A gift of dreams – a short story for Christmas

My food ran out days ago and there’s no prospect of rescue up here at the top of the world. I try to put up my tent, but the arctic wind bludgeons and tears at the fabric. My compass is gone, my GPS is behaving strangely and the whiteout obliterates the stars. I no longer know which direction to walk in. The next time I fall, I stay there, slumped in the snow, ready to give in to sleep at last.

I drift, watching flurries of snow dart past my goggles. The snowstorm cancels out any differences in the landscape. When my eyes close it’s darker, but that’s the only difference, it seems, between being awake or asleep.

There is something tugging me. Something rough and insistent. I try to shrug it off but it gives me no rest. I open my eyes to a blur of dark movement. It takes a moment to focus. There is a small figure pulling at my arms. At first, I think it’s an animal, it is wrapped so tightly in furs, but no, there are two arms, two legs, and the shape is distinctly human. The storm is too loud for speech, but the figure is clearly attempting to pull me up. I’m resentful at the inconvenience but something tells me I should follow its lead.

There shouldn’t be any settlements this far north, so I can’t imagine where this person has come from. It’s random luck that they’ve come across me in all this whiteness. But the figure is strong and determined, clutching my hand. A child? Surely too strong for that. I stumble to my feet and follow.

Trees appear where no trees should be. Is it possible I’ve drifted south in the storm? But trees were days and days ago, I couldn’t have re-traced my steps that far. The figure pulls me into a clutch of pines and immediately there is calm. The whiteout is gone, replaced by gently drifting snow. There is a soft, subdued light akin to twilight, a relief after the glare of the tundra. This is not some small bunch of straggling trees, it’s a forest. The green is a shock to my scoured eyes. Among the trees, there’s time and space to relax from the effort of survival. I pull off my goggles and my hood. It’s hardly warm, but the absence of the blizzard makes it seem so. The frenzied, maddening wind is gone, replaced by the muffled silence of a snow-clad forest.

I look down at my helper. The figure pulls back its own hood and loosens the fur around its throat. Wisps of grey hair cloud the face. But I can tell it’s a woman, neither very young nor very old, with burnished skin and fierce green eyes.

‘Come,’ she says, beckoning me forward.

‘Where are we?’ I ask. She shakes her head and moves off, confident I’ll follow. The walking is easy, though if this is a path it has long been covered in snow. My energy has returned, despite lack of food and rest. The scent of the pines is intoxicating. I’ve smelt nothing but my own sweat for weeks.

Soon, I see light at the edge of the twilit forest. Lanterns hang from branches, not LED lights these, but candles cupped in glass. They dance, casting amber shadows on the snow. And there are shapes between the trees, I think, circular structures of wood, peaked roofs covered in moss. I stop, because there are other scents now flooding my nostrils: woodsmoke and cinnamon and cooked meat. There is the faint sound of music, the soft tinkle of bells. After the nothing out there, this is too much stimulation, too much colour. I have to steady myself on the nearest tree. The woods are coming to life around me, but how can that be?

There are paths between the trees, narrow curving paths. I see now that the wooden structures must be dwellings. They have lighted windows that hint at warmth and frivolity inside. I glimpse Christmas trees and rustic garlands. Lanterns deck the trees along the paths. This place is filled with dancing light. It’s the middle of June, but here, it seems, it’s Christmas.

I don’t see any other people, but I sense them. As though they wait and watch just out of sight, holding a collective breath. More than once, I glance behind me, expecting to see a huddle of followers. We walk endless paths, twisting and turning into the village, if that’s what this is, until we come to a clearing. In its centre is a spruce, much larger than the others and trickling with lanterns. There are things tied to the branches: pieces of cloth, small bells, trinkets of wood and glass. Some are frayed and battered, some so ancient they’re covered in lichen. A Christmas tree, but like no Christmas tree I’ve seen before.

I sink to my knees before it. Overwhelmed by all the remembered scents of Christmas. By a medley of echoing carols. I sense the roots of this tree stretching for miles beneath snow and soil. And a sound, half-way between hum and heartbeat. This is a tree that goes beyond Christmas, beyond time itself perhaps. It has always been here and always will be. I have nothing to offer, but I’m compelled to offer something. I tear a fragment of fabric from the inside of my pocket and carefully tie it to the end of a branch. The leaves caress me like a comforting hand.

The woman beckons me on. I don’t want to go, but she’s determined, dragging me forward. We follow a wider path until we reach a building different to the simple roundhouses I’ve seen before. It has the same foundation but it is bigger, with makeshift extensions so it looks like some strange confection of timber, moss and glass. The door is enormous and decorated with an intricate garland of evergreens. It opens the moment we reach it.

The light that spills out is diffuse and silver. There’s a figure silhouetted in the doorway. I think my companion bows and fades away, but I’m not sure because I can’t look away from the man on the threshold. Tall and portly, with acres of white hair and a beard that falls almost to his feet. He wears a robe the colour of the pines, edged in fur. His face is dark and weather-beaten, his eyes the shade of the forest lanterns.

‘Well,’ he says in a voice that is loud but gentle. ‘You must be Annie. We’ve been expecting you.’

I move towards him without thinking to ask how he knows my name. I want to walk into his embrace and tell him everything there is to know about me. A sudden memory comes, of my father hoisting me onto his back and dancing around the room as I cling to him laughing and squealing. For a moment, I’m caught up in the memory, unwilling to shatter it, but I feel a hand on my arm and I’m guided into a room warm with wood, cluttered with knick-knacks and lit by a crackling fire. The room is decorated with evergreens and a large Christmas tree stands by the hearth. But it isn’t Christmas, I remind myself, not in the world I’ve come from.

A woman stands in front of the grate. She is as tall as he is, broad and strong. She also has white hair to her feet and a face creased with lines. When she moves, she has a sinuous grace in contrast to the man’s bulk. She takes my gloved hands in hers.

‘Welcome Annie,’ she says.

She leads me to a simple room, containing a bed with a patchwork cover. A robe of pale green is laid out on it. She leaves me to change. I’m relieved to take off the suit I’ve worn for weeks, to get rid of my boots and sodden socks, to be able to wash and change into something that is warm and soft against my skin. All changed, I sit on the bed to catch my breath. It seems like years since I was out in the blizzard, ready to give in to a sleep I wouldn’t have woken from. Perhaps I’m dreaming, because how else could I be here in this strange, unexpected place, where it seems I was expected. I’m unusually shy as I open the door, but a loud voice greets me.

‘Come and join us, my dear.’

The couple have moved to a table, laden with food – simple soups and stews, vegetables and bread. My stomach tilts at the sight. I haven’t eaten for days and even then I was eating survival rations. I’ve had nothing fresh for weeks. ‘Tuck in,’ the woman says and I don’t need to be asked again. Any curiosity I have about them or this place is curtailed by the desire to eat. My manners desert me as I load up my plate and waffle it all down, until, sated, I sit back and remember where I am. I should be exhausted, but I’m wide awake. I scan the room and my hosts. They watch me. Carefully. Silently.

‘Thank you,’ I say. They both nod and it seems I’m watching them in slow motion.

There’s a tension that I’m loathe to break because it might undo all my ideas of what is true. But I can’t wait any longer.

‘Where is this place? Who are you?’ I ask.

‘Oh my dear,’ says the woman. ‘Don’t you already know?’

I think I do, but I’m reluctant to say it. It’s ridiculous. But they’re waiting. There is expectation in the silence. These are the questions they’ve been waiting for me to ask.

‘You’re….Father Christmas.’ I blurt.

The man laughs, nodding. ‘But you can call me Santa!’

‘And this is my wife, Frija – or Mrs Claus.’

I shake my head, more to clear it than in denial.

‘You don’t believe it?’ he says.

I ponder the question. Of course I don’t believe it. I haven’t believed in Santa since I was a child. But here I am and I somehow knew it from the moment I saw the big tree and there doesn’t seem to be another explanation that I’m happy with.

‘I believe it. Right now I believe it. But how? I know there aren’t any settlements up here. This place can’t exist. You can’t exist.’

They both laugh then. Mrs Claus leans forward and her face is suddenly serious.
‘This is a world between worlds,’ she says. ‘It’s not a place you can touch from the outside. And not a place that just anyone can visit – or even see. Call it a dream, call it a mirage, whatever you like, but it’s as real as the world you come from.’

‘So I’m not dreaming then? I’m not still out there in the storm?’ She doesn’t answer, only smiles.

Santa pushes his chair back suddenly and claps his hands. ‘You’ll be wanting a tour,’ he says. Mrs Claus rises too and they wait for me to follow. They lead me through convoluted passageways, up and down stairs, past bedrooms, sitting areas, studies and kitchens, but nothing I see is what I imagine Santa’s village to be. This is just a house, if an eccentric one.

In the end I blurt it out: ‘Where are the workshops…where are the…elves?’ I shrug apologetically. This still seems ridiculous.

‘Ahhh,’ he says. ‘You want to see where the magic happens.’

Mrs Claus nudges him playfully. ‘Of course she does.’

He nods. We’re standing in front of an arched door. He sweeps it open and I peer in. Not another bedroom or living room this time, but a tunnel. Narrow and smooth and carved from the earth itself. I can see soil and roots and worms. Like everything in this world it twists and turns, but finally we reach another door, labelled ‘workshop’. I take a deep breath as Santa turns the handle.

This is like no workshop I’ve ever seen – or imagined. There are no work-benches. No tools. No piles of toys. The room is huge, circular, sloping up to a skylight. Every wall is lined with shelves and on every shelf there are rows of books. There are piles of books on the floor too, some in stacks, some lying open. And between them, figures roam – small figures with pointed ears.

‘But this is a library!’ I say.

‘Of a sort,’ Mrs Claus says. ‘Come and see.’

I follow them further into the room. The elves are engrossed in their work, but I’m not sure what work that is. They gesture and dance, sing and sway, shout and mutter. I realise that the room, which seemed silent when we entered, is a blur of noise and movement. And when I look more closely, I see the pictures. Suspended in the air. Transparent, moving images. Like holograms, though I suspect Santa’s village isn’t computerised. There are dozens of them. Mirages. I gasp and stutter, swinging my head from side to side to try to grasp what it is I’m seeing.

‘This isn’t what you expected.’ Says Santa.

‘No.’ I tear my eyes away from the kaleidoscope and focus on Santa.

‘I expected workshops full of elves making toys for you to deliver on Christmas Eve.’

‘I don’t deliver toys,’ he says.

I stop in shock. ‘But you do! You’re Santa. That’s what you do.’

‘Is it?’ he says.

I nod my head vehemently and Santa smiles.

‘It’s true,’ he says. ‘There was a time I loaded my sack with toys and delivered them around the globe. You could be sure there would be a gift from Father Christmas under your tree.’ He looks a little sad.

‘And now?’

He spreads out his arms in a big shrug. ‘Nobody needs toys from Santa anymore. They have quite enough under the tree as it is.’

I’m stunned into silence for a moment. ‘But…but surely that’s not true. You’re still needed. Not every child has toys.’

He nods. ‘And I still have something up my sleeve for those boys and girls.’

‘But on Christmas Eve, what do you do…have you retired?’

He laughs. ‘I do what I’ve always done. I get in my sleigh and I travel the world.’ He walks through the workshop and I follow.

‘But you said…what’s the point?’

‘Do you know what the elves are doing here?’ he says.

I shake my head.

‘They’re conjuring dreams.’

‘Dreams?’

‘My purpose was never to deliver toys,’ Santa says. ‘It was to deliver dreams!’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘You had a dream once,’ Santa says. ‘To go to the North Pole and visit Father Christmas. That’s why you’re here. Do you remember?’

I shake my head. ‘All children dream of that.’

‘Mm, that’s true. But not all of them end up on a North Pole expedition. All the years of training, the fund-raising, the sacrifices…’

‘But that wasn’t to see you. That was to see the arctic, to test myself, to see if I could do it.’

He’s silent, watching me question myself. ‘That’s what it is now,’ he says. ‘But in here…’ he rests a hand over my heart. ‘In here you never stopped seeking the magic.’

Warmth spreads through my chest at the touch of his hand. Suddenly, I’m not the woman pursuing a determined quest for the arctic, but the child wishing for Santa Claus. I am a girl again, standing vigil at the window on Christmas Eve, desperate to hear the tinkle of bells and to see the sweep of a sleigh across the rooftops. I nursed the wish to meet Father Christmas long after other children had discarded it and perhaps somehow I knew that I would have to come here to do it.

‘Come,’ Mrs Claus says. She leads me to a bay of shelves and with a small push, the wall opens. I gasp. Stretching away into the heart of the earth is a catacomb of sorts. But not filled with death or bodies, filled with books. Some look new, some are crumbling, and each is labelled with a name. She takes one off the shelf and opens it. Immediately the pages begin to dance with shapes and colours and letters and faint images. It crackles in her hands.

‘A book of dreams,’ she says.

‘Every child has one. It’s the elves job to create the possibility of the dream. Elves are masters of magic you know; they conjure dreams out of nothing. They can build toys too, of course, but their skill and their purpose is much greater than that. Santa’s job is to get each dream to the right child – that’s his gift.’

‘But not everyone has dreams.’

Santa nods. ‘Oh but they do.’

‘Some get lost along the way,’ says Mrs Claus. ‘Some don’t have the opportunity to fulfil them.’ She is sad. ‘But they remain. We hold them in trust. You might call me the librarian of the North Pole,’ she laughs. ‘It’s my job to keep them safe. Dreams never go away, do they?’ she says softly. ‘Not really. And that magic you feel on Christmas night – even if only for a short while – that vein of hope and anticipation, it’s a reminder to everyone that dreams are still possible.’

I turn back to the workshop. Step into the chaotic flurry of the elves’ work. I reach out a hand. Just beyond is the image of a child on horseback, galloping along a shore. When I touch it, it has no substance, but for a moment there is joy, movement, the sense of wind tugging my hair. I step back quickly to find myself looking into the face of a young elf. He’s smiling at me.

‘Good?’ he says.

I look around me. The room has gone silent. The elves are still. The air is full of dreams, paused, waiting for their conjurers. I nod.

‘Exquisite,’ I say. I bow and step away, back to Santa and Mrs Claus. The cacophony starts up again.

‘Now.’ Mrs Claus says, ‘It’s time for you to go and fulfil your dream. You’re almost there you know.’ She takes my hand and squeezes it. Then Santa takes the other. I see myself looking out of the window on a frost-filled Christmas many years ago, hoping to see Santa, wishing I might visit him in his village one day. I hear a faint laugh.

I wake smiling. My eyes are filled with orange. Not the soft amber of lanterns, but the garish fabric of my tent. All is calm and still. I feel rested. There is no hunger in my belly. The despair of knowing that I’m not going to make it is gone. You’re nearly there….I sit up suddenly. A moment ago – surely it was only a moment – I was with Santa and Mrs Claus. Wasn’t I? I look outside my tent and there is only white. Was it a dream then? But my tent is up, my belly is full and in the corner there are new supplies, enough to keep me going for days. A dream, yes, but not the kind you have when you sleep. I don’t know what day it is, but somehow I know I’m on time. I’ll reach the pole when I’m supposed to. My support team will be waiting for me.

I pack up my things with renewed enthusiasm. The sled is light. My muscles are strong. The landscape is little more than a wash of white, with a faint blue tinge in the sky. But I know now that somewhere in this wilderness is a world between worlds that only a handful of lucky dreamers get to see. My most treasured dream is almost over, but somewhere, in a magical library tended by the most diligent librarian, there is a book with my name on it in which other dreams wait.

The Eve of Magic

Cars choke the roads in metal ribbons, people rushing, doing last minute shopping and preparations.  In our house, we joke about Christmas being ‘the end of the world’.  The shops are only closed for a day, but it may as well be Armageddon, as the shelves are stripped bare in a strange kind of frenzy.  I allow myself a smile of relief, as Winston and I meander past the shoppers, trapped in their vehicles and some semblance of what they feel Christmas should be.  We turn off the road, away from it all into the Dene.  The Dene is empty when we arrive, and we see only two other people in the time we’re there.  It strikes me as sad that the roads are full, while the green space – the breathing space – is empty.

I find Christmas Eve the most magical day of the holidays.  It is a day steeped in possibilities.  A night filled with expectation.  Magical stories of shepherds following angels, kings journeying from far off lands, a family-to-be seeking shelter in the darkness.  Listening into the night for the tinkle of bells, bells that I am almost sure I can hear, as Father Christmas journeys high above the rooftops.  The leaving out of carrots for the reindeer, a little something for Santa, listening again for his elusive arrival down the chimney.

My beliefs have changed since I was brought up on those stories, but Christmas is very much an eclectic festival for me.  The birth of sun and earth at the solstice is woven inextricably with the story of the nativity, the story of Santa, the magic of song and story, memory and tradition.  And Christmas Eve is not a time for rushing, it is a time for revelling in the waiting and the magic.  So before the evening comes and I gather with my little family in a darkness warmed by fairy lights, I return to the earth, to imbibe the silence of nature.

There will be no white Christmas this year.  Instead, autumn seems to have returned for a last fling.  Warm golden light and the hint of pink in the clouds.  A rising wind that doesn’t howl, but hums tunefully.  The pond was a sheet of ice only a week ago, scores of ducks skating towards me looking for food.  Now it is liquid light.  The black headed gulls that usually rest on the jetty are elsewhere.  Moorhens graze on the grass, mallards repose on the banks of the pond.  I hear the chirrup of tits in the trees, the occasional bugle of a moorhen.  The rushes are always beautiful at this time of year, tall golden stalks with seedheads of siena and fluff.  They bow in unison in the gentling wind.  A rustle of leaves whirls slowly on the grass, echoing autumn’s jig.  The burn trickles, rippling, with slices of ochre where the sun catches it.

There is usually a hush, a kind of stillness in the dene.  Not far away, those same cars stream over the bridge, but you don’t notice them here.  It nestles in a bowl of tranquillity.  There is often a sense that something unexpected might happen.  And this is the kind of feeling I get from Christmas Eve.  I know what I have planned.  I know, roughly, what tomorrow will bring.  But still, there are mysteries waiting in the darkness.  Out there, in the land of magic, the land that we only catch glimpses of.   Somewhere there is a magical land of elves and a man in a crimson coat.  Somewhere there is a desert land in which a star guides kings.  Somewhere, there is an underworld where a goddess lies resting after birthing the sun.  You might say that none of these things exist, that they are myth, imagination, stories we tell to make ourselves feel better in the bleak midwinter.  But to me, the truth of it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that, for one night, I can believe in every one of them and glimpse just a shimmer of their magic.

Hush

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There are few opportunities to experience the world without people, particularly if you live in a town.  But there is a special kind of hush on Christmas Day.  A silence so intense that it feels like it might shatter.  People are celebrating behind tightly closed doors and the roads are all but empty.

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Late afternoon, not long before sunset, I walk with Winston into the centre of town.  Every store is closed.  The street is lined with metal shutters, firmly down.  A few shop signs are still lit, a monitor flashes advertisements to an empty store, and the occasional light remains on.  High up above one of the shops is an open window.  I wonder if there are people in any of these lit rooms, guarding empty premises, or if it’s simply that the last person to leave forgot to turn out the lights.

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Wind whips down the street.  A handful of crispy leaves, scraps of paper and an empty milk carton spin around the street with a hollow rustling.  Something creaks.  There is the clink of a lamp-post as it sways in the wind.  And gulls.  When the people are absent, this town belongs to the gulls.  They perch high on the buildings, braying a lament or perhaps a celebration, that the streets are theirs.

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I stand in the centre of the street, looking from top to bottom.  There is no sound beyond the gulls and the wind-songs.  The cyclone of the leaves is the only sense of movement.  On my walk here, I saw only one person, in the distance, walking purposefully in pyjamas and a Santa hat.  I have heard only one car passing.  It doesn’t seem possible that I’m the only person on these usually busy streets, but I am.  I give thanks for the opportunity to see the world as the gulls see it.

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We walk home through vacant streets, Winston and I.  Christmas lights glitter in living rooms and gardens.  I think of the people behind those closed doors: how they have celebrated this day, how they are celebrating now.  All of the excess has come to this: the silence of the streets and a thankful pause before the madness of the Boxing Day sales begins.  There is fire in the sky ahead of me.  Black clouds like smoke, seared by a slash of blazing orange.  Darkness will be here soon and I will revel in the last hush before the people wake once more.

The unexpected year

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As a new calendar year approaches, we wonder what to expect in the months to come.  For me, this year has been an intense brew of the predictable and the unexpected.  But then, when I look back, isn’t this always the case?  Yes, some years seem to plod on, with nothing much of note happening, so that we wonder where the months went.  Some years meander, as we drift, out of focus, along different paths.  And then there are those years that we look back on as our turning points, when the unexpected happens and turns the year on its head.

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The crew of the Donald Duckling weren’t expecting to spend Christmas moored in the north east of England.  And as we approached the port on our Boxing Day walk, we weren’t prepared for this hulking, rusting cargo ship to be docked there.  The ship has been detained at the port since late November, not permitted to leave until urgent repairs are carried out.  It’s crew, who are mainly Romanian and Filipino, had to resort to fishing from the side of the ship when their food ran out on the last voyage, and to cooking the fish on the deck as the galley wasn’t working.  The crew are far from home but have been supported by the local fishermen’s mission, who have given them phone cards, access to the internet and to their kitchen.

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And yet on this calm day, when the low sun bounced off the side of the ship, life asserted itself as though there was nothing unusual about the scene.  The gulls took advantage of the mooring ropes to claim a safe river vantage point.  Families and dog-walkers enjoyed the tranquil pause between the rain and gales.  And this is the point.  Life goes on, good or bad, as we prepare to celebrate a new year and wonder what it will bring.

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This year I’ve been amazed by the way my creativity has burgeoned, the way I’ve found inspiration in unexpected places.  I’ve revelled in the seasons as never before and in the every day enjoyment of cherishing time with my family.  I’ve found succour in the woods, the sea and a small terrier called Winston.  I have connected with a multitude of fascinating people across the world.  Yet I’ve also been saddened by the loss of a loved one much too soon.  This year hasn’t plodded, or meandered.  It may well have been a turning point.

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And so, as I write this, surrounded by the roar of the renewed gales around the house, I want to leave you with some of my favourite posts of the year.  I hope you’ll take some time to follow the links and read them and explore the blogs that go with them.  These are only a very small selection of posts I’ve read that have made me laugh, cry, think or just enjoy.

The season of the floor sun by Laurie at Travel Lightly is a moving account of the loss of a summer ritual after the death of her dog Juno.  Laurie also writes beautifully about nature, landscape and spirituality.

Britt Skrabanek at A Physical Perspective, recently started an inspiring series called The Life Enthusiast Chronicles, which is all about people who, using the example of their own lives, inspire us to live ours.  I’d also recommend Britt’s book ‘Beneath the Satin Gloves.’

The word is create by Marylin Warner at Things I want to tell My Mother, describes the objects created with love through generations and how they become legacies for those who come after.  Marylin’s blog is in the form of letters to her mother, a writer herself, who suffers from dementia, and her posts are warm, touching and insightful.

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Sherri, at A View From My Summer House shared a powerful post about her journey as a writer, in The power – how has writing changed you.  In her blog, Sherri shares warm, funny and touching stories of her life in the UK and the US that have been a pleasure to read.

One of the first posts I read on WordPress was by Zen Doe at The Wind Horse Blog.  Captain, My Captain is the touching story of being chosen by a horse while grieving for another, that had me in tears.  She hasn’t posted for a while as life was getting in the way of writing in a good way, but you won’t be sorry if you spend a little time in her world.

I’ve greatly enjoyed sharing the ups and downs of the writer’s journey with archaeologist and writer JM McDowell over the past year.  As well as posting on writing in general, JM has shared some wonderful fiction with us.  Meghan Bode’s Wintry Tale part one (there’s a link on the page to part two) is just a taster of some of her writing, that I hope you enjoy.

Gemma Hawdon is another fellow writer that I have loved sharing the journey with this year at Top of the Slush Pile.  Gemma has shared many great tips and observations about the writing life.  The imagery in Writing the dark and twisted has particularly stayed with me.

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Ron Scubadiver shares wonderful photos of landscapes, people, street life, the arts scene, abstracts and more at The Wild Life of Ron Scubadiver. Volcanos National Park has some of my favourites.

Karin Vandenbergh at Ruby Slippers and the Yellow Brick Road often seems to look into my mind and I find we often write on similar themes.  Into the darkness is a beautiful exploration of the power of the dark.

Gabriela Blandy, at The Sense of a Journey, has also been missing from WordPress for a while.  I miss her rich, thought-provoking pieces, with some wonderful titles. What happens when a character’s skirt gets hitched in her knickers is an exploration of characterisation.

Unpeeled, by Helen White at Scattering the Light, is about limitation, self-judgement and the tensions that can appear around the autumn equinox.  Helen is an artist and writer who writes beautifully of her spiritual and creative journey.

I’m constantly amazed at the ability of Scott, at Kindred Spirit, to produce so many pieces of enjoyable short fiction each week, as well as more general posts.  He’s recently started posting longer pieces featuring Carolyn and her struggles in a zombie-infested world, which I’m really enjoying.  Keeping Watch is the first of these.

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Jenny Pellet at Characters from the Kitchen shares some wonderful and amusing thoughts on life.   The imperfection of memory is about how we remember things, sometimes not in the way they happened.

Sarah Potter shares wonderful haikus, inspirational photos and more.  Sun Haiku #2 is an example of one of my favourites.

Kourtney Heinz has generously shared her journey with us as a new author on the promotional trail.  This post is a trailer for her book, which I would highly recommend you read: The Six Train to Wisconsin book trailer.

Jack Flacco writes about zombies, strong women and a miscellany of other things.  So if you’ve ever wondered how you’d survive a zombie apocalypse, try one of Jack’s ‘what-if’ posts to see how you’d do: Zombie what-ifs.  Also check out his new book ‘Ranger Martin and the Zombie Apocalypse’.

I only read The necessity of beauty by Valerie Davies today and it is such a beautiful story that it makes a perfect end to my selection of favourite posts of the year.  Valerie writes beautiful posts that also always include fascinating information and insights.

Thank you to all of these bloggers and all of those I regularly follow but haven’t mentioned here, for making my world a richer place this year.

The year’s midnight

The autumn show is over and at the midwinter solstice we move into the true darkness of winter.  The trees appear barren.  Only the ash provides a sense of colour, its clusters of seed pods like bronze parcels amid the branches.  The fallen leaves are still plentiful in patches on the ground, but they are no longer crispy, forming instead a damp, rotting mulch.  The grass seems greener, having been hidden by leaves for so  long, but the ground is sodden and muddy.  As yet, there has been only a single, short snowstorm that, once over, left no signs that it had ever arrived.  Our weather has been a patchwork of rain storms, tidal surges, gales and some milder days.  But now, the reward of getting up before dawn is to see the glitter of frost on the grass and to feel it crisp beneath your feet.

The poet John Donne called the solstice the year’s midnight.  This is darkness proper, when the flaming leaves no longer light the season and the trees are desolate silhouettes against the lowering skies.  This, I feel, is a different kind of darkness to that of autumn.  The autumn darkness is rich, tender and expectant.  The winter darkness, once the solstice and the festivities of the season are over, can be bleak, cold and hollow.  It will be a long time until we feel the energy of spring.  But out of darkness come hope, light and dreams.  At the solstice, the night is the longest of the year, but at dawn, the sun will be reborn and the days will become longer.

There is rich symbolism at this time of year.  The old pagan symbols merge with the Christian ones and those that came much later, so that it can be difficult to see where one ends and another begins.  Whatever your beliefs, there is a real magic in the wealth of symbols and stories that span the season.  And all of them, at heart, celebrate similar themes: the light, hope and benevolence emerging from the darkness.  Trees hung with offerings are an ancient representation of the gifts and wishes of the season.  The glitter of tinsel, candles and fairy lights proclaim the rebirth of the light.  Evergreens brought across the threshold affirm our hope that life is still with us.  Feasting and festivities give us comfort against the cold and the gloom.

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I have always revelled in the creativity of the season.  In my childhood, before the Internet, DVDs and satellite TV, the holidays were a time full of creative pursuits.  There would be new books and music received as gifts, new movies premiered on the TV, new television shows made for Christmas.  But there was also time – unbroken time to create and to enjoy the creations of others.  For me, the ease of downloading a book or song, of buying a DVD, has taken away some of the excitement once associated with this time of year, while the responsibilities of the season can prevent us absorbing its magic.

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If you’re feeling harried by the demands of the season and feel that it leaves little space for you to focus on your creativity, the solstice is a good time to pause.  The long hours of darkness on that night provide ample time for reflection on how your creativity will be reborn.  Use the night to midwife a fresh creative spirit: this time of birth is an optimal moment – anything is possible.  Your creative life begins anew – how will it be different this year?  What dreams did you dream in the autumn darkness that you can now give birth to and guide, like children, to their full potential?

After the reflection of the long night, you could go out and greet the dawn.  The sunrise after the longest night is one of the gifts of the year, but there will be other gifts you have within you to help you create – those you were born with, those you have earned through experience.  This is a time when we give to others, but consider also what you can give to yourself to ensure your creative spirit is nurtured throughout the year.