For the past seven years, I have been having a Living Apart Together relationship with my partner, Asanga. He lives on his beautiful wild land in North Wales and I live in my funky flat in Harlesden, North West London. Every few weeks, we visit one another for four or five days.
We are together but we retain our independence. We’d also found a way to be interdependent, we send photos and WhatsApp messages about our daily lives. Our gardens, our thoughts, our friends, our plants, our interweavings – we’ve both given each other so many gifts, he even has rags made from the maroon candlewick bedspread that I had on a bed as a child because he helped my family clear my mother’s house – then there’s his baking, my poems, his paintings. Life is rich and the anticipation around seeing each other again is relished.
We were in Fes this year on March 7th my birthday. News about Covid-19 in the UK has started but there was still the idea that it was a mild flu. I hadn’t given it much thought. I had organized a shared birthday party – with Suzanne, my co-founder at Advantages of Age – for March 14th after I returned. On March 9th, I was basking in the glory of a beautiful 18th century Medina townhouse and I received a warning text from Suzanne. Had I seen what was happening in Italy?
I hadn’t and I had no intention of removing my head from the gorgeous red Moroccan earth. I promised I would look as soon as I got home. By that Thursday – 12th – I was looking around FB and seeing that people whose politics I admired, were saying that we should be in lockdown already. That we should be learning from what happened in Italy. I read one particular article that convinced me which spoke about Covid-19 and how infectious it was. That the reason for lockdown was to stop that infection but also to protect the NHS.
We cancelled the party – I’m so glad in retrospect that we did. It was that weekend – the Cheltenham Festival weekend. The virus was spreading rapidly.
The next week, it was obvious that we should be locked down already and it was coming. There was all the panic buying. No-one, where I lived, seemed to be taking social distancing seriously. I felt afraid. It literally felt as though society’s structures were collapsing.
Interestingly to me – forever independent – I found myself thinking that I wanted to spend lockdown with Asanga. Marlon, my son, said I should go. Asanga was excited – thank you for that sweetness – at the prospect.
By that Saturday morning, March 20th, I had packed up my little car, my big Apple Mac there too. I had never taken my computer to Wales! That felt so significant and made me feel extremely anxious. I always feel as though my life is on my computer and if I move it, it might all disappear.
So you see – I am very rational when it comes to my computer!
Replicating Living Together Apart When We’re Now Actually Living Together!
I moved into the guest bedroom. A fabulous bedroom that looks across the oak canopy. At this point, there were no leaves but the Irish Sea was there in the distance. And Moel y Gest, the little mountain. And this wild land. Fourteen acres of it.
I could have my own world. The Apple Mac was installed.
So it began – I spent four days sleeping in the guest room and three weekend days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – sleeping with Asanga. Saturday would be our day when we devoted ourselves to the relationship. Making love, baths, appreciations, cooking together. It all sounded perfect!
And I was still working three days a week, so that could carry on as normal.
The ups and downs, the downs and ups.
The ups were all around living in such splendid isolation. No neighbours, lots of naked sunbathing.
The Track has to have a capital. It had such an important part in my lockdown story. This was a lane that Asanga had never travelled up – I persuaded him to walk up it one day to confirm my spotting of a pair of willow warblers – well, not by foot and was a back route to Criccieth. And every other day, I would walk or slow run up it.
For eleven weeks, the Track amazed me with its unravellings. Not since I was a child in our Yorkshire village have a felt so close to the earth, to nature. To the layers of life. While Covid 19 raged elsewhere – and it did feel like a ‘bubble’ where we were –the creamy froth of blackthorn blossom arrived, a mighty hare which appeared like a messenger from a magical story, three dead moles were displayed, the dazzle of the gorse yellow accompanied me.
As I read more about the horrors that were going on in hospitals and then care homes, and the PPE crisis, the bus drivers dying, the young health workers dying, the mounting death count – it was the weekly toll of small deaths on this lane that put me in contact with my grief. I couldn’t believe how quickly they came and went. I was truly shocked by the speed of their fading. Wood sorrel, wild garlic, stitchwort, bluebells – there was a parade of death and birth.
Maybe as well it’s because at 67, I’m aware of my own death approaching and have faced that my spring blossoms are finite now – but I felt deeply sad as the blackthorn turned brown. I wanted to yell – Stop, slow down. Yet in a giddy fashion, the hawthorn had already replaced it with its more substantial cream. This longing for life went on.
There was the hand-written sign on the telegraph pole, which announced Return Home, Stay Home early on. Initially, I felt like an intruder from foreign lands but Asanga pointed out that the notice was aimed at those who had caravans and mobile homes nearby. Still, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for being from London.
And insisted that we keep a low profile about my presence.
More ups were planting of all those seeds together in the first weeks. What a mixture – from lupins to peppers, cucumbers and mixed flowers – that quickly turned into lush seedlings.
And the swing seat tradition – in breaks from working up in Roseworld, I’d come down and share a mid-morning piece of banana bread with Asanga while listening to all that birdsong. Ah yes the baking, Asanga was the man in the kitchen producing rhubarb flapjacks, cinnamon buns, sourdough bread and different banana breads. What a marvel. No, I didn’t lose weight during my Welsh lockdown experience.
Then there was the Zoom Dance Ups – my family were so great at this, we’d pick tracks and then dance together before settling down for a chat, we had a couple of Saturday night club nights where we threw our bodies around and dressed up with friends including our French friends. Oh, and there was one Zoom evening which was supposed to be a cabaret night and turned into something more meditative and lovely. One friend played Bach on her cello, another showed us the paintings that she’d done on chair rescued from a skip, my sister read from Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane, I read a new poem Today The Death Count Reaches Eleven Thousand…
Oh yes, the Friday poems. I learnt to make little videos of myself reading my mostly new poems and I really relished doing it. Even though the holding shots often showed me not at my best! It became another little ritual for my time in Wales and on several occasions, Asanga joined me on his crystal bowls.
Ah ha and the downs. The crazy ongoing not sleeping. Awake at 2 and not asleep again. Again and again. But it wasn’t just the lack of sleep, although this also contributed. It was the return of my high reactivity towards Asanga. I was living in his house. And on a part-time basis, I had learnt how to do this with ease, bring food, cut out mundane chore stuff, focus on the special activities. On a full-time basis, I was lost.
I reacted strongly to being in his domain. I was in his home and I found that difficult. I hated being told what to do – never a strong point of mine. I took everything – all words of instruction – as criticism. I felt unappreciated. I bought lots of food to make up for feeling unsafe. My internal waters were shaken by storms that I already knew well but I could not stop the shaking.
I had been content with our arrangement, the visiting, the exchanging but this living together – even though I was in the spare room much of the time – disrupted the emotional me. Sent me back to daddy waters. I struggled with this unwanted, familiar territory.
There were explosions on both sides. There was intensity. One of my mantras, as I get older, is that I am happy with the every day, I no longer need the extraordinary. I am a self-confessed recovering drama queen. Sometimes my recovery lapses. These weeks contained constant lapses.
Despite the dressing up for takeaways, the slow runs up The Track, the birdsong, the wild land, the walks in the woods, the poems, I was exhausted by my own emotions. Of course, the communal grief for what was happening outside my bubble was part of it. The deathly undertow. The Tory chaos. Dominic Cummings.
One weekend, I feared my mental health was tipping. Fortunately, Alan Dolan – who does conscious breathwork – was having a Zoom workshop that day, I used this circular breathing through the mouth – as Alan says, it’s deceptively simple – to bring me back to solid ground. I used it every day until I travelled home at the end of May.
Home Sweet Home
Neighbours came out to greet me. Jakki and Dylan who have saved me on several occasions including when I needed a heater – my central heating boiler had packed up – after Marlon’s heart surgery. Francisco and Gabby who for years adored our cat, Tara, they provided a second home for her just up the road. My 80-year-old next-door neighbour, Patrick who had been watering my garden all this time.
I hadn’t realized that a lack of neighbours would affect me so profoundly. That I loved being squeezed into a street with people. That this warmth is part of my love for living in the city. That I am a country woman – I come from a village – but now I am a city one at heart.
Over the last couple of weeks, my internal waters have calmed. My sleeping has improved massively. I have been in the garden a lot, planting out the seedlings that germinated in Wales, building a barricade to save them from those frolicking fox cubs, listening to the robin who is always around. I have been back on those tennis courts –my proclivity for combat fulfilled. I’ve still been writing poems, now about Willesden Junction. I have tended the street garden. I have seen my friends and family.
And three weeks on, I’m ready to go back to North Wales again. This time for five days…