Preparing

The first day of November bears gifts for those who watch the skies. A line of four swans flies in silence among huge flocks of squawking geese arrowing south. A thick, vivid rainbow embraces the library as I get to work.

November brings golden sunrises and swirling pastel sunsets, but when we visit the dene the sun is just a blur of light struggling through gloom. The floodlights have been lit on the football pitches nearby and they seem to be hazed with mist. I remind myself that it is only lunch time, since it feels like the prelude to twilight already. The weekend’s gales have faded into a gentle breeze. I am warm because I am moving, but if I stopped I would feel the bite of cold air. Meteorologists have forecast snow for the coming week and the sensationalist papers are making a fuss about it, but the chances are that we won’t see it much below the north of Scotland.

The dene is slumbering, or so it seems. A few soft twitters from a tit, a brief alarm from a blackbird, but otherwise the trees are silent. The burn is a chain of still puddles. Tawny leaves are interlaced with ivy, raspberry and bramble leaves. A handful of sow thistle and a lone herb robert are the only blooms left. The rushes have yellowed. The avenue of lindens has dropped many of its leaves and they lie in heaps along the path and around the tree roots. One birch among a row of others has been lost to fungi, huge brackets climbing the trunk that have killed it from within.

The pond is peaceful. Trailing willows and floating birds. An older couple circuit the water slowly, holding hands. But then the black headed gulls rise in a frenzy, their screeches filling the air. A man and his son are feeding them. The mallards and moorhens move quietly and determinedly to take their fill among the flurry of white wings.

I know this season isn’t as quiet as it seems. Some creatures are still preparing for winter, hoarding what food they can. Some are busy munching their way through the leaf litter, breaking it down to feed themselves and whatever is nurtured by the remaining mulch. Spiders have been encasing their eggs safely in silk for the winter. They won’t see their children born but have given them the best chance they can. Fungi burst into fruit so that they can send out their spores. Trees pull nutrients back within, renewing themselves for the year to come.

And I’m preparing too. I’m no longer sending stories out, I’m holding them in. At Halloween I festooned my altar with photos of women writers. Not only to honour them, but to honour the thread of creativity that has been passed down through the generations. To remind me that there are others who have come before, women who can inspire and hold space for me when doubt comes. I am no longer languishing, but venturing out in search of stories. And then venturing in to find the words with which to tell them.

The air is full of drizzle on the day after Remembrance Sunday. Knitted poppies adorn the entrance to the cemetery. Rain patters softly on the remaining canopy. Leaves crackle as they fall. These gentle tickings are the only sounds. A discarded pumpkin lantern leers from the base of a tree. Here too, the landscape seems to slumber. But crows dig deep beneath heaps of leaves to find food. A squirrel weaves among the trees. On a nearby gravestone, a gull perches, watching us with interest. And these are only the preparations that we can see.

We walk past the crematorium and overhear part of the eulogy as a funeral takes place. The celebrant talks of a man who enjoyed photography. I smile at that creative thread that links me unexpectedly on this day to a stranger. We prepare, but we never know if our preparations will be enough or when they will no longer matter. Still, we do it, because we hope for a future in which they are enough. I am lucky to have shelter and food for the coming winter. The larder I fill is a creative one. Stories and images are the things I gather to see me through.

Glowing

We crunch and rustle along pavements of copper leaves. The sky is filled with diluted denim clouds, the sun a foggy disk slightly brighter than the sky. A strong breeze agitates the leaves. We walk past the war memorial, scattered with curled leaves, the shapes of old wreaths ingrained into the stone by dirt and lichen. Past the stone mason’s studio, where brand new tombstones await epitaphs. Through the iron gates and stone frontage of the cemetery.

Bindweed trumpets wind and bloom along the clipped privet. A few hogweed flowers have not yet withered. Clumps of grass finger out of the dead leaves. The base of a shattered tree hosts a massive crop of fungi. A squirrel, who may have been feeding on it, streaks past and up a neighbouring tree. But there is another squirrel in the grass who hasn’t yet spotted us. Her companion chitters a warning and soon both are beyond reach.

There is still a lot of green in the cemetery, but those trees that have turned are showpieces. Horse chestnuts and maples and lindens and beeches. Yellows and bronzes and coppers and reds. They are beacons of light nearby and in the distance as we walk.

A mischief of magpies crowds on top of one of the graves. There are at least ten of them and I wonder why. When we get closer I see it is planted with a fiery-leaved rowan, still laden with berries. The magpies are feasting on those that have fallen. They aren’t alone. A couple of jackdaws hop nearby and a mob of crows, one of whom nonchalantly grooms himself on top of a gravestone. There are gulls too. One of them eyes us from the top of a tall tombstone. Others squabble and squawk in a rowdy flock. Some of them have the traces of juvenile plumage and I wonder if these are teenagers looking for trouble.

There are points of communion in every special space. Here in the cemetery, there is the fallen tree where fungi grow. The graves that bloom with snakeshead fritillaries. The place behind the chapel where bluebells and cow parsley froth and hoverflies shimmer. In autumn, it is the place of the three maples. They stand in a row, in a slight clearing. Leaves like butterscotch and lemon and honey glow on their branches and form golden pools on the ground. Cow parsley leaves and tiny saplings poke through the leaves. There is a small, dead tree beneath the canopy, gnarled and bent, wrapped in a tendril of ivy. A broken tombstone, its stone cross laid gently against its base. Standing beneath the three maples, the sun gilds the leaves and takes you to another place.

We leave the gilded shelter of the three maples and walk up a narrow path. The sound of a bird singing makes me pause, because until now I have heard only the rough sounds of corvids and gulls. Listening carefully, I realise it is the full song of the blackbird, but sung so quietly that you would not hear it if you weren’t stood next to it. I look up, into a holly tree and immediately see a male blackbird perched there. For a few moments we look at each other and I hear the song again. It isn’t the bird I’m looking at that is singing, but another higher up in the tree. I wonder why it is so quiet. Perhaps I have stumbled on some secret thing. I listen for a few moments then leave them in peace.

There is a funeral about to begin at the crematorium. Two female vicars in billowing vestments stand at the door. A handful of masked guests wait outside. We pass quickly, to the shelter of a towering beech, its trunk like elephant skin, its boughs trailing petticoats of autumn hues. I think of our early morning dog walks, when the sun is just peeping above the houses, bathing the park in golden stripes of light. We wander out of the cemetery on a path of shining beech leaves. The sky is still grey. We are expecting storms this week. But the fire of autumn is glowing within me.

Catching dreams

On the first wintry day of the season frost crisps the landscape.  My breath billows in clouds of white.  The sun is honey, oozing through the heart of the cherry tree and turning the last of the leaves to gold.  It is a moment of between, when the earth makes me pause.  The chill shivers the leaves from the trees.  I can hear them falling.  They crackle like flames as they detach and float to the ground.  The fire is a cold one, but I feel as though I’m standing in its heart: the crackling is everywhere, the air is gold and a blackbird trills.  It is a precious, dreamlike morning.  There won’t be another one like it this season.

I sometimes dream of searching for places that don’t exist. I dream that behind the field at my aunt’s is a path that leads to a group of small ponds I’m desperate to get to. On the way,  a seahenge has been revealed on the shore, covered in light snow.  I never find the ponds. I’ve searched for them before without success.  I can picture myself bathing there, yet I only remember their existence in dreams.  When I wake I struggle to recall whether they are real or not and I grieve for their loss.

The leaves are moist and turning to mulch now.  They no longer glint with gold but have browned and darkened.  They are fodder for the dreams of worms and woodlice.  But the remains of gold still cling to the trees, like sheets of gilding.  Willows dip long tresses of yellowed leaves into a pond crowded with birds.  A man is feeding the ducks.  Black headed gulls screech and dive.  Moorhens peck the shore.  Three swans sail among them like a vision: a pair and their cygnet.  The cygnet is bigger than its parents, snowy feathers offset by soft beige.  I walk past yellowing reeds and bright berries, the last of the season’s lights.  I look up at the moment two swans soar over, softly whooping as they fly.

I have been recording my dreams again.  It is one way of confronting the darkness and what lies within it.  Some are slippery, some never ending.  Creatures flit through them: barn owl and crow, polar bears and bison, and a strange hybrid of mole and teddy bear that clutches my fingers with tiny pink hands.  In dreams I am myself and not myself.  Sometimes I begin as me but become someone else.  My dreams are mostly prosaic: processing real events and populated with people I know.  But among the ordinary are those moments when I wonder if I really have visited another place and brought a little of its enchantment back with me.


Blogger book of the month: Pamela S. Wight – Molly Finds her Purr

illustrated children's book, picture book, cat bookPam’s blog RoughWighting is full of funny, intriguing and quirky stories both fictional and true.  She has a fellow Piscean’s knack for visiting other worlds and bringing back a little of their magic.  Pam has written two exciting and enjoyable romantic thrillers for adults and another children’s picture book, Birds of Paradise but today it is Molly’s turn to step into the limelight.  In Pam’s newest book, Molly Finds Her Purr,  Molly is a stray cat who doesn’t know how to purr. Birds run away from her, dogs bark and squirrels bombard her with acorns. She tries her best to find a playmate, but it seems she’s destined to be lonely – it’s no wonder Molly doesn’t know how to purr! But then a squirrel called Petey takes a chance on friendship and Molly soon has a whole circle of friends around her. It isn’t long before she finds her purr. A heart-warming, comforting and gentle book, with beautiful illustrations, Molly introduces themes of difference and friendship in a lovely way for young readers.  A great Christmas gift for a child in your life!  You can find Pam here and her books are available at Amazon.

Shedding

On the day after the equinox, on the day light tips into darkness, it is on this day that autumn arrives.  It is my first day back at work and it has been a fortnight since I was in the park at 6am walking Winston.  For the first time since early spring it is dark.  Not completely.  The sky is cobalt rather than indigo.  Figures are vaguely recognisable.  But it is still a shock to the system.  Before we leave, a bat circles the air around us, the first I’ve ever seen in this park.

From a distance, it is clear that autumn has come.  Great swathes of green trees are tinged with a touch of gold.  There are beacon trees, flaming torches in the hedgerows, usually maples.  But up close, the landscape is still remarkably green.  Walking through the country park, it is the fireweed that offers the fieriest colour.

Last year gales ushered in the equinox.  The old poplar in the park was rent by wind, an enormous limb blown to the ground.  This year summer bleeds gently into the equinox and autumn steals in amid mist and rain.  I had longed for September, but it passes in a flash, the last of the summer washed away by rain, wind, mist and frost.  Spent raindrops form clear beads on hawthorns full of haws.  A trio of blackbirds bathe in an enormous puddle.  Raindrops dance the Flamenco.  Fungi has blossomed on the damp bridleway.  I count five species: more shaggy inkcaps than I have ever seen, a scatter of puffballs and others I can’t identify.

There is a different energy on a true autumn day.  The air feels thinner.  There is movement.  Not only of the weather and the leaves, though that is part of it.  The world is shedding, falling apart, but it’s a joyous shedding.  And then there are those still autumn days full of gold, when the sun lights up trees and teasels from behind and makes rosehips glow.  The dene is a riot of golds, reds and browns, overblown and overgrown, having a last chaotic burst before all the leaves are shed.  The grass is scattered with leaves of a different kind: pages from a book, burnt around the edges, shedding words into the landscape.

And the new season has given me energy.  I’ve submitted a dozen stories, revised a few more, started writing a new tale about poppies, the harvest flower.  With the rain and wind has come optimism.  My ears are clear and so is my mind.  The last year was gloomy, a struggle to get through, but now I’m shedding the year that has gone before and preparing to dream.


Blogger book of the month – Roads: a journey with verses by Smitha Vishwanath and Vandana Bhasin

I have accompanied Smitha Vishwanath on some exciting journeys via her blog.  I was there as she went through a huge life change moving from one country to another and became accustomed to her new circumstances.  And I was there as she embarked on a creative journey to become a writer and a fledgling artist.  She has now published her first book of poems with fellow poet Vandana Bhasin.

This book of poems by two talented poets promises to take the reader on a journey and delivers and epic trip. The journey in question is that of life, and the book is split into sections that cover many of the big themes we all face on that journey: courage, wisdom, love, strength, joy.   Both women contribute to each theme, offering a delightful contrast of views, imagery and tone. Smitha’s poems are intimate, emotional, drawing on a strength from within, while Vandana’s poems are open, assertive and sometimes confrontational.

The journey begins with ‘courage’ and it proves to be a positive and uplifting start. Smitha writes about daring to learn, fly, fail, even if the journey to success is not smooth. Vandana rails against rules and victimisation and demands that we drop the masks we wear. There is a nice rhythm to the collection. It moves inwards towards ‘wisdom’, ‘serenity’, ‘love’ and ‘joy’, then looks outwards to the world with ‘strength’, ‘compassion’ and ‘hope’. There are quiet moments and demands to be heard. There is sadness and joy, despair and self-assurance. And each poem is accompanied by a personal piece giving context to the verse.

Some of my favourite poems by Smitha are: ‘The Night is my Refuge’, a soothing poem about the restorative power of the night; ‘Treasure the Little Pleasures’, an evocative poem about the importance of small things; ‘Hush Daddy! Don’t Fear’, a moving poem about caring for an ageing parent; ‘Tender Moments’, a quiet loving poem in which a mother watches her children sleep; and ‘The Little Corner Room’ about a haven in her grandmother’s house.

Favourites by Vandana include: ‘Today’, an encouragement not to put things off to a vague tomorrow; ‘It’s all in the state of mind’ captures that dissatisfaction of wanting something other than what we have; and ‘Wings of Freedom’, a soaring poem about hopes and dreams.

The book ends, appropriately, with ‘gratitude’. Smitha’s ‘Promise of a new day’ is a beautiful meditation on things to be thankful for, while Vandana’s ‘Moments of Gratitude’ has the rhythm of a prayer. This book is an uplifting, enjoyable and emotional journey with two very engaging guides.

You can find Smitha here and the book is available on Amazon.

The jig of the leaves

The end of October is wind and half-light and a carnival of leaves.  The gale roars in and fallen leaves come to life once more.   They gambol over the grass, leaping and swirling like spring lambs.  When the wind gusts, they are swept into a rowdy gang, sprinting across the ground.  Lone leaves float against the sky, bobbing and flickering as they twirl.  Those caught up in the leaf-mass try to rise too but can’t.  Instead, scores of grounded leaves wave from their mulching places.  Meanwhile the trees that released them creak and rustle, undulating on the side-lines of the park, as though cheering on the final jig of their offspring.

There are fewer leaves on the ground this autumn.  October’s dry weather has left many crumbling to dust.  There have been few of the mists and storms I would associate with the season.  The colours have been muted and brittle.  If anything, it has been a grey month.  I have noticed the brutish beauty of sow thistle and the delicate star-burst seed-heads of groundsel.  Indigo mornings studded by Orion and Pegasus.  Garish orange dawns splodged with dark grey clouds.  A grey squirrel tries twice to scale the surrounding wall in the park and twice falls off, before shimmying up the poplar to the tallest branches to re-assert his street cred.  Starlings gather on the same TV aerial in town each morning and the wings of the seagulls are gilded by the sunrise.

This is the close down of the year.  The hatches are battened down, the unfinished chores are as complete as they will ever be.  The hearth is swept and a fire lit to welcome the ancestors.  Halloween itself is still.  The wind has vanished.  There is not a breath of it, not a sway of branch or a drop of leaf.  Fallen leaves are wet after a rare rainfall in the night, making them particularly vibrant.  Only the birds are restless, a flock of songbirds chittering at the tips of the poplars, crows swooping and barking.  I think about the ending cycle, the disrobing of the landscape, and all the industry that will carry on but won’t be seen, as leaves are broken down and nature renews herself.

Halloween night is fluid.  The year is neither old nor new, but in-between.  So the dead might visit and we can meet those who have not yet been born.  A feast is prepared with a place set for the ancestors.  The previous year is released in a flash of flame and a curl of candle smoke, the new year welcomed with the shuffle of Tarot cards.  I have entered the world of the dark, that delicious time of dreaming.  Easel and paints are calling me.  New stories call from the darkness.  My box of dreams is ready, waiting to receive the seeds of the things that are soon to be born.