GARDENING, writing, painting and having long conversations on the phone with friends and family kept Cork writer Alice Taylor sane during the over-70s’ cocooning phase of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Living in the village of Innishannon, Alice, 82, is very much a glass half-full person. The author of To School Through the Fields, the 1988 bestseller that launched her, is not one for self-pity. Her husband died in 2005. She lives alone, but Alice knows the importance of family (she has five children and six grandchildren) and community. She makes it sound as if she has a rich satisfying life.
Her latest book, A Cocoon With A View, is her 27th book and is full of astute observations.
Alice’s cocooning experience was quite positive.
“How can I complain? I have plenty of space and a big garden. I love gardening. I write. And I’m a bit of a home bird anyway, which is a big plus. I had plenty of time for myself. Maybe that’s a selfish streak in me.
“I did a lot of poderawling. That’s from an Irish word for kind of meandering around and doing nothing in particular until you come across something that you want to do.”
Having a book out so soon on the topic of cocooning, among other material, suggests that Alice had to write it in a rush so that it could be published for the summer market.
But it was no bother to her as she journals every day. When O’Brien Press approached her about a book, she had the bones of it written. There is, she says, nothing like recording events as they happen.
While Alice is one of life’s enthusiasts, whose animated conversation is peppered with quotes from the poetry of Padraig Pearse and W B Yeats among others, she admits that during lockdown, she had the odd day when she’d wake up and think ‘Mother of God, how will I get out of this bloody bed?’ — “but you have to get yourself out of it”.
And just as importantly, you have to find something to do.
“There’s therapy in doing. You learn that the hard way. When you’re bereaved, after burying someone very close to you, you find you have to engage in doing something you enjoy.
“I found the garden saved my sanity when I was grieving. You mightn’t want to do anything, but once you start gardening, it takes on a life of its own. You get drawn into it and two hours later, you realise you feel better. It happens without you being aware of it.”
Alice says that when everyone else was panic-buying toilet rolls, she was stocking up on sweet pea seeds. Fragrant sweet peas are essential to her spring/summer garden and her wellbeing. She has planted them all over her garden, where she eats when the weather allows, and where she watches the returning swallows. Nature is her balm.
She says that her garden “is more of a jungle really, a kind of woodland full of trees, attracting birds. In the garden, things are constantly evolving. It’s full of miracles.
“Even this morning, as I walked around the yard, I noticed a pinkish red full-headed rose that had come out. Don’t ask me the name of it. I’m not a good botanical gardener but I vaguely know what I’m doing.”
While being confined to her house and garden, Alice missed her grandchildren. Three of them, Ellie, aged seven, Tim, aged three, and baby Conor ‘live up the hill’.
“We would be in and out of each other’s houses constantly. Then, of course, there was a screech of brakes and that was the end of that. I’d see them outside the window. Ellie ‘got’ it but Tim didn’t understand. Then, when we were allowed out, I went up the hill to see them all. Tim looked at me in amazement and said: ‘Nana, who left you out?’”
Alice thinks Leo Varadkar did a good job, leading the country and asking for co-operation to combat the pandemic. But what about the nursing homes where a disproportionate number of residents died from Covid-19?
“Oh, the poor nursing homes. But in a way, problems were there before the pandemic came at all. I’d say it’s everyone’s worst nightmare is to finish up in a nursing home. I learned that many years ago. An old man here in the village lived in dire conditions. I was very young at the time. We all thought we knew best. We decided this man would be better off inside with The Little Sisters of the Poor. At that time in Cork, they were there for people who had no one to care for them.
“We took Jim there, we cleaned and dressed him in lovely new clothes. But I went to see him a week later. I learned a lesson. He was alive, but he was dead really. His eyes were dead inside his head. I thought then that he was better off in the shed where he was dirty and everything. He loved it and was happy. I realised that if you could die at home, you’re better off.”
Reflecting on being elderly and particularly vulnerable during the height of the pandemic, Alice says it was only right to stop people from visiting their loved ones in nursing homes. “There was no choice. In my age group, we’re like old cars. The engine is after going down a bit. We don’t have the petrol to keep going.”
Has Alice slowed down?
“I suppose I have but your head thinks you haven’t. If I go and do a job in the garden, I can tell you that when I’m kneeling in the yard and decide to get up, it’s a slow process. Your body is telling you something.”
Being a self-contained person, Alice says she didn’t really experience loneliness during lockdown.
“I find reading invaluable. I read Where The Crawdads Sing. It was very sad. I cried a lot. I’m a glutton for punishment. After that, I read The Beekeeper of Aleppo. My God, that put manners on me.” (The book is about the flight of refugees from Aleppo in Syria to Europe during the Syrian civil war.) Alice’s response to the book was to ask “what the hell are we complaining about? What those people are going through, it was brutal. In our part of the world, we haven’t really got anything to complain about. I had a brother-in-law who used to say that ‘it’s a good thing to know when you’re well off’. Sometimes, you can have a ‘poor me day’ which is a terrible blight.”
If there’s one type of person Alice strongly dislikes meeting, it’s ‘a wet day woman’.
“My sister used to use that phrase and I wrote a poem about it. The funny thing was a lot of my friends said I had them in mind when I wrote it! But there are some people who make you feel less well having met them. You go away and think the world isn’t so good after all. And there are wet day men as well.”
Wisely, Alice doesn’t allow too much negativity into her life.
“I don’t read the economic forecast. Sure I can do feck all about it anyway. You’re only depressing yourself. I listen to what I need to hear on the news. That’s very important because if you listen to what I call a waterfall of information of all the things that could happen, you wouldn’t get up at all.”
Asked if she thinks we’ll all be kinder and more respectful of each other when the pandemic is behind us, Alice says she hopes so.
“I think people have slowed down. Isn’t it amazing? We needed to slow down. We were almost on a conveyor belt and we couldn’t stop it. It had developed a life of its own. But by God, the conveyor belt crashed and we all fell off. We realised that people are important. In a way, for the first time, the government put people before money, which was great.”
Does Alice describe herself as religious or spiritual?
“I’d call myself the two,” she replies.
But does she ever think God isn’t listening, given terrible events like the pandemic?
“No, I don’t think that. He is letting us to our own devices to see will we learn anything. During the bad days of Covid-19, we got beautiful weather. I said to a friend who calls himself an atheist that God is looking after us with the weather. He just laughed.”
Alice, who keeps the sunny side up, is clearly fuelled by good humour and home-spun wisdom.
A Cocoon With A View is published by O’Brien Press at €8.99.