Glimpses

A story begins with a glimpse.  A glimpse into another world, a glimpse of a character, a glimpse of a narrative.  Sometimes that is all it remains: a half-caught moment that will never become anything more.  A scrawled fragment in a notebook destined never to become a tale.  The trace of a fiction that won’t be fulfilled.

On a gloomy day seeping drizzle my dog and I walk through the dene, challenging the dregs of February.  There is nobody else here.  The world is hushed and the silence pulses with promise.  I stand at the edge of the burn, captivated by the way the gold of the reeds lights up the gloom.  The day feels enchanted and as far as I’m concerned the enchantment is in just this: the reeds and the silence.  But as we walk the meander of the burn, I glimpse the flicker of a vibrant tail.  I gasp, because I’m sure I have seen my first kingfisher, the metallic teal feathers unmistakeable.  Only a glimpse and then the bird is gone, but I return the next day and am rewarded by a longer glimpse of the kingfisher’s back.  It flits off, under the bridge, and though I can see it perched on a branch in the distance, it disappears before I approach.

Glimpses are moments of possibility.  They are often the things that I see when my attention is elsewhere.  Caught by that softness in the vision, when I’m aware of my environment but I’m not trying to look.  Glimpses are suggestions.  They could lead to something, but you don’t yet know what.  My imagination is fired by glimpses: a white-haired woman in a tartan cape cycling through the square; a dawn-lit fox in the undergrowth; a couple taking refuge from the rain under a tree; a trio of roe deer in gossamer-clad fields; an abandoned slipper under a winking streetlight.  Moments that are nothing in themselves, but seem bigger than what they are.  I write them down and they may only ever be small slices of potential – or they may become something more.

It seems that I always want more.  More of the experience.  A closer look.  I want to see more than a glimpse of a kingfisher – I want to see her close up in all her colourful glory.  It’s in our nature to not want to let go.  But sometimes the glimpses are the blessings.  Ephemeral gifts.  Useless to try and hold on.  I’ll never catch that wisp of kingfisher; perhaps she’ll never reveal herself to me.  She was there, in that particular time and place, to let me feel a little of the spirit of the earth, and to remind me of its impermanence.  That’s the magic of the glimpse.  Sometimes I can fashion it into something tangible, sometimes I’m not meant to.  But I will always remember that glimpse of green, spiralling away like a radiant breath at the end of a dreary February.  They may be fleeting, but often the glimpses are the moments I remember the most.

February’s doubts

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February is the fag end of winter.  Though I love this season, this is the point when I’m ready for spring, for light, for warmth.  This is the point at which the cold and dark tires me and I trudge through the days simply surviving.  When it is no longer as easy to connect with that self I find in the rich, dark dreaming.  I have woken up, but rudely.  February is the alarm that wakes me when I’m not ready to wake, interrupting a peaceful sleep.  It is the truculent moment when I haul myself out of bed before I’m ready, to a day that I’m not looking forward to.  A transition time, but not the lazy transition of summer into autumn, or the barely perceptible change from autumn to winter.  February is hard work.

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This is the time of year when winter can seem harshest.  It is usually our coldest month and the short slice of daylight is often grey.  Though the first signs of growth are visible, spring still seems a long way off.  Despite the wealth of green, the landscape can appear monochrome.  Travelling to work and home in darkness wears thin, despite the beauty of the stars in these often clear skies.

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And the world is truculent too.  All over the airwaves and newspapers, conflict and negativity linger.  My job finds me too busy to think or to carve out a still moment to reconnect with my days.  My world is noisy and chaotic and there seems no space for creativity.  A writer always has doubts and this is a month in which it’s easy for my doubts to surface.  One of the doubts that I have regularly is whether I have anything important to say.  I don’t write political works, I don’t write about issues.  My stories are small, personal.  My non fiction is about life at its simplest.  I know that through my writing, I’m teaching myself how to live.  The personal is political after all.  But still, I sometimes doubt the value of my work amid the bigger changes in the world.

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Nature doesn’t doubt.  In the cemetery, the snowdrops have bloomed, clusters of light punctuating the green.  Though they don’t have colour, they have the effect of it, a pleasing shock to the senses.  And February belongs to the corvids.  Wherever I go, I hear the harsh cry of magpies, as they swipe through the air or perch on roofs and tall trees.  Walking along a cemetery path, I look up to find myself surrounded by crows, perched on the graves like wayside spirits.  Further on, a  crow and a gaggle of magpies scrap over scattered seeds.

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The only way to deal with February is to dive in.  Not to withdraw from the world but to engage with it.  To go out into the gloom and expand into the darkness.  To be scoured by rain and sleet and hail and perhaps be surprised by it.  Then you may find breathing space in the spun gold of reeds, the yellow flash of a grey wagtail or the song of a blackbird in the dark.  February is hard work, but then so is life sometimes.  The only certainty is that it will change and before you know it February’s doubts will scatter on the winds of spring.

Still life

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I’ve never appreciated still life paintings.  I can applaud a good likeness of a bowl of fruit, appreciate the depiction of light falling on a group of objects or marvel at the way an artist has captured the transparency of glass or the lustre of metal.  But they rarely move me in the way that a landscape or a portrait can.  I’m not alone in this, it seems, for still life has often been considered the lowest form of painting.

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Recently, I heard still life described in a way that caused me to re-think this prejudice.  Art historian Professor Norman Bryson called still life ‘a re-enchantment of the overlooked.’  These paintings take a point in time and try to wring meaning from it, bringing vitality and attention to things that are so familiar we don’t see them anymore.  Still life painting may, in fact, be the most profound kind of art of all, as it poses the big questions of life and death in a portrayal of the most ordinary objects.

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I choose to surround myself with cherished things that, in reality, are poorly cherished.  I’ve stopped paying attention to them.  The ‘sleeping woman’ figurine from Malta, the mermaid goddess from Lesvos and the desert rose crystal from the Sahara are displayed on my mantelpiece, but I no longer really ‘see’ them.  My mother’s Murano decanter and glasses stand untouched on the sideboard and my grandmother’s tea set is never taken out of the china cabinet.  Wherever I go, I collect pebbles, feathers and shells, which then grow dusty in neglected containers.  These aren’t just objects, they are history, family, memory.  They are moments of life and death captured in stone, wood and pottery.

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For a few weeks in December I see things differently.  My home is transformed with objects that emerge for only a brief period each year.  The Christmas baubles are unpacked, many with their own cherished memories.  They’re placed carefully and festooned with the sparkle of tinsel and lights.  The mood of the house is different: light, festive, enchanted.  It vibrates with the energy of tradition and memory.  There isn’t room for anything else but the yuletide, not even ordinary life.  The house and the objects in it are no longer just a backdrop, but a focus.

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So usually when the decorations are packed away, the house challenges me.  For a while, it can seem drab and bare.  The old familiar things are back again and, for a while, they don’t seem enough.  They have the inertia of a still life painting without any of the insight.  But this year I don’t feel the usual grief that the festivities have passed.  Instead, I delight in the space and make an effort to re-acquaint myself with what has been overlooked.

I light a candle in the hearth – Vesta’s  place – and sit with the house awhile in silence and flickering light.  Letting in the space of the stripped down rooms.  Listening as the tick of the clock fills the silence.  Feeling myself expand into spider-filled crannies and the very earth beneath.  How often do we really appreciate this place that shelters us?  How often do we see it as it is?  The house sighs in relief at having its regular rhythms back.  The things that belong here settle back into their places.  Normal life gives space for new growth and no opportunity for disguise.  We get to know each other again as we really are.

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Out in the world, I appreciate the still life of winter: the serenity of a snowfall in the park before dawn, the lazy gliding of swans among frozen reeds, the huddling of ducks on frigid ponds.  Out here, I look for magic every day.  I then bring the magic back and fashion it into a piece of writing that tries to capture its meaning.  Each one of these posts could be seen as a still life, enchanting the ordinary things that I see every day.  My fiction is different.  It captures movement, a journey, a transformation.  But in these posts, I gather together a group of experiences, display them in a pleasing composition and hope that they will shed light on what that moment in time meant to me.  There is enchantment inside and out, not only among the things that grow and fly, but among the things that stay as they are.

 

First-Footing

dad-2For as many years as I remember, Dad was never with us to celebrate the turn of the year.  Before midnight, he would be banished from the house, to stand vigil outside the front door.  Just after twelve, there would be a knock and we would welcome him in, bearing a lump of coal.

First-Footing is an old tradition, where the first person to enter the house after the stroke of midnight – the First Foot – would set the tone for the year ahead, so it was important that they brought luck.  The most auspicious First Foot of all was considered to be a tall, dark man, so my six foot three, dark-haired Dad was always a prized First Foot.  The First Foots usually brought small gifts, symbols of plenty for the year ahead, and with us it was always coal, quite appropriate for a family with a mining heritage.

I still remember going ‘First-Footing’ as a child.  We would shuffle from house to house after midnight, visiting family and friends.  But I wonder if the tradition has now been lost.  These days it seems many of us celebrate quietly behind closed doors, as individual households rather than communities.  Still, New Year’s Day is one of the few days of the year when we greet passing strangers we would otherwise ignore, wishing them happiness for the year ahead.

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On New Year’s Day, my First Foot is the year itself.  I take up my besom broom and sweep the house from back to front.  It’s a symbolic sweeping, brushing the old year out of the back door, brushing the new year in.  I welcome the energy of the new year and ask for a blessing on the house for the months to come.  The response is a gaggle of goldfinches fluttering over the yard, filling the air with their light-hearted chatter.

I find the energy of this season to be a deep, earthy energy, quite unlike the airiness of spring or summer.  It is a force that works beneath consciousness.  I don’t make resolutions for the new calendar year, because the cycle began for me at Halloween, when the old year died and I was led into the land of dreaming.  But my dreamtime this year has been disrupted: by illness, loss, exhaustion.  And my dreams have not been new ones, but visions of the past that haunt me.  There is something afoot, something working through me, that is unlikely to become clear until I have worked my way through the dark half of the year.

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2016 was a year haunted by confusion and despair, in which it seemed that the world had somehow shifted and that chaos was near.  As the year turned there was a sense that whatever would come knocking at midnight would not be auspicious.  But as I greet the new year at my door, I feel only a deep sense of peace.   There is no reason for my optimism except that I know by now that the cycle never runs smoothly.  I know that chaos often comes before creation, disruption before dreams.  And I know that there will always be another dream as light and joyful as the flutter of birds above my head.

Hush

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There are few opportunities to experience the world without people, particularly if you live in a town.  But there is a special kind of hush on Christmas Day.  A silence so intense that it feels like it might shatter.  People are celebrating behind tightly closed doors and the roads are all but empty.

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Late afternoon, not long before sunset, I walk with Winston into the centre of town.  Every store is closed.  The street is lined with metal shutters, firmly down.  A few shop signs are still lit, a monitor flashes advertisements to an empty store, and the occasional light remains on.  High up above one of the shops is an open window.  I wonder if there are people in any of these lit rooms, guarding empty premises, or if it’s simply that the last person to leave forgot to turn out the lights.

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Wind whips down the street.  A handful of crispy leaves, scraps of paper and an empty milk carton spin around the street with a hollow rustling.  Something creaks.  There is the clink of a lamp-post as it sways in the wind.  And gulls.  When the people are absent, this town belongs to the gulls.  They perch high on the buildings, braying a lament or perhaps a celebration, that the streets are theirs.

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I stand in the centre of the street, looking from top to bottom.  There is no sound beyond the gulls and the wind-songs.  The cyclone of the leaves is the only sense of movement.  On my walk here, I saw only one person, in the distance, walking purposefully in pyjamas and a Santa hat.  I have heard only one car passing.  It doesn’t seem possible that I’m the only person on these usually busy streets, but I am.  I give thanks for the opportunity to see the world as the gulls see it.

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We walk home through vacant streets, Winston and I.  Christmas lights glitter in living rooms and gardens.  I think of the people behind those closed doors: how they have celebrated this day, how they are celebrating now.  All of the excess has come to this: the silence of the streets and a thankful pause before the madness of the Boxing Day sales begins.  There is fire in the sky ahead of me.  Black clouds like smoke, seared by a slash of blazing orange.  Darkness will be here soon and I will revel in the last hush before the people wake once more.

Absence

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Last night I dreamt of my father.  I sat beside his old armchair as he stroked my hair to comfort me.  I don’t know why he felt the need to give me solace, but I was content to stay there for the longest time.  I was both outside of the dream watching, and inside the dream feeling the touch of his hand.  I lost my dad fifteen years ago and I rarely dream about him, so when I do, it’s a bittersweet treat.

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On a day like today, when the sun doesn’t seem to rise, the sky, instead, simply becoming a lighter shade of grey; when rain drizzles and the landscape is just a smudge of shapes; on a day like this, which already makes me melancholy, it’s easy to feel the stab of loss.  The details of illness, of death and death’s aftermath are lost in the passage of years.  This is true for all of those I’ve lost.   But the thing I have found most difficult about death is absence.  A person who was there is now gone.  There is a space where they should be: a hollow in an armchair; a silence where there was once a voice; a void where there was a routine.  Death is haunted by those pinprick moments when I remember that they’ll no longer return.  It’s hard to comprehend that existence has been extinguished.  That I once had a father, a mother, and now I simply don’t.

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After Dad died, I wrote a story.  It was set in a derelict house on an isolated, snowbound moor.  From the gape of windows, to the hollow of footprints, to the empty chair under a broken roof, I see now that it was all about absence.  When my mother died, I wrote about the absence of words and the drought of colour in the pictures I painted.

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With time, the pang of absence lessens.  I no longer expect those I’ve lost to walk into a room.  I no longer visit the places in which they existed.  I no longer do the things we once did together.  Memories replace flesh.  But when I experience a new loss, inevitably the others resurface.  I remember that there is a space that a person once inhabited.

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When you observe the nuances of the seasons closely, the transience of life is always present.  I walk through the winter landscape with my dog and wonder about his concept of absence.  Every morning, at the same time, he will pause in his walk and face the direction from which the two Labradors he adores will appear.  Waiting.  But this week they moved away.  I wonder how many mornings he will wait before no longer watching for them.   It’s difficult enough for us to understand absence when we know, intellectually, what has happened, but for him people move in and out of his life without explanation.  Perhaps he would ask the same questions we do, if he could – why? where? how? – but we’re no closer to explaining absence than he is.

In this season when the earth displays her bones, loss is felt more keenly.  Loss of warmth, light, colour.   The silence left by the absence of birdsong.  The spaces that remain after the leaves are gone.  The gaiety of flowers and insects.  When everything is stripped back, the gaps seem bigger.  A bitter seam of absence runs through this season.

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And yet this is also the season of dreams, when I am filled with possibility and my creativity is at  its height.  Because of course the earth isn’t really dead.  Darkness is the loam in which things begin.  And absence is never only absence.  It is space for growth and self-examination.  That person-shaped void will always be there.  But what will that space allow me to become?  Absence has taken me back to the bones of myself and what I love.  It led me back to nature and a re-connection with the earth.  It led me into a deeper creativity.  Loss leads to movement.

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There are moments when I despair that the cost of loving is often the grief of losing.  But I’ve also learned that people are like seasons too.  Some are only meant to be in my life for the briefest of moments, some for the length of my years.  My life is richer for all those who have peopled it, but I no longer try to hang onto them when their season is over.  I’m just thankful they were there when I needed them.

The first day of winter

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The shift from autumn to winter is sometimes imperceptible.  I will suddenly notice that all the trees are bare.  The ground will become muddy with rotting leaves and the cold will creep up on me.  There is no consensus about when winter begins.  Meteorologists package the year up into neat quarters, with 1st December designated as the first day of winter.  For astronomers, it is the winter solstice.  But for me, this year, winter begins on the last Saturday in November in Manchester.  It is the day after my father-in-law’s funeral and I wake early to an unearthly landscape of white mist.  There is a surreal hush.  Trees are no more than shadows in the fog and ice crisps the foliage.

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There is a path on the edge of the Manchester ship canal that is a tiny oasis among housing estates.  Only a day before, the blazing sunset lit up the last golden leaves and I watched three ring-necked parakeets flutter across the canal, the first I have ever seen in the wild.  But this morning, winter has the canal in its grip.  Scores of Canada Geese huddle silently on the bank.  Mist moves in lazy coils along the water.  A flock of black headed gulls cavorts in a garland of steam.  Ice and sun have melted the landscape into vapour and echoes.

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As we drive back north, fog shrouds the motorway.  The sun has gone out, casting the world in grey shadow.  The road is lined by the rise of moors and the dip of valleys.  I know that there are towns and buildings in these valleys, but today there is no evidence of that.  They are nothing more than bowls of dense white mist, like eerie seascapes.  But we emerge from the mist to the afternoon sun, which kindles the remnants of autumn.  Beeches shimmer with copper leaves.  Apple trees droop with red and yellow fruit.

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Back home, most of the trees are bare.  The leafscape has turned from gold to burnt orange and umber.  Leaves now squelch rather than crackle beneath my feet.  But just as the autumn show is almost over, the last wild cherry blazes.  It has been slow to give up its gifts.  Usually I can pluck sweet cherries from its branches in summer, but this year they were sour, left to rot on the tree even by the birds.  Now it is a beacon among the skeletons.  The halo of fallen leaves around its base glows against the frosted grass.

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Today is National Tree Dressing day, an annual celebration of the importance of trees in our lives.  Communities are encouraged to tie ‘leaves’ with messages of thanks to a tree.  As the trees undress, we re-dress them.  The celebration draws on old traditions of adorning trees.  In my post The Shoe Tree I wrote about the ways we dress trees and down by the canal path last week, I discovered another: a memorial tree, dressed to commemorate the life of a man who had died there.

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But today I will leave the trees to their nakedness.  I’m dressing a different kind of tree, though it’s all part of the same tradition.    My Christmas tree is a symbol of life in the death of winter.  It is a reminder that when the earth seems to be little more than bones, life still stirs, waiting to be re-born.  Trees reflect the transience of life in their seasonal changes: the brief joy of spring blossoms, the plenty of summer fruits and the excitement of autumn finery.  Then they show us death, with their winter skeletons.  As I dress the tree, I recall the many times I have done this before.  I think of all the other people doing what I am doing now.  And I think of those communities re-dressing the trees that are important to them.  Winter has begun, but each tree is a flicker in the darkness, lacing the earth with threads of light.