Imagining

The first brave crocuses have broken through muddy grass. Small lilac spears that look too fragile to live. There is a shift in the light and birds are more visible. The sparrows squabble again in the privet at the end of the road. Blackbirds strut beneath the hedges in the park. A young birch has been planted in memoriam of a lost brother. Trees nurse new buds on spindly fingers.

Candlemas day is grey. Heavy sleet and rain drown any hint of spring. I spend the day at my desk, working, watching the rain batter the window. Folklore says that if this day is wintry, it means winter has ended. That will prove not to be true. In the following week the wind, rain and sleet hardly stop. Soon, we get the snow-fall that has eluded us this far.

Candlemas is for dreaming of new beginnings. It is for hope in the face of uncertainty, because we aren’t yet sure that spring will come. The land is still covered in snow, ice or mud and we can’t yet guess what it will sprout. We can only look at the world with the innocence and wonder of a child and envision what it could be. This year many of us are weary, not only of the privations of winter, but of the curtailment of freedoms and the shrinking of our world. There is hope that things may move towards some kind of normal, some time this year, but we don’t know what that normal will be. If ever there was a need to imagine a new world, it is now.

A week after Candlemas and the snow begins with drifts of tiny spheres. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in noise: like pebbles flung at the windows. It leaves a dusting on the roofs and pavements that don’t get the morning sun. The air is freezing. The fire is on and we bundle ourselves up again. By afternoon, it is icy underfoot. There are wispy showers all day – and some heavy ones – but it isn’t until night that the silent, heavy snow falls.

I wake to snow that is deep enough to creak when I walk on it. There are already early footprints on the pavement. I follow them to the park, where parallel tracks of foot and paw let me know that someone has been here before us. A thrush is singing and there are soft, musical calls echoing in the silence. The sky is filled with drama. Clouds of dark grey and clouds of vivid orange. Full-bodied violet puffs and airbrushed smears. I can hear the distant cries of gulls. A crow takes a bath, tunnelling its beak and body through the snow. Throughout the day snow flurries turn the sky from blue to grey.

Recently, I’ve been drawn to painting wintry scenes, but on the evening before the snow came, I felt a shift towards spring. I spent a few hours submitting short stories for the first time since last summer. New – and old – writing ideas have begun to tickle at the edge of my imagination. I wonder what my new world will be like? More movement…more writing….more art….It isn’t yet clear. It’s not yet time to throw off the blanket of winter. I’ve heard the whisper of spring but I’ll sigh contentedly and turn over for another hour in bed. I have a little longer to dream about what my new reality will be.

For almost a week, the snow is enticing, but then it begins to turn to ice. It is hard to walk. I find a sparrow, dead on the pavement and I wonder if the cold killed it. It is a miserable day, with icy sleet and a biting wind. But it washes the ice away. The next day dawns bright and sunny as if the snow hadn’t come at all. Great tits trumpet from the trees. In the park, I look for those crocuses that had sprouted feebly just before the snow. They had sprouted at the promise of spring, only to be smothered in winter once more. But they are still there. Not only that, but there are more of them. Perhaps under the snow they imagined their way into being, but they are no longer fragile shoots, they have grown into flowers opening at the touch of the sun.

Whispering

There is a whisper in the air on Candlemas eve.  It isn’t the whisper of spring, but of snow, swirling under the streetlights like communion wafers.  Light brims night’s darkness, softening brick and tarmac, swaddling pavements.  The infrequent crackle of tyres over crusty snow is the only sound.  There is nothing quite like watching the drowsy fall of snow at night, it makes me think of infinity.

Candlemas day is dusky blue.  We roll down the motorway to Winston’s hydrotherapy session, hissing over roads lined by snow-laden trees.  The landscape is a dance of white and blue: the bleached land widens the sky, while the sky washes the land pale blue.  The morning is as delicately rendered as Chinese porcelain.  In the evening, the clouds are peach puffs and snow-coated roofs blush pink.

But the whisper of spring is there, buried beneath the murmur of snow.  It is there in crocuses poking their yellow heads through the soil and in quivering clusters of snowdrops. Winter has been mild, and flowers have bloomed when no flowers should have done, but the crocus and the snowdrop are flowers in their time, heralds of the soft beginning to spring. This is still a time of repose and reflection before the energising surge of the wild March winds.  But some blooms have already heard the sigh of spring.

It isn’t yet time for spring cleaning.  Candlemas is a quiet welcome to the first fragile signs of the season.  But we are getting a new kitchen, so it is time to declutter after all.  We spend days clearing and boxing things up.  Throwing out food long past its sell by date, never-used gadgets, all the detritus that has accumulated over fifteen years of living in our house.  It is a relief to be free of things that you’ve forgotten.  They still whisper from those dusty corners, wanting to be used or put out of their misery.

A few days after Candlemas, I walk with Winston in the dene.  A congregation of songbirds greets us: two blue tits, a long-tailed tit, a chaffinch and a bullfinch flitter among an arc of bare branches.  The sun is glorious, but ice ripples the paths.  Chunks of snow crowd the stilled burn.  The pond is frozen milky grey.  The ducks and the gulls have abandoned it, leaving a couple of moorhens to strut over the ice.

The reeds are strands of gold with feathered ivory heads.  I watch their shadows sway and bounce on the path as Winston pauses to eat goose grass.  The daffodil shoots aren’t yet ready to bloom, but violets bathe in the sun.  Two purple crocuses have emerged, petals still tucked in around them like blankets.  The whisper of the snow has abated, to make way for the whisper of spring.  I can hear it like a sigh in the wind, growing stronger, until it becomes a roar.


Blogger book of the month: The Storyteller Speaks by Annika Perry

TSS_Kindl_300dpiI felt as though I immediately ‘clicked’ with Annika when I started reading her blog.  She shares warm, eclectic posts on writing, reading and life.  Her first book, The Storyteller Speaks is a wonderful collection of short stories, flash fiction and poems that depict a wide range of events, characters and viewpoints. At the centre of each is human relationships and the effect that a single event can often have on the course of a life. A full gamut of emotions is here, including love, grief, anger and redemption. The stories are moving, uplifting, sometimes dark, sometimes amusing. My favourites include: The Whiteout Years which is a heart-breaking and touching depiction of grief and hope; and Loss of a Patriarch, a moving story about saying goodbye to Annika’s grandfather. I also enjoyed the influences of the author’s Swedish heritage. This is a collection to savour and a book that fulfils its promise to win your heart.  You can find Annika here and her book is available on Amazon.

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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Re-connection

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January has been a month of dis-connection.  I’ve felt detached from the season and disengaged from the creative spark.  Though I’ve produced work and developed new ideas, my creativity has lacked enthusiasm.  January has been a drab month.  The sodden ground, patches of mud and still-rotting leaves make the world reminiscent of the morning after a party, the sad leavings after the festivities of Yuletide are long forgotten.

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Last year, January was dominated by snow, before rain and gales ushered in Candlemas.  This year there has been mud.  Not the crisp, quiet winter days I hoped for.  Nor the glitter of frost on the ground.  Just mud.  January has been the wettest on record in some parts of the country and areas in the south have been flooded for weeks.  The rain and gales have arrived once more to herald the new season, but there have been few lovely winter days to precede them.

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Walking the dog in the hours before dawn, I’ve experienced the best of January.   At this time, the world is silent, except for the racket of the blackbird, whose voice is amplified in the darkness.  The sky is a glowing royal blue, the stars and planets still visible.  It’s a time of potential, when the thick darkness hides imperfections and the day might go any way it pleases.

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But there have been other moments of connection.  A Monday morning walk, hinting at spring.  The air is cold but radiant with sunshine.  I hear the grating call of the magpie, a robin trilling on the path ahead of me, the high pitched cries of Little Gulls.  I watch the clumsy shuttle of a Moorhen and mallards floating leisurely or curled among the reeds.  It’s a peaceful, sleepy day holding the promise of what is to come.  And then, a Friday morning, the most beautiful sunrise of the year so far:  mackerel clouds lit with bright swathes of colour.  And then, walking in the drizzle, under a misty sun, listening to the hollow patter of rain on the trees.  And then…

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Re-connecting with nature at this time of year is about paying thoughtful attention, looking closely to see buds on the trees, plant stems studded with tiny new leaves, shoots among the mud.  It’s seeing the signs of spring in the drear of winter, like the husk of a nest in the skeleton of a tree.  It’s having patience and sensing the beauty that exists beneath the mud.

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Candlemas begins at sunset tomorrow, when we emerge from the cocoon of winter and re-connect with the living earth growing beneath us.  Witches commonly call this festival Imbolc, an old Celtic word thought to mean ‘in the belly’, but I’ve always found the Christian term of Candlemas more evocative.  The name derives from it being the day in the year when all the church’s candles were blessed.  And here too is a connection, in the recognition of the importance of the return of the light.

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Re-connection is also about re-dedication.  Candlemas is a festival for initiation and re-dedicating yourself to your chosen path.  All of the festivals are a way of re-connecting.  We might forget in our daily lives, but these days are points on the calendar to remind us.

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This month, I’ve written two new stories, but I’ve also re-connected with some that were forgotten.  Stories that began months or years ago.  Some are just a couple of sentences, others a few pages.  Left neglected, either because I couldn’t see a way through them at the time, or because other projects took over.  One of the joys of writing is to return to something you’ve written and be surprised by how good it is.  Each of these stories has potential.  The ideas for where they will go and how they will end are already re-igniting my enthusiasm.  Candlemas leads us into the incubating time, when we plant the seeds of the ideas we honed after the winter solstice and plan how we will nurture them.  The fragments of the stories I’ve rediscovered are some of the seeds I’ve sown.

The creative maelstrom

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Often, without warning, my dog bolts around the house at great speed for seemingly no good reason.  It’s a different type of motion to the playful, leaping run when he’s outside on a walk.  This is a frenzied sprint, ears back with the force of his speed.  He’ll tear back and forth along the hallway, or invent his own circuit, over sofas, under coffee tables, onto chairs, as we watch, wincing, fearful that he’ll crash into something. It’s a frenzy, but it appears to be an exhilarating, joyful outburst that he relishes.  Then, it’s over.

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As 2013 came to an end, I felt something like my dog must in one of those moments.  It was as though the gales that have battered us on and off for the last couple of weeks had given birth to a storm of inspiration and creative energy.  In the last ten days of the year I wrote two short stories, entered two competitions, created five pages for my blog, wrote two blog posts, completed a painting, defined my creative goals for the year and incubated ideas for three new stories.  In the midst of my own creations, I devoured the creations of others: movies, books, music, diaries.  The first few weeks in December were a fallow period for me.  As usual, I didn’t worry about that, and this was my reward – a creative maelstrom.

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I love periods like these.  The level of creativity I experienced isn’t commonplace.  It may happen only a few times a year as strongly as this and that’s probably just as well, as I couldn’t sustain it all year round.  Because as well as the joy of it, there’s also a kind of insanity.  My mind jumps from one thing to another – composing a story in my head while trying to read, pausing to write something in my notebook, turning on the laptop to capture something.  Just as my dog tears around the house – fast, focused, steely – so my creative brain is engaged.  I don’t want to sleep, because I want to do more.  I’ve written and I’ve painted but I still want to cram in a movie and some reading before bed.

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I reaped the rewards of the fertile darkness, when I embraced the dark weeks after Halloween to conjure my dreams.  Those dreams were born from the midwinter solstice and the midwinter storms.  Like the act of birth itself – messy, painful, joyous, chaotic – so my dreams for the year have been born and started making themselves felt, like babies screaming for sustenance.  The maelstrom is difficult to resist or to retreat from.  And I don’t want to retreat – I’d happily drown in it.  The only way to approach it is to surrender to the current until eventually it subsides, as it will.  Because just as there will always be another fallow period, there will always be another maelstrom.  Dizzying, wonderful, fast, frenzied and productive, but fleeting.

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And then, just before the year ticked over into the new one, the storm abated.  New Year’s Day brought a new moon, usually a time for optimism and new projects, but for me, new moons are often challenging.  I was left restless, the excitement of creation gone and a feeling of emptiness in its place.  But this is another lesson in how to use those cycles of creativity – the harder work is what to do with the fruits of the maelstrom once it’s over.

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I write this with a black eye and half my face swollen to twice it’s normal size, mouth drooping in the way it did when I had Bell’s palsy as a child.  This isn’t the result of a new year punch-up, but of a rare reaction to something much more prosaic –  a root canal.  I’ve begun 2014 confined to the house, loaded with painkillers and dodging pain.  It hasn’t been conducive to creativity.  But perhaps it has been a necessary counterpoint to the maelstrom that ended the last year, a period of enforced rest that will help me to hone the ideas that came up in the storm more effectively.

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There are only four weeks remaining of the time I think of as the honing period, that space between the solstice and Candlemas (Imbolc), when the first signs of spring tentatively appear.  It’s the time when I will take hold of all those birthed ideas and refine them, so that when it comes to Candlemas, I can plan their fruition.  How you hone is in the way that is best for you.  For me it involves pondering, making lists, writing about them.  But as with all magic, it’s about how you keep the intention within you.  So, as I go on my winter walks, I’ll be looking for keepsakes that will remind me of each goal, like the sprig of ash seeds blown from the trees in the storms, objects that I can charge at Imbolc to keep these goals always in my mind.

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Storms still rage around me.  Large parts of the UK are flooded and all around is a flurry of new intentions.  You have to go with the tempest when it strikes, but it’s not only how you weather the storm that counts.  Always keep a little focus in the back of your mind, so that when it’s over, you’ve saved the treasures, not just the wreckage.

Quickening

If you’re seeking inspiration at one of the darkest times of the year, the festival of Imbolc is a good place to begin. Traditionally celebrated from sunset on 1st February until sunset on 2nd February, it is considered the ‘quickening’ of the year, when the first signs of spring begin to stir. It’s a time when the first hint of warmth and light returns to the land. But Imbolc is also a time of creative transformation, when we start to remember that the fire of inspiration is still inside us, after the introversion and stillness of winter.

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Imbolc is associated with the Goddess Bride (pronounced ‘Breed’), a goddess of creativity and inspiration. She was said to be a goddess of poetry, crafts and metalworking and so has a particular relevance for writers and artists. One way to pay tribute to Bride at Imbolc is to create something in her honour.

Although it is traditionally a time when the first spring flowers appear, Imbolc falls at a time when there may still be snow on the ground and the signs of spring can be difficult to see. Where I live, rain and gales are ushering in Imbolc, after weeks of heavy snow. There are few obvious signs of new life. Here, the only spring flowers are in pots. When I walk through the park in the morning, the grass is full of bare muddy patches.

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Autumn and winter are my favourite seasons and I feel a sense of anticipation as September comes. But February has none of the excitement of early winter. As I get older, the more I find that February is a long, hard month. I look forward, not so much to warmer weather, but to longer days. But that is the purpose of Imbolc, as with many of the fire festivals: to remind us that within the darkness, there’s always the promise that the light and the longer days will return. And if I pay close attention, I can feel the first changes in the season. The trees aren’t bare, but are jewelled with their first buds. The birds seem to sing a little more loudly before dawn. There is a new, lighter energy after the heaviness of winter.

This is a time for hope and optimism, for beginning to plan the projects you want to bring to fruition during the year. It is also a time for initiation and is therefore a good point in the year to re-dedicate yourself to whichever creative path you wish to follow. You don’t have to be a witch to take a little inspiration from Bride and from the energy of Imbolc.

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You can use this time as an opportunity to think about your creative goals and any new creative projects you might like to begin this year. In what ways can you nurture those projects so that as the year turns, they will grow into something worth harvesting? You can review your store cupboard of creative tools and consider what you may need to collect to create the things you wish to create. Why not light a candle to remind yourself that even in the darkness and cold of February, you still have inspiration inside you? But don’t forget to also go outside and gather inspiration from the changing energy that’s out there too.