’s Hospital, London.

Week One of London Lockdown

March 29th 2020 (Updated on April 1 2020) — Week One of Lock Down in London

A week ago on Friday, when my husband walked into Camden for some printer ink and returned with 5 Kilos of rice, I smiled. But now more than a week later I’m grateful to have that not so little bag of rice tucked away behind a chair in the living room. In the United Kingdom the death toll is over over 2200 and in London will be 700 plus by the time this reaches you. We are all finding different ways of being prepared for this new reality and the challenges and solutions of city living are different from life in the country.

Government Alert sent to ‘almost’ everyone

Being of a certain age we have been told – in no uncertain terms – to stay indoors except for one daily exercise adventure. This could be going to the grocery store, the pharmacy or, if really necessary, the doctor or hospital. In an effort to keep one’s sanity, the dog happy, blood circulating and bowels open we are all encouraged to take a daily constitutional in whatever way suits our fancy. There are signs posted in Regent’s Park reminding us to keep our social distance from each other.

We walk carefully, mindful of others on the pathway, staying at that social distance from each other with a grateful nod of thanks. And it is spring and we can all be grateful for that. But I can’t help wondering if someone were to fall, or become ill on the path would anyone stop to help them? Some areas are closed. Understandably the Zoo is closed. But then, also understandably, are the public toilets. The notice, posted by the label for the ‘Golden Showers’ Roses reads ‘Due to the present day crisis these facilities are closed.’ Which, due to the present moment crisis, could provide another critical moment.

A serious crisis moment

But we are taking it all seriously and are tremendously grateful for our neighbors with their offers to help and the shops with delivery services that are working to full capacity. On Monday Vinnie, our milkman, said that he ran out of cheese. At first I thought he had just forgotten the order and put it down to typical milkman behavior. But then my little carrier had only one slab of cheese besides the two pints of milk so maybe his supplies are getting low.

Necdet from Parkway Greens has been busy beyond belief sending out daily delivery vans with boxes of fruit and vegetables. Delivery is free for house-bound seniors giving us another reason to be grateful.

Our little corner of London is quiet. Occasionally we see a neighbor and wave from a scarfed or masked distance while still asking “Are you OK? Do you need anything?” Every weekday morning Bob from Manley Street strides out of his cottage early, not for a walk but off to work. I wonder what is essential about his job and my imagination leads me to him working for MI5 in one of the discreet building along the 274 bus route.

From 8 a.m onwards throughout the day solitary delivery trucks come up and down the street. Masked young men bang on doors to drop off a package and then flee the doorsteps, behaving, though not yet looking, like one of Santa’s elves. No one stops for a signature any more. I’m grateful when our tea order from Fortnum and Mason’s arrives and smile at my last extravagance. If we do get sick at least we can still be drinking good tea.

Another van drops off builders next door. Essential work ? Well that depends who you are asking. It’s a balancing act between abandoning or completing a job, leaving a client in disarray and – or the workmen left with no income.

No longer able to walk to the Camden Bakery I turn to my old farm recipes and begin to bake. But it seems that the whole country is baking and the shortage of flour on the shop shelves this week made news headlines. I suspect this is more than a necessity for food, it is a need for the giving and receiving of comfort within our families and for each other.

First loaves I learnt to bake in 1969?

And who would have thought it possible that the English could garden even more than they do. But on the kitchen windowsill my chard seeds have sprouted and already have four leaves. Soon they will be ready to go out into the little garden patch that I work. But not today because March is going out like a lion. The wind is blowing and we wrap warmly up to take our walk. The door blows shut as we turn to face the empty street and the tiny snow flakes falling on our faces. 

First aired on KWMR.org Swimming Upstream with host Amanda Eichstaedt – April 1 2020

Keeping Calm in London Town

“You ol rite?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Not coughin’?”
“No Maddy, not coughing.”
And Maddy gives me a thumbs up sign before she scurries away to catch an overland train to Battersea and visit her ailing mother.

Thank you Zine

“Do you need anything? Can I shop for you?”
“Thank you Sinder. We are ok at the moment.”
A note is slipped through the letterbox from Zine our neighbor at # 37. “… I would be most happy to help”.
“Aggie, Aggie.” Mr Habto has returned from his early morning taxi run and is standing by his cab. 

“Anything we can do to help. Please let us know. Knock on the door or leave a note.”
Maddy is probably London born and bred, Sinder is Hindu, Zine is from Eastern Europe, and Mr Habto a Coptic Christian from Africa. This is the mix of the little community at the bottom of our street. They all have families to care for and yet are finding moments to be watchful over us. We have become the “old folks” on the street. Thus neighbour cares for neighbour in our little corner of London. And we are grateful.

It is Sunday afternoon. The sun will not come out again today. The wind is blowing and the raindrops seem hesitant and unsure where to fall. Families are walking home from their ‘fresh air and exercise’ moment in the park. Football games are still scrubbing along in the mud. White shorts are streaked with brown, hair is windblown and there is quiet laughter coming across the pitches from the players. Out there – the city, London, – is very quiet.

Boris Johnson and his lieutenants appear very old school serious as they stride to the podiums set up in the State dining room at Number 10 Downing Street, while trying to cover up the fact that Number 19 Coronavirus may be beyond their abilities. This may be the first time in his life that Johnson gets really serious, and not everyone is convinced he knows how to do that. We can only hope that he might in fact be growing into the role of Prime Minister and treating this with all with the gravitas it deserves. One does suspect that upsetting the populace is as an important part of the equation as is protecting the insurance companies. Another supposition is that this is seen, by Johnson at least, as his Churchill moment. One can be grateful though that he has these two lieutenants: England’s Chief Scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty by his side. Whitty, or is it Vallance, produced graphs on a large board and pointed away so that the journalists in the room, sitting as close together as ever, could understand what was trying to be accomplished and then relay that information to us, the presumably less well-educated public. Vallance and Whitty are both, in their English way, considerably more competent than the school-yard gang that surrounds Donald across the water.

Daily updates from the government will now to come from Number 10 Downing Street as the situation changes every twelve hours with more confirmed cases and deaths. Johnson and his team are putting some guidelines in place while they wait to come down with a heavy hand. It’s a gamble for sure. Health Secretary, Matthew Hancock, sputtered and muttered on the Andrew Marr Sunday morning show about ‘Doing everything we can and self-isolation’. Manufacturers have an opportunity to make millions of Pounds Stirling and ventilators. “Other countries in the world will be needing them too.” Mostly though it is businesses, sports centers and banks (!) that are leading the way, encouraging working from home, cancelling big matches (though not the Cheltenham Race meet last week), and encouraging self-isolation.

And now, on Monday morning, there are more shutters coming down. Museums have already closed, special openings have been postponed, and the British Film Institute team all work from home, strategizing what this means for the film industry in England. We withdraw too, canceling lunch dates with friends and family. Being well over a certain age, 70, we are all ‘vulnerable.’ and many of us have at least one strike hitting our general health. We are being encouraged to self-isolate. What will happen then to the organizations run primarily by older volunteers who serve their communities? As I write an email comes through from one such trusted leader: ‘The Library is closed for the foreseeable future’. What will happen to those books? Sitting on their shelves so lonely and unread. Theatres, cinemas, concert halls, hotels and restaurants are all growing dark as their lights dim. Today all religious leaders united in asking their followers to pray at home.

Hand sanitizers are out and visible – where they are available. Otherwise it is serious and constant hand washing – by those who do that sort of thing. Shop-keepers and checkout folks wear rubber gloves to handle the £ coming in. And £s are rolling into supermarkets as folks panic buy and buy. That may have begun to calm down now with ‘assurances’ that the stores have enough of what we need stock-piled somewhere. This morning the pharmacy was full even as folks tried to stay apart from each other. The doctor’s office is closed with a notice on the door saying that appointments will be by phone for the near future! The local Deli and other coffee shops on the street are almost empty. Can they hold on for those over-70s for whom a little sandwich at the coffee shop is their main meal?

Daffodils from Taghi A’s Morning walk

We are grateful for the Hill and Regent’s Park where we can walk in isolation. Wild primroses rise from the soil to shine close to the ground. The daffodils are reaching their peak, staying upright through the foul weather of the last weeks. But the plum and pear trees lining the street are beginning to loosen their soft blooms and whisper in the breeze for us to keep heart. Our Robin Red Breast hops down to check my worm count as I work in the little garden. She too tells me to let the warming soil soothe my soul.

Primrose in St. Mark’s Church garden Wall. Photo WSM

‘Our’ Robin checking my work

Wilding: A conversation with Isabella Tree

Ways of Wilding.

Sweeping in from the Atlantic Ocean, crossing over England, Wales and into Europe, storm Dennis came on the heels of storm Ciara while storm Ellen is due in this weekend. The TV news no longer leads with stories of Middle Eastern war, disgraced public figures nor even upset politicians but shows aerial views of flooding and interviews with families and farmers absorbing the devastation to their homes and farmland.

Walking down our street at dusk, I hear the robin calling as she goes to roost in the Silver Birch tree outside our cottage.

Robin Red Breast

She, the finches, tits, blackbirds and pigeons are all engaged in the business of city living. It is the same in the countryside, where animals and birds move around us, making the best of a not-so-good-job. But there are some places around the world and now in the UK where we humans have given way, admittedly mostly out of necessity, and are returning the land to those who were here before us.

One such place is the Knepp Farm in West Sussex. After years of intensive farming the Burrell family came to accept that modern farming methods on such heavy clay soil would never be fruitful. They began to wonder what would happen if … ? and then set out to record it. Isabella Tree’s book ‘Wilding The Return of Nature to a British Farm’ is the result. When first published in 2018 the book caused quite a stir. And Tree continues to stir, writing articles and giving talks wherever an audience is to be found. There are naysayers of course, and some of my dearest old farming friends in England are among them. But there is thought, and outcome, and more people willing to wonder ‘what if we …?’ The changes in the land, the flora and fauna and their habitat that has returned is already visible. So there is excitement and encouragement and a willingness to search out ways that we who care for such things can carry on, sharing and yet returning the land to those creatures to whom it first belonged.

This interview with Isabella Tree was recorded at Knepp Castle in August 2019. We took the train to West Sussex and, with equipment borrowed from Amirani Media, Isabella Tree and I sat down for an hour while she shared her passion, findings and hopes for the future of farming in the UK. The program was aired in September on KWMR.org the day before Isabella Tree spoke at the Point Reyes Book Store in Point Reyes Station, California.

During the last two weeks that England has been battered by two storms, one on top of the other the flooding damage to many towns and farms still continues. Strangely though, in West Sussex, where the county councils have incorporated some of the principles of Wilding in water management the damage has been considerably less. In Devon where beavers escaped into the River Otter and now in Cornwall where both Wildlife Trusts are monitoring the beavers’ behaviors, the creation of beaver lodges and dams has been seen to slow water runoff and thus lessening storm damage. Maybe there is something to letting nature take her course, and us our cue from her as we work and farm mindfully within her embrace.

Charlie – Just checking

On our little city terrace, we share space with those who come to call. In the mornings we feed the small birds who, sensibly, have not begun to nest quite yet. At night, ready to turn out the kitchen light I look out the window and see our Charlie, a big urban fox, doing his rounds. I like to think that they, all creatures great and small, are ready to help us if we could only find our way to let them.

Minding the Gap

Learning to Heal recipient of the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing; Working Class Studies 2019

“Mind the Gap,” says the voice over the loud speaker and as I sit on the bench at the platform edge waiting for the train to unload the commuters coming into the city I think of ‘The Gap’. The book in my bag carries writing that looks back across the gap in time, from the days when we were nursing students to now. Each nurse author has written of where they have come from, and the events that bound them to their calling. Often it was touch, and the humble bed bath that was the sacrament that enfolded and claimed us as nurses.

Learning to Heal

Nurse Slater. The end of first year, receiving ‘Medicine in its Human Setting’

Sitting on that railway station bench, holding my bag and coffee (and croissant) I watched as the passengers got off the train, and walked quickly towards the exit, making their way down the escalator into their days in the city. It was a very definite ‘Miss Pym’s Day Out’  moment of watching: the dogged determination of the young man with his folding bike, the resignation of an older middle aged man, the nervous excitement of a young girl maybe hurrying to a new job. Then there was a very slim woman wearing a pencil pleated yellow skirt and pink blouse. She was determined not to let summer go – just yet.

The passengers are all off and the train is cleaned and ready for the few of us to board. It is a fast train from St. Pancras in London to Canterbury in Kent and I will take in a day at the ‘Working Class Studies Conference’ before the evening event at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

A knowing Taxi driver takes me to the campus and Keynes College, dropping me off exactly where I need to be. How many young students has he driven to their first day of college?

First there was Registration before going upstairs to the reception and classrooms. There were two book stalls, and on one, our book, propped up comfortably among communist manifestos and the rights of workers and all else.

Learning to Heal at the book stand

Looking through the program I circled three seminars to attend. What I heard time and again, is that when industry that has been built up is then taken away, closing factories but without providing alternative jobs or industry, it is the community that dies.

The evening light was soft and autumnal as I walked with a fellow participant from Nova Scotia University to the Darwin College Conference hall. The tables were prepared, and the buffet pans were being set up for the food that would follow. Terry Easton from the University of North Georgia introduced me to the other Tillie Olsen award winner, Ted Van Alst Jr. author of Sacred Smokes. We exchanged books and as I peeked inside his collection of stories I raised my glass of cider to his seeing. We sat together with his lovely wife Amie. My ‘End of Empire’ friends also came to the dinner offering moral support and a bed for the night.

Terry introduced us with these words:

“Judges named two winners in this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing. The interlocking stories in Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.’s Sacred Smokes provide “an authentic representation of working-class urban life in the 1970s,” one judge wrote, adding that ‘[t]he collection’s tone-perfect survival humor helps create verisimilitude and keeps readers engaged . . . despite its often-dark themes.’ The collection is ‘one of the few fictions about urban working-class Natives,’ and it reveals ‘the deep truths of growing up working class in 1970s America.’ Another noted ‘Van Alst’s ability to put the reader inside the head of the protagonist’ to reveal ‘the humanity and texture of life among those in the poverty/working class who actually enjoy being there, despite the many drawbacks and dangers.’

“The award is shared by Jeanne Bryner and Cortney Davis, editors of Learning to Heal: Reflections on Nursing School in Poetry and Prose. The collection illuminates worker-voices, and a judge noted, ‘the writing is emotionally strong, creatively composed, and an important addition to the literature of ‘what work is.’ Learning to Heal should be required reading in all nursing schools.’ Another praised ‘[t]he quality and ambition of the poetry.’ A third described Learning to Heal as ‘the best kind of writing working-class studies has to offer: actual workers telling their real-life stories with poetic, authentic, and instructional voices.’”

Ted went first and then I followed.

And this is what I said, for you all:

Thank you very much. It is a privilege to be honoured by ‘The Working Class Study’s Association’ and to share the 2019 ‘Tillie Olsen award for Creative Writing with Ted Van Alst Jr. and his book ‘Sacred Smokes’.

Thank you for including and acknowledging the work of nurses among all of you who are building appreciation of the role of work and exploring working class life and cultures.

Tillie Olsen is particularly close to my heart. Many years ago she penned me a personal thank you letter for my reading of Babette’s Feast on KPFA Pacifica radio. She was always listening to, and for, story and literature.
And Thank You for hosting this 15th Conference at Kent University in Canterbury. Canterbury was my father’s childhood home and where many, many years ago he was caned after being caught playing pop tunes on the Cathedral Organ.

Timing and dosage are everything in medicine and also in life and so I feel particularly fortunate to be able to represent the nurses whose work is included in “Learning to Heal, Reflections in Poetry and Prose,” and edited by Jeanne Bryner and Cortney Davis and Published by Kent State University, (The other Kent,) with a forward by beloved Judy Schaefer, all who have been writing of nursing in poetry and prose for over 30 years “Learning to Heal,” is a jewel and an important piece of nursing and cultural History.

Oft times we choose nursing as a pathway from one social environment to another, usually empowerment and – or – of a social context. But in the course of our training and then our work we are blessed with another kind of change. A movement of the heart and – for in the acts of caring and healing – we are given the opportunity of growing and healing ourselves.

In the forward Judy Schaefer quotes Sister Frances’s phrase from ‘The Silent Treatment,’ “Silence, once learned, is the tabula rasa upon which the art of Nursing thrives; Silence is a language spoken by all. It is the music that goes before every note of love that a nurse’s hands can offer.”

Those of us who are lucky enough to write of our work in this reflective anthology are blessed to give you our gifts again. The 51 nurses I represent tonight have been able to share their stories, their history, and interestingly, they have shared their fears and failures more than their glowing successes. Nurses and writers know how much we learn and grow through our mistakes and humilities. We write to share those stories and give courage and comfort to the nurses to whom we pass the lamp. Though our kind of student life was hard none of us would give up a moment of it.
Particularly there is Minnie Brown Carter’s story of being a ‘coloured’ nurse training and graduation in 1947. It is of particular relevance, a reminder to us all that this fight, in America and through out the world, is not over yet. Minnie, on the other side of 90, is still a voice calling for recognition of fair treatment for all.

There is Judy Schaefer’s delicate voice … from Pennsylvania

I’ve singing lessons

“So let me out of class
Early please
It is time to go
No calculus
Anatomy

Throw a syringe like a dart
Remain alert to peristalsis after breakfast, lunch and dinner
Smile when you enter a room
See one, do one, teach one ….”

Cortney Davis’s soft New England tones purr like a crouching cat,

I learned how cells collide then melt and peel into spheres,
multisided like soccer balls or Rubik’s Cubes.
I stabbed oranges until my hands ran with Juice, then patients
until my hands ran with grace.
I learned the quick save: airway entered upside down and turned into breath.
I learned to kiss death.”

While Jeanne Bryner sings out of her Appalachian heritage in Ohio remembering …

“I have rainbow pills, water from a jug, syringes, needles
kept in shallow drawers. I am here to help the heart’s fist
squeeze and twist its red mop. Pain is a forest. My Hands?
Both ends of a two-man saw, my will, its blade.”

At some point in your lives you may be touched by a nurse’s hand. However much pain you are in, however weary we are, whatever passes between us – it will have been our privilege to care for you.

Thank you very much.

For Cortney and Jeanne, From WCSA and us all

Motorcycle Moments

Motorcycle Moments

A Letter from A.Broad interviews a couple on a motorcycle with some big news!

Photos by Thayer Gowdy


Did you hear? Pretty wonderful news for us all. Walter and Sirima were married on August 8th at the Sea Ranch Chapel of Sonoma county in Northern California. They will be away for three days, which is all they can leave the chickens for at the moment. They’d love to have local friends and community come join them to celebrate this Labor Day weekend. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, their families and longtime-treasured friends will come together to celebrate once more.


Now their very modern links include 🙂
Walter and Sirima’s Wedding BBQ
Walter and Sirima’s Honeymoon adventures and beyond fund

If you’d like to help the couple celebrate, a contribution to Walter & Sirima’s Honeymoon adventures and beyond fund via Travelers Joy would be most welcome. 

This podcast production came together from three corners of our worlds — Northern California, Utrecht, and London. A mixture of experience from all the family.

1967

Sometimes when I get mad or sad beyond the normal ups and downs of day to day living, I recover by writing poetry which – naturally – makes much of the work unpublishable.

But the political arena of the last weeks in the USA has led me to more sorrow and anger than I have felt for a long time. It is deeply profound with a collective grief that has become personal. Private and public in the same way the wars, famine, floods, fires, shootings and political shenanigans are to any of us thinking and feeling in the world today. Maybe it is that I not only feel these assaults on women as a woman but also as a nurse. Assuredly an old one, but still active in heart and mind and even on occasion in the physical world.

Heartbeat bills in the USA as of May 2019

The governmental legislation occurring in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Mississippi, and beyond, leaning hard to the political far right, and the gamesmanship of these politicians, is chilling and terrifying, and reminiscent of a time when …

In 1967 I was working the afternoon 3-11 p.m. shifts in a major Hollywood hospital in Los Angeles County, California. One busy afternoon, shortly after we had come on duty, after the day nurses had left, we were making rounds and checking on our medical patients and the post-surgical patients returning from the recovery room when a phone call came to the nurses’ station. We were to take an emergency admission who would be scheduled for surgery later that evening. Hardly had I put the phone down when a gurney, carrying a young woman, came out of the lift and was hurriedly pushed onto our floor. The orderlies wheeled the gurney into a double room close to the nurses’ station and tipped the patient onto the empty bed. A clipboard with doctor’s order lay over her body.

“Start IV of Dextrose and Saline and insert a nasogastric tube STAT.” was scrawled on it, with a signature. I hardly looked to whom her admitting doctor was, just focused on the fact that she came from the Emergency Unit. Once unstrapped from the gurney and on the bed, she (I want to call her Helen) began thrashing, screaming, and writhing with abdominal pain, while gagging, trying to release whatever was inside her. Doris, my aide, hurried to get the nasogastric set-up and we called for the IV nurse to come to the floor, Stat.

The other team, of one nurse and an aide, were caught up caring for the remaining patients on the floor and there was no-one else around. Helen was beyond hearing me as I tried to explain what I had to do, for and with, her. She was obviously terrified and aside from her not able to hear me she continued to thrash in the bed. We could not hold her steady. So I slapped her. Not hard but I did slap her and I remember it to my shame to this day. But, still terrified, Helen focused on me for the first time, and our eyes remained locked together from then on.

“I need your help. You have to stay with me and let me do this for you.” Having a nasogastric tube inserted is always unpleasant and there are risks attached to the procedure, making sure the tube enters the esophagus and not the trachea and goes to the stomach and not the lungs. As Doris stood by her (and my) side she stroked Helen’s arm giving her calm comfort. I managed to insert her tube correctly and immediately a torrent of brown fluid came up. The IV nurse arrived and started the intravenous fluids into Helen’s veins.

Soon Dr. L., a gynecologist, arrived. He was quick and brisk but also quiet and reassuring as he spoke. Helen was prepped and soon taken to surgery. Later that evening she returned to us. Dr. L. was tight lipped when he too came back to the floor to write up his notes.

We didn’t talk much at the nurses’ station. I was young and naive enough to only begin to understand what had happened to Helen. Who was with her? She had come to us alone but someone, a friend or family member, had got her to Dr. L. and he had managed to save her life if not her uterus. It was clear this was not the first time he had taken such care of a women. His tired face showed that he feared that it would not be the last. Helen recovered, walking the hall carrying her IV pole, catheter and shame. She discarded the IV and the catheter over the next few days, but maybe she took the shame with her when she was finally discharged.

That was 1967, within so many of our life times. Those of us fortunate enough to have lived within relative control of our bodies need to remember to be grateful. Women around the world today still carry unwelcome and dangerous pregnancies. The thought that so many young people within once enlightened societies could again face such a situation is beyond chilling and beyond poetry.

United Families Protest

On June 30th, during David’s Saturday morning circus class, the Argentine mothers were following the football game. Argentina 2 France 1. But by the time class was over and David and I were walking home for lunch the streets were somberly quiet. Disaster had struck in France’s victory, 4 – 3.

That afternoon the call-out was for 3 p.m. and as expected, for those familiar with Argentine time, we began as a very small group. The afternoon was grey and misty with lots of fog, the way a July day is supposed to be in Buenos Aires. For in the Southern Hemisphere this is the middle of winter. But as the American Embassy has a vigilant Facebook presence, they knew of our timing.

Waiting for Pizza

The Motorcycle cops had showed up before us. From the beginning we were constantly outnumbered 3 – 1. The biker cops stood around and waited for two female police women to walk across our corner bringing them their boxes of take out Pizza. Not a lot has changed in the work gender relationship down here.

As more protestors showed up to join our little gathering on the corner of Colombia and Avenue Sarmiento three police vans drove in too. Once the vans were parked in place it was time to put out the barriers across the road. Big, old, and looking like they had been used in many demonstrations, I wondered where that steel was made and where would the next shipment come from.

Steel barriers

Photo by Beatrice Murch

Somehow the bus drivers knew not to turn onto the street but as the police had not put notices out on the main road cars, taxis and motorbikes did turn in, and came to a screeching halt, occasionally almost piling on top of each other, but with surprisingly little animosity towards us – who were causing all this trouble.

Thankfully we had Emily as our intrepid leader who led us in chants which reminded me of choir practice at school but for real American gals must have been more like high school cheering practice. It has been a long time since I was protesting out on the street, sometime in the mid-nineteen sixties in Los Angeles during the Vietnam war. President Johnson was coming to town. I remember we kept our motorcycle helmets on so that when we got beaten our heads would have some protection. Here we had no helmets, just a boy-child sleeping in his stroller.

At the Monumento de los españoles

More people joined us, not all were ex pats, some Porteños too. After our warm up chanting, Emily moved us from one side of the street to the other. The policemen in their vans got out. While most of us used our phones to take photographs, Beatrice Murch had her Nikon camera in the diaper bag. She was easily able to tell that while we were taking happy snaps of the police, they were also filming us… We stood on Avenue Sarmiento and, as the buses went by, I waved and women, always women, waved back. A big tourist bus honked good luck to us. We walked along Avenue Sarmiento, beside the Plaza Seeber where the parrots screeched their encouragement from the trees. We stopped again at the Monumento de los españoles, a big traffic round-about and an important monument of the Argentine independence from Spain. Cars, motorbikes, bicycles and taxis gave us encouragement, while another blue-blinking police motorbike watched us from across the road.

Maybe seeing us out doing something positive was some consolation to the Argentine football defeat at the mercy of France. France for goodness sake!

Emily, our leader, knew where she was taking us and so did the rest of the police. We walked along Avenue del Libertador turning on Kennedy and past the American consulate, a far more architecturally pleasing sight than the Embassy, which is an ugly huge army/police building. I wondered if anyone was in the consulate building. If an American looked out of a window and saw this small band of mostly women, walking, chanting and holding up banners about families and love and what, if anything, they thought.

Group photo by Beatrice Murch

Early group photo by Beatrice Murch

Were they comforted by our presence or by our small size, or were they comforted by the police vans, motorcycles and the marching formation of riot-gear dressed police women who were sent to join the motorcycle teams and the policemen emerging from their paddy vans.

We circled about, far closer to those police than I ever cared to see our daughter and grandson and paused again at the other side of the embassy. The policemen were getting cold and the effects of the pizza may have long worn off.

David had woken up and it was time to take him home. Our little band was breaking up and the motorcycle cops were taking their helmets off. They know how to read crowds easily. I wondered if they were paid in dollars or pesos for this extra duty which was funded by the American embassy and thus the American public.

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July and for those American mothers and grandmothers here in Buenos Aries Black is the new Red, White and Blue which, at this time seem to signify, blood, shock and death. And yet, maybe resurrection if we all…
Vote From Abroad