Along the tracks

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There’s something exuberant about the blooms of August.  As though summer, knowing it is on its last legs, throws all its efforts into a medley of colour before its time is over.  It is the season of vivid purples and zesty yellows: great tangles of willowherbs, thistles and buddleia bordering knots of ragwort, great mullein and weld.  And the lush white bindweed trumpets creeping nefariously over them all.

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Nowhere is this more obvious than along the tracks.  This is railway country, the place where the ‘father of the railways’ was born.  George Stephenson built his first locomotive to transport coal down these tracks.  The county is scored with the remains of the old lines, waggon-ways that ferried coal from the Great Northern Coalfield to the river Tyne.  It was first carried on wooden tracks in horse-drawn carts, then on metal rails by stationary steam engines hauled by ropes and finally by steam locomotive.

SAMSUNG CSCThese days, no locomotives pass this way, except perhaps in dreams in the dead of night.  The rails are long gone, replaced by paths.  Lined with hawthorn hedges, abundant in wild flowers.  Birds, hares and other creatures inhabit these tracks now, burrowing into the banks and flitting through the hedges.  Whereas once they were noisy with heavy industry, now they are peaceful trails in the midst of towns.

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In this topsy turvy and unsettled year, my creativity hasn’t followed its usual path.  I struggled to feel the celebration of summer and bring my box of dreams to fruition.  Yet something strange has happened in the last few weeks.  When I venture out, all I see is potential.  Fat, glossy rosehips, scores of blackberries, elderberries and haws.  Most still green, some beginning to turn, but only the potential of what they will become.   And my creative energy has suddenly revived: I find myself fervently writing, reading and submitting before the final harvest comes.  Like summer, I am giving the season my best efforts before the autumn tide takes over.

Unsettled

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It has been a season of fits and starts.  I struggle to find the rhythm of creativity.  There are moments when I catch the thread of it, begin to weave it into the trace of a pattern.  But then the design is lost, strands abandoned on the loom or fading into incoherence.  This is not a fallow period, nor a fit of the doubt doldrums.  It is something altogether more insidious than that.  Anxiety haunts my mornings and the year is vexed by a mercurial bleakness.  And the poverty of creative inspiration disquiets me.

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The weather too can’t settle into a rhythm.  Languid days fretted with heat, the air thick, close and stale.  I struggle to breathe in the treacly heat.  Rain of every kind: heavy splodges, misty drizzle, pin-prick hail.  Moments of storm-quiet, those rich, still moments when you feel the coming of the storm in your blood.  And magnificent rumbles of thunder, moaning across the sky as though they never want to end.

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The summer meadows are blooming, but already the flowers look crisp and ragged around the edges.  The Dene beds are empty of water, the ponds stagnant.  Wild cherries jewel the trees and lie abandoned on the grass, unwanted by the birds.  But small creatures flutter everywhere, over clouds of ox-eye daisies that invade the land like delicate occupiers.  The birds are quieting, as they do after the hard work of spring.  This is weather to seek out a patch of grass under the shade of a tree and to feel its cooling balm.

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I struggle with this part of the season.  My body feels the turn of the solstice, the inconspicuous move towards shorter days.  I begin to long for autumn, for curling up and turning inwards.  I dislike the heat and the excesses of summer, my least favourite season.  But we are just moving into the most extrovert months of the year, long hot days filled with the voices of freed children, the acid tang of barbecue smoke and the waft of music.  It’s a paradox that my spirit battles against.  But this, like every other season, like every state of mind, is transient and perhaps this year, the pattern is an acceptance of that.

The essence of a house

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Old houses are filled with stories.  We live in them knowing that others, long dead, have lived here before us.  We may never know exactly who they were, what their lives were like, how they lived and died.  But we know that their history has soaked into the walls, their voices have filled the rooms, their journeys have helped the house become what it is today.

I remember the autumn evening, ten years ago, when this house became our home.  We hadn’t yet moved in, so it was empty of furniture, but we lit the fire and sat on the floor in the sitting room.  The décor was dark and ugly, there was much to do to make it ours, but I remember the feeling of contentment at knowing this was our home.  When we moved in we set to with paint before we even settled, divesting the house of its last occupants.  But over time, our enthusiasm to complete the many jobs and overcome the many quirks of workmanship waned.  Over time I became disconnected from that initial contentment: the weight of unfinished jobs, nuisance neighbours and the routines of life made me forget the promise the house once held.  I dreamed of moving away, to a rural retreat by the sea.  But lately, I’ve begun to re-connect to this old house and its history.

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It was built in 1879, an old terrace, its footprint much the same now as it would have been then.  The kitchen and bathroom are recent additions and it’s difficult to see through the modern appearance to the house it once was.  But the ghost of a door blocked up in the sitting room, traces of old hearths in the bedrooms, parquet flooring in the hall and a disused chimney at the back of the house hint at the way it would have been originally.

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For many years, this was a street of craftspeople, business people and ‘gentlemen’.  In its first three decades my house was inhabited by a draper, a fitter, an accountant’s clerk and a ‘water boat’ owner.  But the residents that I feel most strongly connected to are two widows who lived here in the first half of the twentieth century.  Catherine Cowen Gray lived here from around 1917 until 1927.  Edith Wilberforce Culyer moved in after Catherine’s departure and stayed until 1939.  Edith’s husband was a butcher from Woolwich and he died in the year she moved here.  She had two daughters, Constance and Nancy and a son Henry, named after his father.  We know little more about Edith than that, but we have more of an insight into events in Catherine’s life.  She wasn’t a widow when she arrived.  Her husband Adam was a warrant engineer in the Royal Naval Reserve and they had three children: James, Margaret and Thomas.  Both Adam and James died in the local asylum as a result of World War One.  Adam’s injuries aren’t known, but we know James was discharged from the Scottish Rifles after a gas attack in France in 1917 and died aged 21 ‘after 12 months suffering from gas and shellshock’.

I think of Catherine and Edith often, these two women similar in age to me who cared for this house before me.  And although they’re long gone and neither of them died here, I like to think that something of their spirit remains.

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The houses we live in affect us, infusing our memories.  If we’re lucky, they’re the place above all others that is our sanctuary.  We can leave the world and its tribulations at the door.  They can stir our creativity or hinder it.  And we leave our mark on them, not only physically, but by the way we live, what we take with us and what we leave behind.

Home isn’t only a place of slate and stone, it’s the fiery centre inside us where our creative force lies.  Vesta is the guardian of this space.  She is the goddess of the hearth: the sacred fire that is the source of life.  Vesta was a powerful goddess, protecting not only the home, but also the ‘hearth’ of the city of Rome.

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I believe a house has its own essence, with a temperament that either welcomes us in or repels.  After ten years, my house and I are still getting acquainted, but when I’m alone and the house is silent I know that I was meant to call it home.

The wonderful La Sabrosona over at My Spanglish Familia nominated me for the Encouraging Thunder award.  Although I don’t ‘do’ awards, please take the time to visit her eclectic, entertaining and passionate blog.

Fledging

Sometimes, the earth conspires in gracious serendipity so that you think it’s sending a message just for you.  On the week that I begin writing again I witness so many tiny wonders that it seems like a sign, dovetailing with my newly awakened inspiration.

The day after inspiration strikes, I am greeted by the first goslings of the year.  A pair of Canada Geese stand guard as their brood peck nonchalantly at the grass.  Later, they slip into the water to pirouette around the pond, the parents heads bobbing, as though pointing the right direction, a gentle honk calling back any stragglers.  On another pond, the punk orange heads of baby Coots and Moorhen chicks peeking through the reeds.  The smaller birds are harder to see at this time of year, but I can hear their ardent songs and glimpse them high in the trees.  And at the end of this enchanted week, the first of the swallow family appear: sand martins flitting around the cliffs at the coast.

Overnight, new life has appeared.  The pinks have begun to join the yellows, with an abundance of campion lining the paths.  A handful of delicate cuckoo flowers contrast with monstrous butterbur leaves.  I see my first orange-tipped butterflies and a comma feeding on the dandelions and watch cabbage whites dance together in delicate spirals.  It is blossom season, but this year I’ve been more attentive to the subtler flowers of the trees.  The flowers that we don’t always notice: the broccoli like florets of the ash and the tiny green sprays of the sycamore.  I saw my first hawthorn blossom at the rubbish dump, of all places, brightening up the wait to get rid of our clutter.

This year I’ve struggled to re-balance after the winter.  I began the season with a box of dreams sown in the dark months and an impatience to bring them to life.  Instead, I fell into a fallow period that persisted for the first quarter of the year.  Spring has been slow to come, not in the earth but in my spirit.  My creativity has gone, not into my craft, but into my home.  An extended period of nesting: weeks of wallpaper, paint, carpets and curtains.  Bags and bags of clutter divested, clearing a space for other things to come in.  But now I’m fledging the nest.  Beltane is the start of summer, the first big festival of the light half of the year.  It came and went without much ceremony.  But I was waiting, I think, for the earth to let me know it was time to give birth to my plans.

In another moment of serendipity, after writing about ruins, I have cause to visit the 7th century priory that broods over the mouth of the river.  I wander ruins overgrown by Alexander flowers, unconsciously absorbing history and landscape.  And it is the ruins that wake my creativity, insinuating themselves into the half-written second novel that has waited for attention since last year, taking it into a more satisfying direction.  So as the signs of new life flourish, I find myself in that magical space at the beginning of a creative adventure, at the point where ideas might take flight or never leave the ground.  I hope they soar.

Re-balancing

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When I leave the forest, part of me stays there: the part of me that is like the deer, slipping silently through the trees, glimpsed if you’re lucky.  The deer are usually elusive here, but when we arrive, a doe is nonchalantly grazing a few metres away in the early evening glow of the sunset.  For four days, deer grace us with their presence at dawn and dusk, their cotton fluff tails like beacons in the half-light.

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Before the equinox, it’s not uncommon for life to seem chaotic as nature fights for balance.  And for me, events conspired to enforce an unexpected pause from blogging: a virus that gave me blurred vision, dizziness, nausea and fatigue; a bereavement and family illness.  There were stories to be written, pictures to be painted, blogs to be read, but I found I couldn’t act.  I followed the spiral down, deep into the doubt doldrums and I began to think about giving up, almost to spite myself.

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But before doubt overwhelms me, I retreat to the forest to find that it is re-balancing too.  Spring is definitely on its way.  The dawn chorus is deafening.  The forest dances with movement: the flutter of chaffinches and tits; pairs of blackbirds, jays and woodpeckers.  A single squirrel multiplies into three, sinuously moving along the forest floor and leaping through the trees.  On our first day, a tiny death.  I cry for the waste of a colourful life, as I carry the soft, still-warm body of a blue tit into the trees.  Later, a crow circles curiously, before carrying the corpse away in its beak, as if to remind me that no death is wasted here.

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Then early one morning, winter appears.  I’ve longed for snow but had to wait until I came to the woods for it to find me.  And this was serious snow: fat flakes falling heavily and quickly, transforming the forest into a wonderland.  We walk through the snowy hush while others are still sleeping, following tracks of deer and hare.  But by afternoon, the snow is gone and the forest glows with sunshine once more, as though this magical interlude had never happened.

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I leave the forest channelling acceptance, realising that unconsciously I’ve been fighting against the season.  I was trying to force action in the season of incubation.  Action comes later, at Ostara, the spring equinox, when the spring energy sweeps in and calls us to movement.  I didn’t follow my own lesson and that’s where I went wrong.

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I haven’t quite left doubt behind me.  I’m ready to get back into the world, if only tentatively.  I’ll accept the doubt and accept the troubled feeling of my emotions fighting for balance, ready to take action when action is ready to be taken.  And this spring equinox felt particularly auspicious.  Not only were the hours of darkness and light balanced, but so too were the sun and moon, moving into alignment to form a solar eclipse at the new moon.  The crocuses that tentatively appeared a few weeks ago are in luscious bloom.  The first daffodils have blossomed to herald the equinox and, if I’m lucky, an end to doubt too.

I’m looking forward to catching up with you all soon and reading your latest posts.

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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The soul of a dog

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There is an old episode of the Twilight Zone, in which an elderly man and his dog die and make their way to the afterlife.  They approach what they believe to be heaven, only to be told that the dog isn’t allowed to enter.  The old man decides that it can’t be much of a heaven if his dog isn’t welcome, so he walks on by.  Of course, it soon becomes clear that this wasn’t heaven after all, but hell, and the devil was trying to trick him.  His loyalty to his dog saved him.  I must have watched a lot of Twilight Zones when I was young, but this one has stuck with me.

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Some people believe that animals don’t have souls.  That everything they do, they do purely out of instinct or because it serves some purpose for survival.  They believe that humans are the only species with a rich interior life, full of dreams and enjoyment.  I know that my dog dreams.  I watch him sleep, his eyes fluttering, paws twitching.  Occasionally he growls, sometimes he barks – tiny barks beneath his breath that sound more like mewling.  This is one of my favourite things to witness, because I know that he’s in some other place, hopefully having fun.  It leads me to imagine which parts of his day he’s reprocessing, which scents he’s remembering, which dogs he is playing with.

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I know that animals do things out of instinct and for survival.  I know that some species have very brief lives in which their purpose is only to mate.  But does that mean that a mayfly can find no joy in its flight?  Does a bird only sing so passionately to attract a mate?  Are we the only species who do something because it sings to our soul?  This seems a narrow and dull way to look at the world.

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My dog finds joy in the simplest things.  Running around the beach after a ball, demolishing squeaky toys, following scents.  If he was a working dog, he’d use these skills for hunting.  Because he’s not, he uses them for play.  And in this combination of instinct and joy, my dog is sure of his purpose and puts all his effort into it, every day.   Every game is as exciting as the first.  I have no doubt that he has a soul and he feeds it with the pursuits that give him joy.

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I know that my purpose is to create.  But unlike my dog, I can allow other things to get in the way.  I rarely approach the page with an enthusiasm and energy as simple as that which my dog brings to his play.  There’s a reason the devil didn’t want any dogs in hell.  Dogs sniff out the truth of the matter.  And my dog is my greatest teacher.  When I falter he reminds me by his example.  That it really is simple.  Focus on doing what you love, fiercely, every day and your soul will never go hungry.

Box of dreams

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Everything I love about the slip into winter has already happened: the harvest, the magic of autumn and Halloween, the lights and celebrations of yuletide, the optimism of the new calendar year.  So many wonderful things packed into four months, with all their expectation and excitement, giving that season a particular luminosity.  But now what?  The new year is here, we’re back to work and routine, those shiny resolutions are starting to seem a little dull and difficult.  There is always beauty in nature, but sometimes my walks seem interchangeable as the world lies dormant waiting for spring.  Much as the dark half of the year is my favourite, this deadest part of the season is the time of  year I find most challenging.

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But this poem, Winter Transition by Crone Chronicler, prompted me to think of this period in a different way.  I love her concept of the world settling into ‘ordinary time’.  The festivals do nothing if not remind us of transience and that each season has its purpose.  While I know the purpose of this part of the year for me, it’s still difficult to say goodbye to that season that I love.  So I’m glad I had this reminder of the value of that ‘ordinary time’ between celebrations.  I realised that taking the tree down and returning the house to its usual state wasn’t just a chore, marking the end of one of the high points of the year, but was a ritual in itself, returning it to that tabula rasa in which my dreams can take root.

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And I have a box of dreams to work with.  Not resolutions.  Not must dos.  Creative snippets from which my year will be shaped.  When I retreated to the dark, I took note of everything – my dreams, meditations, writings, quotes that spoke to me, things I saw.  And I gathered almost 100 starting points – the ‘bones’ of my creative year.  Each one is recorded on a scrap of paper and stored in this box, germinating in the dark.  A couple are full-blown story ideas, most are a rag-tag collection of themes to be explored, random images, character sketches, story titles, potential blog posts.  Some of them will fade away, losing importance, never destined to be born.  Others will make magic – shaping themselves into worlds and people and stories and art.

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This is the honing tide of the year, when I begin to polish and shape the dreams I have dreamed.  I’ve already begun, plucking ideas from the box and setting those that resonate aside.  But they’re still only chimeras – characters without a story; objects without a purpose; tableaux without a context.  If I do nothing with them, they’ll wither and that magical time in the dark will be lost.

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But no fear, the dead of the year is here.  Plenty of time to hone and polish and make sure these dreams take flight.  I’ve returned from that magical tide of myth and magic, back to ‘ordinary time’ and space.  Where the cold crisp mornings and evenings, with the moon bright in a clear sky give space for clarity of thought and the wild wind urges transformation.

Please take a moment to discover one of my more recent blogging companions at Backtowhatever.  She has kindly nominated me for the Inspiring Blogger Award.  Here, you’ll find writing that is poignant and powerful – making beauty of some very difficult personal experiences.

 

The anatomy of creation

At this time of year, the skeleton of nature is visible.  Often, the landscape seems monochrome, dominated by the dark silhouettes of branches against an insipid sky.  The structure that we don’t normally see is laid bare, giving us no clues.  It can be difficult to know which tree is which without its leaves.  Seeds are no more than husks of the flowers they once were and will be again.  But in their nakedness, we can more easily appreciate their differences.  Note the myriad shapes stark against the sky.  Some trees are a ladder of soaring branches.  Some curve like tulips.  Some are elegant and feathery, others gnarled and ugly.  This is the anatomy of creation.  We rarely see our own architecture, but every winter, nature shows us hers.  We see her bones and what her flesh usually conceals.

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And so that we know there is still hope, that nature isn’t dead, there is still colour in the depths of winter.  Ivy crawling up the bark of trees. The vibrant red and gold of dogwood stems.  A few autumn leaves, doggedly clinging to almost empty branches.  The soft umber of teasel heads polka-dotting a field.  A couple of dog violets are bravely flowering, while the seed pods of the stinking iris are like bright orange berries.  A single wild raspberry still waits to be claimed.  And berries of course: guelder rose, holly, cotoneaster.

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I’ve been away, into the darkness.  I sat with it, let it cradle, cajole and challenge me.  I closed the computer five weeks ago and let it languish.  I meditated in the darkness, let my pen and my unconscious guide me in automatic writing, listened to my dreams.  I smelled the print and listened to the rustle of pages as I read.  When I walked, I left my camera behind.  I saw art, in person.  It’s not been comfortable, because connecting to that deep creativity also makes space to dredge up doubt and despair.  My creativity was stripped back and emptied out.  Now, I’m armed only with dreams and bones.  The architecture of what might be created in the months to come, waiting to have the meat and the muscle and the individuality added.  I’ve seen the patterns begin to emerge – one idea building upon another, unlikely links forming, layer on layer, becoming seeds of something soon to be born.

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This season of unrelenting darkness is not without light.  Dark, drizzly mornings are illuminated by Christmas lights, glowing coldly in the gloom.  Strings of silver snowflakes hung between streetlights.  White fairy lights dangling from branches.  Decorated trees glowing in almost every window.  It’s difficult to accept that the sun is returning so we ward off the darkness with electricity.  But the longest night is over.  The days will grow longer now towards spring.  The harvest is long gone, but the seeds sown in this last year are still bearing fruit, letting me know that the creative spark is still burning.  I’ve had my first glimmers of success in this new creative year:  a special commendation for a story in the Prole magazine Prolitzer Prize for Prose Writing and publication in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual.

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The sun is reborn to a wild and overcast day.  Storm clouds gather in the south and the sun struggles to penetrate them.  But in the north, a rainbow illuminates the sky, a promise of the light to come.

Retreating

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I can hear the soft voice of the Hermit telling me it’s time.  Time to pull away from the world a little to gain some insight from the lantern that burns inside.  Time to strip away distractions and focus only on what I need to sustain me through the darkest months.  To prepare for the rebirth of the sun and creativity when the long night of the winter solstice is over.

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Sometimes we fear the dark, because it is there that we are alone with the parts of ourselves that scare us.  In the dark, regret, shame and guilt blossom.  There, the things that nag us in daylight reveal themselves.  In the dark we are naked.  The costumes and the masks that shore us up in the outer world don’t matter here.  We have nothing to hide behind and nobody to tell us it will be alright.  But this is also where deep creativity lies.  When we are divested of all the outer things, there is nothing but us and the wisdom that works through us.

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At Halloween, we journeyed to the underworld – that fathomless chamber inside ourselves where introspection lies.  Here we face our fears so that we can begin again from a clean place.  Where we delve deeply to discover the beginnings of the seeds of our dreams for the spring.  We plough the loam of our minds so that the new seeds can show themselves.

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It’s time to retreat into the dark, to see what it reveals.  I’ll be taking some time off, not only from blogging, but from the computer in general.  Getting back to basics.  I’ll be returning to the sensuality of pen and paper, paint and canvas, page and ink.  If I write, it will be in longhand.  If I read, it will be on the page rather than the screen.  I feel a need to wallow in the old-fashioned word.

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I won’t see you for a while.  I hope your dreaming time is productive and that you’re bursting with ideas when the longest night is over.  I’ll see you then, at midwinter when the light slowly begins to return.

I’ve closed comments on this post, but hope to connect with you all again come the solstice.