I've spent most of this year in North Lancashire, England, in the small market town of Carnforth where scenes from Brief Encounter were famously filmed at the train station. Celia Johnson gets a smut in her eye from a passing train and Trevor Howard, an eye specialist, is handily there to remove the smut and it all goes from there.
But for the last week, I've been back in London gathering up my mail (post, as they call it here) and cautiously enjoying the mostly very quiet city. Yesterday, I took myself down to Chelsea to see an exhibition by Sarah Campbell in the sweet gallery attached to the King's Road Anthropologie Shop. I've written to you about Sarah's artwork before. She and her sister, Susan, used to have a very successful design company and made prints for Liberty of London and all sorts of department stores which eventually filtered into the USA market. This meant that I unwittingly went to Davidson College with a set of Collier-Campbell sheets and comforter in the famous Cote D'Azur pattern. Thanks, Mom!
My particular interest was in seeing dolls made by British artist Sharon who trades under the name of "modflowers."Sarah Campbell, who continues to work apace as a freelance artist collaborating with umpteen galleries and other artists, painted bunches of fabric which Sharon used to make clothes for her distinctive dolls. It was all lovely lovely and an explosion of color on a very grey day. It was truly like standing in a rainbow and discovering that the rainbow itself is actually the pot of gold.
Speaking of pots of gold, Chelsea is a very swish neighborhood in London, one of the swish-est, but even there, the pandemic has swept its scythe across the streets fating one shop and another to close. I saw a beautiful rainbow of another sort in the stained-glass window (see photo at top) at the back of a vacant shop just around the corner from where P.L. Travers, inventor of Mary Poppins, lived. My brain was very full of Mary Poppins when I was a kid and, of course, the Disney movie built an idea of London in my childhood imagination that was both true and false. There are indeed places in London that look very much like the neighborhood in which the Banks' lived. Bywater Street and Markham Square, around the corner from P.L. Travers' eventual address in Chelsea, are right out of a Disney film with a rainbow of pastel-painted houses and roses blooming into the fall. But so much is disappearing and changing, too.
I remember my aged neighbor in Washington D.C. once saying to me when I was upset about one thing or another, "Honey, the only thing you can depend on is change." And his lawyerly, but kindly, tone and the wrinkles of experience around his eyes and mouth come back to me in days when I feel exasperated by the waste, anger, and abuse that floats on the surface of minute by minute life like a giant plastic island in the ocean. Because, there are still good things everywhere around us all of the time even if the window seems very foggy as we journey forward. Yesterday, I was able to help an ancient and elegant lady order a sandwich. She was quite deaf and couldn't hear the server's voice through her mask, nor see her mouth to get any clues. The ancient woman was so very grateful to me. Her face lit up as if I'd thrown her a life preserver in a sea of sandwiches, ambient noise, and perspex screens. If I could have hugged her and sat down to lunch with her, I would have. But, the fact that she got the sandwich she wanted was a good thing.
We are drawing deeply from our resources right now. We are digging down into our stores of kindness and patience and creativity to battle a lot of static. We are practicing extreme self-reliance without having all of the tools in the kits that we are used to carrying around. We are on limited rations of the things that once gave us courage to rise and shine. We have to use blue and yellow to make green because green is out of stock.
When I was a kid and wanted something new, sometimes my parents would say, "You can't have 'new thing' because you haven't looked after 'old thing.' Why do you deserve 'new thing' when you haven't taken care of 'old thing?'" Thanks, Mom & Dad. Good point.
We got a letter from our London council (like the city or county government in the USA) proposing a huge building project in the historic Crystal Palace park across the street from us to create 210 new high density dwellings. The Englishman wrote a letter. The gist of it was, there's litter everywhere in the park, steps and pathways have been crumbling for years, fences are falling down, the famous Victorian dinosaurs are falling apart, the rubbish cans are constantly overflowing, the once-stunning 1960's floating amphitheater, and old community buildings and public toilets are abandoned and falling down. Why do you think you can have something new when you don't take care of the old thing? Park volunteers can only do so much. The council are meant to be the chief stewards of the park. They are meant to set the example.
Yet, the UK government announced this week that they want to expand the green space in England by 5% in the next ten years. Hello? Why not look after the green space we already have? Why not say "No" to building fancy flats in our crumbling park? Why not make our park a paragon of parks, an example of re-wilding in urban areas? Hmmm. These are the things that just don't make sense. "Honey, the only thing you can depend on is change."
This is why I collect plants from the hedgerows and along our busy street in London, and I dye recycled fabrics and turn them into things. This is my act of rebellion. This is why nearly all of the clothes I wear come from the charity shop or friends. This is why I use my dishwater to water my plants. This is why I recycle everything I possibly can, collect teddy bears from the roadside, fix them up, and give them away. These are my small acts of rebellion.
I live in a strange place vis-a-vis my vocation where one third of my income – when I was touring – came from selling "things" – CDs, bags, cushions, postcards. My income is/was modest. Very modest. My "selling things" income was essential to my survival. This year selling "things" represents about 90% of my even more modest income. This puts me in a very strange position as regards waste/manufacturing/creating "stuff." Because without selling stuff, I would have no income right now. So, what to do? The best I can think to do is to make as much of my stuff as possible from recycled things and out of things that can be recycled. So, all of my CD packages are made of paper (I WISH the CDs weren't plastic). When the CD pressing plants began allowing us small labels to eliminate the plastic wrap on our CDs, I did. My postcards are printed on recycled paper and can be recycled. My printed textiles were printed in a fair-wage workplace on unbleached fabric with soy ink. My cushions are made from recycled fabric. All of my music is available digitally.
My work has required a lot of travel and production of things. So, I am working to offset my historical carbon impact with the way that I live each day. This keeps me sane. This is my forcefield against waste, anger, and static. Each day, I find something to save or rehabilitate or a kind way to be. I fail. I begin again.
Once I asked Roger Jackson, who used to clean the Friendly Chapel Church and who told me many stories back home in Southwest Virginia, why he learned to turn apples into so many things. He said, "If folks ain't smart enough to eat the food off the ground that God put there, I don't know how to help them."
This is not a good essay or letter in the classical sense. I’ve taken you down too many alleys and side-streets in my thoughts and I haven’t wrapped it all up in a bow. And for that, I apologize. I’m normally more bent on an overarching question.
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” ––
I can only tell the story from here and here is “all change,” as they say when you reach the terminus of a train route. The leaves are changing, the political alliances are changing, the climate is changing, the virus is changing, the apples are changing to applesauce, the yellow flowers are changing to a pink dye in the big pot on the stove.
Last week, the Englishman and I walked around the grounds of Morden Hall Park, and as I rounded a corner to see the rushing chalky water of the the River Wandle pushing through the reeds and over the stones, I said, “I’m so glad I’ve lived this long.” And I am. What luck! Now, what to make out of the gift of the next moment and the next?
I send you strength and forbearance, fruit on the branch, a rainbow in your room, and friendship to carry in your knapsack on the trail.
New hand-stitched goods in my shop, including cushions, rabbits, and cards.
I've made two new videos to two new songs this year.