Lizzie spent much of her youth collecting and dreaming through anthologies of poetry. When she grew up, she became a librarian, and worked at the Scottish Poetry Library from 1993 until 2017, where she had the good fortune to be offered the opportunity to compile several anthologies herself, on different themes, including Whatever the Sea: Scottish Poems for Growing Older (Polygon/SPL, 2016). Now grown completely old (almost 71), and retired, she spends her time maintaining a windswept garden in the heights of Liberton and helping look after her two grandchildren.
I was very lucky in my working life. I couldn’t put it better than Mary Poppins’ friend Bert the chimney sweep: ‘I does wot I likes, an’ I likes wot I do’. As a girl I liked books. I liked libraries. No, I loved books and I loved libraries. I volunteered in the school library, in the local public library; I trained as a librarian, I studied, and qualified; I worked in public and university libraries, until one fine day I found a niche where my profession met and matched another passion: poetry. That niche was the Scottish Poetry Library. So, for 24 years I was very happy indeed, doing what I liked and liking what I did. But then I got old. And with age comes retirement. Which takes you out of the place where you thought you were doing something worthwhile and leaves you … nowhere. As the poet Elma Mitchell says, the retired person is ‘…the pioneer/Of white Antarctica, bloodless and bare.’ It can feel like that. It can be bare. But there is one thing that could populate the new, white world: giving back.
If you have a passion, you want to spread it around. If you have some knowledge, you want to pass it on – it’s a deep-seated human need. Unfortunately, in our sophisticated society we venerable ancients are not sought out for our wisdom. We can’t sit on our tussocks and wait for grasshoppers to come – we have to get out there and find them. That’s where voluntary work comes in. The world of volunteering is a huge spectrum of possibilities, structured and regulated to make the deal fair and productive and to ensure maximum enrichment for both giver and receiver. The tricky bit could be in finding something that matches your own interests and experience. What is often wanted from volunteers is simply to be there and to be willing to undertake whatever is asked of you. That’s fine, it suits many people, and achieves so much good. What, though, if you feel you can offer more? If you have a desire to hand on your own knowledge, will volunteering fulfil that very personal impetus? There’s nothing wrong in trying to find another niche. If you love doing what you know how to do, you don’t want to just stop. (In my case, I found I couldn’t just stop, and haunted the Library for a couple of years, contributing some hours weekly.)
However, often the passage of just a very little time sees the retired person becoming not quite so with-it, as working habits change and technologies accelerate. Old arts and crafts and traditional labours are kinder, and do not change, and years spent practising these things yield an accumulation of skill always invaluable to those wanting to learn. Here again I’m very lucky – I have a third passion to add to poetry and libraries: gardening. At the age when I was officiously pushing a trolley round the school library and falling in love with Rupert Brooke and Robert Browning (yes, both at the same time), I was also following my father round the garden, learning the difference between ephemeral beauties and perennial nuisances, and earning a little pocket money too. After more than half a century of digging and dibbling, I reckon I have some knowledge to pass on.
Of course, skills and understanding are most easily handed down within one’s own tribe, but sadly a requirement for poetry and horticulture seems to have skipped a generation in my family. But, ah, the grandchildren. Reading poetry to little ones whose eyes take on the faraway look of enchantment: that is passing-on-passion unalloyed. They’ll reject it very soon, of course, but maybe one day the enchantment will return to curl itself round their hearts again. And there’s a small green and yellow wheelbarrow in the shed which they used to fight over to help take withered beanstalks to the compost heap. Their enthusiasm may now have withered a little but there’s still new bean seeds to be sown and maybe one year they’ll do it all themselves.
Still, I yearn to help someone else find the heart’s ease that only growing and tending can give, or to help look after a green place where others can seek the solace of peace. The pandemic came along just as I started to look into opportunities for green-fingered volunteering in my area. With any luck I can soon resume that intention and find a chance to share.
‘If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.’ Cicero said that (or something like it). Between him and Bert, they’ve summed up my life. I’ve been very lucky. Now it’s time to give back.
“Giving back” is the topic of this months CLANGERS – if Lizzie’s wonderful writing has inspired you to write about how you’ve given back in your life, we’d love to hear from you. Submissions are open throughout May.