hard time moon: Josephine Greenland


Hard Time Moon

We know it tires you. Wrapped in all that red; the red tent and the red sleeping bag and the red warmth; wrapping up the blisters, the damp drizzle that seeped through your rucksack into your clothes; burrowing into dark like a lemming, drifting through sleep not finding it; mapping out your route on the inside of your eyelids, for distraction. Perhaps you are deaf to us: the echoes of generations and civilizations drifting down from the moon, sticking like frost to the outside of your tent. Perhaps we are dead to you: bone splinters trampled into soil by your walking boots, again and again. Know then, that we are more than that. We are the spirits who sift through your waking dreams and thicken the air with our mutterings. We are the pathfinders who cloak ourselves in answers.

Listen. There is a path up the eastern hill, made by herders and hunters throughout the years. It is the least steep of all the paths, you must take it but beware of slipping in the grass, for tomorrow this drizzle will turn into rain. You will reach a rock after the first incline. A stream runs down it from the second incline and spills down onto the ground, where it forms a puddle. If you rest here a reindeer herder will appear. He carries a drinking mug in his hand and fills it from the water cascading over the rock. Ask him for the safest way. He will ask for your map in return, for there is no need for a map on a mountain. You will get it back if you agree to pick a petal from every flower on the mountain, and give him the petals at the end of your journey. You will accept. The herder will point you the safest way: due northwest along the second and third incline. Trust the arctic heathers; the flowers will bend their heads to the wind in the safe direction. Follow the heather to the fourth incline, where the grass shifts to stone. You will see a flat stone half way up the incline. If you rest here a hunter will appear. He carries a dead ptarmigan strapped over his back. Ask him for the safest way. He will ask for your compass in return, for there is no need for a compass on a mountain. You will get it back if you agree to count the stones in every cairn of the mountain and tell him the number at your journey’s end. You will accept. The hunter will point you the safest way: eastnortheast along the fourth and fifth incline, then across a snowfield. Trust the cairns, they will guide you past the loose stones and the sinkholes under the snow. You will see a field of stone beyond the snow. If you rest here, a wise man will appear beside you. Ask him for the safest way. He will ask for your watch in return, for there is no need for a watch on a mountain, even without the sun. You will accept, and the wise man will tell you that the safest way is determined by your eyes. Flies will spurt out of his mouth as he speaks, and when they are dispersed he will be gone. Now you must turn your whole being into an eye. See the mountain lift the mist over its head and give you itself, in all its pathways.

You reach the summit. There is a cairn on the western side, which juts out over the cliff and points towards the Bluehammer mountains. It is two metres tall and one and a half meters wide. A banner in the Sami colours, red, blue, yellow, white, is wrapped around it. Take a rest here. Perhaps you will wait for the men to come. We know your people: you map endings into summits, always forgetting that where there is a way up, there is a way down. You will wait for the men and curse their lateness, measure the sun’s progress through the sky and count the inches your shadow grows, until you lose patience, throw the petals to the ground and kick the cairn, dislodging a few stones. You stomp down the hill, thinking of the red you will wrap around you at the bottom, by that river down there, a silver lining cutting the wood in half - until another red, sharp like reindeer blood, slices your red thoughts to bits. You have slid on a rock and hurt your foot. You cannot put your weight on it. You limp across the stones, skirt across the snowfields. You follow the reindeer. The bulls have shed their antlers on the rocks and you tie these together to form a stick. You make it down to the river. Three men sit on the shore.

“Show me the petals,” the herder will say.

“Tell me the number of stones,” the hunter will say.

The wise man will say nothing.

You will say: “I lost the petals and forgot to count the stones, but I have this stick made of antlers.”

The wise man will stand up. You see now that he has a limp. He will take the stick and put his weight on it. “This stick is good for walking. You have passed the test.”

“But I lost the petals and the stones.”

“We knew you would. We knew you would forget about the mountain and think only of sleeping in your camp at night. We knew you would fall, and be forced to work with nature to find a solution. You have learnt your lesson.”

The men will hold out their hands, and present you the map, the compass, and the watch. They will laugh. Flies will spill out of their mouths as their contours blur. Three will become one; one will become none.

Josephine was a runner-up in the Wild Words Summer Solstice Competition 2018. Below she describes her creative process…

The first draft of ‘Hard Time Moon’ was originally the product of a writing exercise in class during my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. We were studying narrative sequences of prose proems, and had just been reading John Ash ‘The Road to Ogalma’ from his collection The Branching Stairs. Our teacher gave us ten minutes to write something inspired by the piece, within the themes of navigation, discovery, and the idea of the quest.

I jotted down the first thing that came to mind. A wanderer struggling to find a way up a mountain, asking the locals for help. As my assessment for that module, I’d chosen to write a sequence of walking-themed poems and prose poems titled ‘Footprint’, so I was using the writing prompts in class to get ideas for new poems and prose poems for the collection.

As I started proper work on the piece, it became evident that it needed to end with a moral message. Like in a fable, the protagonist had to be taught a lesson. A keen hiker myself, I felt it necessary to convey a message of respecting and getting to know nature. Too many times out on the trail I’d seen rubbish strewn across moors and mountainsides, or people marching from hut to hut in two days without getting to know the landscape. Too often I’d heard on the news about people attempting to “conquer” a mountain unprepared, and being picked up by mountain rescue. My piece, then under the working title ‘The Road to Mount Helags’, would be my way of asking people to treat nature with respect.

In order to convey this message, I made the mountain as a character increasingly alive throughout the drafts. The tone became more ambiguous, conveying the idea that nature to a certain extent will always remain unknowable to us. Whenever we venture into the wild, we are nature’s guests, there at her mercy. We do not “conquer’ mountains, but the mountain allows us to reach the summit. The Sami and the obscure tasks they give the wanderer can be interpreted as manifestations of the mountain’s natural and spiritual power; ways of showing that the wanderer is there only on the mountain’s terms.

I am delighted and grateful to Wild Words for this opportunity to share my piece with a wider audience.

Not Enough Time

The year-long mentoring scheme starts in October, and I’ve been talking to people about it: the commitment, the challenges, and the benefits.
Some writers have signed up without hesitation because it’s the opportunity they’ve been waiting for to birth that long dreamed-of book-child.
There have also been people who’ve sent an initial, enthusiastic YES, followed by another email hard on the heels of the first, qualifying that with an  umm… err… perhaps I responded too quickly…
Their reason for changing their mind is usually a variation on the theme of I just don’t think I’ll have the time. They often add, I’ll come back to you next year. I’ll have more time and energy when…
a) I give up my job
b) my children leave home
c) the divorce has gone through
d) I retire
e) my health is better
Now, if you’re one of those in-then-out-of-the-scheme people, just watch what’s happening to you now.  Are you beginning to sink in your seat, embarrassed, or shamed?
If so, is that because you feel you responded without thinking in that first email? Or because, in sending the second email, you fear you’re failing in your writerly quest to get that book finished, and out there?  Or is it just because you changed your mind?
To allay one concern, I’ll say, as the receiver of those two emails, that it’s no problem for me if you change your mind like that. I believe it’s a basic human right to re-think something.
I’ll also say, unequivocally, that if you responded to that first email without thinking, that’s brilliant. Do that more. Expose your instinctual animal self more.
On the subject of failing; the only person you make a contract with when you decide to write a book, is yourself. So, the only person you can fail, is yourself.  A feeling of failure is only useful for one thing, for making us examine at how we’ve set up our expectations, in order to renegotiate them with ourselves. 
The most important job for us as writers, arguable more important than the act of writing itself, is to raise our confidence, and then raise it some more. To keep remembering we are skilled in the art of sitting down in front of the blank page. That means hitting our own targets. It’s almost irrelevant whether that’s writing for four hours a day, or fifteen minutes a week.  If we keep doing it, one day we find it’s done.
When you’ve negotiated a realistic contract with yourself, start saying no to the I’m a failure line in your head. Life is tough enough, why make it harder by beating yourself up?
I’m very grateful indeed to the in-then-out-of-the-scheme-people because they point up an internal message that sabotages so many of us writers- I don’t have time.
I know very well that feeling of overwhelm when thinking about fitting writing into a busy schedule of work, childcare and domestic tasks. However, I’d say that the idea that we’ll have more time in the future is largely an illusion.
Reality check 1: there is enough time to write.
Reality check 2: you will never have more time than you do now.
We can invent all sorts of stories about it, but actually, none of us have any idea what the future will hold. Chances are it will also be busy. Ever noticed how human beings like to fill time in any way they can?
My general line is that we need to know how to deal with that feeling of overwhelm, of constriction, of too-much-ness, and write despite the busyness, rather than waiting for more space. Scary? Yes, I know.
Perhaps this message from Stephen King, via Neil Gaiman will help,

“I think the most important thing I learned from Stephen King I learned as a teenager, reading King's book of essays on horror and on writing, Danse Macabre. In there he points out that if you just write a page a day, just 300 words, at the end of a year you'd have a novel. It was immensely reassuring - suddenly something huge and impossible became strangely easy. As an adult, it's how I've written books I haven't had the time to write.”
So much more than we expect can be achieved, if we put down the procrastinating.


The Monthly Writing Prompt

Here’s a challenge for you:  if you have 15 minutes spare in a day, how about using that to write, rather than to think about when that next clear hour will come up? Do that every day for a month.  

Celebrating the February 'Snow' Moon (2016)

This morning at 6am I saw the ‘snow moon’ of February hanging full and weighty in the pre-dawn sky.


How to find language to capture and express the experience?


When I take time to look patiently, words arise.


When I consciously expand my vocabulary, I not only express my experience more aptly, but I also live it more broadly and richly.


Did you know that Scots has at least 421 terms for snow? It’s true!


My picture contains (just) 24 words for the conditions of snow and ice, from Scots, Gaelic, and travellers’ cant.