Line and colour

I watched the cherry blossom bloom and fall.  Then came the May blossom, until it too faded.  Dandelion petals shrivelled and became clocks.  The grass, uncut, flowered into lilac ripples.  Clumps of cow parsley unfurled and frothed.  It has rained only once in weeks of hot, dry days.  Plants yellow and crisp.  Leaves are seared from the trees.  Nature shows that time is passing, but there is little else to mark the passage of the season.  A sprained knee has kept me close to home and each day feels much the same.  Days blend into weeks.  The solstice is only a month away.  I’ve found I haven’t much to say.

I have moved from words to vision.  From letter to line.  I painted the songbirds that were my jewels of hope among the thorns of winter.  I drew life models along with thousands of other people through the BBC and had my sketch of a woman with a cello mentioned on the programme!  I imagined a version of ‘home’ in response to a theme on Grayson Perry’s Art Club.  I painted a portrait of Rankin with scores of others through Sky TV.  Now, I am painting illustrations for poems.  I have had nothing to say in words, but my creativity has flowed out in pencil and paint.

When I draw I try not to pursue perfection.  Too often when I want something to be good, it strips away the enjoyment, or stops me from doing it at all.  But there has been no higher purpose to my painting.  There has been just me, sat at the table with a drawing board, overlooking the yard, following lines and colours.   It doesn’t matter if they’re good pictures.  They weren’t made to hang on a wall.  Nor do they have any great meaning.  They are just shapes on paper or canvas that record, if anything, a slice of contentment in my day.

There is a movement towards recovery.  Lockdown is shifting.  We are allowed to go outside all we wish now.  There are dates for the re-opening of schools, shops and, eventually, libraries.  There are more cars on the road.  The grass has been mown in the park.  But mostly, movement is elsewhere.  It is not here, at my dining table, where I work and I paint.  It isn’t out there, where the washing sways in the sun and the plants could do with some water.  The children’s playground is still padlocked and tangled with weeds.  There are still queues to get in the supermarkets.  I’m not ready yet to leave this bubble.  I’ll stay here for as long as I can, in this place where creativity can flourish at its own pace.  

Lockdown

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This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Toni Morrison

The gabion baskets burst with wildflowers.  I don’t know if seeds were dropped into the baskets deliberately, or if they have taken the opportunity to root in the cracks.  As yet, they are mostly green.  But there are highlights of yellow,  pink and a touch of red.  So many varieties of flower, some in quantity, some no more than a sprig: coltsfoot, sow thistle and nipplewort, valerian, hairy violet and scarlet pimpernel; ribwort plantain, ragwort and bladder campion.  A handful of poppies has bloomed and soon the wall will be crimson with them.  I see my first ladybird of the year crawling along the wire.  My first butterfly, a red admiral, flutters onto a dandelion.

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It’s taken time to be comfortable at home again, without feeling the rooms were too small and that I had to escape.  When lockdown was just a whisper, I worried whether my panic attacks would allow me to cope with confinement.  Fortunately, they were more under control by the time lockdown became a reality.  I work from home now.  The days are often frantic.  I’m classed as a key worker, helping to provide access to critical services through our libraries.  Things change quickly, requiring a response.  I’m on my phone so often it burns my ear.

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Doggy lockdown is exhausting

But lockdown is also an opportunity.  An extra hour in bed, being at home for Winston, pottering around the house as a break.  Usually when I’m out at work, lunches are taken up with walking home and back to check on Winston.  Now I have the luxury of a half hour walk.  Each day I walk to the river, past the new houses on the bank shored up by the gabion baskets, past the former dry docks and on to the ferry landing.  There’s a steep hill to climb on the way back, so it’s a decent effort for a short walk.  I hear my first kittiwakes of the season.  Most nest further upriver on the Tyne Bridge, but for as long as I can remember there have been kittiwakes nesting on the two tall buildings at Ferry Mews.

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Rainbows painted by children appear in windows.  Every lunch time the clip clop of hooves announces the passing of a horse and gig taking advantage of quiet roads.  In lockdown, every day is Sunday.  Almost – though not quite – the Sundays of childhood, when shops were closed and the day was filled with family duty gatherings and school the next day.  I hated Sundays as a child, but I welcome the enforced Sundays of lockdown.   My days aren’t so different to those before.  Normal had already changed.  As yet, I don’t know anyone who has the virus.  It still seems far away.

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Winter returns for a few bitterly cold days, as it usually does in spring, but then it is gone once more.  In the park, the crows have begun re-building an old nest in a sycamore alongside the railway line.  He brings her twigs as she caws and settles into the nest.  They have become more territorial, chasing away gulls and wood pigeons, but they still swoop down for peanuts.  The celandine and the daisies are flowering.

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Once, I would have debated whether my writing had value in such times as these.  I would have worried that others had more important things to say, that my soft words were irrelevant.  But it’s in these times that we’re compelled to make sense of what is happening to us.  If you’re a writer,  you write.  If I don’t write now, in these strange times, then why write at all?  It doesn’t matter what I write about, it matters that I put one word in front of another.

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.

Potential

I am on a path so overgrown with trees that it is pooled with darkness.  On this equinox, I plan to walk from darkness into light.  For many reasons it has been a challenging winter.  I’m finding it impossible to slough off a melancholy mood.  The move towards spring has been a sluggish one. I find myself wearied by routine, by effort, by restless sleep.  The winds have blown but they haven’t blown my mood away.  I need a symbolic change.  I start my walk on the twilit path with hope ahead of me.  There is a robin singing.  It is always beyond me, distant and mournful, leading me on.

I emerge onto the wide waggonway.  My eyes squint as they take in light.  Not only the light of day, but also the froth of blossom.  Delicate spindly stems and a cornucopia of clotted branches.  It is blackthorn time once more, dark stalks with fierce thorns surging into bloom to herald the true beginning of spring.  Its companion, hawthorn, will not blossom yet for weeks, but the hawthorn is the first tree to burst its pearly green buds into leaf.  They soften the landscape, these sister trees, letting us know that soon the bones of the earth will be clothed.

Spring is a time of hope, yet it is also a time of sorrow.  There is a dark undercurrent to this season of potential.  Only a tiny proportion of seeds ever grow into the plants they were meant to be.  Only a small proportion of birds live beyond their first year.  Many of those seeds will remain in the darkness of the soil, perhaps to bloom years from now, perhaps never to bloom at all.  Many birds will never hatch; many will never have the chance to fulfil their potential and fly.  The conditions must be just right for life to take hold, and for some, those conditions will never be right.  This is the sorrow of spring: all the lives that will not be lived.

The landscape is slowly beginning to yellow with dandelions and coltsfoot.  I saw my first bee last week, a buff-tailed bumblebee on lemon mahonia flowers.  A cloud of pollen beetles swarm my mustard poncho, attracted to the colour because they think it offers nectar.  The goat willows droop with yellow-green catkins like hairy caterpillars.

Someone has hung suet balls from the trees and a flutter of tits crowds them, while a dunnock sweeps up the crumbs beneath.  Ducks fly overhead, already coupled.  The ponds are empty; the water birds have retreated to the undergrowth.  There is a small meadow of butterbur flowers, like miniature purple fir trees.  Later in the year this space will be choked with their monstrous leaves and giant stalks of hogweed.

Spring is chaos.  Spring is joy.  Spring is messy and exuberant, dangerous and thrilling.  To us it is bird song and blossom, light and warmth; to our neighbours it is life and death.

I’m considering giving up on a story.  It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time, after a chance encounter with the elderly man who would be its protagonist.  I rarely give up on a story once I begin.  If I take up an idea and begin to tell the tale, it usually comes to a conclusion, satisfactory or not.  My seeds are ideas and vignettes written in notebooks.  They too wait for the right time and conditions to bloom.  But it seems the time for this story has passed.  It has begun, but I can’t find a way for it to end.  I wonder how many seeds of stories are out there, stories that will never be told for want of the right conditions.  Maybe they will wither and never be born.  Maybe sometime and somewhere they will find their way to creation.

In nature nothing is wasted.  Seeds can live, ungerminated, for hundreds of years, until the time is right.  Those lives lost in the wreckage of eggshells and fledging will help other creatures to reach their potential.  There are two ponies grazing in the country park.  Exmoor ponies that visit to clear the tough vegetation so that the conditions are right for wild flowers to grow.  The ponies clear the way for those flowers to reach their potential, so that they, in turn, can help scores of tiny creatures to reach theirs.

A few days after the equinox, I see my first butterfly, a gaudy peacock fluttering along a path in the dene.  Marsh marigolds light up the burn with luscious yellow and scores of daffodils brighten the grass.  A pair of long-tailed tits flit back and forth across the cascades, digging for insects in the rim of a grimy streetlamp.  Cherry blossom adds its opulent blooms to the blackthorn.  These are the lucky ones, that have become what they were meant to be.  I am still melancholy, but I feel the call to action nevertheless.  This season of potential in nature coincides with a profusion of submission opportunities, so my stories are dispersing once more, perhaps to fulfil their potential, if only the conditions are right.   Where one life ends, another will always blossom.  Where one tale halts, unwritten, there will be another, ready to take its place.

 

The breath of the earth

It is the month of winds; the month that begins with a roar.  The air keens with a single, high-pitched note.  I don’t know what it is, except that it is a note borne of the wind’s passage through structures of glass and steel.  A road sign rattles on its pole.  Streetlights wobble and chink.  One of last year’s leaves crackles across the path.  Hawthorn twigs hiss and trees creak.  The bass note is the boom and roar of the gale.

I am a child of the March winds, blown into the world with the rush of wind in my ears.  Perhaps this is why the wind-song comforts and exhilarates me.  Perhaps this is why the rush of the March winds feel like being born once more.

Wind is perhaps the most mysterious of weather.  It has no substance, yet it can raze towns and sculpt the hardest of landscapes.  It has the power to be a balm on a hot day and a misery on a cold one.  It appears from nowhere and drops just as quickly.  Some say that it is possible to capture the wind in a knot of yarn, or to conjure it with a whistle.  But such tricks require magical skills, because wind isn’t a thing that an ordinary person can hold.

I see the wind only by its actions and by what it gathers up.  Tall birches that jerk and sway.  Scots pine gently undulating.  A service tree waggles slender fingers tipped with grey-green buds.  Red-leaved shrubs move like a whip of flame.  Daffodils bob crazily and grass becomes flickering ripples of silver.  Catkins slant as one, like tiny wind socks.  Great hunks of clouds are moving.  A dozen wood pigeons sway in the highest branches of a sycamore.

How can the movement of air be so powerful?  When it is behind me, it urges me forwards.  Before me and I must fight to move.  It roars past my years and whips my hair.  But when I stand in the wind, when I let myself be still, the air gentles.  I see it still whipping up the trees.  I can hear its boom.  But if I offer no resistance, it befriends me.  I feel it like the breath of the earth, urging me on, blowing me out of my winter torpor towards the light of life and spring.


Blogger Book of the Month: Encourage a child to watch birds by Denzil Walton

Encourage A Child To Watch BirdsThis little gem of a book is designed to help adults encourage children to get away from their computer screens and outside to watch birds. The book gives some good, basic facts about the birds you and your child might see and provides questions you can ask to encourage the child to watch the birds and talk about what they’ve seen. I know a bit about birds and still learned new facts, but this book makes it easy to start even if you know nothing at all about birds. The activities and discussion points are open enough that they’re suitable to use with a child of any age and you don’t need to live in the countryside to use this book – it focuses on parks and gardens, even apartment buildings. It begins with the easiest of activities – watching ducks on a pond – and progresses to things like how to use binoculars and dissecting owl pellets! The book is well-written, easy to understand and there is a sense of great enthusiasm for the subject throughout the pages. Thoroughly recommended to share with a child.  You can find Denzil here and his book is available on Amazon.

Whispering

There is a whisper in the air on Candlemas eve.  It isn’t the whisper of spring, but of snow, swirling under the streetlights like communion wafers.  Light brims night’s darkness, softening brick and tarmac, swaddling pavements.  The infrequent crackle of tyres over crusty snow is the only sound.  There is nothing quite like watching the drowsy fall of snow at night, it makes me think of infinity.

Candlemas day is dusky blue.  We roll down the motorway to Winston’s hydrotherapy session, hissing over roads lined by snow-laden trees.  The landscape is a dance of white and blue: the bleached land widens the sky, while the sky washes the land pale blue.  The morning is as delicately rendered as Chinese porcelain.  In the evening, the clouds are peach puffs and snow-coated roofs blush pink.

But the whisper of spring is there, buried beneath the murmur of snow.  It is there in crocuses poking their yellow heads through the soil and in quivering clusters of snowdrops. Winter has been mild, and flowers have bloomed when no flowers should have done, but the crocus and the snowdrop are flowers in their time, heralds of the soft beginning to spring. This is still a time of repose and reflection before the energising surge of the wild March winds.  But some blooms have already heard the sigh of spring.

It isn’t yet time for spring cleaning.  Candlemas is a quiet welcome to the first fragile signs of the season.  But we are getting a new kitchen, so it is time to declutter after all.  We spend days clearing and boxing things up.  Throwing out food long past its sell by date, never-used gadgets, all the detritus that has accumulated over fifteen years of living in our house.  It is a relief to be free of things that you’ve forgotten.  They still whisper from those dusty corners, wanting to be used or put out of their misery.

A few days after Candlemas, I walk with Winston in the dene.  A congregation of songbirds greets us: two blue tits, a long-tailed tit, a chaffinch and a bullfinch flitter among an arc of bare branches.  The sun is glorious, but ice ripples the paths.  Chunks of snow crowd the stilled burn.  The pond is frozen milky grey.  The ducks and the gulls have abandoned it, leaving a couple of moorhens to strut over the ice.

The reeds are strands of gold with feathered ivory heads.  I watch their shadows sway and bounce on the path as Winston pauses to eat goose grass.  The daffodil shoots aren’t yet ready to bloom, but violets bathe in the sun.  Two purple crocuses have emerged, petals still tucked in around them like blankets.  The whisper of the snow has abated, to make way for the whisper of spring.  I can hear it like a sigh in the wind, growing stronger, until it becomes a roar.


Blogger book of the month: The Storyteller Speaks by Annika Perry

TSS_Kindl_300dpiI felt as though I immediately ‘clicked’ with Annika when I started reading her blog.  She shares warm, eclectic posts on writing, reading and life.  Her first book, The Storyteller Speaks is a wonderful collection of short stories, flash fiction and poems that depict a wide range of events, characters and viewpoints. At the centre of each is human relationships and the effect that a single event can often have on the course of a life. A full gamut of emotions is here, including love, grief, anger and redemption. The stories are moving, uplifting, sometimes dark, sometimes amusing. My favourites include: The Whiteout Years which is a heart-breaking and touching depiction of grief and hope; and Loss of a Patriarch, a moving story about saying goodbye to Annika’s grandfather. I also enjoyed the influences of the author’s Swedish heritage. This is a collection to savour and a book that fulfils its promise to win your heart.  You can find Annika here and her book is available on Amazon.