Basking

Late May has brought banks of ox-eye daisies and campion to the motorway verges. It has brought sheep and the yellow of rape to the fields next to the veterinary hospital where we go for Winston’s hydrotherapy. A pheasant, statue-still on the banks. Paddocks of horses and foals.

It has brought a fret from the sea that hangs over the river and rolls through town. All weekend, ships sound their horns, the moans echoing in their wake. The park is unmown, freckled with daisies and dandelion clocks. Cleavers climb the fences with sticky fingers. Clumps of grasses and buttercups have been allowed to flower. Tiny cranesbills carpet the foot of the poplar. The woodpecker drums softly – it sounds like the trees are purring. Everything is in that fresh, abundant state of growth, before the straggly mess of late summer.

Before we get there I imagine how the cemetery will be in the soft sunshine of a bank holiday Monday. I imagine the shafts of light between the trees, the dance of flies and the tangle of wildflowers. Others head for the coast. We avoid the crowds for a sanctuary of green and dappled light.

We’re greeted by blackbird song, high up in the trees. An undertone of wood pigeon and the chirrup of magpies. The mournful vibrato of a robin. A crow approaches, feathers accented with white and very tame. He is joined by others. I’ve seen people leave seed here, along the path by the chapel and these crows are obviously used to people leaving them food. They follow us some way along the path.

The cow parsley is almost as tall as us. Drifts of bluebells mingle with pockets of buttercup and campion. We walk overgrown paths bathed in green and patches of grass laid to meadow. The sun plays over the grave markers, casting some in shadow and highlighting others with pools of light. We bask in the tranquillity of dappled sun and untrodden paths.

When you think nobody will ever like a story of yours again; when you think you’ll get nothing but rejections, it’s then that a little good news comes. You begin to doubt the worth of your words, as you tout them from place to place, imagining them a little more jaded, a little more dishevelled as they are studied and turned away. But then suddenly, someone likes what you’ve done, and then it seems altogether better than you remembered. Often, rejection comes in threes, but this week it was successes. A story that made the longlist for inclusion in a prestigious literary journal. A story to be published in another journal. And a story longlisted, then shortlisted, then winner of the runner’s up prize in a competition.

I wrote The Carousel at my local writers’ circle, following a prompt where we were given a number of ‘things’ to write about. It came almost fully formed, a short story of 500 words. I’m pleased to announce it has won ‘runner up’ in the Retreat West quarterly themed flash fiction competition. One of the prizes was to have it professionally recorded by a sound artist. If you have 5 minutes, click on the link to listen to (or read) the story, but be prepared, it’s a creepy one….CLICK HERE TO READ THE CAROUSEL

Growing

Flowers are like ideas; they bloom when we aren’t watching. All of a sudden, they are there, where they weren’t before, sometimes just a fragile shoot, sometimes a flower fully unfurled. I wonder if it would be possible to witness a flower’s birth. If I had the time and the patience to gaze at a patch of ground, would I see the moment the shoot broke the soil? Perhaps this is one of nature’s private things, slow and hidden to allow the magic to get in. Like the idea that has germinated slowly in the soil of the imagination, but is suddenly there when you need it.

Quite suddenly, the rafts of vivid dandelions have become clocks. The road to the dene has sprouted clouds of cow parsley, peppered with dandelions and a little Herb Robert. The hawthorn unfolds bashfully, most blooms no more than ivory beads, but some boughs offering thick white blossom in contrast to the parsley’s lace. Pinpricks of purple from green alkanet brighten the gloom of the undergrowth, while stinging nettle and white dead nettle line the border between path and hedgerow.

In the upper dene blossom season is in full flow: rowans, service trees and cherries illuminate the banks of the burn. A few patches of bluebells sprout at the base of a sycamore. The stream trickles gently in places but is dry in others. Patches of meadow have been left to grow when the grass has been cut; abstract collections of dandelion, groundsel, ribwort plantain and wild grasses. An old tree stump, with gnarled silver bark rests on the edge of a circular patch of meadow, like a seat waiting for a storyteller. It has become one of those enchanted places in the landscape where anything might happen. From that perch perhaps I could witness the meadow grow.

The burn is crowded with bullrush spears and marsh marigolds. The small pond is green with weed and bulrush. As we cross the bridge to the main pond, past its goat willow guardian, we walk through a drift of down. The water birds are all in hiding. A small flock of feral pigeons pecks around the shore. A wood pigeon forages in a patch of dandelion clocks. Sparrows flutter and chatter between bushes and reeds. There is an orchestra of birdsong. I recognise the blackbirds, the robins, the chiff chaff and tits, but the rest is lost in a sweet cacophony. We sit by the pond for a while, shaded by the weeping willows, listening, watching the sparrows dance. I wonder how many ideas have been planted at the edge of this pond, ideas that will stay hidden until their time is ripe.

When my world is small and I stay close to home, ideas come slowly. Without input, they fail to germinate. Without those many small interactions with the world, the spark doesn’t catch. Movement releases them. Not only these walks in nature, but the casual stroll across the park to work, the view out onto gull-crowded roofs, the bus ride past fields and hedgerows, the dawn walk along the shore. We aren’t at normal yet. Restrictions are lifting, but the cases in our town are rising again. I have had both vaccinations, but I am cautious. My world is still smaller, but it is slowly expanding.

We leave the dene through an arch of blossoming cherries. The trees are noisy with the hiss of starlings. The birds hop from branch to branch, some preening wet feathers of blue, green and purple. For a while their chatter fills the air, until we turn for home and their noise fades. We pass a lone blackbird, perched at the top of a fence. The starlings’ song speaks of careless exuberance, whereas the blackbird seems to be singing for his life. With spring comes movement, both sprightly and serious. Already, the sparks begin to catch. I can’t see it, but the magic is happening, my mind is sprouting ideas.

Rising

It is 5am on May Day morning and we leave the house to a blackbird chorus. First light has lightened the landscape but the sun hasn’t yet risen. We drive through empty streets, stopping at traffic lights for non-existent cars. Gulls and pigeons flock on the roads, slow to move as we approach. This is their time and we are invaders in it.

The sky is a blank canvas, tinged pale blue and yellow. A three-quarter moon wanes in the west. The clouds huddle on the horizon in peculiar shapes, like deformed giants coloured in angry blue and pink. Over by the priory, a massive mushroom cloud hints at distant rain. Opposite that, above cliffs and wind turbines, a blurred hulk that looks like a brush swirled in water. And in the centre, a wide bow contains the sun.

I’ve avoided the coast as others flocked towards it, but now I surrender. On this magical day, I come pursuing the watery dream of peace I had on the eve of the equinox. The first thing is the roar of the sea. It is the bass note for the haunted cries of gulls and the bicker of starlings. It is a writhing mass of metallic blue, with molten waves surging to the shore. The lighthouses flash and waves break over the piers. It will be high tide in an hour or so and the sea is in motion.

Soon, a vivid smudge of orange appears beneath the cloud-mountain. It brightens, becomes bigger, seeps outwards until the horizon is an orange stripe. The sky around it becomes pinker, lilac. We walk down the ramp to the beach, crossing the sand towards the sea. There are a few other people here to witness the sunrise. We wait, watching as the sun makes its way imperceptibly up through the clouds. Shortly, the tops of the clouds are gilded, until finally the sun breaks free, a molten mass of gold, spilling slanted rays and creating a golden path from sea to shore. Watching the sunrise teaches patience. The sun doesn’t hurry; it does what it is supposed to do and takes its time doing it.

May Day is traditionally a time to celebrate fertility. The land flourishes with the signs of new life and we celebrate sensuality, passion and creativity. Lately, I’ve been filling my head with women: strong women, talented women, creative women. Writers. Artists. Singers. Activists. Women whose lives as well as their art have inspired me. If I peer hard, I can see them, dancing around the Beltane fire, some long gone, some still very much with us. I thank them for the richness of their language, the strength of their dreams, their many examples of creativity. I thank them for what they leave behind – not only their creations, but their company.

It wouldn’t be May Day without blossom and though the hawthorn is yet to show, our path is festooned with trees in full bloom. We are followed from the sea by golden light. Frost on the grass sparkles in its illumination. We stood at the edge of the shore and watched this sun be born. Now the day is ours and who knows what we might create?

Rolling

It has been more than a year since I climbed to the sundial. I would often walk here near dawn, when I had to visit work’s HQ, just across the road, but I haven’t been here since before the first lockdown. We come at midday on a Sunday, the sun unrelenting. The song of a robin accompanies us as we step into the reserve. We pass the butterburr patch, where the flowers are blooming, purple heads tilting towards the sun. Hazel and hawthorn branches clickle and clackle in the wind as we walk a path between them. Then through an embrace of bushy scots pines, until we reach the water.

The ponds are opaque and mucky green. Drowned alders droop towards water that looks thick and lifeless. The water birds are in hiding. We turn to the hill path. Cowslips scatter the grassland and a few primroses have yet to open. Predominant are gorse and blackthorn. The lemon of the gorse and the white of the blackthorn vivid in the landscape. At times they are threshold trees, pointing the way to a meandering path.

A wild wind whips around the top of the sundial. They say we’ll have snow tomorrow, but that seems difficult to believe. The horizon is clear. I see a ship passing behind the distant lighthouse, watch the turbines turning out at sea. It is just past noon and the sundial’s shadow is unequivocal. It’s looking a little neglected: graffiti on the gnomon, broken glass on the ground. A couple exercise by running up and down the steps. Two women and a spaniel join us at the peak. We see a couple of bees. A pair of great tits. A magpie.

In the lonely hours of the night, winter steals back in. Snow flirts in the shadows leaving just a sheen of ice on the morning grass. For the next week it comes and goes, small whirling flakes that appear without warning, while the sun also shines. I watch from the window as I work. One night it stays, gracing the rooftops and the ground with a light covering. The sun shines and it looks like spring, but the cold is bitter.

Time has been on my mind. In these last two years it has stretched and bent, lingered and vanished. Memories pile up, often making me cringe and shrink. But I remember things too, things I liked, things that influenced me – things of another age. Watching Prince Philip’s funeral, I find myself thinking about endings. I wonder if everyone gets to an age where each death, each pause, seems to signal the end of an era we think of as ours. If life is a general knowledge quiz, then I’m getting to the point where I no longer know the answers.

Still, spring rolls on. The hedges are fresh with hawthorn leaves and blackthorn blossom. The cherry blossom buds are about to unfurl. The grass has had its first cut. There are some bluebells in the park and the dandelions are blindingly bright. And I move on too. My wintry paintings move towards summer colour. I send out stories, Some are rejected. I send them out again. I don’t know all the answers, but I know how to keep moving.

Firsts

Spring is a season of firsts. The first crocuses. The first snowdrops. The first daffodils. A piece of tangled waste ground offers the season’s first coltsfoot flowers, lemon discs among frazzled grass. I see my first bee on the edge of the park, frantically seeking nectar, a day after the spring equinox. The hawthorn leaves are unfurling. Daisies and dandelions scatter the grass and crocuses have given way to lesser celandine. There are other firsts throughout the year – the first snow, the first leaves turning – but no season offers as many firsts as spring.

On the eve of the equinox I have my first Covid vaccination. My wife and I visit the local sports centre and have our jabs together. It is quick, friendly and efficient. We walk home light-footed, stickers on our jackets proclaiming we’ve been vaccinated. That night I dream vividly. I am standing at the edge of a canal in a perfect, purple dawn. The landscape is luminous, as it often is beside water at sunrise. Water and land seem to seep into each other so I can’t be sure which I am walking on. I am filled with peace. Later, some tiny birds have been caught in a spiders’ web and I have to gently brush strands of spider silk away from their feathers to set them free – I wake not knowing if I succeeded.

The cemetery is shades of green and yellow. The crocuses are all but gone now, but the daffodils are in full bloom: clumps and trails and sunbursts in and around the graves. I see my first primroses: less abundant and less showy than the daffodils, they form delicate clusters close to the ground. I find a handful of wood anemones and a single spray of snake’s head fritillary. A few early bluebells stipple the ground and pink blossom droops from a group of gracefully spreading trees.

There is a soundscape of birdsong. The great tit is the star of the bird choir, in volume if not tunefulness, with others as a quieter accompaniment. Magpies chirrup high up in the trees. I see a crow in the long grass, a pair of collared doves silent in a tree above, a trio of woodpigeons resting on a grave. Most of the birds are busy in the canopy, staking claim to territory and perhaps building the first nests of the season.

Spring’s firsts never lose their charms. I have seen fifty springs but I still thrill at the first flowers shooting through the soil, the sound of a renewed dawn chorus and signs of new life. Every spring is the same and every spring is different. We can rely on the return of those same firsts, but we will never experience them in quite the same way. The lengthening days give us hope and energy, but I think it is also the profusion of firsts that stir our vitality at this time of year.

The first of our lockdown restrictions are lifted today. We are following a timetable that suggests we will be back to some kind of normality by the summer solstice. Nothing feels much different at the moment. I find it impossible to believe that in a few short months this will be over. I imagine us like children emerging from the pandemic, eyes squinting in the sunlight. I hope we approach it with childlike wonder, rather than teenage rebellion. Those first hugs. Those first outings. Those first holidays. They will be the foundation of a what might be a better future. I hope we savour them.

Trembling

Nature trembles on the edge of spring. The sun reaches for the earth with renewed strength and the wind whips through the land with a renewed spirit. In places, spring breaks through. The lilac crocus shoots in the park that survived the snow have become delicate starbursts with hot orange centres. A single snowdrop and a single daffodil plant are pioneers from elsewhere, not normally seen here. Delicate nettle leaves and the shoots of bluebells have appeared. Five new trees have been planted. Everything is small, tender and pretty. Only the strident call of the great tit and the drumming of the woodpecker have any urgency. It is a gentle start to spring that belies the activity beneath the surface. We are about to experience the most excitable season of the year.

When I am about to create something, there is a flutter in my chest. Excitement at the idea that is just there, waiting to be born. This is the liminal moment – the moment before creation begins, when I tremble at the edge of possibility. There is excitement that it will work out exactly as I envision it, flavoured by a hint of fear that it won’t. I wonder if this is how nature feels on the brink of spring, knowing that her most creative time is about to begin. A twitch in the roots of the trees, a throbbing in the soil, a note in the song of the birds: the world, trembling with anticipation at what is to come.

Tiny cleavers and a single white deadnettle with pendulous flowers fringe the path to the dene. Hollies dominate the still-naked trees, gleaming in the sunlight. In the dene, spring waits. The burn is a trickle. Alder catkins sway at its edges. Silver birches dazzle. It feels like spring should be further along than it is. I walk down the avenue of linden trees and glance up. A kestrel hovers. I watch it through the branches until it gives up and flies off. A single clump of snowdrops lies on the edge of a pathway of purple crocuses. Dozens of shoots are waiting to bloom into daffodils, and a few already have. A great tit flies across my path. A small bird that might be a young greenfinch follows it. The two-note call of the great tit strikes the air. On the pond, the ducks are snoozing, hidden among the reeds. Two moorhens preen on a shared rock.

The river trembles on the point of a turning tide. A light mist hangs over the landscape. Out on the flats, fishermen dig for worms and crabs. Gulls cluster on the rocks and forage at the edge of the tide. Great hulks of driftwood are like giants’ bodies lounging on the sand. Someone has left flowers beside a driftwood memorial. Slightly upriver, an enormous cruise ship looms over the marina. It would usually be sailing the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, but it is waiting for the moment it can cruise again. In the meantime, 3,000 passenger cabins stand empty. One of the crew jogs back and forth along a deck below the many balconies.

It is my fiftieth birthday. I tremble on the edge of another decade. There’s a kind of excitement at reaching this age and wondering what the future might bring. I know that I have most likely lived longer than the years I have left but I don’t regret that. My concern is only how best to use it. Memories flash through my head unbidden, often from the earliest of years, and remind me that I wouldn’t wish to be young again – not for a minute. I look forward to seeing how I will grow into elderhood. My mind is full of dreams and plans, including all the creations yet to come. Life has a habit of surprising us, and as I stand on another threshold, I feel that tremble of excitement about what is to come.

Imagining

The first brave crocuses have broken through muddy grass. Small lilac spears that look too fragile to live. There is a shift in the light and birds are more visible. The sparrows squabble again in the privet at the end of the road. Blackbirds strut beneath the hedges in the park. A young birch has been planted in memoriam of a lost brother. Trees nurse new buds on spindly fingers.

Candlemas day is grey. Heavy sleet and rain drown any hint of spring. I spend the day at my desk, working, watching the rain batter the window. Folklore says that if this day is wintry, it means winter has ended. That will prove not to be true. In the following week the wind, rain and sleet hardly stop. Soon, we get the snow-fall that has eluded us this far.

Candlemas is for dreaming of new beginnings. It is for hope in the face of uncertainty, because we aren’t yet sure that spring will come. The land is still covered in snow, ice or mud and we can’t yet guess what it will sprout. We can only look at the world with the innocence and wonder of a child and envision what it could be. This year many of us are weary, not only of the privations of winter, but of the curtailment of freedoms and the shrinking of our world. There is hope that things may move towards some kind of normal, some time this year, but we don’t know what that normal will be. If ever there was a need to imagine a new world, it is now.

A week after Candlemas and the snow begins with drifts of tiny spheres. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in noise: like pebbles flung at the windows. It leaves a dusting on the roofs and pavements that don’t get the morning sun. The air is freezing. The fire is on and we bundle ourselves up again. By afternoon, it is icy underfoot. There are wispy showers all day – and some heavy ones – but it isn’t until night that the silent, heavy snow falls.

I wake to snow that is deep enough to creak when I walk on it. There are already early footprints on the pavement. I follow them to the park, where parallel tracks of foot and paw let me know that someone has been here before us. A thrush is singing and there are soft, musical calls echoing in the silence. The sky is filled with drama. Clouds of dark grey and clouds of vivid orange. Full-bodied violet puffs and airbrushed smears. I can hear the distant cries of gulls. A crow takes a bath, tunnelling its beak and body through the snow. Throughout the day snow flurries turn the sky from blue to grey.

Recently, I’ve been drawn to painting wintry scenes, but on the evening before the snow came, I felt a shift towards spring. I spent a few hours submitting short stories for the first time since last summer. New – and old – writing ideas have begun to tickle at the edge of my imagination. I wonder what my new world will be like? More movement…more writing….more art….It isn’t yet clear. It’s not yet time to throw off the blanket of winter. I’ve heard the whisper of spring but I’ll sigh contentedly and turn over for another hour in bed. I have a little longer to dream about what my new reality will be.

For almost a week, the snow is enticing, but then it begins to turn to ice. It is hard to walk. I find a sparrow, dead on the pavement and I wonder if the cold killed it. It is a miserable day, with icy sleet and a biting wind. But it washes the ice away. The next day dawns bright and sunny as if the snow hadn’t come at all. Great tits trumpet from the trees. In the park, I look for those crocuses that had sprouted feebly just before the snow. They had sprouted at the promise of spring, only to be smothered in winter once more. But they are still there. Not only that, but there are more of them. Perhaps under the snow they imagined their way into being, but they are no longer fragile shoots, they have grown into flowers opening at the touch of the sun.

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