May Is The Cruellest Month

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

 T.S. Eliot, The Burial of the Dead

It may have been April for Eliot but for me it is May, with its pattern and paradox, its light and shade, which is cruellest. O I know that it is lovely. When I lift my head I catch sight of the blossom. Here is wisteria blooming in my courtyard and bluebells at the foot of a neighbour’s tree. Here are wild service trees along the route to work and cherry petals heaped on pavements. Here, at the edge of the city, are fields of yellow rape and hawthorn hedges.

                                                If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.

 T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

But I know that when the May breaks out in creamy flowers, musky as death, I must keep my head down.

last day of May 010

Marking Time

As a child and young woman May enchanted me. Not one to believe in the stars I had to admit there was something about Taureans; my best friends and nicest boyfriends, it seemed, had birthdays in May. There were high days and holidays: May Day, Half Term, Spring Bank. And there were days of sudden warmth better than any in mid-summer. May was charmed and lovely.

May 013Only in adulthood, once I’d entered the education workforce, did it became cruel. I’m lucky to earn my living as I do; I love my teaching. But twice a year, in January and May, it is marking time. The marketisation of higher education in England has led (among other things) to an increased emphasis on accountability and efficiency. The prompt assessment and return of student work is something which is believed to influence student satisfaction and most universities have reviewed their policy and practice in relation to marking. it is not uncommon, as a result, for academics to be working to assessment deadlines of three weeks or less.

It is undoubtedly the case that some of the developments in higher education in the last five or ten years have enhanced the student experience. There was, it’s true, a laissez-faire approach to the return of student work in many institutions previously. I’m not convinced that the three week turnaround is appropriate; I think students care about the quality as well as speed of feedback and the short deadlines do, without doubt, limit the time which can be spent on individual scripts. However, I support the general principle of setting and meeting deadlines for the return of student work. And I actually don’t dislike marking: even with the limitation of feedback deadlines it offers an opportunity for dialogue. Why, then, is Maytime marking so cruel?

Marking and Caring

I’m fortunate to work in a sector where it has been possible (with reasonable adjustments) for me to continue working while caring for Dylan. That wouldn’t be so easy in some occupations I know. Even with adjustments, combining working with caring is challenging when you are a single parent. For me, marking time is when I particularly feel these pressures.

Working parents of very young children may recognise some of the conflict I experience at these times. In order to meet marking deadlines it is quite normal to have to work through weekends and at evenings. Like a much younger child, Dylan finds it difficult to understand why it is that ‘moo-ey’ (as he calls me) is suddenly not as available or responsive to him at these times. Whereas normally we would be out and about in the community and going for long walks in the Peak District, during the marking period my caring is limited to ensuring that Dylan is safe in the home while I work.

During the January marking period this somehow doesn’t feel so bad. The weather is usually poor and the days are short, lessening the hankering after time outdoors. I can often hunker down with my marking while Dylan watches DVDs. But in May Dylan’s frustration with the situation is palpable. He has a built-in body clock (which I’ve written about elsewhere) which means that at 2.30, on the dot, if we are still in the house he wants to get out. Dylan will come to find me, then, wherever I am and strike his ‘I’m waiting’ pose. This involves Dylan standing – back straight, arms crossed – with a fixed stare. He waits patiently in this position, watching me. His gaze is steady. ‘Two minutes’ I sometimes say, ‘just two minutes and I’ll come’. That’s not true and Dylan knows it. Eventually, holding his position, Dylan will tell me what it is I am doing: ‘poota’ or ‘rea’ or ‘wye’. Under normal circumstances, I will stop, then, and respond to his not unreasonable request. In May, though, with a self-imposed daily quota of scripts to read in order to meet my deadlines, I may stall. And then ‘na na na na na’ Dylan rattles at me, like an angry machine gun.

May 011When Dylan was still at school the challenge of marking during May was compounded by the regular school holidays. The May Day, Half Term and Spring Bank which had so beguiled me as a child became a headache as a parent. It always felt to me like a lose-lose situation. If I succumbed to Dylan and the outdoors I couldn’t relax for worrying about getting the marking done. If I tried to manage Dylan at home while I worked we would both end the day frustrated and unhappy. While we were a two parent family my ex-husband and I would alternate shifts of child care and working which was slightly easier – though still, I recall, with the potential for angst and frustration.

There is no easy solution to the challenge of managing caring responsibilities with pressure points in working life. Having friends and family who are able and willing to help out at such times has to be the best possible solution. For those of us who don’t have such networks, play schemes and holiday activities would be a great alternative. In England, though, we don’t have the same culture of ‘camps’ as in, for example, the United States. Very few such opportunities exist and where they are available they are usually only for a few weeks in August and for limited hours. Furthermore, they are rarely (if ever) inclusive. Throughout his childhood Dylan was only ever able to access one play scheme, organised by a local parents group. He briefly attended a Saturday club but when that closed there were no other social opportunities appropriate to Dylan’s level of need in the city. For young people like my son, who present with complex needs in addition to autism, it is virtually impossible to secure satisfactory out-of-school care.

Healing May

last day of May 007In last week’s post I described how, earlier this month, I took Dylan for a short break in Scotland. Part of my aim in timing the holiday as I did was to give Dylan a bit of attention before the bulk of my marking was due. I knew that, for the rest of May, I would be juggling caring with marking. It seems to have helped a bit; I’m almost half way through my marking now and the process does feel a little easier than in previous years.

That wasn’t the only reason for the timing though. If you work in a sector where there are specific pressure points in the year it is possible to have your head so far down you can no longer see. This year I didn’t want to miss the blossom; I wanted to make room in my life for May. I like to think that, as well as signalling a fresh approach to marking and caring, this indicates a sense of healing. For here is another reason why May can seem the cruellest month: it is when my mother died. I suspect that since her death, in 2006, part of me has been prepared to miss May, while I marked, in order to avoid painful associations with the time of year.

My most recent collection, A Dart of Green and Blue, opens with a sequence of poems which track my grief in the aftermath of mum’s death through a period of nine months. In the following poem, which is located early in the sequence, I repeat selected words (including May/may) to represent the way in which the bereaved can get stuck at the moment of death but also want to hold on to it in order not to forget.


Everything slow this year. Heavy and green with rain
hawthorn hung stubborn, withholding the May.
At the edge of my distracted sight I may
have caught the vaguest sign of change the day
she died. But it was the next day
(the 4th) I woke to an absence of rain.
Cruel – indifferent – the sun rose again
and, as if spring were remembering itself again,
buds opened. Even the wisteria she’d said may
not flower threw clusters of blue jewels. All day
I thought: She’s missed it. It’s too late. Last May
we walked the hedgerows on the Edge. The rain
had drawn the hawthorn’s musky scent that day:
brings death, I’d thought, as I broke a branch of May.


last day of May 009Grief, somebody once told me, involves the reconciliation of the fear of forgetting with the pain of remembrance; eventually we realise that we will never forget but that it no longer hurts so much to remember. This year I am trying to celebrate May by remembering my mum and the way she helped me to love this time of year as a child. I hope that, as well as getting my marking done, I am finding time to teach Dylan how to love May too.


Elizabeth Barrett (2010) ‘May’ in A Dart of Green and Blue. Arc Publications
T.S.Eliot (1922) ‘The Burial of the Dead’ from The Waste Land. Faber and Faber
T.S. Eliot (1944) ‘Little Gidding’ from Four Quartets.  Faber and Faber

11 thoughts on “May Is The Cruellest Month

  1. I am growing in my appreciation for being able to read what you write. I like how you can speak the truth without being a hero and without being on a pity pot. I have not yet been able to determine, when those moments of grief hit if they are real things that if I attended to them–if I ever really can, will anything be better for me, for him, or for us. I didn’t use to feel this way. (that looks horrid but I don’t know how to fix it) I could never comprehend what people meant when they wanted respite, were cranky and tired, or just frustrated. I don’t know when I crossed the line into not being able to take it anymore. I wonder if there will ever be a time when I can put down the balls I am juggling and just be the person who is screaming on the insides at not being able to be out and to be expressed. I don’t know how to tell anymore if things are simply my perception and I am missing May, simply because I am choosing to notice the screaming trapped feeling instead of noting the things of appreciation that used to be able to hold such awe and such ability to restore my spirit and my energy. (I just burst into the giggles and said in a funny voice, “Is this menopause?!?”

    Thanks for sharing the real stuff.


    • Hi Elisa – lovely to hear from you again – your comment struck a chord with me. Thanks for seeing and understanding what I am trying to do here. You made me laugh too. Yes, I have asked myself that question 🙂 Liz


  2. Another wonderful piece of writing Liz, thank you. I have shared it on Twitter and hope that lots of people read it over the weekend. Good luck with the marking, it all sounds quite impossible and you manage to express that and more without as Elisa says above, a shred of self-pity. I find May overwhelming quite often, just on a visual level, something about the intensity of the light (when not raining!) and the luminousness of the new green everywhere.

    I remember when I was looking at volunteering options at one point that there were ones where people requested ‘days out’ following an interest with their autistic family member. One had an interest in birds, another trains, I think the idea was to find a one to one person who would spend a session with the individual on a weekly or monthly or whatever basis. I imagine finding the right person to some extent is a question of luck but wondered if there is a local volunteer opportunites organisation that you could maybe benefit from? if not for this year maybe for next May? Or one of the higher education student volunteer programmes? I don’t for one minute think that this is a blanket solution to the issues you highlight here, but maybe something to add to the list of things to try. With very best wishes, Joanna.


    • Thank you Johanna – your sharing and comment are much appreciated. Here we have a rainy Bank Holiday weekend 🙂 I think you are right about the quality of the light in May. I hadn’t had that thought specifically, but I suppose that is part of the impact of the colours at this time of year, especially the greenness. I love your idea of matching volunteers by interest. There is a ‘befriending’ scheme at the university where I work but when I explored it for Dylan a few years ago I found it very much aimed at young people with an Asperger’s diagnosis. If the starting point for matching were around an interest I can imagine that reaching a much broader group, potentially. I might approach them again, actually – there could just be some possibilities for Dylan, now he is a little older. Thank you! Have a lovely weekend, Liz


  3. Hello Liz,
    A lovely post as ever. I know when I was working I was always struggling, I felt I was a bad mother for being at work and I was rubbish at work because I was thinking about my family. I never seemed able to strike the balance. With my daughter’s diagnosis I realised something had to give and work took a back seat. I have been lucky to have so much support around me to enable me to do that.

    I am sorry about your mother, I hope May in time becomes more of a comfort, taking solace in remembering instead of pain. Thank you for writing and sharing.



      • Ha ha! You caught me 🙂 I have just finished marking one and am on a short break! My work rate isn’t so great today as I took Dylan to see the new Postman Pat Movie earlier – I wish they’d brought that out 18 years ago 🙂 PP has been a hero with Dylan for years. I was anxious that it might not follow the format Dylan’s used to but he loved it – laughed out loud in places (real enjoyment). Wonderful. Mainstream cinema too – I decided I couldn’t make D wait for inclusive opportunity 🙂 Right. Time to follow your advice!


  4. Oh Liz, this was beautiful and touching. May. Yes, your May is my April (and my April now begins mid-March). The new growth everywhere–Springtime–is both cruel and indifferent. Indifferent, though, especially. The world went along without us before we were here, and it will go along without us after we are gone. We see this as we lose loved ones, as our loved ones will see it when we are gone. But really, what other option does the world have but to go on? And I guess when we get right down to it, what other option do we have really? Life carries on and on and on and on and on. So sings Peter Gabriel in “I Grieve.”

    And you are so right about not wanting to let go, not wanting to forget, but not wanting to live in pain anymore either. I would rather remember, even if that means I have to hold on to the pain; but there is joy in remembering too. Our memories are kind of indifferent that way too. “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so…” That was Shakespeare, I believe, Hamlet?

    A handful of days until June. And summer solstice too. I’ll be glad to see Summer again.

    Much love, Christy


    • Dearest Christy – thank you so much for this. I thought about you and your mom after I’d finished writing it. I’m glad to hear you are home and ready for more ‘carrying on’. You’re right about that. I didn’t know the Shakespeare quote – thank you! It is pouring with rain here again this morning. There is something about May rain takes me right back to the year mum died. It’s odd about nature, though – it seems to make more of an impression on me at times of grief than during joyous times. I don’t particularly remember what the weather was like when my children were born or I passed my exams or I fell in love (plenty of that over the years) but at all the achingly awful times of my life there is some association with nature. I read something the other day by someone who had been bereaved – prematurely, tragically – and they commented that the experience wakes your nerves up, so that you notice everything. I can’t remember who it was now or even if it were a woman or man – but just that observation that they felt as if they were living with all their dials switched on, noticing everything. I love the idea that nature might be a healing force for us at these times – ‘mother nature’ taking over 🙂 Yes June soon! Oh – and between the marking I have finalised my choice of 7 songs for you so will send those soon! Love, Liz x


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