Seasons’ Readings – and Returnings…

There’s something I’ve noticed about my reading in recent years. I seem to move through phases. Like the moon. Or the seasons. Quartering the year with rolling colours of moods; kaleidoscope changes that meld thoughts, like fragments of stained glass, into patterns – never exactly the same twice, but falling loosely into the same corner of the year; same time, same place.

I’ve noticed that around the autumn – September through to November – the excitement of the turning globe, the tightening drawstring of migration, the freefall of the trees – and the belt-loosening outbreath of the land as it settles down beneath its knee-blanket of frost – all turns me outward.  I want to be outside, or by the window – to be watching, noticing, swept up in the passing. I want to take records, to ponder, to be a naturalist, a citizen scientist; to look for the tiniest detail on a goldfinch’s wing; the last glint of a dragonfly on a leaf; the bloom of fungi in rotting wood.

For a short while, my reading turns almost wholly towards nature writing, natural history, landscape, sky. I immerse myself in it. Storing for the inner times. I pick up another book, and see the pages ahead as another portal into the grass, water, trees, mountains, clouds; the slippery cloak of the eel winding its way around me – delivering me into animal worlds.

And then, the season will turn. The kaleidoscope shifts. Nearing Christmas, maybe around solstice, the pattern gathers around light-gleaming colours of gold, green, red – firesides and indoor-coddled trees, laden with glittering reflection. Worlds within worlds; glimpsed, hidden.

My thoughts turn to Magic, Imagination; to back-of-the-wardrobe doorways whose frosted hinges crack open into eerie, snow-covered enchantment; to the silence of the forest; witches on brooms; armoured bears; goblets of fire; signs of power; hobbits dodging dragons with trickster words.

The pattern also traces its way into dark, mud-splashed streets, to crumbling houses filled with mystery; their gables and chimneys jutting jaws of stubborn secrecy. Ghosts and memories haunt these places, hovering close to their traditional places by the winter hearth. Clustered in this corner jostle stories tinged with the Gothic, with explorations of rooms behind locked doors, the creaking stairway; the chilly breath that extinguishes the candle.

Or, conversely, the tales invited to the hearth will beam with congenial mirth, placing around my shoulders a blanket against the freezing winds outside. Or best of all, the cosy and the mysterious will take turns by the firelight, mixing their roles within the very same tale.

During Christmas 2013, with the clan gathered together, there was little opportunity for private reading – but we pocketed ourselves away in those safely muffled days, and watched in shared contentment the season’s offering of films, many of them the stuff of the stories above. At the cinema, my daughter and I travelled amongst dwarves and wizards to meet the Elven King (via The Hobbit, Part Two, The Desolation of Smaug); and at home, the whole family journeyed, via television, to Narnia and into the world of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart.

A wonderful, spontaneous ‘Family Story-Gathering’ occurred one day when, happening to check the Radio Times, we saw that, in tribute to the late Joan Fontaine, Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was about to begin on TV. Instantly, we bunched up on the sofa, ready to dream of returning to Manderley again…

2013 had its ups as well as its downs, but was generally a very difficult year, filled with worry and strain. The ever changing reading-kaleidoscope was still pulling my thoughts in various directions – but, each pattern was no more than glimpsed before it had to be shaken loose. There wasn’t much time, or spare mind-space, for actually sitting down to pause, calm the mind and open a book.

On my bedside cabinet there is a tower of unfinished volumes, left suspended at moments when my attention was scattered and my energies were needed elsewhere. At the turn of the New Year, I needed to re-gather and to rest. I needed to read. I hadn’t realised how much I needed to read; how unwell in myself I’d begun to feel without that natural, meditative rhythm the turn of the page gives as the year and days go by. Back in November, reading Julian Hoffman’s beautiful book The Small Heart of Things had been a glorious re-aligning of an inner, homeward compass. And, for a while, I’d also been carrying with me a very timely reminder gifted by the pages of Valerie Davies’s wise and wonderful blog – and I knew I needed to slow down what hours I had available, and to seek some ‘Hestia moments’ of proper, deep solitude…

I selected a volume from the ‘tower’ – slipped into a book-enclosed space – and all the fragments of my scattered self began to return; each one fitting, piece by piece, into its home-place.

I’ve already read more books in the last couple of months than I managed to complete during the whole of 2013 – and it has done me So Much Good. Whole books finished! Not experienced in halted fragments, not stalled by the thought that I should be blogging about one before I move on to the next. My reading has returned to the natural undercurrent of thought-flow, and to the wayfarer tug of change. Some of that reading will float up towards the surface of this blog – soon, or eventually; whenever the time is right. Some may stay deep amongst the fish-haunted rocks and not need to blink in the light to make its presence felt.

I’ve also been spending some time just ‘Being amongst my Books,’ drinking them in, dipping in –

A Section of my bookshelves

 

‘There is also that kind of reading which is just looking at books. From time to time – I can’t say what dictates the impulse – I pull a chair up in front of a section of my library. An expectant tranquillity settles over me. I move my eyes slowly, reading the spines, or identifying the title by its colour and positioning. Just to see my books, to note their presence, their proximity to other books, fills me with a sense of futurity.’

Sven Birkerts, Notes from a confession (1987)

‘I am quite transported and comforted in the midst of my books: they give a zest to the happiest, and assuage the anguish of the bitterest, moments of existence! Therefore, whether distracted by the cares or the losses of my family, or my friends, I fly to my library as the only refuge in distress: here I learn to bear adversity with fortitude.’

Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79)

Oh, yes!

So, in between daily family stuff, I’ve been in a kind of metaphorical cave; in retreat. But, it’s been far from an idle time. It’s been a returning. A regaining of energy and focus, allowing me to be more useful to those around me – and more productive too! I’ve found my way back, through paper, pen and daydreaming to unearthing old rhythms; finding space to let the patterns form and shift towards new ideas and inspiration. I’ve swum my way (over and around various mind-blocks) back into concentrated and determined working on writing projects which I’ve been longing (for a lifetime!) to follow through to fruition.

‘There is renewal in retreat.
This is where you refill the cup.
This is how a writer comes home.’

‘Creativity is a voracious animal. It needs to be fed regularly. If you leave it untended for too long, you run the risk of starving your passion and diminishing your spirit.’

From The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb.

Seasons-of-the-mind always seem to lay trails to follow – pearls made of serendipity and the gritty rub of the subconscious, gleaming their way from book to book, thought to thought.  Tales of selkie folk seem to be tugging me towards a certain roll of the waves. From Berlie Doherty’s beautiful Daughter of the Sea, to the enchantment of Heather Dale singing The Maiden and the Selkie, via a reading (many years ago now) of Susan Cooper’s Seaward, I see ripples behind me that have helped drive me back into the water and towards productive creativity.

One of the books I’ve been dipping into since starting to write this post is Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, published by Rider (Random House Group)

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, published by Rider (Random House Group)

With the current kaleidoscope turn of my mind already on the lookout, my eye was drawn to Chapter 9 – Homing: Returning to OneSelf. There, Pinkola Estes explores the selkie/ sea maiden stories – and tells Sealskin, Soulskin, her version of these ancient tales ‘told among the Celts, the Scots, the tribes of northwest America, Siberian and Icelandic peoples.’ From Pinkola Estes’ explorations, I could pick out dozens of quotes that chimed for me – and which I’m sure, though the book focuses on women, are true for men’s experiences too. Here’s a handful:

‘The psyches and souls of women also have their own cycles and seasons of doing and solitude, running and staying, being involved and being removed, questing and resting, creating and incubating, being of the world and returning to the soul-place. When we are children…the instinctive nature notices all these phases and cycles. It hovers quite near us and we are aware and active at various intervals as we see fit.’ (p.255/6)

‘Home is the pristine instinctual life that works as easily as a joint sliding upon its greased bearing, where all is as it should be, where all the noises sound right, and the light is good, and the smells make us feel calm rather than alarmed. How one spends one’s time in the return is not important. Whatever revivifies balance is what is essential. That is home.

There is not only time to contemplate, but also to learn, and uncover the forgotten, the disused, and the buried. There we can imagine the future and also pore over the scar maps of the psyche, learning what led to what, and where we will go next…..

…..The most important thing I can tell you about the timing of this home cycle is this: When it’s time, it’s time. Even if you’re not ready, even if things are undone, even if today your ship is coming in. When it’s time, it’s time. The seal woman returns to the sea, not because she just feels like it, not because today is a good day to go, not because her life is all nice and tidy – there is no nice and tidy time for anyone. She goes because it is time, and therefore she must.’ (p. 284)

‘In the story, the seal woman dries out as she stays too long…… When a woman is gone too long from home, her ability to perceive how she’s truly feeling and thinking about herself and all other matters begins to dry and crack. She is on “lemming status.” Because she is not perceiving what is too much, what is not enough, she runs right over her own edges.’ (p.278).

‘Long ago the word ‘alone’ was treated as two words, ‘all one.’ To be ‘all one’ meant to be wholly one, to be in oneness, either essentially or temporarily. That is precisely the goal of solitude, to be all one. It is a cure for the frazzled state so common to modern women, the one that makes her, as the old saying goes, “leap onto her horse and ride off in all directions.” (p.292)

– From Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Circumstances, and various mindsets, have kept me on the rocks for far, far too long (years and years!) The recent arrival of another birthday made me even more conscious of how Time and Chance need to be grabbed before the tide carries them away. And, having donned my sealskin/ soulskin (at last!), I feel quite shocked (in a liberating way!) how very covetous I am right now about keeping it wrapped around me. I’m back, riding the wave of the storyteller impulse, which has been rooted in a kind of ‘home season-of-the-mind’ for as long as I can remember. And, during this intense simmering-stage of creating longer pieces of writing, I feel a huge urge to hide away with my notebooks, to put an impenetrable tangle of seaweed around my section of sea, and to immerse myself there completely every precious moment I can. To write, write, write.

Opportunities to do that, and to research, read and to think – and to keep this blog going – all have to share the same very limited pot of time. I’ve already been away too long from my undersea “cave” (struggling over this ‘first-hurdle-post’ back into blogging/internet-mode has taken me an unbelievable number of days – leaving me feeling less like I’m running with the wolves, and more like I’m howling at the moon…) It’s been so, so hard to drag myself away from my notebooks, and I must get back. The Muse (always a tricky character) is drumming her fingertips impatiently – and I’m anxious to keep her by my side. But staying in touch with you, the lovely and inspirational blogging community, is so important to me too, and I want to keep on surfacing in the blogosphere whenever I can. As well as all the unfinished books, there are lots of half-written blog posts left over from last year; lots of fragments waiting to complete their full patterns…

I’ll do my best to keep Bookish Nature rolling along, but the shape of the blog may have to become a bit more quick-moving and streamlined for a while; a good adaptation, I hope, for darting in and out of different waters – and for making sure that blogging remains part of the sealskin/ soulskin adventure…

Thanks so much for sticking with Bookish Nature during my long silence.

More posts are on their way…

Spring is here – and a whole new season of reading is shifting into pattern…

Book Selection

Lesser celandine

More book treasures!

Wood anemone

 

The Way of the Muse – A Feast of Honey-dew?

On her truly magical Mythic Arts blog The Drawing Board, writer, artist and editor, Terri Windling has offered up a delicious word-feast in which she explores artistic inspiration, the Muse, differing approaches to artistic creation (whether by planning or intuition, or both) – and the edgy, fine line that can hover between madness, and the otherworld of the artist/ writer/ poet as shaman. Her post was inspired by the equally wonderful discussion ‘Around the Table’ between Brian and Wendy Froud, Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn over on the John Barleycorn Must Die blog. I highly recommend a visit to the discussion – Part One and Part Two – it’s like attending a magical word-weave of the very web and fabric of creativity and our relationship to the land (why don’t such wonderful discussions ever happen around my kitchen table? If I had a kitchen table… but you know what I mean…)

The poet as shaman made me think of Ted Hughes (but that needs a whole other post to itself, I think!) It also led my thoughts to the incantation and invocation of tipping-edge inspiration in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan – where we glimpse visions brought to us by the precariously balanced seer, enclosed within his magic circle:

‘That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.’

Terri’s post was partly intended as a spark for a Moveable Feast; and additional delicious dishes have since been passed from blog to blog across the world, each serving up their unique and expansive insights and experiences to add to the table.

Feeling daunted and not quite up to the job – but nevertheless unable to ignore the persistent pestering of my muse to serve up something too – here’s my very slow-cooked offering for the after dinner platter:

(The illustrations are the produce of my fifteen year old daughter’s own muse, which is in wonderful, glorious, intuitive flight. They are all part of her work in progress, and are included here by her kind permission. Some are unfinished – all are characters from the current series of fantasy novels she’s creating).

As I’ve spoken about before, my own muse has only just begun to re-awaken after being asleep for a long time; too long. To tell the truth, I find it uncomfortable to talk about the reasons – mainly because it’s a story that doesn’t belong to me alone. I don’t want those reasons to sound like a negation of the whole story’s amazing positives. It’s just life – happening. As it will…

But, to give some sense of context, perhaps I need to do a little filling in. Eleven years ago, my son was born four months too early (at 24 weeks gestation) – right at the very edge of what doctors call “viability.” He was the most fragile and tiniest of human beings (weighing 1 lb. 11 ounces) but his spirit was as huge as the hills. I learnt something truly profound when I watched that spirit overwhelm the limits of the incubator; witnessed my son immediately react, with recognition, to the voices he’d heard in the womb (mine, his dad’s, his sister’s) and reach out to life and love, binding to us with an iron will. Over the months, his determination was stretched, again and again, beyond what seemed possible to endure. Constantly we were told to expect the worst. Every day, every minute…

In the long-term, such things take their toll. In the short-term, with no focus on anything but coping, the whole world shrinks to the size of a plastic box and a ventilator – the universe of the precious scrap of life they support. You fear he will never get out of there. You fear he’ll never feel the sun or see the wide sky, or be touched by the waves of the sea.

Though the glorious day comes when you can lift that baby to the sky, place his feet gently in the sea – watch his gaze as it expands to the wide horizon, and see the wonder in his eyes – all is still not well. Concerns crowd as you realise the childhood milestones are slipping by – and doctors frown and send you to endless consultations. Then the diagnoses pile in – cerebral palsy, epilepsy and a following list of stuff you have to look up, and stuff you don’t want to look up.

Life becomes family and surviving – nothing else matters. Deep-ingrained creativity still did its work, feeding into making sure the children flourished and were nourished by what’s important – but, for a long while, if I thought about personal creative expression at all, it was to realise that it had been shocked into silence, mangled by crisis; sent into hiding by lack of opportunity and energy, and by lost faith in life. As time went on, the Muse woke briefly for intermittent periods – but usually became overwhelmed by the need to just get what had to be done, done. Time came back into my grasp eventually, but mind-space and energy for creating fiction eluded; doubts and slammed-shut doorways of the brain rusted over. Moments when the Muse came back were wonderful, healing. But the fear of opening them up, only to have them slammed shut again, painted a more terrible prospect than not opening them at all, so the safer option seemed preferable.

But it wasn’t the safer option. It was the most self-destructive. For anyone who feels the creative urge, that tug to follow the Muse brings glimpses of an edge of doubts and peril – but I’ve learnt that to not follow leaves you closer to the falling-edge behind you. Only by answering that forward tug, can you get to the edge where you can fly. Sometimes you have to drag yourself there, crawling inch by inch. Sometimes, you can fling open a door, and a following wind lifts you through and hurries you forward, opening the wide sea ahead of you. Sometimes it seems very far away indeed, glimpsed through a keyhole. The Muse changes her mind – gets cross at interruptions. Retreats until ‘the readiness is all.’

But it wasn’t just circumstances that held me back – it was me. When I was a child I would write, write, write – sitting on my bed, notebook on my knees, scribble, scribble. Messy, almost indecipherable words would spill across the page, my aching hand trying to keep up with characters who rushed ahead on their story-paths, beckoning me on as they revealed their tales. I would enter the dreamtime, follow where it took me. But somewhere along the line, I read – and most importantly took far too much to heart – one too many writing guidance books full of market advice and a million and ones things to research and consider. Every time I got into a tangle with my plots, themes, characters – and anyone who writes, will always get into tangles (I know that now) – I would shrink back into those doubts and check lists. What was I doing wrong? What steps did I need to take – 1,2,3? I should have planned more! Wasn’t this or that element floating too wide of the mark of what was required? I began to slip out of engaging with the work itself – and instead, focussed on some kind of outwardly imposed framework that I was trying to hang it on. I got things the wrong way round.

I needed patience, not brow beating. I needed diligence and faith to keep going – and to allow myself to wait for things to unfold out of that deep valley between the two worlds we tread when we create. Stepping away from creativity – and wholly into the world of must-do, daily coping – protects the self only for so long. Getting stuck there withers something. I’ve never discovered what it’s like to step too far into the otherworld – to have dined too much on honeydew and drunk ‘the milk of Paradise,’ to become like Coleridge’s shamanic poet figure. I suspect I never will. I think that requires a level of talent I don’t possess. But I do recognise, to a certain extent, the state Zadie Smith describes in a quote Terri highlights:

‘…a kind of magical thinking takes over….. you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post – I mean there’s nothing in the world except your book…… The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time changes.’

In my twenties, when I made my first adult-years attempt to write what my heart most wants to create – a children’s fantasy novel, I was back in my happy place; the intuitive dreamtime, learning about writing in the best way possible – by doing it every day. Like everything, it has its flipsides – and during that time, I experienced that protracted feeling of not fully returning to this world, or not always paying proper attention to what was said to me – because the phantoms of my characters and story-visions were floating somewhere in between what might be and what is. I understand the Ancient Mariner’s ‘glittering eye’ – his scary, burning need to tell his story.

When I was commissioned by a big magazine publishing company to write children’s short stories for their syndicate sales abroad, I was right in the middle of becoming a mother for the first time. Of course I know now, this was one of the worst times I could have put so much extra pressure on myself. I must have been mad. I remember taking a call from an editor, my new-born daughter draped across my shoulder, trying to take down plot notes, whilst her tiny body hurled colicky howls down the phone line. I’d had a few other pieces of work accepted before, but this was my first chance to fulfil a dream of regular, paid writing work – and I was desperate to grab it whilst it was on offer. I kept on going, writing story after story – following guidelines and formulas the editors supplied. Sometimes the plot lines were theirs. Sometimes they were my own. Sometimes the Muse could stretch and feel fulfilled. Sometimes, my ideas broke out of the required mould – and had to be shaped and pared down beyond recognition. Sometimes the results were an improvement. Sometimes I felt that market requirement limits were shrinking something of integrity to a one size fits all. Some of the reader expectations the editors told me to play to dismayed me. What a shame, I remember thinking, if that’s really what those kids want, or have been taught to want. I wanted to give my young readers something that leapt in many directions; something expansive.

All this was such a valuable education, though. Those experience-wise editors, and those writing challenges, gifted me a lot of learning. But the practical Real World and the Muse World were beginning to collide in a way that was mutually detrimental. Muse World was no longer a healing dreamtime – but a snatched must-time. I was at home all day, fully focussed on the children, and when my husband returned from work to take over the childcare, I’d reluctantly drag myself off to write, painfully trying to switch my brain to otherworld whilst all my thoughts clung to Real World. Those times ate into our precious chances to all be together; whilst deadlines meant that, when a plot problem was knotted in my mind, I became irritable – tugged in different directions by the demands of the two worlds. In a last-gasp fit of madness, I tried to keep that writing opportunity afloat during all the difficult challenges of my son’s early years – but it led to burn out. In the end, wanting to be fully present for my family – plus changes in the children’s magazine market – flung me well and truly back into “Real” World.

Since then, there have been several attempts to get back to the otherworld – but too many hang ups about markets and requirements lingered on, prodding me mercilessly with doubts about my ideas and whether I was up to the mark.

Now I’ve decided that I don’t care if I never see another piece of my work published. I want to write for me; because it’s what I have to do to be me. I want to give myself the chance to achieve the dream I’ve held since I was a child – to write a long, sustained piece of work; to go back to that children’s fantasy novel – and to actually finish it. To know that I can do it. And because the characters are calling me back, insistent that they tell their story.

Then, I will print it off, stick it in a file – and it will be there for my daughter to read. I will have allowed something out that needs to take shape, and will have reached my most important reader. If it’s rubbish, then it’ll be part of an upward learning curve. If I decide it’s worth a punt to send it off for consideration for publication, then I will take that chance. But I won’t have that hanging over me anymore. I won’t let it. It’s like a sword of Damocles ready to descend and destroy something before it’s had a chance to come into being. I want the work to be the best I can do, because I love it; because I’ve engaged fully with the work, and what I expect of me and of it. I’m a tough task master – but the routes in my own brain are navigable in the way that some imposed routes from outside are not. If I don’t identify with the template, I’m never going to make the pattern fit. I can’t do stultifying second-guessing anymore. I need to submit to a more natural flow.

I can feel my muse smiling. She approves. She prefers the dreamtime. She loves the challenge of crafting-time and hard, creative demands too – but only after she’s laid a trail of magic; conjured the material to work with. Reading Terri’s wise and visionary post – and the inspirational comments and linked feasts that follow (so many words of deep insight and experience) – I realised more than ever that it’s okay to work the way I prefer. Okay to work intuitively. Okay to let the crafting be the follower and facilitator of inspiration, not its dictator, warder or potential executioner. And if I drink too much honeydew, sup too much of the ‘milk of Paradise’ (which, quite frankly, is unlikely – I think that’s the preserve of artists who reach a higher plane beyond my capabilities) maybe I’ll taste the other side of the perils of the Muse, and learn from that too. I’ve had enough of the perils of locking her out – and it involved too many draughts of something stagnant. A bitter brew that was not at all like honeydew.

My son has taught me much about life – its realities, its difficulties; the deep value of its smallest joys. He’s taught me to embrace and relax into what is, instead of fretting too much about what will never be. He’s my hero. Like all lessons worth learning, it didn’t come easy – and is on-going. Sometimes, without darkness, riches will never be revealed. Darkness can shed light on things in unforeseeable and unexpected ways. The Muse is a mistress of flipsides too – she’s taught me acceptance of her gifts, via the fears and difficulties. Waking her up, and benefitting from her healing, is getting easier, the more I recognise that.

Reading Terri’s post, the John Barleycorn blog discussions and the various moveable feasts, has prompted in me inspiration and crucial realisations. I realise I’m not alone, but on a shared path, full of turns that are familiar to many. I’m so thankful for that help. And I hope, in putting this out there, I can give something that will, in turn, resonate for others. Perhaps these lessons learnt may echo a journey someone out there needs to know can be resolved. And maybe too, those lessons might help my daughter, should she ever need them as guideposts on her creative path one day…

In the meantime, I’m weaving many, many wishes that her beautiful, intuitive muse will forever fly…