Giveth and Taketh

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This time last year I attended a fantastic debate on the future of the short story at Belfast Book Festival. Kevin Barry recommended a collection by an author name Breece D’J Pancake and whilst I was locked into my Bookish Friends year of reading recommendations, the name- remarkable as it is- stuck with me. Pancake was a young West Virginian writer who attended the University of Virginia’s creative writing programme in the late 1970s, producing a limited, though devastatingly well-written collection of short stories before taking his own life in 1979. I’ve been reading his stories this weekend and they are truly remarkable. However, it was a quote from his mother included in James Alan McPherson’s foreword which struck me and stayed with me throughout the weekend.

“You may keep the books or anything Breece gave you- he loved to give but never learned to receive. He never felt worthy of a gift- being tough on himself.”

– Letter from Mrs. Helen Pancake, February 5th 1981.

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It’s fair to say the last week has been quite trying. Long hours, heavy responsibilities and a handful of incredibly stressful situations have made me feel like July, and the breathing space, it will provide is actually getting farther away, rather than closer. I’ve doubted my ability to manage my job. I’ve doubted the quality of the novel I’m about to launch and even doubted my ability to pass as a functional human being. In the midst of all this wobbliness I have been surrounded by people who are supporting me in a host of incredible ways. I started the month with a May survival kit from fellow writer and dear friend, Nathaniel McAuley, (the chocolate didn’t last very long but the tea mug is still going strong). I have a fridge stocked with emergency homemade meals from my lovely Mum. I’ve had daily check-ins from Hilary Copeland, offering increasingly hilarious updates on her own mad May, (and the opportunity to vent back has, on several occasions, been the difference between uncontrollable laughter and tears). I’ve had multiple “July is coming” text messages, prayers, emails and a whole box of advent-calendar style presents from a mystery saint delivered to the stage door of the Ulster Hall. On Saturday evening I had a date with my two favourite people and their hugs, stories and sing-along with Bob Dylan sessions, felt like a big sticking plaster on all the week’s bruises.

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This month is teaching me a lot about myself. Just like Breece D’J Pancake I’m pretty good at the giving. I know how to take charge, to organise, to be the one in control. However, when it comes to being carried, to accepting help and gifts and learning how to be vulnerable I’m actually pretty rubbish. I’m beginning to realise that independence and drive needs to sit humbly beside the softer virtues- rest, community, trust. I am so thankful for the kindness I’ve been shown already this month and the support of people who’ve come out to hear me read and are genuinely excited about the book. I would have unravelled even further without them and my challenge in the next few weeks will be to learn how to accept their kindness. This month isn’t really about books or readings or running killer events. It’s all about learning how to put in place habits and practices which will serve me well in whatever the next season holds.

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