Finding Christmas

It doesn’t matter how many times I see the words Merry Christmas, or how many cards I receive or send, or how many lights I see on trees or strung across streets or over buildings – Christmas doesn’t exist for me until it happens in my heart.

And because of this, the whole season has assumed a kind of hallucinatory quality; the other day I saw a bus come barrelling down the Skipton Road towards me with the words Happy Christmas lit up in front where the number and destination ought to be. For a moment I thought perhaps it was a Christmas special but just before it passed me the signboard flashed and changed to its normal display – in time for people at the bus stop to know what it was and where it was going. I wondered how I should be feeling, and whether this should make me feel festive, but all I had was a strange sense of dislocation.

This is the same bus company that a few days ago had a staff member dressed up as Santa Claus giving out mince-pies and gifts to passengers boarding at the bus station, and I’m warmed, really I am, by every gesture that spreads a smile and a bit of happiness and goodwill. But somehow it’s as if there are two Christmases – the one that happens outside, and the one that happens on the inside, and that’s the one has to be lit, ignited, felt.

This asks for a search, something individual and subtle, something special and magical. It has to be a journey of the imagination….

Want to give it a try?

It could start anywhere, but let’s say the journey starts in a crowded Christmas market. I don’t have to describe it – just picture it for yourself. All the sounds, the smells, all the lights and the twinkly stuff. And there in the middle of all this, largely unnoticed by everyone, is a sign saying Christmas Journey, and what looks like the entrance to a sideshow or a tent – but with nothing more than two undecorated Christmas trees blocking the way in. There’s no-one to take your money or try to give you a ticket. It looks – well, puzzling. But different. So you push aside the branches and gently work your way through into the darkness inside…..

Now, what happens next is the part that only you can see. I can’t describe it, because everyone’s journey is different, but as soon as you arrive inside you are on a path – all you have to do is to walk it, and walk slowly, seeing and smelling, feeling and listening. I don’t know exactly what you will see or who or what you may meet……

I can say that there may be snow. For me, there often is – I frequently find myself walking in a pine forest with snow covering the trees and the path ahead, and all I can hear for a while is the sound of my footsteps muffled but audible, that soft creaking sound that footsteps make in snow. And the feel of cold air in my nostrils, and the warmth of my breath. I walk for some time through this forest, with a dark sky overhead and light only from the stars.

Then sometimes the forest gives way to a cold desert hillside, rocky and hard, and the sky overhead opens up into an immense dome of stars, and one of these is brighter than all the rest.

I’ve met creatures of all kinds when I make this journey – rabbits, sheep, camels, once a bear, several times reindeer. I’ve seen and watched other travellers. The road is always different but the destination is always the same.

A rough shed, or outbuilding of some sort – a stable.

There’s a carol called The Children’s Song Of The Nativity that starts by asking ‘How far is it to Bethlehem?’ and the answer – ‘Not very far’. Bethlehem is of course several thousands of miles from where I am in Yorkshire, but it’s also only a very short distance away – as near or as far as my imagination makes it. And this is where I arrive:

How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by a star?

Can we see the little Child?
Is He within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?

May we stroke the creatures there
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
Jesus asleep?

If we touch His tiny hand
Will He awake?
Will He know we’ve come so far
Just for His sake?

Peace, and love of the deepest, most extraordinary kind, the kind that comes out of silence and stillness, love that came from the beginning of time and lasts forever.

I sit down in the straw, and know, and feel in the deepest part of my heart, that this is Christmas.

Barbed Wire and Fairy Lights

I find it hard to know what to say these days. This last week, watching the new order play out under newly installed president Trump has been a bit like standing in a blizzard. I’ve found it hard to take in, and exhausting; if it’s having this effect on me here in Britain, I can only imagine how it feels on the other side of the Atlantic. When my thoughts are in a tangle, I write; when I can’t think, I draw, and often I discover more that way. 

Barbed wire from the trenches, 1st World War

My local museum has a cabinet with a miscellaneous collection of objects from the first world war and on Thursday, the day Theresa May travelled to Washington as the first world leader to meet Donald Trump I found myself standing in front of this display drawing strands of barbed wire from the trenches on the western front. I don’t have the words to describe how I felt, studying this stuff, thinking about what it means to create barriers of this kind and the horrors of what this did. I stood there drawing and thinking about walls, and fences, and detention centres; about refusing refugees. About people who are now living in increasing uncertainty and fear, and how the whole world is now a more uncertain place for everyone. 

I thought a lot after I’d come home with this drawing about what its opposite would be. Closing my eyes and drifting off to sleep that night I thought about Amnesty International’s symbol of a burning candle surrounded by barbed wire…….. 

Faced with such immediate threats to democracy, to freedom of speech and freedom of movement, being fed lies and witnessing ever more division and racism and hatred – it’s hard to know what to do, what to say, or how to say it. It’s overwhelming and intimidating, and it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing I could do that could possibly make the slightest difference. But neither can I bear to stand by and not do anything. I keep thinking of those words of Edmund Burke’s, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As true today as it was 200 years ago (except that today he would have said men and women). I can’t go on marches, the way thousands did last weekend all around the world. I can support organisations like Amnesty, I can show solidarity and add my signature to petitions and write to my MP. But none of these make me feel as if I’m creating any light in the darkness. 

I spend the first few minutes of every day after waking up simply filling the landscape of my heart and mind with light. I imagine I’m watching the sun rise and I watch it hit the tops of distant mountains and gradually flow down the slopes and into every valley. I consciously try to feel the warmth of the sun, and I greet it with every part of me. If I can start the day filled with light, it makes a difference to the way I read the news, the way I talk over breakfast with my husband, the way I think when I go out shopping, when I drive the car, when I speak to the assistant at the supermarket checkout. I smile more often. I think fewer dark thoughts, I’m less anxious and more relaxed. 

I think this can produce a chain reaction. I think it often does. 

Like a tiny ant, I’m not going to look up at the towering ant-hill above me and think, I can’t do this, building this is beyond me. I can simply be a good ant and do what I can as well as possible – and actually that feels good. And then I realise that there are thousands – millions – of us out there doing the same thing, glowing not terribly brightly but glowing all the same, and together we’re lighting the darkness like a string of fairy lights. 

Then I knew what I had to draw. 

Festive Focus 

There’s something about a string of coloured lights. They seem to do so much more than you’d expect, as if there really is alchemy in the glow of colour in the long hours of winter darkness. This year my family has made the discovery of battery operated LED lights and the fun and the wonder of being able instantly to light up any dark corner or decorate some quiet forgotten object. (Not that this rat that sits looking out of the bedroom window is forgotten – he may be quiet but he is never ignored.) 

I’ve rediscovered the extraordinary peace that comes from silently gazing at coloured lights. In fact silent gazing is something I’ve not done enough of for a long time and I’ve been consciously doing more if it whenever I can; I take long slow moments to look at the hillside across the valley, shrouded in mist; at the sun rising behind a cloud bank washing the sky with pink and turquoise and coral; at my neighbour’s Christmas tree put up hastily outside her door on Christmas Eve once the storm had passed and decorated with a flourish of warm white flashing lights. 

And then I read Susan McCulley’s latest post and understood why I’m doing all of this gazing, and why I need to do so much more, and regularly. What I gaze at, I focus on. Everything else falls away. This is the festive season, but it’s also the season of peace. 

 

A contribution to the WordPress prompt festive

Against A Wall

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It’s a grey, damp day, and cold. It doesn’t feel like Spring when the wind whips icy rain against the window and when on the tops of the hills it falls as snow, lower down as sleet. Days like this with no sunshine and very little colour feel like a dead-end, a bit like running up against a brick wall.

But then again walls are not uninteresting. Whether brick or stone, they can be very promising. There’s always more to see when you settle in to where you are and look. They’re not as simple as they seem.

Walls have presence; even half broken down a wall is a substantial thing with a history and a meaning. Where doors and windows have been bricked up or moved, the whole purpose of the wall has changed but the story is still there to be told right from the beginning. People walked in and out through those doors, sat inside and worked by the light from those windows, and looked out. It’s tangible history, set in stone – and you can reach out and touch it.

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Weekly Photo Challenge

Twinkle

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I seem to miss most Christmas events. I’d forgotten to put Christmas At The Castle in my diary, and it was over before I’d realised; I missed the local school choir’s carol concert the same way. I don’t go into town often enough after dark to see the Christmas lights festooned around the square.

I went up to Cliffe Castle anyway, one damp dark afternoon this week. I’d seen a poster about the weekend’s events that I’d missed and wondered what the surprise was that was billed to take place in the old aviaries, empty of birds now the restoration work is going on.

Decorations hung in the cages, still sparkly, but limp and a bit forlorn in the gloom of the late afternoon. A Santa’s Grotto without a Santa, a feeling of the morning after the night before. And viewing these sad twinkly things locked up in cages as if they were somehow exotic and dangerous gave me a strange feeling, as if they were really something else disguised, just wrapped up in tinsel and glitter. Put something in a cage, behind bars, and it changes how you see it.

Nevertheless, I’m a sucker for a sparkly object on a cold wet grey December day; give me half a chance and I’ll be beguiled into drawing close and losing myself in the magic of it – and so it was that I found myself with my nose pressed up aganst the wire and gazing at a enormous glittering orb, all colours of the rainbow and frosted like ice.

There’s an infinite world of wonder in a big sparkling globe like this; there are extraordinary wonders in the smallest twinkling decorations on a Christmas tree, and all it takes for these wonders to materialise it is the time it takes to gaze for a few minutes and think of nothing else.

See more twinkly pictures here at the Weekly Photo Challenge

Going Back For More

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Today we had sunshine as well, and although I didn’t manage to photograph it there was an enormous bumble bee burrowing headfirst into the flowers. First crocuses, and now bees and sunshine. I know it won’t last because that’s how it is; spring comes in fits and starts, but this was the first real taste of what will come and everyone feels the happier for it – every walker in the park today was quick to smile. In the lime trees a song thrush was belting out a glorious improvisation of cascading trills and melodies, and repeating each bit of song (which is what I’ve since learnt that song thrushes do) as if for the sheer enjoyment of it.

On days like this it’s better not to think, not to try to put anything into words, but just to look and listen and feel, to soak it all in and be refreshed and replenished. And I had to share these too.

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Time Out

I’m in heaven. Actually I’m in Bradford, in Waterstones bookshop in the old Wool Exchange, possibly one of the most beautiful bookshops in the country – and I’m upstairs in the gallery café, looking down into the well of the shop with its illuminated shelves of books, and up into the wonder that is the vaulted ceiling, carved and panelled and painted and letting in the last of the afternoon light through leaded windows in the roof. And I am drinking an enormous mug of hot tea and eating the best dark chocolate chip cookie I have ever tasted.

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As soon as I placed the tea tray on a table next to the railing at the edge of the gallery and settled myself down, I could smell the intoxicating smell of chocolate wafting up towards me, and I let out a long involuntary sigh of pure pleasure. I knew this was going to be a time to remember, and I wasn’t wrong because this happened three days ago and I’m still happily reliving every moment.

Let me explain. I do not often go out, alone, in a town. My almost daily walks with a camera are near to home and mostly in the park two minutes from my house, and a day without a walk like this feels a bit like living in a room without windows; I go outside to stretch my eyes and still my thoughts and relax with the rythymn of my footsteps, and to breathe and feel the air. It’s enough to recharge me, to realign me, and helps me come home to myself. But reading Andrea Badgley’s recent post on her blog Butterfly Mind I was struck by the idea of an Artist’s Day Out, and I couldn’t stop thinking that it was something I really, really wanted to do.

I began to think about how long it had been since I gave myself the opportunity to go out somewhere and explore, to wander, to nourish myself by doing something simple but out of the ordinary and I realised it’s been not weeks or even months, but years. There are many reasons why it’s been so long; chronic fatigue being the main one, but if I’m honest this is sometimes more of an excuse than a reason. It’s easy to put the idea of taking time out at the bottom of my list of priorities, so much so that I would feel very uncomfortable with the thought of carving out a whole afternoon to do nothing more than enjoy myself in an unstructured, random sort of a way.

When I recognise that I want very much to do something and at the same time am resisting it vigorously, I know it’s time to take action because experience tells me it’s something I badly need. So when I found myself presented with the chance to spend several hours doing anything I felt like doing, in the centre of Bradford, I jumped at the chance to do just that.

I wandered about. I watched people in the street. I listened to street musicians and I ambled around Centenary Square and admired the architecture of City Hall. I got tired and found refuge in the Impressions Gallery and sat for a long while in the studio there, (they have sofas!) gazing out of the plate glass windows, watching people in the square feeding pigeons, meeting friends, hurrying past with shopping bags. Then I spent a leisurely half hour taking in the photographs in the current exhibition.

Because by now I had settled down enough to be responsive in an unfamiliar place, I found myself wanting to take photos. The gallery reception has cerise coloured walls and is all clean post-modernism with exposed ducting in the ceiling, silver and shiny and unbelievably clean. (Does someone climb up there once a week with a feather duster?) I took pictures that looked like the inside of an immaculate designer spaceship, and then sat some more on the pink sofa and wrote in my notebook.

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I made my way slowly back into the centre of town past City Hall now glowing the colour of caramel in the setting sun, feeling hungry and thinking of tea, but I drifted past Starbucks hoping for something better and when I found myself standing in front of the Wool Exchange and realised what I’d stumbled upon somehow I wasn’t surprised. By now I would have expected nothing less.

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I couldn’t have wished for a better day out. It did more for me than I ever expected, and I won’t leave it too long before doing it again. I can hardly wait…

Exploring New Worlds

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I have been climbing
through canyons
of light; basking
on the round smoothness
of golden silk-soft slopes;
diving headlong
down deep
into dark crevasses,
finding secrets.
I have been
lying cradled
in the curl of an edge
suspended
in space;
sheltered,
concealed.
I’ve been drenched
by dew drops
the size of dinner-plates,
then warmed
by sunlight
filtered through
gossamer canopies
of pale gold,
and all the time
breathing it in,
drinking deep,
held captive by wonder.

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Postscript:
I said in my last post Suddenly, New Worlds that I thought I would be discovering images that needed no words. And I have been. But all of a sudden I found I couldn’t help trying to write about what it feels like to dive into these pictures and get lost in places I’ve never seen in quite this way before. I never stop being amazed by how the ordinary, the everyday – or what we mistakenly think of as ordinary and everyday – can turn in the blink of an eye into something completely different, extraordinary, and magical.

Message in a Bottle

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I’ve been publishing posts during the last few weeks from an Android phone. Not from choice, you understand, but from necessity as I am without a computer and an internet connection, and now and again this has led to some false starts and accidents; this post for example got itself published before I’d written anything but the title and required some frantic scrabbling about before I could retrieve it and get it back into a draft. So my apologies to anyone who received notice of it only to find a non-existent entry…..I’m new to all this and I find it exciting but alarming as I grapple with the shock of the new. I am after all a grey haired old thing, even if a dapple-grey.

Having said that, I find it nothing short of miraculous that I can write and insert photographs and publish everything – and all this from a small thing I hold in my hand and which doubles as a camera and numerous other things as well. It all seems like magic to me. I have to remind myself that this is quite normal technology these days, and that just about the only thing this tiny device can’t do is to beam me aboard the starship Enterprise.

Writing blog posts has always felt to me a bit like sending out a message in a bottle. I think it’s part of its appeal – not knowing who might read it and where they might be, or even if it will be read at all or rather sink without trace. It’s all about saying something from the heart and then letting go, in the hope that perhaps it may mean something to someone somewhere – but this remains an unknown, an uncertainty, which I like. I think this is how it should be.

If posts are the messages, WordPress is the ocean, and I’m as grateful for that as I am for the ocean itself. I’ve sometimes retrieved and read messages that have been written, or so it has seemed, especially for me – words that have spoken so clearly with me in mind that I’ve exclaimed out loud.

Thank you all for what you write, for taking the time and for writing from the heart, and for sending them out into the world. Your messages are getting through.