Return to Tocil Wood

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I arrive in a summer storm.  The landscape is blurred with rain; rain that is like a Flamenco, drumming away the sticky heat.  I came here a year ago for a work event and never expected to return.  A year ago, I found secrets here, in the shade of Tocil Wood.

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This is a place buffeted by trees and run through with water.  And it’s a place of fowl: a gaggle of Canada geese grazing on the grass, mallards, moorhens, coots and Greylags.  Geese honks are like clanging buckets in the distance.  I expect a colourful meadow of poppies, buttercups, ox-eye daisies and viper’s bugloss, in contrast to the greens and whites still dominant further north.  But the meadow is gone, replaced by the construction site for a new building.  I can see only a cluster of ox-eye daisies and buttercups fringing a muddy pool of water behind metal barriers.

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This meadow path was the track that led me to a small swing in an enchanted glade, but if the meadow is gone, perhaps the enchantment will be gone too.  I find another way around, into the watery landscape, through oaks dripping with rain.  There was a broken tree here last year.  It formed an arch that beckoned me on, but the arch too has vanished.

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I struggle to find the track to the glade.  There appears to be no way in, but it’s just a matter of easing the eye into the shapes of the undergrowth.  I push through and there is the swing, still hanging in the darkness of the dell.  Lying right beneath it is a single blackbird feather, like a welcome.  I take it with me.

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I walk further into the shaded glade.  It was always a dark spot, but today it is fogged with rain.  The ground is slippery: thick red mudstone that has been gathered for clay here since the 1st century.  Part of the steep slope has been roped off.  But a little further in, two more swings have appeared.  The first seems to have been made by the same hand as the original, fashioned from slatted wood and rope.  The second is bright blue plastic.  Both wait, empty, for small bottoms to fill them.

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And though my original arch through the trees has gone, there are others here, trees bent and twisted, beckoning me along the tracks.  One leads to a den that has been created in the trees.  A child’s toy lies forgotten, colourful plastic among its dead  branches.  There are ropes fixed into the hillside.  This unlikely spot has become a place to play.  A slightly wild place, the kind we might wish to have inhabited as children.  I follow the path further into the trees.  The ground is choked with young ivy and  campion, there are oaks and hazels and fallen trees.  I emerge damp but satisfied to have reclaimed a little of the magic.

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Later, I return to the woods.  I find the clearing of trees that I discovered a year ago.  Another secret space in the forest that spoke of enchantments and stories yet to be revealed.  I wonder if the heron at the edge of the pond is the same bird that guarded the threshold to the woods last year.  A place has many stories.  In one story it remains the same as the first time we met it.  In another, builders put up barriers and change its landscape.  In yet another, children take over and make it a place of play.  My story of Tocil Wood is all of these and none of them.  I was only here for a moment but I am part of the story too.

Abandoned

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Every town has its abandoned places.  Weed-choked, pigeon-haunted, windows toothed with shards of glass.  These are the crumbling, forgotten parts of town, where graffiti blooms in shells of rooms, trees cleave foundations and girders grasp the sky.  Spiked pewter fences and nailed plywood defend the carcasses of buildings or the spaces where they once were.  Perhaps a battered for sale sign or a warning to keep out: nature and man conspiring to repel visitors.

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Nature is quick to claim the things we discard.  These are the buildings that have served their purpose.  Unlike ruins, which are valued and preserved, these are the unloved spaces.  The broken warehouse that was once a canning factory; the tilting façade that was a town hall.  Buildings with an uncertain future – to be demolished, renovated, or left to collapse.  Buildings that attract the wrong kind of attention: graffiti, vandalism, bad behaviour.  They are the forgotten history of the town, unwanted relics of old ways of life.  Reminders that everything is temporary.  If something once desired can be so easily neglected, if something substantial can so easily fall apart, then what is to become of us?

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The abandoned places remind us that we aren’t safe.  We want to live in neighbourhoods that are attractive and cared for.  When derelict buildings begin to appear, we worry that it’s only a matter of time before our neighbourhood declines.  So we walk quickly past them or rail against their presence, demanding that they be removed so that we can feel safe again.  But look past the dereliction and they offer beauty of a different kind.  The charm of weathered wood and sun-scorched stone.  Of guerrilla art and the drooping purple of buddleia.  The unruly tangle of trees bursting through roofs.  The revelation of structure and the spaces in between.  It is a stark beauty that isn’t for everyone: the beauty of decay.

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These buildings no longer bow to human rules or opinion.  And though they sometimes seem brooding presences, as though resentful of their neglect, I suspect that actually they revel in it.  They quicken at the blast of wind through empty windows, sigh at the drench of rain on dusty floors.  They offer welcome to the pigeons and the mice that flutter and scurry through silent rooms.  These are feral buildings now.

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I’m vexed by a memory.  An abandoned house, glassless windows.  A friend bounces on an old mattress as I watch through the gap.  I don’t know if this is a real memory, but it haunts me as all abandoned places do.  I want to wander their broken rooms, sift through the debris of former lives, absorb the memories that bleed from the walls.  I want to know what remains behind those unfettered doors.

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I want to remember these abandoned places.  Not as they were, but as they are.  The sliver of building above has already become a story.  Its ruins have an inhabitant and a mystery to be solved.  It may be starved of attention in the physical world, but the world of imagination is a more forgiving place.  In this world, nothing is abandoned, it is only re-shaped, until it finds its own story.

Along the tracks

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There’s something exuberant about the blooms of August.  As though summer, knowing it is on its last legs, throws all its efforts into a medley of colour before its time is over.  It is the season of vivid purples and zesty yellows: great tangles of willowherbs, thistles and buddleia bordering knots of ragwort, great mullein and weld.  And the lush white bindweed trumpets creeping nefariously over them all.

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Nowhere is this more obvious than along the tracks.  This is railway country, the place where the ‘father of the railways’ was born.  George Stephenson built his first locomotive to transport coal down these tracks.  The county is scored with the remains of the old lines, waggon-ways that ferried coal from the Great Northern Coalfield to the river Tyne.  It was first carried on wooden tracks in horse-drawn carts, then on metal rails by stationary steam engines hauled by ropes and finally by steam locomotive.

SAMSUNG CSCThese days, no locomotives pass this way, except perhaps in dreams in the dead of night.  The rails are long gone, replaced by paths.  Lined with hawthorn hedges, abundant in wild flowers.  Birds, hares and other creatures inhabit these tracks now, burrowing into the banks and flitting through the hedges.  Whereas once they were noisy with heavy industry, now they are peaceful trails in the midst of towns.

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In this topsy turvy and unsettled year, my creativity hasn’t followed its usual path.  I struggled to feel the celebration of summer and bring my box of dreams to fruition.  Yet something strange has happened in the last few weeks.  When I venture out, all I see is potential.  Fat, glossy rosehips, scores of blackberries, elderberries and haws.  Most still green, some beginning to turn, but only the potential of what they will become.   And my creative energy has suddenly revived: I find myself fervently writing, reading and submitting before the final harvest comes.  Like summer, I am giving the season my best efforts before the autumn tide takes over.

Unsettled

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It has been a season of fits and starts.  I struggle to find the rhythm of creativity.  There are moments when I catch the thread of it, begin to weave it into the trace of a pattern.  But then the design is lost, strands abandoned on the loom or fading into incoherence.  This is not a fallow period, nor a fit of the doubt doldrums.  It is something altogether more insidious than that.  Anxiety haunts my mornings and the year is vexed by a mercurial bleakness.  And the poverty of creative inspiration disquiets me.

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The weather too can’t settle into a rhythm.  Languid days fretted with heat, the air thick, close and stale.  I struggle to breathe in the treacly heat.  Rain of every kind: heavy splodges, misty drizzle, pin-prick hail.  Moments of storm-quiet, those rich, still moments when you feel the coming of the storm in your blood.  And magnificent rumbles of thunder, moaning across the sky as though they never want to end.

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The summer meadows are blooming, but already the flowers look crisp and ragged around the edges.  The Dene beds are empty of water, the ponds stagnant.  Wild cherries jewel the trees and lie abandoned on the grass, unwanted by the birds.  But small creatures flutter everywhere, over clouds of ox-eye daisies that invade the land like delicate occupiers.  The birds are quieting, as they do after the hard work of spring.  This is weather to seek out a patch of grass under the shade of a tree and to feel its cooling balm.

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I struggle with this part of the season.  My body feels the turn of the solstice, the inconspicuous move towards shorter days.  I begin to long for autumn, for curling up and turning inwards.  I dislike the heat and the excesses of summer, my least favourite season.  But we are just moving into the most extrovert months of the year, long hot days filled with the voices of freed children, the acid tang of barbecue smoke and the waft of music.  It’s a paradox that my spirit battles against.  But this, like every other season, like every state of mind, is transient and perhaps this year, the pattern is an acceptance of that.

Fledging

Sometimes, the earth conspires in gracious serendipity so that you think it’s sending a message just for you.  On the week that I begin writing again I witness so many tiny wonders that it seems like a sign, dovetailing with my newly awakened inspiration.

The day after inspiration strikes, I am greeted by the first goslings of the year.  A pair of Canada Geese stand guard as their brood peck nonchalantly at the grass.  Later, they slip into the water to pirouette around the pond, the parents heads bobbing, as though pointing the right direction, a gentle honk calling back any stragglers.  On another pond, the punk orange heads of baby Coots and Moorhen chicks peeking through the reeds.  The smaller birds are harder to see at this time of year, but I can hear their ardent songs and glimpse them high in the trees.  And at the end of this enchanted week, the first of the swallow family appear: sand martins flitting around the cliffs at the coast.

Overnight, new life has appeared.  The pinks have begun to join the yellows, with an abundance of campion lining the paths.  A handful of delicate cuckoo flowers contrast with monstrous butterbur leaves.  I see my first orange-tipped butterflies and a comma feeding on the dandelions and watch cabbage whites dance together in delicate spirals.  It is blossom season, but this year I’ve been more attentive to the subtler flowers of the trees.  The flowers that we don’t always notice: the broccoli like florets of the ash and the tiny green sprays of the sycamore.  I saw my first hawthorn blossom at the rubbish dump, of all places, brightening up the wait to get rid of our clutter.

This year I’ve struggled to re-balance after the winter.  I began the season with a box of dreams sown in the dark months and an impatience to bring them to life.  Instead, I fell into a fallow period that persisted for the first quarter of the year.  Spring has been slow to come, not in the earth but in my spirit.  My creativity has gone, not into my craft, but into my home.  An extended period of nesting: weeks of wallpaper, paint, carpets and curtains.  Bags and bags of clutter divested, clearing a space for other things to come in.  But now I’m fledging the nest.  Beltane is the start of summer, the first big festival of the light half of the year.  It came and went without much ceremony.  But I was waiting, I think, for the earth to let me know it was time to give birth to my plans.

In another moment of serendipity, after writing about ruins, I have cause to visit the 7th century priory that broods over the mouth of the river.  I wander ruins overgrown by Alexander flowers, unconsciously absorbing history and landscape.  And it is the ruins that wake my creativity, insinuating themselves into the half-written second novel that has waited for attention since last year, taking it into a more satisfying direction.  So as the signs of new life flourish, I find myself in that magical space at the beginning of a creative adventure, at the point where ideas might take flight or never leave the ground.  I hope they soar.

Re-balancing

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When I leave the forest, part of me stays there: the part of me that is like the deer, slipping silently through the trees, glimpsed if you’re lucky.  The deer are usually elusive here, but when we arrive, a doe is nonchalantly grazing a few metres away in the early evening glow of the sunset.  For four days, deer grace us with their presence at dawn and dusk, their cotton fluff tails like beacons in the half-light.

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Before the equinox, it’s not uncommon for life to seem chaotic as nature fights for balance.  And for me, events conspired to enforce an unexpected pause from blogging: a virus that gave me blurred vision, dizziness, nausea and fatigue; a bereavement and family illness.  There were stories to be written, pictures to be painted, blogs to be read, but I found I couldn’t act.  I followed the spiral down, deep into the doubt doldrums and I began to think about giving up, almost to spite myself.

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But before doubt overwhelms me, I retreat to the forest to find that it is re-balancing too.  Spring is definitely on its way.  The dawn chorus is deafening.  The forest dances with movement: the flutter of chaffinches and tits; pairs of blackbirds, jays and woodpeckers.  A single squirrel multiplies into three, sinuously moving along the forest floor and leaping through the trees.  On our first day, a tiny death.  I cry for the waste of a colourful life, as I carry the soft, still-warm body of a blue tit into the trees.  Later, a crow circles curiously, before carrying the corpse away in its beak, as if to remind me that no death is wasted here.

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Then early one morning, winter appears.  I’ve longed for snow but had to wait until I came to the woods for it to find me.  And this was serious snow: fat flakes falling heavily and quickly, transforming the forest into a wonderland.  We walk through the snowy hush while others are still sleeping, following tracks of deer and hare.  But by afternoon, the snow is gone and the forest glows with sunshine once more, as though this magical interlude had never happened.

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I leave the forest channelling acceptance, realising that unconsciously I’ve been fighting against the season.  I was trying to force action in the season of incubation.  Action comes later, at Ostara, the spring equinox, when the spring energy sweeps in and calls us to movement.  I didn’t follow my own lesson and that’s where I went wrong.

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I haven’t quite left doubt behind me.  I’m ready to get back into the world, if only tentatively.  I’ll accept the doubt and accept the troubled feeling of my emotions fighting for balance, ready to take action when action is ready to be taken.  And this spring equinox felt particularly auspicious.  Not only were the hours of darkness and light balanced, but so too were the sun and moon, moving into alignment to form a solar eclipse at the new moon.  The crocuses that tentatively appeared a few weeks ago are in luscious bloom.  The first daffodils have blossomed to herald the equinox and, if I’m lucky, an end to doubt too.

I’m looking forward to catching up with you all soon and reading your latest posts.

The shoe tree

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The ash tree is a tall tangle of feathery limbs at the edge of the park.  At some point, unnoticed, shoes began to stipple its branches, like peculiar fruits.  They’re the shoes of both children and adults.  Mainly sneakers, but of many designs.  Some have a branch to themselves, others have become tangled with one another to form intricate mobiles.  The shoes don’t seem to harm the tree.  In fact, they’ve slowly become part of it.  They’ve been there so long that many are now encrusted in lichen.  Occasionally, an abandoned shoe will appear on the grass, evicted by gales or rot.

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I wonder who all of these shoes belong to.  Did their wearers skulk home barefoot, having had the shoes ripped from their feet?  Did their parents scold them because they’d lost their shoes?  Do their former owners still pass by and look longingly at shoes they once loved that are now out of reach?  Or did they give them up joyfully in a blithe moment of festivity?

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I first heard of shoe trees when I read local author Julia Darling’s novel The Taxi-Driver’s Daughter, in which an unhappy teenage girl decorates a tree with stolen shoes.  The tree ultimately becomes a symbol to the community.  At the time, I wondered which came first, the book or the tree.  But I soon learned that shoe trees aren’t unusual.  They’re found worldwide and there are many theories to their purpose: a result of bullying or pranks, a rite of passage such as the end of the school year, to signify a nefarious purpose such as the sale of drugs, or even that a person has died.

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Leaving offerings on trees is an ancient practice.  In many parts of the world objects are left tied to branches or hammered into the bark.  Trees are adorned with rags and ribbons, food and coins.  They’re often known as wishing trees, because the offering is left in return for a wish to be fulfilled.  And what else is a Christmas tree if not a tree laden with offerings?  I suspect that our shoe tree began as a prank, perhaps light-hearted, perhaps malevolent.  I worry about the children who may have been bullied to facilitate an offering to the shoe tree, but I hope that if this is the case, the tree now cradles and disperses that pain, taking the weight of it as it does the weight of the shoes, drawing it in to become a part of itself.

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But we offer words as well as objects to trees.  It’s not only lovers who carve their initials into bark.  The two beech trees guarding Lady’s Well are covered in the initials of pilgrims.  Studies have been done of the graffiti carved into trees across Europe by soldiers in the world wars, including the American GI who told the wife he’d married in secret before leaving for Europe that he would carve his initials on a tree everywhere he went.  Carvings in trees are known as arborglyphs.  The trees healing process darkens them, making them more visible.

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We have a need to tell the world that we were here.  We connect with a place by leaving something behind.  An old tree will have been here before us and is likely to remain after we’ve gone.  Trees are silent sentinels that we feel watch over us, a link between the underworld, the earth and the sky.  They give a sense of scale and permanence to our daily concerns.  We offer them the letters of our names (who we are in the world) and we offer them our shoes (what we travel in).  And perhaps they care, drawing strength from our attention.  Or perhaps they don’t and the meaning is ours alone.  If the tree doesn’t notice, then maybe someone else will and know that we existed, if only for a short while.

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The desire to be witnessed is always there.  And it spreads.  Already, shoes have appeared in two of the other trees in the park.  And in another park nearby, someone has left some more seasonal offerings.  So perhaps one day when I’m ready to dispose of a pair of shoes, I won’t throw them away.  I’ll take them to the shoe tree and hurl them into the branches.  And maybe I’ll ask the tree, if not for a blessing, then to be my witness, to know that once I walked this way through the world.

Suspension

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Winter is flirting with us.  She visits fleetingly leaving a sprinkle of ice-white powder.  She stays for breakfast, but by lunch she is gone, only a few rimy traces remaining.  Leaves are preserved in a sugar of frost crystals, giving clarity to their design.  Ponds freeze over, in clear geometrics.  The wind moans constantly.  Raw air freezes us.  But winter never quite delivers on her warnings.

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This winter has been very different to the last.  Last year the mud arrived and stayed for the season.  This year the frosts have come.  The glitter of ice in the mornings and that raw cold that comes as the day begins to die.  It’s been two years since we had more than a flurry of snow.  Our spring was bountiful, our summer warm, so it seemed we were destined for a hard winter.  But the cold has been interspersed with mild, sunny days.  The leaves took their time to fall and occasional flowers have bloomed through the season.  There’s still a chance of snow but it’s only a matter of time before winter withdraws altogether.

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Still, winter wants to give us notice.  She lets us know that she is a possibility, just before Candlemas heralds the first stirrings of spring.  On the day that winter visits, I see the first spring bulbs, thrusting through the snow-dust.  Buttery crocus flowers waiting to open and a handful of daffodils in green bud.  A day later, winter is gone and the crocuses have opened their whorl of petals. There are hazel catkins everywhere, featherlight fingers dangling.

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I’m in suspension.  Like a half-frozen pond.  Still and dormant on one side, unruly ripples on the other.  The two parts are in tension, caught between dream and action.  My box of dreams has germinated and the front runners have emerged.  I’ve honed the dreams into seeds, ready to be planted now Candlemas is here.  But at the moment, those seeds are like that frozen pond – paused.  I have no desire to do anything with them.  I’m waiting for that ripple to set them off on their journey.

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The soul of a dog

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There is an old episode of the Twilight Zone, in which an elderly man and his dog die and make their way to the afterlife.  They approach what they believe to be heaven, only to be told that the dog isn’t allowed to enter.  The old man decides that it can’t be much of a heaven if his dog isn’t welcome, so he walks on by.  Of course, it soon becomes clear that this wasn’t heaven after all, but hell, and the devil was trying to trick him.  His loyalty to his dog saved him.  I must have watched a lot of Twilight Zones when I was young, but this one has stuck with me.

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Some people believe that animals don’t have souls.  That everything they do, they do purely out of instinct or because it serves some purpose for survival.  They believe that humans are the only species with a rich interior life, full of dreams and enjoyment.  I know that my dog dreams.  I watch him sleep, his eyes fluttering, paws twitching.  Occasionally he growls, sometimes he barks – tiny barks beneath his breath that sound more like mewling.  This is one of my favourite things to witness, because I know that he’s in some other place, hopefully having fun.  It leads me to imagine which parts of his day he’s reprocessing, which scents he’s remembering, which dogs he is playing with.

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I know that animals do things out of instinct and for survival.  I know that some species have very brief lives in which their purpose is only to mate.  But does that mean that a mayfly can find no joy in its flight?  Does a bird only sing so passionately to attract a mate?  Are we the only species who do something because it sings to our soul?  This seems a narrow and dull way to look at the world.

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My dog finds joy in the simplest things.  Running around the beach after a ball, demolishing squeaky toys, following scents.  If he was a working dog, he’d use these skills for hunting.  Because he’s not, he uses them for play.  And in this combination of instinct and joy, my dog is sure of his purpose and puts all his effort into it, every day.   Every game is as exciting as the first.  I have no doubt that he has a soul and he feeds it with the pursuits that give him joy.

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I know that my purpose is to create.  But unlike my dog, I can allow other things to get in the way.  I rarely approach the page with an enthusiasm and energy as simple as that which my dog brings to his play.  There’s a reason the devil didn’t want any dogs in hell.  Dogs sniff out the truth of the matter.  And my dog is my greatest teacher.  When I falter he reminds me by his example.  That it really is simple.  Focus on doing what you love, fiercely, every day and your soul will never go hungry.

Box of dreams

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Everything I love about the slip into winter has already happened: the harvest, the magic of autumn and Halloween, the lights and celebrations of yuletide, the optimism of the new calendar year.  So many wonderful things packed into four months, with all their expectation and excitement, giving that season a particular luminosity.  But now what?  The new year is here, we’re back to work and routine, those shiny resolutions are starting to seem a little dull and difficult.  There is always beauty in nature, but sometimes my walks seem interchangeable as the world lies dormant waiting for spring.  Much as the dark half of the year is my favourite, this deadest part of the season is the time of  year I find most challenging.

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But this poem, Winter Transition by Crone Chronicler, prompted me to think of this period in a different way.  I love her concept of the world settling into ‘ordinary time’.  The festivals do nothing if not remind us of transience and that each season has its purpose.  While I know the purpose of this part of the year for me, it’s still difficult to say goodbye to that season that I love.  So I’m glad I had this reminder of the value of that ‘ordinary time’ between celebrations.  I realised that taking the tree down and returning the house to its usual state wasn’t just a chore, marking the end of one of the high points of the year, but was a ritual in itself, returning it to that tabula rasa in which my dreams can take root.

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And I have a box of dreams to work with.  Not resolutions.  Not must dos.  Creative snippets from which my year will be shaped.  When I retreated to the dark, I took note of everything – my dreams, meditations, writings, quotes that spoke to me, things I saw.  And I gathered almost 100 starting points – the ‘bones’ of my creative year.  Each one is recorded on a scrap of paper and stored in this box, germinating in the dark.  A couple are full-blown story ideas, most are a rag-tag collection of themes to be explored, random images, character sketches, story titles, potential blog posts.  Some of them will fade away, losing importance, never destined to be born.  Others will make magic – shaping themselves into worlds and people and stories and art.

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This is the honing tide of the year, when I begin to polish and shape the dreams I have dreamed.  I’ve already begun, plucking ideas from the box and setting those that resonate aside.  But they’re still only chimeras – characters without a story; objects without a purpose; tableaux without a context.  If I do nothing with them, they’ll wither and that magical time in the dark will be lost.

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But no fear, the dead of the year is here.  Plenty of time to hone and polish and make sure these dreams take flight.  I’ve returned from that magical tide of myth and magic, back to ‘ordinary time’ and space.  Where the cold crisp mornings and evenings, with the moon bright in a clear sky give space for clarity of thought and the wild wind urges transformation.

Please take a moment to discover one of my more recent blogging companions at Backtowhatever.  She has kindly nominated me for the Inspiring Blogger Award.  Here, you’ll find writing that is poignant and powerful – making beauty of some very difficult personal experiences.