The Hedge Dweller

 

   There is an old woman who lives on the edge of the forest, both the forest you can see and the one which lives in your mind and heart. You’ve always known her, even when you were a little girl, she walked near to you, a shadow glimpsed from eyes that weren’t yet veiled by the ways of the world.

I’ve always been drawn to this woman who lingers near the edge places of the world, the one with moss in her hair and the green and black of plant and soil upon her thumbs. Yesterday a friend came over for lunch and we got to talking about Jungian archetypes, and I told her about how drawn I am to the old woman in the hedge (or forest) and her response was ‘Well, that’s what you do, bring back tales from the other side of the hedge to share with people here.’ It struck a chord with me, because I suppose, it is what I do. I take down those glimpses I’m given ‘over the hedge’ and then transcribe them as best as I am able to. But I also feel it goes deeper than that, for me and for all women. Because we all know that woman in the hedge.

She is that old woman, the one you sense, the one that flits in the corner of your eye, more shadow than substance, or so it seems when you are young and cannot quite grasp the notion of being old, of having bent limbs and aching joints. She lives deep in the woods, in those Jungian forests of the primitive brain, the one which speaks loudest in times of fear and pain. She’s always just beyond the hedgerow, over the briars of wild rose and hawthorne, which both represent protected, undisturbed sleep. But this hedge dweller, this crone does not sleep, for she is busy spinning the fates of the world in her small cottage, hidden in the leaf flicker of the primeval forest. It is she who knows the words to speak to plants to release their full potency, she who knows the nine woods- which burn hot, which smoke out ghosts, which heal the invisible sicknesses. She knows the nine herbs too- those that are strewn upon ground and floor to make a bed for the midsummer gods to lie upon. It is she who sits by the fire, rocking, until her soul slips up the chimney, taking her to other dimensions where the view is both bigger and smaller, both universal and microbial.

I always glimpse her more easily this time of year, feel her wild nature shadowing my own. Perhaps it’s because this is a numinous time of year. You can feel the old gods rise as the sap does in the trees, as the shoots break the earth, as the flowers open and the birds hatch their young. You can feel that old woman- the one who has had so many names—Gaia, Isis, Durga, Freya, the Snake Woman, Danu, Artemis— rise from her roots, once again clothed in the green of youth. This feeling becomes more pronounced as the solstice approaches, and you know, or you remember in some primitive part of you, why people danced, why they went hand in hand off into the forest, to lie beneath a hazel tree away from prying eyes. You know why the fires were lit, and why you can feel the very earth hum beneath your feet, why the feminine was sacred— because she- this earth, this Gaia- was and is alive to the very last cell. This time of year is a rushing, it is being swept up with the ecstasy of the season- apparent in every budding flower and creeping vine, in every bursting tree and rising river. It’s in the beetle sleeping between rose petals, the bee drunk on pollen, the taste of lilac wine upon your tongue. It is the Mother in all her lush abundance.

The Goddess in her youth is represented by a birch, in motherhood by a hazel, and in the crone years by an alder. The ground beneath the alder was considered best suited for the psychic experience of the world of the dead. It takes the old woman of the hedgerow to straddle the boundary between worlds, to talk to the spirits and cut the ties of the world for them when it’s time. She is the wise woman, the crone, the hag.  The Germanic Hagadise or hagdusse– means ‘hedge-sitter’- and from that comes the English ‘hag’.  A hag  sat in the hedgerow between nature and culture, between the world of the spirits and that of humans. She brought knowledge from over the hedge—that of time and medicine, of the sacred and the profane, of body and spirit. She knows and tells the stories of what was and what will be.

She is the woman who knows the herbs to banish ghosts (St. John’s Wort, in case you’re wondering), those to render a woman more fertile, or less depending on her needs. In darker times she was called a witch, and in the original sense of the word, she was just that. For the old words from which witch derived—wik and wid—merely meant to prophesy, to consecrate, to bend and fold, to be wise and to share that wisdom.

The woman who sits in the hedge has ears that prick like those of a wolf, and her shadow has four feet and pads silently along the forest pathways under a quarter moon, sharp as a slice of metal. She lives in her instincts, her wisdom that of blood and bone, of loss and rage. She is immanent in all of nature, there at birth, there at death. She is Hecate, guarding the crossroads of life and death. She lives both backwards and forwards in time, for it is no more than a river to her, where currents run both ways.

The old woman of the forest, she who sees both sides of the hedge, comes to us in dreams, in instinct, in our fear and anger at an unjust world. She comes in healing hands when we care for the broken wing of a crow, or heed the cries of an abandoned kitten. She is at the heart of every fairy tale, waiting in her hut in the woods for us to come to her, seeking wisdom. It is easy enough, because that old woman who lingers near the hedgerow, who lives deep in the forest with the knowledge of herbs and animals and life in her hands and blood, is you, is me, is all of us. It think it’s possible that we have never needed her wisdom more than we do right now.

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The Process- Grains

‘In writing poetry, one is always aided and even carried away by the rhythm of exterior things; for the lyric cadence is that of nature: of the waters, the wind, the night.  But to write rhythmic prose one must go deep into oneself and find the anonymous and multiple rhythm of the blood. Prose needs to be built like a cathedral; there one is truly without a name, without ambition, without help: on scaffoldings, alone with one’s consciousness.’ –Rainer Maria Rilke

In the early stages of writing a new book, the process really is much like what’s described in the lovely Rilke quote. I will have a vague idea of what the book is about, but it’s all sort of lovely airy-fairy misty stuff, with nothing concrete—until the words start going down and become sentences, and then become paragraphs and chapters and parts. Usually I get what I call ‘grains’ some small thing from a few words to several paragraphs, which will be the centre around which a chapter will form. If a book is going to be any good though, and touch the reader in the way that it should—live and breathe for the reader—then I need to be able to find that ‘rhythm of the blood’ and also the heart of each book. For me that rhythm of the blood comes most naturally in the form of ‘grains’.

Often these grains will take the story in a totally unexpected direction- which is one of the things I love best about writing—never knowing where the journey might lead. So I’m just going to use a few as an example of how the process works for me.

(all these pieces are copyrighted 2017 Cindy Brandner).

Grain number one

This one came to me while I was out walking, I usually get my best ideas while I’m walking or when I’m soaking in the tub—water seems to be a natural conduit for those creative whispers from the universe. And yes, I do think the universe does whisper, in an infinite variety of ways. I truly never know where inspiration is going to come from.

a cold perfume…— yes, that’s all there is to this particular grain, just three words. I don’t know who it belongs to, or even which story it belongs to. I jot down the phrase and let it stew for a day or two, and then suddently the fragment enlarges a little to this—  “It’s like a cold perfume on the air, a scent that chills you to the bone and yet is inevitable at the same time.” I realize it’s being said, rather than thought, and I know it’s Yevgena who is saying it as soon as I hear the words in my head. Once I’m centred in her head, I can look out through her eyes and see what she’s seeing, and maybe then know what it is she’s talking about. She’s standing at the top of a hill, looking down over it- there’s something coming, something that worries her- that premonition is her cold perfume. It has something to do with a woman, not one she knows but one she will soon encounter—and that’s as far as the grain of sand has gone thus far. But it’s enough to get started with and I know the story will slowly gather itself, one grain upon the next, until hopefully there is a complete and glowing pearl when it’s done.

Grain number two

The small valley below was mysterious with shadow, the firelit hollow glowing like a fiery chrysanthemum in a pool of dusk. Longing seized her as well as fear—she wanted to go as she hadn’t ever wanted anything, but she dreaded it in almost equal measure. Something, some small voice she was becoming more and more aware of lately, whispered that tonight her life would change and that she might not like all the things that change brought with it.’ 

I knew this was Yevgena even as I started because that’s what I was working on- a short story featuring her. I was writing a bit where she’s in Ireland, after the war and her release from the concentration camp. But when I got inside her head for this, I sensed someone very young, still naïve, quite sheltered, not the woman I am used to dealing with who has a great deal of scar tissue in her heart. This is a young girl who has no idea what’s ahead of her just yet. I also know, just by looking through her eyes, that this is not an Irish landscape laid out before her, it’s a Russian one- thick with conifers, bigger in scope- this makes sense because Russia is where she grew up, until she married her Roma husband and took to life on the road. She’s looking over a valley she’s never seen before, and yet I know it’s not terribly far from her home. She longs to enter it- why? She also dreads it- why? These are questions that will need to be answered as the piece develops.  I know it’s going to be a night of great importance to her, but I don’t quite know why yet. Once the story unfolds in its entirety, I’ll have the answer to that.

Grain number three

All I had to start this was one line- ‘It was like a drowned mosaic…’ well, it’s a phrase really. It just kept a beat in my head for a few days, on and off, so I jotted it down and returned to it later, mostly to stare and wonder just what it was that was like a drowned mosaic. It sat like that for a few days, staring back at me like a phlegmatic frog, until suddenly it stretched itself out and took a small leap, giving me an idea of what it was about.pearlonsand So here’s the stretched out version-  ‘It was like a drowned mosaic, one of those ones sometimes found in Britain, sunk into an underground stream, the beautiful tiled floors with leopards and roses which the Romans had put in their bathhouses. The places where the tile had risen to the surface, and where the water was clearest were those moments—edged in crimson, leaved in gold—which were his life with Pamela and the children.’

So now I know it’s Casey and it’s his own thinking around his memory loss, and it’s clear he’s regaining bits and pieces but there’s still stuff in the dark. I need a sense of where this fits in the overall structure of the book though, and I don’t yet know. So if those are the bright bits of the mosaic, what are the darker bits?

The darker bits where the water was murky, were other things—things that were crucial to him, for he could not rejoin his old life fully if he didn’t know what had happened to him. He thought until he knew, until it all—even the dark and fear—came back to him, he would not be able to settle in, he would not be a full part of his family again. The doctors in New York had been of the opinion that he’d blocked it in part because of the trauma and that it might re-emerge when his brain felt safe enough to release those particular pieces of information. Either that, they’d said, or a sharp shock might do it.

So then I naturally wondered just what a sharp shock might be? Apparently Casey was wondering too.

When he’d enquired as to just what might be considered a ‘sharp shock’, he’d been told that running into whomever had done this—indicating his head—might just bring back his memory of what had happened. How one ran into a man, or men, who’d tried to kill you, without knowing who they were, was the question. There were old haunts of his in Belfast, places he remembered or about which Patrick had told him with concern in his face for just what Casey might want with such information. He hadn’t yet gone into the city during daylight hours, only a few times at night or near to it, the dusk hiding his face, his turned up collar, beard and low-brimmed cap, keeping his face hidden from those he passed. His size was a problem, not many men were as tall or broad of shoulder as he was. Still, he’d managed to pass unnoticed, if one didn’t count those that crossed the street to avoid him. With the beard, the cap, and the general nature of his presence (Eddy had once called him a forbidding bastard) people did tend to avoid him.

   So what did a man do then, if he felt he needed that sharp shock in order to see the other pieces of the mosaic—the dark parts, which would give him the full truth. Casey took a deep breath and watched the sun slip further through the branches of the oak. Aye, a sharp shock was likely what was necessary, a walk right into the heart of the maelstrom, otherwise known as republican Belfast. He only hoped the act wouldn’t get him killed. 

Now I have a solid start on a chapter, and also the lead-in to the four or five chapters which follow, which ends up being a solid anchor for that section of the book. Clearly, the top end will have to be worked on- he’s outside obviously (where he goes to do most of his thinking) and so I’ll need to situate him and have some sort of preamble to his thinking, possibly grounding it a bit with whatever is taking place in his life at this point. You see how those few words though became something much larger and how it became clear to me just where in the book this bit belonged. It’s rare I start any chapter at the beginning, I usually have to go back and ‘fill-in’ the top end of said chapter. The same goes for books, I generally have to go back and write the first few chapters once I’m done most of the book, though this book is presenting itself in a more chronological fashion than my norm.

One last grain…

She looked over at Jamie, his presence steadying her and banishing the vision of the workhouse back to that nightmare plane on which it lived. The fire left half his face in shadow and the other half touched with flickers of gold and red, painting him light-dark against the rough plaster wall behind him. She wished she could sketch him, could capture this moment with him and Kathleen, as if drawing the two of them would distill the moment and hold it, golden as honey, somewhere in time’s bottle.’   

An entire chapter grew out of this simple glimpse (and it was a glimpse in my head, looking at Jamie and knowing I was seeing him through Pamela’s eyes) at a quiet moment the two of them are having with their very new daughter. I’m not going to post any more of it here, because it’s too spoiler-y in nature, but this small piece ended up about two-thirds of the way through the chapter—so it grew in both directions, up and down. Sometimes a grain will grow quickly, other times it might sit fallow for months before I return to it and suddenly see what it’s meant to become. Sometimes I fret with it (like an oyster) on and off until finally it takes form.

I see the grains as that ‘rhythm of the blood’ because they are the naturally occurring bits of the story which give it life and make the characters breathe. It’s where the characters speak to me, in essence, and these are the building blocks of my particular ‘cathedral’.

In the following weeks—or maybe months considering how slow I am about getting blog posts together—I am hoping to write a few posts on various aspects of writing. I find it a bit hard to ‘tell’ how I write, (a natural teacher I am not) as I usually am so lost in the process that I don’t necessarily pay close attention to how I’m doing things. Maybe I’ll give myself some insight through writing these posts and hopefully you’ll enjoy them too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Season of Mist and Reflection

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“At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

 

It is officially autumn where I live, and for me the absolute best time of year. I’m not a huge fan of summer, I’m not even sure why, it just kind of dogs me down. This past summer was a season of loss for our family too—we lost three family members, a couple of friends and one of our beloved cats. I am not sad to shut the door on summer any year, but this year I am really ready for it to be done. I was diagnosed with anemia too, which has made me see everything through a scrim of exhaustion for the last few months (it’s a temporary condition and I’m starting to pull out of that funk, I think).

In part I love the fall because it’s such a porous season. It’s like a beautiful person approaching old age and you can see through the flesh to the beauty of the bones, to the very essence of them. The trees turn golden and crimson and yet you can see the winter there in the boughs, waiting. It’s a bittersweet feeling and all the more poignant for the knowledge that it is the most fleeting of seasons. Earth’s jeweller is hard at work this time of year- in the ruby of rowan berries and rose hips, the gold of birch leaves, in the pale silver mist rising from cooling ponds and streams and the strung diamonds of dewy spider webs. These are the most priceless of jewels, and they lend a richness to the heart which no ring or choker can match.

This morning I was walking in the park that edges my neighbourhood. There’s a pond there where a few years ago I watched a flock of geese come in to land. I could actually feel the air swooshing past my ears as they used their wings to brake. It was one of those moments that freeze frame in your heart, and you can pull out to look at later when you most need it. The geese are gone already, though they seemed to abandon the pond partway through the summer. I count them each year and know that less and less of them return. It is one of those things I notice but wish I didn’t understand. I wonder at times, if there will come a year when there simply aren’t any. As I said, it’s a porous season and the reflections are not always happy ones.

Creativity returns for me in the fall, I feel a surge and a tingle in my fingers and an absolute need to write. It’s as if the characters know it’s the thin time of year and so they come closer, speak a little louder and allow me to simply inhabit their world more fully.

We can feel the touch of those who have departed in the fall. They too can come closer and linger, and we can feel them across the divide the way we can’t in other seasons. The Celts knew this, it was what Samhain was all about. Welcoming home the dead, and keeping council with them for a night. The year, to the ancient Celts, had two hinges and Samhain was the door to the dark half of it. They considered winter the season of ghosts and Samhain was the night those ghosts rose from the Underworld. On Samhain, time became meaningless and past, present and future were all one.

As I listened to geese going overhead the other night, under the light of a full harvest moon, I thought of how the Irish once believed those lonely calls were that of the Wild Hunt, the cavalcade of fairies who came abroad on those nights to gather the spirits of the dead who were lost and roaming untethered by either hearth or family. I love that idea, that there is someone to gather the spirits of those departed from us, always too soon, no matter their years, it’s always too soon.

This porous season is a time of harvest and reflection before the dark half the year sets in. Autumn is the season I wish I could breathe in so deeply that I could taste it in the depths of winter. It is the season of staying, of harvesting, of gathering in and turning toward spirit. And so I will listen to the ghosts who linger near, and hear what they have to say to me. After all, they are my own.

I began with Rilke, and so I will end with him as well.

 

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,

as if orchards were dying high in space.

Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling

away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.

And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands

infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

The Next Book

The reaction to the newest book in the Exit Unicorns series- In the Country of Shadows- has been very gratifying. I’ve never had a book received with such enthusiasm and emotion. It has been lovely, and the fulfilment of some long ago dreams I had while writing little snatches of things at my kitchen table each afternoon when my girls were small. The idea of actually completing a novel was almost beyond me then, never mind four sizeable ones.

So, of course, the inevitable question which always arises with a book readers love- when will the next one be done?  This one is not quite two weeks in the world, mind you, but I think people new to the series may not realize that. When I tell people it takes four years for me to write one of these books, they tend to be a little aghast. So I thought I’d lay out a little of just why it takes me that long.

I am a slow writer, I’ll just be honest about that. The books I write are dense, filled with detail, with stories inside of stories, history (which is as accurate as I can make it, I do my research both through books and on-line archives and through on-the-ground talks with people and interviews with those who have lived through the history I write about) and several on-going story lines which get- hopefully- richer but also more complex as time goes by. That complexity slows the process down, but I would rather keep the complexity and take longer, than sacrifice the depth of the overall story. The truth is I wouldn’t be happy with something less than the best I can do, and neither would the readers.

My audience has grown a LOT since Flights of Angels came out four years ago, and so I felt I owed it to my readers to give them a release date for Shadows somewhere along the line. Because I’m an indie author I’d never had to do this before. I had always simply released the book when it was ready and let my fan-base know about it about two weeks beforehand. The deadline made me buckle down though, as I knew it would. I had to work really hard from August through to beginning of December simply to get Shadows done. This often meant I spent 12-16 hours at my desk each day, including weekends, in order to get the book done with enough time to spare for several rounds of edits and then handing it off on deadline to the formatting people at 52 Novels (who did a bang up job and are just all around terrific people to work with, in case you ever need formatting services). The production phase from completed manuscript to ‘real’ book was four months, and that is tight when you are dealing with all the details yourself. Every decision ultimately comes down to me- even though I do bounce everything off my husband first.

Something else that factors in to how quickly I write (or don’t) is how ready and willing the characters are to talk to me. I remember at the end of Mermaid I had a vision in my mind of Casey giving me one of his looks and simply shutting the door of their wee farmhouse in my face. The message was clear, ‘We’ll be back when we’re back, an’ only when we’re good an’ ready.’ This time is a bit different because there is no time gap between the books being that the first chapter of the fifth book will begin a few days after the last one of Shadows (and yes, that chapter is partly written.)

Some days the writing flows really well, other days- well, other days I gaze out the window a lot and hope the muse shows up for at least a few decent sentences. For me, as a writer, the quality only comes with the time and space needed for the book to breathe and grow and become what it is meant to be. Writing is a very organic process for me and so each story unfolds in its own time—rather like a seed sprouting under the sun rather than being forced under a hothouse lamp.

I usually try to make at least one trip to Ireland during the writing of each book. Being there always re-fills my creative well. If you have read Shadows then you’ll know part seven of the book (which takes place in Wicklow) is a bit of a love song about the Irish countryside. I never would have been able to write that as I did, had I not written it while in Wicklow. There is something about Ireland that is magical, and I always feel like my writing is just that little bit better while I’m there. Last time I spent a month there and I hope to do the same during the writing of book five.

Research is time consuming, but it adds the details that make the whole book come to life in a variety of ways. Even simple things like perusing dresses on Pinterest until I find one that is just right for Pamela to wear to a beautiful party in Paris, can take up a few hours. Or Gypsy caravans for instance-which as most of you know I have a bit of an obsession with- I like to know how they are built, how they are heated, and the practicalities of living in them every day. For the tarot card scene at the end of part three I did a reading myself, with a deck of cards that I find a little spooky, but which were the cards that ‘felt’ right for that scene. I did the reading and then wrote it out so that the reading Yevgena gives Pamela in that scene, was an actual reading. Writing that scene took several days, and that was without going back and filling in the details and fixing the mistakes. I did a lot of research on Native American culture for this book too. Most of what I read didn’t make it into the book, but I think the ‘ghost’ of it does infuse the book in the details that do make it and adds to the overall feeling and mood of the individual chapters in which Eddy appears. Which leads to the topic of secondary characters- they all come with their own histories and enough of their history has to be included so that they too become fully-fleshed people who live and breathe for the readers.

My creativity tends to be cyclical with the seasons, which isn’t probably all that rare with writers or artists of any stripe. I produce better in late fall, winter and spring. Summer is a bit of a dead zone for me for some reason.

I don’t do any of the things they tell you to do as an indie author- I don’t write several books a year, I don’t write short books that can be read in one sitting (well I suppose you could, technically, but I think your back might protest). I don’t write erotica or thrillers or romance. I realize this might mean I’ll never sell millions of copies of my books but I can’t write anything that doesn’t come from my heart—again this goes against the advice of what indies are meant to do, you’re supposed to approach writing as a business and conduct your career accordingly. However, I refuse to give less than one hundred percent to my writing and to these characters. I owe them and myself that much, and I feel I owe that to the readers too. If I ever ‘phone it in’ the readers will be the first to notice. I want to bring the same passion and commitment to each book, as it is one more section in the overall tapestry of the whole story of Pamela, Jamie, Casey, Patrick and company. And you know, I am pretty fond of them, and want to do them justice even when the things they do might make the readers want to smack them a little. And listening to them, and then crafting good sentences and captivating story lines from what they tell me, does take time.

There’s also the time taken to market the books- again, I am a one woman band here and I have had to figure out how to get the ball rolling so people would buy the books. I have to keep looking at new ways to market or new ways to perk up my ads to make them attractive- some stuff works and some stuff does not, but it all takes up time that, to be honest, I would rather use to write. 🙂

Also, I do like to respond to every letter or message I get from readers. For a long time I didn’t know whether I would ever find a sizeable audience. I have though, and I’m honestly grateful to each and every person who either took a chance on a complete unknown or who spreads the word about these books to their friends and family. It’s a pleasure for me to hear from readers because writing can be a fairly isolating profession, as I’m sure you can imagine. Also because it’s always nice to hear how my books have affected someone in their life, sometimes in ways that truly surprise and humble me.

Then there’s just life- cleaning the house, doing laundry, walking the dogs, paying the bills, getting the flu occasionally, and when he’s lucky, presenting my husband with a home cooked meal.

Now, about that ending…

The final chapter of every book usually comes to me fairly early in the process of writing each book. I don’t know why, they just always do. The last chapter of Mermaid was mostly written while sitting on the roof of a cottage on Cape Cod, where I was doing research for said book, which was mostly unwritten at the time. Suddenly, it was just ‘there’ in the way chapters sometimes are. The final chapter of Shadows showed up about six months into the process of writing the book. As I told someone recently, I left it to stew in the creative cauldron in the back of my head and went on with writing other bits of the book. I wasn’t sure it was right, so I wanted to make certain of it because it threw a lot of what I thought I knew about the book right out the window. Six months later it was still stubbornly persisting, so I allowed it out of the cauldron and wrote it and it felt right. Even though it meant I had to change my perceptions of what the book was about quite a lot. A great deal of writing (for me, I don’t claim to understand how the process works for others) is instinctual. I know when something feels right and when it doesn’t. This ending felt right, though I understand some readers found it frustrating. Plus, I had to stop while you all could still actually lift the book. 🙂

I come from a line of women who cleaned other people’s rooms and homes for a living, despite being some of the smartest, wittiest and funniest women you could hope to know. Not that there is any shame in that profession, it’s just that they wanted more from life but didn’t have the opportunity to do other things, but they in part made sure that I did. book stack_smallThey are the ones that told me stories and gave me a love of reading that led to my being a writer. I credit them with my innate stubbornness that has kept me at this writing gig when everything in the universe seemed to be telling me it was time to give it up- I’ve never been good at taking no for an answer.  I owe those women the best I can produce too, because I feel them at times, reading over my shoulder while I write.

All that being said, I am working on the fifth book and I have a side project that I am also working on which I hope to release some time between books four and five- it fuels my creativity to have something else on the go besides the main project. I’ll let you know when to look for that. In the meantime there are re-reads and of course, lots of fantastic authors on the shelves of both book stores and libraries.

 

 

How Casey Riordan Was Meant to Be a Secondary Character.

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Yes, it’s true, I foolishly believed that Casey was a minor character who was there as a foil and little else. I also thought Exit Unicorns was a one off book and had no clue until I was about two thirds of the way through it that it was meant to be a wee bit longer than that.

Casey, in his own charming and fairly forceful way made it clear he was no one’s secondary anything and the story completely changed around his presence. To this day, he is the one that ‘speaks’ to me with the most ease. It’s seriously like sitting down next to a lovely peat fire, with a pot of tea to drink and some whiskey to cheer it and having a long chat with a very dear friend. I only wish all the characters made my life so easy. He tends to be the character around whom events are set in motion, for good or bad. I had never intended to have a love triangle in my books, but one day Casey showed up in his brother’s kitchen and met Pamela and that was that. He knocked her for a complete loop, immediately. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘Well, this is a complication.’

Casey turned, dark eyes friendly yet guarded and she realized she’d been staring and he’d felt the stamp of her eyes on his face.

“Welcome home,” she said, the words slipping from her mouth before she even heard them in her head.

“Thank ye,” he held her gaze until she, completely flustered, jumped up from the table and announced in a voice that seemed too loud and foreign to her own ears that she really must be going.

“I’ll see ye tomorrow then,” Pat said helping her on with her coat and looping her bag over her shoulder.

“Nice to have met ye,” his brother’s voice was polite but nothing more.

She walked all the way home, too hot to be confined to a bus, pausing halfway up the tree-lined drive of Jamie’s house to watch in wonderment the moon sitting like a Christmas angel on top of a cypress, a silver crayon cutout against the pale evening sky. Without warning it looped upside down and she had to step back to avoid falling. She blinked trying to fend dizziness off and put one hot hand to her forehead. She’d best go straight to bed, she seemed to be developing a raging fever.

 Of course he just took centre stage from there on, and I could no more resist following where he went than Miss Pamela could. He’s led me on a very merry dance, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. He’s turned out to be a very fine family man now, which wasn’t evident right from the get go.

Pamela- She has been harder to get to know than Casey, as she is just more naturally reticent. She’s shocked me a few times with the things she has been willing to do for the sake of those she loves. I’m getting much better acquainted with her during the writing of the current book. She showed up in my imagination at the same time as Jamie did. The two of them have been in residence there since I was in my late teens. It just took me awhile to get around to putting their story down. She was a little naïve (something that was cured rather quickly for her in Northern Ireland) and wide-eyed and in love with a man she didn’t entirely understand. Being that I’m an outsider to Northern Ireland myself, Pamela is my window through which I view that world. She and I get our shocks together. She’s incredibly honest, she’s kind, and she’s far tougher than I thought she was to begin with, she’s been showing me just how tough in the work in progress. But looking back I realize she has always been fierce and strong. The people around her tend to underestimate her because of the way she looks.

“Men think they understand love, but they don’t.” Her eyes were fixed on some point beyond him, words uttered with a strange ferocity that only deepened the chill he felt. “Men will die for freedom, they’ll sacrifice their last breath for something that’s only a theory, but they won’t do it for love. Men look at women and see soft creatures, but do you really think anyone who’s been a mother is soft? The first time you hold your child in your arms, you suddenly understand the darkness you’re capable of. Life becomes very black and white. You know you’d kill and do it without a second thought should someone even threaten your child. And sometimes if you’re lucky, you love the father of that child enough to do the same for him.”

“Lucky? You call that lucky?”

“Cursed or blessed, when it comes to love I think you’ll find it’s the same thing.” She sighed. “Why waste your morals on a man who’d kill you for merely crossing him once, even if you never intended to?”

 Jamie- My quicksilver, difficult, temperamental, self-destructive boy. He has the mind I wish I had, (well, I’d like to take a pass on the darkness he has to go through, but I love the other parts of it). When we first meet him, he’s emotionally locked away from the world due to the loss of his three sons, uses alcohol to numb himself, falls most unsuitably in love with a girl from his past who ends up falling for another man. He leads a dangerous triple life that he must keep secret from the world. He is also bipolar and doesn’t like to take his meds for a variety of reasons- this creates some rather highwire without a net moments in his life. His greatest strength comes from caring for others, though he has yet to learn how to look after himself properly. He is, however, very well loved by a large variety of friends and family. It is his saving grace many times. He’s also a damn difficult bastard to write. It’s why I think of him as quicksilver- here and then gone, and heaven help me if I don’t put everything aside the minute he deigns to show his face and let me have two minutes of his time. In ‘Angels’ however, he really showed himself to me through the vehicle of his journals. He hasn’t bothered to do that again. He’s the character that gives me the most heartache.

There are ghosts in my head tonight, dreadful, rattling things with the wind singing laments through their bones. That poem by Sorley McLean is brought sharply to mind—

Who is this, who is this in the night of the heart?
It is the thing that is not reached,
the ghost seen by the soul…

That is so exact, the ghost seen by the soul—elusive, yet I am never able to rid myself of it. When the days are especially sharp and bright and the very air tastes like wine, I know I will soon see that ghost. I can hear the faint echo of its chains rattle most clearly when my mind is fire bright and I can write without sleep or sustenance for days.

Tonight, however, is not a firelit one, and I can see the outlines of that ghost clearly, and how very dark and nasty is his shape, his visage that of hell itself. The shade of him is on the wall, flickering in my peripheral vision but not to be seen face on. He is too clever for that, this dark slitherer that infests my brain at will.

Tomorrow morning I may well wake up in another world, another universe even. I will be able to see the old one from my vantage point, but I will not be able to touch it nor find my way back to it. For there are holes between this world and that, fractured panes of glass through which one can view events and people though the broken glass always distorts them, shapes all interactions oddly, changes the light and the sound so that voices come from a great distance yet are overly loud and grating—as though every word slaps my skin and flicks at my nerves. But there are no maps for this dark planet.

Sometimes I really do believe the dead can walk. Because there are nights I’m certain I’m one of them.

Patrick- I’ll just say it, the boy is my favourite (though since writing ‘Spindrift’ he’s tied with his father, Brian). Easy to write, lovely character who has grown into a wonderful man (I envy Miss Kate sometimes). His morals and the way he looks at the world are closest to my own. I tend to be quiet and observe before acting, just as he does. He’s stubborn though never to a fault. He’s got his head on right. I am happy with the direction he’s decided to move in life. And yes, they make the decisions, I just hear about it after, as I’m taking down dictation for them.

TOMAS EGAN, ESQ. HAD NOT BEEN TERRIBLY KEEN to take on a young untried barrister for a twelve-month pupillage. Tomas Egan, Esq. in point of fact, had told Patrick Riordan sans Esquire to ‘Feck off, yerself an’ the horse you rode in on, boy.’ Patrick Riordan, a man of no small stubbornness himself, merely waited out the old buzzard, which was how he thought of this fearsome man of law. This man who had once had three separate test cases against the British Government pending in front of the European Commission on Human Rights, this man who, it was said, told the British Prime Minister that he could go shag himself seven ways from Sunday when he proposed sending yet more troops into Tomas’ embattled hometown. He was possessed of a roaring intellect, a gift of oratory and a fierce sense of justice. He might have been, some said, anything he had chosen to be—council to kings and prime ministers, a judge for the Privy Council, or even the leader of the country entire. But he had one love beyond that of justice, and that was whiskey. Ultimately whiskey won, and the once fiery young barrister found himself in a seedy office with flies on the windowsills, taking on cases that no one else would touch. There had been other firms to choose from, but Patrick had decided himself weeks before, it was Tomas Egan or bust. And so he merely stood his ground (partly because there was no chair on which to sit) in the rundown office, where piles of papers covered every conceivable surface, and dust lay thick as velvet over most of them.  And there he stayed, all six foot two of him, stubborn to his final inch. He was a Riordan, and Riordans stood their ground, particularly with crusty old barristers, even if said old buzzard had once been lauded as a judicial genius.

   “Ye need the help, I’d say,” Pat said, in response to a needling query on what the feck he thought he was doing barging into a man’s office, unannounced. Pat knew that this was not a man that needed flattery or finessing, he would recognize it for what it was. Blunt honesty seemed his only course. “Ye don’t even have a secretary.”

   “Don’t need one,” the man said, “not enough for her to do here, not many calls to field an’ no dictation to take. An’ I’ve certainly no need for some wet-nosed pup who imagines himself a barrister.”

   “Well, that’s the point, I’m not a barrister yet. I need yer help with that.”

   “And why is it you think I should be interested in helping you?”

   “Because I asked ye to. I’ve not got anything else in my favour, only that I need to do a pupillage under someone an’ yer my first choice.”

   The man leaned across his desk, blue eyes suddenly sharp as the edge of a new-minted knife. “How desperate are you, son, that an old shambling alcoholic is yer first choice?”

  “Yer the best at what ye do, an’ I would learn from the best. It’s that simple. I could have gone elsewhere, but I came here first. And I’m bringin’ a case with me, that I think ye might find interestin’.”

   There was a spark of interest in the old man’s face, though it was swiftly veiled.

  “Ye’ve got a case? Well, why the feck would ye need me then?”

  Pat took a breath, appealed to his own particular saint and answered the man  politely.

   “Because clearly I can’t try it, but you can.”

   The old man laughed, and laughed, until Pat, clearing a space on a stool he’d spotted under a pile of files three feet deep, sat down to wait him out. Patrick, unlike most of the men in his ancestry, had the patience of a saint, or as his father used to say the stubborn will of an obdurate bulldog.

David- An officer and a gentleman. He was lovely to write about and he brought a different perspective to the books, because he was the enemy and yet an entirely decent man, as the enemy often is. He was also a hero, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for someone he loved. I have missed his presence as I write this book. I enjoyed everything I wrote from his perspective. The war in Northern Ireland was a dirty war, but it was also painted in about a thousand shades of grey. David allowed me to explore some of the corruption of the conflict and how no one is ever all good or all bad. His character served to show what a conflict without a clear result can do to a man, and how someone’s perspective can shift hugely by getting to know the enemy as a human being. He also caused some problems for all the main characters, except maybe Jamie, being that he was on sabbatical in Russia for a bit.

He had chosen this spot after the original meeting with Casey that Billy had demanded. Casey was well versed in the treachery of his own country and used the isolated spot for a reason. David saw the wisdom of this, as long as one could be certain one wasn’t followed to such remote sites. For such a small country, Ireland had plenty of these cottages, long abandoned and swallowed up by feral nature. Home only to ghosts and the occasional badger, they were ideal for the drop off and retrieval of information that had to be kept secret. David liked to come here sometimes when the small, bloody city became more than he could manage and he needed somewhere quiet to think, or not think, depending on the day and its particular horrors. Besides, he was comfortable with ghosts, having been one himself in great part for a long time now. He felt like one more often than not. There were only pockets in his life now when he was certain he was fully human and not something near to invisible, drifting through the edges of life as others knew it.

He turned the stone over to find a wedge of paper, folded as his informant always folded such things, in a sharp-edged triangle.

He opened it and the world fell in, rendering his vision black for a moment as his heart raced out of control. He was on his knees without understanding that his legs had given way, the sharp edge of a stone cutting into the bony ridge of his kneecap.

A name, moved up, as the man who had been designated for the hit could not be found. A name common enough in this country, but not so common at all. Riordan. David swore. Which one? Which—for the love of Christ—one?

 Lawrence- He was fun and tragic all at the same time. Damaged, yet he sure had Casey’s number right from the get go. He was still capable of love and trust, though it took a bit. He forced both Casey and Pamela to grow up that final bit as well. I loved his mouthiness, his contrariness and particularly his relationship with Casey. He knew a man he could trust when he found one. I have never cried so hard whilst writing as I did when he decided to make his exit. I still miss him.

CASEY AWOKE TO THE SOUND of voices downstairs. He frowned, reaching down for the pants he’d shucked off in exhaustion the previous night. He could hear Pamela moving about the kitchen and smelled the heady aroma of frying ham drifting up the stairs. He eyed the clock, then blinked and looked again. It was only five o’clock. Who on earth could be here at such an unholy hour, looking for a bite?

He pulled his pants on and then grabbed a shirt, shrugging into it on his way down the stairs. He padded barefoot and yawning into the kitchen, only to stop abruptly halfway through the yawn to exclaim, “Jaysus Murphy, what the hell are you doin’ here? An’ in my wife’s bathrobe no less!”

Flip, having just bitten off half a slice of toast was saved from answering. Pamela turned from forking ham onto a plate and said, “He showed up late last night, you were dead to the world and he was half-drowned and frozen from the rain. So I invited him to stay.”

“Have ye completely lost yer mind, woman?” Casey demanded, “Ye don’t know this child from Adam, we could have been murdered in our bed!”

“Well we weren’t and he’s not deaf, so I suggest you keep your lecture for later.” Having said her piece, she proceeded to heap ham on the boy’s plate and re-fill his glass with milk. “More toast Lawrence?” she asked, as though it were an everyday occurrence to take in total strangers and feed them.

“Lawrence?” Casey queried, feeling like Alice stumbling into the midst of the mad tea party.

“’Tis my name,” Flip said equably, nodding his thanks to Pamela for a second helping of toast. “Named after the meteor shower, ye know—the Tears of Saint Lawrence. Bit of a joke on God mind, me bein’ named after a Saint. ‘Course the story goes that Lawrence was grilled on a spit by that Roman Emperor, Dy—Dee—”

“Decius,” Pamela supplied helpfully from her position by the kettle.

The Baddies

I admit it, I tend to fall a little in love with my bad guys. They are fun to write and I like exploring their back stories, and why they ended up as they did. I remember when Robin showed up in that first scene in ‘Mermaid’ where he kills the Scots soldiers. That was a real historical happening, and I wrote it in part to place the story back in Northern Ireland and its events at the time and because I was haunted by those poor boys who were lured out of a pub one night by the promises of a night of fun, and ended up dead in a ditch. It was so representative of Northern Ireland and how little the British Army prepared those soldiers for what life there was like. It was the world’s worst killing ground for a British soldier in the world at the time. Their hands were tied there, as N. Ireland was part of the UK, which meant they operated very differently there than they would have elsewhere. Several months into the writing, there was a scene where Casey goes into a pub for a drink and ends up playing cards. At the end of the game, I realized he had known Robin for a long time and then their history literally just rushed in at me like a dam had broken.

Love Hagerty, who also made his appearance in ‘Mermaid’ was an amalgamation of two real people—the notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger and his brother Billy, who was a politician. I liked the idea of combining the two personas into one, a politician who only had a thin veneer between the murderous mobster and his slick dealings in the world. I didn’t fall in love with him, mind you, but he was a whole lot of fun to write.

The Reverend Lucien Broughton- He’s a strange one, and I only sprinkle him into the story here and there. He is like an absence rather than a presence. He’s so cold, I just see a blank white in my head when I write him. He’s very opaque and I don’t exactly like trying to get into his head. I have to write a few chapters from his POV in this book, and I keep putting it off. I’m not comfortable in his skin, whereas I am with the other antagonists.

The bad guy in ‘Shadows’ is probably the most complex one I’ve ever written, and I absolutely love writing him. I hope, when you meet him, you’ll enjoy reading about him too.

And last but never least, Ireland. In some ways Ireland is the main character of all my books and she is always present even when my characters are thousands of miles away from her, she shapes their actions, their thoughts, and most of all, their hearts.

We fly through the night until a thin line forms on the distant horizon and we feel the relief of homecoming after such a very long voyage over the faceless, undulating ocean. And so we arrive at the edge of a country of limestone cliffs, soft-faced with moss and nesting gulls. In we fly across a patchwork quilt of a thousand shades of green and low stone walls with sheep dotting the dawn’s landscape. But do not let this enchantment fool you, for this is a land that has known much pain, whose fields are watered well and deep with blood. This is an old land, and our people have lived here long, some saying we were the small dark ones that dwelt in the trees before the coming of the Celts—but we are older even than they. We knew this land before man, before God, before light.

Now we wheel North, which in this land is spelled with a capital ‘N’, defined by political lines rather than geographical. Here lie the cities of industry with musical names like Londonderry, Ballymena, Magherafelt, Newtownabbey and last—the city of our concern—Belfast, meaning ‘sandy fort at the river’s mouth’. A fitting name, for it is a city built on red clay, with politics girded in ropes of sand and lives that dissipate as quickly through the hourglass of time and chance.

(All pieces of work are copyrighted 2015 Cindy Brandner)

Balance

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I have been slowly working my way through the first thirteen chapters of book four (not to worry I have far more written than these chapters, they just happen to comprise Part One of the book) and as I’ve been doing it I’ve considered all the things I look for as I make the first sweep through. One of the big things is balance, and this is something I look for with each sweep (and I will do many). By balance I mean that instinctive knowledge that one develops as a writer about what the flow of the book should feel like, how much weight to give certain events, which stories to tell, and which to merely refer to, or cover in a flashback. Here are some of the things I look for as I go through, fixing grammar and punctuation before I hand it off to Editor Number One(she deserves all those capital letters). I look for the amount of action- is there too much or too little? If there’s too much, I have to decide how I’m going to break that up at little. It’s important to give readers breathing space, particularly in books as large as the ones I write. The quieter more domestic sort of chapters often provide this, or a descriptive passage. If there’s too little, I have to decide how to pick up the pace. With each book this issue of balance becomes somewhat more complex- how much back story to include, without inundating long time readers with stories they already know, but give enough detail so that first time readers, who may pick up this book without realizing it’s part of a larger series, won’t be completely lost. The amount of dialogue needs to be balanced with narrative drive, the characters have to be described again to bring them to life for readers once more, and to give them flesh for those new readers. I add in tiny descriptive details that may have been overlooked in the first draft, just to enrich the scene a little. This is my chance to bring up the bones of the story, so that the underlying structure is felt but not seen, if that makes sense.

Here’s an example of one of those tiny descriptive details- originally I just had the character bending over the basket to look at the baby, and then the dialogue took over, but then I added in one small sentence, the bit with the baby’s hand. It’s not much but it adds something to the overall scene. To me this is comparable to painting, where the artist goes back and adds in or refines the small details, the things that your eye is naturally drawn to if you give the painting more than a cursory glance.

He bent over the basket where Isabelle slumbered on. He laughed as one tiny hand shot out in sleep, the fingers curling slowly under, like rose-pink fronds of sea anemone.

Reminding readers how a character looks is always a tricky business, after all they have a fairly good and very personal image in their head. If I’m lucky you’ve already been travelling with these characters for three books, so it’s a matter of keeping the detail down but giving enough to refresh the reading memory. Usually this is accomplished by the characters seeing each other after an absence, or meeting one another for the first time.

This is Jamie seeing Patrick for the first time in three years:

Pat sat on the sofa, his tensile strength resounding in the air. His presence was quieter than that of his brother, but still very definite, he was a man that one could not ignore, he would never blend into the background. Right now there was a great exhaustion emanating off him, however, which was of course, to be expected.

Just a short paragraph but it conveys the sense of him and that something big is going on with him. This is filled out a bit more in the chapter.

Originally, part one clocked in at sixteen chapters, but as I read through it I realized it felt too weighty, and there was definitely too much going on with those extra three chapters. So I moved them to part three, as the book alternates between two different story lines. I had to rework the end of chapter thirteen, because if the last line of a chapter matters then you can well imagine how important the last line of an entire part is. I like it to feel just right, and it will make me uneasy until I find the right way to close that part out. Fortunately, I did find what I was looking for.

I always consider what I want each part to accomplish as well. In this particular book, I have a new character who has been mentioned in previous books, but we haven’t met him until this one. He’s a major player throughout this entire book so I needed to introduce him quickly so readers have a strong sense of him from the get go. I also have all the main players to re-introduce, etc. There’s no time lapse really between the end of ‘Angels’ and this book, so that simplified things for me. I had the sense I wanted to ease the readers back into the characters’ lives a little, because a lot happens in this book, and I thought there was a need for people to settle back into this world before they get hit with all the events that occur as the story unfolds.

I consider each book as having its own element— ‘Exit Unicorns’ was earth, ‘Mermaid’ was water, ‘Angels’ was air, though arguably there was a very strong theme of fire running through ‘Angels’ as well. When it comes to ‘Shadows’ it’s not so much an element, unless you consider blood an element. There is a very strong undercurrent of blood running thematically through the book (there’s almost a pun there but not quite). The time period covered in the book- the fall of 1975 through to the fall of 1978, was a fairly dark time in Northern Ireland. There weren’t quite so many of the big events, historically speaking, but there was a lot of internecine fighting, a lot of collusion between the Army, the security forces, the police and the paramilitary organizations. So there was plenty of fodder for the book, but not one of those big events as a lynchpin for the entire thing- the way the civil rights movement was for the first book, and internment and Bloody Sunday were for the second. So structurally that makes it a different book, just as ‘Angels’ was. I found ‘Angels’ spine with Jamie’s journal entries, with ‘Shadows’ it’s a series of events, like putting rather dark pearls on a silver string. It’s a more straightforward book than ‘Angels’ was, which has made it somewhat easier to write.

Sometimes the process, when I get to this stage, where I am really backing up and looking at the big picture can get a little overwhelming- there are so many things to consider and of course, always wanting to make it the best book I possibly can and wanting it to be as good, if not better than the last book.

So that is a peek inside just one of the processes of writing. Now I need to get back to work on the book. 🙂

(The little snippets are from ‘In The Country of Shadows’ copyright 2015 Cindy Brandner).

Seeking the Crone

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Sometimes I imagine that when I am an old woman, I’ll live somewhere deep in the woods in a wooly yurt, or a cottage hidden away behind a hedge of brambles. I’ll cook nettle soup and knit socks from wool the small flock of sheep I keep produces. I’ll wake with the sun and go to sleep with the moon, and the only show I will need to watch will be the setting of the sun, and the rising of the stars each night, all those pinwheeling constellations making me dizzy with both their distance and their proximity.

November does this to my soul, this gun metal grey month that produces some of the loveliest sunsets imaginable here in my Northern home. Tonight I was walking home and saw Orion’s blood red shoulder come up over the horizon. I love the winter sky, for some reason those constellations feel like my celestial home.

I don’t know if it’s my age— my children are leaving home one by one, but I feel especially fragile these days. I feel that way about the world too, about trees and the land and seas and all the flora and fauna that inhabit those places, including ourselves. Things that I once took for granted I no longer do, a flock of geese flying overhead late this afternoon, made me stop and just watch until they flew out of sight. They will be back in the spring, and yet there was something about them, about the mere sight of them flying in their slightly lopsided ‘v’ that made my throat tight, that made my chest ache, because I worry that some day they will not come home, because they simply will no longer be. I feel porous, and I feel like the wild world around us is porous too, permeable, hollowed out, penetrated, used up, tired.

Sometimes I think we’re all like beautiful vases, we start out whole, and as life progresses we get cracks in our porcelain, our souls, sometimes, through grief, large chunks might be taken out never to return, leaving us less than whole. The Japanese believe the flawed vessel is more beautiful, and they mend the cracks with precious materials- gold, silver… Of late, with all the madness in the world, I feel as though my cracks aren’t patched with anything solid, like clay or gold, but rather like some celestial thumb has patched them with a swipe of stardust.

There are blessings that come with this though, I’m more comfortable in my skin than I’ve ever been, perhaps because it’s looser, a bit worn, like a pair of jeans you’ve had for years that are soft and wrinkled and pure comfort. There is a strange freedom in becoming porous.

I don’t kid myself about the romance of living like a crone in the forest, because I did live that way for some time as a child—in a two room cabin, without running water, without electricity, without a telephone. I know it’s hard work, sometimes all day, every day. It tells on the body. I like my creature comforts and to this day I don’t take for granted the hot and cold water that gushes from my taps. I’ve spent too many winter afternoons chopping holes in ice, with pant legs frozen to my knees, to ever take water for granted.

I find myself missing those days lately though, maybe it is part of wanting to live more deeply in my roots, to live with the land, rather than on it. As hard as living that way was at times, it also gifted me a variety of things, not the least of which are a handful of those still interior images we all carry with us through life, moments that feed our soul, as bread feeds our body. A harvest moon rising, trembling and luminous, cold-forged from dark autumn waters, a pack of wolves, smoke-blue in the twilight moving out onto the ice where I skated on those same waters that held the moon, rough-haired bears that lurked on the edges of the pine and fir-laden forest where we lived. The scream of a cougar running like a needle down my spine. The feel of snow dropped from an evergreen bough onto bare skin. In short, life at its roots. Life lived soul-centrically, because nature knows no other way.

Like so many of us, I am tired. I am tired of the cult of greed, I am tired of how badly we have treated the earth and how short-sighted it is of us. I am tired of feeling like all the things I do to try and change my own ways— recycling, paying attention to water usage, only having one car, using solar panels, planting our own food, etc feels like such a futile drop in a vast ocean of the abuse that is heaped on our planet, the only home we have. Perhaps this is why I seek the crone, so that I might one day become her, and find that cottage in the woods that lives in the heart of each of us, where firelight dances on the walls and there are still cougars to pad upon the silver snow outside our door. The door that the November woman opens, the door that leads underground, where lives earthen knowledge and root wisdom. Where we live with the land, rather than on it.

And so I turn, as I always do, to my own roots, that of storytelling and myth, the gateway from this world to that dark forest, where adventures and soul-centric work is to be found. It is never an easy process, ‘because it is the holding and honoring of a visible thread of energy whose roots are in the invisible world.’*

I am all right, as it turns out, with my cracks, like the Japanese I understand it is the cracks that make life more beautiful. I’m fine with cracks patched with stardust. I will seek the crone until I become her.

*This is a quote from the very wise Martin Shaw, to be found his book ‘The Lightning Branch’.

Goose Dreams

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   I was awakened the other night by the sound of a goose in flight. It’s funny how things sound so different at night, where something as homely as a goose’s honk in daylight, becomes a haunted and lonely sound in the night. Once I’m awake at night, I’m usually awake for a time and I’ve learned to reconcile myself to this for the most part. Usually I get up and read, or maybe I’ll think about the bits of story I’m working on and what I’ll work on the next day and I’ll fall asleep with some grand sentence half-formed in my mind, knowing full well it will have slipped my artist’s grasp come morning. But the other night I just opened the curtains a little, the moon was on the wane and it shed a ghostly silver light over the hills opposite, hills thick with green and sap and life right now. I thought about the goose, imagining what it would be like to fly through the night, gliding on the currents of the dark, moonlight drifting thick over your wings. I wondered if the goose was a lone wolf, so to speak, maybe widowed last autumn by a hunter’s careless gun. Or if a mate was sitting in a nest right now, awaiting its return. I imagined that flight so well that I found I was up on my tiptoes, yearning toward the moon, wanting to know what the dark felt like up there above the trees, how the water in the pond below would reflect the moon, a melting rose-gold orb rinsing herself before she too went off to bed. And maybe the goose would land on that pond, and for a second drown in the last of the moonlight.

   It struck me in that moment, on that level that is a bit too deep for words to adequately convey, that we live in this earth not on it. That we swim in the air, sink in the soil, and come in from walking bare foot with the discarded skin of buds and leaves stuck to our skin with sweet sap. Sometimes, at night, in the quiet, without the distractions of other humans, if you still yourself, if you really listen, you can feel the planet breathing, moving, spinning through the stars, dancing through night toward day. You have to be willing to look at the world with an undefended heart, to be open enough to ache for its beauty, its connections, its merciless heart. You have to know you are part of it, but so is everything else- the larch tree in your back yard, the squirrel in the pine, the ant below your foot, the spider that lives in the corner of your porch. The white-gold light of the sun at noon, the thicket of brambles down the lane.

   Moths beat against my bedroom screen at night, wanting the small warmth of my reading light. My heart hurts for them. I go to the window and feel the frenzy of their quest, impossible as it is, it never stops them, just as the want of impossible things never stops us. I understand the moth’s desire, even if it is only for the twenty watt star. I understand the dream of the mouse for a home untrampled by human feet and wheels and concrete, I know the dream of a bee for a field of clover and sunny-faced dandelions. I imagine the dreams of a whale confined in an aquarium, dreams of long, long channels of cold, blue water, where they can sing to other whales and tell of their day, tell their stories, just as we long to do. I think of the goose, its call still dying on the night and wonder if the dream of migration is already there, the long flight it will take in a few short months. Does it dream of the coastlines and the chart of stars above its head by which it will find its way to its winter home? Each day such invisible dreams are carried past us, down long corridors of time and eons of change. The bearers of the dreams die, fade to dust, return to the soil and the air and the water. But the dreams remain. And the dreams, I feel, are worthy of pause and pursuit, they are after all the stuff of life and the thing that keeps us moving forward and also glancing back, whether we be ant or moth, whale or elephant, goose or human. It is, to use a term I don’t really like ‘news-worthy’.  And this thought reminds me of a ninth century Irish poem by an author who has been lost to the mists of time.

I have news for you:

The stag bells, snow falls, summer goes

Wind high and cold, the sun low, short its course

The sea running high.

Deep red the bracken; its shape is lost;

The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry,

Cold has seized the birds’ wings;

Season of ice, this is my news. 

  I have news too, though not of stocks and bonds, or Apple’s new operating system, or the latest celebrity wedding or scandal. It is simply this:

There are tadpoles in the pond near my house.

The blue spruce I was in early mourning for has survived and has the dusk-blue tips of new growth on its branches.

The roses are budding.

There are red calves in the fields.

The Douglas fir whom I consider a dear friend lost a huge branch over the winter, but is recovering nicely.

The woodpeckers who live in the tree by my bedroom window have babies.

Lilacs smell just as sweet on the hundredth sniff as they do on the first.

There is a goose that flies in the night with the light of a rose-gold moon on its wings. This is my news. 

 

No country for young women: Honour crimes and infanticide in Ireland

Fantastic blog post which touches on the recent tragic find in Tuam.

Feminist Ire

magdalene

When I was in first year in secondary school in 1997, a girl in the year above me was pregnant. She was 14. The only people who I ever heard say anything negative about her were a group of older girls who wore their tiny feet “pro-life” pins on their uniforms with pride. They slagged her behind her back, and said she would be a bad mother. They positioned themselves as the morally superior ones who cared for the baby, but not the unmarried mother. They are the remnants of an Ireland, a quasi-clerical fascist state, that we’d like to believe is in the past, but still lingers on.

The news broke last week of a septic tank filled with the remains of 796 children and babies in Galway. The remains were accumulated from the years 1925 to 1961 and a common cause of death was malnutrition and preventable disease…

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Longing for Home

“To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.”- Carson McCullers.

The Irish diaspora (Irish: Diaspóra na nGael) refers to Irish emigrants and their descendants in countries such as Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and states of the Caribbean and continental Europe. The diaspora, maximally interpreted, contains more than 100 million people, which is more than fifteen times the population of the island of Ireland, which had approximately 6.4 million in 2011.

After 1840, emigration became a massive, relentless, and efficiently managed national enterprise.[1] Counting those who went to Britain, between 9 and 10 million Irish people emigrated after 1700. The total flow was more than the population at its historical peak in the 1830s of 8.5 million. From 1830 to 1914, almost 5 million went to the United States alone. In 1890 two of every five Irish-born people were living abroad. By the 21st century, an estimated 80 million people worldwide claimed some Irish descent; which includes more than 36 million Americans who claim Irish as their primary ethnicity.- Wikipedia

Exile: Middle English: the noun partly from Old French exil ‘banishment’ and partly from Old French exile ‘banished person’; the verb from Old French exiler ; all based on Latin exilium ‘banishment,’ from exul ‘banished person.’

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    America called them immigrants, Ireland calls them exiles. I think the word exile sums up how many of us feel. I can only speak to Irish exiles, not those from other countries, because Ireland is my experience and my blood. I have its green hills and windswept rocks in my cells, embedded deeply in my bones. This is where my ancestors made their own history- where they lived out the dramas of their lives—the loves and hates and joys and tragedies that are present even in the most ordinary of lives. The sowing and reaping of Irish soil. The passing of years and the dreams of youth.

    I was listening to Celtic Thunder the other day. When I write, music becomes a background thing, I don’t hear the words just the rhythm of the music itself. I kept feeling very choked up during a certain song. I couldn’t quite understand why this particular song was having such an effect and then it suddenly occurred to me that the man singing it had a very Northern Irish accent and it came through even in his singing voice. The first time I went to Ireland I was enchanted by every bit of it, but when we got to the North I felt like I breathed deeply in a way I never had before in my life— I knew this place, I knew these people. They were just like my family, they were what I was used to. When I go to Ireland, I, like most trans-Atlantic travelers, land in Dublin. But after a night’s rest I shoot like an arrow straight North for Belfast. And there I stay so that I can re-connect with my roots, with whatever that thing is that makes me feel like I can breathe more deeply and see more clearly. When I see those rock-banded green fields come into sight beneath the plane, I feel like I’ve been given a glass of clear cold water after crossing the desert. Ireland simply satiates something in my soul, that I know no other place ever will.

  How is it that a place I have never lived feels like home to me? Is there something in our DNA handed down through generations that simply knows that soil beneath our footsteps, the taste of that spring by the roadside, that need to silently worship when coming upon a shrine of St. Brigid? Is it the knowledge that my great-grandfather walked here too, that my great grandmother both bore and lost children in this land? That something of me, some trace of the stardust of which we are all made, is rooted eternally in this land?

  I have wondered what it is about Ireland that calls so strongly to her sons and daughters, the millions of us in exile. I have heard from so many people how they long to go to Ireland, how they yearn for it, how they worry they will die before they can make it there. Ireland is a magical place, anyone who has been there knows it to be true. Stand on the Cliffs of Moher or the headlands of Inishmore or simply watch sheep amble the laneways just once and tell me that you believe otherwise. Is it her magic we cannot forget, is it her magic we long to reconnect to?

  I had an argument about this feeling with a group of Scotsmen some years back. They insisted we North Americans were ridiculously sentimental about Ireland. I told them that we don’t have a history like they do. That in terms of Western European immigrants our countries are very new (I realize this is not true for the First Nations cultures, they do have that connectedness with the land, they do have their own mythology and legend rooted in the land they live with—and I do mean to say with, not on). I told the Scotsmen their history enfolds them every day, they live with it around them, they have the privilege of living within their own culture, the thing that lives in their very DNA. First off they said I clearly had an Irish tongue, because they were now looking at it differently. They solemnly promised, before we parted at the pub door, that they wouldn’t mock North Americans anymore over this particular issue. I’m pretty sure they didn’t keep their promise, but I like to think they at least thought about we exiled North Americans differently for a bit.

    Many people are familiar with the four original provinces of Ireland—Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht. But not everyone knows that there is a fifth province where the other four meet in the heart of the country, a province that exists in another dimension, the province of An Mhi (Irish for ‘the middle’ also referred to as Meath sometimes). The centre of the country, but the centre in the sense of magic and symbolism, the centre that we carry with us wherever  we go, because it does not exist outside us, but within. It is this centre all we exiles carry with us, and so we must return to the root of it, to renew it so that we might carry it away again.

   “The idea of a sacred space where the walls and laws of the temporal world dissolve to reveal wonder is apparently as old as the human race.”

  The above could describe fairyland, or any number of alternate universes held within our own world, but I think it can also describe the Ireland we exiles hold in our hearts, the one where we hope for a fleeting moment to walk around a corner and bump into our great granddad, the one where we help bring in the harvest and put an extra chair by the fire on Samhain for our ancestors who can come visit on that one day when the veil between worlds is absent. The one where we know, without doubt, that the Good Folk exist and are only a glimpse away. The one where we understand more fully who we are and why we are.

  I read this quote by an Irish man once and it’s stuck with me ever since.

  ‘It is said that Panagea split there first, along the western rim of Ireland, and America drifted away from Ireland and anyone standing on the crack got torn in two slowly.’

   Torn in two slowly, perhaps that’s at the core of it for we exiles, we are still torn in two, and we understand that some part of ourselves— our DNA ,our souls, our individual stardust— is waiting there for us to return, so that we can once again be whole.

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