Tracks in the Snow

Tracks in the Snow

It snowed in the night.  While we were sleeping, it snuck up on us as the world held its breath.  We woke to a new monochrome morning, the air electric with the possibility of a day unspoilt.  There’s something regenerative about a covering of snow – somehow it erases yesterday, leaving a fresh canvas to mark with tracks.  And tracks there were.  A polka-dotted trail of prints left by our soft-hearted, firm pawed, slightly dimwitted tomcat as he had earlier forged a path across the roof, off to carry out his daily inspection of his extensive lands.

This time last year, BMO and his sister Bellatrix (Trixie) were gracious enough to decide that we have the privilege of being their humans.  “BeeMo” was the result of an 8 year old’s naming decision, the culmination of a fortnight spent compiling a flip chart of potential identities for the tiny black ball of chaos and his sister, rescued from the streets and adopted with glee by us all, condemned as we had been to a temporary feline hiatus.  Since then, BMO and his 8 year old have been inextricably linked by a combination of dogged persistence (the 8 year old), inexhaustible patience (the cat) and Dreamies (also known as ‘cat crack’).

This time last year, it was easy.  BMO was a tiny black ball of crazy with no interest in the outdoors, happy sleeping between us on the pillows at night.  This year though, he’s started to wander further afield.  First came the late nights, although I convinced myself that was just because he was ignoring the call and hiding out in the garage or the orchard.  Then last week, I spotted our practically-challenged black devil at the bottom of the hill.  Quite definitely not in the garage or the orchard and quite obviously most comfortable with that eventuality.  I resisted the urge to bolt out of the car, scoop him up and lock him inside forever.  He’s not an ‘inside-cat’ after all, and to restrict him for protection would, by equal measure, diminish him.  Besides, knowing the great big gallumping oaf, ill could just as easily befall him in the confines of home … he has been known to fall off things and run into doors.  Even if that isn’t his destiny, I was moved to ask myself what I was protecting him from.  So instead, I drove on and waited on tenter hooks until his eager face appeared at the bedroom window, much to my relief.

This morning though, on a day so full of possibilities, he had left us tracks.  Tracks that beckoned seductively, whispering, ‘Follow us’.

This was how we had ended up here, gazing downwards on a snow-covered road, bedecked in all manner of thermally-assistive clothing, following the siren’s call of the little black indentations in the snow.  Tracking something is a strange mix of meditation and serendipity.  Before long, we had fractionated, the 8 year old lured away by pheasant tracks, the loping traces of a rabbit and once, the memory of a fox in the crystalline carpet.  I stuck with BMO though, eager to see if following the ghost of his passing could give me insight into the life he had that was no longer mine.  He zig-zagged, marking his territory with a capricious freedom, drifting from one interest to another until I lost his tracks under a hedgerow in a patch of meltwater where his world became private once more.

I turned around to call back to everyone, to tell them that we’d followed as far as we could, that we’d have to let him go here into his own world.  In that instant, as I looked back up the hill towards a small child bundled up in brightly coloured woollens, scooping up snow with abandon and launching it skywards with a cry of delight, I realised it wasn’t really the cat I was tracking.

I read somewhere recently, that having a child is like taking one of your vital organs out and letting it live on the outside, spending the rest of your life with a deep-rooted fear for it as it will always be integral to your survival.  That resonated.  Just as the cat spread his paws and outgrew the garden, so too will his 8 year old.  In September, there will be new schools and new challenges, buses, distance and freedom.  We are not raising an ‘inside-child’.  BMO needs the sights, scents and secrets of the outdoor world and our daughter needs no less.

Looking back along the path we’ve walked, there’s another set of tracks interspersed with the prints that have led us this far, those of a small person stepping out in the world.  Maybe one day, these will be what we have to follow.  But not this morning.  This morning I scoop up my own handful of possibilities, run back up the hill and throw it high with laughter.

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The Anti-Valentine

IMG_1454A day late but I offer up a character study in honour of the most pointlessly commercial day of the year.  It stemmed from a tweet that Jonathan Carroll (@jscarroll) that mentioned the word ‘philematologist’ and I ran from there.  If you’re interested in off-beat, interesting quotes, pictures and links, I can strongly recommend following Jonathan Carroll on Twitter.  If you haven’t read any of his books, I suggest dipping in to ‘Land of Laughs’.

The Philematologist

He called himself a philematologist and for years had moved from girl to girl, formalising his investigation into the power of a kiss.  Tentative first touches that sneaked hesitantly towards each other, unsure of their reception, inhibited by over-analysis.  Shy and unobtrusive, they hid from their full potential.  Then there were embraces that obeyed the laws of physics, tumbling into each other like opposing forces and billowing upwards, a mushroom cloud demolishing everything in their way, toxic particles settling like dust to wreak destruction years from the moment.  Kisses filled with warmth, the comforting scent of a freshly baked muffin on the air, a crisp surface which he gently broke with his lips to reveal a warm, fragrant interior.  He studied kisses of the evening, fruity and tannin-filled.  He chased down kisses of the morning, the scent of dew on crisp air, brief clouds of breath escaping.  Winter trysts, diamond-like snow crystals forming a fragile crust which breaks under pressure to reveal a cold underbelly.  His favourites were the kisses of spring – young and green, they grew like buds burgeoning and straining until they unfurled, fresh and new, untouched.  The kisses of springtime held the potential, unrealised, of great passions and wild affairs.  He called himself a philematologist but she just called him ‘husband’, flawed and damaged but her own cross to bear.

The Landscape of Literature

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In wild places, I find it easier to breathe.  For some people the warmth of city concrete, sustained by the energy of a thousand footfalls, feeds their needs but for me it is wild places.  I can write in wild places.  It gives me the space to hear my thoughts without competition from life.  I think this is why I am so attracted to literature where landscape is brought alive and allowed to sing.

Two of my favourite books are ones where landscape plays a strong role in defining the atmosphere of the story.  A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (reviewed here) is Norman Maclean’s retelling of the events of the summer of 1937, the last summer his family spends together intact before a tragic event that forever marks them.  I grew up in rural England, among boys who fished so I have an affinity for those who treat it like a religion, although all I remember of it was the odd dingy afternoon alongside an English canal, spent with little enthusiasm for the task at hand.  I can imagine, though, how different it would be in the wilds of Montana in a bygone age.  This is eased by Maclean’s beautiful prose.  Whilst the story is very much centred on the family themselves, the landscape they live in is inseparable and this is conveyed so well.

The second novel, A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash (reviewed here) is a contemporary novel but one that has an equally well-envisaged landscape – this time small community life in the mountains of North Carolina.  Cash, much like Maclean, manages to effortlessly recreate the landscape of his home region and in it, finds a home for the cast of characters who seem to have lived there for generations although we only enter their world for a short time.  The similarities to Maclean’s work are not obvious but they are there nonetheless.  Both these novels deal with issues of religion but in completely different ways.  As an agnostic scientist who borders on atheist but for the fact that I apply scientific method and norms even to my non-belief, I wonder why so often religion in literature pairs so well with landscape.  Certainly, it is tempting to marry internal and external landscapes in a novel and wild places have a grandeur that lends itself to religious comparison.  The wild can bring a sense of peace.  I don’t link this with religious serenity but I can understand that others may and this could explain the subconscious linkage that occurs so often in writing.

Finding a really well-written landscape in a novel is a rarity.  Finding a novelist whose connection with a place is so strong that it enables them to bring it to life without artifice in a text is like discovering diamonds in a kimberlite deposit; a first novel like A Land More Kind Than Home has marked Wiley Cash as a rich vein of language that I want to mine deeper.  For Maclean, unfortunately, the stock of writing is finite – he died in 1990 leaving  very little more than the pieces in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.  I think to truly write a landscape, to paint with your pen that which others craft with oils and brushes on canvas, an author has to love the landscape unconditionally.  Much like a parent and child, a strong connection with the land can be an unconditional bond that nourishes and supports you.  Those that understand that have the ability to see beyond the conventional wisdoms of society, freeing them to use language inventively to express this to readers.  Often there is a musicality about the language of landscape – a balance and sense of rightness that defies criticism.  These authors frequently translate this ability to vivid descriptions of the internal landscape of their characters, bringing them alive with great skill.

Finding wild places isn’t always easy.  They disappear between the demands of a working life and it is all too easy to forget to take the time to rediscover them – hidden, sometimes, in the overgrown corner of a village garden or flying with a pair of kites over an exposed ridge on a crisp autumn morning with a frost on the air.  I will always be grateful to the Landscape of Literature for reminding me they are there.

‘In Memory of the Children of the Ghetto’

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I’ve added this week’s Featured Story,In Memory of the Children of the Ghetto and I wanted to share some of the inspiration behind the story.

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The Lodz ghetto was a very real, very brutal place.  If you are interested in the history of the ghetto, I strongly suggest that you Google it as there are sites that can fill you in on the history of the place with far more skill and detail than I can.  I love Lodz.  I lived there for a number of years and we have family that still live there so we return as often as time and money allows.  The station in the story is a very real memorial place.  It is nestled in the centre of a functional city area and has been made into a very moving memorial museum.  It steals up on you because you’re lulled by the pedestrian nature of the surrounding buildings.  Suddenly the enormity of what happened here during WWII is so apparent because these atrocities were also exacted in a pedestrian background of wartime ‘normality’.

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The branch track is abandoned now and the last time I visited, it was thick with summer flowers.  I am always struck by the loneliness of railway tracks but these tracks seem more isolated, despite the yellow and white blooms between the wooden sleepers.  It’s as if the thousands of names that are listed in the original transport rosters in the small museum are standing guard, unwilling to permit these tracks to reconnect with the modern city.

It is hard to explain the atmosphere of the place.  I think there is a memory of the people who passed through on their way to the death camps that somehow scars the air.  By far the most poignant of the many memorials that adorn the walls, is a black, rectangular plaque mounted on the side wall that simply says ‘In memory of the children of the ghetto‘.  Out of respect, the black stone is polished to mirror-like standard and as you look at the words that are carved there and think about what it really means, what the reality of those words was for the children who lived in Lodz at that time, they are superimposed on your reflection as if acknowledging that they have stamped their indelible mark on you.

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This is the place that has been trying to find its way into a story for a long while.  It took a simple prompt to open the path.

Neil Gaiman, a Calendar of Tales, Advertising and Inspiration

I’m about to commit a literary sin.  It may be the literary equivalent of swearing.  I’m going to mention money and writing in the same sentence.  I may mention advertising too.  Unheard of though it is, I may even say something positive about advertising so reader beware.

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Now I’m writing again regularly, I have entered that hyper-aware state where you are constantly looking for the next thing that inspires you to pick up a pen and run with an idea.  I studied a Creative Writing course for fun a few years back and one of the best habits I picked up was to keep a writer’s notebook full of any oddities that caught my eye, turns of phrase I liked, random ideas that enter my head at midnight after too much coffee.  So much good writing has come out of these books, often a long time after the original idea caught me.  Often the inspiration is just a small seed, from which a mighty oak can grow (well, in my case a slightly sickly sapling but you can see where I’m coming from).

Earlier this week, I was drawn into what, at first glance, could be described as an advertising event.  For those of you who know me less well, I must explain that this is akin to Richard Dawkins petitioning the Pope for a personal blessing.  I do not have an agreeable relationship with the advertising industry.  Neil Gaiman, author & Tweeter of great volume, was commissioned by a well-known mobile phone company to instigate and shepherd a creative event based around a series of prompt questions and the responses of the social web.  These will then serve as inspiration for a collection of tales, based around calendar months, to be written by the venerable Mr G.  On the surface, this seems like the sort of thing I wouldn’t like very much.  I love following authors on Twitter because many of them tend to be very interesting people.  I follow a lot of other people on Twitter.  They too are interesting.  Authors do not have the monopoly.  Nonetheless, I enjoy authors who tweet because it adds dimension to your interaction with the books they write but also because, for one reason or another and in diverse ways, it inspires me to write more and to write better.  I am often much like a grouchy pitbull on a bad day, when interaction moves over into advertising anywhere on my tweet feed.  I don’t mean promoting and talking about books – essentially, that’s why I’m there in the first place.  I mean out and out commercial promotion of products.  The Calendar of Tales won me over though, for several reasons.  Firstly, the questions were good questions.  They forced me to extract memories that set off a cascade of ideas which are still rolling around in my head waiting for a release.  So it won on the ‘inspiration’ side.  Secondly, inspiration breeds inspiration.  When you are bouncing ideas about in your own head, they gain momentum from the external collisions they have with others.  It’s what is so good about writing groups and creative workshops.  Part of the appeal of this creative stunt was the number of near-Earth rocks flying around on Twitter that night.  It was denser than the Kuiper Belt.  Writing is, by its nature, a solitary sport so these moments are rare.  Thirdly, and by no means least importantly, so what if someone is paid to do something creative.  I have no idea why that idea is so scorned by some.  Heavens, I want writers to make a lot of money writing.  It means they can write more.  It means they can eat and drive fast cars.  It means I can read more.  It is hard to write around the slog and grind of a daily job.  I have immense respect for the people who have managed to craft themselves a living from their pen whilst stealing time from their day-to-day.  I am still trying but each author that has succeeded gives me hope that one day I can.  John Scalzi wrote about this very subject most eloquently here and it was picked up by Maggie Stiefvater (@mstiefvater) on Twitter this week.

So, I feel no shame at all in taking a positive from what was essentially an ad promotion because it was a positive experience.  That is essentially what the last paragraph was saying (but it was longer, with more words in it).  I am, unfortunately, unlikely to buy the aforementioned mobile device so I guess I’m a loss for the ad company.  I am, however, going to write my own Calendar of Tales.  I’ve listed the prompts below so that you can see what my stories evolved from but I’m not sure right now where they will all end up.  I will likely try and  post a background blog for any of them that have an interesting history.  I’m interested in what you will think of the results.

Calendar of Tales Prompts (courtesy of @neilhimself)

Why is January so dangerous?

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in February?

What historical figure does March remind you of?

What’s your happiest memory of April?

What’s the weirdest gift you’ve ever been given in May?

Where would you spend a perfect June?

What’s the most unusual thing you have ever seen in July?

If August could speak, what would it say?

Tell me something you lost in September that meant a lot to you?

What mythical creature would you like to meet in October?

What would you burn in November, if you could?

Who would you like to see again in December?

2013 Story Project

I need to find the fun in writing again. For the last few years, I’ve done so much ‘work’ writing that I feel like the ephemeral joy of the written word is having a bit of a sabbatical. There are only so many thesis pages, covering letters and personal statements that a reasonable human being can stand to craft. I think I’ve reached that limit. So, I’m going back to writing for fun. That’s right, for the pure joy of it. To that end, I am initiating the ‘Story Project’, which could have a better name but hey, it’s to the point. I’m going to attempt to write one short story a week and post it here on the website. It may not be one short story a week. Let’s not forget the need for joy. If it doesn’t make me joyous, I may rebel and take a week off. Nonetheless, starting from next Monday I will make my best attempts to keep up the writing schedule and we’ll see where it leads. Once the story is posted, I’ll post some background on the writing process and from next week onwards, I will put the week’s prompt up on Monday so should anyone want to join me in the search for lexical joy, please feel free.

Seamus Heaney and Why We Write

I’ve been picking up my poetry collections recently and dipping in – something I promised myself I’d do more of this057109024901_sx140_sclzzzzzzz_ year.  They’ve followed me everywhere and I find that there’s a comforting feeling coming back to my old favourites, like visiting old friends you haven’t seen for a while.  A love of poetry is something I had instilled in me from a young age, growing up in a house where poetry books were always available, encouraged always by the wonderful use of language in this written form, and (for better or worse) it has been something that I have always written myself.  This led me down the path of considering why people write.

I find it much easier to explain why I read: stimulation, excitement, transportation to distant worlds, distant lands, acquisition of knowledge, the sound of words, their interplay … the list is endless.  For someone, however, who has written in some form or another all their life, from diaries to blogs, homemade newspapers to cyber-reviews, childhood illustrated books (a wordsmith I may have been from a young age, an illustrator I am not but my Mum appreciated them) to more substantial adult writing, it is much harder to elucidate reasons.  It’s what I do, I never really remember a time when I didn’t and the notion of stopping is inconceivable.  The vast majority of my writing has not been written for an audience – heaven knows, I’d be mortified if some of my teenage diary entries came to light!  I write to think, to reason and to order things in my head.  What happens to these when I’m dead and gone is of minimal importance, it is the act of writing that initiates catharsis not the eventual product.  I blog now, something quite different from anything my thirteen-year-old self could have envisaged as I dutifully kept stubs of cinema tickets and mementoes folded in the pages of that year’s journal.  I suppose it is the first time I’ve really addressed any form of ‘audience’ in a concrete sense and it is a really rewarding experience.  But it is fiction and poetry that I still really love, the one I miss if time has taken me away from my notebooks for too long, and that is harder to explain the motivation for.  For me, this is rarely something I’ve had the opportunity to share, until the advent of this cyber age at least, but still something I need to write.  I guess inside all people who write, there is a little germ of an idea that it would be great to be able to say ‘occupation author’ or ‘poet’ but it is not the prime motivation.  For poetry especially, but other writing too, it is impossible not to write the words.  There’s a kernel of an idea or a combination of words that begs to be written.  However, writing doesn’t always come easy, while sometimes something has to be voiced, writing about things that don’t inspire, writing what you have to do, these are harder tasks and contain none of the pleasure or release, no matter how efficiently accomplished – a reason I considered and dismissed pursuing a journalistic career when I was younger.

One of my favourite poets, Seamus Heaney (whose use of language, I have to admit, I am just a wee bit in love with), examines his own motivations for writing in the ‘bookend’ poems of his collection ‘Death of a Naturalist’.  In ‘Digging’, Heaney situates his profession as a poet in the context of his family ancestry of manual work: where his father and grandfather dug for potatoes in fresh fertile ground, digging deep to find the best soil, planting something that would grow to feed and sustain people, Heaney follows in their footsteps, wielding his pen, digging inside himself.  I particularly like the lines:

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it

From ‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966)

His pen is as much a tool as the spade his father uses, our expectation of what he will find as real as the expectation of bounty when you raise a potato root and hope to see it full of promise.  Inherent in this is a sense of the unknown and the unspoilt, expectant promise that exists at the moment a writer’s pen hovers above the blank page, in this moment anything is possible.

Heaney revisits the introspective on his writing motivation in the final poem of the collection, ‘Personal Helicon’.  This is one of my favourite poems, I love the imagery of the well, the onomatopoeic language and rich descriptives.  What resonates is the concept of the draw of an empty page, of the act of writing, of the essence of peering into the shielded darkness, unsure of what is below.  I will leave you with the final verse, one of the most evocative images of the motivation and compulsion to write that I have come across and ask you to consider how far it applies to you:

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

From ‘Personal Helicon’ by Seamus Heaney in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966)