I’ve always loved the idea of living in a jungle, nothing but birds and wild creatures for company. I was inspired (scarred?) by ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ as a child and imagined a future life as a kind of Mrs Dolittle who could live in a cave and go a bit wild. My friendly gorillas would protect me from harm and we’d all have a great old time.
Ah, the innocence of childhood dreams. Instead of becoming an explorer I stayed put, finding jobs here and there (none of which involved animals of any kind never mind Rwandan silverbacks). And anyway, Dame Jane Goodall – official legend – has primate expertise covered.
So what’s left? The jungle. I grew up in a house filled with books and plants, walking along the hallway would invariably involve getting poked in the eye with a spiky leaf, so I assumed there would be something in the genes that would make me green-fingered. Mum is great with plants so shouldn’t that pass down the generations?
Turns out: no. Over the years I’ve brought countless plants home and lovingly tended to them (on one memorable occasion even talking to one) but to no avail. All too soon the leaves wilt, drooping down in despair that they were the unlucky ones to end up in my house. On especially melancholy days I picture the scene in the garden centre as plants nudge one another and close their eyes in the hope that I won’t choose them. I’ve tried using less water, using more water, pretending I don’t care (as if the offending plant is a cat and I can tempt it to love me by feigning indifference), and pleading with them to stay alive.
Nothing works. But somehow one grew tall and strong and healthy and I would tip toe past, genuinely impressed, resisting the urge to reach out and stroke a leaf in case it recoiled at my touch. This outlier now resides with Auntie Anne (who selflessly stored all our stuff during the year out) and it is the happiest plant in all the land – it even sported tiny lights during the winter.
So I have no greenery to speak of in the house, no seedlings waiting to hatch, and no gorillas either. But the garden is another story, it’s bursting into life right now with daffodils and primroses and tulips all showing their faces after a long winter.
The view from the shed is endlessly delightful. Birds taking a bath in an old tin container, bees bumbling in the wind, seagulls dive-bombing crows on neighbours’ rooftops. And look at those yellow flowers – maybe I’m an outdoor explorer after all?
I got three letters this week. Real, three-dimensional things, on paper and everything. It was thrilling. There amongst the bills and dull life admin were things worth opening and taking time over.
Letter-writing is something special – it’s a lost art and we’re the sadder without it. Pen pals aren’t really a thing anymore, we send emails or WhatsApp messages or texts. Of course, we could blame technology for taking over and making us set down our pens, but it seems likely that most lost arts are prone to neglect as the years pass by.
Also likely, I hope, is that the ebbs and flows of their fortune will soon bring them to our notice once more. Lockdown life has reminded us of small joys and the importance of taking time to reflect and think of others – all involved in the process of letter-writing. Sharing an epistle is joyful – for the sender and recipient alike.
And there’s lots to like. Snail mail, as the name suggests, is slow and thoughtful. Personal handwriting is intimate in a way that screen typing can never be. A letter can’t be deleted, instead, it can be treasured and wrapped up in a ribbon to peruse over and over again (I have hundreds of letters that Chris and I wrote to each other in the nineties when we were at different colleges, massively embarrassing to read now but also somehow meaningful and emotional). Even the walk to the postbox is an opportunity to get outside, listen to the birds, feel the wind in your hair. Then the wait to hear back which feels precious in our instant-gratification world. It’s a centuries-old tradition and tapping into it feels as if we’re following ancestral footsteps (even if it’s with a Bic biro rather than quill and ink).
I once spent well over two hours dipping one of those quill pens over and over in order to produce two small pages of a letter to my friend Gillian, the wax seal on the envelope finishing the job. I was Jane Austen for an afternoon – what could be better? The ink-stained hands were a trophy.
Those dripping wax seals. A scroll unfurled. Ink blotches on animal skin parchment. Japanese calligraphy. A crisp, empty sheet. Silver letter openers that slice pleasingly along the edge of an envelope. That moment of recognition when the date stamp or handwriting tells you about the author and what lies within.
Do something different today: pick up a pen, find a piece of paper, and see what happens. Loved ones out there are waiting for your letter – they just don’t know it yet.
What would Saint Patrick make of the world today? I often picture his sad shake of the head when he sees rivers turned green, Guinness spilling onto the street, leprechauns running towards pots of gold.
We get things wrong time and again. But Patrick knew a thing or two about the human condition; from shepherd to slave to saint. Somehow his capacity for hope was never dimmed as he held onto faith with both hands, even in the darkest times. And out in nature is when I hear him most clearly, his monastic spirit is everywhere outside: in the call of gulls, in the gust of wind, in the crash of waves. Ireland seems to breathe him in and out.
When I create a daily rhythm that starts the day with prayerful focus I can find inner strength that is otherwise hidden and a reminder that I am a beloved child. “I bind unto myself today” is surely the most important phrase ever written – a ‘bind’ that holds us tight and then sets us free.
What can I say? You’ve been by my side for as long as I can remember: from childhood fairytales to midlife learning; from university libraries to cosy Tuesday afternoons with a cup of tea and a cat on my lap. The world opened up thanks to you.
When life hurt you offered shelter under Ladybird wings, gifted Shakespeare to my confused teenage mind. I got out of hospital and you knew I needed cartoon comfort, leaving Calvin and Hobbes on my bed. Health fears and lockdowns had you rummaging around for something new to surprise me with – the poems of John O’Donohue.
When life was light you offered Thomas Hardy to share my university journey, dropping copies of anything by Neil Gaiman when I was ready to escape into other worlds. When laughter was required you reached out a hand to tickle my sides with Bill Bryson. Lately you seem to know that my mind needs to be expanded and I found a 500-page tome by Yuval Noah Harari on my desk.
Most of all, you’ve pushed The Great Gatsby into my hands at regular intervals to bring me home. Words heal, you taught me that. And I’ll always be grateful.
Happy World Book Day.
“She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.” Annie Dillard