Literary Locations

This Week’s Bit of String: Under the patchwork quilt

My grandparents’ guest bedroom was one of my favourite places. A rocking chair in the corner, a handmade crazy quilt on the bed. Shelves of AMC magazines that my Grandpa kept, unwilling to throw away anything with portraits of cinema’s Golden Age stars. The nightstands, under the dropped eaves, were metal and wire 1970s pieces loaded with books.

The books would change, and I never delved into how or why. Was my Grammy exchanging them with her sisters? Did my older cousins swap them out? However it happened, rootling around in this bedroom was where I discovered Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

This is the quilt from Grammy’s house, in a writing corner I briefly had here before some, erm, home “improvements” commenced

It was an abridged version, still hefty, a yellow hardcover with that plastic that peels off in satiny strands if you pick at it distractedly while you read. There were a few black and white illustrations, the sisters each given distinct appearances. 

I was 9 or 10 when I found the book and read a few pages while my siblings ran around. The opening image of Jo stubbornly tomboying, sticking her hands in her pockets and whistling, made me laugh and I read it to the others and we all mimicked the gesture.

Family Home

At that point, my grandparents had lived in their Vermont house for at least 50 years, raising 6 children there. A pastiche of wallpapers, AM radio, the smell of American chop suey or home-baked donuts, and all objects well-worn, softened at the edges. Keeping the same house for so long felt magical, as if the air we breathed there was different, the atmosphere more sustaining.

During my latest summer visit to New England, I took a trip with my two sisters down to Massachusetts to see Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived with her family (after they’d moved dozens of times, due to financial struggles). It was a hundred degrees out, with a major heat warning cautioning everyone to stay inside. Fortunately for us, Orchard House is gently air conditioned, preserving the many artefacts within.

Recognise it?

We were amazed at how authentic the place still is. Nearly all furnishings were used or made by the Alcott family. Paintings by Louisa’s youngest sister May (aka Amy), doll clothes stitched by Lizzie (Beth), crocheted bedspreads and even the wedding dress of the oldest sister Anna (Meg). We were quite awestruck.

In the master bedroom, there was even a timetable devised by Mrs. Alcott (Marmee), allotting how many hours the girls ought to spend on learning, on chores, and on other types of enrichment. It reminded us of the chore charts our mother would create to encourage the three of us plus our brother to each do our share.

A Room of One’s Own

While my clever and crafty sisters took great interest in different crochet and knitted pieces, I geeked out over Louisa’s room. She had her own writing desk, a white, rounded table her father built her. It jutted out between two sunny windows. This was exceptionally rare, for a women to have a desk.

The desk was ornamented with a nautilus-shaped inkwell, very Transcendentalist, and pens given to Louisa by her mother. Mrs. Alcott had composed a little poem to go with them, a prayer that the Muse would keep Louisa’s creative fires burning. Such obvious support really moved me.

I’ve now read Little Women more than once, unabridged as well as that old abridged version, along with some of Alcott’s other works. If you’ve also read it, and/or watched the film adaptations (two of the more recent ones were filmed at the actual Orchard House so it is instantly recognisable), you’ll remember that Jo (aka Louisa) writes up in the garret, and stores her pages in a disused tin kitchen. However, Orchard House doesn’t have an accessible attic.

Schoolhouse behind Orchard House where the Alcotts and other Transcendentalists educated newly freed people from Missouri.

Much of Little Women is based on Louisa’s life, and I’m sure in the dozens of other places she lived while growing up, she did write in attics and in all kinds of nooks and crannies. I wonder if she looked back on those corners with the most nostalgia, and perhaps even found them more inspiring, despite the wonderful space she ended up with.

Certainly, creating a writing garret for the character of Jo was a brilliant authorial choice. Think of how many young, non-affluent readers Louisa made writing feel accessible to. You don’t need a desk, or a view, or a room of your own to write. Not according to Little Women, anyway.

That was something that I loved about the book growing up, and the Winona Ryder film version that came out when I was in high school. Thoughts of Jo, bundled up against the cold, writing through the night really motivated me to work harder. Whether it was under that quilt on my grandparents’ guest bed, or in a basement corner on a typewriter that cost $5 at a yard sale and that I later abandoned after finding a snake in it, or in countless notebooks on bumpy bus rides or squishy sofas or prickly theatre seats at dress rehearsals; whether it was with shouting children or my husband trumpeting upstairs; whether it was scribbling at a bar between taking orders from customers or in the back of a woodworking shop while my students were learning new skills on a field trip… Sometimes, the most unlikely writing places are the ones that stick with us. They yield the hard-earned words, they witness the flood of the ideas that simply will not be kept back.

After all, a main message of Little Women is how hard work makes life feel more meaningful. It was nice to see this backed up by the many loved, homemade objects in the Alcott house, just as I remember them being in my grandparents’ home.

What sorts of places have you written in, and who are the writers or characters that have inspired you to do so?

Summer Bucket List

This Week’s Bit of String: Can we fit it? … Yes we can

Packing time! 48 hours now till I’m on my flight to New Hampshire, to my son, my parents and siblings and childhood home, friends and haunts. To lakes and mountains and trees, to root beer and Dunkin’ Donuts.

I’m already getting distracted. My point is, time to decide what goes in my suitcase. They’ve changed the allowance from 23 down to 20 kilos maximum. This should be ok; I know by now what not to bring. I don’t need much in terms of dressing up or fancy footwear. I don’t need many books for myself because I often don’t get time to read; it’s all I can do to find moments for daily scribbles so I don’t forget all I’ve seen, what was said.

Busy bee.

Concurrently with my packing, and with cleaning the house and weeding and trimming the garden before I go, I’m going deep with novel edits. This is only my second pass through my story of Eve. It’s familiar territory but not quite as much as an Aer Lingus flight from Bristol to Boston. I’m still learning what I really need and what I might not. It will take me a few more journeys to figure that out, I suspect.

The Days are Just Packed

Even more than keeping my suitcase light and my writing clear and engaging, planning the time while I’m away is a huge challenge. Thanks to working in school and getting a longer summer holiday, I have three weeks in my native country, but that isn’t much when it’s also one of my only chances to Mum for the whole year.

One thing I’ve learned as a writer—and parent—is that the worst thing we can do is tell ourselves there’s plenty of time. It sounds a bit sad, but most people I’ve discussed this with seem to feel the same.

If we are busy, we know we have to dedicate time to something. If we have more free time, we develop a more cavalier attitude and assume we’ll get to everything we want to do.

ALL of it… Photo from 2007.

There’s so much fun I want to have with my kid, and with the rest of my family. We’re hoping to try tubing down a river with rapids and a covered bridge. I’d love campfire chats, board games, kayak sessions, listening to music together, maybe get him to build/ squash a sandcastle or two for old times’ sake. But he’ll also be working, so I’m looking forward to joining him at summer camp for writing workshops, and cooking some of his favourite dinners for when he gets home. We have things we need to troubleshoot together; job applications to fill out and things like that.

Being apart means I feel ready to appreciate even the work of it. Baking in a hot kitchen, coming up with cover letters for prospective employers. It’s not what everyone looks forward to doing when on vacation, but I will feel privileged to do it when I’m finally around more people I love.

Summer Goals

Do you have any aims for the summer? The Internet is rife with reading lists and exercise recommendations. I find them daunting. I just want to read and exercise daily and I’m going to have to be flexible about that.

Exercise: I’ll keep up my daily early morning hikes. No choice; I’m addicted. But I’ll also be incorporating 10 minutes of stretches, at least every other day because the last term at school viciously made me feel my age and then some.

Self-care: Also, I want to have a bath and soak the stiffness out. We don’t have a bathtub here in the UK but my parents do in the US, and on this matter my sister holds me very accountable. She’s already on my case. I’ve got the Lush bomb for the occasion. That’s it, that’s the goal.

Reading: If I can read almost every day, I’ll be happy. So far so good, since school ended last week. What utter bliss, once a morning hike has been completed, and then a bunch of chores and visits sorted, to stretch out with a book for an hour in the afternoon. I’m hoping to keep that routine going while away, and clear five books from my own, personal TBR list this summer.

White Mountains, New Hampshire. Just go with the flow, man.

Writing: There are my daily scribbles, of course. I’ve got a luscious thick notebook for observations, memories, exchanges, ideas. It should last me the weeks I’m away, and keeping up with everything I want to remember is a big commitment. However, I’ve also been pushing myself this summer to sit down and put focused effort into a writing project, for a couple hours maybe four times per week. I had lost the habit of that, since I could only write in small windows of time. It feels so good to stretch my concentration muscles again, to sit editing and not letting myself get distracted. I’d forgotten I was capable of it!

Parenting: My number one priority for the next three weeks. Anything that makes me feel like a mum again will do. Hearing complaints face to face instead of reading a Facebook message. Teaming up to show his dad Field of Dreams so he knows what we’re quoting when we say things like, “Peace, love, doooope!” All of it.

My goals are probably a bit more open-ended than targets are meant to be, but I prefer the term feasible. I advise a slightly gentle approach, because you never know what crises might come up. Do whatever it takes to enjoy each moment, whether it’s relishing a challenge or making yourself relax for once.

A Christmas Glossary

This Week’s Bit of String: Unexpected roots

Shortly before last Christmas, we heard of a place in Gloucester called Gaudy Green. Bit odd, we thought, so my husband looked it up. Apparently it comes from the city’s Roman days. The Latin term gaudium means “joy.” That’s how we learned that gaudy doesn’t have to be bad–nice to know when you’re about to deck your halls.

That revelation inspires me this year to look more deeply at common words of the season. What can we find by studying certain well-used terms?

Gaudy

We often use this term derisively about something that’s a little too much. A bit overdecorated, maybe cheaply, or maybe overused gold. But in addition to sharing an etymological Latin root with “joy,” gaudy may also draw on the old French word for the weld plant, also known as dyers’ weed, for its yellow dyeing properties. So “gaudy” has links to the colour yellow, and to joy and gladness. Why not, then, revel in what glitters?

Licensed to gaud.

Festive

Sure, this links to feasts and food. But what atmosphere and mood befits this term of the season? Proto-Italic and Proto-Indo-European root words hint at the sacred, with connections to temples and the divine. At the same time, there’s the old French term feste which means “religious festival, holy day; holiday; market, fair; noise, racket; jest, fun.” As pleasant as quiet time can be, it’s refreshing to think that a properly noisy, clamorous family dinner is also completely appropriate for a religious holiday.

Merry

The Germanic root for this pleasant term is murg, meaning “short-lasting.” It’s thought that the meaning evolved based on the principle that time flies when you’re having fun. Anything that doesn’t last (like Christmas, I guess) must be good. More interestingly, during the late 1700s merry developed into slang for sexual activity, such as: “Merry-bout, an incident of sexual intercourse.” Someone tell the Fox News crew that when they insist on wishing everyone a merry Christmas whether they celebrate or not, they’re also wishing them a sexy Christmas. 

Comfort

The word comfort is a bit like the term self-care, and makes me wonder about what’s genuinely comfortable. Is it curling up in a ball or stretching our legs? Helpfully, a look at the Latin root word tells us it comes from the phrase “to strengthen.” Of course–fort is related to “fortify.” When we take comfort, we should be deriving strength. When we give comfort, we should be providing strength. Comfort is not an end, but a means. A rest stop, or a build-up; whatever’s needed.

“A rosy dawn settles all around…”

The angels said Christmas is meant to be about comfort and joy, and those have broader meanings than we realise. In light of that, let us be grateful for what strengthens us, whether noisy or quiet, and for what bring us joy, gaudy or not. Short-lasting though it may be, Christmas contains many moments. We will stow the sad ones to use in future creations, and cherish the happy ones.

Deck your halls as you see fit, friends, and draw strength. 

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?

Restarting

This Week’s Bit of String: How to begin a writing day
Battle-scarred fellow traveler

Let your brain drag you out of bed.
It will have jolted you awake several times already, nervous, excited, random, clamouring to achieve release.
It’s been asking, Is this really allowed, is your partner genuinely ok with you spending a whole weekend day on writing work, will you be able to keep up with everything else, is your kid all right too (always is your kid going to be all right), am I smart enough, do I have the stamina, the wit, the imagination to get anything done?
And you’ve been telling your brain, you’ll have none of those things if it keeps waking you.
But this time you must get up, get outside, have some fresh air while there aren’t too many people for you to slalom around.
You have to feel as if you’re ready. You exercise your body to get permission to exercise your mind.
You don’t need the hoodie. No one cares if your frame is visible, if it’s gotten bulkier.
You have been working hard. You have the right to slice through space as bluntly or as sharply as you like.
The same goes for the page. You have the right to be heavy-handed in your first draft. Anything you say can only be used against you when you are ready to reveal it.
Swerve around the mud-spattered fallen geranium and poppy petals.
Nod a greeting to the other early morning travelers: determined snails and industrious blackbirds.
Indulge in the futile summoning of every cat you see, haughty after its night out.
Your legs are stretched. Your brain has been pounded into a rhythm. It has been lulled into focus.
You are prepared with snacks. Fruit and nuts, a politically incorrect tuna sandwich and some chocolate-coated pretzels.
You are an ambitious squirrel, you are a reckless, rule-flouting heathen.
You are a person of great imagination and careful planning, who has reserved fuchsia socks with penguins on them for this occasion.
The blinking cursor awaiting words on your document isn’t taunting you, it’s jumping up and down with excitement for what you’ll come out with. It adores you.
Give the page what it wants, open the cage door and pour your mind into its arms.

Back to the Projects

It’s been a while. The lockdown of 2021 was a tough one, and I haven’t had time to write for submission. After a long lapse, after constant flirtation with exhaustion, I wondered if I had the concentration for it anyway. I booked myself a writing day, using Writers HQ’s online retreat (which are wonderful and free, by the way, try them out here).

Bit rough, but the way through is visible.

There are ideas to work on. There are even plots. My goal was to finish one story, rewrite another, and edit a final one. Submissions will happen once again! It’s hard to contemplate the emotional roller coaster of submitting work when isolation has knocked you down. That was part of my issue, not to mention a dearth of submittable work, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. So I am building up my arsenal of stories, as well as my perseverance to once again plough through the inevitable rejections en route to some kind of success. It takes a lot of rearranging around the weekend chores and the weekday job, but I’m excited.

Daily Words

Despite my inability to write for possible publication, I have been writing every day, in my journal. Each notebook lasts 2 or 3 months, filling up with observations from my walks, reflections on current events, and details from family life. In each notebook cover I write something I want to remember for the period.

The inner jacket of the notebook I started just after Christmas says: “Small steps, long pauses, unlimited restarts are allowed.” And there did come a pause. I’m glad I told myself it was allowed. There was enough stress without beating myself up for not publishing anything.

Now I’m ready to fit in a bit of creating again. If you’re not, I hope you enjoy your break.

There’s a lot in life we can’t do over. But with writing, we can! We can stop and come back to it as many times as we like. Readjusting our balance doesn’t mean we’re not writers, any more than reworking a piece makes it less of a story. If you have to focus elsewhere for a while—let yourself. We know you’re a writer. Your work knows you’re a writer. You will meet again, in better times.

I started my latest journal a couple of weeks ago, and this time the cover has a line from an Avalanches song, “Frankie Sinatra.” It’s highly inappropriate, but I am a sucker for a catchy tune. The lyric goes, “Like Frank Sinatra bitch I do this shit my way.”

Folks, it begins.

On Time

This Week’s Bit of String: Ancient cephalopods

Southern England’s Jurassic coastline is made up of cliffs where frequent landslides expose layers of rock and clay studded, sometimes littered, with fossils. One town, Lyme Regis, has 71 noted geological strata, each with its own species of ammonite fossil.

Ammonites are now extinct, but many shells remain, similar spiral shapes to nautilus shells, but ridged. You can find them among the stones and shells and smoothed glass fragments on the beaches of Dorset and East Devon, washed down from the cliffs by the tide, or find their curls poking from clay in the slipped feet of the imposing banks.

I’m quite fascinated by these and other fossils. Prying one out is like finding something from another world. The squid-like creature that lived in this shell might have swum past ichthyosaurs, might have dodged diving pterosaurs. Around 150 million years ago, this was a warm tropical sea near the equator, formed when Pangaea started to break up. The planetary spot they occupied, according to those who study continental shift, is now the location of North Africa. So the clay we slip over, scanning for more fossils, inched up here to make room for ancient Egypt and the skill and culture of the Moors.

We’re talking a very long expanse of time here, obviously. But I love to connect these dramatic pieces and to dwell in the realms of hitherto unimagined change.

Sunrise on the South coast

This past week I brought my little family, our bubble of three, to the Jurassic Coast and we stayed in a cottage to celebrate my 40th birthday there. I’d long intended to spend this milestone with my whole family in the USA, to party with them for the first time since I turned 23. But that, and Plans B, C, even D didn’t work out, for obvious reasons. Still: I partied, in my own way, by digging in slimy clay, hiking up cliffs in horizontal rain, drinking by the fire with the Lord of the Rings films on (extended versions of course), and sitting on the living room floor playing Monopoly while eating pizza as if at a childhood sleepover.

Sifting Through the Strata

Every life gathers its own layers, detritus packed into sediment, relics peeking from ooze washed down in a storm. When an event shakes us we might discover long-dead remains different in shape to the parts of us now evolved.

As I approached my twentieth birthday, the thought that I could live four times as long depressed me. I felt I’d done enough damage, would only end up dragging everyone down with me. That wasn’t quite the last time I felt that way, but it has been a while, layers of having a kid to adore and a marriage to make thrive and various jobs to pour my energies into and stories to create—these have buried earlier strata which might contain curled, spiny, hard-shelled relics of self-loathing.

One of my biggest finds, fossils upon fossils

You don’t go digging at the bases of the cliffs and you have to watch out for landslides. But if a fragment gets washed out, we might give it a little scrub and find that it has a certain intrigue or even beauty. Remembering what despair feels like is pretty useful for a writer.

This year the stories I’ve most loved writing, and reading when they’re done, are ones featuring children, their belief in magic juxtaposed with intolerance for untruth. I guess that’s what the pandemic and its many separations and fears have shaken loose from me.

I had one character, a teenage skeptic, reply when asked about her goals: “I’m going to refurbish an abandoned shed and call it Burnt Sienna. I’ll live there and do art with a puppy named Periwinkle and a pygmy goat named Ochre.” Sounds appealing, right?

Counting Every Moment

On Halloween, my husband and I watched the Netflix remake of Rebecca. He did a bit of research on the story’s author Daphne de Maurier and informed me Rebecca was her third novel, published while she was 30.

Impressive, we agreed. But then I thought, I’m turning 40 and I’ve written 3 novels. Those were written while working full-time and while being my family’s everything—no nannies or household staff or even local relations. That’s kind of impressive too, and helps me make peace with getting older.

I’ve now been alive for a longer period than the one which separated World War II from my birth. I’ve known my husband for just over half my life. Time is such a funny thing, the weight of it fluctuating vastly depending on what we’re measuring it against. It’s the same with accomplishments; they’ll look more satisfactory from different perspectives.

Not that we want to get too satisfied with ourselves. I was thinking as I pried at prehistoric remains with a stick of driftwood, my face wind-raw and hands clay-chapped, my shoes carrying an extra gallon of water from getting caught in 8-foot swells, “This isn’t meant to be easy, that’s the pride of it.” And even when I managed to free a fragment, when I rinsed it in the frothy waves and was thrilled by the sharp ridges and tight coils revealed, I still didn’t want to stop. It’s like when you write a good story, you still want to dig up a new one and see if it might be even better.

Maybe the best we can wish for, as time passes, is to maintain a desire for more of it. I hope that whatever this year has shaken from the cliffs around you proves useful in your writing, and that you’ve got the strength to keep seeking new challenges.

In Pursuit

This Week’s Bit of String: Failed brakes

In the winter when my son was 14 months old, the brakes failed on our Ford and I did not have the funds to fix them. I was a single mum with work only as a substitute teacher. My baby’s childminder was up a steep hill in an area perhaps appropriately called Purmort, and the roads were often icy. He enjoyed the thrill ride, but the stress and terror of it nearly drove me to give up on life entirely.

It didn’t help that the childminder I’d used during the summer ended up stealing over $500 from me. I qualified for childcare assistance, but the state took a couple months with the paperwork and during that time, I paid the childminder in their stead. She took good care of my son and didn’t deserve to go so long unpaid. When the state reimbursed her for the full period, though, she never paid me back, and ghosted me after I changed jobs and providers.

I looked into support to get money. The town offered welfare grants, but a nice lady with 1980s hair and concerned eyes explained they were prohibited from contributing funds toward car repairs because public transport operated in our area. Even though said public transport only came twice a day and didn’t go within several miles of the new childminder’s hilltop house.

ANYTHING for this guy.

At the time all I could think about was getting enough money to keep my baby safe. I signed up for full state welfare, which meant I wasn’t allowed to indulge in the frivolity of completing a university degree, and that I essentially signed away my right to choose work. I would be required to spend a certain amount of time applying for jobs, and if I turned anything down because it didn’t seem the like the right fit, I’d be disqualified from assistance.

I got my brakes fixed though.

Guiding Principles

America’s Declaration of Independence lists our unalienable rights as: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Thomas Jefferson was a privileged slave owner but he knew enough to write them in that order. If your life isn’t secure, you’re not likely to worry as much about the other two. We give up freedoms of privacy in order to be safe: at airports, for example.

Many people voted on Tuesday to protect the first two types of rights. Others voted being told—and eagerly believing—they also needed protection. People who think masks are prisons, guns are oxygen, and anyone who looks different is a criminal.

Boston, Revolutionary hotbed

When considering the shocking if tiny rise in Trump votes among white women, I can’t believe all these people were deceived by far right fear-mongering. Some of it must be about pursuing happiness, about whimpering, “But my taxes though,” and scurrying to the ballot box ignoring flagrant racism, corruption, misogyny, negligence, and atrocities.

The genesis of the nation began, after all, with objections over taxes. In America, property is sacrosanct, and has been since Revolutionary days, when American heroes Washington and Franklin objected to the Boston Tea Party due to the material damage. Now, it is quite acceptable to half the nation that a person armed with a semi-automatic rifle can go to another state and shoot Black Lives Matter protesters dead, all because a Target might get graffitied. Many of us, and very probably the Founding Fathers themselves, equated pursuit of happiness with pursuit of property or material goods (including, originally, actual human beings).

I wonder what we’d be like as a nation if we weren’t trained to pursue personal gain. What if Jefferson had written, “the pursuit of justice,” or “the appreciation of prosperity?”

Don’t Tread on Me

I live in the UK now. Government-issued allowances enable, in many cases, only one parent to work full-time so that childminders often aren’t needed. Then there is free half-time preschool, and university costs are capped. Medical care is free. Naturally, the nationalised systems could do with better funding. But any medical concern isn’t pursued my economic ruin.

My taxes though? They’re not low. Nevertheless we have a high standard of living. If there’s a book I want (and have time for), I can buy it, supporting local businesses instead of crawling to Amazon’s cut prices. We have funds to travel and eat out occasionally. And if there’s a car problem or anything like that, we get it fixed without too much angst. I won’t forget what absolute luxuries these are. If our taxes went up to fix the NHS, especially in pandemic times, I know that would be fine.

From a John Furnival piece. The statue’s form is made with Wall Street headlines, but the flame is Emma Lazarus’s poem inviting immigrants, reminding us what truly makes our nation shine

Looking with dismay on my divided home nation, I’m aware that as humans we make all sorts of justifications to ourselves. Would I be swayed, under some circumstance, to swallow lies and endorse cruelty? Could I, this time around, have done more to convince fellow Americans not to do that?

We all need to reflect. Many people are in even more dire straits than I was once. Hundreds of thousands sick, in debt, or dead from a disease ignored and even belittled by the political party in power. People afraid their marriages will be taken from them, people standing up against police brutality. Families simply pursuing life and liberty, torn from each other at America’s border. I didn’t think I needed to point this out: your personal issues or beliefs aren’t more important than those terrible predicaments.

Researching this post, I noticed the oft-overlooked third paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “…all experience has shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Jefferson probably had no idea how true that would one day be of his own new nation. With Biden about to take the presidency, I just hope he and Kamala Harris can put the brakes on our headlong pursuit of whatever we think, often falsely, benefits ourselves.

Why You Might Not Have Created Your Crisis-Time Masterpiece…Yet

This Week’s Bit of String: The case of the disappearing underwear

In a rapidly changing situation, every family has that one day when things kick off. For us it was last Friday, from the moment I tried to put on the clothes I laid out the previous night, but couldn’t find my knickers. I’d seen them seconds before. Had I picked them up and put them down somewhere weird? Had I hallucinated them in the first place?

That was how I realised I had a high fever. Quarantine started that instant; coughing started the next hour. By the evening we also had an injured guinea pig and were debating whether my husband should sneak out to the vet. In the midst of that the government cancelled exams and our son’s post-secondary education was suddenly over. All in one day!

This butterfly landed on my hand in the backyard. It can’t be all bad.

Viruses are like stories—they accelerate and encompass exponentially widening groups of people, sometimes in unexpected ways. It seems this strange time would inspire us in unexpected ways, too. Maybe eventually it will, but I’m guessing others have found, as I have, that lockdown hasn’t fostered creativity. Here are the reasons why.

Time

Woohoo, no more commute! Many of us are still fortunate enough to be busy with work-related activities for much of the day. Working from home gives me a maximum of two extra hours per day, which so far I’ve spent being sick/ looking after family who are sick. Plus, meal prep takes up about thirty times more hours than usual, because you can’t predict what supplies will be in the shops and indeed if you’ll be healthy enough to go get them.

A Story Surplus

A pandemic—great material, right? Only it’s different when it happens outside your head, when it’s all anyone talks about.

Signs of support

As writers, we’re often widely read. It’s part of our job. Far be it from us to turn away from the many personal testimonies shared. A 38-year-old dying alone in an NYC hospital while his mum’s critical in a different one, and no one can identify any other family to tell. Domestic abuse rates rising by 30-40% during lockdown. Grandparents sharing air-hugs with the grandkids they normally look after, from behind their front room windows. Single parents trying to work from home and keep young kids entertained and educated, small business owners wondering how they’ll keep their livelihoods, musicians selling off prized instruments so they can eat when their gigs are cancelled. What’s happened to the rough sleepers I usually give a couple of pounds to and chat with? How will the millions of people already displaced by war and poverty be protected from this disease?

The weighty reality can bog our imaginations down. Who are we to invent fiction in a time like this? How do we choose one thread from the massive tangle?

Grief

Here we are, taking in all the other stories, desperate to support frontline workers and victims of the virus. We see the many people who have it worse than us. It doesn’t make us feel better though, does it? We’re all separated from people we love and have had to relinquish plans we looked forward to.

In our normal lives we work hard for the weekend, and an upcoming city break, literary festival, camping trip, concert, evening at the pub, keep us going. Those are erased from our near future while laundry, office spreadsheets, hoovering, and tidying guinea pig cages have not been cancelled. Somehow we have to keep not only our own morale up but also our partner’s and kids’.

Grounded.

You know when you’re pitching a writing idea, you need a USP (Unique Selling Point)? At the moment, we each have our UAG, a Unique Angle of Grief. For me, as an immigrant, I don’t know how and when I’ll see my family again. What if something happens and I can’t get to them? Are happy summer visits already out of the question? It can be very lonely.

So Now What?

We’ve all written pieces in hard times before. We’ve created while kids (and/ or spouses) climbed up the walls, squeezing writing time in between many other obligations. We’ve used our stories to channel loss and pain before.

But if that’s not working now, it’s okay. Let’s admit we haven’t gained the time we thought we might, and rest when needed to keep our strength up. Let’s listen to others’ stories without ulterior motives of trying to spin it into fiction. Let’s acknowledge our own grief and see if, once we’ve allowed it space and voice, it might ultimately turn into something new.

If you’ve managed to find a whole new grip on things through this crisis, and have kept on writing words, please do share tips and success in the comments. If you’re struggling, and want to shout about your UAG, I’d love to listen to that too. Listening is the best I can do right now.

The Privilege of Being Busy

This Week’s Bit of String: Haunted by to-do lists

When I worked in a care home, we had a particularly restless but bedbound dementia patient. She constantly asked, ‘Where have we gotta go? What have we gotta get out and do?’ And sometimes she’d say, ‘Can I just stop here a bit?’

We were told she’d been a highly reputable nurse to newborn babies. No doubt she devoted countless long shifts to her calling. She had no family of her own apart from a sister wandering the nursing home halls, stealing biscuits to feed her stuffed toy cat.

No matter how many times we reassured our resident that she didn’t have to go anywhere, she repeated her questions. She was haunted by the ghosts of her busy working life.

Today we don’t need dementia to be haunted–we have social media. Facebook pings ‘Event’ reminders, other mums depict homemade concoctions on Pinterest, and other writers’ word counts race upward on Twitter.

None of this is inherently bad. I, too, indulge in public boasts after particularly hard work: Busy Brags. I’m also ready to ‘Like’ your Busy Brags. As a writer, I’m interested in the minutiae of daily life as well as the big events, so I enjoy hearing what people get up to in a day.

Busy = Lucky

What I have to make sure not to do, however, is act as though I’m busier than everyone else.

Some kids (and adults) work ridiculously long hours in sweatshops. Some people work multiple jobs to ensure they can pay medical bills. Yet most of the Busy Brags I see in my social media bubble are about the nightmarish turmoil of preparing birthday celebrations for small offspring, or rushing back to work after an adventurous holiday. And I totally get that. But we’ve chosen this. So brag away, but don’t complain.

Cooking homemade meals and going on active holidays are choices. Even going to the gym regularly is a choice, albeit a healthy one, and writing is a choice even though it feels like a necessary response to what ranges from a nagging voice to rampant hunger. We may be utter grouches when we don’t have time to write, or exercise, but those are still privileges and most of us have enough moments of leisure, however small, that we can choose to prioritise things differently if we really want to.

Busy = Important

Fun fact: guinea pigs don’t yawn just to get oxygen to their furry wee brains when they’re sleepy. They yawn to show their teeth and scare off rivals or predators. Similarly, our society has transformed tiredness into a badge of honour. Whoever’s the most tired must have done the most work, and is therefore the most indispensable.

Watch out: fierce! Our guinea pigs, George and Fred.

I think most of us love being busy, and not just because we can brag about it on social media. To occupy our time means to take possession of it, that middle syllable of occupy coming from the same Latin word for grasp or seize, as in Carpe Diem. By filling Time’s wearying, wily moments, we feel we’ve mastered it in some way.

And of course we like quantifiable achievements so we can list in no uncertain terms how we’ve occupied, invaded, placed a firm stake in a day. Steps or miles run. Loads of laundry completed, meals packed into the freezer. Words typed. For me, I like being able to tick these off on a list. My day job is similarly oriented around clear targets: accounts billed, calls taken, cases resolved. Hours of sleep foregone.

Busy = Easy

These achievements are exciting and addictive. But am I the only one who has developed a fear, almost an aversion, to the incredibly important things that aren’t quantifiable? Spending proper time with people, caring for struggling loved ones. More than anything in the world I want to be there every second for my family when they’re hurting. But when I’m juggling office targets and word counts and submission deadlines and fitness goals the rest of the time, it’s hard to shut off that achievement addiction when a genuine crisis, something you really have to pour time into, comes up.

Moments meant to be cradled, not seized

The kind of Busy we brag about on social media is easy. It can even be a cop out. Writers will be familiar with the memes and jokes about how clean our houses get when we have writers block, because housework is straightforward and simpler than wrestling an unwieldy plot. But tricky as finding resolution for our characters can be, that’s still many times easier than getting friends and family through real-life drama. And entertaining readers sometimes comes more naturally than entertaining our own kids.

Looking back to our patient who had been a nurse, I wonder if on some level she was aware of how repetitive she was. Maybe her questions were her way of asserting her value in a somewhat demeaning situation; a reminder that she once had gone places and done things. Sadly, she never made a single reference to the babies and children she’d looked after, as if only the business remained and not the lives.

If the final stages of my life give me any choice in the matter, I’d like it the other way around. Is it possible to achieve relentlessly but not desperately?

To Speak or Not to Speak

This Week’s Bit of String: Crying at the Office

On Wednesday I woke from a nightmare just in time to get ready for work. I stayed in bed for a minute, horror seeping through me. But then the lesser stresses of sorting myself and my family for the morning urged me along, and the milder worries of roadwork delays distracted me from my greater panic.

At the office, an email awaited telling me how wrong my calculations were on a complex project that was new to my team. I’d had to find my way with only basic guidelines. The message, with several iterations in bold about how my work was incorrect, stung me and I fled to the bathroom. I could not stop crying.

Ridiculous, I thought. What an overreaction to a critical yet instructive email. That’s when I remembered my nightmare, and my surroundings began to resemble it. The wood grain of the door like 1980s bedroom panelling. The footsteps outside. Then I was really crying.

How could something from three hours ago distress me so much, when I’d been perfectly fine in between? Why didn’t I run out and get one of my lovely colleagues to help?

See Something, Say Something

On Monday I’d read an article about Terry Crews and his fight to be believed regarding a sexual assault he suffered. He continually faces speculation: “Why didn’t you use those big muscles to defend yourself?” “You’re not still upset about that, are you?”

It’s not unlike what Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford dealt with when she testified about her alleged assault from years earlier. “Why are you speaking up now?” “If it was so awful, why didn’t you report it to the police then?”

I’ve had my own experiences, at a younger age and with more trusted loved ones and without breaking away in time. It’s still not something I choose to talk about. The only reason I do now is to answer these questions—first, by flipping them around.

Crouching figure with the subtitle "Illumination"
Papercut art during Window Wanderland in Easton, Bristol

Would you tell someone? Honestly? When you cry, do you like people to watch? Do you want to be witnessed in pain, undressed, or helpless? When you suffer humiliation or betrayal, do you stride up to someone and let them know it happened, be it someone you admire or a stranger in authority? Congratulations if you answered yes to any of those questions. But I doubt many people are truly equipped to do so, especially as a child.

I can’t think of any other crisis after which we mercilessly interrogate the person who survived it. War veterans who hold down jobs and raise kids and reveal decades later the horrors they saw when fighting on the beaches or liberating concentration camps—I certainly hope they’re not greeted with, “Why didn’t you tell us this before? Why should we believe you now?”

When someone dies, we don’t issue their loved ones detailed instructions on how to respond. Have you cried enough? Have you lost your appetite and fasted?  You’re not going to step out of the house without wearing black, are you?

I know sexual assault is a crime and must be reported to protect others. But that perspective is lacking when you’re little. Furthermore, how does society reconcile its accusations of “Wait, that’s what you were wearing? Don’t you think you must have led him on?” with “How could you not tell? Didn’t you realise he’d hurt someone else?” When survivors are shamed for their clothing or behaviour, the incident is implied to be a one-off and there’s no one else to protect.

Calling for Help

It’s not just questions we face when coming forward. After we tell, there are executive decisions made over our heads, of which facility to send us to for “recovery,” of which people we’re now too damaged to be allowed near. And the assumptions that we’ll never be quite right, sometimes viewing us as so tainted by our experiences people presume we’d perpetrate them on younger children. And the vulnerability marking us as targets for other perpetrators.

If someone’s first response to me is, “Did you call for help?” the effect lingers, even if they recover with the standard offering “It wasn’t your fault.” By examining my actions first, they’re assessing my responsibility.

I understand where they’re coming from. They’re actually analysing themselves, wondering, “Would I scream?” When we hear a story, we imagine ourselves as the victim, not the aggressor, because most of us aren’t sexual assaulters. And when someone who hasn’t been through sexual assault hears from someone who has, they’re probably trying to reassure themselves they’d find a way out. When I read stories about genocide, I instinctively wonder, “How would I cope with this? Would I find a way to protect my family?” If I meet a Rohingya or Srebrenica or Rwanda survivor though, I’m not going to blurt, “Couldn’t you have just run away?”

The reasons people might not fight or call for help during a sexual assault are, I surmise, similar to reasons an entire group of people under threat of genocide don’t manage to escape. There’s trust in authority. We are happy to believe we don’t need help; we want to believe we can reason or charm our way through. Then perhaps there’s humiliation, as our rights or clothing are stripped away. There may be carefully planted ideas that no one is available to help. There may be shame and allusion to religious standards. Elizabeth Smart, once a victim of kidnapping and abuse, describes the effects of fear and shame really well. This article about her also has a great quote from survivor Natascha Kampusch on the subject.

Given our knowledge of history, surely it’s indisputable that hell-bent, harmful people exist. Say there’s a needy, greedy perpetrator versus a victim who’s either unsuspecting or has been hurt so many times they think the deserve it. In these cases, the former’s will to exert control overpowers the latter’s will to resist.

In my nightmare early Wednesday morning I went through it all over again, helpless and stuck. But instead of silently regrouping as I did in real life, in my dream I went to find my mother. She was sound asleep, and I crawled up next to her and made myself whisper what had happened. Because my subconscious knows, now, what you’re supposed to do. What everyone says you should have done. But I was desperately hoping she wouldn’t hear.

This was partly to protect her, partly to protect him, partly to preserve my reputation, partly to keep my secret which was the last semblance of control the trauma left me. Those are the reasons.

It’s like when I was hiding in the office bathroom. I sort of wanted someone to notice I was gone and offer a kind word—but I didn’t want them to see me crying. I mean, would you?

And then when the waterworks finally stopped, I went back to my desk and did a tonne of work without any wish to revisit it. I mean, wouldn’t you?

If you’ve had to face similar questions, or if you feel this has helped answer some you might occasionally pose, please do share.