Of Rainbows and Burning Branches

When I realised I’d just spent the last 10 minutes by the window, staring at a rodent that was fine-dining on the fat crumbs from the bird feeder, I decided I probably needed to get out more. To be fair, the rodent was a bank vole – that round-eared, snub-nosed cousin of the mouse – and it was a lot more interesting than your average hamster. But even so.

I’d finished work that afternoon on the first draft of a text, and my brain and eyes were aching from pushing words around. In fact, I was beginning to feel a little like the Jack Nicholson character in the Shining typewriter scene – ‘All work and no play…’

Fortunately, while being a freelancer can be a risky, feast-or-famine and occasionally lonely business, one of the perks is that you are, after all, your own boss. If you need to take a few moments out, there’s no one to tell you that you can’t. I pulled on my parka and headed through the door.

It started to rain – but no matter. The light was a curious cast of brilliance against dark rolling clouds, and the horizon was smudged by the tail of a rainbow. By the time I reached my destination, the drizzle had cleared and the sky had cleared to blue. The trees were bare, but out on the lake a pair of willows burned like two torches, their reflections catching fire in the water.

As I walked, I let go of the day’s trivia. And for a moment I experienced that sense of freedom which carries with it an echo of childhood – of just being. It didn’t last long, but it was enough.

Today, I made a point of going for a quick stroll at lunchtime. Just down the lane and into the fields, squelching through mud. And, yes, it rained and, yes, I got soaked. But again it didn’t much matter. I returned to my desk feeling alive and awake – and promising to give myself permission to get out more. To live a little.

Light

When I was a child, living in the south of Sweden, my family learned to live with the dark – with mornings slow and red to rise, hours settled in the silence of snow, and days over before they seemed to begin. One of the local traditions that we embraced was the lighting of a thin, white Advent candle, marked with the days of December. I remember watching the date burn down almost greedily, the flame twinned with its reflection in the black of the window.

Those flickering slivers of light, how important they are, as we brace ourselves against the cold. At this time of year, light becomes infused with a particular religiousness. It becomes an essential, a tilting lantern on a small boat rocked by the passing of the seasons. How can it come as any surprise that light is such a powerful symbol?

In love with light, we ward off the threat of overwhelm, of being swallowed by immensity. In our good cheer, with hearths lit and sparkling strings of fairy lights strung around our homes, we acknowledge, in a way, how fragile we are.

Such little sparks. Beautiful against the vastness of the dark.

Red Sun

Yesterday, I was sitting at my desk, tapping away at computer, when the world appeared to end. The sky turned a singed orangey-yellow colour, and, when I peered outside, the sun was blood red. It was 10.20 in the morning, and birds took to the sky as though getting ready to roost for the night. In the distance, dogs began to bark.

After two or three hours, the last remnants of Hurricane Ophelia whirled past like the skirts of a dancer. The sun lost some of its crimson glow. Yet the shadows it cast remained tinged with orange. The atmosphere was eerie and a friend driving across the country said she thought a meteor was about to strike.

Of course, every day somebody’s world somewhere ends in one sense or another – perhaps through loss, happenstance, accident or simple chance. At some of those times it can seem impossible to make sense of it all.

Yesterday’s spectacular red sun was quickly explained by the media: Saharan sand kicked up by Ophelia’s heels apparently, along with debris from forest fires in Portugal and Spain.

Nevertheless, despite knowing the facts, that sense of initial disquiet stayed with me for a while. I imagined how strange the rust-coloured sky would have appeared to somebody a couple of hundred years ago: perhaps a worrying omen or a divine sign. Yesterday’s red sun shone light on a deep-rooted human instinct – on our comfort in the familiar, and on the uncertainty and anxiety we feel in the face of change.

On Sadness

The leaves on the horse chestnut trees are turning crisp and brown, curling at the edges like pieces of paper held too close to the fire. Apples weigh down the orchard boughs, the remaining plums are beginning to speckle with rot; and there is an expectation in the air, a slight chill in the morning. We are entering autumn, perhaps the most melancholy season.

For these past two weeks, I have sensed it coming. I’ve not felt like doing anything much creative, writing or painting. That isn’t to say I haven’t been busy with work and life generally – only that I’ve been slow to make headway with projects of my own.

Ordinarily, I’d be tempted to give myself a hard time about my lack of get-go, but this year I’m inclined to be a little kinder than usual. So far, 2017 has been a bumpy ride for many people I know, and sometimes it’s important, I think, to acknowledge the fact that life can feel hard; and, actually, there is no need to march on regardless, with some sort of rictus grin stuck to your face… It’s fine to slow down a little. It’s ok to be sad.

By sadness, I’m not referring to the sort of incapacitating depression that requires professional help, but to an emotion that I suspect we all too often try to brush aside in pursuit of would-be action-packed, colourful,  seemingly perfect lives. Sadness means recognising loss and failure, grief and upset, distress and longing; and realising that things could perhaps be better – but they are, sadly, what they are.

Yet, like any season, with time sadness too will pass. As Julian of Norwich put it over six hundred years ago: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The leaves are turning, and soon the trees will be gold.

Colour Vision

A recent visit to Falmouth Art Gallery has set me thinking about colour.

The work of two artists was on display: that of Rose Hilton, a member of the St Ives group of post- war Modernist artists, and Winifred Nicholson (1893–1981). In the gallery showing Hilton’s paintings, the bright oranges and reds of her canvases zinged around the room like improvised jazz, whereas Winifred Nicholson’s work seemed altogether gentler, a melody of muted interiors and landscapes. Yet both artists explore the relationship between colour and form.

For Winifred Nicholson, a shade of magenta pink proved key, which when combined with yellows adds luminosity. She particularly enjoyed painting flowers as, to her, they were a consistent source of colour, ‘turning light into rainbows’ and offering ‘the secret of the cosmos’.

In an age of pickled sharks and unmade beds, Winifred Nicholson’s work might perhaps appear a bit twee at first sight. But when I looked closely at her paintings, I would see each petal was a whorl of energy.

I’m drawn to the idea that a subject doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful on the surface to be saying something quite profound beneath it. And that – to paraphrase something I’m sure I read in one of Winifred’s letters on display – there is a creative freedom that comes from focusing on those colours we wish to work with, while disregarding the rest. There’s no need to cram everything in, whatever we’re making; whether it’s a novel or a painting, simplicity brings with it a certain lightness.

 

(Freesias by Sue Belfrage)

Midsummer Magic

A few miles away, there is a hillfort reputed to be the last resting place of King Arthur and his knights. Legend has that every seven years, on St John’s Eve (23rd June), the king and his knights wake from their slumber and ride out from their hollow towards Glastonbury. The jingle of bridles rings through the night air and if you bathe your eyes in Arthur’s Well on the fourth trench – and are true of heart – you can see the men go on their way.

I have neither heard nor seen the King and his entourage (perhaps I need to work on my true heartedness),  yet I’ve long known this hillfort to be a magical place. Rising up like an island, it offers long views over the land, and a cloutie tree used to grow on its banks. Churned-up mud can sometimes make the lower path tricky to navigate, but the upper slopes circle in a ridge like a dragon’s back.

It’s a place I sometimes visit when I’ve a bit of thinking to do – about things that have gone badly or well. By the time I walk back down, I’ve often regained a sense of perspective. It’s amazing how a short walk can do that for you – and there are few times of year as glorious to be out walking as midsummer, when the trees are in full leaf and the grass is long. No wonder King Arthur chooses this time of year to hit the road.

Most recently I’ve been thinking about my book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees, which was published last Thursday. While it’s been a boost to see it in the high street shops at last and to hear the audio version (a taster of which you’ll find here), I’ve already got that niggling sense of … and now what?

Most likely, I suspect, the answer will come to me when I’m out walking.

 

(The photo shows the view south, to the neighbouring hill.)

Arrivals and Departures

This morning our postman, Phil, handed me a small, white package through the downstairs window, and I put it immediately to one side. I already knew what was in it and held off opening it for a little while. I can’t quite explain why.

In the package was an advance copy of my first book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees, which will officially be published in a couple of weeks’ time. The arrival of this advance copy in the post marked a year to the day since I’d left my old job to embark on a freelance career. Quite the anniversary present!

A year ago, I had no idea what the future held. All I knew was that I needed to make some changes and couldn’t delay them any longer. I was lucky to have some savings put aside and the support of my other half, so I took the plunge – and resigned.

It was a good summer and I spent a lot of time outdoors, painting landscapes and in the beautiful surroundings of a friend’s garden. It was, in a way, a deeply healing experience – simply standing there, looking at the shapes and colours of the plants, feeling the breeze and hearing the birdsong. There is something very restorative and mindful about painting landscapes, whatever the elements throw at you or your canvas (though I can definitely say that oil paints and rain aren’t such a good mix).

At the end of the summer, a seed had been sown. And that seed has grown into the new book.

There is a famous piece from Goethe, ‘On Being Bold’. Now, I’ve had that piece stuck to my wall for more years than I care to remember – but the truth of it struck me again today:

‘The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur that would never otherwise have occurred.’

A year ago, as I sat on a train home, feeling a little bit wistful and cradling a bunch of farewell flowers, I had no idea that a small, white package would arrive in the post today. Who knows what the next twelve months will bring?