Whitby Weekend: A Coastline of Ghosts

It felt odd driving down the steep hill to Runswick Bay. I had walked down… and back up… that hill so many times before, equipped with a bucket and spade or a fossil hammer, skipping along beside my grandparents. Little legs remember hills and although mine may not have grown much since those childhood forays, they have carried me far away from those times.

I love the Yorkshire coastline and walked most of it as a child, with parents, grandparents and great grandparents and it felt strange to watch the shade of that curly-haired girl walk with the dead on the screen of memory, carried by love and laughter to places that promised excitement and adventure.

In the half-light of dusk, as the setting sun reflected pink and gold into the receding waves, I was never alone. Not only was I surrounded by friends I love and with whom I was sharing the weekend, I was also accompanied by ghosts, animated memories and a child’s wonder.

Call it nostalgia, if you will, a longing for a simpler time when the weight of adulthood did not bear down so heavily on small shoulders. When life was an adventure yet to be lived, innocence as yet untouched by the shadows of human betrayal and trust was still the natural state of an open heart.

But, like a hologram flickering with uncertainty, the images are no longer my reality. There are gaps in memory, the scenes no more than vignettes. I remember the words that were spoken, but many of the voices have been lost to time. I can still hear my grandmother’s rich chuckle, I can no longer hear my grandfather’s voice at all… it remains only as an echo, a feeling, a taste in the heart.

Although I have played on these shores with uncles, aunts, cousins and brothers… even with my own sons when they were small… it was the memories of those walks with grandad that were haunting me. We would walk along the shoreline, seeking fragments of jet, interesting pebbles and gemstones to take home and polish in the tumbler. We would rummage in rock pools, looking for the strange creatures the sea had left behind. Or beneath the eroding walls of the cliffs, where every storm revealed new surfaces and fossils could be found with ease. We seldom went home without a fossilised shellfish or an ammonite.

As we walked, we talked. I learned about the birds and the wildflowers, the relationship between moon and tides, geological time, history and prehistory. I would think, then ask this apparent oracle those unanswerable questions that occur to us when the world is still new. He would answer the questions of a child as if she were an adult, able to understand the strange concepts that he explained. He never assumed I would not understand, but, I suppose, chose his words to meet my need. More than anyone, it was he who revealed the intersecting maze of paths that could open before my feet and showed me how to feel my way forward until I found the one that was right for me.

So it felt right, more than right, to stand on that beach with my companions in the fading light, watching the cormorants, gulls and turnstones play with the remnants of the day. Now, it is I who am the grandmother and growing old, with stories to share and answers to find for those unanswerable questions that all children ask… and trust you to know. My ghosts gathered round, a circle of love around the circle of light that we wove in the sand, as I held in my hand, and as my heart, an empty vessel filled only with possibility.

For a moment I was a child once more. Then realised that I will always be a child beside the beautiful Being upon which I stand. That we are all children, taught by great Nature as much as we can encompass, in ways we may begin to understand. That I am less than a child… a grain of sand upon an infinite shore…but without which, that shore would be incomplete. I am no more than a spark of possibility against the vast backdrop of time and scintillating space that surrounds us. That we are all sparks of possibility… and every one of them matters, for without a spark, no flame can ignite to bring light and warmth to the world. And that my ghosts were never lost spectres of the dead, but gifts of love and life, given by those whose stories I will always carry, in my genes, in my memory and in my heart.

Small steps…

“I need to do something.” Clinging to a lifestyle in which they felt themselves to be stuck, the person concerned said that a change was needed… a break in the pattern of their days, for to break just one link in a chain is to break free of it. But where to start? What if it wasn’t enough? The fear of failure was holding them back from taking even the smallest step forward that could potentially change everything.

I know that feeling. I imagine that most of us have felt it at some time in our lives. Change and failure can be two of the scariest monsters we have to face and maintaining even a painful status quo can feel like a far better option than scaling a mountain of fear. Still, you never know what you can do until you try…and you cannot take a second step until you have taken the first, no matter how small a step it may be.

I remembered climbing a mountain a couple of years ago. At fifteen hundred feet, it just about graduates from a hill to a mountain and to my eyes, it looked like one… especially as our route would take us up very a steep incline. I really wanted to visit a stone circle I had heard a lot about, but, recovering from a serious chest infection, I wasn’t sure I would make it.  I was at that stage where I could walk easily on the flat, but any kind of climb, be it hill or stair, left me fighting for breath with heart pounding. Standing at the bottom of a slope that appeared to be almost vertical, I was quietly convinced I would fail… and afraid that in doing so I would let my companion down and spoil the day.

It was hard going, especially as it was a hot and sunny day. Every few yards I had to stop and gasp for breath under the pretext of taking pictures.  It wasn’t just me, though, my companion was struggling too… and in an odd way, that made me feel better. The slope seemed endless, and even when we reached level ground, the hill still climbed steadily in front of us. We managed to lose the footpath and had to clamber over rough ground, climb a rickety gate wrapped in barbed wire and, at one point, found ourselves wading through a field strewn with bones.

And yet… we were in a landscape that was incredibly lovely, with bright blue sky above the hills and deep blue sea below. The heather was in flower, the sheep were purest white and there were wild horses watching as we climbed. After the initial climb, the going was easier, even though it was all uphill, and, when we arrived at the plateau below our destination, it was sheer beauty that took my breath away.

It had been worth it. The last climb brought us to a superb stone circle, with panoramic views… and not only that, there were other circles and stones all around us. Not only did we see what we had come to see, we were showered with so many other wonders, from the stones to the hunting hawk that we watched… gifts we could not have expected rewarded us for our efforts. And the way back would be all downhill…

I remembered too taking my younger son up Ben Nevis when he was a boy. We knew before we started that we would fail to reach the summit that day; there was no way we would make it to the top in the few hours we had at our disposal, but we would at least get a feel for the mountain and see beauty we would never have seen had we not made the attempt.

I thought back too, to the first time I had attended an event with an esoteric school similar to those run by the Silent Eye. I was scared stiff of what I might find or whether I would fail to fit in… and was met with open arms and hearts, laughter and friendship. Or the time I had arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris, terrified, owning nothing more than the clothes in my suitcase. I had left everything behind… home, friends, family, language… and was about to embark upon an unknown future. It could have been a disaster… and yet my years in France became the happiest I have known until recent years.

Whenever I feel fear of change or failure weighing me down, I look back at all those times I have taken that first, small step. It can be as simple as a phone call, a break in a routine, or the determination not to let someone down. It need not be a big thing at all. Yet, as soon as you have taken it, one foot in front of the other, your world and your view of it has already changed. Even if you fail, you will have seen and experienced something new along the way… and going back to the starting point for another attempt or a different route is always easier ‘downhill’.

There are so many possibilities for wonder out there and we never know what the next step may show us. The only guarantee that we have is that we will not see them at all unless we take that first step beyond fear…

A painter’s palette

dead-painters-palette

The faded flower caught my eye as I was trimming the potted plants on the windowsill. The rich shades of its life and death were so striking they would make an amazing watercolour. Appropriate, really, as the flower was an Anthurium, the painter’s palette. The heart shaped bloom seemed too beautiful to simply add to the compost so I reached for the camera, thinking that really, I should have reached for the paints.

Then I realised that I haven’t painted once since I moved house several months ago. In fact, I haven’t even unpacked them. Granted, there is a problem of space. There is no longer a spare room to serve as a studio and storage area, but that excuse only works for the oils and the big easel. The watercolours would slip in a drawer.

I used to paint something every day, just to keep learning, even if it was only a ten minute sketch. I never learned formally, I started to paint and learned as I went. I knew just how much technique I lacked. I always saw the perfect picture in my mind and failed to attain it. It didn’t matter. I loved it.

The smell of oil paints and turpentine excites me. The texture of canvas and the feel of paint on brush or, just as often, fingers, always makes my heart smile. Yet, what with one thing and another, it is a long time since I have painted. In fact, I realised with a jolt, I haven’t really painted for the past couple of years. Life got in the way and then, if I’m honest, because I stopped practicing, I lost confidence.

You see, I always knew that I was not a particularly good painter. My perspective ends up all wrong, the colours, light and shade are never right, my drawing skills leave much to be desired. I never once painted a picture with which I was completely happy. But that only spurred me on to learn, it did not detract from my joy in the process.

Most of my paintings were of dreams and visions, full of hidden forms and symbols that spoke to me quietly. They were personal. So no-one was more surprised than me when the paintings began to sell. Not just to friends who might just have been being kind, but to people I didn’t even know. They seemed to be seeing something in the pictures that I did not and, whatever it was, the images spoke to them. While I still saw the imperfections, they were seeing something else.

Then the commissions started to come in. Some of them were for prestigious locations and companies. For a few years, I earned more as a painter than I can imagine earning as a writer. My confidence grew. I still saw the flaws in my work, but learned to accept them, even whilst trying to learn. When I was called to paint an enormous mural at an important venue in London, I began to believe in myself. That confidence reflected itself in my work and the pictures began to get better. The stiffness disappeared; the brushstrokes became surer and more expansive. I allowed the paint to play instead of trying to force it into line with my inner vision.

I learned to believe in what I was doing, not because I was getting it right, but because I was doing it. My very first mural came from taking a chance and ‘having a go’. I had absolutely no idea where to begin, but did it anyway. I made it up as I went along… and it led me to paint at Wembley.

“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page,” wrote Jodi Picoult. The words apply just as well to painting and living as they do to writing. If you are doing something badly you can learn how to do it better. If you are getting things wrong, you can learn how to get them right. If you are doing nothing at all because you are afraid that you might not succeed, then you have nothing to work with and no experience from which to learn.

How many of us hold back through the fear of imperfection? How many leaps of faith are refused through fear of failure or disappointment? How many times do we decline what life offers, just in case we are not good enough?

The first page, the first chapter… the first tentative step in a project, relationship, dream or adventure… It is always a moment of fear; especially if we have tried and failed before. My own early paintings were utter rubbish. I still have some of them, a testament to where you can come from and where you can go, just by saying ‘yes’ to life.

Even on the inner journey of personal and spiritual growth, there is a choice to make. Do we stand still and wait for life to push us forcibly forward, or do we take the leap of faith into the unknown regions of discovery?

‘One day’, ‘maybe’, ‘I wish’… sometimes the only thing that is stopping us is ourselves. We hold ourselves back, paralysed by the spectre of failure; it is true that we cannot fail if we do not try, but nor can we succeed. Confidence does not grow from learning how to do something, it grows from doing it. It is better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing at all.

If we are going to fail, let it be in a glorious blaze of colour. Let it be with fireworks, bells and trumpets… not a failure to ignite the inner flame until it forgets that it could ever flare into brightness.

As for me, I need to unpack my paints.