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?

Weathering the Extremes

This Week’s Bit of String: Melting paint on a cemetery fence

After freshman year in high school, I got a state-funded job with other local teens to help out around the community. We were a bunch that had, shall we say, sometimes got in trouble, and this might keep us on the straight and narrow for the summer. There was a lot of volleyball in downtime, and trips to the corner store for Cool Ranch Doritos.

On the hottest summer day, we were in the sun repainting a cemetery fence. The metalwork was rusty and the old paint was peeling, but we went right over it. It was 103 Fahrenheit. The paint didn’t dry, it congealed, green and sticky. I remember the smell of it, and through the bars all the flowers wilted, perishing against the gravestones, cicadas strumming frantically like overstressed refrigerators. Our Doritos did not feel very cool.

Painting the fence: A seasons mural by my local lake back in New Hampshire

The following week we learned that a classmate died that day, of heat stroke at Easter Seals camp. Those memories are bundled together for me: that sweet boy, the stultifying heat, the sticky paint, the graves.

Whether accompanied by tragedy or not, extreme weather can serve as bookmarks in our memory’s manuscript. Can you quite easily recollect and recreate your most stifling or humid moments? And your iciest ones, or the ones when you got caught in downpours?

Literature to Cool Off By

You can probably name some great books that incorporate weather, too. Recently, I was thinking of The Siege by Helen Dunmore and how cold I felt reading that. Another chilling one is Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg, set in Greenland. Tales of Shackleton’s journey, the cold, miserable mud of the front in World War I that oozes in at the end of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book.

Maybe you’re like my husband and you insist a hot cup of tea will cool you down. There are plenty of high-temperature reads, from the jungles in Louis de Berniere’s trilogy starting with The War of Don Emanuel’s Nether Parts, to the suffocating false politeness of small-town Missouri in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, to the powerful storms for which Zora Neale Hurston named her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

My kiddo with this excellent sign at Quechee Gorge Vermont State Park: “I’m glad it’s finally hot enough to complain about how hot it is.”

I find that weather helps to mark out stories in my writing, too. When working on short stories, imagery is such an integral part of the whole. Using particular climate and setting conditions can launch us into the mood of a piece. It’s easier to get creative describing something extreme than something ordinary, so if you had a bit of a rant or therapeutic scribble while you were hot this week, see if you can put it to use in a story one day.

My first published story, in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2010, was about a little girl in Haiti, before and after the earthquake in January of that year. To invent the character and her life, I relied not only on research but also on memory from my own visits, seared into my mind by the heat. Dusty roads, cracked skin, ceiling fans powered by generators through rolling blackouts, springtime temperatures at least as hot as the July fence-painting ones in New England. Once it clouded over, but the rain seemed to shrink as it fell and evaporate before hitting the ground.

Braving It

Weather can inspire us beyond just prose development. It forces us to build resilience. I’ve started wearing shorts in public, and shedding even my lightest cardigans. If I can be brave enough to show my somewhat un-toned arms and un-tanned legs, what else can I find the courage to attempt?

During the hottest days this week, our parched British region very nearly reached 100 Fahrenheit, and the upper floor of the comprehensive secondary school where I work DEFINITELY reached it. We couldn’t cancel school because there is no county provision to do so. We relocated classes, cramming all our students into the lower 2/3 of the building. The administration generously allowed them to wear PE kits instead of full uniform if they wanted.

Parched. Driftwood sculpture at Miserden Gardens, Cotswolds.

There was little relief downstairs, though. I resigned myself to living in a constantly-replenishing fountain of sweat. There was no way to look my best around teenagers who can sometimes be harsh critics. I don’t think anyone cared, though. We were all in it together. They weren’t exactly looking or certainly smelling like roses, themselves.

At the end of each boiling schoolday, I walked home in the blazing sun, grateful that at least I was in open air. Then I parked myself in front of the fan, curtains firmly drawn, and compiled editing notes for my novel. Being all about Eve and taking place in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, it’s got some high-temperature prose, but I was listening to the Frozen soundtracks which I think helped.

In one of Sarah Tinsley’s Scribbles virtual workshops recently, the theme was Heat, and I reflected in my notebook on how our emergency procedures for hot days might match our methods for interacting with the world: Rise very early when it’s quiet, open all the windows and doors to let the cool air in. Then shut everything down as soon as the sun starts to get through. Complete all tasks in darkness. Don’t venture out in search of an oasis because if we were entitled to one, it surely would have appeared already.

But what’s the worst that could happen, if we let in the sun? We might slow down, lie motionless, expose what we deem undesirable. We’d risk being seen, and falling behind. If everyone else is just as hot and tired though, who is there to judge, or to pull ahead?

Just a thought. I hope you’re able to take these opportunities to, if not feel more brave and inspired, at least feel accepting of yourself. We’re all doing our best, sweating through it.

Never One Thing at a Time

This Week’s Bit of String: The ultimate tear-jerker

Our GCSE students (aged 16) had their last exam this week and took their leave. For the ones we’d worked closely with, we threw a little party with balloons and refreshments. A couple of us got cards and prosecco in return.

“No one got me anything,” joked one of my fellow teaching assistants. “I’m going to cry. I will!” But she couldn’t muster the promised waterworks with us watching.

A last lingering Year 11 girl, the most reluctant to leave, offered this: “I know what will make you cry. It always works: when someone asks, ‘Are you okay?’”

This student is one of the most perceptive people I’ve ever met, let alone one of the most perceptive teens. She was spot on. We’ve all been there, haven’t we, when we’re muddling on in a lonely blur and then someone stops and asks how we are, with genuine interest. 

And there go the floodgates.

The key to these gates will vary, depending on the magnitude and current of what’s behind them. This is not just a female thing, either; guys are equally likely to get triggered by something seemingly small. 

When I first immigrated, I was so alone and the British townspeople were so preoccupied and indifferent, a rare Hello from a stranger had me fighting tears. Since then, I got somewhat inured to being away, able to bumble along preoccupied myself. But when my son moved to America a few weeks ago, leaving me separated from both my best little buddy and my whole family, that changed things.

7 weeks ago

Colleagues know better than to ask if I’m ok. They ask how he’s getting on instead, and the news is generally good. They say, you must miss him so much, which saves me from having to say it. Much of the time, therefore, I maintain equilibrium. There’s a constant ache, a horrifically deep emptiness, dulled by almost-daily messages he and I exchange and by my relentless counting down until I can go see him (5 weeks and 2 days). In some moments it has been piercing, like when I put clean sheets on his bed and wondered if I should keep the pillows how he likes them or stack them tall. Or when I went to send a care package and the post office got grouchy over the extra barcode on the customs sticker.

Triggers are necessary because they give us a choice: Hey, you know that deluge you’re hiding behind the dam? Can we try channeling it, please, before it starts to leak? Sometimes we feel we have to keep refusing, and other times maybe we can’t put it off any longer.

Literary Triggers

At a Retreat West workshop a couple weeks ago, we learned about the importance of having your book’s “inciting incident” right at the beginning, to hook readers in. This is different from the climactic showdown or the big reveal. Often, it’s one small thing that kicks everything else out of inaction.

Rather than the writer throwing a wrench into the protagonist’s works, usually the writer is nudging the protagonist into the uncomfortable realisation that their way of life isn’t really working

Great examples of this are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, or Piranesi. Eleanor would have kept on refusing any company apart from the Glen’s vodka from Tesco if she hadn’t been sent to that charity concert and developed an ill-advised crush on a singer. Piranesi would have kept wandering the statued halls of The House, recording tide times, if signs of visitors hadn’t begun to appear. 

Mind the falls.

Even when a story begins with a main character choosing to make a change, they often don’t fathom how badly that change is needed or where it will take them. This has been true of literature for as long as storytelling has existed: Chaucer’s pilgrims wouldn’t have realised how much they’d learn on their journey; Romeo had no idea how far he’d go for love when he went to the party to see Rosaline.

When we write stories, we’re not attacking our characters with suffering for the fun of it. Our imaginations have found someone who needs liberation, and we’re plotting a way to spring them free.

For Our Own Protection

In real life, incidents don’t spiral in an orderly manner. It’s not a series of clues and incremental escalation, sometimes it’s everything at once and sometimes it’s like, “Ooh maybe things are about to settle down,” and then bam, another thing hits you. Meet a friend for a catch-up, and as you recount the last couple of months you’ll be thinking, This sequence of events would not fly in fiction. Readers would be too confused.

18 years ago. You never know how things will end up.

Honestly, I’m kind of glad it’s that way. Imagine if our lives progressed more rhythmically. If we were characters in a book and something went wrong, we’d have to ask ourselves, is this trying to teach me a lesson? Is this merely foreshadowing a massive climactic battle later on?

As it is, I can pour myself into work, helping students cope with their own stress and trauma, and I can write my grief into my novel instead of feeling it as my own. I need to edit this story of Eve so she more quickly learns to use her voice; learns that it is her own even if one of her ribs is not. For that to happen, stuff’s got to go wrong, to force her to wonder how she put up with everything, years after being exiled from Eden and then losing her first two sons.

While I work, and work on writing, I can ride it out, 5 weeks and 2 days. It’s already 7 weeks of separation, and there have been plenty of mini-crises to interrupt the trajectory of contemplating my new life: exams and Supreme Court decisions, viruses and injuries, something scurrying in the roofspace when we try to go to sleep. Who knows what else will come up, whether they will keep distracting me from loneliness or force me to confront it. I suspect the former; I’m grateful not to have to slow down.

What about you? Are YOU okay?

How to Not Give Up

This Week’s Bit of String: Blue inked sunshines

My 16-year-old student and I turn the page in her practice Maths paper to be confronted with a range of fractions. Mixed and mismatched fractions, including a negative number; this problem has everything you don’t want to see.

“This disgusts me,” she says.

I tell her we can do it, it’s not as bad as it looks, let’s take it one step at a time.

Before we begin, she draws a sunshine at the top of the page, peeking over the rim of that box you’re not supposed to write outside of on an actual exam.

When we finish, and I compliment the heck out of her efforts, she beams and sketches a smiley face, slowly adding fangs until it’s “like something out of a horror film.”

It fits in well with these fractions, then.

My student is preparing to resit her GCSE exams because she couldn’t pass the first time. As someone with processing and learning difficulties, it’s very difficult to pass the same exams everyone else has to take. She feels as if she will never get the required grades, yet she spends almost every free lesson going over past papers, reading, completing Maths exercises, and then doing more at home.

Her resilience inspires me tremendously.

Unfavourable Odds

Much of what we want doesn’t seem particularly possible, and a lot of what we must do isn’t pleasant. If we long for a publishing contract, even a competition shortlisting, so does every other writer and there are only a few available. Maybe we want a house that doesn’t smell as if the toilet is emptying under the floorboards and where black mould doesn’t grow by the bed. Maybe we have to regularly appease people who don’t want us around.

A thing doesn’t have to be complete to be wondrous

There’s no way except to persist. This isn’t news; we all have our struggles and our strategies. But inspiration can come from unlikely sources–eg from teenagers.

I like my student’s idea of putting a friendly doodle at the top of a hostile page. I print out pictures of our next camping destination and put them on the kitchen noticeboard to keep me company through yet another round of washing up. Surround yourself with small brightenings. Plants, stickers, novelty mugs. Wear jewellery from someone who likes you when you have to deal with those who, no matter how you’ve tried, really don’t.

Equally, denouncing something with a hyperbolic statement even as we get down to work on it is a valid coping mechanism. “I think this is the devil speaking,” my student says as she sounds out a word problem. If you want to know whether writers do this sort of thing, just Google “Writer synopsis memes.” (Or go here.)

Make sure there’s plenty of praise in your diet. Hope of success is the best motivator—not fear of failure. Pop into Twitter to do some of the daily writing hashtags, and thrill when people like samples of your work. Join a local writing group or an online one, such as Sarah Tinsley’s Scribbles workshops. When there’s no one around, please, at the very least speak kindly to yourself.

When to Give Up

Two small brightenings, at once!

Not everything will be worth it. Don’t write something if it’s not exciting to you (unless you’re genuinely getting paid). We’ve all had situations where the right thing to do is end the job, the relationship, the torment. There’s no shame in trying something different instead.

I have a number of ideas and scribblings that I know are too cliched, too blah, and I’m never going to use them. I’m proud I tried, I picked at the thread, and maybe someday I’ll use some clever sentences from it or find a better way to write it. But starting a new project, having a go at something new, is better than sitting, stuck, in front of the old.

I think we call that moving on. Don’t we? (Side rant: have you noticed that “giving up” is what society accuses young people or people not accepted in the mainstream of, and when anyone else does it it’s called “moving on” or even “self-care?”) Without infinite time and energy, we have to leave some endeavours behind.

When it comes down to it, not giving up on life is commendable. So many things are tough—we deserve credit for just getting through the day. What little comforts (or irritated rants) help you persevere?

Book Review: The Shadows We Cast by Sarah Tinsley

Blazing a trail for literary women to get angry

New year, new literature: after an array of great reads in 2021, I kicked off 2022 with Sarah Tinsley’s debut novel The Shadows We Cast, available from SLR Publishing. This book made me realise how many frontiers are still available for literature to explore. Unflinching but nuanced, this dual narrative of a sexual assault feels powerful enough to start changing the world.

Sarah puts the content warning right in the blurb on the back of the brilliantly designed book jacket. Here’s what it says:

What if you couldn’t recognise the violence in others? Or in yourself?
Nina refuses to accept the role of passive victim after being sexually assaulted. She becomes obsessed with an online vendetta that risks her job, her friendships, and her sanity.
Eric thinks, if anything, he’s too nice. But when he takes advantage of a stranger he is forced to confront the kind of man he really is.
The Shadows We Cast is a dark novel about consent and control that unsettles ideas about victims and villains.

A fast-paced read with deeply drawn characters

Sarah is a friend of mine and has helped me a great deal with my own writing. (She can help with yours, too–check out her wonderful workshops here.) I was excited when she announced her book deal and what The Shadows We Cast is about, knowing she would give it deep, honest treatment. But I was a little scared too. Because of previous experiences, I find it hard to read about sexual assault. Nightmares come more readily, and I feel more exposed while paradoxically the world and my current life seem more distant from me.

Actually, it’s like this line from page 9 of Sarah’s novel. After being attacked the protagonist, Nina, experiences “dreams that made her feel blunt and smudged. She feels like an echo.”

This book doesn’t build up to the rape. As Sarah herself noted during her book launch, too often rape is used as a plot twist, or maybe a dramatic reveal in someone’s backstory. The Shadows We Cast has twists and wields dramatic irony deftly, but it’s very honest about sexual assault. That bit’s already happened. The whole book deals with the gritty aftermath—not just the aftermath for Nina the victim, but also for Eric, her assailant.

And here’s what I found really scary. While taking Nina through the utterly altered landscape of her life following this trauma, Sarah allowed her to get really angry, and to act on that anger.

Sarah invited us to bring cocktails for the virtual book launch, because as she rightly pointed out, honesty even about dark subjects deserves celebration.

How often, in literature, mythology, or even in real life do we allow women to do angry things? From Clytemestra to The Taming of the Shrew to Mrs. Rochester in her attic, no matter what befalls them women are meant to do no harm. The character arc of an angry woman will be that she learns to forgive; she’ll be subdued by love or she’ll face drastic punishment as the villain. Yet in this novel, Nina’s anger is quite powerful and drives her to be truly destructive.

It’s a bit worrying that reading about Nina’s rage disturbed me more than the unflinching catalogue of the injuries she sustained during the attack, or the blurred lines (see what I did there?) in Eric’s mind as he considers what he’s done. This aversion to anger must be a societal effect on me rather than just a personal issue, and now I wonder: have I been depriving my own characters, particularly the female ones, of the right to rage? Is our world ready to acknowledge this now?

I did some research after reading through The Shadows We Cast. It’s a real page-turner, and the ending was quite satisfying. I found an interview about angry women in Greek mythology, the differences between the domestic and political spheres. Thinking about Shakespeare’s heroines, I read this article about the newfound popularity of Measure for Measure, and to top it all off here’s a reading list featuring angry women, because after all this time, why not?

Of course, the reading list was produced before Sarah launched The Shadows We Cast. I definitely recommend checking that one out first, and you can purchase it here. Plus, you won’t want to miss reading more about Sarah and her other work on her site. Please let me know what you think, and whether you have tips on allowing characters to follow their rage. I might need a few of those!

2021 Reading Round-Up

This wasn’t my most prodigious reading year, but I’m incredibly grateful for the books I did get to read. There were some long-anticipated hits, and some delightful surprises. In my top ten alone, there’s quite a range from comics to inspiration to memoir with of course plenty of forays into fiction.

As always, I’m including a favourite quote from each book. That’s the best bit! Previous years’ top ten lists are here, here, here, and here.

Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

This is a quick read, meandering through episodes of Levy’s writing life. From the riveting opening sentence through travels in Majorca and flashbacks to Levy’s childhood in apartheid South Africa, I was engrossed in her reflections. As she crosses geographical borders, she also investigates the borders between secrecy and sharing. How deeply can women writers afford to feel?

I read The Midnight Library while visiting London after Christmas

“Smiling was a way of keeping people out of your head even though you’d opened your head when you parted your lips.”

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

An exploration of the multiverse that can result from a single life, Haig’s popular novel is like having someone read you a choose-your-own adventure book. The protagonist gets to pick different volumes off the shelves and read herself into alternate lives. It culminates with satisfying vibes of “Merry Christmas, you beautiful old broken down Building and Loan!”

“She had shrunk for him, but he still hadn’t found the space he needed.”

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Another volume of her irreverent, candid, hand-illustrated memoir. My whole family loves Brosh’s work. I laughed hysterically reading about how she raided her neighbour’s house as a child, and then later in the book I cried at her struggles. She champions her uniqueness while also being incredibly relatable.

“Because that’s intimacy, Buckaroos. Somebody who understands exactly how weird you are, and you understand how weird they are, and you’re sort of in a mutually beneficial hostage situation.”

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

One sister stays in Bangladesh and tries to earn her living in a garment factory and then as a household servant, while the other comes to London as a Muslim bride, speaking no English. Multifaceted characters, perfect descriptions, a plot spanning two continents and volatile periods in recent history.

Finished Brick Lane while headed north to the Lakes District in the summer.

“Outside, mist bearded the lampposts and a gang of pigeons turned weary circles on the grass like prisoners in an exercise yard.”

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

This is a pivotal read for shaking up your routine, challenging yourself, and making the most of life. It helps you believe in the positives—not just in yourself, but in others. I loved the “Giving an A” chapter, promising students an A in a college course provided they write a detailed letter at the start on what they’ll do to earn it, and then follow through.

“It is only when we make mistakes in performance that we can really begin to notice what needs attention. In fact, I actively train my [music] students that when they make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’ I recommend that everyone do this.”

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

An award-winning debut novel tackling race and class, and having to grow up. I loved the depictions of friendships, and child-rearing. The main characters are a baby-sitter who loves her charge so much it brought tears to my eyes, and a mum who is still not comfortable enough in her own skin to genuinely care for a pre-schooler who may have the same insecurities.

“‘You get real fired up about what happened that night in Market Depot. But I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just, like… happens.’”

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This is also a dual narrative about race and class, but it’s set in the American South before the Civil War and Emancipation. The enslaved characters try to keep their culture alive and their family bonds unbroken. I read it fearing for their safety, but also admiring the spirit of the main character, Handful.

“You come from your mauma, you sleep in the bed with her till you’re near twenty years grown, and you still don’t know what haunches in the dark corners of her.”

Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A mystery, almost a thriller, as well as a fictional journey of self-discovery. The narrative voice is so compelling, you feel for her and want to protect her even as she self-sabotages her quest for companionship by being harsh with those around her. It’s uplifting to read about Elinor coming to terms with not being completely fine.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer—a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing so horrifying you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

Springtime back garden fun with these floofs, reading Brown Baby.

Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla

Reading this memoir is like spending a day with your best friend. I really wanted to turn up on Shukla’s doorstep and ask to go walking together or something. This is a memoir about the sacrifices and joys of parenting, about raising a small person of colour in an unwelcoming world, about grief and making connections with the family you grew up with. He puts everything in it really, and writes with such warmth and humour.

“If you sleep when the baby sleeps, you have effectively given up. You live by their routine. You are pandering to their tyranny. You’re never sleeping longer than an hour anymore. And you’re wearing dirty pants.”

The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh

This hilarious and lovely novel comes from independent publisher Louise Walters Books, and I will be grateful to Twitter forever because without it I wouldn’t have heard about Walsh’s book. Very British and quirky, it takes an endearing, well-meaning protagonist with a Dostoevsky-ish inner monologue through Kafkaesque plot twists with a Dickensian cast of characters. Honestly, it’s just mad fun; please give it some love.

The trouble was, our minds were hard-wired to find patterns in any thing, and to lock into them like meaning-seeking missiles. Not only would we hungrily identify patterns, we would immediately adopt them, fatten them up, farm them, breed and multiply them.”

If you’ve already discovered any of these stories, let’s talk! If you haven’t read them before but decide to give one or two a try, I hope you just love them.

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. 

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.

Language Lessons

This Week’s Bit of String: Water, chipper, calm, them.

“Miss, where are you from? America—I knew it! Do you know how to shoot guns? Say something, say ‘water.’”

I’ve changed jobs recently, emerged from a spreadsheet jungle and opted to be pelted by howls of “Miss! Miss!” as a secondary school Teaching Assistant again. Negotiating crowds of teenagers is a big change after 19 months working from home. Seeing colleagues deliver clear, targeted lessons and witnessing new provisions to nurture students’ mental health makes me feel better about the world.

This view though… Looking out the wide open window from the TA offices

I worked at the same large local comprehensive school more than five years ago. This is a whole new group of students, slightly less mature than I remember their earlier cohorts being, because obviously they’ve had to deal with Covid disruption. Students still miss school for positive tests, teachers have long absences and our most vulnerable students can’t abide cover teachers. The windows are all open as the temperatures dip into the single digits (Celsius) so throughout the lessons we burrow into coats and scarves; a Year 11 girl shares her fuzzy white gloves so her friend can wear one while she wears the other.

Slang has evolved since I was last working with young adults. They still use “safe” and “wicked.” But there’s also “chipper” for when they want you to think they’ve understood something: “Nah, Miss, I’m chipper, I’ll start working in a minute.” And “calm” to describe someone they like. Maybe it’s just that they know they can get away with things around a “calm” teacher, but I suspect there are other ways they feel safer with him or her, too.

It makes sense that after the last few years “calm” might be one of the highest terms of esteem used by young people. And that “sick” has gone out of fashion.

Reuniting

Supporting in different lessons means I get to learn, too. In a GCSE class about Maths vocabulary, the teacher shared that “Algebra” comes from an Arabic term meaning “reunion of broken parts.” I love hearing that stuff. The kids were busy sharpening rulers under the table or doodling or exchanging gloves or peeling labels off glue sticks, but with gentle prompting they got a few notes down, and the disparate parts came together a little.

The pandemic seems to have given my school cover to broaden its aims from academic achievement to include more nurturing and tolerance. While the government was forced to acknowledge that students couldn’t be expected to pass the same rigorous exams due to lockdown disruptions, there was more leave to consider their mental state. Consequently, more students have Time Out options, to spend a few minutes cooling down in an alternative classroom designed for that purpose. When I last worked at school, students would get an official warning and be one step closer to detention if they didn’t have a pen. Now, all teachers have equipment to loan.

“More why, less shhh.” I love this slogan from the We the Curious museum in Bristol.

The fact that I’m American serves a similar purpose. My slight accent piques their curiosity, forces them to acknowledge I’m here, lets them make fun of my pronunciation and feel more comfortable. “Water” is a giveaway for an American accent. I can try to make the T more clipped, less like a D, but it sounds ridiculous and forced. When I first emigrated our street was called Water Lane and my accent embarrassed me every time I told my address to local people. I oblige the kids when they want to hear it, though. They like to feel superior in something, even if I have lived on this Small Island longer than they’ve been alive.

I have a stash of writing utensils too, of course. Lessons start much better when I can quietly check with a student that they have the equipment they need and lend what’s necessary, rather than them instantly getting into trouble.

“I bet you still say ‘water’ funny.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t quite got rid of all my Americanisms.”

“Oh, that’s okay, Miss.”

So they get to play the part of being generous and hospitable, too.

Retraining

One successful result of the school’s efforts to support well-being may be the diversity accepted within the student population. While it’s a rural area and not very multicultural, students support their friends of colour and Black Lives Matter. I also got to have a discussion with a Year 11 prefect about her witchcraft practice, and of course the crux of my job is to support students with various disabilities.

Sunrise on a new adventure. We’re not expecting fully calm seas, and that’s ok.

With a designated unisex bathroom now on site, other students are able, more and more, to inhabit more comfortable roles. Previously it was agony for certain teens to deal with bodies that were developing in an unwanted direction while their thoughts and preferences veered a different way, and everything around them reminded them how they ought to be. There’s a student in most of my Year 11 lessons whom I’ve tried to remember not to apply gendered language to, but I slip up sometimes since my ways of referring to subsets within the group are old-fashioned.

“Here you go, ladies.” I hand out the GCSE Language practice paper to the two students in the back.

“Non-binary,” corrects one, without even looking up.

“Of course. I’m so sorry, I’ll try to keep doing better.” They shrug and get on with the work. I hope that they’re always around people they can safely express their identity to. People who are, one might say, “calm.”

After all, I’m feeling more and more free to say “water” in my slightly redneck American way. That’s one word I won’t convincingly be able to fix, but I can work on a few others. Having to mind my language puts me in a much more writing-centred frame of mind than when I was dealing with billing and numbers. Have you been picking up any new lingo lately?

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?