Breathing

In a winter that hasn’t much felt like one, we came close to a white Christmas. It was Christmas Eve, and we had almost reached my favourite part of the movie Meet Me In St. Louis, where Judy Garland, clad in sparkling headscarf, sings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Just as she was about to begin, the flakes began to fall. They were thick and fat, but they melted as soon as they hit the pavement. I paused Judy and went to the door, to revel in the falling snow. Across the street, one of the neighbours sat in her window and filmed it on her mobile phone. For a while there was the silent magic of falling snow against a twilight sky. Soon, the fat flakes became tiny balls and the snowstorm was over. I listened to Judy sing about us all being together someday, and thought back to March, when, walking in the dene just before the first lockdown, I had heard Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again floating on the air.

Close to sunset on Christmas Day, when dinner was eaten and gifts opened, I walked with Winston into the town centre. The hush of Christmas Day is usually like no other here. Every business shuttered and no people around. Just a life size decorated Snowman gazing down the empty street and a silence that is profound. But this year the silence isn’t a rarity. This year there have been weeks of silence and empty streets. Some of the shops are now empty permanently. The first lockdown is like a dream: hard, shocking but with a good smattering of optimism and community spirit. I remember the shriek of kittiwakes nesting by the river. The red-haired woman who drove her pony and trap on empty roads each day. The bloom of birdsong that filled the two minutes silence on VE day. Back then there was fear, but there was also the possibility of what we could do with the ‘meanwhile space’ we had been given. Winston barks at the snowman and his bark echoes back at us. Gulls watch from sentry posts on the rooftops. A half moon is visible in the darkening sky. It was a short walk, but I am already numb with cold. As we turn for home it seems as if all the gulls have taken flight and are circling in a feathered tornado before settling to their roosts.

On New Year’s Eve, we moved into the highest tier of alert for Coronavirus in the country. It didn’t make much difference to us on our last walk of the year. Roofs were coated in ice and our breath shivered in the air before us. Trees were silhouetted against a pink and blue pastel-striped sky. The crows followed us around for peanuts. I heard the call of great tits and the woodpecker from above and gulls massing in the distance. Soon, there was a blaze of orange in the west. The year’s last sunset had a flamboyant palette. Later, I would be woken at midnight by the usual roar of fireworks, despite the restrictions, but the sunset was fireworks enough for me.

The new year rides in on storms and hope. We are battered by rain, hail, sleet and snow. The wind moans along empty lanes. We are promised cold and perhaps another Beast from the East. We are told that the virus is out of control and tougher restrictions still may be needed. On those grey days when the light hardly touches the landscape, the world seems stark and unforgiving. But in between the grey, the sun struggles through. What appeared stark becomes nuanced. This year has shown us in horrifying ways what it is to be without the most basic element of survival – the breath – and how quickly that can change everything. But it also gave us a taste of what it is to breathe freely, in unfettered time and in unpolluted air. We had no choice but to live in the moment, because we didn’t know what would come next.

A few days into the year and we are in lockdown once more. The messages are serious, the numbers who have the virus are the highest since the pandemic began. Fear is whipped up by the news and community spirit is fraying at the edges. We are encouraged to stay at home. A TV pundit suggests we keep our Christmas decorations up until Candlemas for some extra cheer. The weather still fluctuates between storm and sun. From my window as I work, I can see the clocktower of the town hall across the river. The shifts in landscape bring me joy. Sometimes it blurs into mist and rain; sometimes it is clear and burnished in sunlight; in the dark the tower is lit up in different colours. The snow that lies further north and south has passed us by. But our first trip of the year to hydrotherapy takes us into a landscape softened and made luminous by snow. Out here, I can breathe in the space and light and forget for a moment the oppressive news. Out here I can remember that I am starting this year in a much better place than I started the last. At heart I’m an optimist, still inhaling hope with each breath.

A storm of writing

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The storms that blew out the old year abate as the year turns and the new year creeps in through a veil of gloom.  The day is sunk in a quagmire of mizzle.  Cormorants line the breakwater like mourning sentinels and the lighthouse beacon struggles to breach the murk.  On the beaches at the mouth of the river, a broken forest has rooted.  Whole trees, enormous logs, pieces of furniture and other oddments swept down-river in the storms have come to rest here.  It isn’t long before the beach-combers arrive, picking through the piles for treasures.

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I’ve been on a journey.  In the dreaming tide of the year, as the world descended into darkness, I dreamed a new world into being.  Sequestered from the golden drift of the leaves and the filigree of stripped branches, the real world receded.  Everywhere I went, I carried a notebook and a pen with turquoise ink, like talismans.  Words spilled out, without thought, without preparation: a storm of words.

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I was visited by an apparition: a teenage me at my aunt’s house in the country, scribbling stories in a blue exercise book about a woman who saw lights in the fields at night.  Back then, I loved writing.  There was no agenda.  I didn’t have a computer.  I wrote everything longhand and didn’t imagine I would ever have something published.  Over time, that naïve joy dissipated as I strove to achieve something with my writing.  As I fulfilled some of my goals, it became less like joy and more like work.  Last year creativity was a battle and my novel in progress was one of its casualties.

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But during my Arvon week at Lumb Bank, something was re-kindled amid hills swathed in mist.  Afterwards, things seemed to shift.    I kept asking myself the questions my tutors Emylia Hall and Patrick Neate asked me: Which part of this book am I enjoying writing the most? Why do I write? How do I want my writing to be viewed?  I was energised by Ray Bradbury’s book Zen in the art of writing, in which his delight in writing is infectious and who told me to write, not think.   I thought of Tash Aw, guest author at Arvon, who said he writes every one of his huge books longhand.  And suddenly, I took up notebook and pen and soared.

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When things got tough, my mantra was this: ‘It’s okay, at this point I’m just telling myself the story.  It doesn’t have to be great, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work, I’m just telling it to me.’  And there was that teenage girl scribbling in her blue notebook, reminding me how writing used to be.  Two months on, I’d finished my first draft of 80,000 words.

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I’ve been on a journey, a journey back to writing, back to the writer I once was.  I found peace in the scratch of ink on paper and joy in the conjuring of a world.  This is the magic of writing.  And as the honing tide sweeps in, it’s time for a little word-combing, sifting through the leavings of the storm until I find the treasures.

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My short story, Lightning Flowers, the tale of a woman whose life changes when she’s struck by lightning, was published in Issue 5 of Firewords Quarterly in October.  You can buy a copy at http://www.firewords.co.uk/shop/issue5/

The unexpected year

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As a new calendar year approaches, we wonder what to expect in the months to come.  For me, this year has been an intense brew of the predictable and the unexpected.  But then, when I look back, isn’t this always the case?  Yes, some years seem to plod on, with nothing much of note happening, so that we wonder where the months went.  Some years meander, as we drift, out of focus, along different paths.  And then there are those years that we look back on as our turning points, when the unexpected happens and turns the year on its head.

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The crew of the Donald Duckling weren’t expecting to spend Christmas moored in the north east of England.  And as we approached the port on our Boxing Day walk, we weren’t prepared for this hulking, rusting cargo ship to be docked there.  The ship has been detained at the port since late November, not permitted to leave until urgent repairs are carried out.  It’s crew, who are mainly Romanian and Filipino, had to resort to fishing from the side of the ship when their food ran out on the last voyage, and to cooking the fish on the deck as the galley wasn’t working.  The crew are far from home but have been supported by the local fishermen’s mission, who have given them phone cards, access to the internet and to their kitchen.

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And yet on this calm day, when the low sun bounced off the side of the ship, life asserted itself as though there was nothing unusual about the scene.  The gulls took advantage of the mooring ropes to claim a safe river vantage point.  Families and dog-walkers enjoyed the tranquil pause between the rain and gales.  And this is the point.  Life goes on, good or bad, as we prepare to celebrate a new year and wonder what it will bring.

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This year I’ve been amazed by the way my creativity has burgeoned, the way I’ve found inspiration in unexpected places.  I’ve revelled in the seasons as never before and in the every day enjoyment of cherishing time with my family.  I’ve found succour in the woods, the sea and a small terrier called Winston.  I have connected with a multitude of fascinating people across the world.  Yet I’ve also been saddened by the loss of a loved one much too soon.  This year hasn’t plodded, or meandered.  It may well have been a turning point.

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And so, as I write this, surrounded by the roar of the renewed gales around the house, I want to leave you with some of my favourite posts of the year.  I hope you’ll take some time to follow the links and read them and explore the blogs that go with them.  These are only a very small selection of posts I’ve read that have made me laugh, cry, think or just enjoy.

The season of the floor sun by Laurie at Travel Lightly is a moving account of the loss of a summer ritual after the death of her dog Juno.  Laurie also writes beautifully about nature, landscape and spirituality.

Britt Skrabanek at A Physical Perspective, recently started an inspiring series called The Life Enthusiast Chronicles, which is all about people who, using the example of their own lives, inspire us to live ours.  I’d also recommend Britt’s book ‘Beneath the Satin Gloves.’

The word is create by Marylin Warner at Things I want to tell My Mother, describes the objects created with love through generations and how they become legacies for those who come after.  Marylin’s blog is in the form of letters to her mother, a writer herself, who suffers from dementia, and her posts are warm, touching and insightful.

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Sherri, at A View From My Summer House shared a powerful post about her journey as a writer, in The power – how has writing changed you.  In her blog, Sherri shares warm, funny and touching stories of her life in the UK and the US that have been a pleasure to read.

One of the first posts I read on WordPress was by Zen Doe at The Wind Horse Blog.  Captain, My Captain is the touching story of being chosen by a horse while grieving for another, that had me in tears.  She hasn’t posted for a while as life was getting in the way of writing in a good way, but you won’t be sorry if you spend a little time in her world.

I’ve greatly enjoyed sharing the ups and downs of the writer’s journey with archaeologist and writer JM McDowell over the past year.  As well as posting on writing in general, JM has shared some wonderful fiction with us.  Meghan Bode’s Wintry Tale part one (there’s a link on the page to part two) is just a taster of some of her writing, that I hope you enjoy.

Gemma Hawdon is another fellow writer that I have loved sharing the journey with this year at Top of the Slush Pile.  Gemma has shared many great tips and observations about the writing life.  The imagery in Writing the dark and twisted has particularly stayed with me.

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Ron Scubadiver shares wonderful photos of landscapes, people, street life, the arts scene, abstracts and more at The Wild Life of Ron Scubadiver. Volcanos National Park has some of my favourites.

Karin Vandenbergh at Ruby Slippers and the Yellow Brick Road often seems to look into my mind and I find we often write on similar themes.  Into the darkness is a beautiful exploration of the power of the dark.

Gabriela Blandy, at The Sense of a Journey, has also been missing from WordPress for a while.  I miss her rich, thought-provoking pieces, with some wonderful titles. What happens when a character’s skirt gets hitched in her knickers is an exploration of characterisation.

Unpeeled, by Helen White at Scattering the Light, is about limitation, self-judgement and the tensions that can appear around the autumn equinox.  Helen is an artist and writer who writes beautifully of her spiritual and creative journey.

I’m constantly amazed at the ability of Scott, at Kindred Spirit, to produce so many pieces of enjoyable short fiction each week, as well as more general posts.  He’s recently started posting longer pieces featuring Carolyn and her struggles in a zombie-infested world, which I’m really enjoying.  Keeping Watch is the first of these.

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Jenny Pellet at Characters from the Kitchen shares some wonderful and amusing thoughts on life.   The imperfection of memory is about how we remember things, sometimes not in the way they happened.

Sarah Potter shares wonderful haikus, inspirational photos and more.  Sun Haiku #2 is an example of one of my favourites.

Kourtney Heinz has generously shared her journey with us as a new author on the promotional trail.  This post is a trailer for her book, which I would highly recommend you read: The Six Train to Wisconsin book trailer.

Jack Flacco writes about zombies, strong women and a miscellany of other things.  So if you’ve ever wondered how you’d survive a zombie apocalypse, try one of Jack’s ‘what-if’ posts to see how you’d do: Zombie what-ifs.  Also check out his new book ‘Ranger Martin and the Zombie Apocalypse’.

I only read The necessity of beauty by Valerie Davies today and it is such a beautiful story that it makes a perfect end to my selection of favourite posts of the year.  Valerie writes beautiful posts that also always include fascinating information and insights.

Thank you to all of these bloggers and all of those I regularly follow but haven’t mentioned here, for making my world a richer place this year.