Igniting

December is the month of artificial light, when our townscapes gleam with the cold twinkle of illumination to ward off the darkness.  Teardrops of amber.  Scrolls of silver.  Cascades of gold.  White garlands and pinpricks of pewter.  Kaleidoscopes of lights.  On the high street it is often too much:  too gaudy, too synthetic.  But on silent streets and in deserted parks, they are islands of light to guide us through the night.  Windows flooded with colour welcome us home, so that we can turn our backs on the discomforts of the darkness.

December skies are flushed with colour.  Dawns of orange and purple; twilights of pink and blue; a half moon lighting up the darkness.  Stripes of wavery tangerine cross pale peach.  Fingers of pink span baby blue.  A full moon hangs in a blushing sky.  Perhaps nature is trying to rival the pull of electricity.  Artificial light is pretty, comforting and useful, but it will never equal the display of a sunset or a sunrise.

On election day, we vote before dawn.  Afterwards, before work, I walk in the country park.  It is dark, barely light enough to see.  There is no colour yet, only shades and shadows.  Trees creak, undergrowth rustles.  A blackbird trumpets in alarm and I hear the distant chink of a moorhen.  Ducks descend on the pond, first a pair, then a quintet, mallards in silhouette.  They cackle as I walk the path to the sundial.

The coming sunrise inflames the trees, glowing through skeletons.  The temperature is two degrees above freezing with a biting wind: it is bitter up here at the top of the hill.  Coloured twinkles in the distance, the hills chains of artificial light.  Sunrise begins as a vivid orange splash, brighter than any of those electric lights, but it soon becomes more nuanced.  I won’t see the sun all day, but it puts on its show from behind the clouds.  Violets and pinks, oranges and reds, blushes and blooms of colour.  The sea is a violet stripe prickled with platinum.   The sunrise pushes back the electric lights until they disappear.

Crows appear, swooping and cawing.  Next, the gulls begin to call.  Finally the muted voices of songbirds and the stutter of magpies.  The sky lightens to a block of grey-blue cloud with a strip of buttermilk across the horizon.  The park regains colour.  There is a sprinkling of autumn leaves and berries, but most of the autumn colour has leached from the landscape.  A charm of goldfinches flutters from a tree as I pass, leaving a lone dunnock behind.  I have seen the blaze of dawn but now daylight comes quietly.

It has been a speedy and subtle season.  I have hardly noticed the darkness.  As the glory of the leaves faded, the skies blossomed.  Autumn is gone and winter is gaining, but there is little fanfare.  Election day passes more quietly than I expect.  It seemed like an important day, with an opportunity for real change, but ends up as more of the same.  The creative spark is sleeping.  I’ve felt weary and in need of a break.  Soon the solstice will be here, when the light will ignite once more.  And my break is finally here, a stretch of gloriously leisurely days that will lead me to the light, sky by painted sky.

The anatomy of creation

At this time of year, the skeleton of nature is visible.  Often, the landscape seems monochrome, dominated by the dark silhouettes of branches against an insipid sky.  The structure that we don’t normally see is laid bare, giving us no clues.  It can be difficult to know which tree is which without its leaves.  Seeds are no more than husks of the flowers they once were and will be again.  But in their nakedness, we can more easily appreciate their differences.  Note the myriad shapes stark against the sky.  Some trees are a ladder of soaring branches.  Some curve like tulips.  Some are elegant and feathery, others gnarled and ugly.  This is the anatomy of creation.  We rarely see our own architecture, but every winter, nature shows us hers.  We see her bones and what her flesh usually conceals.

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And so that we know there is still hope, that nature isn’t dead, there is still colour in the depths of winter.  Ivy crawling up the bark of trees. The vibrant red and gold of dogwood stems.  A few autumn leaves, doggedly clinging to almost empty branches.  The soft umber of teasel heads polka-dotting a field.  A couple of dog violets are bravely flowering, while the seed pods of the stinking iris are like bright orange berries.  A single wild raspberry still waits to be claimed.  And berries of course: guelder rose, holly, cotoneaster.

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I’ve been away, into the darkness.  I sat with it, let it cradle, cajole and challenge me.  I closed the computer five weeks ago and let it languish.  I meditated in the darkness, let my pen and my unconscious guide me in automatic writing, listened to my dreams.  I smelled the print and listened to the rustle of pages as I read.  When I walked, I left my camera behind.  I saw art, in person.  It’s not been comfortable, because connecting to that deep creativity also makes space to dredge up doubt and despair.  My creativity was stripped back and emptied out.  Now, I’m armed only with dreams and bones.  The architecture of what might be created in the months to come, waiting to have the meat and the muscle and the individuality added.  I’ve seen the patterns begin to emerge – one idea building upon another, unlikely links forming, layer on layer, becoming seeds of something soon to be born.

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This season of unrelenting darkness is not without light.  Dark, drizzly mornings are illuminated by Christmas lights, glowing coldly in the gloom.  Strings of silver snowflakes hung between streetlights.  White fairy lights dangling from branches.  Decorated trees glowing in almost every window.  It’s difficult to accept that the sun is returning so we ward off the darkness with electricity.  But the longest night is over.  The days will grow longer now towards spring.  The harvest is long gone, but the seeds sown in this last year are still bearing fruit, letting me know that the creative spark is still burning.  I’ve had my first glimmers of success in this new creative year:  a special commendation for a story in the Prole magazine Prolitzer Prize for Prose Writing and publication in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual.

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The sun is reborn to a wild and overcast day.  Storm clouds gather in the south and the sun struggles to penetrate them.  But in the north, a rainbow illuminates the sky, a promise of the light to come.

The creative maelstrom

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Often, without warning, my dog bolts around the house at great speed for seemingly no good reason.  It’s a different type of motion to the playful, leaping run when he’s outside on a walk.  This is a frenzied sprint, ears back with the force of his speed.  He’ll tear back and forth along the hallway, or invent his own circuit, over sofas, under coffee tables, onto chairs, as we watch, wincing, fearful that he’ll crash into something. It’s a frenzy, but it appears to be an exhilarating, joyful outburst that he relishes.  Then, it’s over.

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As 2013 came to an end, I felt something like my dog must in one of those moments.  It was as though the gales that have battered us on and off for the last couple of weeks had given birth to a storm of inspiration and creative energy.  In the last ten days of the year I wrote two short stories, entered two competitions, created five pages for my blog, wrote two blog posts, completed a painting, defined my creative goals for the year and incubated ideas for three new stories.  In the midst of my own creations, I devoured the creations of others: movies, books, music, diaries.  The first few weeks in December were a fallow period for me.  As usual, I didn’t worry about that, and this was my reward – a creative maelstrom.

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I love periods like these.  The level of creativity I experienced isn’t commonplace.  It may happen only a few times a year as strongly as this and that’s probably just as well, as I couldn’t sustain it all year round.  Because as well as the joy of it, there’s also a kind of insanity.  My mind jumps from one thing to another – composing a story in my head while trying to read, pausing to write something in my notebook, turning on the laptop to capture something.  Just as my dog tears around the house – fast, focused, steely – so my creative brain is engaged.  I don’t want to sleep, because I want to do more.  I’ve written and I’ve painted but I still want to cram in a movie and some reading before bed.

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I reaped the rewards of the fertile darkness, when I embraced the dark weeks after Halloween to conjure my dreams.  Those dreams were born from the midwinter solstice and the midwinter storms.  Like the act of birth itself – messy, painful, joyous, chaotic – so my dreams for the year have been born and started making themselves felt, like babies screaming for sustenance.  The maelstrom is difficult to resist or to retreat from.  And I don’t want to retreat – I’d happily drown in it.  The only way to approach it is to surrender to the current until eventually it subsides, as it will.  Because just as there will always be another fallow period, there will always be another maelstrom.  Dizzying, wonderful, fast, frenzied and productive, but fleeting.

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And then, just before the year ticked over into the new one, the storm abated.  New Year’s Day brought a new moon, usually a time for optimism and new projects, but for me, new moons are often challenging.  I was left restless, the excitement of creation gone and a feeling of emptiness in its place.  But this is another lesson in how to use those cycles of creativity – the harder work is what to do with the fruits of the maelstrom once it’s over.

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I write this with a black eye and half my face swollen to twice it’s normal size, mouth drooping in the way it did when I had Bell’s palsy as a child.  This isn’t the result of a new year punch-up, but of a rare reaction to something much more prosaic –  a root canal.  I’ve begun 2014 confined to the house, loaded with painkillers and dodging pain.  It hasn’t been conducive to creativity.  But perhaps it has been a necessary counterpoint to the maelstrom that ended the last year, a period of enforced rest that will help me to hone the ideas that came up in the storm more effectively.

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There are only four weeks remaining of the time I think of as the honing period, that space between the solstice and Candlemas (Imbolc), when the first signs of spring tentatively appear.  It’s the time when I will take hold of all those birthed ideas and refine them, so that when it comes to Candlemas, I can plan their fruition.  How you hone is in the way that is best for you.  For me it involves pondering, making lists, writing about them.  But as with all magic, it’s about how you keep the intention within you.  So, as I go on my winter walks, I’ll be looking for keepsakes that will remind me of each goal, like the sprig of ash seeds blown from the trees in the storms, objects that I can charge at Imbolc to keep these goals always in my mind.

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Storms still rage around me.  Large parts of the UK are flooded and all around is a flurry of new intentions.  You have to go with the tempest when it strikes, but it’s not only how you weather the storm that counts.  Always keep a little focus in the back of your mind, so that when it’s over, you’ve saved the treasures, not just the wreckage.

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.

A creative year

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At Halloween, the wheel of the year turned.  The energies of the old year waned, to clear the way for a new year with a fresh tide of energy.  There’s no need to wait until 1st January to make new year resolutions.  Instead, you might want to begin now, using the rhythms of the ancient year to plan and complete your creative projects.  Whether we realise it consciously or not, we are attuned to these natural energies and the cycles of the sun.  So it makes sense to plan our year around the hooks of the seasons.  One reason so many new year’s resolutions fail could be that we dive straight into them at a time when we should still be shaping our plans ready for spring.  Using the wheel of the year gives us the necessary prompts to begin our projects with the proper preparation and to give them the right kind of focus at the times that feel appropriate.

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It may seem strange that a year based on cycles of energy should begin when everything is dying.  More appropriate perhaps, to begin in spring, when the earth is vital and fresh energy abounds.  But there can be no spring without a period of rest and preparation and this is what the start of the year is about.   Think of winter as a dreaming time.  The weeks between Halloween and the winter solstice should be still and introspective.  They’re a time to dream, but to dream with purpose.  Don’t fritter away the hushed, dark months.  Use them to visualise what your creative dreams will be this year.  What will you write?  What will you paint? What do you want to harvest when autumn comes again?  This is not a time for realism, but for dreaming your biggest dreams of what your year could be.

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At the winter solstice, the sun and mother nature are reborn and the spark of creativity grows a little brighter.  Daylight slowly begins to lengthen after the longest night.  It may still seem like the dreaming time, but there has been a barely perceptible shift.  Think of this as a honing time.  Begin to shape and sharpen your dreams.  Now is the time to hone those visions into goals and projects you’re confident you can put into practice.

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At Candlemas, the first small signs of spring begin to appear.  It’s a depressing time for many, with the distractions of yuletide over and the days still cold and dark.  Spring still feels far away.  I think of this as the incubating time.  You’ve honed your ideas and now it’s time to sow the seeds of the year’s projects and plan how you’ll nurture them.  As the seeds start to germinate in the slowly warming ground, begin to gather the materials and tools you will need and decide what action you will take to put your plans into practice.

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Spring equinox heralds the growing time.  Now is the time for action.  You should be able to see and feel the signs of spring.  Though the weather is unsettled and the winds blow, they bring with them a point of balance followed by fresh energy.  After the equinox, the days will be longer than the nights.  Your spirit should feel lighter and ready for action.  It’s time to focus and put all your energy into making the projects you’ve dreamed about happen.

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By Beltane, you should be seeing real signs of progress.  This is a festival of joy, sensuality, fertility and self-expression.  It’s a time to revel in the act of creation and the effect this has on your senses.  After the preparation of winter and spring, your mind should be fertile with ideas.  Beltane is the beginning of the blooming time, when your projects begin to flourish.  This is also a good time for collaboration with others and communal celebration.

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Summer solstice arrives and the sun is at its height.  This is the longest day and you should be making the most of the warmth and light of summer to help your projects thrive.  This is a time of empowerment, when the time is right to pursue outward success.  You could use this as a period to show or submit your work, or to ensure it’s ready for you to do so.   But don’t forget that after today, the days become shorter.  So the solstice is also a reminder to make the most of what is left of the light, to boost your health and gather energy to prepare you for the winter.

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Lammas is the first harvest and marks the fading of summer.  This is the tide of transformation.  As the sun fades, its spirit is woven into the corn to preserve it through the winter.  Wheat is cut down but is transformed into bread and baked goods to feed us.  You’ve worked hard on your creative projects since the beginning of the year and now is partly a time to recognise the work you’ve done and the sacrifices you’ve made.  But you can still affect what your final harvest will be, so it’s time to reflect on what still needs to be done to achieve your goals.

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Autumn equinox leads us into balance once more, but this time darkness will begin to take over.  This is a time of storms and tension, as we accept that the light is dying and darkness coming.  We now turn inwards.  This is the harvesting tide, when you have your reckoning.  Have you achieved all of the things you wanted to achieve this year?  What could you have done differently to gather the harvest you would have wished for?  Whatever the outcome, you should make time to celebrate your successes and begin to consider the seeds you will sow next year.

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Finally, we return to Halloween, when we honour our ancestors, including the artists and writers who have gone before and inspired us.  We also try to divine the future and create a little mischief before retreating back into the dreaming time.  So if you think using the wheel of the year could work for you, it’s time to begin.  Don’t be downhearted by the encroaching darkness.  Instead, use it as an opportunity to dream bigger than you’ve ever dreamed before.

Click on the links for more information about the themes of each festival and look out for upcoming posts that will explore these ideas in more detail. 

(If you live in the southern hemisphere, the year may make more sense to you if you begin at Beltane.)