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.

Dreaming

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November is a month of darkness and dreams.  Relentless storms with the hint of winter in them make the days darker, the skies greyer.  The air freezes, riming the roofs and crisping the grass.  Horizons are misted by rain and fog.  And when the rain pauses, the wind stills, and the sun peeks above the horizon, the world is flushed with gold.  The beginning of winter has a surreal quality.  The contraction of the body against the cold, the contraction of the mind against the darkness makes me feel that I’m not truly present in the world.  It couldn’t be a better season in which to dream.

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Dreams are the space between sleep and waking.  Borderlands, where we exalt in our whims or become trapped in the thorns of our fears.   They are night enchantments, where we live other lives, or distorted versions of our own,  a gossamer existence on top of our reality.  Perhaps we leave our bodies in the night, as some cultures believed, to participate in the events of our dreams.   Perhaps it’s true that there are deities who send us dreams, demons that curse us with nightmares and creatures that feed on our essence as we sleep.  Or maybe dreams are simply a way to understand the world without the intrusion of our conscious mind.  It’s no wonder that for thousands of years we’ve sought meaning from our dreams.

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Dreams don’t give up their secrets easily.  They conceal meaning behind layers of symbol and distortion, a jumble of reality and imagining.  Dreams are wisps of thoughts and impressions left behind in the memory.  Things often don’t make sense, or our recollection of them is so hazy when we wake that we can’t grasp the sense of them.  They are fluid, merging into one another.  Sometimes they are effortless, sometimes frustratingly tangled.

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Daydreams don’t have the chaos or mystery of the dreams that seek us out in the night.  But they are another borderland: a place of drift and retreat; a slice of enchantment conjured just outside the real world.  Night dreams visit me unbidden, but I create my daydreams.  I tend to daydream when I’m stationary because daydreaming requires focus.  All those adults who have ever told a child to stop daydreaming in the misconception that they’re being idle, were mistaken.  It takes time and effort to construct a daydream, to build a world that can be seen, heard and tasted.  The line between daydreaming and visualisation is thin, lacking only intention.

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My life is imprinted with thousands of dreams, remembered and forgotten.  There are many ways to dream and I do it with a pen in my hand.  I write my daydreams down and call them stories.  What are stories, if not dreams of the imagination?  When I conjure a story it’s a type of dreaming.  There’s a space in the back of my head where the story unfolds like a reel of film.  Ephemeral and sometimes disjointed.  Like a foggy day or the blur of rain, it can be difficult to shape or grasp the sense of it.  But story-making is like lucid dreaming.  I can step inside the story and midwife it into being.

Walking Through Autumn

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In the dark of the year, the landscape glows.  I struggle through mornings that seem deeper and darker than last year, into luminous dawns of pastel pink and baby blue.  The sun is low molten gold, infusing stones and leaves with honey.  The air is chill but the scenery warms my soul.  It is as though nature knows that we need the memory of autumn’s fiery patchwork to warm us through winter.

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The maples are autumn’s show-offs.  If my eye is caught by a particularly vibrant display I can be almost sure it is a maple, with its blazing sunset palette.  Horse chestnuts offer fat golden fingers edged with rust.  The lindens are wisps of tissue against dark branches, leaves becoming transparent as they turn.  And the beeches are a radiance of colours from delicate greens and yellows to glossy bronze.  Paths become tunnels of gold, carpeted in fallen leaves and overhung by burnished branches.  The ground disappears beneath a crust of copper.  To walk through autumn is to walk an uncertain path, hidden by drifts of kaleidoscopic leaves.

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In this season, the old cemetery is a gilded place.  Pools of gold against a canvas of fading green.  Shafts of sunlight striping the fallen leaves.  In the old part of the cemetery, eroded stones slant under saffron foliage.  Fallen markers lie broken among sprinkled leaves.  Some graves have become melded to ivy, its roots like foliate inscriptions accenting the words.  Those graves that lie within their own shallow enclosures brim with leafy coverlets, as though the occupant has drawn up a comforter.

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I’ve come to the cemetery on the Eve of the Dead.  Halloween is when our ancestors are honoured and invited to visit.  I have always loved cemeteries.  I find them neither sad nor scary.  They are places of peace, of undisturbed nature.  This is the place where my parents’ ashes were scattered and where I have said goodbye to others I have known.  I’m struck, suddenly, by just how many people lie here.  In a way, they are all my ancestors: not of blood but of place.  A community of people that shaped the town that shaped me and birthed the people I have known and will know.  The parts of them that remain are only imprints, but their breath is in the breath that stirs the trees, their essence is in the earth on which I walk.

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I wander the old paths to the gentle caw of crows.  A magpie scolds me from the branches of a sycamore and follows me to the next.  A robin flutters in and out of a hedge.  I have a pebble in my pocket that I took from the beach at spring equinox as a symbol of the light half of the year.  I had no plans what I would do with it, but I’m drawn to a small moss covered gravestone that tilts towards the ground, forgotten in a dark part of the cemetery.  I place the stone on top, leaving a little of its light behind.

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Halloween has always been my favourite festival.  Its symbolism has all the complexity of autumn.  The old year is gone, all its hopes and dreams stripped away.  But the new year hasn’t yet begun.  This night has a fluidity, a sense of what was and what might be.  It is the start of the dreaming darkness, full of possibilities that haven’t yet been imagined.  As I walk the old paths, I am walking through layers of history.  This is a place that has seen the turn of many years, the turn of countless leaves.   It is a place where the stories that have ended endow those that are to come.

 

Song of the blackbird

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The blackbird has a song that is made for rain.  Perhaps it is the mournful tone of its tune, or the way it pierces the stillness before a storm.  Perhaps it is the way the song haunts me, so sadly beautiful it makes my heart ache.  You’ll usually find the blackbird at the highest point in a landscape, trilling its lament.  For as long as I remember, I’ve associated the bird with rain.  Its song is loud and lonely in the quiet before the rain comes and in the blurred aftermath among the soft drip of raindrops from the leaves.  When the landscape is quiet and expectant and I hear the blackbird sing, I know  it’s about to rain.

Copyright: Mandy Bland

My first memory of writing takes place in the rain.  I must be about ten and I’ve been to Brownies on a Friday night.  I’m with my father and we’re waiting for the bus home.  Dad stands watch outside while I sit in a bus shelter, dark and rain-washed, writing my version of a Nancy Drew mystery in a black, hard-backed exercise book with red corners.  I must have written stories and essays before for school, but this is the first time I remember writing for fun.  The story wasn’t my own, but something in it made me pick up a pen and try to write it in my own words.

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Since then, I have always associated rain with creativity.  Perhaps it’s my watery soul, but there’s something about rain that never fails to inspire me.  When the sky darkens, my body responds.  There’s a tingle, an expectation, a melancholy, that makes me want to write.  I prefer to be tucked up behind glass, preferably with nowhere to go and nothing to do.  With rain that is heavy enough to patter on the windows, drum on the roof and blur the landscape beyond the glass, like melting wax oozing down the pane.  Or to be walking among trees, where I can hear the thrum of the rain on the leaves and smell the wet vegetation.

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I appreciate rain in all its guises.  The glowering sky of a downpour or the bright eerie light heralding a thunderstorm.  A rising wind bringing rain on its tails.  The fat, heavy droplets that stain the ground with splodges, or the drench of fine summer rain.  I love the gurgle of rain in the gutters and rushing down drainpipes.  The swirl of water on tarmac and the dance of ripples in puddles.  Rain has its own discordant melody: a humming, stuttering, hissing song .  It isn’t always easy when you’re in it, particularly the needles of rain that have the promise of winter in them.  But rain soaks the senses, so it’s no surprise that it stimulates creativity.

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Rain wakes up the land.  Deep beneath the earth, seeds that lie dormant sigh in exhilaration as the rain drenches them.   Shoots unfold, desiccated plants expand and fungi fruit.  Rain wreaths the earth with its own scent: the brassy petrichor of soil, stone and parched vegetation.   The scent of rain is a hint on the air, just like the blackbird’s song, telling me that the storm is coming.  And my creative instinct stretches and flexes its muscles, waiting for the deluge.

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And when the storm is over, rain brings the world into focus.  The world is softer, but more pronounced.  There is a stillness after rain, just as there is a stillness before it.  Spent raindrops create their own drowsy percussion.  The voices of birds, quieted by the storm, re-appear jubilantly.  Colours are more vibrant and the musky scent of the earth simmers in the air.  The end of the storm feels celebratory, perhaps only because the rain is over or perhaps because it has revived the landscape.  And for the length of a storm, my creativity has been revived too.

Autumn inspiration

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Autumn was slow to begin, but now it rushes ahead of me, leaves crackling on the ground when I’ve barely witnessed them fall.  The continuing warmth of the days is sandwiched between morning and evening chills.  The harvest is done and we will soon head into the darkness that births new dreams, but before that happens, there is still time to gather in some autumn inspiration to feed the dreams ahead.

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I’ve travelled to London.  Not a place in which I would usually seek inspiration.  I’m no longer used to cities.  Too confined, too many people, too much noise, too much of everything.  I find them overwhelming.  But I’m here for a special event.  Penguin Random House, in partnership with writer development charities, have begun a programme called Write Now to find new writers from communities whose voices are under-represented in publishing.  1,000 writers applied from LGBT, black and minority ethnic, disabled and other marginalised groups and I was one of 50 invited to attend.

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But first, I visit Tate Modern to see an exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work.  It’s a relief to reach the river, where the landscape of the city opens up.  I find myself seduced by the  new skyline: the shard, the ‘walkie-talkie’, the Leadenhall building, glistening against the Thames, juxtaposed against Tower Bridge and Shakespeare’s Globe.  In the Tate, it’s the sculpture and the installations that attract me today: Cildo Meireles’ Babel, constructed from 800 radios all tuned to a different channel; Sheela Gowda’s Behold, made from human hair and car bumpers; Louise Nevelson’s Black Wall fashioned from scrap timber; Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Embryology, made from stuffed fabric.  In this season of earth, I’m drawn by shapes, by the physical, by the tactile.  I’m not concerned by how they might be interpreted, only by my instinctual attraction to them.

I love Georgia O’Keeffe, but have never been particularly enamoured by her famous flowers.  It’s the sensuality of her earth that I love.  Her hills that look like living things.  Her buildings that grow out of the landscape.  Her vibrant autumn leaves.  I’m drawn to her layers, the often stark images that nevertheless appear to be made from flesh.

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The next morning on my way to Penguin, the bells of St Clement Danes are glorious as I walk in the rain along the Strand.  At Write Now, we hear about the publishing process, from author to agent, to editor, to book cover designer.  We hear from authors about their experiences and discuss how the industry can help to get under-represented authors heard.  And then there is a one to one with a Penguin editor, to talk about the work we’ve submitted.  It’s exciting to imagine that this might be my future, a moment to dream that it might be possible.  There will be two more Write Now events around the country, then 10 out of 150 people will be chosen to take part in a year long mentoring programme.  I can only hope that I’ll be one of them.

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I leave London on a quiet train blurring through a rainy landscape.  My mind is full of impressions: modern and old, busy and tranquil, stark and beautiful.  As I stare out of the window, the sun begins to set and the landscape is gilded by the dying sun.  Mist hangs over the fields and the result is a breath-taking golden haze I have never witnessed before.  But the tranquillity is short-lived.  Further north, the train is flooded by football supporters from my local team.  They have won their match and are travelling home, boisterous, drinking and singing football songs.  My head is pounding by the time we reach our destination, but as we pour into the station, the soar of all those male voices singing in the acoustics of the station is electrifying.  This isn’t high music, but the effect is as uplifting as the most sacred of songs.   As the impressions of the weekend sink in, I’m struck by the endless possibilities for inspiration: painting, sculpture, architecture, weather, church bells – and even football songs.

Please take a moment to visit my blogging friend Lori.  Her novel has been accepted for a Kindle Scout campaign and will be published if enough readers nominate it.  There are only 13 days left to nominate her so please visit her at  https://loreezlane.wordpress.com/ where you’ll find more information and the link to follow.

Anchored

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It has been a summer of drifting.  One day into another, sun into rain and back again.  There has been no definition to the season.  No meadow season.  No season of tiny flying things.  Not even the dreaded dog days of August.  Even now, as the season turns, we drift from the hottest September day for over sixty years into impenetrable fog.  And I have drifted too.  There has been my job and the times in between; there has been little writing.  I have no clear sense of what I’ve done with my summer.  Writing is so often about trying: trying to find a story; trying to write that story in the way you have imagined it; trying to find someone to publish it.  Sometimes what’s necessary is to stop trying and drift for a while.

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But summer has begun to drift into autumn.  The days shorten imperceptibly.  It is always a surprise how early darkness comes.  Mist festoons the dawn.  The spiders are at work building their webs.  And I’ve come back to the earth to find an anchor, something to root me to the creativity of autumn.  Walking into the forest is always a liminal thing.  There is the moment before, when you are in open landscape, and the moment after, when the trees enfold you.  This is my threshold: the drifting summer before I entered the trees, the rooted autumn afterwards.

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For me, autumn is all about earth.  It is about the call of the land.  Magically, autumn is associated with water, but the creativity that finds me in this season is from the deep darkness of the earth.  It rises from below and from within.  So I’ve come back to the woods, to walk earthen paths and to be cossetted in a claustrophobia of trees.  I’ve left the airiness of the sea and the wide horizon, for a horizon cloaked by green.

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And here, I also find stones.  On the North Yorkshire moors the Bridestones are sandstone formations shaped 150 million years ago.  To reach them, the track is steep and strenuous, through old oak forest.  I can’t imagine that the trees will ever open up into moorland.  But soon there is a gate, leading through a bracken-choked field.  And then there is a track, purpled with heather, and there is the first stone, drawing us on.

The stones are giants.  Gnarled, pocked and ridged, crevices inhabited by wild flowers.  They stand on either side of a deep valley, a semi circle of watchers.  It is said that their name is from the old Norse for ‘edge stones’, but the edge of what?  Some say they are the petrified remains of bridal parties lost in the mist on the moors.  Others say they are sacred to the goddess Bride, she ‘of the high places’.  But there is more than one goddess here.  The stones have the shades of old crones within them – a face here, a silhouette there.  These are hoary old goddesses.  Fierce, watchful, demanding.

This is a wide open place.  I stand on an outcrop and despite the fierce humidity of the day, I feel the whip of the wind across the valley.  This is an unforgiving landscape and if you were lost here, I suspect you would get no quarter from these stones.  But still, they sing of what is beneath and within the landscape.  There is more to the Crone than ferocity.

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Back in the woods, I watch two sexton beetles battle over the corpse of a shrew.  The loser crawls away in defeat, while the victor scurries to the body to begin work.  The beetle will excavate the earth beneath it, drawing the body under the soil, where it will be food for its larvae.  Look closely and you can see the tiny mites that live in co-operation on the beetle, eating the eggs of other flesh-easting rivals.  It can take eight hours for the beetle to finish its work.   The next day I return and on the surface there is no trace, but beneath the earth, who knows what transformation is taking place?

This is the season of beneath.  When the fungi whose roots bide their time for miles under the earth suddenly fruit.  A shaggy inkcap, a foot tall, beckons to a fence.  Beyond the fence, forgotten steps sprouting bracken lead down to an old makeshift bridge spanning the beck.  This is the season when hidden things become visible.  I sit on the verandah and a roe deer appears, no more than a metre away.  It stops and looks at me for one perfect moment, before bounding into the forest.  The spirit of the woods has visited.

Harvest is almost upon us; when the fruits of our labours make themselves known and we reckon up what we have achieved.  I have anchored myself back to the earth, ready for the coming season of fruitfulness.  I do my best creative work in the dark half of the year, delving beneath and within the darkness to shape the year’s dreams.

Transition

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It is the dawn of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  This midsummer dawn is a time of transitions.  For a moment the sun stands still, before the year turns into another season.  Later today, the moon will become full, the first time in half a century that it has done so on a summer solstice.  It is the fourth full moon in a season, something that happens seven times within a 19 year cycle.  High tide coincides with dawn, reaching its own zenith before ebbing.  At spring equinox, I was at the other end of the causeway, marooned on the island with the seals.  Today the tide resists me, barring entry.

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In the west, last night’s moon is setting.  It hangs suspended, an amber globe, almost at its potential.   In the east, the horizon hints at sunrise.  A slash of yellow silhouettes gloomy clouds.  Pinprick lights glow from ships far out at sea.  Clouds dwarf the ships as though pressing them downwards.  They look small and lonely out there.

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As the light grows, sand martins flicker across the water and back to their burrows in the cliffs.  There are some ducks that might be eiders in the distance.  But there are no bird calls, only the relentless growl of the sea.  A flock of geese flies silently overhead, in the midst of changing positions in their V.  The sky is all luminous pastels and foreboding greys.  A yellow stripe daubs the horizon.   The clouds play at masquerade: brush-strokes, wire wool, snow-clad peaks and blotched fur adorning the sky.

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This is a time for empowerment and some would say the combination of a fourth full moon with the solstice emphasises that power.  It’s a time to renew energy, to inhale the lightness of the season, because after today we’re already heading towards darkness.   But there has been little in the way of sun recently and much of drizzly rain and grey skies.  This morning, I don’t feel empowered, I feel tired.  And yet, there is a simmering power in the silence, if not of the sun, then of sea and sky.

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Our world has both expanded and contracted this week.  We shared home, food, lives and experiences with a visitor from America, reminding us that we are different but much the same.  But our world has suddenly grown smaller.  We’ve chosen to withdraw from Europe and become an island again.   In this season of looking outwards, many of us have chosen to look the other way.   This is a country enclosed by sea and sky.  It would be easy to view it as a barrier and this island as a fortress.  But when I stand at the sea’s edge, I see only an expanse of possibility.  It’s what allows me to breathe.

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Summer is a time of plenty, when we enjoy the bounty of what is around us.  But not for everyone and there’s a fear that there isn’t enough to go around.  The divisions are showing, between young and old, between those with and without.  It seems that we are in chaos and uncertainty as we confront the descent into winter.   In town, I’m surprised that people are going about their business as though nothing has happened.  This is another transition – we stood still as the votes came in with another dawn.  Now the sun recedes, even as summer comes, and we as a people are withdrawing too.

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It’s time to collect what we can from the summer to empower and sustain us into the winter.  To gather our sustenance from the light, the heat, the bounty of the land and the swelling of our imaginations.  I can’t help but feel sad today at what we may have given up, but I take my sustenance from the quiet power of the solstice dawn.  From the wide open sky and the potential of the horizon.  Transition always comes and in itself, it’s neither good nor bad, only a change from one way of being to another.