Pick and Mix

This Week’s Bit of String: Hyperspace snowstorm

One of my students, finishing up her penultimate year of school and diligently researching university options, is becoming almost paralysed with anxiety. She explains, “I don’t like thinking about the future, because then I think too far ahead. Like hundreds of years, or hundreds of thousands of years.”

“And it all depends on which uni you go to?” I ask, imagining the alternative timelines which might be thus affected. 

“No. So it makes me feel insignificant.”

I see the bind she’s in. Berating herself for her insignificance won’t help her feel any less anxious and confused. I suddenly have an image of her exceptionally intelligent thoughts as a vehicle driving into a snowstorm, the blizzard flying almost horizontally at you as if you’re zooming past stars in hyperdrive.

Sometimes, of course, it’s easier to just keep things frozen.

I’ve been in an end-of-term rush myself. When I stop to reflect for a moment, as modelled by writer and life coach Liz Champion, I realise it’s been a hell of a term. In the last few weeks, students I’ve worked with for years have taken their exams and left. My kiddo just moved into their first apartment, while I try to support from across the ocean. At the same time, I sent queries and novel extracts to agents, after another careful edit. A friend died the day before the second anniversary of another friend’s death. I’m still dieting and not sleeping a tonne, packing and organising for my summer trip home while also cleaning the house and weeding the entire garden so it’s set for the catsitters. 

I’m not even really reflecting here. I’m merely cataloguing. If I stopped and felt the loss, some part of me would counterbalance it by acknowledging the many greater crises in the world, and I too might get stuck between my own sharp pain and my global insignificance. In case you’re overwhelmed this time of year, let’s do a quick round-up of things that keep us going.

Goals of Fun

Before parting with my hyperspace-minded student for the summer, I made her a “Summer Pick and Mix” list. I used to do this with my kiddo when a problem loomed: we’d sit down and make two lists: Goals of Need, Goals of Fun. Not my catchiest or most articulate idea, but for the things we need to accomplish, it really helps to break them down into small steps. 

And so we don’t get overwhelmed by what we have to do, there’s the fun. I’ve been known to write things on my to-do list like: Re-watch WALL-E (my favourite Pixar film–the detail! The storytelling!) or: Eat a bowl of cereal while reading a book.

Hopefully I’ll have a few moments like this.

For my student, apart from putting links on her list to research the courses she’s interested in, and breaking her homework assignments into weekly chunks, I added links to relaxing activities like chair yoga and mandala colouring, interior decorating, and Bob Ross’s happy little trees. I recommended writing a shape poem about her cat, and reading “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver—especially when she’s feeling inadequate. I haven’t worked out yet what I’m going to do to relax this summer, or if I’ll have time. But I might look at a few of those links.

Do you have any methods that really tick that de-stressing box?

Words of Power

I’ve gone entire school terms or more ensuring a certain anthem plays in my earbuds while I bustle through the school gates. Years ago it was “I Believe” from Book of Mormon, “One Foot” by Fun., and this year’s exam season was survived thanks to “Odds Are” by Barenaked Ladies. The video is hilarious. Maybe things aren’t going remotely ok. But you can put on a brave face and laugh about it.

Searching for memorial quotes to honour our late, great writing friend Sarah Tinsley, I was reminded of how she personally and tirelessly encouraged and inspired so many (she was the first person to read my novel that’s now, terrifyingly, out on submission), and also that we all have that potential.

Here’s an excerpt from “Let Me Tell You About the Moon” by multilingual poet Elizabeth M Costello in her gorgeous little volume Cajoncito: “Let me tell you that you and I are gardeners. I cultivate words, sowing them here and there, watering them, and teaching them how to worship the sun as they should… and to venerate the trees, not only for their height, but also for the honour and honesty that courses through their sweet sap, and that the bravest among them is not always the tallest.”

Just look how many branches can work together from one trunk.

Likewise, I’ve always been inspired by this wonderful quote from Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus: “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that… there are many kinds of magic, after all.”

And what about these words from Sarah herself? Our fellow writer Rita Gould reminded us Sarah said on her Substack The Disorganised Creative: “There’s that strange connection between me sitting at this laptop and you being wherever you are reading this. Maybe you and I have just made the world a tiny bit better, across the space of words between us.”

When we are far from those we love, when the future we face seems to render us insignificant, it helps to remember that even a single connection, even online and not in person, can really give someone a boost. And then maybe that encouragement renews them enough to encourage others, and on it goes… Keep boosting the world in your little ways, friends.

Writers with Day Jobs, Part 3: Goodbye, Post Office

This Week’s Bit of String: Letters to Putin

If you were a cultivator of stories, working in a post office, would you find yourself quite curious about what you were helping people send? I’ve always been quite numb to the letters and parcels—professional or perhaps just zombified—but sometimes my curiosity is truly piqued.

‘I need to send this letter to Russia.’ The soft-spoken piano teacher puts the envelope on my weighing scales. His thick, square glasses glint in the fluorescent lights.

I stamp the letter. It’s meticulously addressed to the Minister of Justice in Moscow. ‘I keep seeing these today,’ I tell the piano teacher. ‘What’s going on?’

Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud
Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud

He informs me Russia has begun proceedings to label Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists. So the steady stream of polite, earnest customers posting letters to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, Justice Minister, and even President Putin himself—are attempts to reason with the enormous state.

I had no idea. And that’s just one thing I’ve learned working at the post office. I shall take my leave with a little mess of weird but possible story threads.

Grief, Observed

A pale old man collects his pension from the post office every Monday, his fingers trembling as he tries to remember his PIN. One week he told me his wife had cardiopulmonary disease, and a bad car accident a couple months before while returning from a hospital appointment certainly didn’t help. But he smiled as he said, ‘I know all about being a woman now, since my wife’s laid up. Running about doing all the work! Tell you what, if I have to come back as something when I die, I hope it’s not a woman.’

Monday comes around again. ‘It’s beautiful out today.’ The man says as his fingers jitter, uncertain, an inch above the card reader’s keypad. ‘The sun was so warm in our garden.’

I ask how his wife is doing.

‘She passed away yesterday morning. Sixty-three years we were together. I used to call her my little ray of sunshine…’ His voice is hoarse.

I’m nearly moved to tears myself. I’ve worked in a nursing home; I’ve seen bereavement and death before. But it’s different seeing it ‘in the real world,’ watching someone stricken so recently go through the necessary motions. At the post office, I’ve had to tell relatives we can’t ship human ashes to distant loved ones (apparently it’s a fire hazard). I’ve certified copies of death certificates, and helped bereaved parents close their late daughter’s bank account—the mother quietly explaining what she needed, the father sitting in the waiting area staring straight ahead.

Stories aren’t just big moments; they’re little ones. They’re how we drag huge burdens through each tiny step.

Beyond School Doors

Likewise, I’ve seen disability before. I’ve supported secondary school students with all kinds of difficulties, who worked tremendously hard to get through the schoolday. Once again, the post office showed me a different perspective.

Village Post Office and shop
This is not the Post Office I worked in. But I wonder if their mini-dramas would be so different from ours.

A girl in her late teens or early twenties comes to my counter, taps her ear, and utters ‘Deaf.’ She slips a note under the heavy glass partition of my ‘Fortress’ (that’s literally the Post Office terminology for the secure cubicle). She needs a box for posting a jacket to the USA, the note explains. I take her to the stationery and show her what the shop offers for packaging. We communicate with hand motions and the odd inarticulate noise. She seems pleased with the selection.

I think about how it must feel, forced to introduce oneself in such a way; to be immediately distinguished by what some might perceive as a deficiency. What bravery and resourcefulness surround us, and we barely even realise.

My previous jobs have inspired a great deal in my stories, as I’ve gotten to know students, colleagues, and nursing home residents very well. In the post office, interactions are fleeting, but still colourful and informative. It’s a lesson in efficiency. If my imagination can be so fuelled by a two-minute encounter, maybe I could shoehorn my observations into a flash fiction piece. My notebooks bristle with label-backs and till roll fragments scrawled with funny place names: Bald Knob Ridge, North Carolina. Thistley Hey Road, Liverpool. Runaway Heights, Jamaica. Thanks to these, I could still feel, despite being locked alone in a ‘Fortress’ at the back of a perishing shop in a town classed as a ‘Rural Area of Deprivation,’ that the world was at my fingertips. Not just geography, but the realm of words, with its truly infinite possibilities.

What windows does your job allow on the wider world?