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.

Remembering what you love

© Mandy Bland

© Mandy Bland

As we approach Valentine’s Day, many of us will be thinking about and celebrating the people we love. It’s often our loved ones that are our greatest inspiration: inspiring us to be better, to work harder, to become the best person we can be. But usually, we need other things in our lives to love, so that we can be the person who is capable of loving another human being. So this year, as a Valentine’s gift to yourself, why not also remember the other things you love: the things you love to do the things that inspire you and the things that make you feel most alive.

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How often do you take the time to do the things you love? If you’re like me, you find a way to fit them around your day job and other commitments. You snatch slivers of time that are never enough and procrastinate because you know you’ll never achieve all the things you want to achieve. Or are you lucky enough to do the thing you love as your day job – and if this is the case, do you still love it as much as you used to, or does having to do it take away some of the pleasure?

I spent my childhood with a sketch pad and pencil in hand and wherever I went, I would draw portraits. My love of art continued until high school, but at that point it became work. To carry on, I had no choice but to take a qualification in graphic art, but I didn’t want to draw advertisements or design product packaging. And eventually, I fell out of love with art.

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When I was young, I also loved horses. In those days, there seemed to be many fields with resident horses, before collections of new houses sprang up on every green corner. I could stroke and feed the horses on my way to school. Despite the fact that I couldn’t afford to learn to ride a horse, let alone have any chance of owning one, I took every opportunity to be around them and read endless books on horse care, horse breeds and collections of horsey stories. And it’s not so much that I fell out of love with horses, as that I seemed to forget about them.

But when my mother was dying, I rediscovered both my love for art and my love for horses. Almost all of the paintings I created depicted horses. I made an effort to visit places where horses would be. The timing of these rediscoveries seems odd to me, as though perhaps having my mother die somehow took me back to childhood. During this period, as I regained two of my passions, I lost others – my ability to write and to concentrate on reading. But now that I have all of those things, my life is richer than ever with creativity and inspiration.

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But why do we give up the things we once loved? I suspect that it many cases it takes an enormous amount of will and passion to hang on to them. Other things become more important. Or life is such that we forget the things that are important. Perhaps we forget that life is meant to be enjoyed as well as endured. We realise that only the few are able to make a living from creative pursuits and accept (whether it’s true or not) that we aren’t one of them. Or we conclude that we just aren’t good enough. It seems wasteful of so much talent and inspiration that if writing or painting are the things that we love, there doesn’t appear to be enough success to go around. It suggests that creativity isn’t valued in the way that other jobs are, that often, it isn’t viewed as a ‘job’ at all.

© Mandy Bland

© Mandy Bland

So how do we recapture the joy in the things we once loved to do and lost? For me, it was accidental. I didn’t consciously choose to paint, or to revisit my obsession with horses. It was, in fact, a very difficult period in my life that brought them back to me. I think, ultimately, that life made me re-prioritise and I realised that the career I’d spent so much energy on wasn’t actually very important to me at all. And for me, this only underlines the value of my ability to write or to paint – that in the worst of times, I could find comfort and inspiration from being able to create. I needed practical support from social workers and doctors, but without art and writing I wouldn’t have been able to get back to myself.

So on this Valentine’s Day, I hope that you’ll celebrate the things, as well as the people, that you love. And if you’ve forgotten what they are, take some time to remember them. If you recapture a lost love or you’ve found a way never to lose it, please share it with me.

Quickening

If you’re seeking inspiration at one of the darkest times of the year, the festival of Imbolc is a good place to begin. Traditionally celebrated from sunset on 1st February until sunset on 2nd February, it is considered the ‘quickening’ of the year, when the first signs of spring begin to stir. It’s a time when the first hint of warmth and light returns to the land. But Imbolc is also a time of creative transformation, when we start to remember that the fire of inspiration is still inside us, after the introversion and stillness of winter.

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Imbolc is associated with the Goddess Bride (pronounced ‘Breed’), a goddess of creativity and inspiration. She was said to be a goddess of poetry, crafts and metalworking and so has a particular relevance for writers and artists. One way to pay tribute to Bride at Imbolc is to create something in her honour.

Although it is traditionally a time when the first spring flowers appear, Imbolc falls at a time when there may still be snow on the ground and the signs of spring can be difficult to see. Where I live, rain and gales are ushering in Imbolc, after weeks of heavy snow. There are few obvious signs of new life. Here, the only spring flowers are in pots. When I walk through the park in the morning, the grass is full of bare muddy patches.

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Autumn and winter are my favourite seasons and I feel a sense of anticipation as September comes. But February has none of the excitement of early winter. As I get older, the more I find that February is a long, hard month. I look forward, not so much to warmer weather, but to longer days. But that is the purpose of Imbolc, as with many of the fire festivals: to remind us that within the darkness, there’s always the promise that the light and the longer days will return. And if I pay close attention, I can feel the first changes in the season. The trees aren’t bare, but are jewelled with their first buds. The birds seem to sing a little more loudly before dawn. There is a new, lighter energy after the heaviness of winter.

This is a time for hope and optimism, for beginning to plan the projects you want to bring to fruition during the year. It is also a time for initiation and is therefore a good point in the year to re-dedicate yourself to whichever creative path you wish to follow. You don’t have to be a witch to take a little inspiration from Bride and from the energy of Imbolc.

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You can use this time as an opportunity to think about your creative goals and any new creative projects you might like to begin this year. In what ways can you nurture those projects so that as the year turns, they will grow into something worth harvesting? You can review your store cupboard of creative tools and consider what you may need to collect to create the things you wish to create. Why not light a candle to remind yourself that even in the darkness and cold of February, you still have inspiration inside you? But don’t forget to also go outside and gather inspiration from the changing energy that’s out there too.