The Lady and the Hawk

It is surely the last of summer.  The sky is vivid blue and wispy white.  The sun gives off furnace heat and open spaces are bleached with light.  A strip of woodland offers meagre relief.  Speckled wood butterflies dance in shafts of light.  Emerging from the trees, we see her ahead of us: The Lady of the North.  She is one hundred feet high and a quarter of a mile long.  A woman sculpted from stone, clay and soil.  She lies on her back, curves softened by grass.  Paths spiral up to her summits.

It is too hot to climb.  Winston was panting before we even started to walk.  We follow the path around the Lady.  She is surrounded by rough ground, sepia with seed heads and thistledown.  Small tortoiseshells take what they can from the few flowers that remain.  Dragonflies dart across the landscape.  Goldfinches flit in and out of hawthorns laden with berries.  The Lady is reflected in still, clear ponds, amid waterlily pads and a resting group of tufted ducks.

The Lady was designed by Charles Jencks.  She is part of the restoration of land from an adjacent surface mine, designed as something for the community while the mine is still in operation.  She will evolve into the landscape over time.  Right now she doesn’t really speak to me.  She is hard lines and stark paths.  A caricature.  It is in her rough edges that she comes to life, in the dart of dragonfly and goldfinch, and the scrubland where butterflies feed.

Later in the week, we enter another strip of woodland.  A steep and shady lane ends abruptly.  A padlocked wooden gate leads directly onto railway lines.  Paths branch to left and right.  Just beyond, the Tyne flows towards Newcastle.  Trains sound their horns as they clatter past and we hear the warnings of a nearby level crossing.  It is a strange mix of old and new, of tranquillity and noisy civilisation.

We are walking with a hawk.  Horatio is a young Harris Hawk, native to the Argentinian desert.  His plumage is chocolate and chestnut, with splashes of white.  He has yellow-rimmed eyes and a hooked yellow and grey beak.  Long black talons sprout from the end of yellow scaly feet.  We take the left hand path, through rough ground dotted with Himalayan balsam and honeysuckle flowers.  Horatio swoops up into the trees and then back to our gloved hands for morsels of chicken.

We wander up and down winding paths, through beeches and hollies.  Horatio is much lighter and gentler than I would have expected.  He peers into the trees, hunting.  For a while he is distracted by a squirrel.  Later, he is entranced by a pair of woodpigeons.  We cross a stream, skirt the edges of an old churchyard with leaning graves.  In these woods there was once an Edwardian fairground.  There was once an ice rink where curling was played.  And a 17th century battle was fought here leading up to the English Civil War.

Our walk ends with owls.  We meet Sabina, an Indian Eagle Owl and Marty, a young Spectacled Owl.  Both are stunning, but Marty steals our hearts.  It seems the year has come full circle.  Last year I went into autumn seeing images of owls everywhere.  This year, autumn begins in the owls’ amber eyes.

Shifting

It shouldn’t be this hot.  The view is grey.  A fret rolls off the sea.  The piers are  blurry in the mist.  The sun is at my right shoulder, a bright disc among grey clouds.  It shouldn’t be hot, but the humidity is unbearable.  It shouldn’t be bright, but the sun lasers through the clouds to pick out highlights on the water.  In the empty space between the piers I see mirages, columns of white that might be the sails of ships or distant lighthouses.

The tide is in.  Children play on a narrow slice of beach.  Gulls float on the calm water and huddle on what is visible of the notorious black midden rocks.  The massive autoliner carrying cars passes as we arrive and small fishing boats trundle past.  We sit on a bench overlooking the sea, my wife and I.  It is our anniversary, 25 years since we got together and we’re having a celebratory lunch of fish and chips.  25 years seems an unbelievably long time.  If we have been together that long then surely we must be old.  But we aren’t yet.  Not quite.

Even when you feel that there is no movement, the years steam on, until you wonder how you got here so quickly.  Something has shifted in the last fortnight.  I’m moving again.  Perhaps it was our short journey south through fields of gold.  Perhaps it is the shift in the air that follows.  Dark grey clouds gather like a dome.  Winds whip up and rain comes.  But in the end storm Ellen only caresses us.  In the dene it still seems like summer.  The burn is only a trickle, the cascades choked with weed.  A flock of mallards faces off against a flock of moorhens on the pond.

The police helicopter is hovering, its attention focused somewhere north of here.  I’ve spent a lot of time this year like that helicopter, stalled and searching for something to focus on.  But what has often felt like drifting aimlessly has in fact been an absence of the old ‘to do’ lists and wishing time away.  As the world re-opens and structure returns, I’ve been reluctant to embrace the way it was before.

So I shift slowly.  I start to edit my manuscript.  I use my sketch of a woman and cello to create a painting.  I submit some short stories.  It’s a trickle rather than a flood, just like the burn, but it’s a beginning.  The helicopter still hovers, but three swallows are closer.  Like tiny spitfires swooping over the grass.  There is a hint of yellow in the linden trees.  Rosehips and blackberries fatten in the hedgerows.  These swallows are the last of summer, propelling me forward as the seasons turn.

Battling

This is the moment when the year turns to gold.  It is the first harvest.  When the spirit of the corn retreats before the blades into the last sheaves of wheat.  The essence of the sun, the spirit of summer, the promise of spring.  All of these nestle within grain and husk, slumbering through the winter.   It seems an eternity since the last harvest, and yet here we are again.  I see the gold settling over the land and my soul longs for autumn.

It is one of the hottest days of the year and we drive past molten fields.  Past verges stippled purple and yellow with flowers.  Hay pressed into cylinders.  Fields brown with ploughing and still green with crops.  Sheep gather together in the meagre shadow of trees.  It is Winston’s first hydrotherapy session since lockdown.  We can’t enter the building so we wait in the car park for his hydrotherapist to collect him.  A family is saying a final goodbye to their dog and we cry with them as they let him go.  We wander the nearby lane while we wait for Winston.  Sheep trot away as we approach.  A hare bounds across a field of golden stubble.  Winston returns to us tired but with a good report.

In the dene, the landscape is straggly and overgrown.  Unmolested, wildflowers have grown into giants.  Rowans flame with berries.  The burn is virtually dry, flanked by monster willowherbs, dock and bulrushes.  Raspberries droop from the foliage.  There are rustlings in the undergrowth, among seed heads and thistledown.  Butterflies spiral and meander, mostly whites and speckled woods.  The occasional quick whirr of wings and soft tinkling calls are the only things that give the hidden songbirds away.

It has been a battle to get here, to walk along this familiar path.  This time last year I was travelling to a writing conference.  This time last year I had just given my first public reading as a writer.  But that was an eternity ago.  Now I battle ennui.  It is a struggle to get up each morning.  A struggle to stray beyond the end of the street.  Work feels hard.  Creation is even harder.  But I am fighting.  Battling my way out of limbo.

I sit by the pond.  A woodpigeon fusses in the willow above my head.  Two gulls glide in circles as though they own the water.  One of them chases away a youngster that gets too close.  Some years the harvest is meagre and hard won.  This year there will be a harvest but it won’t be a harvest anyone could have expected.   The seeds of early spring have led us into a new way of being in the world.  We are uncertain.  We know there may be more battles ahead  But the seasons still turn.  The land still turns to gold and the spirit of the sun is safe for another year to come.

 

Cracks

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

(Leonard Cohen)

SAMSUNG CSC

Spring seeps in through the cracks of the season.  Light creeps in illuminating a changed world.  A world of empty shelves, empty buildings, an empty diary.  The world is different and yet it is the same.  The seagulls are still on the roof opposite, probably the same pair that nest there each year.  The daffodils and crocuses follow the bloom paths of previous springs.  Blackthorn blossom has come, the hawthorns are clothed in green.  And the birds sing for the lives soon to be born.  For the past three months I have been obsessively checking sunrise and sunset times, desperate for the darkness to recede.  Finally light pushes it back.

IMG_0229 (2)

Christmas is hardly over when the cracks begin to show.  It is in the early hours of Boxing Day when my panic attacks begin in earnest.  A wave of fear and panic that propels me out of bed, downstairs, turning on every light in the house, then, paradoxically, out into the dark air of the yard.  A desperate need to escape, but there is no escape from the dark until dawn, so the fear remains.   Cold sweat, tingling in my body, pacing and fidgeting, quick breathing, utter dread and despair.  Panic has arrived and come to stay.

SAMSUNG CSC

I had an inkling the darkness would be hard for me this year. I tried to accept it.  It worked for a while, but then it came rushing in until I was at its mercy.  The fear isn’t fear of the dark.  I know this. The fear is about being trapped, out of control.  I know that nothing will happen to me. I don’t fear death or disaster.   I fear the feeling of fear and not being able to escape it.  I cry and wail at the  worry that this could be my life now.  I can no longer sleep without a night light.  I go to bed late because I dread waking in the early hours when fear might strike.  The hours between my alarm and dawn are excruciating.

SAMSUNG CSC

My fear expands.  From darkness into light.  First the evening, then coming home, then in the heart of the day.  I can’t sit still long enough to eat a meal (my appetite is gone anyway) or to watch a TV programme, before I have to rush outside in panic.  I cling to my partner, afraid to be in the house alone now.  There is a weight in my stomach that twists and burns. I’ve had bouts of depression before over the years and I would trade it in a moment for this panic.  Being outside is the only thing that brings a fleeting modicum of relief.

SAMSUNG CSC

I don’t know why this panic has suddenly arrived but I suspect it has grown in the lull after a very challenging couple of years.  A challenging decade.  Now that life has finally let up, there is a vacuum, and the vacuum has cracked.  I try all I can to get relief: meditation, yoga, chamomile and lavender, counselling.  I become worn down by trying to keep the panic at bay.  I am weary and depressed.  I don’t write.  I walk only as far as I have to.  I still go out to work but I am not myself.  Medication helps.  I’ve always avoided medication before, but I will do anything to get rid of the panic.  The anxiety recedes to night times again and is not as sharp.  During the day there is sadness and indifference.

SAMSUNG CSC

My dreams are vivid.  In them, I am often being hunted.  I flee from assassination or revenge.  I cross Europe, trying to find a place in which I can settle and be safe.  Unusually, I dream often of my late parents.  In my dreams I am sometimes me, sometimes someone else.  Part of me longs for change, an end to this period of my life, but I’m not ready.  I haven’t found joy yet.  After a few weeks of relief, the anxiety gets worse again.  I start a new medication.

SAMSUNG CSC

I don’t panic about the appearance of a new virus.  My internal fear is far worse than a fear of an external disease.  It is only when all our libraries are closed and I see the queues and empty shelves in the supermarkets that I think perhaps this might be serious.  We are told to stay at home as much as we can, but I have agreed with my counsellor to take a longer walk this week, to try to recapture something of the life I had before.  So Winston and I head to the dene.

SAMSUNG CSC

The streets are quiet but not empty.  It feels like a Sunday.  I give anyone I see a wide berth.  There will be no doggy greetings today.  Dandelions, daisies and daffodils bloom.  Dog violets peer between the undergrowth.  The blackthorns are just beginning to fade and the cherry blossom is just beginning to flower.  A wood pigeon sits in a hollow in an ivy-covered tree.  Its pecking makes a soft ticking.  A lone coot complains on the pond.  Delicate new fronds of willow catch the light.

SAMSUNG CSC

A group of strange mounds on the grass reveal themselves as sleeping mallards, as four small heads pop up to watch us.  We walk through bunches of summer snowflake and fallen poplar catkins.  Marsh marigolds illuminate the burn and a cluster of celandine peeps through ivy.  Suddenly, the voice of Vera Lynn at full volume washes over the park.  She sings about meeting again – of course.  A couple of verses and the last swells with a chorus of voices.  I wonder if this is on the recording, or if these are real people, having a last gathering before saying au revoir.

SAMSUNG CSC

I find it hard not to think there is a pattern to existence as there is to the seasons.  In these months in which climate change has been at the top of the news, when we have had some of our worst floods and fires, a virus comes which compels us to act in a way that reduces our impact on the planet.  This is an opportunity for the earth to sigh in relief.  Without wishing to downplay the fear and death the virus brings, I wonder if this should be a hopeful moment for our future.  I wonder if we will come out of it changed.

For now the world seems both different and the same.  My life had already altered before the virus happened and I can’t yet see what I will be when I emerge.  But there is light.  I have picked up a paintbrush again.  I have had good news about some of my writing.  My anxiety is much less than it was three months ago.  I am here, writing words down.  The cracks in our existence have widened this year, but there is always light waiting to pour in

Igniting

December is the month of artificial light, when our townscapes gleam with the cold twinkle of illumination to ward off the darkness.  Teardrops of amber.  Scrolls of silver.  Cascades of gold.  White garlands and pinpricks of pewter.  Kaleidoscopes of lights.  On the high street it is often too much:  too gaudy, too synthetic.  But on silent streets and in deserted parks, they are islands of light to guide us through the night.  Windows flooded with colour welcome us home, so that we can turn our backs on the discomforts of the darkness.

December skies are flushed with colour.  Dawns of orange and purple; twilights of pink and blue; a half moon lighting up the darkness.  Stripes of wavery tangerine cross pale peach.  Fingers of pink span baby blue.  A full moon hangs in a blushing sky.  Perhaps nature is trying to rival the pull of electricity.  Artificial light is pretty, comforting and useful, but it will never equal the display of a sunset or a sunrise.

On election day, we vote before dawn.  Afterwards, before work, I walk in the country park.  It is dark, barely light enough to see.  There is no colour yet, only shades and shadows.  Trees creak, undergrowth rustles.  A blackbird trumpets in alarm and I hear the distant chink of a moorhen.  Ducks descend on the pond, first a pair, then a quintet, mallards in silhouette.  They cackle as I walk the path to the sundial.

The coming sunrise inflames the trees, glowing through skeletons.  The temperature is two degrees above freezing with a biting wind: it is bitter up here at the top of the hill.  Coloured twinkles in the distance, the hills chains of artificial light.  Sunrise begins as a vivid orange splash, brighter than any of those electric lights, but it soon becomes more nuanced.  I won’t see the sun all day, but it puts on its show from behind the clouds.  Violets and pinks, oranges and reds, blushes and blooms of colour.  The sea is a violet stripe prickled with platinum.   The sunrise pushes back the electric lights until they disappear.

Crows appear, swooping and cawing.  Next, the gulls begin to call.  Finally the muted voices of songbirds and the stutter of magpies.  The sky lightens to a block of grey-blue cloud with a strip of buttermilk across the horizon.  The park regains colour.  There is a sprinkling of autumn leaves and berries, but most of the autumn colour has leached from the landscape.  A charm of goldfinches flutters from a tree as I pass, leaving a lone dunnock behind.  I have seen the blaze of dawn but now daylight comes quietly.

It has been a speedy and subtle season.  I have hardly noticed the darkness.  As the glory of the leaves faded, the skies blossomed.  Autumn is gone and winter is gaining, but there is little fanfare.  Election day passes more quietly than I expect.  It seemed like an important day, with an opportunity for real change, but ends up as more of the same.  The creative spark is sleeping.  I’ve felt weary and in need of a break.  Soon the solstice will be here, when the light will ignite once more.  And my break is finally here, a stretch of gloriously leisurely days that will lead me to the light, sky by painted sky.

Catching dreams

On the first wintry day of the season frost crisps the landscape.  My breath billows in clouds of white.  The sun is honey, oozing through the heart of the cherry tree and turning the last of the leaves to gold.  It is a moment of between, when the earth makes me pause.  The chill shivers the leaves from the trees.  I can hear them falling.  They crackle like flames as they detach and float to the ground.  The fire is a cold one, but I feel as though I’m standing in its heart: the crackling is everywhere, the air is gold and a blackbird trills.  It is a precious, dreamlike morning.  There won’t be another one like it this season.

I sometimes dream of searching for places that don’t exist. I dream that behind the field at my aunt’s is a path that leads to a group of small ponds I’m desperate to get to. On the way,  a seahenge has been revealed on the shore, covered in light snow.  I never find the ponds. I’ve searched for them before without success.  I can picture myself bathing there, yet I only remember their existence in dreams.  When I wake I struggle to recall whether they are real or not and I grieve for their loss.

The leaves are moist and turning to mulch now.  They no longer glint with gold but have browned and darkened.  They are fodder for the dreams of worms and woodlice.  But the remains of gold still cling to the trees, like sheets of gilding.  Willows dip long tresses of yellowed leaves into a pond crowded with birds.  A man is feeding the ducks.  Black headed gulls screech and dive.  Moorhens peck the shore.  Three swans sail among them like a vision: a pair and their cygnet.  The cygnet is bigger than its parents, snowy feathers offset by soft beige.  I walk past yellowing reeds and bright berries, the last of the season’s lights.  I look up at the moment two swans soar over, softly whooping as they fly.

I have been recording my dreams again.  It is one way of confronting the darkness and what lies within it.  Some are slippery, some never ending.  Creatures flit through them: barn owl and crow, polar bears and bison, and a strange hybrid of mole and teddy bear that clutches my fingers with tiny pink hands.  In dreams I am myself and not myself.  Sometimes I begin as me but become someone else.  My dreams are mostly prosaic: processing real events and populated with people I know.  But among the ordinary are those moments when I wonder if I really have visited another place and brought a little of its enchantment back with me.


Blogger book of the month: Pamela S. Wight – Molly Finds her Purr

illustrated children's book, picture book, cat bookPam’s blog RoughWighting is full of funny, intriguing and quirky stories both fictional and true.  She has a fellow Piscean’s knack for visiting other worlds and bringing back a little of their magic.  Pam has written two exciting and enjoyable romantic thrillers for adults and another children’s picture book, Birds of Paradise but today it is Molly’s turn to step into the limelight.  In Pam’s newest book, Molly Finds Her Purr,  Molly is a stray cat who doesn’t know how to purr. Birds run away from her, dogs bark and squirrels bombard her with acorns. She tries her best to find a playmate, but it seems she’s destined to be lonely – it’s no wonder Molly doesn’t know how to purr! But then a squirrel called Petey takes a chance on friendship and Molly soon has a whole circle of friends around her. It isn’t long before she finds her purr. A heart-warming, comforting and gentle book, with beautiful illustrations, Molly introduces themes of difference and friendship in a lovely way for young readers.  A great Christmas gift for a child in your life!  You can find Pam here and her books are available at Amazon.

Wounded

This is the way it will be now: walking in the darkness before dawn.  The world rain-washed, figures no more than shadows.  This is the way it will be: darkness falling before I leave work, walking home in the dark.  Summer officially ended with the winding back of the clock and that extra hour gave darkness a space to seep in.

Three times recently I have woken from an unsettling dream and into a panic attack.  The darkness has seemed too thick, too close.  The dawn has seemed much too far away.  I have had to get up and turn on every light, go out into the yard to breathe in thinner air.  I have had to open my curtains wide so the glow of the streetlamp settles me back to sleep.

I have always appreciated the power of the dark and the things that are revealed there.  Darkness is fertile ground, a place for dreaming.  But this season I have dreaded it.  I have dreaded that long spread of days when the only daylight is diffused through my office window.  And yet in dreading it, I have embraced it.  At the year’s turn, I stood in darkness and welcomed it and it hasn’t been something to fear after all.

There is loss in the darkness.  Something wrong in the park in the gloom of early November.  A disjointedness.  A commotion of songbirds fluttering aimlessly.  On the edge of the park where we walk every day there is a bungalow.  It is surrounded by a long privet hedge, at least fifteen years old, maybe a metre deep and taller than I am.  You can see it in the photo above, a backdrop to the cherry tree.  It is thronged by birds all year round and buzzing with insects in summer.  And it is gone.  Chopped down and ripped out.  Over the coming days the garden is paved over and a wooden fence erected where the privet once lived.

The privet belonged to the owners of the bungalow, and yet it didn’t.  It became part of the park and belonged to all the creatures that used it for food and shelter.  I’m finding it hard to get over its loss.  Without it, the landscape is wrong.  The whitebeam sapling that was planted in the spring and has lasted all through the summer has also been lost in the last few weeks  – broken off at the trunk.  The whitebeam was an infant compared to the privet, but I still feel its ending.  I wonder if the landscape feels these wounds the way I do.  Does it recognise that some key part of itself is missing?  There is loss in the darkness.  Perhaps that is the price of the dreaming.

But there are gifts too.  Autumn has been kind to those organisms that live in the dark, waiting for their moment.  Fungi have revelled in the rain and released bloom after strange bloom.  I have revelled in hammering rain and bellowing wind.  The air births a rainbow against a glowering denim sky.  A skein of geese squawks overhead and a puppy pounces joyfully on a leaf.  The crow guardians in the park swoop a greeting as I arrive with a handful of peanuts.  These are the lights in the season’s darkness.   I breathe in as many as I can for the days when the darkness is too much.

And I have a talisman for the season.  Owls have been shadowing me since I came across an owlet in the forest in midsummer.  Now I have a little friend to take me into the darkness.  Frivolous, fun, but with eyes to drown in all the same.  She was blessed and charged at the year’s turn and now she will travel with me, helping me to remember the light in the year’s dark.


Blogger book of the month: William Holland – Shadows Kill

Bill Holland is passionate about life and passionate about writing.  He shares observations and questions about both on his blog Artistry with Words.  Bill is also a prolific writer.  Shadows Kill is the first in a series of (so far) four unusual thrillers.  It is a gritty, intelligent and fast-paced book that will have you hooked until the final chapter. The author has a knack of making you care about the characters very quickly, which means that you’re both rooting for them to win through and fearful about what might befall them. The book starts from an unusual viewpoint, not that of a straightforwardly ‘good’ cop or investigator, but of a character who is a vigilante of sorts and therefore poses questions about morality. But despite this, I came to care for Eli very quickly and couldn’t wait to turn the page to find out how it ended. A well-written exciting read and a great introduction to a series.  You can buy Bill’s books on Amazon and you can find his blog here.

Fences

Halloween is the day when there is neither past, nor future, only between.  Before the year turns, I have a notion to re-visit the green places of my past.  I step out into a breezy day, leaves rustling in spirals on the pavements, rays of sunlight bursting through grey cloud.

My past has been fenced off, built over, locked away.  We were urban children, grown on a Council estate, but there were always patches of green, hints of the wild.  The ‘res’, the ‘cut’, the ‘back field’, these were the edge-lands on our doorsteps.  Our lives as children were lived along these tracks and in these spaces.  The walk to school and back, the trails between each others’ houses.  The green spaces for playing, exploring and hanging around.

The first of two reservoirs, at the top of the street where I used to live, is a trapezium of grass tangled with purple clover and dock.  The gate is locked.  Perhaps it always was, but we got in anyway.  I always found the reservoirs puzzling and slightly mysterious.  How could a field contain a reservoir of water?  I never quite believed they were what they were supposed to be.  There is an old stone building, stamped 1901, which must have been some kind of access or pump house.  It is boarded up, painted with graffiti, art deco railings rusting around its roof, rubbish and weeds littering its steps.  There is talk about building houses on top of the reservoir, squeezing yet more dwellings into one of the last green spaces.

There was a park once, where the newest houses on the estate have now been built, an open space with swings and climbing frames.  The ‘back field’ is still there.  It was once just a ragged patch of land behind houses, with waist high meadow.  Now it is a water-logged square of shorn, vivid grass.  I disturb a posse of blackbirds in the shrubs at its edges.  I wonder how much it is used, and for what.  It seems unlikely that it is ever allowed to become as overgrown as it once was.

But my sycamore is still as I recall it.  The only tree I remember as an individual from my childhood, it stands on the corner, arcing over the road.  When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird it was this sycamore that I pictured when I read about the gifts left in the tree.

The ‘cuts’ were narrow paths between.  Each was the length of a street.  A narrow lane beyond the back garden fences.  A pathway between houses and the reservoir.  Small slices of nature, bordered by trees and plants.   But no one will be travelling those paths again.  They are blocked at each end, locked behind spiked metal fencing.  I stand looking between the bars, yearning to walk the old path again.  But within the fencing, nature has taken advantage.  Brambles, grasses and small saplings have reclaimed the path.  They have become liminal places but not human places.  On this still autumn day, they are peaceful pockets of green behind the bars.  Who knows what happens within the fences while the people aren’t watching?

The bordering reservoir has been fenced off too, metal spikes above the wall.  Fences and fences.  Adjacent, my old school has been demolished and re-built with yet more of the ubiquitous railings.  There was a time when a farmer’s field lay opposite the school.  I still remember the feel of the ploughed furrows under my feet.  The old hawthorn hedgerow is still there, now backing onto houses.  It is a reminder of a past when there were spaces to explore and everything wasn’t locked up tight.  It is half-term and the children are on holiday from school, yet I haven’t seen or heard a single child during my walk, only the ghostly footsteps of those who have left childhood far behind.

I cross the busy road to get to the cemetery and leave the fences behind.  Here there are meandering paths scattered with leaves.  Tilting headstones rooted with ivy.  A laburnum like an umbrella sheltering graves.  The foliage is still mostly green, but maples appear like pools of light in the distance.  A large leafless hawthorn has berries like fairy lights.  A giant beech is a beacon beckoning me along the path.

My ritual tonight is all about stripping back and letting go.  I am letting go of the year just gone, and all the years that have gone before.  The past is a familiar place, but not always a comforting one.  I have witnessed again the way the world never stands still.  The fences represent a changed world – one in which it seems necessary to fence children in and fence others out.  But fences are no barrier to memory.  Once, small feet traversed this landscape without impediment, and the imprint of their passage is part of the landscape still.

Shedding

On the day after the equinox, on the day light tips into darkness, it is on this day that autumn arrives.  It is my first day back at work and it has been a fortnight since I was in the park at 6am walking Winston.  For the first time since early spring it is dark.  Not completely.  The sky is cobalt rather than indigo.  Figures are vaguely recognisable.  But it is still a shock to the system.  Before we leave, a bat circles the air around us, the first I’ve ever seen in this park.

From a distance, it is clear that autumn has come.  Great swathes of green trees are tinged with a touch of gold.  There are beacon trees, flaming torches in the hedgerows, usually maples.  But up close, the landscape is still remarkably green.  Walking through the country park, it is the fireweed that offers the fieriest colour.

Last year gales ushered in the equinox.  The old poplar in the park was rent by wind, an enormous limb blown to the ground.  This year summer bleeds gently into the equinox and autumn steals in amid mist and rain.  I had longed for September, but it passes in a flash, the last of the summer washed away by rain, wind, mist and frost.  Spent raindrops form clear beads on hawthorns full of haws.  A trio of blackbirds bathe in an enormous puddle.  Raindrops dance the Flamenco.  Fungi has blossomed on the damp bridleway.  I count five species: more shaggy inkcaps than I have ever seen, a scatter of puffballs and others I can’t identify.

There is a different energy on a true autumn day.  The air feels thinner.  There is movement.  Not only of the weather and the leaves, though that is part of it.  The world is shedding, falling apart, but it’s a joyous shedding.  And then there are those still autumn days full of gold, when the sun lights up trees and teasels from behind and makes rosehips glow.  The dene is a riot of golds, reds and browns, overblown and overgrown, having a last chaotic burst before all the leaves are shed.  The grass is scattered with leaves of a different kind: pages from a book, burnt around the edges, shedding words into the landscape.

And the new season has given me energy.  I’ve submitted a dozen stories, revised a few more, started writing a new tale about poppies, the harvest flower.  With the rain and wind has come optimism.  My ears are clear and so is my mind.  The last year was gloomy, a struggle to get through, but now I’m shedding the year that has gone before and preparing to dream.


Blogger book of the month – Roads: a journey with verses by Smitha Vishwanath and Vandana Bhasin

I have accompanied Smitha Vishwanath on some exciting journeys via her blog.  I was there as she went through a huge life change moving from one country to another and became accustomed to her new circumstances.  And I was there as she embarked on a creative journey to become a writer and a fledgling artist.  She has now published her first book of poems with fellow poet Vandana Bhasin.

This book of poems by two talented poets promises to take the reader on a journey and delivers and epic trip. The journey in question is that of life, and the book is split into sections that cover many of the big themes we all face on that journey: courage, wisdom, love, strength, joy.   Both women contribute to each theme, offering a delightful contrast of views, imagery and tone. Smitha’s poems are intimate, emotional, drawing on a strength from within, while Vandana’s poems are open, assertive and sometimes confrontational.

The journey begins with ‘courage’ and it proves to be a positive and uplifting start. Smitha writes about daring to learn, fly, fail, even if the journey to success is not smooth. Vandana rails against rules and victimisation and demands that we drop the masks we wear. There is a nice rhythm to the collection. It moves inwards towards ‘wisdom’, ‘serenity’, ‘love’ and ‘joy’, then looks outwards to the world with ‘strength’, ‘compassion’ and ‘hope’. There are quiet moments and demands to be heard. There is sadness and joy, despair and self-assurance. And each poem is accompanied by a personal piece giving context to the verse.

Some of my favourite poems by Smitha are: ‘The Night is my Refuge’, a soothing poem about the restorative power of the night; ‘Treasure the Little Pleasures’, an evocative poem about the importance of small things; ‘Hush Daddy! Don’t Fear’, a moving poem about caring for an ageing parent; ‘Tender Moments’, a quiet loving poem in which a mother watches her children sleep; and ‘The Little Corner Room’ about a haven in her grandmother’s house.

Favourites by Vandana include: ‘Today’, an encouragement not to put things off to a vague tomorrow; ‘It’s all in the state of mind’ captures that dissatisfaction of wanting something other than what we have; and ‘Wings of Freedom’, a soaring poem about hopes and dreams.

The book ends, appropriately, with ‘gratitude’. Smitha’s ‘Promise of a new day’ is a beautiful meditation on things to be thankful for, while Vandana’s ‘Moments of Gratitude’ has the rhythm of a prayer. This book is an uplifting, enjoyable and emotional journey with two very engaging guides.

You can find Smitha here and the book is available on Amazon.

Lingering

Autumn winds sweep in for a few days, making leaves dance and whipping up dervishes from cut grass.  But the winds can’t sweep away the summer sun.  It is still warm, dry and lazy.  Bees and hoverflies still throng dandelions and sow thistles.  Wherever I step, wasps drowse on the grass.  Speckled woods have replaced painted ladies.  Monster docks sway among the reeds in the burn, the most vivid bronzes and coppers of the season so far.  Two swallows dart over the grass.  Mallards and moorhens float on the pond.  A bird cheeps in the bushes.  Branches bleed with raspberries, rowan berries, rosehips.  The burn is dry, pools still and clear.  I struggle to feel the essence of September amid the lingering heat.

Two glorious weeks of respite from work, but not a straightforward holiday.  My wife is recovering from surgery and I have an ear infection that leaves the world muffled.  But a holiday at home has its advantages.  There is none of the upheaval of packing and going away.  There is the simplicity  of sleeping late in your own bed, pottering and preparing for the crossing between one season and another.  I prune and weed and get rid of rubbish.  Plant a late season rose bush and lavender to fill some empty pots.  I worry how many more of my rose leaves will be eaten.  But I have been pleased to see more insects than before in the yard, particularly moths.  A huge house spider in the bath heralds spider season.  I begin to notice all the tunnel webs on old walls.

On the day of the Harvest Moon, I take a walk back in time.  The church I went to as a child is having an open day.  I haven’t been here since I was nine or ten, when we moved, but I have a couple of clear memories and I want to know if it’s as I remember it.  Walking the streets I grew up on, I pass the traditional bakery, now derelict.  There is no sign of the corner antiques shop where I used to pet Sarah and Spencer the two St. Bernards.  The upstairs flat I lived in, with its floor length windows has been combined with the flat below into a nondescript house.  The sweet shop we used to visit for a 5 pence mix up appears unchanged, but you wouldn’t get much for 5 pence now.

Across the road from the church, the hall where I went to Brownies has been converted into an expensive house – sold off by the church as it was too expensive to maintain.  The church itself is not so different.  I clearly remember the chancel with its iron gates and grey marble floor, carved choir stalls and a relatively simple altar.  I remember the stone pillars in the nave.  But what I didn’t recall were the windows.  Three pairs along each side of the nave, commemorating people who were important to the church’s past.  Above the altar, a triptych of arches: Mary with her spectacular blue, star-studded robe, flanked by the fieriness of the other two windows.  I sit in a pew and enjoy the silence.  I watch trees flutter behind some of the windows, shadows blooming in the coloured glass.   My memories of being here are actually very few, but the building itself is clear in my memory.

Later in the week, an old-fashioned trip to the seaside for fish and chips, ice cream and 2 pence slot machines.  The bright blue sky and wispy white clouds signify a summer day, but there is a slight chill in the breeze.  A handful of swallows dance over the waves.  Two herring gulls perch on gutweed covered rocks.  Out at sea, the ship Aegir might be servicing the wind farm or perhaps extending it.  It will dock at the marina later and I’ll see its crane towering above the roofs in the park.

The sycamore in the park that always heralds autumn is definitely dead.  It has remained bare all year round.  But the new whitebeam has survived.  It boasts orange berries and frilled leaves.  Someone has piled a moat of cut grass in a circle around one of the cherry trees.  Perhaps they remember last autumn when, for a time, it became a portal to another world.  For now, the world still belongs to summer.  I have had the fire on for the first time this season.   At times there is a chill and the air is grey.  But summer lingers, never quite crossing the threshold into autumn.


Blogger book of the month: Alethea Kehas – A Girl Named Truth

Order a Girl Named Truth on AmazonAlethea Kehas is a writer and healer, who writes poetry, memoir and spiritual pieces among other things on her blog.  A Girl Named Truth is a brave and beautiful memoir exploring the nature of truth. The starting point is the author’s name – Alethea – which means ‘truth’. As a child, she feels that because of her name she has an obligation to be truthful, but this is no easy task when she is unable to distinguish the truth of the stories told by those close to her and when their emotional demands cause her to fear speaking out. The author’s life is defined by a mother who runs away with her and her sister, away from her biological father, to set up home with a stepfather the author is in fear of. The memoir explores abuse, bullying, conditional and unconditional love and ultimately healing. The subjects in this book aren’t easy and I felt much sympathy for the dilemmas and events she must face. But nevertheless I found it an easy book to read and wanted to go back to it, hoping for the healing it would bring. The author is clear that this is the truth as she experienced it and I was glad that by the end she had found a resolution and acceptance which was both moving and hopeful.   You can find Alethea here and her books are available on Amazon.