Igniting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wounded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Blogger book of the month: William Holland – Shadows Kill

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

Lighting up time

Even on these deep black mornings, there is light.  A luminous moon and burning Venus side by side  as blackbirds trill in the dark.  Evenings, and streetlights cast cones of swirling silver on the sky.  Puddles become silver pools.  Falling rain is glitter flickering on the road.   Iron benches are splashed with liquid gold.  It is rare that I experience true darkness in this town that I call home.

I have seen true darkness, when the sky is crowded with stars and soaring meteors; when fish light up the water with the luminescence of their passage.  I have walked on the edge of the forest while the nightjar sang and only glow worms lighted the paths.  But that is not here.  Here the sky is obscured by reflected light, streetlights puddle in sickly orange or cold white.  Still, there is a velvet to these mornings and evenings, when shadows bloom into darkness.  Still, I can revel in the fertile dark.

I have a print on my wall by Peter Brook called ‘Lighting up time’.  It shows a man and his dog on a snowy hill with the fire of a street lamp punctuating the monochrome.  One of the delights of winter is when the lamps wink on and bring comfort to the dark.  When light spills from houses and we wonder what might be going on within.  When the streets are wreathed with lights and there is a Christmas tree in almost every window.  This is the lighting up time of the year, when we ward off the darkness with a barrage of illumination.

The river is a blur of luminous colour: amber behind glass, cold white of floodlights, green and red warning beacons, the flash of the lighthouses.  Lights that waver in the water like coloured streamers.  I walk there in the dark on the morning after the solstice.  I am here to celebrate the sun’s birthday on the dawn after the shortest day.  From now on, though it doesn’t seem like it, it will only get lighter, the days will only get longer.

And at first it seems the birth will be muted: a brush of red below indigo clouds.  It is low tide and the sea is just a whisper.  Gulls congregate on the sandbanks and the air is all gull cry.  But the birth of the sun does not disappoint.  The sky blushes with colour.  The river becomes stripes of lilac, the sea left behind on the sands is a lake of pink and orange and blue.  Soon the dawn is molten colour.  Just before sunrise I hear a loud creaking and an arrow of geese soars against orange wisps of cloud.  I watch as they fly south, out of sight.

And then the sun is born, blazing orange.  I feel its heat light me up, burnishing my face and warming my core. The beach behind is washed in gold and my shadow lengthens. The sun is now too bright to look at.  Then, the Amsterdam ferry sails past, blocking out the sun.  For a moment the day is revealed for what it is – grey and wintry.  Afterwards, the day never quite regains the light of the sunrise.  It seems darker than the dawn.  But I felt the fire of the sun as it was born and that is enough to light up the winter to come.


Myrtle's Game Book CoverI’m thrilled to share that Myrtle the Purple Turtle has a new adventure.  Written by the talented Cynthia Reyes and her daughter Lauren Reyes-Grange, Myrtle’s Game continues the theme of difference and belonging begun by the first book.  It is about other’s perceptions of what we can do just because of the way we look or who they think we are. It is about not being defined by those prejudices and about being who you are and excelling at it. This is a great book to read with a child to prepare them for their first visit to nursery school or their first group situation where they are trying to find their place.  This story is about friendship, supporting one another and showing that we should never let what others’ think stop us from doing what we love. A lovely story that will really appeal to children and would make a great gift, both the print and e-book versions are now available on Amazon.

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.

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.

The fertile dark

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Though we’re not yet in the depths of winter, I can already feel the encroaching darkness.  I walk the dog in deep blue mornings, lit by the just-waning moon.  It’s already dark when I get home from work.  Even at the zenith of the day, the light is weaker, less distinct.  And yet the trees are now in full blaze, as though attempting to ward off the darkness with their colours for as long as possible.  The path is a mulch of luminous sycamore leaves.  It rains leaves as we walk.

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On Tuesday we had our first snow of the season.  Tiny, gossamer spots at first, that amounted to nothing.  Then, a blizzard of fat, stinging flakes that coated the ground.  An hour later, the sun appeared and it was as though the snow storm had never happened.

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As the nights lengthen, we move into what I believe is the most fertile time of year for creativity.  Darkness, for me, is comforting, electric, expectant.  I love the dark hours of the night, when the world is tinged cold blue and silence prevails.  It’s the time when anything can happen.  It’s the time when, if you’re struggling with fear or worry, your imagination can lead you down a desolate path.  But it’s also a time when ideas are wild and whimsical.  Until morning, when the thoughts of the night can seem silly or futile.  My best plans form when darkness has fallen.  So is darkness deceiving, fooling us into false dreams, or is it that we’re most ourselves in the dark, when the distractions of the world are hidden and we can think the things we truly would without its influence?

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The plunge into winter offers months of fruitful darkness.  Like anyone else, I’d prefer to turn over in bed on dark mornings rather than getting up for work.  I’d prefer to walk to and from work in the light.  Yet paradoxically for this introspective season, this is the time when I most desire to walk or visit nature, revelling in the desolation of a wintry coast or skeletal forest.  I feel animated in the dark months, restless to better myself.  This is the season of the hermit, but it’s also the season when if you do go out, your face, body and mind can be scoured clean.  When instead of the sticky, lethargic tiredness of summer, you feel like you’ve earned your apathy.  So I will go out and let myself be purified by the season.  I’ll wrap up warm, but choose somewhere exposed – a beach, a hillside – where the elements will divest me of all my stale ideas.

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Just because this is the dreaming season, this doesn’t mean that you have to stop creating.  My dreaming is about actively gathering ideas and inspiration.  I began this season with a series of darkness meditations.  I doused the lights and meditated with eyes open, confronting the darkness.  Thoughts and images came, which I recorded to use later as inspiration.   I’ll also use this season to stretch my creative legs and experiment: writing exercises, stream of consciousness writing and sketching, paying attention to my actual dreams.  I’ll record my ideas, thoughts and fears uncensored for future use.  I’ll also use the respite of staying indoors to try new skills, focus on my work, think about what I will do in spring.

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This is an ideal season to go on a writers’ or artists’ retreat.  As I can’t do that, I take inspiration from the Hermit and the Four of Swords in the Tarot to remind me that this is a season to hide, to repose, to plough and fertilise the soil of my mind.  I use some of the same principles as I would use in a fallow period – to bask in others’ creativity and simply absorb the world around me.  But I will also deliberately set aside fallow periods: creativity-free days, when I intentionally choose not to focus on creating.

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The dark season is an ideal time to really scrutinise yourself and your practice.  Though I won’t worry about how realistic my dreams are for the moment, in the honing season following winter solstice, I’ll sift and shape them.  That’s when I’ll use the truth of the darkness to plan my direction for the year to come.  And hopefully, I’ll emerge into the light of spring newly focussed and with an arsenal of inspiration to draw on.