Re-imagining

On the autumn equinox we head for the sea.  Morning breaks on bold blue skies and whipped cream clouds.  Sea and sand sparkle under warm sunlight.   It isn’t quite low tide, but wide expanses of reef are exposed.  The promenade is full of people, who wander over the causeway to the lighthouse.

The beach is almost empty; the sea flat and far away.  The sandscape changes with each tide.  Today it is tossed with boulders swaddled in bladderwrack.  The sand is studded with lugworm casts and bird footprints.  That unmistakeable salt and sweet seaweed scent perfumes the air.  The sand martins that nest in the cliffs are gone, but there are flocks of birds out of reach on the reefs.  A curlew’s cry echoes.  Wind turbines turn slowly beyond the lighthouse and ships break the horizon.

Back on the headland, yellow grass is woven with bronze seed heads.  Yarrow and thistle are still in flower.  Sea buckthorn berries light up the borders.  We sit on the grass and eat ice cream.  There are always starlings here and a mob of them soon moves in.  At one point there are at least forty, hustling for treats.  Once they have decided there is no more, they swarm onto the grass, a sinuous horde, looking for earthier fayre.

The equinox ends with a sky full of storm light.  For two days rain falls and winds blow.  This is not a summer storm.  It is the arrival of autumn.  Outside the air seems charged.  Damp and rich and full of movement.  Though the leaves have barely begun to turn, the atmosphere is bronze.   On a day like this, anything can happen.  The fire hisses flames for the first time since early spring and the dog lies on his side in front of it.  The wind moans in the chimney.  The autumn equinox has passed.  Summer has fled but the season of magic has arrived.

In the aftermath, we walk to the dene.  For a while, our soundtrack is the hubbub of starlings.  I wonder if at dusk they join those at the island to murmur into darkness.  The sky is moody but dry.  A row of linden trees are beginning to curl and brown.  Small tree limbs blown off in the storms cover the ground.  The sports centre around the corner has become a test centre for Covid 19, a white marquee raised next to the skate park.

A gentle cheep greets our entrance to the dene.  Autumn is just flirting here.  Crisp bronze leaves lie in clusters; some of the trees are beginning to turn; but green is still the predominant colour.  Two wind turbine foundations on their way out to sea jut over the trees.  I watch through drooping willows as mallards circle the pond.  A pair of black-headed gulls have taken the high perches on the jetty, but one of them is ousted by another before long.  The moorhens cry occasionally, the gulls scream.

A clump of meadow cranesbill draws my eye to reeds starting to turn yellow.  Sprays of orange lilies and columns of yellow rattle mingle with sienna dock seeds.  Tiny fish dart away from my shadow in the burn.  The edges are full of berries.  Blackberries and rosehips, raspberries and haws, elder and snowberries.  A pair of crows feed on a discarded Yorkshire pudding.  Suddenly, a feather – grey and downy – falls from the sky, in a slow flight right in front of me.  I catch it before it reaches the ground.

On the way home, I notice the weeds between walls and pavement.  It has been the year of the weed.  Fewer grass cuttings and weed spraying has allowed some to appear that wouldn’t normally be seen and others to grow into monsters.

We may be facing another lockdown.  In this area of the country, Covid infections are rising again and there are new restrictions in force.  There is tension between those who think the restrictions are too harsh and those who think we aren’t doing enough.  We are still fighting for balance as we move into the most challenging part of the year.  But this is nothing new.  I watch a documentary that describes how the Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century led to revolts and a re-imagining of the world.  That plague stayed for centuries, re-appearing every ten years or so to take its toll once more.  It feels, right now, like Covid is something that won’t disappear, but that we’ll have to come to terms with.

But for now, the seasons turn.  September moves into October and today, it seems, is arrival day.  Not long after dawn we walk to the park at the end of the street under an arrow of squawking geese.  If that wasn’t joy enough, there is soon more squawking in the air.  In the space of ten minutes, five separate skeins of geese fly directly overhead.  They are heading south.  I wonder where they will come in to land and what they will find there. I am thankful that I was here to witness their passing.

Shifting

It shouldn’t be this hot.  The view is grey.  A fret rolls off the sea.  The piers are  blurry in the mist.  The sun is at my right shoulder, a bright disc among grey clouds.  It shouldn’t be hot, but the humidity is unbearable.  It shouldn’t be bright, but the sun lasers through the clouds to pick out highlights on the water.  In the empty space between the piers I see mirages, columns of white that might be the sails of ships or distant lighthouses.

The tide is in.  Children play on a narrow slice of beach.  Gulls float on the calm water and huddle on what is visible of the notorious black midden rocks.  The massive autoliner carrying cars passes as we arrive and small fishing boats trundle past.  We sit on a bench overlooking the sea, my wife and I.  It is our anniversary, 25 years since we got together and we’re having a celebratory lunch of fish and chips.  25 years seems an unbelievably long time.  If we have been together that long then surely we must be old.  But we aren’t yet.  Not quite.

Even when you feel that there is no movement, the years steam on, until you wonder how you got here so quickly.  Something has shifted in the last fortnight.  I’m moving again.  Perhaps it was our short journey south through fields of gold.  Perhaps it is the shift in the air that follows.  Dark grey clouds gather like a dome.  Winds whip up and rain comes.  But in the end storm Ellen only caresses us.  In the dene it still seems like summer.  The burn is only a trickle, the cascades choked with weed.  A flock of mallards faces off against a flock of moorhens on the pond.

The police helicopter is hovering, its attention focused somewhere north of here.  I’ve spent a lot of time this year like that helicopter, stalled and searching for something to focus on.  But what has often felt like drifting aimlessly has in fact been an absence of the old ‘to do’ lists and wishing time away.  As the world re-opens and structure returns, I’ve been reluctant to embrace the way it was before.

So I shift slowly.  I start to edit my manuscript.  I use my sketch of a woman and cello to create a painting.  I submit some short stories.  It’s a trickle rather than a flood, just like the burn, but it’s a beginning.  The helicopter still hovers, but three swallows are closer.  Like tiny spitfires swooping over the grass.  There is a hint of yellow in the linden trees.  Rosehips and blackberries fatten in the hedgerows.  These swallows are the last of summer, propelling me forward as the seasons turn.

Cracks

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

(Leonard Cohen)

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Spring seeps in through the cracks of the season.  Light creeps in illuminating a changed world.  A world of empty shelves, empty buildings, an empty diary.  The world is different and yet it is the same.  The seagulls are still on the roof opposite, probably the same pair that nest there each year.  The daffodils and crocuses follow the bloom paths of previous springs.  Blackthorn blossom has come, the hawthorns are clothed in green.  And the birds sing for the lives soon to be born.  For the past three months I have been obsessively checking sunrise and sunset times, desperate for the darkness to recede.  Finally light pushes it back.

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Christmas is hardly over when the cracks begin to show.  It is in the early hours of Boxing Day when my panic attacks begin in earnest.  A wave of fear and panic that propels me out of bed, downstairs, turning on every light in the house, then, paradoxically, out into the dark air of the yard.  A desperate need to escape, but there is no escape from the dark until dawn, so the fear remains.   Cold sweat, tingling in my body, pacing and fidgeting, quick breathing, utter dread and despair.  Panic has arrived and come to stay.

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I had an inkling the darkness would be hard for me this year. I tried to accept it.  It worked for a while, but then it came rushing in until I was at its mercy.  The fear isn’t fear of the dark.  I know this. The fear is about being trapped, out of control.  I know that nothing will happen to me. I don’t fear death or disaster.   I fear the feeling of fear and not being able to escape it.  I cry and wail at the  worry that this could be my life now.  I can no longer sleep without a night light.  I go to bed late because I dread waking in the early hours when fear might strike.  The hours between my alarm and dawn are excruciating.

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My fear expands.  From darkness into light.  First the evening, then coming home, then in the heart of the day.  I can’t sit still long enough to eat a meal (my appetite is gone anyway) or to watch a TV programme, before I have to rush outside in panic.  I cling to my partner, afraid to be in the house alone now.  There is a weight in my stomach that twists and burns. I’ve had bouts of depression before over the years and I would trade it in a moment for this panic.  Being outside is the only thing that brings a fleeting modicum of relief.

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I don’t know why this panic has suddenly arrived but I suspect it has grown in the lull after a very challenging couple of years.  A challenging decade.  Now that life has finally let up, there is a vacuum, and the vacuum has cracked.  I try all I can to get relief: meditation, yoga, chamomile and lavender, counselling.  I become worn down by trying to keep the panic at bay.  I am weary and depressed.  I don’t write.  I walk only as far as I have to.  I still go out to work but I am not myself.  Medication helps.  I’ve always avoided medication before, but I will do anything to get rid of the panic.  The anxiety recedes to night times again and is not as sharp.  During the day there is sadness and indifference.

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My dreams are vivid.  In them, I am often being hunted.  I flee from assassination or revenge.  I cross Europe, trying to find a place in which I can settle and be safe.  Unusually, I dream often of my late parents.  In my dreams I am sometimes me, sometimes someone else.  Part of me longs for change, an end to this period of my life, but I’m not ready.  I haven’t found joy yet.  After a few weeks of relief, the anxiety gets worse again.  I start a new medication.

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I don’t panic about the appearance of a new virus.  My internal fear is far worse than a fear of an external disease.  It is only when all our libraries are closed and I see the queues and empty shelves in the supermarkets that I think perhaps this might be serious.  We are told to stay at home as much as we can, but I have agreed with my counsellor to take a longer walk this week, to try to recapture something of the life I had before.  So Winston and I head to the dene.

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The streets are quiet but not empty.  It feels like a Sunday.  I give anyone I see a wide berth.  There will be no doggy greetings today.  Dandelions, daisies and daffodils bloom.  Dog violets peer between the undergrowth.  The blackthorns are just beginning to fade and the cherry blossom is just beginning to flower.  A wood pigeon sits in a hollow in an ivy-covered tree.  Its pecking makes a soft ticking.  A lone coot complains on the pond.  Delicate new fronds of willow catch the light.

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A group of strange mounds on the grass reveal themselves as sleeping mallards, as four small heads pop up to watch us.  We walk through bunches of summer snowflake and fallen poplar catkins.  Marsh marigolds illuminate the burn and a cluster of celandine peeps through ivy.  Suddenly, the voice of Vera Lynn at full volume washes over the park.  She sings about meeting again – of course.  A couple of verses and the last swells with a chorus of voices.  I wonder if this is on the recording, or if these are real people, having a last gathering before saying au revoir.

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I find it hard not to think there is a pattern to existence as there is to the seasons.  In these months in which climate change has been at the top of the news, when we have had some of our worst floods and fires, a virus comes which compels us to act in a way that reduces our impact on the planet.  This is an opportunity for the earth to sigh in relief.  Without wishing to downplay the fear and death the virus brings, I wonder if this should be a hopeful moment for our future.  I wonder if we will come out of it changed.

For now the world seems both different and the same.  My life had already altered before the virus happened and I can’t yet see what I will be when I emerge.  But there is light.  I have picked up a paintbrush again.  I have had good news about some of my writing.  My anxiety is much less than it was three months ago.  I am here, writing words down.  The cracks in our existence have widened this year, but there is always light waiting to pour in

Lost and found

In spring, time moves quickly.  Mornings have lightened then become darker once more with the winding forwards of the clocks.  The dawn chorus seeps through my open window each day and wakes me half an hour before my alarm.  The park at the end of the road has had its first mowing, and the scent of cut grass soaks the air.  A woodpecker has begun to frequent the trees.  I hear him drumming out his territory and sometimes glimpse red feathers glimmering in the sun.

In this most mercurial season, nature is a show-off, throwing everything at us to demonstrate what she can do.  One day, she paints the leaden sky with a thick, bright rainbow.  On the next, she sends snow.  Just when I’ve begun to forget the cold, I’m walking in soaking flakes, grass coated white, bushes laden.  Bulrush heads are like soggy sticks of candy floss dusted with icing.

The snow soon melts and days of mist follow, but it doesn’t stop the industry of the birds.  A great tit calls loudly from the maple, sparrows hop and chitter in the privet, starlings mewl and pigeons forage.  There is no sign of life from the smallest maple in the park, the harbinger of autumn that I had feared dead.  But a new tree has appeared from nowhere.  The label tells me it was planted officially, but with trees there is always the possibility of enchantment.  I feel responsible for it, such a small sapling among mature neighbours.  I fear vandalism.  But it seems strong, is already full of buds.  I hope it makes it.

In my last post, I wrote about giving up on a story.  My elderly protagonist is still enjoying an early retirement, but I found myself thinking about what happens to all those ideas when they don’t get used.  And as the spring snow was falling around me, I happened upon a curious place….

The garden of lost ideas by Andrea Stephenson

There is no path to the garden of lost ideas. You will never find your way here accidentally, except perhaps in dreams. It is cloistered by briars an eternity thick. Its walls are far too high to climb. If there is a gate, it is not a gate that can be seen.

There are no seasons in this garden, and there is every season at once. Its gardeners are enigmatic creatures, born of leaf and twig, fur and horn.

Seeds drift across the garden like pollen, an infinity of golden floss that gilds the foliage. The gardeners sieve and sift, capture seeds in spindly fingers. They plant them in rich dark loam, and tend each one with care and patience. An unfinished painting here, an untold story there, forgotten thoughts, abandoned sketches, lost notebooks and torn canvases. All find their way here eventually. This is a garden of second chances and its gardeners are the shepherds of lost ideas.

The flowers that bloom here are fragile. Stalks as thin as thread, petals as sheer as gossamer. No one flower like another. The garden overflows with delicate beauties that shimmer in the moonlight. The gardener never knows which will successfully bloom and which will wither; which will sprout and which will remain soil-bound, perhaps forever. So she tends each frail bloom, charming them with lilting whispers.

Sometimes, those fragile blooms will burst. Their colours will grow more vibrant, their petals more substantial. And then the gardener knows her work is done. Somewhere in the world outside the garden the idea has found its purpose once more. The flower grows not only in the garden, but in someone’s imagination. A tale has been told. A picture has been painted. The idea is no longer lost, but has been found.


Blogger book of the month: Britt Skrabanek – Nola Fran Evie

Britt Skrabanek is an enthusiastic, positive and energetic blogger, currently experimenting with creative memoir on her blog.  I’ve enjoyed all of her engaging and unique books: Everything is Not Bigger is a story of identify and self-discovery, Beneath the Satin Gloves is a time slip spy story.  But I think her third book Nola Fran Evie is the best she has written yet. The true story behind this book is as fascinating as the book itself – a vintage handbag, found by the author, containing baseball tickets from 1954, a voting receipt and a shopping list.  From these finds, Britt has woven a wonderful story of the lives of four women. Nola, Fran and Evie meet when they play baseball for the All American Girls Professional Baseball league during the 40s and 50s. When the league folds in 1954, their lives take them in different directions, until one fateful day they’re brought back together again. Their stories take in love, loss, disappointment, jazz and the civil rights movement. And interwoven with the stories of these women from the past is the present-day story of Jacks, who will also have a role to play in continuing their story. This book is a fantastic read. The characters come to life on the page and at turns, you root for each of them. It is funny, moving, nostalgic and fast-paced.  Britt’s books have just been published as paperbacks and are also available as ebooks.  You can visit Britt’s blog here, and her Amazon author page here.

Teetering

As one year teeters into another, my body is all at sea.  A stray bug or perhaps the sigh of inactivity after the busyness of December.  Flu sweeps in on Boxing Day and the lead up to the year end is fever, aches and pains, a chest infection.  It leaves me with labyrinthitis, an ear condition I get sometimes that feels like constant motion sickness.  So there is no optimistic, energetic start to the year.  I can’t walk far, I can’t use a screen, I can only read for short bursts.  Confined to the house, I hardly notice the passing days, or what is happening outside.

So far winter has been short and kind.  There has been almost no rain and little frost.  It has been mild, often grey but often sunny.  The weeks leading up to the end of the year blinked by and I wonder if the rest of winter will be so quick.

It’s the second week of January when I’m well again and I walk to the sundial.  It is just after dawn but you would hardly know it.  The morning is grey with little colour.  Subdued greens and browns with only a handful of gorse flowers offering anything brighter.  Drizzle seeps from the sky.  A gaggle of mallards follow me hopefully around the edge of the pond, clucking quietly.  Otherwise there are few obvious signs of life.  A male blackbird clatters out of a ditch and across the path, glaring at me from a fence post.

Raindrops cling to the alders on the path to the sundial.  Up top there is little evidence that the sun has just risen.  The hills are a misty grey smudge with a hint of pastel orange in the west.  The sky brims with dirty grey cloud.  Only a small patch of illuminated pink shows where the sun might be.  The horizon is blurred, the sea nondescript, turbines foggy shapes in the distance.  I hear the two note call of a great tit.  Another joins it at the other side of the park.  It is icy cold up here, my limbs already feel chilled.

Two woodpigeons fly from the path as I descend.  A thrush sings a song full of climbing whistles.  A lone herring gull charms worms with his feet.  The sky lightens in patches until a wisp of cloud forms miniature inverted tornado in the distance, trailing upwards.  Later, the first snow of the year falls.  It is hardly recognisable as snow, only a hint of white and the way the tiny flakes drift distinguishes it from the morning’s drizzle.  It seems that winter hasn’t made up its mind whether to be fair or foul.  It teeters between the two.  But my enforced absence has meant that I’ve already noticed a change in the air.  Already the days don’t seem quite so dark.  There may well be storms to come, but the scent of spring is there, on the misty horizon.


Blogger Book of the Month: Teagan Geneviene – Atonement in Bloom

Blogging has introduced me to many talented authors, some of whom have featured on this blog.  This year I’ll be highlighting a few of the great books I’ve been reading by fellow bloggers.

I’m always delighted by the unique and magical stories that Teagan Geneviene creates, many of which are written spontaneously, week by week, on her blog.  Her new book, Atonement in Bloom is the second in a series of books set in the magical town of Atonement, Tennessee.  This book has all the whimsy, wonder and enchantment of the first.  Ralda Lawton lives in an old house in a small southern town that has more than its share of magic. A woman created from flowers, a mischievous calico cat, a herd of glowing pigs and the Queen of Winter herself all appear in this novel. I would love to live in the enchanted town Teagan has created and to meet the characters that are so lovingly and inventively depicted. This is a hugely original book that weaves myth and imagination into a compelling story. The ending suggests that there may be more to come in future and, until then, I’ll be homesick to return to Atonement.  You can find Teagan’s blog here and her books are available on Amazon.

Grounding

A tree lies broken on the path.  The old poplar has been rent, a bough the size of a large tree torn away in the winds.  The splintered heartwood is shredded and the tree nurses a jagged ivory stump.  Its amputated limb blocks the path, causing passers-by to stop in wonder.  It isn’t the only casualty.  A bough of the shoe tree has fallen, a mossy pair of trainers tangled in its branches.  In the dene, a large bough of weeping willow is hanging by a thread of bark, like a besom broom sweeping the path.  Storms aren’t unusual before the equinoxes, as though the earth needs to expel its energy before it can come into a balance of sorts.   After the day of wind comes a night of rain, before the morning calm.

After the storms, I go in search of stone, a balance to the torrent of air and water.  I want to be grounded by the size and the steadiness of earth.  I start at the Pen Bal Crag, the tallest of all our cliffs, where the priory and castle sits atop limestone and sandstone.  I rarely come to this small bay – the steps are steep and many and dogs are banned for half of the year.  In fact I don’t recall the last time I stepped on its sand.  Alone on the beach, I’m dwarfed by the rocks rising above me.  Boulders are tumbled at the bottom of the cliffs, some from landslides, clad in bladderwrack and gutweed.  Water drips from vegetation in the cracks and behind it all, the sea roars.  These rocks are layered in time and faith and blood and the ancient lava flow that once poured through them.  I am as slight as a grain of sand in comparison.

Strange how the memory plays tricks.  I have a very strong recollection of a barbecue here many years ago.  It has the gilded patina of nostalgia, redolent with soft evening light and the taste of sausages.  I remember clearly exploring a cave under the cliffs – so clearly I used the memory of it in one of my novels.  This is why I’m here, to re-visit it.  Yet as I stand on the shore, gazing at the cliffs, I realise that this cave doesn’t exist.  It most likely never did.  All these years, the image of it has come to me and it seems that I invented it.  I puzzle over my trickster memory, willing the cave to come into being, but of course it doesn’t, except in imagination.  A crow, the trickster bird, squawks and lands on the rock beside me, as though laughing at my foolishness.  It has something that might be a crab in its beak, something spindly and long-fingered.  I watch as it pulls the creature apart and welcomes in its mate to partake in the feast.

The sand is virginal.  There is only the faint meandering imprint of a small bird’s passage.  The remnants of last night’s storm churns the sea into boisterous waves.  But that is out there.  Here on the beach, all is tranquil.  The sky is pale blue washed with wisps of buttermilk.  On mornings like this the dawn sky is insubstantial.  It holds a luminous translucence that makes my skin seem thinner than it is, as though I too am made of gossamer.  The clouded sun turns the breakers to liquid platinum.  I can see the lighthouse silhouetted at the end of the pier beyond the cliffs.  I came here for stone, but it is sky and sea that are the most precious gift this morning.

I walk to the other side of the bay, passing a few black headed gulls and an oystercatcher.  A young herring gull bleats for food as I pass.  Up a bank lined by valerian and the leaves of silver weed, past a rusting old bench.  My coastline stretches from the mouth of the river to the island where one county ends and the next begins.  In between is a chain of bays.   I head down to the next, down to the derelict open air swimming pool and onto the sand.  Here, I search for a memento of the light, a token to take with me into the dark season.  I spot it immediately, as the thought is taking shape, a pebble that is, in fact, neither light nor dark but blushed with both.  I take a strand of kelp and draw a circle in the sand by the tide line, and bisect it.  This represents the year, with both halves in equinoctial balance.  I step into the circle and cross the line, clutching my token, symbolically moving from light to dark.

This harvest I have a sense of completion. There is nothing that niggles, undone.  It hasn’t been an easy year and the strange weather seems to have reflected its challenge.  But I have two polished novels ready for submission, one of which was long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize; two agents asked to review my full manuscript while another said it was the strongest submission she’d seen for some time; three new stories written and a story short-listed for a short story prize.  There are things I would like to have achieved – such as one of those agents agreeing to represent me – but perhaps that is for another year.

The sun is at my back now as I walk.  That luminous sky behind me, as is the zenith of the year.  This bay is known as the ‘long sands’ and it is a mile long.  By the time I reach its end, my circle will probably have been washed away by the tide.  I walk at the water’s edge.  There isn’t much of a strand line here, just wisps of seaweed, a single maple leaf, a few pebbles, shells and feathers.  I follow it, such as it is, letting the tide seep over my feet when it chooses.  I’m always greedy for treasures from the strand line – one more pebble, one more shell – my house is full of jars and tubs of them.  I pocket a sliver of sea glass,  a chunk of sea-washed china, an intricate shell, a pebble honeycombed by piddock trails and a tiny white feather.

A group of four sanderlings scuttle in the tide in front of me.  I try to catch up with them, thinking that if I overtake they’ll see I’m no threat.  But they keep scuttling, back and forth, always the same distance away, until finally they take flight, sick of the game or never having noticed me in the first place.  A cormorant dives in the surf and I watch as three times it dives, three times it rises.  At the north end of the beach, curls of kelp litter the shore.  The tide has created an island out at sea, thronged by birds.

I came for caves and there is one bay where I know they aren’t imaginary.  I clamber down sandstone crags, feet sinking into slimy banks of bladderwrack until I reach smuggler’s cave.  A few pigeons take flight and a redshank sounds an alarm.  I walk under the arches, past limpid pools and clusters of pebbles and seaweed.  From above, these caves are sunny sandstone.  From beneath, they are grey, green and dark.  The caves are beyond the pier, cut off from the safety of the sands.  From under the arch, I see the same ship I’ve seen in my walk along the shore, the same sea, the same sky, but the view from inside the stone is a secretive one.  Here, there is no-one to know that I am a witness.  I am the watcher in the dark, looking out onto the light.

My harvest is completed and now I absorb inspiration, to take me into the creative dark.  I ground myself in the resonant stone.  Moving inwards, to the sheltered half-light of autumn.  I will take with me the brilliance of this, and other, watery dawns; the iridescence of a kingfisher’s wings; the stripes of a badger’s face.  The light is always there, running like a vein of crystal through the stone.

Back to the land

August is a long, languorous month.  It’s a month in which nothing much seems to happen; a month that usually lasts far too long as I wait impatiently for the delights of September.  But this August was ushered in by a relief of storms: extravagant downpours and gentling drizzles.  Grey skies and showers have tempered the heatwave at last.  Whereas often August seems stuck, this year, it is moving quickly.  I’m losing weeks, convinced there should be more before September is here.

The month ticks by in weekly trips down the motorway for Winston’s hydrotherapy.  I watch golden fields become stubble as the wheat is harvested.  I see fields scattered with cylinders of hay and bale towers.  Barns fill as the hay is gathered, until they bulge with gold.  Then the ploughing begins and the fields turn umber.  I see the season changing in the cycle of the crops and you would think that would bring me closer to the land, but instead, I feel a detachment from it.  It is all behind glass, without the smells, the air, the sensation of my feet on the earth.

How easy it is to become detached from the environment.  Our usual walks are out of bounds, too far for Winston to manage at the moment, so we make do with the small park at the end of the road.  But I fight against the restriction and that pulls me away from the earth.  It’s been more than two months since we last visited the dene.  I see it from the bus, watch a rabbit, two crows and a young  gull grazing on the grass.  I gaze into the landscape through glass and see blackberry jewels and the flame of rowan berries.  I watch baby gulls on the roof opposite my office fledge from balls of fluff to fat, hunched chicks.  Place is something I often come back to: the way we meet it, the way we settle into it, the way it welcomes us – or not.  I’m still here, still passing through the same landscape, yet I’m outside of it.

When I feel the first chill of autumn I know that it’s time to find that connection again.  I go to the sundial because it offers a panorama of my world.  The morning broods.  Deep grey sky in the north, charcoal clouds over the distant Penshaw monument.  Storm-light.  Up here the sky is big and the land small.  The sea is a stripe of watercolour along the horizon.  Pylons are tiny cages scarring the sky.  There are five ships at anchor in the distance and wind turbines turn slowly.  I see a cloud of rooks skimming stubbly corn fields in the east.  Watch the metro weave across the landscape like a toy train.  It is a world in miniature.  I distance myself from the land below to find my way back into it, to feel myself cradled by something timeless.

I listen to the faded cry of gulls, the croak of a crow, the twitter and chitter of goldfinches and tits.  I watch two magpies scale a pine and follow the looping flight of a single goldfinch.  Dried nests of wild carrot are abundant among mahogany heads of desiccated knapweed.  Vetches salt the grass with yellow and meadow cranesbill offers a splash of lilac.  Up here the sky glowers and my skin breaks out in goosepimples.  But there is a moment when the sun, obscured by cloud, transforms a patch of sea into molten gold.  It is just visible between the pylons, this precious echo.   I watch until it fades to silver and I decide it’s time to go.  But the walk has done its trick, I feel calm, connected again to this place in which I belong.

The next morning I follow the pool of gold to the sea.  A flight of swallows surprises me as I reach the edge of the cliffs.  They swoop upwards, curling towards the terrace of houses behind me, then back towards the beach.  I wonder if this group has been gathered here all summer or if they are preparing to leave.  A small murmuration of starlings seeps across the rooftops before splitting up and vanishing.

The colours are intense in the early light.  The sand is flat and rippled, punctured by the casts of lugworms.  The sea is hushed.  The pool of gold is a river from horizon to land.  A curlew and a redshank forage on the rocks, oystercatchers saunter on the shore.  A roost of pigeons has commandeered one of the caves on the beach.  They flutter from its mouth as I approach.  A lone bird remains in a crevice above the entrance, watching me.  I retreat slowly and leave her in peace.

I sit on the rocks beside the pier, watching and letting the landscape soak back into my bones.  This is me: earth and sea and sky.  This is my land and my place.  The trick is to walk in it, to engage with it, otherwise it is just background.  When I feel the sand shift beneath my feet or hear the pipe of a redshank echo across the rocks I know that I’ve returned.

 

The Eve of Magic

Cars choke the roads in metal ribbons, people rushing, doing last minute shopping and preparations.  In our house, we joke about Christmas being ‘the end of the world’.  The shops are only closed for a day, but it may as well be Armageddon, as the shelves are stripped bare in a strange kind of frenzy.  I allow myself a smile of relief, as Winston and I meander past the shoppers, trapped in their vehicles and some semblance of what they feel Christmas should be.  We turn off the road, away from it all into the Dene.  The Dene is empty when we arrive, and we see only two other people in the time we’re there.  It strikes me as sad that the roads are full, while the green space – the breathing space – is empty.

I find Christmas Eve the most magical day of the holidays.  It is a day steeped in possibilities.  A night filled with expectation.  Magical stories of shepherds following angels, kings journeying from far off lands, a family-to-be seeking shelter in the darkness.  Listening into the night for the tinkle of bells, bells that I am almost sure I can hear, as Father Christmas journeys high above the rooftops.  The leaving out of carrots for the reindeer, a little something for Santa, listening again for his elusive arrival down the chimney.

My beliefs have changed since I was brought up on those stories, but Christmas is very much an eclectic festival for me.  The birth of sun and earth at the solstice is woven inextricably with the story of the nativity, the story of Santa, the magic of song and story, memory and tradition.  And Christmas Eve is not a time for rushing, it is a time for revelling in the waiting and the magic.  So before the evening comes and I gather with my little family in a darkness warmed by fairy lights, I return to the earth, to imbibe the silence of nature.

There will be no white Christmas this year.  Instead, autumn seems to have returned for a last fling.  Warm golden light and the hint of pink in the clouds.  A rising wind that doesn’t howl, but hums tunefully.  The pond was a sheet of ice only a week ago, scores of ducks skating towards me looking for food.  Now it is liquid light.  The black headed gulls that usually rest on the jetty are elsewhere.  Moorhens graze on the grass, mallards repose on the banks of the pond.  I hear the chirrup of tits in the trees, the occasional bugle of a moorhen.  The rushes are always beautiful at this time of year, tall golden stalks with seedheads of siena and fluff.  They bow in unison in the gentling wind.  A rustle of leaves whirls slowly on the grass, echoing autumn’s jig.  The burn trickles, rippling, with slices of ochre where the sun catches it.

There is usually a hush, a kind of stillness in the dene.  Not far away, those same cars stream over the bridge, but you don’t notice them here.  It nestles in a bowl of tranquillity.  There is often a sense that something unexpected might happen.  And this is the kind of feeling I get from Christmas Eve.  I know what I have planned.  I know, roughly, what tomorrow will bring.  But still, there are mysteries waiting in the darkness.  Out there, in the land of magic, the land that we only catch glimpses of.   Somewhere there is a magical land of elves and a man in a crimson coat.  Somewhere there is a desert land in which a star guides kings.  Somewhere, there is an underworld where a goddess lies resting after birthing the sun.  You might say that none of these things exist, that they are myth, imagination, stories we tell to make ourselves feel better in the bleak midwinter.  But to me, the truth of it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that, for one night, I can believe in every one of them and glimpse just a shimmer of their magic.

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.

 

The slow work of the soul

August is a month of waiting.   Not the desperate waiting of winter, when you can no longer stand the darkness, but the sweet longing for something anticipated to come.  I look at the calendar and am always surprised that the month isn’t yet over.  There are days in August that seem poised on the edge of time.  Perfect days, like this one, when the sun is hazy and still low in the sky, giving a blurred luminosity to the light.  A day when the earth seems to be holding its breath.  When I feel myself expand out into the silence and every step is like a sigh.

The dene belongs to the birds: gulls, magpies and wood pigeons.  Mallards are motionless on the pond and a blackbird takes a leisurely bath.  A rat dodges two moorhens to reach the undergrowth and a grey wagtail bobs on a rock.  At the marina, the river reflects the hazy light so the world doesn’t feel quite solid.  Swallows chitter and swoop above my head while arctic terns scream.  I watch a gull pluck a crab from the water and devour it as a youngster looks on, crying for its share of the feast.

These are the dog days of summer.  When the hedgerows are lit by the purple and yellow beacons of wild parsnips, melilot, willowherbs and thistles and it seems that autumn may never come.  It is the month when the birds turn silent while they moult, adding to its sense of stillness.  I remind myself to listen for the exact day that their songs cease, but of course it is only afterwards that I notice I haven’t heard the chatter of the sparrows and the goldfinches for days.

Autumn is breathing on the neck of summer.  Already the festival of the first harvest has taken place and the spirit of the sun is captured safely within the corn.  The goldfinches have re-appeared and starlings gather on the chimney pots.  But August lingers and I yearn for autumn’s respite.

Lately I have been feeling the speed of the world.  I’m young enough to have used computers for two thirds of my life; old enough to remember when shops closed on Sundays, when letters were written by hand to far-flung penfriends, when, if you needed information, you had no choice but to visit a library.  Lately, the world often seems ‘too much’ and I long to return to what I remember as a slower time.

British artist Chris Ofili recently unveiled a tapestry The Caged Bird’s Song at the National Gallery.  I watch a documentary about its construction.  Four weavers laboured by hand for nearly three years to create it, unable to see whether they had captured the final image accurately until they had finished and the tapestry was unrolled.  The artist commented that he thought there was something about the slowness of the work that meant the soul of the weavers was woven into it.  I marvelled at their monumental patience and faith.  No wonder that over that period of time, so immersed in colour, line and thread, the soul would seep in.

I lack the kind of patience displayed by those weavers.    And yet, my writing has always taken its time.  Sometimes a story arrives fully formed, but more often it needs to gestate.  The words need to be chosen carefully and woven in the same way as a tapestry, with infinite patience and without knowing what it will look like at the end.  If you live with a story for a long time, your life is woven through it.  The story is who you are now and who you were then.   Some stories are those of an instant, completely of their time.  Others have lingered and breathed with you, absorbing experience and memory and more than a little of your soul along the way.  Creativity may be sparked in a moment, but to birth it is the slow work of the soul.