It was an overcast Sunday, and a few days of general intensity at home meant I had found myself hiding away for five minutes in the bedroom, having a little cry at how much I had been carrying recently. Not that I like to put labels on myself, but I have always been the more 'introverted' type, and find it difficult to go out alone (which is partly why I’m writing here - to document my journey through this) and to be in social gatherings where I don’t know the majority of the people there. My social anxiety with all of this built-up overwhelm (together with my son melting-down, and the inevitable guilt of leaving him), welcomed-in my resistance. I started to tell myself that I shouldn’t attend my volunteering session this morning - that I had other things to do, and could just sit inside the dark bedroom for the day instead. For once, I caught myself - I did want to go, and truthfully I couldn’t actually think of anything else I wanted to do more than that. So, with salt on my cheeks, I grabbed my backpack and headed to the train station - something I’d not done solo in over a year or two.
Once I’d gotten-over the frustration of the lagging touchscreen on the ticket machine (impatiently waiting for those orange-lined cards to fall into the metal dispenser), I stood on the platform, observing how quieter the station was than usual. My anxiety had taken my breath and I was struggling to breathe steadily with my cotton facemask pressed against my mouth and nose, so I had to let a little fresh air in and try to calm myself. As soon as the train had pulled up and I’d taken my place on the carriage, there was an unexpected wash of relaxation - I’d not fully acknowledged how much I revere train journeys before (and have made many of them in the past) - it was an instant balm. To be able to sink into my own thoughts as the train smoothed over iron rails, listening to others nearby discussing hiking excursions (the want to reach out and introduce myself, was high - but my confidence got me in the throat) - it wasn’t long before my journey was over and I stepped off the train, walking over a pedestrian bridge to the exit. As I navigated through residential areas on my way to the allotment, it struck me how this was community - the smell of washing being dried, of bread being toasted and of various novelty ornaments lining windowsills. If I had wondered where or how the rest of the locals really live (rather than the vague glimpses of clunky bios and posts in selling pages, or parenting groups online) then I was walking directly through it at this moment. The walk itself, as house sparrows darted into forsythia next to me, undeniably trod me to a place of greater wellness; it was a release in my whole body - to get my entire system moving, rather than the stagnation I had been battling with.
Turning a corner towards the hidden fence door to the allotment, I could see the padlock was unhinged, and so pushed my way inside and instantly heard the soft laughter of the other volunteers. I was met by a mixture of familiar faces and others that were new - and felt at ease as I started to get to know everyone, with the spinach-lined polytunnel as our backdrop. Before long (after stopping to identify some purple honeywort growing in amongst the chard), we all shifted to the forest garden area and worked together to de-weed the beds; pulling out the old edging and generally tidying up after a year of being unable to work in this way. I realised I had been so tumultuous that morning that I’d completely forgotten to equip myself with any tools or gloves, and so knelt down beside the plants and felt the damp earth seep through my polyester trousers - savouring the coolness against my skin as I pulled at handfuls of grass and dandelions. Others who knew each other from previous sessions were reacquainting and swapping stories, and I poised myself ready to try and take my own place amongst this little growing community - the Director gently recounting moments from previous allotments and sites, and the difference between how we could operate right now versus then (mostly, a lack of shared food - I am longing to swap plates and clink glasses with others). Though I had never attended any of these gatherings before, it was so easy to just become a part of it - to share in the projects, the love of nature, and the exchange of smiles and words. What might have been akin to a fireside storytelling session, was unravelling over the joint tending of plants; all whilst starlings sang their excited songs overhead, and various fluffy cats from neighbouring houses clambered between compost bins.
As a small group of us started to strip the long, slender branches of willow, something started to resonate on a deeper level - something ancestral, of collective working, of using hands and being with others. We started to weave the willow across the old posts that edged the gardens, and my ‘muscle-memory’ stirred with the reconnection of this process - having undertaken a whole willow-weaving project at art college when I was eighteen. It didn’t take long for this work to feel meditational to me - over and under, over and under (mimicking the weaving I had also done on a small loom at home, last year). It is hard not to succumb to the symbolism around weaving something as a collective, so why fight it? There was truth and honesty to this work - of each of us tucking the ends of each branch into that of the next person’s - of our own individual sections eventually meeting with each other’s; all of our combined lives and energies forming this beautiful thing, together. This was community art, collaborative work - poetry in action. After some time, we each started to naturally pause and stop to take in our efforts, often interrupted by small showers of rain as we began to tidy up and start thinking about our homes, and food.
Having been ill the prior two weeks and still not feeling at my best, I started to ponder my train home when one of the volunteers suggested we walk some of the way back, as their car was partly in the same direction. Despite feeling ill, tired and hungry (and socially stunted, after a year of all this social distancing) I felt compelled to join them and to ditch the train - and so, within minutes we were leaving the allotment with smiles, our backpacks stuffed with leeks and spinach. I couldn’t WAIT to bring these gifts home and turn them into something new - a literal transformation of our time, efforts and passion - a furthering process to continue this dialogue between myself, my local land and people; of cooking with these community-grown plants, of nourishing my own body with these things and then sharing them out to others around me, in turn.
As the two of us navigated our way through the streets of houses, petrol stations and learning centres, we quickly got to know each other and I was taken aback at how much we had in common; how much I felt the levity of speaking to someone new, who really understood and valued the same things as me (which felt incredible, after spending months with merely a four year-old to try and connect with - there’s only so many times I can express myself through imitating a ‘sea witch’ or loyal pirate-Captain crew). As we laughed and shared our life stories, we came to an opportunity to take a potential detour and figure out a part of the walk I had wanted to explore in the past - a Jacob's ladder that seemed to connect one of my paths home, to the area near the allotment now behind us. Feeding off this mutual excitement, we threw caution to the wind and made it down a long road, only to be met by a large, padlocked fence and a ‘restricted’ sign. My walking companion strode right up to a person gardening at the front of their home and asked for directions, and we were pointed back towards the way we had come. After another ten minutes of walking, it was clear we weren’t coming to any alleyway or cut-through, and so we stopped again to ask a dog walker for some help (it was at this point that I realised how wonderful this new partnership was - my lack of confidence and general awkwardness meaning I would never dare to stop and speak to a stranger, but here was someone clearly at home in these missing parts of me - someone who could draw me to build on these things for myself). As we eventually parted at the end of my favourite street lined with pine trees, it was clear there were so many opportunities ahead - all of which, would never have existed if I had decided to curl up under my duvet that day. This surely proves the power of taking real steps in life - it can apply to almost any other situation; that once I put myself out there, it was and is inevitable that more life, and more adventures, are unlocked. Like a class of late teens sitting in art college because they’ve chosen that path for themselves (and therefore actually wanting to be there), its clear that when I pursue the things that really ignite me, my people will find me.
Once I had returned home, sweat covering my back and my shoulders aching, I wanted nothing more than a hot shower and a cold ice cream, but gave myself a second to recognise the sweetness of the day itself - how strangers can come together on any given subject, to give something an importance and to share in that belief - to work hard as a collective, with the willingness to share the experience with honesty and reciprocation. What we have lacked these last few months and years as a nation has been this meeting in and of the flesh - of taking chances and unknown paths; of figuring things out with one another - truly meeting each other, navigating each others’ work and perspectives, compromising and communicating. It is with this ignition that I implore others to go and seek out every chance to connect with local people and local environments - to really get to know the contours of new faces and landscapes, and allow ourselves to be open to all the wild possibilities that will arise, no matter how small. Be open to life, and walk towards it, even when it feels difficult - there are others out there, waiting to weave their lives with ours (and soon - to clink a mug or glass with us, in celebration of what we have achieved together).