Iâ€™ve been trying to think of songs about spring, but the ones that have come to mind â€“ Ninaâ€™s Simoneâ€™s I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes), Billie Holidayâ€™s Some Other Spring â€“ are mournful. Perhaps itâ€™s a reflection of my state of mind. January and February were abject, with upwards of 1,000 deaths a day and people hibernating with their sorrow. This absence of a collective grieving process has felt especially British: emotionally stifled, and cut off from one another, weâ€™ve all been like icebergs, stranded at sea.
But there are signs of hope: my sweet peas are germinating. All over the garden, bulbs that I thought had been snaffled by the resident squirrel â€“ who I once caught swinging upside down from the bird feeder â€“ are shooting green arms towards the sky. And the sun actually came out, reminding me of a much happier spring song, the Beatlesâ€™ Here Comes the Sun (â€œLittle darling, itâ€™s been a long, cold, lonely winter, little darling, it feels like years since itâ€™s been hereâ€). It always makes me think of my dad, who sings it in the shower â€“ his other standard is Jerusalem, a funny choice for a Welshman â€“ and whose version of it deviates so wildly from the original that when I first heard it as George Harrison intended I failed to recognise it as the same piece of music. Soon, I hope to hear him cheerfully murder it again.
Iâ€™ve spent the past year trying to be more like my dad, who is able to find joy in the smallest of things. This crisis has been a lesson in looking, and all around there are signs of new life, whether itâ€™s the buds that are appearing on the lilac tree or the two new babies among my acquaintance (Agnes and Logan, welcome to the world!). Itâ€™s hard to write about spring, or indeed any season, without stumbling headlong into cliche, but the poet Ada LimÃ³n manages it in Instructions on Not Giving Up:
â€¦ the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
Iâ€™ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, Iâ€™ll take it all.
LimÃ³n wrote the poem after a hard winter. She writes: â€œMy whole body raged against it. But right as the world feels uninhabitable, something miraculous happens: the trees come back.â€
So, I am trying to bring myself back. It was during this pandemic that I became aware of the concept of â€œwinteringâ€, via Katherine Mayâ€™s fortuitously timed book of the same name, about the power of rest and retreat in difficult times. Itâ€™s about accepting the fallow periods of life, and if any year has been a fallow year, itâ€™s 2020. I came out of it feeling a bit how my geraniums look: withered and brittle.
Poetry has helped to thaw me out, a little (Staying Human, the latest anthology of modern poetry in Neil Astleyâ€™s Staying Alive series, and its companion volumes, should be prescribed on the NHS). As has the cat, who has started burying herself beneath the duvet, purring next to me as I read in bed. I laughed out loud at the Margaret Atwood poem February, which I found myself returning to repeatedly during that awful month:
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! Youâ€™re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.
Itâ€™s true that my cat, Mackerel, has been the life principle (even if you donâ€™t have a cat, any life principle seems to do. Friends have become very interested in birds).
As well as trying to locate small pockets of joy in life, Iâ€™ve also been nourishing small, achievable goals for the future: a walk with my brother; a meal outside with my mother in the sun; a swim in the sea; a bottle of cold, cold rosÃ© in a pub garden with my best pal. I fill my virtual wheelbarrow on the Crocus website with perennials that I never check out, I picture the parade of spring and summer days stretching out ahead of me and mentally pencil things in.
Which brings me to gardening â€“ a process of planning the seeds you will sow over the coming months, and waiting for them to germinate. To anyone who is sick with sadness: plant something, anything, anywhere you can. â€œNature is healingâ€ as a concept is overdone. Planting a few carrots wonâ€™t cure your depression; to suggest it could is trite and insulting â€“ but it can help. For those put off by the tweeness of some nature writing, Iâ€™d recommend Claire Lowdonâ€™s forthcoming essay collection In the Garden. She nails how nature came to the forefront during the first lockdown: â€œI think I mostly noticed nature itself not noticing: just getting on with the business of burgeoning, naturally not giving a fuck that one of its myriad species is sick.â€
I was particularly moved by Zing Tsjengâ€™s contribution, about a Japanese maple that began to ail when Tsjeng rushed to her seriously ill motherâ€™s bedside in Singapore. Her motherâ€™s gardening motto is one I have pocketed: â€œWhatâ€™s the worst that can happen? It will grow back.â€ With that in mind, I took the scissors to my frost-bitten geraniums. I snipped a branch, but inside was all brown decay. I snipped another: the same. But I persisted, snipping again. And there it was: green.