Absence

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Last night I dreamt of my father.  I sat beside his old armchair as he stroked my hair to comfort me.  I don’t know why he felt the need to give me solace, but I was content to stay there for the longest time.  I was both outside of the dream watching, and inside the dream feeling the touch of his hand.  I lost my dad fifteen years ago and I rarely dream about him, so when I do, it’s a bittersweet treat.

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On a day like today, when the sun doesn’t seem to rise, the sky, instead, simply becoming a lighter shade of grey; when rain drizzles and the landscape is just a smudge of shapes; on a day like this, which already makes me melancholy, it’s easy to feel the stab of loss.  The details of illness, of death and death’s aftermath are lost in the passage of years.  This is true for all of those I’ve lost.   But the thing I have found most difficult about death is absence.  A person who was there is now gone.  There is a space where they should be: a hollow in an armchair; a silence where there was once a voice; a void where there was a routine.  Death is haunted by those pinprick moments when I remember that they’ll no longer return.  It’s hard to comprehend that existence has been extinguished.  That I once had a father, a mother, and now I simply don’t.

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After Dad died, I wrote a story.  It was set in a derelict house on an isolated, snowbound moor.  From the gape of windows, to the hollow of footprints, to the empty chair under a broken roof, I see now that it was all about absence.  When my mother died, I wrote about the absence of words and the drought of colour in the pictures I painted.

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With time, the pang of absence lessens.  I no longer expect those I’ve lost to walk into a room.  I no longer visit the places in which they existed.  I no longer do the things we once did together.  Memories replace flesh.  But when I experience a new loss, inevitably the others resurface.  I remember that there is a space that a person once inhabited.

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When you observe the nuances of the seasons closely, the transience of life is always present.  I walk through the winter landscape with my dog and wonder about his concept of absence.  Every morning, at the same time, he will pause in his walk and face the direction from which the two Labradors he adores will appear.  Waiting.  But this week they moved away.  I wonder how many mornings he will wait before no longer watching for them.   It’s difficult enough for us to understand absence when we know, intellectually, what has happened, but for him people move in and out of his life without explanation.  Perhaps he would ask the same questions we do, if he could – why? where? how? – but we’re no closer to explaining absence than he is.

In this season when the earth displays her bones, loss is felt more keenly.  Loss of warmth, light, colour.   The silence left by the absence of birdsong.  The spaces that remain after the leaves are gone.  The gaiety of flowers and insects.  When everything is stripped back, the gaps seem bigger.  A bitter seam of absence runs through this season.

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And yet this is also the season of dreams, when I am filled with possibility and my creativity is at  its height.  Because of course the earth isn’t really dead.  Darkness is the loam in which things begin.  And absence is never only absence.  It is space for growth and self-examination.  That person-shaped void will always be there.  But what will that space allow me to become?  Absence has taken me back to the bones of myself and what I love.  It led me back to nature and a re-connection with the earth.  It led me into a deeper creativity.  Loss leads to movement.

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There are moments when I despair that the cost of loving is often the grief of losing.  But I’ve also learned that people are like seasons too.  Some are only meant to be in my life for the briefest of moments, some for the length of my years.  My life is richer for all those who have peopled it, but I no longer try to hang onto them when their season is over.  I’m just thankful they were there when I needed them.

The first day of winter

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The shift from autumn to winter is sometimes imperceptible.  I will suddenly notice that all the trees are bare.  The ground will become muddy with rotting leaves and the cold will creep up on me.  There is no consensus about when winter begins.  Meteorologists package the year up into neat quarters, with 1st December designated as the first day of winter.  For astronomers, it is the winter solstice.  But for me, this year, winter begins on the last Saturday in November in Manchester.  It is the day after my father-in-law’s funeral and I wake early to an unearthly landscape of white mist.  There is a surreal hush.  Trees are no more than shadows in the fog and ice crisps the foliage.

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There is a path on the edge of the Manchester ship canal that is a tiny oasis among housing estates.  Only a day before, the blazing sunset lit up the last golden leaves and I watched three ring-necked parakeets flutter across the canal, the first I have ever seen in the wild.  But this morning, winter has the canal in its grip.  Scores of Canada Geese huddle silently on the bank.  Mist moves in lazy coils along the water.  A flock of black headed gulls cavorts in a garland of steam.  Ice and sun have melted the landscape into vapour and echoes.

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As we drive back north, fog shrouds the motorway.  The sun has gone out, casting the world in grey shadow.  The road is lined by the rise of moors and the dip of valleys.  I know that there are towns and buildings in these valleys, but today there is no evidence of that.  They are nothing more than bowls of dense white mist, like eerie seascapes.  But we emerge from the mist to the afternoon sun, which kindles the remnants of autumn.  Beeches shimmer with copper leaves.  Apple trees droop with red and yellow fruit.

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Back home, most of the trees are bare.  The leafscape has turned from gold to burnt orange and umber.  Leaves now squelch rather than crackle beneath my feet.  But just as the autumn show is almost over, the last wild cherry blazes.  It has been slow to give up its gifts.  Usually I can pluck sweet cherries from its branches in summer, but this year they were sour, left to rot on the tree even by the birds.  Now it is a beacon among the skeletons.  The halo of fallen leaves around its base glows against the frosted grass.

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Today is National Tree Dressing day, an annual celebration of the importance of trees in our lives.  Communities are encouraged to tie ‘leaves’ with messages of thanks to a tree.  As the trees undress, we re-dress them.  The celebration draws on old traditions of adorning trees.  In my post The Shoe Tree I wrote about the ways we dress trees and down by the canal path last week, I discovered another: a memorial tree, dressed to commemorate the life of a man who had died there.

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But today I will leave the trees to their nakedness.  I’m dressing a different kind of tree, though it’s all part of the same tradition.    My Christmas tree is a symbol of life in the death of winter.  It is a reminder that when the earth seems to be little more than bones, life still stirs, waiting to be re-born.  Trees reflect the transience of life in their seasonal changes: the brief joy of spring blossoms, the plenty of summer fruits and the excitement of autumn finery.  Then they show us death, with their winter skeletons.  As I dress the tree, I recall the many times I have done this before.  I think of all the other people doing what I am doing now.  And I think of those communities re-dressing the trees that are important to them.  Winter has begun, but each tree is a flicker in the darkness, lacing the earth with threads of light.

Weathered

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There is a sadness about early January that is different to the expectant melancholy of autumn or early winter.  The year has clicked over and we move from the yuletide celebrations back into everyday life.  The decorations are safely packed in their boxes, languishing in the darkness of the loft until another year is almost gone.  Without the chaos of tinsel and lights, the house is strangely bare.  Outside, the earth seems bare too.  The sadness of January speaks of lack, of things finished, of austerity.

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The world seems tumultuous after the brief respite of the holidays.  In these days when everything is open for business all of the time, it is a relief to have a few days in which most things aren’t.  Now it is back to being busy: queues of cars as everyone gets back to work, lists of unread emails and lengthening to do lists.  This is when resolutions falter in the face of reality and days book-ended in darkness.  Life is routine once more.  Life can be a struggle.

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Yet there is something comforting and something invigorating about January’s emptiness.  The dusting down of the mantel.  The return of those treasured items we choose to display all year round.  A pushing aside of the wants and shoulds of the festive season.  We re-inhabit our usual selves.  We can be quiet again.  Be ordinary.

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There has been a cleansing of sorts this year.  Barely a day has passed without rain.  Relentless, soaking rain.  The type of rain that causes  you to wonder how there can possibly be any more to fall from the sky.  Rain that makes you bow your head against it so that it is difficult to notice the world.  When the rain departed, the fog came, filling the air with stillness and clarity.  And now the cold has come to scour us.  Our first snow of the year; wet, fat flakes that were gone by afternoon, leaving iced puddles and crisped grass in its wake.

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This is ordinary life.  Buffeted by the weather.  Bruised by work and routine.  Finding the spaces in between where magic happens.  Because for a writer, life is never really ordinary.  On my altar, I have a perfect whelk shell I found on the storm-tossed beach at the dawn of the year.  It is my talisman for the months ahead: a treasure discovered among the debris.  To remind me that my job as a writer is to pick out the treasures of ordinary time and make them extraordinary.

I always now think of this period of the year as ‘ordinary time’, after reading a poem last year by cronechronicler that resonated with me and helped me to think of it in a different way.  You can read it here.

Suspension

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Winter is flirting with us.  She visits fleetingly leaving a sprinkle of ice-white powder.  She stays for breakfast, but by lunch she is gone, only a few rimy traces remaining.  Leaves are preserved in a sugar of frost crystals, giving clarity to their design.  Ponds freeze over, in clear geometrics.  The wind moans constantly.  Raw air freezes us.  But winter never quite delivers on her warnings.

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This winter has been very different to the last.  Last year the mud arrived and stayed for the season.  This year the frosts have come.  The glitter of ice in the mornings and that raw cold that comes as the day begins to die.  It’s been two years since we had more than a flurry of snow.  Our spring was bountiful, our summer warm, so it seemed we were destined for a hard winter.  But the cold has been interspersed with mild, sunny days.  The leaves took their time to fall and occasional flowers have bloomed through the season.  There’s still a chance of snow but it’s only a matter of time before winter withdraws altogether.

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Still, winter wants to give us notice.  She lets us know that she is a possibility, just before Candlemas heralds the first stirrings of spring.  On the day that winter visits, I see the first spring bulbs, thrusting through the snow-dust.  Buttery crocus flowers waiting to open and a handful of daffodils in green bud.  A day later, winter is gone and the crocuses have opened their whorl of petals. There are hazel catkins everywhere, featherlight fingers dangling.

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I’m in suspension.  Like a half-frozen pond.  Still and dormant on one side, unruly ripples on the other.  The two parts are in tension, caught between dream and action.  My box of dreams has germinated and the front runners have emerged.  I’ve honed the dreams into seeds, ready to be planted now Candlemas is here.  But at the moment, those seeds are like that frozen pond – paused.  I have no desire to do anything with them.  I’m waiting for that ripple to set them off on their journey.

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Box of dreams

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Everything I love about the slip into winter has already happened: the harvest, the magic of autumn and Halloween, the lights and celebrations of yuletide, the optimism of the new calendar year.  So many wonderful things packed into four months, with all their expectation and excitement, giving that season a particular luminosity.  But now what?  The new year is here, we’re back to work and routine, those shiny resolutions are starting to seem a little dull and difficult.  There is always beauty in nature, but sometimes my walks seem interchangeable as the world lies dormant waiting for spring.  Much as the dark half of the year is my favourite, this deadest part of the season is the time of  year I find most challenging.

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But this poem, Winter Transition by Crone Chronicler, prompted me to think of this period in a different way.  I love her concept of the world settling into ‘ordinary time’.  The festivals do nothing if not remind us of transience and that each season has its purpose.  While I know the purpose of this part of the year for me, it’s still difficult to say goodbye to that season that I love.  So I’m glad I had this reminder of the value of that ‘ordinary time’ between celebrations.  I realised that taking the tree down and returning the house to its usual state wasn’t just a chore, marking the end of one of the high points of the year, but was a ritual in itself, returning it to that tabula rasa in which my dreams can take root.

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And I have a box of dreams to work with.  Not resolutions.  Not must dos.  Creative snippets from which my year will be shaped.  When I retreated to the dark, I took note of everything – my dreams, meditations, writings, quotes that spoke to me, things I saw.  And I gathered almost 100 starting points – the ‘bones’ of my creative year.  Each one is recorded on a scrap of paper and stored in this box, germinating in the dark.  A couple are full-blown story ideas, most are a rag-tag collection of themes to be explored, random images, character sketches, story titles, potential blog posts.  Some of them will fade away, losing importance, never destined to be born.  Others will make magic – shaping themselves into worlds and people and stories and art.

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This is the honing tide of the year, when I begin to polish and shape the dreams I have dreamed.  I’ve already begun, plucking ideas from the box and setting those that resonate aside.  But they’re still only chimeras – characters without a story; objects without a purpose; tableaux without a context.  If I do nothing with them, they’ll wither and that magical time in the dark will be lost.

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But no fear, the dead of the year is here.  Plenty of time to hone and polish and make sure these dreams take flight.  I’ve returned from that magical tide of myth and magic, back to ‘ordinary time’ and space.  Where the cold crisp mornings and evenings, with the moon bright in a clear sky give space for clarity of thought and the wild wind urges transformation.

Please take a moment to discover one of my more recent blogging companions at Backtowhatever.  She has kindly nominated me for the Inspiring Blogger Award.  Here, you’ll find writing that is poignant and powerful – making beauty of some very difficult personal experiences.

 

Clearing the decks

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Quite unexpectedly, spring has given birth to winter.  Through the trees, a milky mist appears to cling to the land.  In fact, it is an illusion.  The meadow, sloping upwards from the river, is sheathed in frost.  We slip out, keen to see the effects of this wintry dawn up close.  Frost covers roofs, fields, fenceposts, trees.  It is a washed out, pearly landscape.  We can’t see the sun that is rising behind the hills, but we see its light, casting a bronze reflection on the trees.  As nature fights for balance, approaching the spring equinox, winter and spring wrestle for dominion.

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By the time the sun has fully risen, spring once again rules.  The forest is filled with life.  The robin that greeted us on our arrival is trilling loudly at the peak of a spruce.  Like a liminal messenger, the bird of winter announcing spring.  Bold and fierce, the sight of a robin always makes me hopeful.  Songbirds are plentiful in the woods: blue tit, coal tit, great tit, blackbird, chaffinch.  The tits and the robin come singly, the blackbirds in a pair.  But the chaffinches arrive as a gang – unruly, squabbling acrobats accompanied by the soft whirring of wings.

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The birds jewel the trees, one on each branch, a feathered heavy-mob trying to intimidate us into giving them food.  There is movement everywhere: birds fluttering down to the veranda, hopping and flitting across the forest floor.  A treecreeper shuttles up the tree outside the window and then spirals down to begin the ascent once more.  Large crows shadow the smaller birds, keeping to the heights.  The jay, a colourful assassin, is a distant visitor.  We hear the woodpecker before we see its monochrome plumage through the trees.

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There are pheasant living nearby, fat colourful characters with their long tail feathers.  Strutting across the ground, perching on piles of wood chips, or scuttling across fields.  Their harsh, barking alarm call is a regular sound.  And the grey squirrel, who seems to have forgotten he can climb trees, sinuously stalking the forest floor in search of seeds.  The roe deer, with his fledgling antlers who wanders past each morning, given away by his white, fleecy tail.  In daylight, we wander along damp and muddy paths, dappled with sunlight, overlooking sunlit fields, our thoughts turning to picnics.

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But at night, spring sleeps.  The sky darkens into a crisp, cold night with plunging temperatures.  The moon is a bright, waxing sliver and the stars are clearly visible, Jupiter shining brightly beyond Orion.  I walk out onto the veranda one evening, just at the right time to see a shooting star sear across the sky between them.SAMSUNG CSC

This visit to the forest is a last tranquil week before spring truly unfolds and brings with it the call to action.  My thoughts turn to clearing the decks, preparing the way for new projects to grow.  I’ve spent hours de-cluttering my creative work – unearthing old drawings and writing.  Surprised to find stories dating back to when I was 17 or 18 and at college, as well as the beginnings of at least three novels.  Novels I’ll never finish – too immature in theme and style.  But it’s interesting to read these old stories and note how they are permeated by the interests I had at the time – vampires, new age travellers, saving whales, cities in the sand.  Interesting too to see the places I spent my time used as locations for the stories.  Life weaves itself into fiction without us even meaning it to.

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What is also clear is the lack of importance I gave to this work – piled haphazardly into a box, scrawled in old exercise books and on pieces of paper, drawings rolled up and torn at the edges.  No wonder it took me some time to work out what was what.  That I’d started three novels, when I could only remember one.  That the character I clearly remembered from one story was from another altogether.  And while this work isn’t important for what it is, it has value for the pedigree it gives to my work now.  This is my writing before I took it seriously, but it’s also the writing that made me the writer I am now.  And so I’ve begun the process of organising and preserving it.

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The equinox is about balance, before the sun comes into its own and works its magic.  For me, this week of repose and all the creative spring cleaning leading up to it, is about creating a balanced space out of which action can come.  I’ll be taking the ideas that have germinated into stories and sending them out into the world, hoping that they will bloom.

Re-connection

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January has been a month of dis-connection.  I’ve felt detached from the season and disengaged from the creative spark.  Though I’ve produced work and developed new ideas, my creativity has lacked enthusiasm.  January has been a drab month.  The sodden ground, patches of mud and still-rotting leaves make the world reminiscent of the morning after a party, the sad leavings after the festivities of Yuletide are long forgotten.

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Last year, January was dominated by snow, before rain and gales ushered in Candlemas.  This year there has been mud.  Not the crisp, quiet winter days I hoped for.  Nor the glitter of frost on the ground.  Just mud.  January has been the wettest on record in some parts of the country and areas in the south have been flooded for weeks.  The rain and gales have arrived once more to herald the new season, but there have been few lovely winter days to precede them.

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Walking the dog in the hours before dawn, I’ve experienced the best of January.   At this time, the world is silent, except for the racket of the blackbird, whose voice is amplified in the darkness.  The sky is a glowing royal blue, the stars and planets still visible.  It’s a time of potential, when the thick darkness hides imperfections and the day might go any way it pleases.

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But there have been other moments of connection.  A Monday morning walk, hinting at spring.  The air is cold but radiant with sunshine.  I hear the grating call of the magpie, a robin trilling on the path ahead of me, the high pitched cries of Little Gulls.  I watch the clumsy shuttle of a Moorhen and mallards floating leisurely or curled among the reeds.  It’s a peaceful, sleepy day holding the promise of what is to come.  And then, a Friday morning, the most beautiful sunrise of the year so far:  mackerel clouds lit with bright swathes of colour.  And then, walking in the drizzle, under a misty sun, listening to the hollow patter of rain on the trees.  And then…

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Re-connecting with nature at this time of year is about paying thoughtful attention, looking closely to see buds on the trees, plant stems studded with tiny new leaves, shoots among the mud.  It’s seeing the signs of spring in the drear of winter, like the husk of a nest in the skeleton of a tree.  It’s having patience and sensing the beauty that exists beneath the mud.

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Candlemas begins at sunset tomorrow, when we emerge from the cocoon of winter and re-connect with the living earth growing beneath us.  Witches commonly call this festival Imbolc, an old Celtic word thought to mean ‘in the belly’, but I’ve always found the Christian term of Candlemas more evocative.  The name derives from it being the day in the year when all the church’s candles were blessed.  And here too is a connection, in the recognition of the importance of the return of the light.

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Re-connection is also about re-dedication.  Candlemas is a festival for initiation and re-dedicating yourself to your chosen path.  All of the festivals are a way of re-connecting.  We might forget in our daily lives, but these days are points on the calendar to remind us.

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This month, I’ve written two new stories, but I’ve also re-connected with some that were forgotten.  Stories that began months or years ago.  Some are just a couple of sentences, others a few pages.  Left neglected, either because I couldn’t see a way through them at the time, or because other projects took over.  One of the joys of writing is to return to something you’ve written and be surprised by how good it is.  Each of these stories has potential.  The ideas for where they will go and how they will end are already re-igniting my enthusiasm.  Candlemas leads us into the incubating time, when we plant the seeds of the ideas we honed after the winter solstice and plan how we will nurture them.  The fragments of the stories I’ve rediscovered are some of the seeds I’ve sown.

The year’s midnight

The autumn show is over and at the midwinter solstice we move into the true darkness of winter.  The trees appear barren.  Only the ash provides a sense of colour, its clusters of seed pods like bronze parcels amid the branches.  The fallen leaves are still plentiful in patches on the ground, but they are no longer crispy, forming instead a damp, rotting mulch.  The grass seems greener, having been hidden by leaves for so  long, but the ground is sodden and muddy.  As yet, there has been only a single, short snowstorm that, once over, left no signs that it had ever arrived.  Our weather has been a patchwork of rain storms, tidal surges, gales and some milder days.  But now, the reward of getting up before dawn is to see the glitter of frost on the grass and to feel it crisp beneath your feet.

The poet John Donne called the solstice the year’s midnight.  This is darkness proper, when the flaming leaves no longer light the season and the trees are desolate silhouettes against the lowering skies.  This, I feel, is a different kind of darkness to that of autumn.  The autumn darkness is rich, tender and expectant.  The winter darkness, once the solstice and the festivities of the season are over, can be bleak, cold and hollow.  It will be a long time until we feel the energy of spring.  But out of darkness come hope, light and dreams.  At the solstice, the night is the longest of the year, but at dawn, the sun will be reborn and the days will become longer.

There is rich symbolism at this time of year.  The old pagan symbols merge with the Christian ones and those that came much later, so that it can be difficult to see where one ends and another begins.  Whatever your beliefs, there is a real magic in the wealth of symbols and stories that span the season.  And all of them, at heart, celebrate similar themes: the light, hope and benevolence emerging from the darkness.  Trees hung with offerings are an ancient representation of the gifts and wishes of the season.  The glitter of tinsel, candles and fairy lights proclaim the rebirth of the light.  Evergreens brought across the threshold affirm our hope that life is still with us.  Feasting and festivities give us comfort against the cold and the gloom.

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I have always revelled in the creativity of the season.  In my childhood, before the Internet, DVDs and satellite TV, the holidays were a time full of creative pursuits.  There would be new books and music received as gifts, new movies premiered on the TV, new television shows made for Christmas.  But there was also time – unbroken time to create and to enjoy the creations of others.  For me, the ease of downloading a book or song, of buying a DVD, has taken away some of the excitement once associated with this time of year, while the responsibilities of the season can prevent us absorbing its magic.

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If you’re feeling harried by the demands of the season and feel that it leaves little space for you to focus on your creativity, the solstice is a good time to pause.  The long hours of darkness on that night provide ample time for reflection on how your creativity will be reborn.  Use the night to midwife a fresh creative spirit: this time of birth is an optimal moment – anything is possible.  Your creative life begins anew – how will it be different this year?  What dreams did you dream in the autumn darkness that you can now give birth to and guide, like children, to their full potential?

After the reflection of the long night, you could go out and greet the dawn.  The sunrise after the longest night is one of the gifts of the year, but there will be other gifts you have within you to help you create – those you were born with, those you have earned through experience.  This is a time when we give to others, but consider also what you can give to yourself to ensure your creative spirit is nurtured throughout the year.

The fertile dark

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Though we’re not yet in the depths of winter, I can already feel the encroaching darkness.  I walk the dog in deep blue mornings, lit by the just-waning moon.  It’s already dark when I get home from work.  Even at the zenith of the day, the light is weaker, less distinct.  And yet the trees are now in full blaze, as though attempting to ward off the darkness with their colours for as long as possible.  The path is a mulch of luminous sycamore leaves.  It rains leaves as we walk.

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On Tuesday we had our first snow of the season.  Tiny, gossamer spots at first, that amounted to nothing.  Then, a blizzard of fat, stinging flakes that coated the ground.  An hour later, the sun appeared and it was as though the snow storm had never happened.

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As the nights lengthen, we move into what I believe is the most fertile time of year for creativity.  Darkness, for me, is comforting, electric, expectant.  I love the dark hours of the night, when the world is tinged cold blue and silence prevails.  It’s the time when anything can happen.  It’s the time when, if you’re struggling with fear or worry, your imagination can lead you down a desolate path.  But it’s also a time when ideas are wild and whimsical.  Until morning, when the thoughts of the night can seem silly or futile.  My best plans form when darkness has fallen.  So is darkness deceiving, fooling us into false dreams, or is it that we’re most ourselves in the dark, when the distractions of the world are hidden and we can think the things we truly would without its influence?

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The plunge into winter offers months of fruitful darkness.  Like anyone else, I’d prefer to turn over in bed on dark mornings rather than getting up for work.  I’d prefer to walk to and from work in the light.  Yet paradoxically for this introspective season, this is the time when I most desire to walk or visit nature, revelling in the desolation of a wintry coast or skeletal forest.  I feel animated in the dark months, restless to better myself.  This is the season of the hermit, but it’s also the season when if you do go out, your face, body and mind can be scoured clean.  When instead of the sticky, lethargic tiredness of summer, you feel like you’ve earned your apathy.  So I will go out and let myself be purified by the season.  I’ll wrap up warm, but choose somewhere exposed – a beach, a hillside – where the elements will divest me of all my stale ideas.

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Just because this is the dreaming season, this doesn’t mean that you have to stop creating.  My dreaming is about actively gathering ideas and inspiration.  I began this season with a series of darkness meditations.  I doused the lights and meditated with eyes open, confronting the darkness.  Thoughts and images came, which I recorded to use later as inspiration.   I’ll also use this season to stretch my creative legs and experiment: writing exercises, stream of consciousness writing and sketching, paying attention to my actual dreams.  I’ll record my ideas, thoughts and fears uncensored for future use.  I’ll also use the respite of staying indoors to try new skills, focus on my work, think about what I will do in spring.

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This is an ideal season to go on a writers’ or artists’ retreat.  As I can’t do that, I take inspiration from the Hermit and the Four of Swords in the Tarot to remind me that this is a season to hide, to repose, to plough and fertilise the soil of my mind.  I use some of the same principles as I would use in a fallow period – to bask in others’ creativity and simply absorb the world around me.  But I will also deliberately set aside fallow periods: creativity-free days, when I intentionally choose not to focus on creating.

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The dark season is an ideal time to really scrutinise yourself and your practice.  Though I won’t worry about how realistic my dreams are for the moment, in the honing season following winter solstice, I’ll sift and shape them.  That’s when I’ll use the truth of the darkness to plan my direction for the year to come.  And hopefully, I’ll emerge into the light of spring newly focussed and with an arsenal of inspiration to draw on.

Memories, musing and mischief

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Time is fluid at Halloween.  It is the old Celtic new year, when past, present and future merge.  On this night, all borders dissolve and we can commune with our ancestors or see our future.  Summer has ended and the sun will slumber until spring.  It is the time of Hecate, the crone goddess who both guides us to the land of the dead and is ready to act as midwife to the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice.   This is the gateway between the old and the new year, when the wheel turns and the cycle begins again.

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It is appropriate that the world is unsettled leading up to Halloween.  Rain, gales and thunder have assailed us in the past week.  A storm is making its way across the country and the sky is full of a luminous darkness.  Now and then, I hear the squawks of geese, as they pass over on their migration from the arctic.  The trees have begun to turn: the small sycamores and the horse chestnuts are the first to show their colours and the ground already crackles with leaves.  There is a hint of smoke in the air and the clatter of fireworks leading up to Bonfire Night.  Fittingly, it is the crows that now seem to colonise the green spaces, tricksters and harbingers of death and magic that they are.

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This is a time to celebrate the wisdom of age and experience.  On Halloween night, our ancestors may choose to visit us, so we might set a place at the dinner table for them or leave offerings of food outside or on their graves.  The pumpkin lanterns now traditional at Halloween have evolved from the candles that were left in the window all night to guide the dead home.  It is a tradition at Halloween to create an altar to your ancestors, containing photos and mementoes that honour them and trigger memories.  It is a good time to consider the gifts your ancestors have given you, both genetically and through the lives they lived.  But you might also recognise the strangers that have gone before – the writers and artists that have inspired you and stoked your creativity.

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Halloween signals the death of summer and the old year, for which we mourn, but we also look into the future.  This is the best time of year for divination, when we use the old arts, such as scrying and Tarot, to gain guidance about what is to come.  Winter is the still, dark time of the year, when the earth retreats and we have space to delve into the hidden places within us.  This is where the cycle of our creativity begins.  Time to ponder our dreams and hopes for the year to come.  The hushed repose of winter is when our vision for what this year could be is dreamed into being.  That spark of creativity is always there, though it may not seem so in the dark, cold months, until the winter solstice, when it will be symbolically reborn.

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Halloween is a time of deep thinking and remembrance, but it is, of course, also the season of mischief.  The chaos and unpredictability of winter will last for many months.  For our ancestors, it was a time of great tension as they worried if the harvest would help them survive the winter.  The mischief of Halloween is both a challenge to and a light-hearted acceptance of the uncertainty to come.  The costumes are disguises to protect us against malevolent influences.  The traditions, such as bobbing for apples, an affirmation of life.  Creativity is often kindled out of chaos. So before the introspection of winter, why not indulge in a little mischief and see where it leads you?