As I write, I’m not just here at my laptop in Dundee – I’m also a few miles away, in St Andrews. It is yesterday. The old streets are enchanted with sunlight and shadows of trees and shadows of railings on walls. Although I’m encumbered with bags full of bought books, I stop a few times to take photographs on my phone. It’s too cold to stop for long, and I hurry on to the next shop. Bouqiniste Books is the best. The 70 year old man who owns the shop grins and waves to me as I come in. He is in conversation with two students. They’re talking about the Beat writers and the possible influence of Walt Whitman on one of those 1950s word-magicians, although the girl who started the conversation cannot remember which one. I zone in and out of their words as I wander around and around the small bookshop, a smallness that expands more than the Tardis as I find this or that treasure, turning pages and entering the world of a boy in England a long time ago even when Thomas Hardy wrote of him:
‘Mr Pitt made the war, and the war made us want sailors; and Uncle John went for a walk down Wapping High street to talk to the pretty ladies one evening; and there was a press all along the river that night – a regular hot one – and Uncle John was carried on board a man-of-war to fight under Nelson; and nobody minded Uncle John’s parrot, and it talked itself to death. So Mr Pitt killed Uncle John’s parrot; see it, sir?’
And when I’m buying those books: the two red leather volumes of The Dynasts (First Pocket Edition 1924; Reprinted 1925) the man behind the counter says: “Ah, the only Thomas Hardy I was never able to read. You’ll have to tell me how you get on with it.” I promise I will.
Stories and memories are made of the same stuff: the places and things, the light and shadows we see, and the people we speak to or just notice. It has always been a source of wonder to me that so much of all of this: all we remember or imagine can be conveyed in words. A word itself looks like nothing very special: as lifeless as a stone. Incredibly, a word is the only thing which comes alive by vanishing. When we read about a man in a bookshop or a terrifying day on Mars – then, the words become invisible to us and we see right through them to the things they describe. The better the words are at performing this vanishing act, the more we can be carried away by a story or a memory.
Of course, words don’t perform their magic tricks without a wee bit of human intervention. In fact, without us humans speaking or listening; or without our writing and reading, words could not do anything at all.
I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I am at a crossroads in my life. As I write these words, I’m still at the same crossroads. Something inside me became broken a few months ago. Some sort of way of coping with all that life throws at a worker like me. I got help and put myself back together as much as I could. I tried to carry on as before, but the broken bits inside me kept moaning at me. I started to feel very tired and low most of the time. I’m very lucky to have so many good people who saw what was happening and supported me. They still do. I also needed to rest, to think about my future, to try to think of ways I can be in this world and not become as lost as I felt. And I’ve been doing that. Resting. And I have listened to the words of people who know that good mental health is like a good piece of writing. To create it, you have to take time, and work at it.
In books and bookshops, in walking in a park holding Isobel’s hand, in photographing shadow and light in a street in St Andrews, I see and feel moments of healing. There’s so much in our world which can injure and harm us, it’s easy to lose sight of – the peace we can also find, if we are very lucky. And luckily, I’m lucky.