Giving up

Every time I have visited this forest I have climbed the path up the hill.  It is clearly a path – russet and spongy with fallen pine needles – but it is a path that doesn’t make itself easily known.  The trail winds upwards, flanked by bracken and bramble, surrounded by fallen trees.  There are small patches of colour depending on the season: a lone rhododendron, a clump of foxgloves, fruits of fly agaric.  At its peak, it opens out onto a marshy cleft strung with telegraph wires.  Then, the path moves on, straight ahead, deeper into the forest.

Sometimes the forest enfolds and comforts.  Sometimes the forest is everything you fear.  I have always feared the path ahead.  It looks no different to any other path, but when I set foot on it I find myself breathing quietly and moving with caution.  There is a low buzzing in my ears, as though swarms of wasps lie in wait.  Gnarled tree trunks hunch at the edge of the trail.  You might ask why I always seek out this path, when I never feel welcome here, and I can’t answer that.  But I never travel far along it before I turn back.

It has been a couple of years since I was here and on this visit something is different.  The path up the hill is now blocked by two fallen trees.  Yet it doesn’t feel like a barrier, it feels playful.  An invitation to climb over and under.  Telegraph hill is more overgrown than I remember it, but there is a lightness up here that is new.  I walk to the path ahead and suddenly a tan body stumbles onto the trail.  A roe deer.  She stops, sees me and bolts forward into the trees.  I don’t wander any further than the spot where her hooves have grazed the path, but not because I’m afraid.  There is no longer any sense of foreboding here.

The meadows are bursting with wildflowers: buttercups, ragged robin, marsh thistle and orchids, like jewels in the sun.  I see the deer again, grazing on the meadow flowers.  She lifts her head occasionally to look at me, then carries on feeding.  The season of metamorphosis is over.  Flowers are blooming, caterpillars have become butterflies, eggs have hatched.

Almost three months ago, I gave up smoking.  When you give up an addiction, you get through the physical withdrawal and work on breaking the habit of doing that thing when you would usually do it.  And that’s hard.  But you must also confront the reason you have the addiction in the first place.  That empty space that demands something to fill it.  Life becomes flat because you can’t do the thing you want to do; you become restless because that thing is gone; but you are also raw from not having the addiction to cover up what was hidden.

In the weeks since I gave up, I’ve felt positive and motivated, bored and depressed, despairing and emotional.  I could tell you about a hundred vivid dreams but not a single creative thought.  I could tell you about anger, disconnection and fits of uncontrollable crying in the middle of town.  At one particularly dark point, I decided to give up on the constant effort of writing and to destroy everything that I had ever created.  Spring passed into summer without my attention, because the world seemed lacklustre and I was too focused on wrestling with what is inside me.

I didn’t destroy everything I had created.  Instead, I stepped away to avoid doing something I couldn’t undo.   I stopped writing, but I didn’t give up on it.  The forest is a full stop to that withdrawal.  And the forbidden path somehow doesn’t feel forbidding anymore.  Next time I follow it I take a different turning on the trail.  Just beyond is an enormous fallen tree tangled with branches.  After a moment I notice that there is something there that isn’t quite right.  A juvenile owl.  Completely still.  She doesn’t move, not even as the path leads me closer to her.  She’s not a pretty creature.  Not yet.  She looks plucked and a little angry.  She’s still becoming what she’s meant to be.

The solstice dawn contains a breath of winter within it.  The chill clouds my breath.  A cock pheasant is curled like a cat on the edge of the meadow, sleeping.  Like many other midsummer dawns, this one is grey and unspectacular.  In the forest, a chorus of wood pigeons fills the trees, accompanied by a discordant chiff chaff solo.  I walk the trail, until I emerge from pines to the point where the stream begins to curve.  I’m familiar with this landscape, but it has changed irrevocably.  The plantation has been harvested, scythed into an apocalyptic vision, strewn with limbs and stumps as white as bones.  A pair of dead trees still stand in the distance, as though in a doomed embrace.  On my other side, a huge pine has toppled over the stream, needles still feathery and green.  In the pooling water, a staff sticks out of the silt.  It looks like a small figure, arms outstretched in despair or welcome.

She is there when I emerge from the trees.  The roe deer.  Spirit of the woods.  This morning she is not expecting me.  It’s too early for humans to be up.  I walk on past, leaving her to her business.  And there is the pheasant, still sleeping, this time stretched out on his side.  I didn’t know pheasants slept like cats, but this one certainly does.  He startles as I pass and stalks grumpily into the grass.

Any butterfly will tell you that change isn’t easy. There’s a price to be paid for those wings.  And when they’re unfurled, you’re transformed, but you’re also the same creature you were before.  I’m trying to find out who I am without something I’ve done for more than twenty years.  I can feel a twitch at my shoulders where wings might grow.  After all these years, I’m still becoming what I’m meant to be.  Giving up shouldn’t fundamentally change me, but maybe it will reveal things that have been hidden all along.

 

Transition

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It is the dawn of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  This midsummer dawn is a time of transitions.  For a moment the sun stands still, before the year turns into another season.  Later today, the moon will become full, the first time in half a century that it has done so on a summer solstice.  It is the fourth full moon in a season, something that happens seven times within a 19 year cycle.  High tide coincides with dawn, reaching its own zenith before ebbing.  At spring equinox, I was at the other end of the causeway, marooned on the island with the seals.  Today the tide resists me, barring entry.

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In the west, last night’s moon is setting.  It hangs suspended, an amber globe, almost at its potential.   In the east, the horizon hints at sunrise.  A slash of yellow silhouettes gloomy clouds.  Pinprick lights glow from ships far out at sea.  Clouds dwarf the ships as though pressing them downwards.  They look small and lonely out there.

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As the light grows, sand martins flicker across the water and back to their burrows in the cliffs.  There are some ducks that might be eiders in the distance.  But there are no bird calls, only the relentless growl of the sea.  A flock of geese flies silently overhead, in the midst of changing positions in their V.  The sky is all luminous pastels and foreboding greys.  A yellow stripe daubs the horizon.   The clouds play at masquerade: brush-strokes, wire wool, snow-clad peaks and blotched fur adorning the sky.

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This is a time for empowerment and some would say the combination of a fourth full moon with the solstice emphasises that power.  It’s a time to renew energy, to inhale the lightness of the season, because after today we’re already heading towards darkness.   But there has been little in the way of sun recently and much of drizzly rain and grey skies.  This morning, I don’t feel empowered, I feel tired.  And yet, there is a simmering power in the silence, if not of the sun, then of sea and sky.

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Our world has both expanded and contracted this week.  We shared home, food, lives and experiences with a visitor from America, reminding us that we are different but much the same.  But our world has suddenly grown smaller.  We’ve chosen to withdraw from Europe and become an island again.   In this season of looking outwards, many of us have chosen to look the other way.   This is a country enclosed by sea and sky.  It would be easy to view it as a barrier and this island as a fortress.  But when I stand at the sea’s edge, I see only an expanse of possibility.  It’s what allows me to breathe.

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Summer is a time of plenty, when we enjoy the bounty of what is around us.  But not for everyone and there’s a fear that there isn’t enough to go around.  The divisions are showing, between young and old, between those with and without.  It seems that we are in chaos and uncertainty as we confront the descent into winter.   In town, I’m surprised that people are going about their business as though nothing has happened.  This is another transition – we stood still as the votes came in with another dawn.  Now the sun recedes, even as summer comes, and we as a people are withdrawing too.

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It’s time to collect what we can from the summer to empower and sustain us into the winter.  To gather our sustenance from the light, the heat, the bounty of the land and the swelling of our imaginations.  I can’t help but feel sad today at what we may have given up, but I take my sustenance from the quiet power of the solstice dawn.  From the wide open sky and the potential of the horizon.  Transition always comes and in itself, it’s neither good nor bad, only a change from one way of being to another.

Renewal

SAMSUNG CSCSummer is slowly fading in the forest.  Though the foliage appears as lush as it was at midsummer, everywhere there are small signs of transformation.  The meadow is no longer dense with summer flowers and the sumptuous blossoms of the rhododendrons are gone.  Instead, there are dried seed heads where blooms would have been.  The birds are muted and difficult to see.  The bats are invisible.  The opulent red berries of the rowan punctuate the greenery, while lilac heather blooms in clumps beneath the trees.  A squirrel that inhabits the trees above our cabin obsessively gathers beech nuts, showering the verandah with shells like hailstones.  Sun still washes the forest and during the day the sky is baby blue and cloudless.  But the clear, star-speckled nights are chilled and silent.

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Flowers have a flighty, exaggerated beauty: lavish, unruly and destined to be short-lived.  But there is a different kind of allure to the burnt browns and pearly silvers of the seed heads.  They are slender and skeletal, or brittle and gnarled, poised to crumble to dust in your fingers.  Behind the visible transformations, there is a sense that there are hidden labours taking place within the forest, secret preparations for the autumn and winter to come.

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To me, September has always been a time of transformation.  Perhaps there is something instinctual about this, a sense memory of the change of the season and the transition to winter.  But more prosaically, it’s a recollection of the return to school after the long summer holidays, when there was always an opportunity to return transformed, a different person to the one that left in July.  Classmates would grow and change during the summer and we would all go back with new clothes, new supplies, new hope for the school year to come.  And though I no longer get those luxuriously long holidays, September still seems like the time when change arrives.  It’s an end to the blowsy exhibitionism of summer and a turning inwards to the snug serenity of autumn.  I feel the shift within, a murmur of relief after the immodesty of summer.

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I’ve always been attracted to the concept of transformation.  Transformation is the thing I love about stories.  Whatever the genre, the one thing that makes a story satisfying for me is to watch the metamorphosis of the characters within it.  I’ll never enjoy a purely plot-driven narrative in the same way as a more intricate character-based tale.  This is the joy of reading.  To read about other people so that we can learn about other ways of being.  And it’s the joy of creation.  To witness the ways in which we transform our characters on the page.

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Nature offers us spectacular transformations.  The brutal annihilation of the caterpillar, turned to pulp in its chrysalis to emerge as a butterfly.  The glorious eruption of the autumn leaves, before they wither and crumble beneath our feet.  But for us, the transformation is often quieter.  We may not realise we’re going through the process of change until it’s over and then we’re amazed at how different our lives have become.  When we’re younger, we can’t wait for transformation: to become older, to grow more independent.  When we’re older, we often resist it.  We may say we want to change, but don’t want to experience the discomfort of discarding the parts of us we no longer need and forging new ones.

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But change is inevitable and reading or writing about it allows us to experience it with only temporary discomfort.  We can try out different lives, different adventures and immerse ourselves in all of the diverse things that are possible (or impossible, depending on the genre) within the safety of our imaginations.  So that when we do decide to transform ourselves, or when transformation comes unbidden, we know that there is a path to follow, or we have the confidence to create our own.