Moulting

Walking through town, my attention is drawn by the song of a starling.  He perches on a shop sign, singing a passionate song.  I’m astonished at how beautiful he looks.  The cream tips of his feathers glow.  He seems vibrant and brand new.  He has obviously been through his moult.   Throughout the year, the cream feather tips wear away, leaving the starlings in their breeding plumage.  But he has replenished his feathers.  And now, it seems, he is singing for the joy of how beautiful he is.  (The photo above is not this starling.)

Recently, my muse has become as elusive as the songbirds.  I’ve focused instead on re-visiting old stories.  Stories that were finished a couple of years ago.  That have been sent out into the world a number of times without success.  I enjoy the revision process.  Most of the revisions are slight – on re-reading them, I still have confidence that they are good stories.  I tighten a couple of endings which I always knew in my heart weren’t strong.  Distance has given me the inspiration to find the endings that they deserve.  I make changes to all but one of the stories, and each one, I think, is better for the attention.

They say that you should never write for a market; that you should write the stories you’d like to read.  There was a time, years ago, when I tried to write things that might be popular, or to emulate things I had loved.  There was a time I thought I was a horror writer.  I wrote a whole novel – my first – before deciding that although I loved to read horror, it wasn’t who I was as a writer after all.  Re-reading my stories affirms that these are the stories that I should be writing.

The hedgerows have new plumage too.  Rowans are fiery with berries.  A posse of starlings, many of them still in their juvenile feathers, chitter away as they eat them.  Thistles and willowherbs shed flowers to give way to thistledown.  Hogweed heads have become bronze wheels of seed.

In the last week my seagull chicks have fledged.  They are still living on the roof top.  Their parents are still watching over and feeding them.  The two siblings still follow each other around.  I didn’t witness the moment of first flight, but I have seen them take to the air.  Landing is still tentative.  They hover for moments until they finally commit to it, and it often appears that it isn’t quite where they’d aimed.  It will take them a few years of moults to lose their youthful feathers, but by then they will be adepts of the air like their parents.

Maybe we could all do with a creative moult, a time of quiet away from the pressure of producing something new or sending things out into the world.  A time to peck apart those old languishing stories and give them sparkling new plumage.  A time for our muses to preen their feathers before returning to us with replenished wings.


Blogger book of the month: Jennifer Kelland Perry – Calmer Girls

In her blog, Jennifer Kelland Perry – and sometimes her cats – share wonderful sights and stories from their beautiful home in Newfoundland.  Jennifer’s series of YA novels that explore the lives and loves of the cross sisters is also set in Newfoundland.

The course of true love certainly doesn’t run smoothly for the Cross sisters. Uprooted from their home in the small town of Calmer Cove, sixteen year old Samantha and her older sister Veronica are trying to make their way in the city. With divorcing parents, a mother who is drinking too much and the challenges of fitting into a new home comes the added complication of Ben Swift. Attractive, confident Veronica is soon going out with Ben, but Samantha is falling for him too. This YA novel is fast-paced, full of intrigue, enjoyable to read and deals sensitively with a number of issues that young adults might face. The characters are well drawn and the story is engaging. Though the story comes to a satisfying conclusion, there are a number of threads that Jennifer goes on to explore in the exciting sequel: Calmer Secrets.

You can find Jennifer here, and the Calmer Girls series is available on Amazon.

The gathering

The starlings are gathering again.  They swoop over the park in a graceful curve and trickle into the branches of an old sycamore.  Not content to rest, they tumble from branch to branch, calling and chattering.  Something spooks them then, because they are off again, another arc of the park, back to the same tree.  Today they are in the sycamore, but on another day it will be an ash on the other side of the park.  The ash is bare but for clumps of seed and it’s hard to tell seed pod from bird, except that the tree is alive with their song.

Often, they take to the streets, settling on the peaks of roofs, chimneys, TV aerials.  They are here this morning, as we set out for our walk to the dene. There are too many of them to cluster in one spot, so they spread out – a chimney here, a telegraph pole there.  I wonder if each starling has her own favourite viewpoint, or if it’s merely a scramble to secure a spot.

Late afternoon and they often gather on a mast on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in town.  Starlings are fidgety birds.  It seems impossible for them to stay still.  They must always be taking off, moving position, and all the while giving off that tremendous noise.  I wonder where they go to roost, if they join up with hundreds of others for a huge murmuration before rest and quiet finally takes over them.

In the dene, other birds gather.  Black headed gulls crowd the jetty.  Mallards and moorhens forage among the fallen leaves or glide across the pond.  Occasionally a scrap breaks out and one chases another in a commotion of wings and water.  There is a messiness about this part of the season.  The boisterousness of birds gathering for winter.  The fallen leaves decoratively littering the ground.  Every path has a flaming border.  Every bench a cushion of leaves.

The sun blazes low, gilding the remaining leaves, but darkness will soon be falling.  A last golden spill of sunshine by three and then twilight begins.  The birds and the darkness gather but I’m gathering stories.  Harvesting tales from snippets of ideas written in notebooks and on scraps of paper.  A lost hour, a hymn of bees, a woman with wild-flowers between her toes and a visit to Santa’s library.  I have written four stories in a couple of weeks, each one with a touch of magic, befitting the dreamtime of the year.

We return from the dene and the starlings are still gathered on the rooftops, still filling the air with their cheerful noise.  Starlings are loud and disorderly and they always seem delighted to be alive.  I wonder what stories they tell as they gather in the winter darkness.

What we leave behind

When you frequent the green places and the edge-lands, you notice the things that people leave behind.  I am fascinated by those leavings that jar the senses because they don’t seem to belong.  Not the thoughtless litter that blights the landscape, but those objects that once had purpose but have now been forgotten.

Walking through the dene, I have a sense of something that shouldn’t be there.  Something dangles within the branches of a small tree.  I look closer and find a golden duck swinging among the leaves.  Not the kind of duck I usually see here, but a tiny cartoon duck with huge eyes and a wide smile.  Lost property?  A whimsical decoration?  Or an offering?  I smile at the incongruous duck and walk on.  Further in, on a rock by the pond, someone has propped a pair of flip flops.  There is no sign of their owner, as though he or she waded into the pond and was swallowed up, though the water is far too shallow for that.  How is it possible to leave a pair of shoes behind?  Was their owner abducted by water sprites, or did they simply want to feel the rustle of autumn leaves between their toes?

Some things are lost and unlikely ever to be reclaimed.  The upended umbrella on the railway embankment, the woollen glove ground into mud, the rubber glove with cracked fingers on the beach.  These lost things become part of the landscape.  I have watched the umbrella brim with leaves in autumn and gather snow in winter for two years now.  It has become so deeply buried into the land that only its curved handle remains visible.  It is no longer an umbrella, it is an extension of the earth.  I have watched the offerings made to the shoe tree in the park reproduce over the years, until they are hued green and crusted with lichen, like strange fruit born of the tree itself.

Some objects have uncertain provenance.  The child’s dinosaur in a rock pool that may have been dropped on the beach or may have arrived with the tide from some far off land.  Some speak of mischief or malice, like the shopping trolley in the burn or the empty bottles displayed on the rocks like the flutes of a church organ.  Some speak of helpful strangers – odd gloves propped on the spikes of the railings in the square in the hope that their owners will find them.  Some are left with purpose, like the dozens of knitted angels that appeared like magic all over town one Christmas, so unexpectedly that we smiled and talked of nothing else for hours.

If ever there was an object that seems destined to be left behind, it is the hapless glove.  I have seen so many lost gloves that I have begun to feel sorry for them.  I wonder how many are left in unexpected places.  How many are left to rot in the earth, or to be pulled apart by tiny beaks and teeth to add warmth to dens and nests.  And how many of their partners languish in drawers, never to be reunited.  How many gloves lie in landfill, little woollen hands waving among the rubbish, perhaps finding their way to other lost gloves to form a mismatched pair.  If animals wore clothes, I expect there would be tiny, paw-shaped gloves discarded all over the landscape.

The things we leave behind us always tell a story.   It may be as simple as a glove dropped carelessly while walking.  It may be that the glove was dropped because that person had something very specific on their mind.  There is the real story of why the item was lost and then there is the story imagined by its finder.  No matter how lightly we tread upon the earth, we can’t help but leave things behind.  We are part of the landscape as much as the trees and the birds, and while they leave feathers and twigs and tracks in the mud, we leave parts of ourselves too, in the objects that once had use or meaning for us.  There are things we leave behind deliberately – the heirlooms and trinkets that fill attics and cabinets – but I wonder if it is the things we give up without meaning to that tell our most intriguing stories.

 

 

Glimpses

A story begins with a glimpse.  A glimpse into another world, a glimpse of a character, a glimpse of a narrative.  Sometimes that is all it remains: a half-caught moment that will never become anything more.  A scrawled fragment in a notebook destined never to become a tale.  The trace of a fiction that won’t be fulfilled.

On a gloomy day seeping drizzle my dog and I walk through the dene, challenging the dregs of February.  There is nobody else here.  The world is hushed and the silence pulses with promise.  I stand at the edge of the burn, captivated by the way the gold of the reeds lights up the gloom.  The day feels enchanted and as far as I’m concerned the enchantment is in just this: the reeds and the silence.  But as we walk the meander of the burn, I glimpse the flicker of a vibrant tail.  I gasp, because I’m sure I have seen my first kingfisher, the metallic teal feathers unmistakeable.  Only a glimpse and then the bird is gone, but I return the next day and am rewarded by a longer glimpse of the kingfisher’s back.  It flits off, under the bridge, and though I can see it perched on a branch in the distance, it disappears before I approach.

Glimpses are moments of possibility.  They are often the things that I see when my attention is elsewhere.  Caught by that softness in the vision, when I’m aware of my environment but I’m not trying to look.  Glimpses are suggestions.  They could lead to something, but you don’t yet know what.  My imagination is fired by glimpses: a white-haired woman in a tartan cape cycling through the square; a dawn-lit fox in the undergrowth; a couple taking refuge from the rain under a tree; a trio of roe deer in gossamer-clad fields; an abandoned slipper under a winking streetlight.  Moments that are nothing in themselves, but seem bigger than what they are.  I write them down and they may only ever be small slices of potential – or they may become something more.

It seems that I always want more.  More of the experience.  A closer look.  I want to see more than a glimpse of a kingfisher – I want to see her close up in all her colourful glory.  It’s in our nature to not want to let go.  But sometimes the glimpses are the blessings.  Ephemeral gifts.  Useless to try and hold on.  I’ll never catch that wisp of kingfisher; perhaps she’ll never reveal herself to me.  She was there, in that particular time and place, to let me feel a little of the spirit of the earth, and to remind me of its impermanence.  That’s the magic of the glimpse.  Sometimes I can fashion it into something tangible, sometimes I’m not meant to.  But I will always remember that glimpse of green, spiralling away like a radiant breath at the end of a dreary February.  They may be fleeting, but often the glimpses are the moments I remember the most.

Dreaming

SAMSUNG CSC

November is a month of darkness and dreams.  Relentless storms with the hint of winter in them make the days darker, the skies greyer.  The air freezes, riming the roofs and crisping the grass.  Horizons are misted by rain and fog.  And when the rain pauses, the wind stills, and the sun peeks above the horizon, the world is flushed with gold.  The beginning of winter has a surreal quality.  The contraction of the body against the cold, the contraction of the mind against the darkness makes me feel that I’m not truly present in the world.  It couldn’t be a better season in which to dream.

SAMSUNG CSC

Dreams are the space between sleep and waking.  Borderlands, where we exalt in our whims or become trapped in the thorns of our fears.   They are night enchantments, where we live other lives, or distorted versions of our own,  a gossamer existence on top of our reality.  Perhaps we leave our bodies in the night, as some cultures believed, to participate in the events of our dreams.   Perhaps it’s true that there are deities who send us dreams, demons that curse us with nightmares and creatures that feed on our essence as we sleep.  Or maybe dreams are simply a way to understand the world without the intrusion of our conscious mind.  It’s no wonder that for thousands of years we’ve sought meaning from our dreams.

IMG00148-20140404-0839

Dreams don’t give up their secrets easily.  They conceal meaning behind layers of symbol and distortion, a jumble of reality and imagining.  Dreams are wisps of thoughts and impressions left behind in the memory.  Things often don’t make sense, or our recollection of them is so hazy when we wake that we can’t grasp the sense of them.  They are fluid, merging into one another.  Sometimes they are effortless, sometimes frustratingly tangled.

SAMSUNG CSC

Daydreams don’t have the chaos or mystery of the dreams that seek us out in the night.  But they are another borderland: a place of drift and retreat; a slice of enchantment conjured just outside the real world.  Night dreams visit me unbidden, but I create my daydreams.  I tend to daydream when I’m stationary because daydreaming requires focus.  All those adults who have ever told a child to stop daydreaming in the misconception that they’re being idle, were mistaken.  It takes time and effort to construct a daydream, to build a world that can be seen, heard and tasted.  The line between daydreaming and visualisation is thin, lacking only intention.

SAMSUNG CSC

My life is imprinted with thousands of dreams, remembered and forgotten.  There are many ways to dream and I do it with a pen in my hand.  I write my daydreams down and call them stories.  What are stories, if not dreams of the imagination?  When I conjure a story it’s a type of dreaming.  There’s a space in the back of my head where the story unfolds like a reel of film.  Ephemeral and sometimes disjointed.  Like a foggy day or the blur of rain, it can be difficult to shape or grasp the sense of it.  But story-making is like lucid dreaming.  I can step inside the story and midwife it into being.

Finding a story

SAMSUNG CSC

The world is decked in white and green.  Spring is tipping into summer and the earth suddenly seems more vibrant.  Lush greens laden with the clotted cream of hawthorn.  Cow parsley frothing in the hedgerows.  Horse chestnut flowers, service tree and rowan blooms, dandelion clocks.  Even the butterflies are all white today.  Cherry blossom, nearing its end, is snowing in the breeze, lazy petals floating to the ground.  Tiny seeds, encased in fluff dance in the air.   It’s a quiet, lazy day.  The ducks are sleeping or preening, the birds are singing but invisible.  If they’re working at spring, they’re doing it out of sight.

SAMSUNG CSC

Spring has been like treacle.  May has been an endless month.  I’ve been be-set by disquiet, unable to settle to anything.  My work in progress is finished.  I have revised it twice and there is nothing more to be done until it’s had its first reading and I have some feedback to work with.

SAMSUNG CSC

I’ve been in mourning for the story that has ended.  We spend months, sometimes years, with a story.  We live with the characters.  They are family, friends, sometimes closer than that.  As much as they can be difficult at times, I find it a comfort to return to their world.  So there is a celebration at the end of a story, but after the celebration is the mourning.  I’ll tinker with it, I’ll revise it, but I’ll never write that story again.

SAMSUNG CSC

At the end of my story there’s a gap where the writing of it was.  I slipped into a habit of writing every day and without that there’s something missing.  I feel the need to begin again, but I’m struggling to find a story.  I start, with an idea that was always going to be my third novel.  I write a prologue with gusto and stop.  I attempt a first chapter but it stalls.  The characters are poised to embark on a story if only I can tell it.  But this is where doubt seeps in.  Am I stuck because I’m following the wrong idea, or because I don’t yet know what the story will be?  Or perhaps – and this is the real fear –  I don’t have another story in me.

SAMSUNG CSC

Winter is my time for dreams.  Perhaps this brazen spring light is too harsh for dreams to flow.  But the solstice will soon be upon me, the time for empowerment and renewal.  And today the vibrant earth and the freshness of those whites and greens stirs something.  I watch a mother and daughter playing beneath a cherry tree in the park.  They shake the branches to make a snow storm of the blossom.  I watch them laugh, lost in their own game.  There’s a story there.  There are stories everywhere.  Back at home, I find the thread of the story I’m seeking and follow it.