THE BORROWED DAYS
My neighbour Jenny planted crocuses in the wee park behind our house, and just out of shot, local artist Anne has hung some of her work on the wall next to Inge Thomson’s house. You have to find joy where you can, eh?
In old Scottish and Irish lore, the last few days of March are known as “the borrowed (or borrowing) days”, the last gasp of winter before spring.
March borrowit from April
Three days, and they were ill:
The first was frost, the second was snaw,
The third was cauld as ever’t could blaw.
The last three days of March 2010 were just so. The snow stole in over Soutra and smothered Whitburgh Farm, south of Pathhead, Midlothian. The power went down. For two days. So we lit candles in the kitchen, set the open fire in the living room and fetched the camp stove from the shed to make tea. My children’s father bundled our not yet year 3-year old son outside into his snowsuit. And wee Arlo threw himself squealing with delight into the drifts.
The snow gates were closed at the foot of the hill on the A68, the road to Borders General Hospital. I’m glad no-one told me. I was 40 weeks pregnant at the time and bursting for the baby to be born.
A decade on, the late March winds here in Pathhead have been uncannily calm, the air still. But, of course, the weather - everywhere - is as fierce as it’s ever been, and fiercer still to come in this place that we have no maps for. In amongst the creepy normality of lawnmowers, and dogs, and kids running helter-skelter around wee back gardens (for which we, in this village, are more grateful than we can possibly say), I hear the ambulances roaring up and down the road to Edinburgh. There’s so little traffic, as there should be, and must be, that I notice every one passing. And it’s a sound that packs a punch in these times.
A mere month ago, I looked on my back garden as a burden, something my lone adult household resources could not contain, or sustain. It’s now sustenance itself, a privilege I intend never to take for granted again. I haven’t earned this patch of land and I don’t own it, but it’s my immense good fortune and relief to live here.
Rosa has learned the names of all the birds that visit our garden (20 different species, we figured out - there’s an actual prize for anyone who gets the precise varieties …) She counts them daily in a wee book. The greenfinches and goldfinches (that’s one tenth of them revealed) are, unwittingly, doing some stellar mental health work.
Listen to Beth Porter’s gorgeous Charm On, Goldfinch from Spell Songs, one of the most generous collaborative projects I’ve ever been involved in. And watch the mighty Jackie Morris conjure her beautiful images.
The external clamour, and the newly terrifying swell of bodies, for those of you in cities and towns is far more intense than it is here in semi-rural Midlothian. By contrast, there’s the crushing silence and absence for those who live alone or are, for now, separated from loved ones. And there are those who aren’t safe in their own homes (a salute to my erstwhile colleagues in the Women’s Aid movement, still offering emergency support and accommodation for women and families experiencing domestic abuse).
In the East Lothian hamlet of Humbie, I stood this morning at the head of a queue of six women, each standing carefully two metres apart. For now, the dairy at Yester still milks its cows and fetches up cheese and yoghurt, and Patrick delivers his delicious eggs from up the road every morning. Small blessings. HUGE blessings. Isn’t food suddenly precious to some of us, as it always was to many more?
My daughter Rosa was born at Borders General Hospital on April 1st 2010. She was 10 years old yesterday. And she’s no fool. She was given a name that’s both beautiful and strong. Rosa Luxemburg. Rosa Parks. Fighters both. From communities wrought in fear and resistance. My Rosa is a wee fighter too. And also one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know. She hasn’t asked for much today. But she’s the delighted recipient of an old phone, no SIM card, that allows her to take photos and to text her family and pals via an email address. She can blether independently with her grandparents in a pine forest on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. 2000 miles across The Atlantic, they’ve only two weeks ago packed away the cross-country skis they use to move around in deep winter. And now her grandma is planting squash and beans, and corn in a patch that will be fenced off from moose invaders (and I mean Canadian MOOSE not wee teeny Scottish mice!).
Rosa is talking to my parents too, and they’re expanding into the digital realm in new ways from their isolation over in Stirlingshire. We talk most days. And there’s a delightful wee text exchange going on between Rosa and her Papa.
Rosa gets that something enormous is going down. But she’s still 10, and it was still her birthday. And there was still cake.
I haven’t met these past few weeks with much in the way of public facing energy. Each us will be adjusting to and coping with our new circumstances to the best of our abilities and with whatever resources we have. Others amongst my peers and community are in far more pressing need than me, and some are more out there expressing that need, and even desperation, in the digital realm as a consequence. Be kind on them, if you can.
For my own wellbeing, I won’t deal with these times in that way. I’ve needed to prioritise my home, family, friends and immediate local community, and to strive for stillness in amongst all the necessary clatter. It’s compelled me to name what and who I’m grateful for, to separate need from want, and to pay attention to what’s enough. I’m aware I’m able to do that because I have food on the table, and fresh air, and lots of love in my life. Much of it is chance, luck, and nothing more.
In the coming few weeks, I will venture, very gently and carefully, into one or two more outward looking spaces, in a spirit of sharing and connecting. And I’ll ask for your advice on how to do this.
Meantime, an online Folk on Foot Front Room Festival has been curated by Matthew Bannister and his lovely podcast crew. On Easter Monday, a posse of pals and peers will offer up 5 or 6 scheduled hours of folk music that you can enjoy in your own front rooms. It’s wholly free to those of you who’re finding times tough just now. For those of you who’re able, you can donate to a crowd funding campaign. It will share monies raised between participating artists, whilst allocating 50% of all income to open access emergency funds over at Help Musicians UK.
My front room was never intended to be seen publicly. I might need to Hoover. I might need a fresh shirt.
A few pals and peers are making generous daily offerings out in the world of Instagram (which - for me - remains a digital oasis in a torrent of social media toxicity). For slices of Highland loveliness, I’d commend master fiddler Duncan Chisholm, who posts a tune daily from his home. It’s a beacon and a gift. And the mischievous soul that is multi-instrumentalist, Anna Massie, pulls off the feat of making me laugh out loud with her witty reportage from her parents’ garden in The Black Isle, north of Inverness.
Thanks to wonderful fiddler Lauren MacColl, whose tune Borrowed Days inspired this post. You’ll find all of these dear ones on Instagram, spreading a little light, and bringing people close, which is perhaps the only job we have to do as musicians and makers right now, as we’re each able. Over and above that, the space, the moment, belongs to others.
Meantime, if you’re looking to lose yourself in an audio world, check out Dolly Parton’s America. She’s a good human. I felt quite bereft when I finished the series.
These do feel to me like borrowed days, and days of accounting, in amongst the basic bodily and emotional struggle for survival that already face many of us, and some far more acutely than others.
Cherish what you can. And look after yourselves. I’ll keep in touch, as I can.
KARINE POLWART TRIO AUTUMN TOUR
OCT 13 : BURY ST EDMUNDS - APEX - TICKETS
OCT 14 : MILTON KEYNES - THE STABLES - TICKETS
OCT 15 : GATESHEAD - THE SAGE - TICKETS
OCT 16 : LIVERPOOL - PHILHARMONIC - TICKETS
OCT 17 : BRISTOL - ST GEORGE'S - TICKETS
OCT 18 : SHREWSBURY - SEVERN THEATRE - TICKETS