Taken from The Haiku Calendar 2021, available from Snapshot Press.
For the last six years I’ve worked as a teaching assistant in a primary school. Last week, one of the children in our class tested positive. So, suddenly we’re all at home, working online. It’s been a strange week, one where time has slowed right down, where I’ve felt a deep longing to be outside, cold as it is, with the wind scouring my cheeks and the dog at my side, uncertain about whether he really wants to be out in the harsh weather or inside, curled up in his bed by the radiator.
Today it’s my birthday and I still can’t go out. I’m watching the wind blow tiny flakes of snow across the garden, watching how it whips round on itself, changing direction. Earlier, I put extra food out for the garden birds and then watched as the jackdaws sailed in from nowhere, borne on this bitter East wind, hardly flapping their wings at all, just cruising in to take what they wanted. Not that I begrudge them. In fact, I quite like to see them: stooping, ponderous, unhurried.
My mother likes to remind me that when I was born the snowfall was heavy and treacherous. I was a home birth (who wasn’t in those days?) and the midwife was young, on one of her first jobs. Afterwards, my mother haemorrhaged. There was no phone. The doctor had to be called on in person. Dad set off through the snow to fetch him, while, as the story goes, I was wrapped in newspaper and placed at the bottom of the bed (all the towels had been used up trying to soak up blood). It was touch and go for my mother, although the bleeding did eventually stop. It’s hard to imagine how the poor midwife must have felt at the start of her career.
Later, when I was thirteen, I remember going to Barnsley with my Mum, and a woman came up to us in the street and introduced herself. It was the midwife. All those years had passed and yet she recognised my mother straight away, no doubt because of the trauma both women had endured.
The story of my birth has been told so many times in our family that it has gathered a lot of detail, such as the snow had drifted against the door so Dad has to dig his way out, that the doctor was in bed, that the doctor was drunk, that the doctor told Dad to get Mum in the car and take her to hospital (the car of course, was snowed in) that the towels were a wedding present, that the newspaper I was wrapped in was the Daily Express, or maybe the Barnsley Chronicle, that Dad was in his overalls because he’d just got in from his late shift drawing furnaces at the wire mill. I could go on.
It turned out my mother was anaemic. And there’s no doubt that it was a life and death situation. That’s why the midwife never forgot it (I can clearly recall the expression on her face when she spoke to my mother in the street thirteen years later). As for the details?
Well, it’s like making a snowman, you start with a small mound of snow and roll it over so it gathers more snow, and you keep rolling it until it’s so big you can’t push it any further. With a bit of luck, someone comes along to give it an extra roll and it gets even bigger. So it is with stories. Truth gathers fiction. That’s why I chose John Stevenson’s haiku for this post. It lends itself to many readings. I’ve told my own story here, because that’s how this haiku resonated with me, though it will be different for every reader. Some people will read it as a comment on the unpredictable nature of the weather at this time of year. Others will see it as an admission of the difficulty of pinning down the seasons, in this case spring, to a calendar date (when does a season really start or finish?). Others still will see it as a comment on writing itself, more specifically the writing of haiku and the need (perhaps) to be authentic to experience. And there’s that line break, ending on ‘not’, suggesting that the season’s story, or perhaps our own, does not exist, though we nevertheless try to construct a narrative that describes it. I keep returning to this poem and finding new ways to look at it, but I won’t say anymore – I’ll leave it for you to ponder. It’s only the start of February, not too late to treat yourself to The Haiku Calendar from the wonderful Snapshot Press.