Friday, 23 June 2017

"I come into the peace of wild things..."

I wrote a short story yesterday. Only the second I’ve written in my adult life. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that it’s about a selkie, a myth I have written about time and again. What is it about that particular myth that draws me back, like a moth taptapping at a lightbulb, or singeing its wings at the flame? The romance of salt and sea, of light falling in long slants through deepening water. The idea that you can split the skin between two worlds, and live – however differently – in each.


Writing has been my light more than ever in these last weeks. Through the terror attack in the city where I live, and the terrible events in London. Sometimes the world feels like a frightening place, and all I want to do is close myself away from it, keep myself safe with books, and sweet tea, and the comforting glow of a small lamp. Writing reminds me of how wide and beautiful it is, and how wonderfully, marvellously magic. That there is more out there to love and be glad for than there is to dread.


The weekend after the attack in Manchester, C and I went out to the country to camp, needing the peace and the clean air, to be out from under the weight of fear. Just before I dawn, I woke up needing to pee. I got up and left the tent, leaving the front door-flap open. When I came back from the toilet block,, C was awake and startled, propped on an elbow. “What’s the matter?” asked him. “A robin!” he said. “A robin flew in and landed on my shoulder. I felt his little birdfeet, and when I woke up he sat and looked and me for a moment and I could see myself reflected in his eyes – they were so black! And then he fluffed himself up and flew back out”. I eyed him sceptically, thinking he’d been dreaming. But sure enough, when I settled back down on the blow-up bed, there it was: a pat of birdshit, small and round as a coin.


That this can happen in the same world, and the same week, as a man belted in to an explosive vest kills children with hatred and nails. A timely reminder. That storms can flood a street of houses, then link them with a rainbow’s thread. That for every lamb who opens under the fox’s teeth, a dozen others sweeten their fields with play . There is this, always, after the worst has happened. Always the beauty, always the gifts. It’s how life sells itself, and how we are sold on the world, and all its terrifying eggshell loveliness. 


I launched my book last month – at Waterstones in Manchester, where I have spent so many happy hours over the years, and so many of my paycheques. I got to hold my book for the first time – its beautiful cover, all pearly froth and swirl, and my name in neat letters on the front. I will never forget it. The warmth and joy of that room, with its high windows and stacked books – which people bought, and which I signed, afterwards, in looping script. The glass of wine I sipped throughout. The sounds of traffic like surf on the street, and the sounds of glasses clinking, and laughter, and good wishes. How lucky I am to have had that night: how blessed I felt. 


And I am truly lucky, I know this. But also there is the awareness, now, that luck takes work, at least in part. That the world will conspire to help if you let it, but you need to be open to opportunity. You need to be open to everything. The older I get, the more passionate I am about shaping my life, rather than letting it simply collect like a shawl around my neck. I am thirty six, and I have a book in the world, and someone who loves me. And sometimes terrible things will happen, but dammit if I won’t keep looking for the beauty that comes after. Which always comes after. Always the rainbow after the rain, the robin after a city hit by violence. Always the smile for a faltering spirit. Life will keep on giving its gifts, if we give it chance. And I for one intend to give it. And give it. And give it.

The Peace of Wild Things
Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, 
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. 
I come into the peace of wild things 
who do not tax their lives with forethought 
of grief. I come into the presence of still water. 
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time 
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Monday, 21 November 2016

"Love yourself as if you were a rainbow, with gold at both ends..."

A weekend in the Peak District, craving the hills and the wild air. My heart is happiest, there. The moment I step from the train into that rinsed light, I am lifted. And especially so this last trip, with snow whitening the hills like a gift. We wore woollen hats and walking boots, and climbed to the sky. Up the cold slopes of Mam Tor, past the cows and dreadlocked sheep, past the cheery hikers with walking sticks and pink cheeks.

What a feeling, breasting that last rise.  The whole world underfoot. Cold white miles of it, beautiful, blinding. The air as clear and thin as a whistled note. The full bowl of the valley brimming with light. 

Never, out there, the dazzled nerves. Never the ditching heart. Only calm, and open spaces. Only wide skies, and quiet, and grace.

Mam Tor holds an extra sweetness for me. I wrote a poem there last year, and it won me my first major prize. There is magic there: I feel it in my bones, the way a water dowser feels the hum of water in his wrists.

The remains of an Iron Age fort in the grass at the top. Take a moment to imagine it. The centuries stilled and kept underfoot. Tell me that doesn't make your heart beat like a butterfly, fast and bright. All those sunk bones in loam, wrecked ships beached in earth. The wild red hair of those buried daughters, winding towards our ankles like weeds. The lost arrowheads, the bowls of rust.

The things I have learned from those high wild hills. To trust in my body, to tend to my mind. 

What is it for, this life? I want to live with clarity. I want to be kindled, to be kind. And I feel it out there, like a thumb on a map: my part, my place. Like a flame that has guttered and whispered almost-out, and then been cupped back to a leaping flash.

I am burning, I am burning. I am finding my purpose, I am finding my way.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

"Hello darkness, my old friend.."

It was golden at the weekend. C and I walked the canal into the Peak District, our feet ploughing leaves the colour of blood, of foxbrush, of tangerines. Light striped the green water through the trees, and the underleaf was flush with that lovely light that always reminds me of a jar of honey, a mug of ale. An almost-amber, a  gold that sweetens and warms.

I needed that beauty. The black butterflies with fire in their wings. The squabbling ducks. The pair of swans bent sweetly at the neck like a pair of young lovers, a slow riot of leaves in their wake. But what is it the poem says? Nothing gold can stay.

Lately, I have been feeling unmoored. Small, and soft. Full of doubt. Anxiety winds its roots in me like a weed, and thistles flower in my throat.

From nowhere, as always, this. It has been a long time, but here again is that slant of dark. I move between four places only: bed, and bath; the open flame of the Autumn countryside; the back corner of my local pub, where I read and write undisturbed as the fire pops and throws off its sparks. The familiar is important. The calm. I bide my time and wait the shadow out; I know this game. I light the lights I can, strike the matches of small poems and sink in long baths full of scented foam. 

As jittery as I am, as sick as I feel, there has been no rupture in my self-identity, no quavering with regards to self-care. No temptation to lash out, as I once would have. To cut or starve or stuff. Beneath this sensitive weeper, there is a quiet core of tempered steel. Years in the building, years of pain. The way the oyster builds the pearl from grit. How valuable it is to know that. To be safe in the hands of myself. And this is where those years of therapy prove their worth – that sure and solid floor of bedrock built in neutral rooms, the gold seam of worth at my core.

I am a quarter of the way, already, into a new poetry collection. The first fourth flowering from the root of the last book, which is, until Spring, still that: still root. But new buds are rising from that slow-building heat. New fruit from the old seeds. Look to that, for my assurances. Look to that, for my proof. That I am what? Living, and growing. Learning through doing. Digging through the dark with a shovel of truth.

I pull myself through the nerves with a rope of language, tell myself you have this, you've come through everything this far. And these are the leaps and bounds that put men on the moon. That distant from me. That near.

Sometimes light just takes its time to reach us.  But sometimes it races in the wake of a star.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

"I must be a mermaid...I have no fear of depths, and a great fear of shallow living."

I am writing a story about the sea. How many ways there are to say salt. How many ways to describe the nets of light shivering on the water. How many words for hunger, and for deep.

I once wrote here about wanting to become a mermaid. About being an adult who still sometimes dreams of her legs slimming to a single silver point, ending in a sweep of fin. Who tastes salt and imagines breaking out of her true element into a bright slate of sky, the taste of home in her mouth.

Lately, I have been feeling not quite myself. Anxiety rises in me like a drift of smoke: faint, at first, then a choking dark that thickens my lungs. The way blood spilled in water begins as a cloud, a slow-unfurling fog of pink, before it deepens, rusts, and calls to sharks.

It has been a long time since I felt this stirring. I stumble under its weight but I do not fall. I keep on moving, keep on writing. I write of water, and this is how I keep myself from drowning.

There is salt under my tongue. My heart breaks blood against my ribs like a wave.

In my mind's eye, I hold an oyster, my favourite totem. A shut shell with a wash of light inside like a sky. Remember the grit that worked its way in, the irritant, the hardness at the beauty's heart. Remember that this is necessary before the pearl can start.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

"To make an end is to make a beginning..."

I write, and time feels geological. Vast and slow. I move through the hours like a glacier, stilled to a cold and concentrated point somewhere deep in my own centre. And then when I’m done, and the last full stop is placed, I blink, and the world comes flooding back, a rush of quickness and colour, sounds so loud I can almost see them, doubling and redoubling in the air.

The poems in my first collection are poems from the start. Of everything, of my life as a writer. Poems from the tap-root, from the well’s heart. I imagine the book as a map: follow a line with my finger, trace it all the way back. Here, I am twenty, and sick, writing in the bright library between doctor’s appointments. Here I am thirty three, in New York, and in love. Here is  a bedroom I remember every detail of. A classroom. An office. Each poem a snapshot. Each poem a journal. Each poem a lovely anchor, fastening me to a time or place.

Some of the words, I can almost taste: the wine I drank while teasing out the tangles of a phrase; the vending machine cocoa, rich brown silt at the bottom of the cup. I remember the paintings that hung on walls, the glossy books thumbed thin. I remember the essays and articles I read – a spark of interest that caught and leapt, and burned, intensely, in my skull’s crucible. And I wrote while they burned, until all that was left was the ash of black words on a white page. News stories. How sounds were sent on discs into space: human voices, whalesong, nightingales. How a herd of three hundred reindeer was felled by a single lick of lightning in a Norwegian forest.

My friend once saw an exhibition in Manhattan – human bodies, split and cut. The heart, visible. The layers of spongy yellow fat. And the one thing she described to me with exquisite clarity: a red net, delicate as wire, hanging like art behind plate glass. A lattice of blood vessels, removed from a once-living body by injecting the arteries with plastic and then dissolving everything but that. These tiny tunnels that once ran with breath, with life; a tangle in the air describing the place they once inhabited.

That is how my poems feel, now. Like an entity separate from myself. They hang together, hold my shape - but they no longer live in the dark of my body.

There is a tribe in the Amazon whose chief wears a cape made from hummingbird feathers. Imagine it - a wake of blue and yellow that falls like fire and sky from his shoulders. But the cape is so heavy that he cannot walk when he wears it.

I come to my writing desk, find the slate completely clear. The first time in a decade it has been this way. I imagine my book, I imagine that bluegold cape. The shrugging off of all that beautiful weight.

How naked and vulnerable it is to be without it. And yet, and yet: how utterly free, how wonderfully light.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

"Perhaps one day you touch the young branch / of something beautiful. & it grows and grows".

Months have passed again without my visiting this place. The world turns, and the world turns. I have been writing, just not here. I committed to journaling for a hundred consecutive days, so the words that normally spill into this place have been diverted there instead, like a river forking, carrying its water to the same sea, but travelling its light a different route. And the poems have been coming and coming. My body brimming with them, my bones humming with their bright particular music.  

A week now, since I got the news that my first collection will be published in the Spring. I remember thinking, So this is what yes tastes like. As happy tears fell into my beer, as the pub spun. The weight of all that work, the years of words, the book, there and then gone - fallen out of its life with me, quiet and small, and out to live its own life in the bright wild world. Is this how a mother feels when her child is pulled out from that tucked place under her heart? There it is, after all that growing in the quiet -  fully realised, and breathing. A part of the world now, free of your body, free of your blood.

I am flush with happiness. But there is also a part of me that is small and scared. How I want people to be tender with this soft thing I have made. How fearful I am of it failing, of my tiny fledgling falling, not flying. Which would mean I have failed, and fallen. That my words aren’t good enough (and my words are the best thing I have). I need to let go of that sense of dread, and be glad, only, that my words will exist in the world at all. That my mouth will not be their only home.

A confession: on Saturday, C and I went to the bookshop in the city. I found the place on the poetry shelf where my book will fit – after Paterson, before Plath – and tested the way it will feel. To touch a finger to the shelf and find my name. It felt like belonging. Like my life had both shrunk and swelled to fit that slender space. The sweetest of beginnings, which is also the sweetest of returns. The coming together of me, and home.

(title quote: from "Elegy", by Aracelis Girmay)

Friday, 22 January 2016

"We love because it's the only true adventure..."

This is the last night in this bed under swallows and roses. The last night with sighing pines behind glass. The last time I will hear the neighbour's children cry, and the last I will bend my spine to fit the shape I have hollowed in this space.

From tomorrow, I live in a city again. And not alone. My breath won't sit in my lungs just now - how it rises, and rises, like the sun in the morning, like bubbles climbing the sides of a flute of champagne.

How words can soften and shuffle. How meanings can shift. How home can be walls in one moment, him the next. Two minty mouths in the bathroom mirror. Four lungs breathing the same sweet room.