Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Gift of a Leaf

I don’t spend enough time outdoors. It doesn’t seem to matter than the scenery around me is wonderful, or that I have a bus pass to get me to places – I am a lover of pottering at home. I was already coming up with excuses why I might not make it to Poetry in Motion and their ramblings around Evanton Woods. You’ll be glad to know I refused to listen to myself. I hunted down bus times, made a packed lunch, picked up my broken brolly and headed for the bus stop.

It was a cloudy day with a hint of drizzle. I’d given myself plenty of time to get from the bus stop in Evanton to the forest cabin. I arrived a tad too early and the man who was going to unlock the toilet hadn’t arrived, so I headed off to a solitary part of the wood, well concealed from the walkers, and conducted much needed business.

Artists and foragers had been invited to come along. I suppose it takes artists to know other artists, and people who know how to light a fire to know other people that know how to light fires. They were people who exuded wholesomeness and a settled nature spirit that I don’t possess. A man, Mark, carved a spoon while we sat talking around a fire. He was slowly working his way along the branches and trunk of a cherry tree that had fallen within walking distance of his house. Whittling was His way of meditation.  A woman had made a cake of foraged fruits. There was a big basket of wild mushrooms and a bowl of berries. A table was spread with paper, pens and pencils for the artists to experiment.

A visit to Japan had inspired the meeting in the forest. Moves were being made there to encourage people to spend an hour to two a week “forest bathing”. Just watching trees is beneficial, or just listening to birdsong and the breeze among the branches. Trees release oils that not only smell good but can calm or energise. Smelling or touching soil is good for the immune system.

Re-connecting to nature is something we all ought to do. Trees live so much longer than people. Sometimes it is good to be reminded of how fleeting our own life is. We don’t have time to waste on things that stress us out. Decluttering, whether is it a room in a house or a space inside our heads – we need to make life simpler. We need to take time to “be” out of our busy routine of what we “do”.

I lament that I have grown up without someone passing nature-truth on to me. I struggle to identify trees or wildflowers. Left to my own devices I would not be able to survive off nature. I’d likely starve not because I ate something poisonous but because I was too afraid of poisoning myself to try eating anything.

Desert Island discs, and the choice of what books to take alongside a Bible and complete works of Shakespeare – I would like the Girl Guide handbook which I’m sure contains tactics for survival.

We had just a few minutes of meandering, leaning against trees, rubbing tree bark or holding dirt in the palm of our hand. We didn’t have the prescribed two hours. A leaf fell from a tree and landed on my lap while we were sitting beside the fire. It was a small brown leaf. It had a "given" feel to it. I slipped it into the pocket of my jacket. I wrote down the first line of a poem there and then. I liked the idea of the tree giving away its leaves deliberately rather than the wind tossing the leaves randomly about. We take so much for granted. We know things about the science of how things happen that we forget the wonder and the mystery of it all. We have grown up too quickly and left our dreams behind. It’s nice to stop and let the dream catch us up.

The Gift of a Leaf

I’m giving you a leaf

It’s my best leaf

Rain fresh

Warmed by the sun

Soaked in silence

I’ve been saving it for you

I give it to you

Not casually as if

I have so many that I

Can afford to lose one

Not carelessly as if

You just happen to be there

As my leaf spirals down.

I give it – and with it

I give you the wind whispered wisdom

Written on every vein.

It rests gently on your palm

Lightly, joyfully bestowed

I give you a little bit of me

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

National Dream Day

If you are not aware of it, today, 25th September, is National Dream Day. It’s a “global day of action dedicated to setting dreams in motion.” It’s not the falling-asleep kind of dream. This is not a call to stay in bed for the day – there ought to be a day for that, come to think of it. No, this is a Martin Luther King and “I have a dream” kind of day.

I am maybe just hours away from realising a dream. The setting it in motion happened some twenty-five years ago. Then, there might not have been a dream at all, but the foundations being built for one. Two months ago, August, was the official setting it in motion – enrolling in a creative writing degree course.

Being out of the education system for a year I no longer live according to bells, or term times, or school related deadlines. I only know when the school holidays have begun when I see kids around and wonder why they are not in school.

I had planned for a year of doing as little as possible during my first year of retirement. Doing a creative writing degree course was pencilled in for the following year. I should have got it all done and dusted much earlier than August. I was enjoying retirement too much with the knitting and the walking and the art work, and more recently with the sewing.

The application form was filled in along with a personal statement. I have never written one of those before in my life. It was just another creative writing exercise. Did it come across as a little too flippant? I’m always told that you have to write something that stands out – so I did – complete with the occasional rhyming couplet.

I heard nothing for a while and term started. I kicked myself for not getting it organised long ago. I also consoled myself. I would still write poems and pieces as before. A degree course wouldn’t change that. There were still a host of online courses to dive into.

Then there was a request for a portfolio of work. Three pieces, different genres, were reqired. I spent hours trawling through poems and short stories. Three? It’s like labelling three children as favourites when you have dozens.

I was trying to allocate a percentage to the amount of my writing that has a strong Christian theme to it. With many of them being generated for faith-based websites, the percentage was high. Finding one that was mostly secular was hard. I wasn’t about to pretend that faith doesn’t permeate much of what I do, they got a poem based on prayer. A science fiction short story and a article about equine therapy taken from my blog made up the trio. I emailed them as requested.

The next day the course tutor replied requesting an interview. I was well within walking distance of the university and doing something face to face, but a phone call was enough. Five minutes to assess whether I had what it takes – although that did morph into over half an hour. I’d done some serious thinking. I wasn’t going to “wing” the interview but write stuff down and have the sheet in front of me.

Why did I want to do the degree course? I was prepared. I really do want to improve as a writer. There is only so far you can go alone. Only so far friends and family can carry you. I wanted experts to tell me what I was doing right and where I was going wrong. I wanted to be pulled out of the rut I wrote in. I wanted to try new things, be adventurous, make mistakes, be corrected and all that kind of stuff.

There were things I didn’t say. I think that buried under it all – all that noble stuff – there is perhaps a need to prove myself, although buried even deeper is an assurance that I have nothing to prove. At school I was slotted into a middle stream. It was assumed that I didn’t have the ability to do the hard exams. “O” levels were mostly off limits and “A” levels were seen as too hard a climb. My classmates agreed with that assessment. I love the phrase “poverty of aspiration” but hate it in practice. No one was expected to shine. Part of wanting to do the creative writing degree course is about almost wanting to shout at my English teachers. "I could have done it, the “O” level and the “A” level if you had let me."

When I first voiced the notion of teaching as a career – I wasn’t the most vocal of pupils. I seemed to quiet. I would be better off doing hairdressing or something that did not involve interacting with groups of people. There was a stubborn need to prove them wrong. I taught for thirty-seven years. Admittedly, I’d often thought I was in the wrong place – but I wasn’t. That need to prove myself pushed me into a persistence that I think is quite rare these days.

Maybe as a writer, particularly going down a self-publishing route, I still feel the need to prove myself.

We talked about books. A writer is only as good as the books he or she reads. I’d like to say that I rad Wuthering Heights every year. I’d like to boast that I have read all the classics. But I haven’t. I’d like to say that I’m not as hooked on fantasy novels as I am. I mentioned a current book I’m reading, a non-fiction book, “The Science of Storytelling”. It’s about the way the brain is wired for stories. It is fascinating. As ever, I’m reading it far too quickly and not letting things soak in.

We talked through the practical things – Mondays and Tuesdays spent at the university and video conferencing. There would be three units of work to do over the year seeing as I was opting for the part time course. There were forms to be filled in, if Ii was accepted.

It feels like I am in touching distance of a dream becoming reality. Maybe it is only now, into the autumn of my life, that I have self-belief that I can do this. Not trying seemed easier than trying and failing. I have enough writing history behind me to be assured that I won’t fail.

I am standing on this cliff edge of adventure.

I say, “Bring it on!”

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Highland Lit, Kenneth Steven and Poetry

There was a Facebook post not so long ago from a poetry group I like. If you could only read the works of only one poet, it said, who would you choose? It was a no brainer as far as I was concerned. The fingers flew over the keyboard. “Me”. As quick anything, a friend responded. She thought it was a cheeky answer with more than a dash of arrogance. I felt the need to explain. I wasn’t saying I was a better poet than the greats out there. If I could only read the work of one poet, it would have to be mine. What’s the point of writing a poem if you can’t read it yourself? I know the place where my poems are birthed. I know the heart that they speak to. I understand them.

So, OK, you are allowed to read your own poems, but what other poet would you choose? I suppose the knee-jerk reaction is Billy Collins seeing as I have almost come to the end of his Masterclass online. Yesterday I was reminded of another poet I adore – Kenneth Steven.

Kenneth and I have a history. To him I was just a body sitting in a chair in the library at Millburn Academy some years ago at a book launch. The book that has got me there was not his poetry book. The at-the-time school deputy, who had been an English teacher in a previous life, had written a novel based on the Highland clearances. I believed perhaps I had a novel in me and thought to soak up his wisdom. I brought Kenneth’s poetry book “Island” because it felt unfair to buy one book and not the other. I read the novel once. I’ve read the poetry book endless times. It’s a favourite. My all-time favourite poem is “The Heron”.

Last night the Highland Lit hosted Kenneth. It was an absolute delight to hear new poems and to soak up his poetry wisdom.

We need a bit of scene setting though. I’d spent the afternoon painting. Although I had worn an apron I had, somehow, leaned on a splodge of white paint. I didn’t discover this until it was too late to go home and change tops. It had also been the last spit of white paint from the tube, and seeing as I was in town I bought new one. Bigger and heavier, it took up a lot of space in the bag. I imagined getting mugged and my bag torn from my shoulder and me shouting after the thief, “Please can I have my tube of white paint before you hurry off.” I amended the shout to include my hearing aids.

I sat down, the middle seat in the second row. I like my space and left a seat between me and a fellow attendee. The lady who came after me, also left a seat between me and her. We do like our isolation, don’t we?

I am a prompt person. I dislike arriving late. The start time had come and gone and a group of regulars were outside chatting. They were chivvied in and took up the back row. Another man came, long hair, leather jacket, smelling of tobacco and sat in the empty chair to my left. Two tall people sat in the front row. I could almost see the right side of Kenneth’s face. And the man’s phone went off, the man sitting on my left.

Kenneth introduced himself as a literary crofter, a full-time writer and a painter. My worries about the paint on my jumper eased. He writes because he has to – he has to pay the bills. The two books he brought with him were “West” and “The Spirit of the Hebrides”.

“West” was dedicated to his sister who had died suddenly. She had been fit and heathy. The book was about seeing the world and seeing Assynt through Helen’s eyes. The second book came about through a collaboration with a photographer. There was an exhibition of the photographs alongside Kenneth’s poems that were made into book form. The photographs lose something being reduced to A5 size, admitted Kenneth, not hyping anything up in his sales pitch.

He read a selection of poems from each of the books. Some poems spoke for themselves while others needed a bit of a backstory. Scattered throughout the commentary there were gems of wisdom, little nuggets of the how and why of poetry.

He talked about creative writing practice. Not everything a person writes needs to be worthy of a book or a novel – it’s just practice writing. It’s “keeping the pen sharp”. Pluck a word from a magazine article, or a book and see what comes. The more you practice writing, the more you are able to craft good writing.

He talked about cabin time. For him it was a cabin. Every writer needs a space that is beyond the living space. A place without the usual distractions. A place to think and to meditate. The back bedroom is my cabin. It’s not really part of the living space of our house. It has a desk, a lap top computer, a bookcase or two, everything that hasn’t yet found a home or is waiting to be moved on to recycling.

He talked about silence. He’d been on a retreat somewhere near the Rosslyn Chapel. Lunch was left outside the bedroom door. No one disturbed you and it was out of the silence that he wrote some of his poems. He talked of Iona as his spiritual home, a place he goes back to again and again.

Poems, he said, can’t be ordered. They just happen. They are like lightning strikes.

He talked about other projects he had been involved in. He spent a few days on St Kilda as part of a BBC programme. The remit was to write fresh poetry on the island. He read a little bit about the history of the place, but what he wrote was what stirred while they were there. Writing poems to order seems a real challenge to me. I like time to stew words and ideas. Give me a week.

I’m bound by bus times and decided not to stay for the second part of the meeting. I think he’d read all the poems he had planned to read, and the meeting was about to open up to a questions and answer session.  I’d had a great evening and was ready to go home.

I had a chance to talk to Kenneth. I reminded him of the book signing all those years ago. We talked a little about the poems in the book, “Island”, I’d bought then and cherish now. Some poems, like “The Otter” were written in a matter of minutes. I know how it feels to have someone touch you on the shoulder, tell you they bought your book and love the poems. It’s a special moment. It’s nice to be able to tell someone that too.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Not Too Big At All

I think this is a task too big for me

Not something He pulled from a hat - not a random pulling the short straw          

Something assigned to me          

To bring good news to the poor - good news in a bad news world

Not the story of a cat rescued from a tree - heart warming to raise a smile

This good news repairs a broken heart   

This good news opens prison doors - and there are all kinds of prisons

And all doors open

This good news cancels debts owed not to banks and building societies  

or to the loan shark flanked by bouncers and dogs with studded collars

God has declared an amnesty - nothing owed to Him

All the bad done and the good left undoneforgiven              

He pays the debt himself

He tells me that my shoulders are for you to weep upon

He tells me that I speak so you will be comforted

You hold ashes - I swap them for a beautiful crown

Your tears of sorrow?  I make them my own

My laughter and joy? I make them yours           

The victory and joy He wrapped me in? - I share with you

He takes away my unhappiness so I  can take away yours

The towering tree that you are? I help you grow tall

You are to stand for what is right and I am to show you how

God plants you and me to show His splendour

The places, the ancient ruins, ages old, ash and debris left untouched?

This is my task, the task I think too big for me – to build them new

“Not too big at all,” He says as He pours His Spirit on me

Isaiah 61:1-4)