Uncomfortable

Travelling south, there are fields already dotted with baled hay.  Time has moved quickly in recent weeks and I’d forgotten that it’s almost Lammas.  The landscape is still green, but accented by the coming season’s gold.  I hurtle through the country, train travel giving both distance and connection.  Things seen from above that would normally be seen from below; landmarks made miniature; glimpses of things that would never normally be noticed.  We sweep past the Angel of the North, the Penshaw Monument, the Kilburn white horse and the cathedral-scape of Durham city.  Cows, sheep and horses populate the fields, but there is also picturesque abandonment – crumbling buildings, dilapidated trailers and huts often now used to shelter the animals.  But mostly, there are fields and big sky, blue-grey clouds and the threat of rain.

Two weeks ago I gave my first performance as a writer.  North Tyneside Writer’s Circle hosted Keeping My Soul 2, a second annual event showcasing the work of its members.  It was held at the library where we meet, with an audience of around 40 people.  I was terrified to take part, worried about it irrationally in the weeks before.  Though I was confident in the words of my story, I wasn’t confident in my delivery.  I’d thought I would settle as I began, but I could hear the fear in my voice as I was reading.  Strange how much harder it is to present something personal than to present something work-related, because it is, of course, a little piece of your soul that is on show to everyone listening.  I didn’t enjoy it, but I’m glad I did it.  And I’ve realised the value of performance, as another way  to have stories heard that might otherwise never be shared.

Now I’m stepping out of my comfort zone again, coming alone to the Mslexicon writing conference in Leeds where there will be dozens of other women writers.  At the venue, big sky and open fields have given way to the shelter of the canopy.  It is a place of old stone and old trees, hued in green.  Eccentric buildings and hidden corners.  Flag stoned paths lined with lamps.  A bengal cat complaining loudly.  There is a tennis court with an air of abandonment and a dusting of seeds.  A lichen-ed bench and an old tree swing.  Stone cloisters in which to walk and ponder.  A narrow lane leads to a park bursting with giant trees, steep paths and graffiti on old stones.

But there isn’t much time to be inspired by landscape, the inspiration is coming from within.  I learn that what I write may not be magical realism after all, but may be speculative fiction – but I also learn not to worry too much about labelling it.  I learn about Ikigai, about synopses and ‘when to press send’, about concealing and revealing and about making characters interesting.  Regretfully, I miss a performance by Jackie Kay, but laugh out loud with Sophie Hannah.  Most of all, I talk to other women writers and am awestruck by the sheer number of different stories they have to tell.

And the owls have followed.  Since I met the owlet in the forest, there has been a sense of owls all around me.  I hear the call of a tawny outside my window.  What I think is a barn owl takes off into the dusk on the train home.  And Leeds, I hadn’t realised, is a place of owls – they are part of the crest and their images appear all over the city.  Owls can see what is hidden, hence their reputation for wisdom and perception.  I’d like to think that the owls are signs that I’m on the right track.  There may be more discomfort to come, but maybe that will lead me to where I’m meant to be.

Blogger book of the month: Roy McCarthy – Supply and Demand

Supply and Demand: The story of a young woman trafficked into the sex industryI’ve known Roy for a long time in blogging.  He has published a number of novels, each one unique.  His latest is a moving, heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting novel set in the world of sex trafficking. Chameli is kidnapped from her Nepalese village and sold into the sex trade in India. Through her story we learn about the harrowing and brutal lives of the girls who become sex slaves. I immediately cared about Chameli and her fate; the author has done a great job of writing from her point of view, in a way that educates without preaching. Through Chameli’s story, and that of Chantilly, a privileged Australian determined to make a difference, I learned a lot about sex trafficking, the challenges involved in trying to stop it, and the difficult choices facing those lucky enough to escape.

Running parallel to Chameli’s story is that of her 11 year old brother, Dilawar, who travels to India to find her, but ends up struggling to survive on the streets. Ultimately this is a survival story of brother and sister struggling to exist in a world over which they have no control. There is a lot of darkness in the subject matter, yet this isn’t a dark novel. There are touching moments of friendship, great descriptions and sense of place, and an ending that offers hope. An important story that spotlights a horrific trade.  You can find Roy here and his book is available on Amazon.

Autumn inspiration

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Autumn was slow to begin, but now it rushes ahead of me, leaves crackling on the ground when I’ve barely witnessed them fall.  The continuing warmth of the days is sandwiched between morning and evening chills.  The harvest is done and we will soon head into the darkness that births new dreams, but before that happens, there is still time to gather in some autumn inspiration to feed the dreams ahead.

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I’ve travelled to London.  Not a place in which I would usually seek inspiration.  I’m no longer used to cities.  Too confined, too many people, too much noise, too much of everything.  I find them overwhelming.  But I’m here for a special event.  Penguin Random House, in partnership with writer development charities, have begun a programme called Write Now to find new writers from communities whose voices are under-represented in publishing.  1,000 writers applied from LGBT, black and minority ethnic, disabled and other marginalised groups and I was one of 50 invited to attend.

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But first, I visit Tate Modern to see an exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work.  It’s a relief to reach the river, where the landscape of the city opens up.  I find myself seduced by the  new skyline: the shard, the ‘walkie-talkie’, the Leadenhall building, glistening against the Thames, juxtaposed against Tower Bridge and Shakespeare’s Globe.  In the Tate, it’s the sculpture and the installations that attract me today: Cildo Meireles’ Babel, constructed from 800 radios all tuned to a different channel; Sheela Gowda’s Behold, made from human hair and car bumpers; Louise Nevelson’s Black Wall fashioned from scrap timber; Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Embryology, made from stuffed fabric.  In this season of earth, I’m drawn by shapes, by the physical, by the tactile.  I’m not concerned by how they might be interpreted, only by my instinctual attraction to them.

I love Georgia O’Keeffe, but have never been particularly enamoured by her famous flowers.  It’s the sensuality of her earth that I love.  Her hills that look like living things.  Her buildings that grow out of the landscape.  Her vibrant autumn leaves.  I’m drawn to her layers, the often stark images that nevertheless appear to be made from flesh.

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The next morning on my way to Penguin, the bells of St Clement Danes are glorious as I walk in the rain along the Strand.  At Write Now, we hear about the publishing process, from author to agent, to editor, to book cover designer.  We hear from authors about their experiences and discuss how the industry can help to get under-represented authors heard.  And then there is a one to one with a Penguin editor, to talk about the work we’ve submitted.  It’s exciting to imagine that this might be my future, a moment to dream that it might be possible.  There will be two more Write Now events around the country, then 10 out of 150 people will be chosen to take part in a year long mentoring programme.  I can only hope that I’ll be one of them.

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I leave London on a quiet train blurring through a rainy landscape.  My mind is full of impressions: modern and old, busy and tranquil, stark and beautiful.  As I stare out of the window, the sun begins to set and the landscape is gilded by the dying sun.  Mist hangs over the fields and the result is a breath-taking golden haze I have never witnessed before.  But the tranquillity is short-lived.  Further north, the train is flooded by football supporters from my local team.  They have won their match and are travelling home, boisterous, drinking and singing football songs.  My head is pounding by the time we reach our destination, but as we pour into the station, the soar of all those male voices singing in the acoustics of the station is electrifying.  This isn’t high music, but the effect is as uplifting as the most sacred of songs.   As the impressions of the weekend sink in, I’m struck by the endless possibilities for inspiration: painting, sculpture, architecture, weather, church bells – and even football songs.

Please take a moment to visit my blogging friend Lori.  Her novel has been accepted for a Kindle Scout campaign and will be published if enough readers nominate it.  There are only 13 days left to nominate her so please visit her at  https://loreezlane.wordpress.com/ where you’ll find more information and the link to follow.

Guest post – Roy McCarthy

This week, I’d like to introduce Roy McCarthy, who is my very first guest here at Harvesting Hecate.  I was introduced to Roy back in January, when I read his post about Lillie Langtry and since then I’ve been treated to wonderful writing on a variety of subjects, including reading, writing, running and Jersey’s fascinating sights and history.  Having thoroughly enjoyed Roy’s books, which seem to have the things he’s passionate about running through them, I wanted to know a bit about what inspired him to write them and what his next book will be about.  So, over to Roy:

It’s a big responsibility, being asked to contribute to someone else’s blog. Even more so when that blog is of the quality of Andrea’s Harvesting Hecate. Andrea’s wonderfully descriptive writing, inspired by nature and given depth by hints of other worldliness is a class apart, and I always look forward to it.

Andrea has asked me to write on the topic of inspiration – what has inspired my own writing. So first, my three self-published novels.

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Barry The original vanity novel which I was delighted to write and have printed with my name on! Coming to the sport of running somewhat late in life I was inspired enough to write a chapter on the subject. Barry, a former champion runner, gone to seed, making a comeback. This first chapter sat there for at least two years. Then, at a dismal time in my life I decided to set myself targets, one of which was to complete Barry. In doing so I found myself enjoying the creative process and, within the confines of a full-time job, have continued to write ever since.

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Tess of Portelet Manor I loved the research for Midsummer and I loved Tess, one of my 1935 characters. I therefore decided to follow her story through and beyond the German Occupation (1940-45) with the assistance of the wealth of material available to students of that period. I’m very happy with the result.

All of the above are available for Kindle here

IMG00138-20140404-0836A West Cork Mystery Over the years I have spent a lot of time in Ireland, particularly Cork and the west. On a quiet, misty day and in the evening, as the dim shadows fade altogether, it is easy to feel the spirit of Ireland’s past all around. The country is replete with myth and legend just waiting to be captured within the cover of a book.

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So this is Dunmurry House in West Cork. The story is complete but needs an extensive rework after which I hope that it might be a commercial proposition.

My thanks once again to Andrea and I hope to be featuring her work over at my place soon.


Thank you to Roy for sharing his thoughts on inspiration.  I hope you enjoyed reading about Roy’s books and the inspiration behind them as much as I did.  Visit Roy over at http://backontherock.com for more.

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.

Lying fallow

I’ve learned not to panic when my creative inspiration is gone.  Once, I would have strained to catch an idea or a wave of thought just to feel that I was creating something.  This is particularly pertinent, I expect, for those of us who have to set aside specific slots of time to create.  If we don’t use those periods productively, then surely they’ve been wasted.  But now, I accept that creativity works in cycles and the times when my creativity is at its most fruitful are punctuated by periods when it appears to be absent.

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Recently, I took a big step to focus on my creativity.  I reduced my hours in my job so that I would have one day a week specifically to spend time on my creative work.  Obviously this meant taking a pay cut, as well as shrinking the time I had available to spend on my job (since it didn’t get any smaller!), so it was a risk, considering I’m not yet a ‘professional’ writer or artist.  But, I saw it as a way to make a real investment in myself.  It was a statement that being creative was something important for me and my life, whether or not it leads anywhere.  This was something I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do at any time previously.  But, now felt like the right time to do it, and so I embarked on my creative Mondays.

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I knew that there would be Mondays that wouldn’t work out the way I envisioned them.  There would be times when I would have to use the day to run errands or complete chores.  There would also, no doubt, be Mondays when I would want to do nothing more than sit all day in my pyjamas and watch television.  But generally, I’ve found those days to be energising and productive.  In the morning, I take the dog for a long walk, perhaps along the river or to the coast.  This helps me to begin the day by absorbing sights, sounds and smells while thinking about nothing except my dog and our walk.  The walk stops me dwelling on worries or ‘to do’ lists and instead, gives me the necessary mind space to focus on my creativity.  Afterwards, I have the energy and motivation to immerse myself fully in writing or painting.

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But there have also been occasions when I have absolutely no creative inspiration to draw on.  After a week of dabbling, feeling moderately inspired, doing a little painting, a little writing, my creative day came and there was nothing there.  I tend to feel these times, not as a ‘block’, but as an absence.  I knew that I wouldn’t create anything that day, but there was no panic, no grasping for ideas.  I don’t view these periods as empty or blocked times, but as fallow periods.  In farming terms, by leaving a field unsown (fallow) for a season, the land is allowed to regenerate itself, to restore the nutrients that have been leached from the soil by overuse.

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This is a helpful way to view a period of ‘creative block’.  Rather than worrying about it, first, accept that there will inevitably be times when you don’t feel inspired.  Don’t force it, but think of it as a fallow period during which your creative fertility is restoring itself.  It may only be a day or a week, or it could, as in my own past experience, be a period of years.  You might find it helpful to think of your creative mind as that empty field.  Perhaps you’ll see it as bare earth, furrowed but unplanted, with mysterious processes taking place beneath the soil that will act as a perfect nursery for new ideas.  Or you might see it as a patch of land gone wild, colonised by beautiful plants that some would see as weeds and others as wildflowers.

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Following acceptance, the second step, for me, in making best use of fallow periods, is to indulge in what I think of as ‘passive creativity’.  So, I will use the time as a period of reflection, preparation and absorption.  What this meant for me this Monday was walking the dog as usual and snapping pictures just because I found them interesting: the wildflowers on the river banks, the fish quay at work, the shells on the beach.  I may use them to spark a painting or a story, or for nothing at all.  I wasn’t concerned about their quality or purpose.  I used them to observe the world around me without any creative agenda.

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Another aspect of passive creativity for me, is to absorb other people’s work – reading a book that I’ve read before, perhaps, watching a documentary about an artist at work.  I don’t believe that reading or enjoying art are always passive activities, but when I’m in a fallow state, this is what I want: something that won’t challenge me to engage with it too much, but will allow me to gently absorb it to help restore my own creative energies.  Another approach might be to do something you think of as completely non-creative, but for me, a different type of creativity is what works.

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‘Creative block’, or ‘writer’s block’, is only a label.  The words themselves sound harsh and unhelpful.  They hide a host of fears about failure and the sustainability of ideas.  Re-framing these times as simply fallow periods takes the stress out of them, evoking a sense of relief, an acceptance that you don’t have to actively chase your creativity all of the time.  It’s fine to leave your creative mind to turn a little unkempt for a while, to simply be receptive to whatever creative energy is out there, and to return, refreshed with a new crop of ideas.

The sun stands still

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The meadow is the essence of summer.  Sun-drenched, delicate grasses swaying gently in a light breeze; spindly bobbing buttercups; squat purple clover and pale pink ragged robin with their windmill-shaped petals.  Swallows are lightning acrobats, diving low over the meadow to eat their fill of insects.  Butterflies and bees meander from flower to flower.  A procession of three male pheasants clucks through the grass, their bright plumage just visible among the vegetation.  A brook, glutted after days of rain, gurgles in the background.  The surrounding forest wears its summer plumage with abandon, oak and ash and pine lush with leaf and entwined with the hedonism of rhododendrons in luminous pink flower.

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Solstice is one of my favourite words.  I find the sound of it soothing and mysterious.  It conjures magic and anticipation.  Literally, its meaning is simple: ‘the standing still of the sun’.  And this idea too, I find evocative – a tipping point, when all in the heavens is unmoving, before the next phase in the cycle begins.  Solstice marks both the longest day, at midsummer and the longest night, in the dark of December.  The midsummer solstice signifies both plenty – the longest day when the sun is at the height of its power – but also heralds the lean winter to come.

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If you pay quiet attention, you can already sense the loss in the air.  It isn’t quite tangible, but from this day, the daylight will become shorter as the summer inevitably ends.  And yet this is a paradox, since it is following the solstice that summer for us in the UK really begins.  The hottest months are still to come, the summer holidays, the season of being outdoors.  Summer solstice is a celebration of all those carefree events that happen when there is an abundance of light.  The transition to shortening days is a reminder that everything moves in a cycle, but for now, we should celebrate what we have and enjoy the things that are bearing fruit for us.

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Here, the slow spring has finally blossomed into summer.  The days have been humid, flowers are blooming and you can hear the song of the summer birds.  While I would always choose the delights of autumn and winter over those of summer, my soul responds to the season’s energies almost despite itself.  I feel lighter and more open.  I want to be outside in the long days and evenings.  My body craves the fresh fruits and vegetables of the season.  I like to feel the heat on my skin.  I want to go down to the sea and plunge in to the cool water.  Perhaps the reason summer is my least favourite season is because I’m much more comfortable turning inwards to the succour of darkness and solitude, but we all need a pause from introversion to replenish the lightness of our being.

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Summer solstice is a time for empowerment.  As the crops are ripening in the fields and the fruits on the trees, so the creative projects we germinated and nurtured in spring begin to bloom.  If we chose our projects wisely and invested the time, energy and resources they needed during the growing season, we should now be feeling pleased with what is emerging.  Midsummer is the time for success and material wellbeing and is a good time to put energy into making outward success happen.  But at the personal level, it is about renewing your energy and healing.  The long days and warmth should make us feel more vital.  They should also make us more outward looking.  Creatively, we could use this lighter aspect to be looser, more experimental, liberating ourselves from looking inward in the way we would in the darker seasons.  To be most effective creatively, we need to attend both to our physical health, by taking advantage of fresh produce and opportunities to be active, but also our mental health, by absorbing light, warmth and the rejuvenating effect of green spaces.

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How can you empower yourself around the solstice to renew your creativity?  How can you build up and store the season’s energy to get you through the winter to come?  It’s traditional on the summer solstice to stay awake all night, holding vigil until dawn comes and we can greet the sun, particularly at those ancient sites that are aligned to it at this time of year.  Why not devise a vigil that uses the images and energies of midsummer to help boost your creativity for the remaining year?  You don’t need to hold vigil on the solstice itself for this to have a benefit to you – any time around midsummer will do and it will be more practical to choose a time when you don’t have commitments the next day.

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You could spend the darkest hours of the night meditating on your creative work this past year and which aspects of your creative energies need to be replenished.  Lighting a fire or a candle can remind you that creativity, like the sun, is cyclical and will come and go.  Do you fly through your creative projects when your energy is high without really noticing it and become despondent when it seems to ebb, or do you recognise and accept that you have your own cycles of creative energy?  Greeting the dawn, in whichever way makes sense to you, represents the return of creativity, whenever it comes.  At noon, when the sun is at its strongest, you could consider how best to recognise, use and harvest your creativity when it is at its peak.  Then, at sunset, as the sun wanes, think about how you can accept the ebbs in creative energy and use what you have harvested to get you through the barren periods.

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This solstice, the forest is my creative vigil.  I have come here to replenish my energy, take in the sun through long walks and revel in the flower-studded meadows.  At dawn, I notice the moon still bright through the trees and the cacophony of birdsong in the silence.  Our longer walks take place in the morning, before the sun peaks, so noon is spent bathing in the dappled heat on the tree-shaded deck, losing myself in art magazines and an absorbing book.  Sunset is for bat-hunting, listening to the guttural sound of pipistrelles on the bat detector as they flit through the trees around the cabin.  Just like summer, this is a fleeting point in the year that I can hold onto to get me through the winter.  Knowing that when it’s over, it won’t be too long before I come again, to feel that same sigh of relief as my spirit relaxes.  Already, I want to paint again and invent new stories.

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But there is death too in the forest, reminding us that the sun has reached its zenith and can now only wane until the winter solstice.  A thrush, taking its dying breaths on our veranda, seemingly untouched, but fading each minute, until we lay it to rest with a prayer under a bower of rhododendron, returning it to the forest.  Three tiny moles, only feet apart on the woodland path, their soft pink noses upturned in death.  The bee that strayed too close to the hot tub and ended its life in a bubbling dance of legs and wings.  Death, reminding me that I need to seize the energy the forest has given me.  I must use this energy, not waste it, when I return home, because it, like the season, is all too fleeting.

What my dog teaches me

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The world is a different place when you have a dog.  Strangers approach to talk.  People greet you and smile.  Walks are punctuated by stops for conversation and new encounters.  A whole community of fellow dog lovers opens up and welcomes you in.  You are no longer invisible to, or isolated from, your fellow humans.  The presence of the dog draws you together, a reason, or an excuse, for contact.

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Dogs have always guided us.  In mythology, they are liminal creatures, guarding the threshold to the home or the borders to other worlds.  Hecate is accompanied by dogs as she escorts us on our journey from this world to the next.   Dogs represent companionship and loyalty, but they are also the untamed, howling creatures that attend the fearsome wild hunt as it tears across the countryside.

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I’m a different person when I’m with my dog.  Up at dawn, into the still-slumbering world, I’m able to see the town as it’s tinged with sunrise and hear the morning calls of the birds.  I rediscover my neighbourhood, walking streets and open spaces I haven’t frequented for years.  I fully experience the changing of the seasons, as darkness gives way to light, flowers begin to pepper bare grass and barren branches burst into blossom.  My favourite beauty spots are seen anew, through the eyes and nose of my puppy, as he discovers grass, beach, sea for the first time.

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My dog lives fully and in the moment.  When he wakes, he is completely awake and excited to meet the day.  He is curious about every sound, every smell, every view.  He greets places we visit every day with the same enthusiasm as if he’d never been there before.  Everything is a potential toy, whether it’s a ball or an old sock.  My dog is a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover.  Every person, and every dog, is a potential friend, including those that I would be tempted to avoid.  He doesn’t know what a grudge is, greeting everyone in the same excited way, even if they’ve ignored or snarled at him before.  Every morning and every time I return home, it’s obvious how happy he is to see me.  And when he finally gives in to sleep, he surrenders to it entirely, twitching and mewling and barking through his dreams.

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When I’m with my dog, I don’t worry about the usual things that concern me.  When I’m with my dog, I don’t dwell or plan, or become anxious.  When I’m with my dog, I’m focused on nothing but him and the environment we’re in, watching him play, or sniff, or discover new things.  Being with my dog is like a walking meditation, when the world becomes clearer and more present.

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Since our dog came to live with us, seven months ago, he’s given me the gift of acceptance.  He dispels the need to be more, do more, have more.  Since he came, I’ve changed almost without noticing.  I’m content simply to be with him, to experience life with him.  He helps me to value simple pleasures.  No matter how tired or pressured I am, I’m forced out of bed, or off the couch and out into the world.  My dog refreshes me, giving me a break from the person I sometimes have to be.  He encourages me to do more than exist every day.

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To live like a dog is to start each day enthusiastically and with curiosity.   To find pleasure and excitement in every simple thing, whether or not you’ve done and seen them before.  To accept and embrace friends and strangers alike, without pre-judgement.  To live with a dog is to walk alongside a creature who can teach you to recognise that life, at its simplest, is about being where you are and cherishing it.

Between the worlds

Often, I imagine all the writers and artists of the world, toiling away in our separate creative spaces, scattered, but connected by our need to create.  I love to look at photographs of writers, but it’s not the portraits displayed on book jackets that I want to see, it’s those of the writer captured at work.  I want to scrutinise their tools, their notes, their keepsakes – to watch the creative process at work.  I think of them engaged in their work at old battered desks, piled with papers and books; at scoured kitchen tables, littered with coffee mugs; curled up in bed against a pile of cushions; or scribbling in a notebook among the bustle of a busy cafe.  I love, too, to see artists in their surroundings: in huge industrial spaces filled with mysterious objects; airy attics crammed with canvases and adorned with clods of paint; or perched with easel or sketchbook on the brow of a mountain or in the hollow of a sand dune.

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What we all have in common, when we’re immersed in our work, is that we’ve found our place between the worlds, where the magic of creativity can occur.  The phrase ‘between the worlds’ is sometimes used by witches to describe the space generated when we cast a circle.  It’s a space apart from, but within, normal life.  Most of us don’t have our own dedicated ritual space, just as many of us don’t have a separate study or studio, so the circle acts as a marker, conjured from energy, in which to enact the ritual.  And I believe this is also what happens when we create.  I don’t cast a circle when I write or paint, but almost unconsciously, I build an intangible space around myself, forged from the energy I’m using to create.  The real world becomes blurred as I get lost in words or images.

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The places in which I work are varied and dependent on what it is I want to create.  There’s a tiny room, packed with books, keepsakes, art and writing materials.  It’s a peaceful space, with a comfortable chair and a blanket for warmth that I use for contemplation.  There is the spot next to the window in our sitting room where my easel is placed, because it gets light and I can still interact with the life of the house.  My creative space is also portable: it’s in my notebook, my sketchbook, my laptop.  We all need a place where we feel we can create, but what space do you actually need?  Is your creative space a physical one, or is it a space inside your head?  None of the places I use are dedicated ones.  But when I’m creating, they become sacred space of a kind, so that it’s possible to tune out the mundane things and forge something out of nothing.  Magic is creativity and creativity is magic, in the sense that we’re using something we can’t see (energy), to make a physical change in the world.

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If the world is nothing but energy, vibrating on different frequencies, as modern theories of physics seem to suggest, there’s nothing to stop us making creative space anywhere.  And just as in magic, where the energy raised might be used to heal, to bind, to celebrate, so creative space can be used for many different purposes.  Whenever we work, at that moment, in different parts of the world, there will be countless others writing, painting, sketching or sculpting, all using creative energy.  If you try hard, you can feel the force of it, all that energy, like a furnace forging change.  If you’re finding it difficult to focus, or to find a suitable space to dedicate to your craft, perhaps you can channel it.  Consider the type of energy that you need and gather the circle around you to create your own world between the worlds.

The gleam of the lantern

Sometimes you know that you need to withdraw from the world to replenish your energy and re-charge your inspiration.  Sometimes too much work, too much creativity, too much stimulation stops buoying you up and becomes obsessive, repetitive.  I know it’s too much when the period before sleep becomes clogged.  The air and the darkness feel too thick and I wake endlessly with the same looping dream image in my head every time.  But still, although you might know it, sometimes you need a little push to slow you down.

For weeks, I’ve been over-stimulated.  Preparing for the opening of a major new building at work, weekly blog posts, revising my novel, painting, and so many ideas jostling for attention.  I didn’t notice the small signs telling me to slow down because I was caught up in the buzz of activity – at turns feeling both overwhelmed and intoxicated by the pressure of it.  And so the day before the Easter weekend came, and there was no more I could do at work to prepare for the opening of the building the following week.  I now had four days that I could fill with all the activities I had no time for when I was working.  But barely an hour after I got home, full of plans, the flu landed and gave me no choice but to step back from the world for a while.

The Hermit - Hanson Roberts deck

The Hermit – Hanson Roberts deck

During my enforced retreat, I’ve been reflecting on the symbol of the Hermit, from the Tarot.  A lone robed figure, with a long white beard, he’s an archetypal symbol of the wise man.  He carries a staff and a lantern, lit with a six pointed star.  He holds the lantern up, as if to light our way, and the expression on his face is calm and content.  Generally, The Hermit represents a period of withdrawal from the world, often during a time of transition.  The lantern can be said to represent guidance, which can come from an outside teacher, but often represents the inner guidance you receive when you stop your world and listen to your self.  To me, the Hermit is a friend and his lantern lights the path I must follow to reach my own spark of insight.  I find it a calming, comforting symbol, like a deep, satisfying sigh of relief.  Hecate too, often has a lantern to guide us, and although the Tarot most often depicts the Hermit as a man, the Hermit can be a wise person of either sex.  The lantern really represents what we already know, if we’d only take the time to listen to ourselves.  It’s the wisdom within – not a catch all wisdom for the world, but the wisdom that is right for us and our lives.

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It could be said that the writer / artist has a little more of the Hermit in them than most.  The creative life is usually a solitary one.  Unless working in collaboration, only the individual can do the work necessary to create their work of art, using their own inner reality to create what goes on the paper / canvas.  But in this modern world, with the Internet, social media and 24/7 information overload, even if you don’t have an outside job, there’s still a need to get in touch with your inner Hermit now and again.  It’s still necessary to disconnect from the outside world and focus just on that glow coming from the lantern that is your creative spark.   You may prefer to work with a real Hermit figure that you can personify and ask for guidance, to keep you company on your journey, or you may choose only to focus on the flame itself and the glow of what’s inside it.  Either way, it will tell you what you need, and what you need may seem to have nothing to do with your next great creation at all.

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My withdrawal from the world was temporary and short, but when not in the throws of the illness, I had time to appreciate the simple pleasures of the weekend, rather than rushing to fill it with yet  more projects and activities.  Short walks in the first real spring sunshine with the dog, a home-cooked meal, good coffee and sleep.  And in the end I did create, working leisurely on a single painting, just for the pure enjoyment of it.  I didn’t learn any major life lessons beyond the ones I already know but sometimes forget: that sometimes you need to just slow down and live a simple life and your creativity will be all the stronger for it.

Destination inspiration

I’ve spent hours of my life on buses, but the time has rarely been wasted. A bus journey is often a source of inspiration and a space to meditate on whichever creative project I’m working on at the time.

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Buses don’t have the same sense of glamour or excitement as some types of transport. There’s no doubt it’s easier to jump in a car than to wait for a bus that may be late. Journeys may take longer and you may still have some distance to walk to your destination. There’s little joy in waiting at a bus stop in freezing weather or pouring rain. And you have no say in who shares the journey with you.

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But I’ve always found bus journeys to be a perfect trigger for creativity. There’s a feeling of respite in boarding a bus and allowing it to take you where you need to go. You have little control over the journey, so you may as well surrender to it. On buses, you can be anonymous. Other passengers, armoured by their ipods or newspapers, rarely pay you any attention. On buses, you don’t have to watch the road, so you can notice things you wouldn’t on a journey by car. Usually, you can take a window seat and simply gaze at an array of scenery slowly passing by.

Buses give me time to think. The majority of my journeys last about half an hour, which is plenty of time to ponder. I’ve had many good ideas for writing on bus journeys. I’ve reshaped plots, developed characters and changed the whole direction of stories, all because I’ve had that time to think. I often scan passengers as they board the bus, watching how they behave and inventing theories about who they are. Thinking on a bus is different to thinking at home or in another place. Perhaps it’s the fact that for half an hour there’s nothing else I have to do. Or maybe it’s something about the forward movement through changing scenery and the regular drone of the engine that takes me to another place. A bus journey is never just a trip between destinations: I travel into other worlds on a bus.

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Let me take you on one of my regular bus journeys. Imagine yourself settled comfortably beside the window. It’s been raining outside and the bus is warm and steamy. You can feel the hum of the engine, lulling you into a meditative state. We travel first down a quiet road, past warehouses and compounds filled with rusting cranes. The road has an air of dereliction, but there’s also a kind of beauty in the twisted metal and decaying buildings. You just begin to wonder about the characters and the activities that might take place there, when the road opens out onto a panorama of the river. It’s not long after sunrise and the light is clear and tinted with pale blue and pinks, ideal for painting. You scan the buildings lining the banks, including the ruins of the priory overlooking the river mouth and you watch the small ferry crossing from north to south. There are layers of history and experience along the river, waiting to be brought to life.

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Next, we pass through a small housing estate and reach a bridge. On one side is a park, with cascades of water running down the hill towards the river. On the edge of the park is a hospice and you consider the stories of the people coming to the end of their lives there. Perhaps they think about their lives as they watch the assortment of boats sailing in and out of the marina on the other side of the bridge. They may mark the days in the daily arrivals and departures of the ferry from Holland, or watch the oil rigs and cranes lining the river and remember when ships were built here.

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Further on, we pass through an industrial estate, where the streets are named after Swedish cities, and through wasteland, dotted with pylons. We cross a bridge over the line used by the railway museum for steam train rides, and pass the old wagon ways, which were once used to transport coal from the mines to the river. Our final destination is the business park, packed with newly built, perfectly landscaped buildings that are standing empty, like shiny sentinels, waiting for someone to inhabit them and bring them to life.

Any of these things on their own could spark a story or a painting, but a bus journey is a kaleidoscope of sights unfurling one after the other. Some are barely registered, but they percolate in my imagination, sparking ideas and connections which I might use in the future.

So, if you don’t usually take the bus, why not try it? You don’t have to have a destination in mind. Choose a time outside of the rush hour – mid-morning is good – when you’re likely to get a seat to yourself. The type of route and the scenery don’t matter, it’s the movement and the letting go that do. See what comes of your journey. And if you can’t take a bus journey of your own, perhaps you can take a little inspiration from mine to help you on your way. I’d love you to share your experiences.