Between

In the park, the wild cherry is the last tree of autumn.  The others have already embraced winter, skeletal limbs clawing at the sky.  But the cherry still shimmers with golden leaves that drift drowsily to the ground.  A pool of saffron encircles its base.  Where the other leaves in the park are crisp and shrivelled, those from the cherry are sleek and shiny as though they still live.  The tree is like a beacon on this otherwise grey afternoon.  It draws the eye and not only because of its colour but because it is clearly something ‘other’ in the drab landscape.

Walking under the cherry is like walking into another time or place.  Time slows as the leaves descend.  I am in a different world, lit from within by the gold-clad branches and the fallen sun beneath.  My skin sings of yellow and gold and I’m sure that if you saw me, I would be glowing with light.  At this moment, the cherry is a threshold to another world.   I feel different standing underneath it.  I’m in the park but outside of it.  Beyond the cherry tree is a different place altogether.

On this evening, I am between: between an amber sunset in the west and a half moon in the pale southern sky.  Between a blazing cherry and a congregation of sleeping naked giants.  Between seasons.  It is no longer really autumn, but not quite winter.  The shift from one to the other is often impeceptible, and this is the time of uncertainty, when there may or may not be frost on the grass, when my breath might cloud the air or my winter coat may be too warm.

As a child I was entranced by a world at the back of a wardrobe, enchanted by a garden that appeared when the clock struck thirteen.  I have always been drawn to thresholds, the places that are between.  I’ve come across unexpected portals: a tree with a swing in a darkened glade,  a bridge overgrown with grass and lichens, towering stones and a circlet of trees.  I wonder why these places are so enticing.  It is because this world isn’t enough?  Or because we sense that the world really is suffused with magic and these between places give us a glimpse of it.

Stories are portals too.  Even those that are tales of the most ordinary places still transport us to another world for a while. Writing a story is like being in another place: I become apart from the world as it is and engrossed in a world that isn’t – yet.  Most of my stories offer a hint of the between, a thread of magic brought back from that other world.

Some places are so soaked in magic that they are always between places.  But sometimes, it takes only a shift in the time of year, or a crease in the fabric of the landscape for the door to open.  It will not be open long, but it is enough to show a glimmer of something else.  In a week or so, the cherry will shed the last of its leaves and the between place will wink out.  The grey will close in and cloak what was for a while a crossing point to another world.  But I was here.  I stood for a moment in that place of gold and light and knew the enchantment of the in between.

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.

Between the worlds

Often, I imagine all the writers and artists of the world, toiling away in our separate creative spaces, scattered, but connected by our need to create.  I love to look at photographs of writers, but it’s not the portraits displayed on book jackets that I want to see, it’s those of the writer captured at work.  I want to scrutinise their tools, their notes, their keepsakes – to watch the creative process at work.  I think of them engaged in their work at old battered desks, piled with papers and books; at scoured kitchen tables, littered with coffee mugs; curled up in bed against a pile of cushions; or scribbling in a notebook among the bustle of a busy cafe.  I love, too, to see artists in their surroundings: in huge industrial spaces filled with mysterious objects; airy attics crammed with canvases and adorned with clods of paint; or perched with easel or sketchbook on the brow of a mountain or in the hollow of a sand dune.

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What we all have in common, when we’re immersed in our work, is that we’ve found our place between the worlds, where the magic of creativity can occur.  The phrase ‘between the worlds’ is sometimes used by witches to describe the space generated when we cast a circle.  It’s a space apart from, but within, normal life.  Most of us don’t have our own dedicated ritual space, just as many of us don’t have a separate study or studio, so the circle acts as a marker, conjured from energy, in which to enact the ritual.  And I believe this is also what happens when we create.  I don’t cast a circle when I write or paint, but almost unconsciously, I build an intangible space around myself, forged from the energy I’m using to create.  The real world becomes blurred as I get lost in words or images.

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The places in which I work are varied and dependent on what it is I want to create.  There’s a tiny room, packed with books, keepsakes, art and writing materials.  It’s a peaceful space, with a comfortable chair and a blanket for warmth that I use for contemplation.  There is the spot next to the window in our sitting room where my easel is placed, because it gets light and I can still interact with the life of the house.  My creative space is also portable: it’s in my notebook, my sketchbook, my laptop.  We all need a place where we feel we can create, but what space do you actually need?  Is your creative space a physical one, or is it a space inside your head?  None of the places I use are dedicated ones.  But when I’m creating, they become sacred space of a kind, so that it’s possible to tune out the mundane things and forge something out of nothing.  Magic is creativity and creativity is magic, in the sense that we’re using something we can’t see (energy), to make a physical change in the world.

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If the world is nothing but energy, vibrating on different frequencies, as modern theories of physics seem to suggest, there’s nothing to stop us making creative space anywhere.  And just as in magic, where the energy raised might be used to heal, to bind, to celebrate, so creative space can be used for many different purposes.  Whenever we work, at that moment, in different parts of the world, there will be countless others writing, painting, sketching or sculpting, all using creative energy.  If you try hard, you can feel the force of it, all that energy, like a furnace forging change.  If you’re finding it difficult to focus, or to find a suitable space to dedicate to your craft, perhaps you can channel it.  Consider the type of energy that you need and gather the circle around you to create your own world between the worlds.