Buried

This Week’s Bit of String: A dentist’s rocking horse

My Grandma once told me a story about going to the dentist as a kid. She needed a cavity drilled, and the dentist promised if she was good, she’d get to ride on the rocking horse in his waiting room.

He then commenced to drill her tooth without numbing it. She found it very unpleasant, and was told afterward that she was not good, so no rocking horse ride for her.

I wish I remembered the context of why she told me about that. It’s funny how we can be bitter about rules, but still play by them, because I think she worked very hard to stifle all kinds of fuss.

There are times when uttering a complaint or even an honest dissent won’t be much use. Everyone’s got problems, so why would we expect other people to listen to ours? But how much we express ourselves is not a mark of how “good” we are.

Martyrs

I was reminded of my grandmother’s story while I wandered around Exeter Cathedral this week. I like reading the different memorial plaques and trying to imagine who these people really were. What were their daily lives like?

Rachel Charlotte O’Brien.

I seek words on women’s graves particularly. They don’t often get much. Birth and death dates, husband’s and father’s names. Most common adjectives are “beloved” and “amiable.” Those with their own plaques get an addendum about which male relative cared enough to commission it. Lends it credibility I suppose. And if any suffering is admitted, we’re assured she bore it with Christian fortitude and never complained.

Whew, because that’s what I REALLY wanted to know about the deceased: did they keep their mouth shut while wasting away?

If the women who suffered patiently were from families wealthy enough to afford marble plaques in cathedrals, they may have been able to afford laudanum or something. It might not have been just Christian fortitude. Plus, they were probably so indoctrinated with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, it might not have occurred to them they were allowed to complain.

A narrative of good versus bad lends purpose to chaos. It must have strengthened survivors to perceive fatal illness and injury as a test which their loved ones passed.

One striking 1800 memorial to a 19-year-old wife portrayed her as a martyr for getting immolated in her own clothes. She was afraid the fire would spread to her baby, so she ran from the room. It leaves the story there, focusing entirely on her “self-sacrifice,” and shocked me with its bleakness. There was nothing else to be done once her clothes caught fire, but die? The only choice she had was how many she took with her? Damn.

Change

There’s almost a palpable air of acceptance around all these things. If men had to wear wide skirts and petticoats and work close to the fire, would things have changed a bit quicker? Maybe it was easier for a few to dish out some cash for nice plaques than for them all to alter the hierarchies of domesticity.

Prayer pose: Medieval carving in the choir stalls at Exeter Cathedral

All this reminds me not just how fleeting life can be—one woman came back from several years accompanying her husband on duty in India, to die of illness [silently-withstood, of course] three days after her long-awaited return home—but also to check that full stories are being told, and voices being heard. This is especially relevant as elections loom in the U.S. and as we long for them in the U.K. after getting our second unelected leader (third if you count the new monarch!) in less than two months, as Iranian women and their allies risk their lives just to dress how they want to and Ukrainians face a winter under attack.

There’s no rule that says we have to accept corporate greed, rampant gun culture, environmental degradation, lack of medical care, and falling education standards. Tax breaks offered by conservatives are just a rocking horse ride in the waiting room and they’ll offer no anesthetic for government regulations of bodily autonomy, for privatised essentials, shameless racism and lack of gun control. It doesn’t take much sacrifice from each of us to ensure other people are looked after.

Paying more in energy bills can help keep sanctions on Putin, and paying a bit more in taxes might help provide relief for those who struggle with price hikes. These are better than sacrificing Ukrainian independence or consigning people to poverty or forced pregnancy. The world’s clothes have caught fire but we can still contain the damage.

Yes, some of the options suck, sometimes we’re stuck with the lesser of two evils, but you know what? You don’t have to suffer them in silence. Make some noise and maybe next time the options will be better.

Suspense

This Week’s Bit of String: A childhood phantom

When I was little, I worried about the devil. Not in the way you might expect, though. My family was religious, I had a very strong impression of good and bad, and I was convinced Satan would jump out and drag me to hell if I so much as left a toy out of place.

I remember walking past our toy shelves once, and a stuffed animal fell off behind me. I stood there, thinking, Should I pick it up? I didn’t actually knock it down. Probably the good thing would be to pick it up anyway. Is Satan watching me, giggling like a cartoon villain, hoping I don’t pick it up because then I’ll be his?

Although I was genuinely frightened of hellfire and other punishments, I also found it exciting to imagine this powerful baddie investing so much attention in me. Everyone likes inventing villains, it’s not just writers. Politicians require them, social media users relish them.

What perhaps sets apart my early exercise in this is that I never believed he could force me to do wrong. I was worried about myself making a bad choice.

Cheltenham Street Art: Don’t believe everything you think.

I still worry about that last bit. I think that’s the root of the concerns many of us face. I’ve realised that a source of constant stress for me is actually suspense, and a lack of trust in myself.

Will I sleep too late? Will I say the wrong thing at work? Will I manage to meet my own high fitness and writing expectations?

We’ve just had World Mental Health Day, and it’s the spooky season coming up. So I’ve been contemplating this fear that underpins so much: fear of failure.

What Happens Next?

Fear of the future is one thing. I have a newly moved-up GCSE student who will halt in his tracks, and look at me with panicked eyes. “I can’t cope anymore,” he says, “I just want to know what will happen.”

He’s terrified about the exams he’ll ultimately take, and about his home situation, and he puts it so plainly and recognisably. The world is massive and we’ve seen how easily we can be separated from those we love, how thoroughly our routines can be disrupted. Sometimes we just really want to know what’s going to happen!

For me, I assume that spanners will get in the works. Something will break down, someone won’t turn up, prices will keep rising, plagues and insurrections and natural disasters will occur. Life will try to stop me doing what I want to do. The question is, will I let it? How easily will I allow myself to be derailed?

The nice thing about writing stories is getting to decide what happens. I can stop a short story if I don’t want to know the ultimate fate of the main character is. Leave it with a trace of hope, a flicker of possibility. Or I can go super-omniscient, and decide the entire life of someone. In my current novel, based on the creation myth, some events have been decided for me, but there’s a lot of wiggle room. Eve’s motives and responses weren’t included in the Biblical account for some reason.

As writers, though, we do get an extra heaping of suspense and anxiety. Will it be good enough? Will anyone care?

Self-Trust

It’s hard to escape the fears regarding our own capabilities, partly because there will be things we WON’T be good at, people we can’t please, days we don’t finish everything. But constant mistrusting ourselves, dwelling ever in suspense and suspicion, nervous we’ll let ourselves down, that is unsustainable.

One reason why I’m particularly attached to this routine…

Here’s what it looks like for me, in case it’s similar for you. I like to take an early 2.5-mile walk, in addition to walking to and from work, and running around while there at school. I love being out in the quiet, and I like to bank some good exercise before the day begins.

I have to wake up around 5:30 to do this, and I avoid the disturbance of an alarm. So from 4-ish onwards, my mind wakes me up every 10-20 minutes checking I haven’t missed my chance.

Once I’ve gotten up and done my walk, I almost immediately start wondering if I’ll manage it tomorrow. Sure, I succeed most days, and I did so today. But what if I don’t tomorrow?

Silly, isn’t it? I’ve never thought of myself as an anxious person in the sense that other people struggle with anxiety. This issue for me is by no means crippling. Remaining in suspense, though, means that my feet don’t often touch ground. That is exhausting.

It helps to name the issue and recognise patterns. I like the term suspense. An edge-of-my-seat, thrill-a-minute existence as I compete with myself. It’s less clinical than anxiety, sometimes downright exciting, and perhaps, like a page-turner of a book, I can learn to pause and put it down now and then.

The other day, I broke my routine to show it will be ok. Instead of a morning walk, I went on the treadmill after work. Lo and behold, there was still time (and energy) to make dinner, do all the washing up, make it to a writing workshop on Zoom, and critique someone’s novel chapter afterward.

Finally, if I ensure that I’m speaking kindly to myself in the midst of this, it’s less scary and stressful. I’m pretty good at telling myself what I’ve done well, and cheering myself on. I just need to put more belief behind the thoughts, and trust myself.

Do you find life gets a bit too suspenseful sometimes? How do you deal with it?

Straying from the Original

This Week’s Bit of String: Ready for the close-up

To prepare for her A-Level Photography next year, I took a Year 11 student on a little expedition Thursday morning before the blue skies were completely obscured. We both had our mobile phone cameras and we found a wealth of photo ops right behind the school. 

My student is a fan of the big picture. She stands back to get everything in one photo. I’m rather the same. It’s challenging to look at a whole panorama and remember to consider whether it would be even more striking from other angles, or broken down into close-ups.

Bit like writing, really.

One of our findings.

So we were trying to get examples of low angles, high angles, and macrophotography. I found myself in a much more creative frame of mind, running around going, “Ooh, what if we tried this?”

My lovely autistic student started out not doing close-ups. I showed her examples of macrophotography, but her method was to say, “Out of the way, I’m going to take a picture!” She’d take one from really far, zoom in as much as possible, and crop after. The resolution of doing it this way is not ideal.

What the Framers Had in Mind

Framing is important. Proximity is, too. We’re working on Photography before Year 12 has officially started in order to ease this young lady into new ways of doing things. Whether we’re neurodivergent or not, we all need time to break habits and see new perspectives. 

When it comes to running a country, the United States had a real headstart. The revered U.S. Constitution is pretty much the first of its kind, and is now about 234 years old. Did you know almost every other country in the world has a constitution now, and most were written in the last hundred years?  

My favourite one I took. It’s through a table tennis divider.

Needless to say, that encompasses a vast array of nations with varying success at the democratic experiment. But some of those countries are doing just fine, and are not in any way less free, equal, or prosperous. Which is weird, because who knew a people could derive liberty from a document NOT written by a few white guys in powdered wigs who thought not-white and not-male humans could be property.

As ever, much Supreme Court controversy comes from how “originalist” its Justices want to be, or not. Must all US legislations still be measured against the words of the original founding documents, or is there room to grow?

The thing is, even originalism is very much up for interpretation. If a law pertains to something not referenced in the Constitution, then is that thing not allowed to exist at all? Or does it mean we can do what we want with it? And there are many angles to originalism, and different approaches have been developed over the years.

Now What I’m Gonna Say May Sound Indelicate

The Founders themselves were not exactly orginalists. They included Amendment 9 to ensure that “unenumerated rights” which they might not have known about could still be allowed to exist, much later. They also went and added 2 more amendments in less than 20 years. I wonder if they envisioned that 234 years later, a top state official would explain before Congress that he believes their Constitution is “divinely inspired.” Particularly given most of the Founders were more interested in Locke and Rousseau than they were in the Bible.

When Edison invented his light bulb, did he expect we’d still be using the exact same version a century later? Because I don’t think we are. 

I say we get a whole new Constitution. Give the thing a good edit; keep it broad yes, but maybe offer some clarity. Schedule it in for a full-on maintenance every fifty years maximum, to be carried out by a mix of scholars and ordinary people selected like jury duty. Look at the nation from new angles, get up close and see rather than continually trying to crop and fit the vision Jefferson et al. had. The resolution from how much they’d have had to zoom in to see us now, and vice versa, is just awful.

Just put a little effort in. One of my macro shots on Thursday

A new Constitution would never happen, I know. America has far bigger problems (although a lot of them stem from extreme constitutional interpretations) and too little time and money.

By the way, money features a LOT in the Constitution. Imports, duties, trade. War’s in there a fair bit. It’s true that women and God are never mentioned. Males are mentioned, and in fact Article I Section 8 mentions pirates! Ooh. So if you want to be super originalist, the Supreme Court has a lot more basis to rule regarding pirates than regarding women.

I really like some of what I’ve written, but I wouldn’t want anyone to base how they live their entire life around them, let alone how a whole country has to live. Though it’s exhausting work, the power to edit and evolve is a great relief and, well, freedom; as is the ability to learn from new people, whose voices may have been stifled before.

My student did start taking close-ups at the end of our session, by the way. She saw a single, white bindweed blossom grown up through a bush and charged right in through the branches to capture a shot of this “lonely flower.” I’m excited to see what else is going to inspire her, and learn from that myself.


Punishment and Crime

This Week’s Bit of String: A 17-year-old’s options

At work, I have a student who’s not sure what to do next. He’s set to pass his exams when he resits them, but because he needed an extra year to do it, the local engineering college won’t take him. His access to transport in this rural area is limited, and so are the apprenticeships on offer.

I brought up his case with the teacher who’s supposed to be our Further Options expert. This got me a lecture on how “cold, hard reality” is about to hit our students after their “cosseted secondary school life.”

Do you remember secondary school feeling particularly cosseted? I wouldn’t have called it that. There’s exams, loneliness, bullies, hormones, plus whatever drama’s occurring at home.

Besides, it’s not the student’s fault that his family can’t provide transportation or that there are only a few apprenticeships around, and far fewer aligned with his interests. It’s not really his fault he needed more time to pass exams, considering that he has learning difficulties.

You can join the bluebells off the path if you want.

He needs more options. It’s not his fault they don’t seem to exist.

As the mum of a young adult, I’ve noticed at work and in domestic life that many grown-ups adopt a punitive attitude toward newer generations. There’s this expectation that they ought to account for every moment, and achieve relentlessly. If a young person chooses something outside the conventional rush toward adulthood, or simply takes extra time, they risk interrogation and censure. 

The Right to Choose

Our ability to make decisions is one of the main things that makes us human. But society seems to dehumanise people the instant certain choices are made. If you decide you need some time off from work, if you think university’s not for you–well, what use are you?

It’s similar with the abortion debate. Beating louder than a cluster of embryonic cells which may one day be a heart is this far-right message: If a woman decides continuing with a pregnancy or becoming a mother would negatively impact her and/ or her family, what use is she

A couple of weeks ago, a state congresswoman caused controversy by referring to pregnancy through rape as “an opportunity.” However, I didn’t see anyone calling out her message’s particularly insidious core. It’s not just that she felt women should be forced through pregnancy and birth after being forced into sex. It’s that she saw pregnancy, any pregnancy, as an opportunity for a woman “to make a determination about what she’s going to do to help that life be a productive human being.”

The implication here is that from the instant of conception, a woman’s sole focus should be contributing a new person to the world. A productive person, mind you, one who won’t have to, God forbid, resit exams or anything like that.

This idea achieves the remarkable feat of dehumanising everyone involved. Women become vessels without bodily autonomy; their babies are essential goods to enhance the “domestic supply of infants.” The men don’t even get a mention in the issue; it’s assumed they want no part. 

What We Deserve

Carrying a pregnancy to term is often framed in a similar, punitive way to how we talk to young people. “You play, you pay.” But is nine months of complete body alteration, often interfering with the ability to earn an income, and then the torture of childbirth, an excessive price for unprotected sex? 

I’m not sure the punishment fits the crime. And what does it say about conservatives’ attitudes toward children if their very existence is a punishment to wayward mothers? (Possibly a throwback to the idea that labour is a divine curse, something Eve wrestles with in my novel-in-progress.) Parenting can be pretty punishing at times, but it’s not actually supposed to be a punishment.

My kid: a truly marvelous human.

The callousness goes both ways. At age 20, I had my baby. I was alone and had terrible self-esteem, so why not just go through with it? I wanted my child, and I’m ever so glad he exists. But believing you’ve got nothing going for you so you might as well give birth isn’t the best child-rearing philosophy.

Meanwhile, no one else wanted me to stay pregnant. It took a while before my baby’s father changed his mind and we got married. I moved our gorgeous, bright little boy over to the UK so we could parent together. But when I got exhausted and homesick and asked for help, my mother-in-law pointed out, “Well, it was your decision to keep it.”

Making a choice doesn’t mean we have to keep doing the same thing all the time. We can take a little break. We can change course entirely. Rejecting an option means quelling one potential outcome, but it enables another. That’s our right as existing human beings. 

It’s tempting to trace all outcomes back to a single decision. Fun to attempt when you’re plotting as a writer; to wind your story tightly around one moment. Life isn’t really like that. You keep choosing things, and you keep getting affected by things you can’t choose. There’s no point, later on, blaming everything on one decision. The challenge of finding a local apprenticeship is not a direct result of one boy’s study habits two years earlier, and nor is a mum needing an evening to herself a complete repudiation of deciding to give birth. Let’s let people make their choices and keep giving them chances.



Seven Wanders of 2021

Most of my favourite outdoor adventures last year happened in places I’ve been before. After all, we were locked down for 2021’s first five months. Our later travels were to see family, so the places we revisited took on special value even if they weren’t new and exciting. I felt lucky to deepen my knowledge of beautiful locations.

Sometimes, the company kept on a walk—even just the songs you listen to—cranks up the wonder and lodges it in your memory.

Previous years’ lists of unmissable explores are here, here, and here.

Cam-Dursley-Uley, Gloucestershire

This is my local 7-mile circuit. I go up through winding, quiet lanes, past curious goats and a howling cattery and sweeping, peaceful “retirement fields” for old horses. There may be brunch at the wonderful Vestry cafe in a church-turned-arts centre, with macaroons to take away. (To find the Vestry, turn into the road by the house with vintage petrol pumps in front.)

Then back along the road because it may be noisy, but it gives some lovely views of fields, purple flax in the spring, and nice houses, including Angeston Grange with its gingerbread trim.

Mascoma Lake, New Hampshire

My 7-miler when I’m in the USA staying with my family. I follow the rail trail through the town, where it’s still trying to resurrect after the mills shut down, and then I go round half the lake. Crossing the long bridge that spans it, I often see or hear the chequered loons, or glimpse an otter darting over the rocks, or tread nervously beneath the imperious gaze of an eagle on one of the lampposts.

Traipsing along the roads from the bridge all the way round the water back to my parents’ house, often in 98% humidity even at 6 in the morning, I see the sun rise above moored sailboats. The big stone Shaker barns are softened by mist; the Catholic shrine opposite is quiet, its thousands of Christmas light bulbs hibernating through summer. Then I pass miles of lake houses: some grand, some old and rickety with more lawn ornaments than floor space.

Lymington, Hampshire

Spending a little time on England’s South coast with my husband’s family, I took the opportunity early in the morning to hike my weekly Friday Five Miler in a different location. I navigated with Google Maps to the marshes of Lymington Nature Reserve, protected by an earth wall from the sea. Then I followed the coast back toward our holiday house.

This was one of those walks where the songs plus the weather equalled perfection. In overcast, hedgy lanes I bit back tears listening to “She Used to Be Mine” from Waitress, then I came out onto the built-up coast in a sudden deluge. The ocean wind blew raindrops so forcefully into me that I had little red welts on my skin. But by the time I came around to the marina, the rain stopped and sunlight broke through, gilding the sailing masts while “Blinded By the Light” played in my earbuds.

Rye Beach and Little Boar Head, New Hampshire

My two sisters and I took a sunrise trip to New Hampshire’s seacoast during the summer. We started at Rye Beach, a beautiful sandy stretch. At 5:45 there were already surfers riding the waves, gold-rimmed as another hot summer day began. A John Deere tractor motored over the sand and we walked barefoot around gull feathers and knotted halos of seaweed.

We then drove to Little Boar’s Head, where a path winds between the ocean and the mansions of Willow Drive. Wild roses grow on the banks and old fishermen’s huts, now coveted summer boltholes, line the entrance to the path. Off the shore, cormorants perched on rocks to air their wings.

Festive London

Wearing masks and Covid testing frequently, we went to London over New Year’s 2021-2022. My husband and I met in London, so I’m quite attached to it, but we hadn’t visited there together in almost a decade. We went for long walks taking in Hyde Park and its river birds, South Kensington and the embassies where our son could identify all the flags, and London Zoo. I was enchanted by all the Christmas lights of Mayfair and Oxford Circus, the butterflies and rainbows of Carnaby Street.

We tromped off to Notting Hill also, where at 10 pm on New Year’s Day we got delicious gelato at Amorino, scooped out in flat petals and pressed together like roses. We ate our ice cream as we walked along, admiring quirky window displays. I took a picture of one house with a mural on the front, while in the upstairs window next door, a man leaned out cutting his fingernails into flower boxes, looking utterly bored.

Aria Force and Gowbarrow Fell, Ullswater

We got to go back to the Lakes District this summer, visiting some of the favourite places from last year, and exploring extra ones too. This year we fit in a visit to the waterfall trail passing Aira Force, a 65-meter waterfall. The path was under construction nearest the Aira, but further up we could climb around and play in series of terraced torrents, and peek past ferns and foxgloves at steep, moss-furred drop-offs.

We turned away from the becks (cascades) to climb Gowbarrow Fell, which felt a bit steep since we’d been ascending the whole time leading up to it. The views were gorgeous though—fields and byres and pines and more fells (peaks). From the summit we could see the steamer-scythed length of Ullswater Lake. Circling back toward Aira Force car park, we kept the lake in our sights, through trees and heather and tendrils of dog rose, their creamy heart-shaped petals falling on the path while bees trumpeted around.

Groton State Park, Vermont

Vermont state parks are awesome. We camped in a lean-to (three-sided shelter) near Rickers Pond, part of Groton State Forest. Lake Groton and the surrounding ponds were formed at the end of the Ice Age when some of the melting water got trapped by the gravel it carried, and the area is studded with boulders called “glacial erratics.” There are lots of trees, and bluffy mountains with asymmetrically sloping summits like overdone meringues.

Apart from the natural beauty of pristine water and quirky little towns, mountain views and greenery, Vermont makes it clear it cares about its parks. We encountered such lovely touches as free suncream dispensers, and convenient toilet blocks and firewood stations. We swam at Lake Groton’s Boulder Beach and stretched out on the soft, freshly-raked sand. We hiked up Owls Head, a short mossy path to a beautiful lookout point with an eagle circling overhead, and we spent a lot of time at Rickers Pond, swimming in it and then “brooksploring,” following a brook off of it leading toward the Wells River. We liked watching the mussel trails, a whole herd of freshwater mussels in the shallows, approaching the shore and leaving their curlicue tracks in the pond’s bottom. The loons were bold at the Pond, diving right near us. I also hiked a couple miles of the Cross Vermont trail, perhaps something I will revisit more completely one day.

Are you familiar with any of these locations? What were your favourite outdoor adventures from the last year?

The Value of Women’s Time

This Week’s Bit of String: The dregs of a ketchup bottle

Sometimes I think about the consistency of time, as if it were a physical thing. With my last job, doing billing and customer management, time was like bottled ketchup. The tasks could be so tedious that time just sputtered and dripped languidly, then a deadline approached and time spurted past leaving a mess.

Now I’m back working in secondary school classrooms, time is more like sand in an hourglass with a particularly generous funnel. Each moment is a grain tumbling through, some with more jagged edges than others, but mostly very fast and after just a couple of hours you get a quick tea break but you’re sifting through the grains to ensure you didn’t miss something really important. A student in crisis, a quiet success, a useful tip for helping someone learn.

Imagine how it would change the flow of a year if Christmas was in January. Would it all be an uphill slog from there? Instead it comes at the end of the year, like a stone in a river, and makes time accelerate and leap around it.

O come let us eat cookies. Baking is a big project for me each year but I love it, as a sort of meditation, a chance to practice other skills with delicious results.

Suddenly it feels as if we’re racing to year’s end, and we have to hold so much aloft as we plunge. We should make the house nice and bake fancy things and organise travel plans, deal with the crescendo at work (supporting students through mock exams, for example), put in cheery appearances at dinners and parties and concerts, secure Christmas gifts for all our family, and the family we grew up with, keeping it as environmentally friendly as possible, and I suspect as a wife I’m not alone in having to sort all the presents for my in-laws as well, plus being the contact person everyone comes to asking, “What does so-and-so want?” And down the cascade we go, still cheering because at least in my case, I quite like Christmas despite the madness.

Supply and Demand

I am lucky to have so many reasons to be busy, to have people I care about enough to work hard and make Christmas special. Some things even work out a little bit like I might have hoped. But I do sense that women generally adapt a wider range of duties year-round than many men do by default, simply by our awareness that they exist.

There are exceptions and even for our men who get a little more free time than we do—we know you have your own challenges, and we’re happy to help. But for many women (including people identifying as female, including those who don’t have children or partners), we have extra people relying on us in weightier ways than men do, and we are stretched in more directions.

As long as this guy gets some carrot, maybe a sprout or two, we’ll be ok.

This year we’re hearing about supply chain problems around the world. Covid slowed manufacturing down, various factors slow down transport, so there may be fewer goods available and the prices will be higher corresponding to reflect the lack of availability. Anything in high demand that therefore suffers scarcity gets priced at a premium. Since women have so many demands on our time—doesn’t that mean it has a higher value?

Our pay doesn’t usually reflect this. Because of family obligations, we often have to take part-time work, low-paying jobs, and/ or jobs without very good benefits. I like that in the UK you can actually look up pay gap statistics for companies employing over 250 people. There’s even advice for companies on how to address the problem.

Overtaking

With frequently undervalued jobs and with off-duty roles which men might not even imagine exist, we have to learn to value ourselves. We facilitate everything from hot meals to regular dental check-ups to artistic endeavours to excited Christmas mornings. Where would this world be without us?

Any spare time we have is a rare commodity and you’re allowed to treat it as such. Guard it by saying no to a last-minute obligation. Insist on its high price. I’m paying a little extra to have groceries delivered this week, because it frees me up to join my Writers Group Christmas gathering, in person for the first time in two years. Or, getting a few minutes to read by candlelight could be worth the price of making someone else wash the dishes for once.

Street art, Birmingham

We can also claim our time by allowing ourselves to go faster. Recently I was pounding along on an early morning hike when I encountered the nightmare scenario of Polite People Everywhere: a man walking very slightly slower than I was.

I thought I’d better slow down to avoid the awkwardness of passing. Men can get defensive if overtaken by a woman. But slackening my pace even a little risked throwing my whole schedule off. I might have to wait longer to get into the family bathroom for a shower; I might encounter more traffic when trying to cross the street on my walk to work. On the other hand, if I sped up, I could begin one of the many jobs on my list for the day.

Reader, I overtook him. We should dare to overtake sometimes, since we have a lot on our plates. Maybe you don’t have a day job at the moment, maybe you don’t have kids or a partner—whatever the situation, if you identify as female there may well be extra emotional duties you’ve taken on simply because society expects it, and you’ll be feeling the burden this time of year. It’s worth acknowledging, and giving yourself credit for that.

And let’s please remember, even as we’re each super busy and missing family we’re cruelly separated from and anxious that our efforts will not be successful… let’s remember that everyone’s got something painfully pulling their heartstrings in some way. Everyone is tired and a bit sad. Check in. Express appreciation. I know, that takes up a little of our overstretched time, but it is one of the most precious uses for it.

I hope you’re enjoying the season and finding many kindnesses, however small.

The Stopover

This Week’s Bit of String: Four and a half hours in Dublin

A couple metres to my right, a nun is counting a somewhat alarming quantity of 50-Euro notes under her table. A couple metres to my left, a very small girl is alternating between blowing noisy raspberries into the back of her chair, and drowning herself in a lidless juice cup. You guessed it, I’m in an airport.

People-watching is great and all, but so is an entire row of empty seats on the first flight.

Over the years as an immigrant I’ve learned a few tricks, and one of them is to fly from our local airport, stop in Dublin, then on to America. The US has a customs and immigration point in Dublin, so during the stop, we get fully processed and then can just step out of the airport in Boston without spending more time queuing for border control after we’ve arrived. It means less time wasted, and brings us closer to home.

This time, my first flight in a long while and my first opportunity to see my family in over 2 years, the stopover is 4.5 hours. A bit on the long side. Even with going through American passport checks, I’ve got 3.75 hours left.

I don’t mind it too much because this also happens to be my first solo airline excursion in two decades. I don’t have to worry about whether anyone else is comfortable or entertained. I can hang out with a sandwich and do some first class people-watching as a third-class passenger.

Part of the Journey

he tiny, now very sticky girl at the neighbouring table has been instructed to clean up her mess and is wiping the table quite capably. Then her mum has her stand on her chair, and wrangles her into a new outfit. “Not everyone can just change their top in an airport,” the mum tells her, “but you can.”

The nun has a mobile phone pressed to her ear and I can just hear the voices sounding off to her. She needs it close to hear over Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” on the airport radio. (Yes, I love that this is the song playing here while I am fleeing the country after so long.) I think it’s an audiobook the nun is listening to, and I’d love to know what it’s about.

There are no small adventures, only small adventurers.

With all this going on, it doesn’t feel like wasted time. These hours aren’t getting me closer to home, but they’re reminding me that being around people, anywhere, can be an adventure.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t have to change location to go on a journey. The last 16 months have been an adventure, wouldn’t you agree? Just trying to get groceries could be a monumental quest.

The word adventure, it turns out, doesn’t just mean to wander or travel, but also to take a chance. To “risk the loss of.” Heck, many of us don’t need to venture outside to strike up something a bit reckless. Anything we say to another person risks rejection or misinterpretation. Every seed planted, every page we poise our pen over. You never really know how it will turn out.

Taking Off

Of course, when it comes to actual travel, especially these days, there are quite big risks. As much as I want to spend time with my family, I have had to weigh the likelihood that I might carry over a virus that could hurt them. There are a lot of factors to put our minds at ease about this: the vaccine, strict testing requirements, social distancing and hand sanitiser stations all over the airport.

The lakes of home…

I look at the other people waiting around me and wonder what risks they’ve taken, how badly they want to get to their destination. Are they going home, or coming from it? Are they a bit like me and they don’t know which side of the ocean is truly home?

Every Christmas during my marathon viewing of the Extended Lord of the Rings films, I am struck by the line at the end, “You cannot always be torn in two.” But I think most of us are, and probably wouldn’t have it any other way. In our world with so many connections and crossings—how do you choose just one place, just one group of people? It is hard, it’s a painful tearing, but nonetheless both pieces are always with me in some way. Leaving my home country, I still believe, was a risk that had to be taken, as right and necessary as returning when I can.

Loving one home over another would be like doing only one writing project at a time (I know others must be able to relate to this). Or like telling me to ignore either the nun or the tiny girl. Thank you, I’m quite taken with both. So here I am, between my two places, just breathing behind my mask and relishing some non-useful time.

Resolving

This Week’s Bit of String: View to a sundown

During the recent heatwave, we went out for a late evening drive, finding ourselves at a viewpoint on a local peak. The large car park was almost full. Students in pairs or trios enjoyed the views, family groups packed up disposable barbecues, friends took stock of the situation while balancing MacDonald’s cups on their car roofs.

We wandered to take in the sunset, while dragonflies patrolled the scabia and thistles, and kids laughed and the tractor haying in the pasture below turned on its lights. It was the eve before all restrictions would be eased (despite covid cases rocketing to the same levels as January) and, whether intentionally or not, people were keeping their distances.

We came here in the beginning: March 15, 2020. My husband and I went to a local film festival to see the silent movie Beggars of Life accompanied by a live bluegrass band. There were quite a few empty chairs in the theatre, as people started withdrawing from events, but we thought we’d go, try something a little different, fully knowing it might be our last night out in a long time.

After the movie, we stopped at the same viewpoint and looked at the stars filling in the gap between peak and ground. It felt precipitous.

Unfinished Business

Most people I know are worried about the timing of lockdown’s end. The delta variant of covid seems so contagious; every day we hear of more people having to isolate. The sun has not set on this pandemic.

Even if cases were way down, I think I’d still feel… anticlimactic, perhaps, about lockdown ending. Some people sorted their lives out during that time, it seems. I fear mine is in more disarray than when we started, and I can’t be the only one.

We are all this wind-shoved tree. Still standing…

My son’s first year at uni was a bit rubbish with all the restrictions; now he doesn’t know what he wants to do. Still working full-time, my husband and I didn’t accomplish any stunning DIY feats. We didn’t even have a clear-out since the charity shops and tip were closed. When the toilet and shower leaked under the floor, we peeled the laminate away revealing splintery, water-stained boards, but we couldn’t figure out what to do beyond that. Any further solutions would involve turning the house water off for a while, and we had no other place to go.

I took a lot of good walks—and also got plantar fasciitis and tennis elbow which made many of those hikes quite painful. I finished a handful of stories, and even found publications or events for a couple of them. But I haven’t had the energy or support or just the time to myself to properly tackle rewriting my novel. The loneliness of being an immigrant was more acute than ever. Maybe survival is the one thing I have achieved through lockdown.

Survival Mode

Let’s not underestimate the importance of surviving these times. And let’s not discount the monumental effort of it. When we’re spinning in a frenzy, we’re not going to make an accomplished journey. One about-face and then another don’t really equate to coming full circle.

A strip of wildflower seeds in our garden has brought us as much joy as our carefully planted roses and veggies. Chaos can be ok.

Most stories are written to show character development parallel to event progression. I’m not sure real life is like that. We are constantly challenged, and sometimes it’s not until the next really big test that we might notice what we learned from the last. Getting time to process something is a myth, at least in my existence.

So we emerge, reminded that time and family are incredibly precious. I don’t really care how little I’ve written for publication in the last 16 months, I have notebooks full of daily scribbles on how my husband and son were doing and what small things we did for each other. The clutter in my house hasn’t stopped me working lots of overtime right next to it, from a corner in my dining room; the injuries I had didn’t stop me going out for my alotted local exercise.

We’ve all learned what we can push on through, despite being cut off from others. Very likely, we’ll be doing that some more in the near future. This chapter is ongoing, even if the format’s changed. There’s no resolution yet, but we have resolve to keep working toward one! How are you getting through it all?

Counting Mental Calories

This Week’s Bit of String: Full bellies, empty legs

The first time I remember eating way too much was the summer when I was 9, at a barbecue with rarely-seen, well-off relatives in Long Island. So much food we wouldn’t normally have at home, and on such a scale. My sister and I were about to start puberty, approaching the “empty leg stage” as one family friend described the ever-hungry growth spurt. But our appetites were no match for what we consumed at that barbecue. We were so full, we swore we would never eat again.

Reader, we did eat again. And speaking for myself, I have overeaten again. Sometimes, the only way to stave off despair seems to be Bournville chocolate, even though I know my heart will race and my brain will fog up.

A lot of things we think of as treats aren’t really what we need. That’s one reason I dislike the term self-care; some people apply it however and whenever they like. It’s such a vague principle. If we have an opportunity to treat ourselves, does this mean catching up with a friend or curling up for a nap? Does it mean a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or some lentil soup?

Varying Metabolism

“Self-care” wasn’t invented when I became a parent. Or maybe it was; certainly the remedies associated with it existed, but none of them were available to low-income single mothers just out of their teens. Even having self-care in our vocabulary is a privilege. Strategies ranging from socialising to yoga to massages to a decent night’s sleep are completely inaccessible for many people.

Nice smells and warm glows working from home. Gotta love multitaskable luxuries…

I often wonder how people keep going who can’t afford or schedule the things I now think of as treats. For example, what about mums from disadvantaged communities who look after kids poisoned by their drinking water while constantly campaigning to fix the problem? Aren’t they proof that I should be doing even more, not less?

I know, comparing ourselves with other people isn’t seen as healthy. It’s important to note all perspectives, though, and be aware of our privilege.

A Balanced Mental Diet

I’ve started thinking about self-care as more mental than physical, considering the mind in similar terms to the body. Perhaps mental calories are a thing. We must feed our brains in order to get motivation and inspiration. We need thoughts and stimuli from diverse sources, or we’ll suffer a deficiency. But we also need to burn off some of what we take in. If our minds get overcrowded, we struggle to function.

Views that nourish the mind

Different people will have different mental metabolisms. Some might shake things off easier than others. And at times we ourselves will need a higher mental intake or a more thorough clear-out than we’ve needed previously.

If we had mental nutritional pyramids, like the physical ones that used to appear on American cereal boxes, what would yours look like? Mine has rows for keeping up with my job and housework, family time and exercise (though physical it’s absolutely essential to my mental health). Some people are fine doing less each day. When I skip one thing, even if it’s to do something other people find necessary (like meet up with friends or stay in bed past 7), I will be too stressed, struggling to catch up on subsequent days.

Appreciating others’ artwork helps suspend the mental burden of trying to create my own.

And because there’s so much to manage on a daily basis, I have to burn off some of these brain calories, too. Daily scribbles, fresh air, reflecting on art or music or literature, make me feel mentally fitter, a bit more agile and able to cope. Life has been tough lately, so I need to experiment with what else might help.

By considering whether I need more or fewer mental calories, maybe I can tell what sort of “treatment” I need and when it’s genuinely required. It’s tricky though, isn’t it? The lack of real, in-person stimulation during the very long lockdown has skewed my mental metabolism. Tedious things like work and worry make my mind feel full, but not sated. I suspect a cognitive vitamin deficiency of some sort.

What do you think of self-care, and the idea of mental calories? Any suggestions for balancing it all out?

Who to Listen To

This Week’s Bit of String: Lurking teens

There were five of them, maybe seven, secondary school kids in baggy tracksuits. They would slouch in the passageway under our apartment building even though none of them lived there, and they’d munch and smoke and look surly, occasionally erupting in shrieks or guffaws.

Everyone gave them a wide berth and I too felt nervous leading my son, then quite young, past them. Why though? Even if they muttered something about us, what difference did it make? They were just kids.

So one rainy day, I looked right at them and said, “Hiya. What’s going on?”

“Nothing much,” they mumbled, looking at the littered ground, shuffling their feet.

I’d shrugged and carried on, when their greasy-ponytailed leading lady, who’d already been expelled from the local comprehensive school, called after me, “But thanks for asking!”

There was a plaintive note in her voice—she wasn’t being sarcastic. They were an eyesore everyone wanted to ignore, so they moulded themselves to the expectation. I saw this play out again when I took a job at the secondary school. One of our boisterous Year 7 girls with learning and behavioural difficulties went round to a friend’s house. The next day she recounted to me, amazed and flattered, “When we got there after school, her mum asked us all about our day. Like she really wanted to know and everything! I never heard anything like it.”

Giving Voice

In our writing, we take it fairly seriously who we give a voice to. We actively seek ideas and perspectives, rather than just wait for them to come to us. In middle school, my brother and sister got trained up to be junior mediators. The programme’s slogan was: “When I listen, people talk.” At home they grumbled about that motto. It would make more sense the other way around, we were all in agreement. “When people talk, I listen.” Because otherwise, we thought as adolescents, you’d just be sitting around waiting and hoping someone starts to talk.

Welcome to the life of an adult creative… it’s also the life of a parent of teens. We have to meaningfully show we’re ready to listen if we expect either our writing to take shape, or our kids to be comfortable confiding in us. Sometimes, we just have to wait.

It’s tricky when offering ourselves up to different viewpoints these days, though. Everyone seems aggrieved, and some causes are clearly more just (and less violent or downright crazy) than others. The very figures who insist health care, voting, and living wages aren’t basic rights are the same people who howl and moan if they get a book contract or a lucrative college speaking tour cancelled for a racist tweet (or for supporting a deadly insurrection). Is being listened to a human right? Can empathy and a kind ear solve divisions that threaten a Civil War?

This word Peace formed by hundreds of toy soldiers at the Everything is Light exhibit in Stroud. Maybe anything is possible…

Not on a wide, national scale. Democrats in power now can’t just present obstreperous Republican senators with milk and cookies and ask how their day’s been. (I am picturing McConnell and Hawley and Greene in chavvy jogging bottoms, mumbling and dropping crumbs on the floor.) That’s because in order to work with people we need to not have our lives threatened by them, in the same way I had to talk myself out of fear before greeting the neighbourhood kids. The Republican party’s actions are increasingly reflecting their violent rhetoric, so there have to be major changes. But on a more immediate level, in our personal lives, perhaps we can reach out.

Understanding the Appeal

I get it, in a way, the whole QAnon, everyone’s-an-oppressive-threat thing. If a privileged person has used an incident to draw attention to themselves, they’ll have to find a bigger one next time. When the perils of migrant caravans didn’t materialise, a substantial percentage of the American population instead decided child-sacrificing pedophiles were running rampant, because of course everyone who disagreed with them must be in league with the man-goat.

I’m coming down from five years of worrying about Trump, his first campaign, and his administration. There are still many persecuted and neglected people and we have to make sure the new administration Does Something to help. But there’s some mental space free now, and it’s on me alone to use it, channel it into writing and into my family and my immediate community. There’s something almost facile about being caught up in national drama, having the excuse of a broader crisis to distract from the fraying mental health of my locked-down household, the novel ending that needs to be rewritten, and the distinct possibility that the shower and toilet are emptying below the floorboards.

Hence, I imagine, the appeal of QAnon and other Deep State conspiracy theories. You can shout about a crisis and be part of a super attentive group, but you don’t have to put effort into fixing your own life.

There, I’m beginning to form a bridge, by considering why some people might get absorbed, willingly, into this violent cult and admitting that we could have common flaws. I’m not labouring under the misapprehension that anyone from that side is going to cross that bridge and speak to me, but if they wanted to, I’d be ready to listen.

Good Morning, quarantined Dursley…

Last week at President Biden’s inauguration, poet Amanda Gorman won much attention with her poem “The Hill We Climb” and its exhortation to “be the light.” I remember another inauguration, when I’d just turned 12. Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. The last line of her poem stayed with me all this time, almost 30 years on: the hope that we can initiate change by fearlessly wishing each other Good Morning.

One of the things I’ve been telling myself in these recent times of floundering motivation, particularly as a writer, is that Small Steps Are Allowed. I don’t know how far I’m going to get when, but I’m going to do what little bits I can. Same with the world. I don’t know to reach the point where we can abide each other, but we can take this one small step recommended by Maya Angelou.

What if we just ask people around us, “What’s going on? How’s your day?” You never know, it could start a revolution.