Specks of seedlings are strewn across the empty plant pots on the balcony. The flowers or salad they held are now mostly long gone, with the exception of a single nasturtium and a sprawling and exceedingly hardy lettuce, reverted to its more natural self.
These green shoots were not planted, but found their way to the available compost. Here and there they have already grown: sow thistle, nettle, dandelion and others, all ready for the coming warmth. Despite being on the fourth floor, on a protected, north-facing balcony, the seeds have found a home. Nature, remember, will always find a way. Brought by wind or bird droppings, each verdant, hopeful delight is a reminder that life continues, no matter how pressing or stressing the news.
The seedlings wait, the air is too cold right now for further growth, frost wreathing patterns on the windows and dusting all with fine sugar icing. This may be close to as far south as Iberia goes, but that does not mean winter cannot wreath all in her chill embrace. Inside, with no heating, the air is 9°C (48°F) — even with a newly purchased oil radiator and a handful of candles, the single room we heat rarely hits 18°C (64°F). I knew this before we arrived in Portugal last year, that the colder months mean layers and hats, scarves, gloves and extra bedding are essential, yet to experience it is different. I am colder inside, here, than when I lived wild in a natural shelter, even when the Scottish winter hit hard, with temperatures far below freezing and soil like rock.
Yet the green scatter on the balcony shows life, as do the owl calls in the cold night, or the clatter of the returning storks, or flurry of small birds in the orchard and orange grove. When the sun is not concealed, her warmth can be felt, strong, ready to work her magic once more. There is a reason all the old houses have stone benches outside. The line of frost on the rooftops moves rapidly with the changing light, wintry sundial marking the passage of the earth through space. It is possible to stand and watch it melt as the sun rises higher. Clouds dance across the blues and greens, reds, oranges, yellows and greys of the wide sky.
Once, on a dog walk in Orkney, on an April morning — the first time I had returned to spend a night since leaving as an 18 year old — I stood and watched the sun rise, at the edge of a similarly expansive sky. This is something I have done many times, and it surprises me that more people do not also allow themselves this wonder yet, this time, the memory has stayed with me, fresh, strong and magical. One of those moments in life, which I shall never forget.
Across the bay, somewhere behind the island of Shapinsay, the sun appeared, fast and flowing, at a speed which I have never before or since witnessed. I watched a deep red ball appear, a sliver, then a segment, then a wedge, growing rapidly, my camera forgotten in hand, even Orlando the dog surprisingly silent and still, also watching, witnessing.
To be reminded that the earth still spins, that the morning comes and the night returns, to see these things in action, through a lattice of frost, or a scatter of seedlings, or a parliament of owls — this is deep and ancient magic. We just need to use our senses, to be a part of a whole far beyond the scope of our comprehension and remember: warmth can be found in the coldest of places.
I am not one for resolutions, per se, I don’t see the point of an arbitrary date being used for these — if you want a resolution, why not just do it when you think of it? Begin to introduce habits when they surface in the mind, rather than waiting for a manmade, calendrical opportunity. That said, in recent years I have used this period to think of a word for the coming year (bear in mind, I generally think of a year as winter solstice to winter solstice, makes far more sense than a calendar, especially when there are several to choose from).
Last year, my word was ‘consistency’ and, I think, I managed to live by this, building on past habits and creating new ones. It was not always easy — nothing worth doing is — but I am happy with my efforts, especially during such a year of turbulence.
This year, I have decided upon ‘concentration’. I like words which encapsulate different meanings, in this case concentration is intended to mean both the act of my giving attention to something and thinking very carefully about it, and also the act and fact of bringing things together in one place: both work well.
It is important to note that, as I introduce these words and the associated concepts, I do not abandon the previous year’s efforts. Instead, I build upon this, incorporating the new distillation of idea into a life of intentionality. Some years ago, I made a conscious choice to not simply live, but to live deliberately and, to a certain extent, simply. By this, I mean I chose not to drift, not to let days and weeks pass, the months blur or years disappear. After all, we only have so much time and, as I have mentioned before, time is the most precious resource of all.
This year, I shall add concentration to consistency and, indeed, the other words from earlier years. Planning is an important step in this, as is accountability.
Consider this — we are all biologically pre-programmed to survive. We are an animal, after all, no matter what you are told. We are a part of the ecosystems in which we dwell, it’s just that, too often, we do not realise this until too late.
One of the ways in which I try and explain my ethos of being in the natural world is that I do not learn the skills to survive, that should come naturally, but I learn the ways to thrive, to move with, rather than against, the whole. In recent years, I realised I could also apply this to day-to-day life, using time as best I can, deliberately and carefully.
Concentration embodies this perfectly.
I’d be interested to hear if any of you reading this have a similar practice, whether a word, or an idea or, indeed, a resolution. How do you implement these? How do you keep a track of progress? As ever, if you want to reply to this email, you can, or you can leave a comment on the Substack post.
This also seems like a good opportunity to mention the other places I can be found…
…But First, Books
Since my last newsletter, I have managed to hit two targets or, perhaps, it is better to call them milestones. As I have shared, Death & Taxes is now available as a review copy — and I have received my first review through this method. I was rather delighted with this, as it is testament that the idea works, but also, principally, that someone I have zero real-life connection with actually liked my writing — that is always a wonderful thing, and I sincerely hope I never grow tired of the feeling. I am exceptionally grateful for the time anyone takes to leave a review, thank you.
If you would like to review a copy of Death & Taxes (and, therefore, access to A Clean Death, the free bonus novella which goes along with it), or any of twenty-two others, simply follow the link. This will take you to ‘Start the New Year With a Bang’, which is a group review promotion featuring stories with thrilling action. I am keen to find the right review team and, if you are reading these words, having signed up to this newsletter via downloading Only One Death, I am confident you will also like Death & Taxes (and, of the four published tales, A Clean Death is my personal favourite). Have a look at the link!
The second milestone involves numbers. Remember the graph I posted, showing the email list growth? I had set a quiet target for the calendrical year, aiming to achieve 365 subscribers by the 31st of December. I was pleased to hit this before Christmas, and the number currently stands at 378. What pleases me even more is that as this number continues to rise, so does the open rate percentage. That makes me truly happy — thank you for reading.
This month, Only One Death is a part of a group promotion with more than thirty other books to choose from. Entitled ‘Epic and Dark Fantasy Giveaway’, simply follow the link to have a look at the tempting delights on offer. These promotions are always worth checking, as indeed is the whole of StoryOrigin, where the range of tales on offer is splendid.
Where am I?
I do not mean physically (at the time of writing, Portugal, packing up to move things to our home in France), nor (this time) metaphysically — I mean virtually.
To start, if you ever want to contact me by email, simply reply to one of the Substack messages.
I am also still on twitter, but I am using it less and less as I concentrate on more deep work and focus on producing meaningful creations. Similarly, I have a facebook page, but it is never used. Instagram is the same — I have an account, with several pretty pictures, but I just can’t quite bring myself to move beyond the fact this is also a part of the facebook behemoth I dislike so intensely (sadly, I’ll also be leaving WhatsApp in favour of Signal). Pinterest? Yes, it’s here, but not really used much, either. I am also on Reddit and joined the Hive blockchain last year.
There was a time when I would use social media as the designers intended, posting frequently, interacting all the time. For the writer, this is a trick — it makes you believe you are doing work when, in fact, you are not. Time spent scrolling, time spent liking or commenting, even when the conversation is useful and interesting — it is all time that could be used to do something else: building something, to make something new and worthwhile, something which will be remembered long after my tweets have faded from memory. All writers have the chance for immortality, after all, even if their names are forgotten, their words can live on.
As I move forward with the not-really-all-that-evil plan for my writing, it can be all too easy to be distracted, to fall into that trap of retweeting, of engaging and posting, debating and scrolling. I have done it before, too many times, writing essays for my now-disappeared original facebook account, posting hundreds of photos and comments on various tumblrs, or sharing many thousands of tweets, spread across several accounts.
At this point, one thing I want to make clear is that I am not criticising those who do use social media as it is intended — as I say, I’ve done that myself — what I am saying is that the realisation it is no longer something I should do has enabled me, personally, to do far more, to create, to be proactive, and to experience life in a different way. I will certainly use some of the platforms listed in the future, Reddit’s AMAs are an example of a tool which is perfectly honed for the task at hand.
For personal use, I find Feedly to be a simple and effective way to keep up with the blogs and sites I enjoy, admire, or find useful — an old technology which still works admirably. Definitely worth a look, it saves a lot of time and also means I don’t miss updates or fresh posts.
I believe that life should be a string of experiences, memories created and tended and used to help others and further self-development. For me, this means recording these things in my words, not necessarily immediately sharing but instead concentrating, distilling into something more. Saying that something happened is an entirely different beast to saying what something means, what it has added. Time is a friend, when used in this way.
One other reason I have wound down my social media posting is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to actually know who owns the content I post. I am not sure about you, but I certainly don’t want a faceless company making money from my words or photos, with nothing in return for me, other than that old occasional irritant, exposure (which, in terms of bushcraft, or even survival, simply means hypothermia — and that’s how I view this in a creative fashion too, something to be wrapped up warm against, kept at bay with careful management).
Instead, I have this newsletter. A mostly-monthly letter to friends, a way to keep in touch and let you know I’m still thinking of you, with fewer emojis and thumbs up.
I also have my much-neglected website, which will be seeing a fresh coat of proverbial paint and a much-needed metaphorical dusting, as well as a healthy speckling of new material.
To know that the places I distribute my words and photos are mine is a very good thing. To be able to share them is better still.
Brief Brave Update
In my newsletter, The Owl and the Pussycat, I mentioned that I was using the Brave browser. As an update, since then I have earned 60.45 BAT, which currently translates to €11.34, $13.79, or £10.13. Not much, no, but that is essentially money for nothing, a bill found fluttering on the ground, or money left in a phonebooth (remember them?).
I have decided that I shall play with €11.25 of this, moving it around currencies and cryptocurrencies, and making micro-trades. I use the Uphold wallet, which makes this experiment possible. I shall, of course, update you on the progress of this. (Hint: I do not expect riches, these things do change fast, however. [In the time it took to write this section, since swapping the BAT for Bitcoin, the value has risen to €11.53.])
It has been an interesting start to the year. Interesting in the apocryphal curse ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ way which, I suspect, will continue for some time yet.
For this newsletter, I had originally considered not mentioning this, instead listing books, movies, and TV series I enjoyed last year, but I thought that would ring false. Better to stand firm and cement my position, try and help in the little way I can. (I will share these things at some point, however.)
It is crucial to note that I see hope, everywhere I look, as it is all too easy to assume that the loud, boorish voices of hatred and ignorance are strongest because they are the most noisy, but this is incorrect. The loudest dogs very rarely bite (for me, this is certainly the case — both times I was bitten by dogs they were silent [neither did any damage, fortunately, one catching my thick boot, the other biting down on the tobacco tin in my thigh pocket — I will be talking of my strange relationship with luck in a future note, and this is a good example]).
I have spoken before of the perils for certain angry people, who think that kindness is a weakness, only to be shocked when they are disabused of this notion — and this is never more true than now. We can all be kind, all listen and care and explain patiently. However, it is important to also understand that we cannot and should not always engage directly with those whose entire way of living centres around hatred, especially those who we do not actually know in real life. All too often this can debilitate and sap energy — but if you can, fight injustice with what means you have.
Instead, I would argue, it would be better to remove those voices from your timelines, let them shout at each other into ever-decreasing echo chambers, deepening voids and dark places.
However, I would also argue that it is worth our time to try and explain to those we know in real life why their anger and fear is misplaced. I am sure we all know people like this, people we care about, but who are perhaps a little too trusting of their facebook feeds. We all need to be kind and patient, carefully consider our arguments, and know the facts before we engage. Then we plant the seeds, let hatred wither and be replaced with the new growth of something different, something stronger. It is possible, I’ve seen it work, but do not exhaust yourself — stay strong, stay warm, and stay ready for further interesting times.
And throughout, watch the sun and moon rise and set, see the stars wheel, and feel the cold and heat. Listen to all you can hear, taste the wind and smell the seasons. Touch a stone or a tree, run fingers through water or air. Feel. All these are grounding and powerful, and all are free, as most of the best things in life are. Add art and culture and creativity into this mix, and we have a powerful armour, a strong shield against those angry voices.
The photos in this newsletter are all from that trip to Orkney mentioned in the introduction. Orkney has a magic of her own, a place which has acted as linchpin at more than one time, a centre of various worlds, and one which is also central to my forthcoming fiction. This year shall be the year I concentrate my efforts, and finally finish the first book of The Greater Good — The Care Industry. Watch this space and, in the meantime, enjoy the photos.