The slow work of the soul

August is a month of waiting.   Not the desperate waiting of winter, when you can no longer stand the darkness, but the sweet longing for something anticipated to come.  I look at the calendar and am always surprised that the month isn’t yet over.  There are days in August that seem poised on the edge of time.  Perfect days, like this one, when the sun is hazy and still low in the sky, giving a blurred luminosity to the light.  A day when the earth seems to be holding its breath.  When I feel myself expand out into the silence and every step is like a sigh.

The dene belongs to the birds: gulls, magpies and wood pigeons.  Mallards are motionless on the pond and a blackbird takes a leisurely bath.  A rat dodges two moorhens to reach the undergrowth and a grey wagtail bobs on a rock.  At the marina, the river reflects the hazy light so the world doesn’t feel quite solid.  Swallows chitter and swoop above my head while arctic terns scream.  I watch a gull pluck a crab from the water and devour it as a youngster looks on, crying for its share of the feast.

These are the dog days of summer.  When the hedgerows are lit by the purple and yellow beacons of wild parsnips, melilot, willowherbs and thistles and it seems that autumn may never come.  It is the month when the birds turn silent while they moult, adding to its sense of stillness.  I remind myself to listen for the exact day that their songs cease, but of course it is only afterwards that I notice I haven’t heard the chatter of the sparrows and the goldfinches for days.

Autumn is breathing on the neck of summer.  Already the festival of the first harvest has taken place and the spirit of the sun is captured safely within the corn.  The goldfinches have re-appeared and starlings gather on the chimney pots.  But August lingers and I yearn for autumn’s respite.

Lately I have been feeling the speed of the world.  I’m young enough to have used computers for two thirds of my life; old enough to remember when shops closed on Sundays, when letters were written by hand to far-flung penfriends, when, if you needed information, you had no choice but to visit a library.  Lately, the world often seems ‘too much’ and I long to return to what I remember as a slower time.

British artist Chris Ofili recently unveiled a tapestry The Caged Bird’s Song at the National Gallery.  I watch a documentary about its construction.  Four weavers laboured by hand for nearly three years to create it, unable to see whether they had captured the final image accurately until they had finished and the tapestry was unrolled.  The artist commented that he thought there was something about the slowness of the work that meant the soul of the weavers was woven into it.  I marvelled at their monumental patience and faith.  No wonder that over that period of time, so immersed in colour, line and thread, the soul would seep in.

I lack the kind of patience displayed by those weavers.    And yet, my writing has always taken its time.  Sometimes a story arrives fully formed, but more often it needs to gestate.  The words need to be chosen carefully and woven in the same way as a tapestry, with infinite patience and without knowing what it will look like at the end.  If you live with a story for a long time, your life is woven through it.  The story is who you are now and who you were then.   Some stories are those of an instant, completely of their time.  Others have lingered and breathed with you, absorbing experience and memory and more than a little of your soul along the way.  Creativity may be sparked in a moment, but to birth it is the slow work of the soul.

156 thoughts on “The slow work of the soul

  1. Lovely post, Andrea. I also long for the day when things slowed down on Sunday and letters were written by hand. Here in Charlotte, NC, the Cicada chorus is quieting, so I know autumn isn’t far away. I enjoyed your stunning photographs.

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  2. Your characterization of August as “a month of waiting” is so apt, Andrea! It’s something I was thinking about yesterday. “It’s still August!” The rest of the summer seemed to fly by, but August seems to linger. I’m grateful in a way because I still have prep work to do before the class I teach begins in September. But like you, I look forward to the coolness, color, and vigor of fall.

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  3. Love.

    I love the steadfast slowness upon that tapestry (incidentally, guess what I’m reading at the moment? Caged Bird…) and the implications of the life the laborers imparted to it. And I can’t imagine you rushing anything, Andrea. It’s funny because I jotted down a title of a poem (yet birthed) last week: The Life Cycle of a Poem. And so I get your closing thoughts on the fruit of our creativity.

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    • Thanks Diana – it’s very admirable, but I couldn’t face that type of slow work – though perhaps if it’s the work of your soul it doesn’t feel such a monumental process. I prefer not to rush things, but in my paid job everything is always rushed and loaded with information and things to do, hence the feeling that the world is too much sometimes. I look forward to the birth 🙂

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  4. Your words always capture me, Andrea. Beacons, wild parsnips — I don’t know why, but that was just wonderful. (“When the hedgerows are lit by the purple and yellow beacons of wild parsnips, melilot, willowherbs and thistles and it seems that autumn may never come.”) Lovely as always, my friend. Hugs on the wing!

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  5. How well this piece conjures that sense of the pause between the end of summer and the beginning of winter, as if everything is breathing easier, just for a week or so….beautiful.

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  6. Your posts always spur me to deeper thought, and this one is no exception. Our stories do indeed require gestation, and I think that’s why the commonly accepted notion of writers doing much of their work while not actually writing is so true. Some things we just need to ruminate on.

    I loved your last line: “Creativity may be sparked in a moment, but to birth it is the slow work of the soul.” So, so true.

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  7. Beautiful, as always, Andrea. I especially liked “the river reflects the hazy light so the world doesn’t feel quite solid.” Wow. Amazing! How do you always manage to find a way to paint such vivid pictures in my mind without using hardly any adjectives at all. That requires a special skill I wish I had.

    I am always amazed at artists that can create without seeing the whole picture. Three years of weaving a tapestry without seeing the whole while working… They’re almost as good with their thread as you are with your words!

    You are truly a creative word artist.

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    • Thanks James, I appreciate your comment, the earth furnishes some wonderful material! The weaving was absolutely amazing – something I think I would find soul-destroying rather than the other way around, but we each find our passion in different ways.

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  8. The beauty of your writing and the astuteness of your observations really speak to me in this piece and make me want to elevate the level of my own writing. I love the opportunity to travel through this countryside with you. I live near Virginia’s beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and hope to find similar inspiration this fall. Thank you so much for sharing.

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      • It’s called the Blue Ridge Mountains because the haze on the mountains make them look Blue. Unlike the Blue Grass of Kentucky where allegedly you need to have some bourbon and look at it sideways to see the Blue. Most of the Blue Ridge Mountains were settled by Scotch-Irish who also settled up and down the Appalachian mountains (which the Blue Ridge is part of). The mountains are beautiful, but the soil is poor for farming so many of the settlers lived hard lives. Until the American revolution, it was the frontier of British settlements. During and immediately after the frontier pushed from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River.

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  9. This makes so much sense to me: “Others have lingered and breathed with you, absorbing experience and memory and more than a little of your soul along the way.” I think our hands act as conduits for energy – or soul, if you will – and when we work hard on any creative endeavour, whether slow or fast, that energy becomes part of the creation. I think its even possible it works with a keyboard and screen, too.

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  10. It is clear why summer has always been referred to as relatively slow and relaxed, lacking much tension. Therefore, people start to rightly refer to it as ‘lazy,’ as it appeared very much so. Winter, people imagine, seems always rather fierce and tense. Summer and winter, when it is looked at that way, seem always as if they could have the different characters that are given through thinking of their actions as the actions of a living character.

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  11. Beautifully written, Andrea. I, too, feel the slow ebbing of summer as we slip towards winter, the light changing daily. It is a bittersweet time when I must bid farewell to the summer migrants, whose songs won’t be heard again for another six months. I wish summer and its warmth would last longer!

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  12. Oh, this is beautifully written!! So dreamy and romantic and poetic and thoughtful! I love it! And I love the photos so much too! 💖🌸💖🌸. You have inspired me! Thank you! 😊😊

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  13. Thank you for alerting me to the Caged Bird’s Song Tapestry. It’s an extraordinary work of art, and I love how you weave it into your post. As for time, we often say we are time poor. I am wondering if it would be more appropriate to say we are time greedy. We stuff it to the brim with as much as we can and then gobble it up so quickly that we often get indigestion! Perhaps we should all have one project, like a tapestry, which takes time, a lot of time, to remind us to savour time.

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    • It is indeed – I was attracted by the title because of Maya Angelou, though it has nothing to do with that! A good way of looking at the complaints about time, we do try to do too much and then wonder why we feel under pressure. A project like that for everyone would be an interesting way to show us how to savour time!

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  15. Isn’t it interesting, that we all have lots of patience but for very different things? A hospital psychiatrist saw me embroidering and said, “I wouldn’t have the patience for that!” and yet she had the patience to listen to unhappy, disturbed people and help them work through their troubles! You have the best patience for creating evocative pictures with words!

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  16. “Creativity may be sparked in a moment, but to birth it is the slow work of the soul.”
    That phrase resonates fully with me and helps me to understand/validate all the time it’s taken to see my ‘latest’ project to completion. Not just the actual project, but the presentation of the project to the outside world. That last is the hardest for me because the creative work has already been birthed…

    BTW: my fav season is the Fall, also.

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  17. A lovely post Andrea, and written in such an easy to read yet deep manner. I love the idea of birthing creativity as a slow work of the soul. In my day job as full-time writer the focus is often on speed, writing within the budget, meeting deadlines. How easy it is to carry this approach over to the more creative writing I do. So your post is a pertinent reminder: I can take my time. As to August, I agree, it’s like Mother Nature is taking a breather, after all the spring growth, and before the autumnal preparations. You’re right about birdsong; it is indeed a quiet month. But around this time I look forward to the robin’s autumn song as it “wakes up” after its summer moult and welcomes the new season.

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  18. I can never make up my mind- what do I love more about your blog, the lovely, deceptively simple photographs that lift my soul or your words which take the reader along the pathways of your mind? Wonderful writing, Andrea!

    Like you I am also young enough to have used computers (for more than half my life) and old enough to have waited impatiently for the postman, who would bring letters and the paperman who would bring the sole children’s magazine available in my language in those days. (I neither had access nor perhaps had enough language skills to really understand children’s magazines published in English).

    Yesterday while waiting in the British Library with three hours to spend while my son attended a workshop, I happened to read Sightlines, by Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie. Your post somehow reminded me of her landscapes.

    [This may be like taking coals to New Castle, I know 🙂 But still, if you would like to have a look, here is a link to a condensed extract from a chapter in Sightlines.

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/apr/08/bergen-whales-museum-kathleen-jamie%5D

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    • Thanks Sylvia, I appreciate your thoughts as always. Wasn’t it exciting getting letters? I had penfriends from all over the world and it was exciting to see what the post would bring. I haven’t read Sightlines, but I have read ‘Findings’, which I very much enjoyed – I’ll add Sightlines to my reading list though, thank you for the recommendation 🙂

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  19. Lovely photographs, Andrea, as always. The macro of the radishes is stunning. I agree about the writing – at times it seems to come in an instant, and others … it takes as long as it needs, and these are the pieces we go back and edit. And edit, until sometimes they are not what we started at all. Summer here seems to be slipping into autumn on its own – uncharacteristically cool for this time of year, going into the high 50’s at night already. No one’s complaining. It will all be here soon enough. Enjoy the last of it.

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  20. Beautiful words and sentiment here, although your header shot of common ragwort and globe thistle always gives me the shudders, because I know how troublesome they can be in hay. I guess it ties in with the Anglo Saxon name for August – weed-month – anyway!
    So many regard August as the end of summer, but the advent of harvest always tips it over into autumn in my mind, and autumn is my favourite season, too. It always feels more like a beginning than an end.
    PS Would a link to the documentary you mention be possible, please?

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  21. I’m enjoying August this year, Andrea. It’s been cool and slow almost in preparation for the cold months of winter. Maybe, it’s where my soul has been of late — soaking in the nuances and subtle changes as they unfold. Lovely writing, my friend. Enjoyed the read.

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  22. You know I love your posts about seasons most, Andrea. This one is gorgeous. So many sentences are beautifully eloquent. I love the idea of fall breathing in the neck of August. Perfect. And of course anyone who writes can appreciate your last section.
    Quick question: Was your story for Cold Iron one that stayed in gestation for a while or a story that took shaped fairly rapidly? I love it in any case.

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  23. Lovely writing as always, Andrea. I love it when your posts pop up in my reader. I’m off to look up Chris O’s tapestry now. The documentary sounds interesting…I wonder if I can find it on catch up…

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    • Thanks Jenny. It was in the BBC Imagine series – there’s a link in my reply to ‘New Moons for Old’ just below – don’t think the programme is available at the minute but there are some clips, and they do tend to repeat the Imagines now and again.

      Liked by 1 person

  24. A beautiful, thoughtful post, Andrea! I like the concept of the “slow work of the soul”. That is as it should be.

    I wish this were a time of holding my breath here; we are still going full bore into late summer and early autumn. We have had many days in the 90s and 100s, and spot watering to keep plantings alive is almost a full time job. I put down a lot of mulch, but the ground still bakes as hard as a brick in this weather.

    The wild blackberries are now ripe. They are thorny devils to pick, but provide a sweet finish to August’s work.

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  25. I adore this time of the year and it seems I’m full of energy and fresh ideas while standing before that open door – leaving goodbyes for beloved summer, welcoming refreshing autumn with open arms… I am missing those slower times with you – especially during autumn, when I’m desperately trying to capture those “slow moments” back into my life. I can’t think of anything more appealing than writing those long, describing letters and finally sending them abroad or handpicking those old books from library shelves. Sentimental here connected with your beautiful words, so Thank You.

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  26. I completely agree that if you live with a story long enough your life is woven through it. Sometimes I get a shock if i go back and read my earlier books because I’m reminded of my past in ways that I had completely forgotten about! It’s always good to be reminded of the slow work of the soul. I’m better at that now than I used to be. When I was younger and first starting out as a writer I was mighty impatient but with the one I’m currently writing I find myself more curious than impatient and it’s a lot less stressful!

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  27. You know, I thought the birds had stopped singing because we lost our (only) tree (in a storm) and they had nowhere to perch for song. But, I wondered why I hadn’t heard them in other trees. I didn’t pay attention when I lived here in my youth. Florida’s nature environment is so different, and I lived there for so long that I’m not used to the patterns back home. I appreciated learning about it from your post. I do miss those bird songs. Somehow, they ground me.

    Thank you for writing about the stories growing within us. I’ve lost my muse lately, and I’d like to think that the story is growing even though I’m not writing.

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  28. “Creativity may be sparked in a moment, but to birth it is the slow work of the soul.”

    I LOVE this line. Beautiful and so true.

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  29. So beautifully written, as always, Andrea!
    Those pictures are gorgeous as well. I love that laziness of August and have been feeling the lack of being able to enjoy it. I work in a private golf course so, other than when I am working on the terrace, do not get to see the summer go by. I am feeling shock that this month is over in three days!

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  30. I love how you make me slow down and pay attention, Andrea. So lovely to really listen and observe nature. My creativity must be gestating right now! Maybe something will come of it!

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  31. Beautiful! I love this line: “Autumn is breathing on the neck of summer.” With school starting in just one day, I can definitely feel the clock ticking into a different rhythm. Summer went far too fast for me, but I hear that happens the older we get.

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