I’ve been trying to think of songs about spring, but the ones that have come to mind – Nina’s Simone’s I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes), Billie Holiday’s Some Other Spring – are mournful. Perhaps it’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, we’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 – who I once caught swinging upside down from the bird feeder – are shooting green arms towards the sky. And the sun actually came out, reminding me of a much happier spring song, the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun (“Little darling, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter, little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here”). It always makes me think of my dad, who sings it in the shower – his other standard is Jerusalem, a funny choice for a Welshman – 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.
I’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 it’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!). It’s hard to write about spring, or indeed any season, without stumbling headlong into cliche, but the poet Ada Limón manages it in Instructions on Not Giving Up:
Limón wrote the poem after a hard winter. She writes: “My whole body raged against it. But right as the world feels uninhabitable, something miraculous happens: the trees come back.”
So, I am trying to bring myself back. It was during this pandemic that I became aware of the concept of “wintering”, via Katherine May’s fortuitously timed book of the same name, about the power of rest and retreat in difficult times. It’s about accepting the fallow periods of life, and if any year has been a fallow year, it’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 Astley’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:
It’s true that my cat, Mackerel, has been the life principle (even if you don’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, I’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 rosé 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 – 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. “Nature is healing” as a concept is overdone. Planting a few carrots won’t cure your depression; to suggest it could is trite and insulting – but it can help. For those put off by the tweeness of some nature writing, I’d recommend Claire Lowdon’s forthcoming essay collection In the Garden. She nails how nature came to the forefront during the first lockdown: “I 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.”
I was particularly moved by Zing Tsjeng’s contribution, about a Japanese maple that began to ail when Tsjeng rushed to her seriously ill mother’s bedside in Singapore. Her mother’s gardening motto is one I have pocketed: “What’s the worst that can happen? It will grow back.” 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.