Every day, writer Jan Carson makes a pilgrimage to a certain red post box in Belfast and sends a stranger a story on a postcard.
It is more than six weeks since lockdown began and this writer lives alone.
“I’ve had zero human contact but I’m feeling pretty connected,” she says.
Her cards are never a “Wish you were here”.
They are postcard stories from the edge of a pandemic.
“What my cards say is “I am still here. I am thinking of you,” she says.
She sends them to people who are self-isolating or living alone.
People from across the world know she writes postcards and ask for her help.
A woman in New Zealand asked her to write a card to her father who is in a nursing home in Northern Ireland. Across the miles, she keeps the love flowing.
But the stories do not stand alone.
Jan has gathered an eager army of children, not only from across Ireland, but from Switzerland, France, Tanzania and China, who draw pictures to go with the stories and add an extra sprinkling of magic.
“There are 100 children drawing and 100 adults receiving the postcards – that makes 200 connections,” she points out.
She has a special closeness to older people and has worked in community arts with them.
“I was quite close to my nana and I feel older people get overlooked,” she says.
Such friendships are bitter sweet – you build bridges and laugh and cry together and then they are gone, she says.
Her love affair with miniature stories – you might get up to 300 words at a squeeze on a card if you’re very lucky – began in 2015.
At that stage, she had written two books and was feeling exhausted.
A bad case of writer’s block gave her the idea of starting off the new year with a daily postcard story to get her writing again.
By 8 January, she realised it was like pushing an “unwieldy elephant up a hill for 365 days”.
It was, she later admitted, “a ridiculous challenge”.
But she couldn’t disappoint the people she’d promised her stories to so she ploughed on.
By the end of the year, she’d recovered her writing mojo.
With the pandemic, her love of story telling in miniature is on full throttle.
Northern Ireland ‘It keeps me sane’
She writes funny tales of mountain goats taking over Llandudno and dreamy tales of a child staring up at the stars.
At first, Jan’s niece, Izzy, who is nine years old volunteered to do the illustrations but as the project blossomed, she put out a call on Facebook and was overwhelmed at the response from children.
“It took me a whole day just answering the emails,” she says.
In a world where she is looking at four walls, the writer feels her daily card is a true “pick me up”, not just for the stranger on the far side of a closed door, but for her, too.
“It keeps me sane” she says. And she’s not the only one to have rediscovered a love for postcards.
At the start of lockdown in the Republic of Ireland, An Post – the Irish postal service – distributed two free postcards to 18 million households across the country so that people could stay in touch.
“Send love to someone special,” An Post told the people of Ireland – and they did.
The messages, poems and jokes flooded in.
Irish broadcaster RTÉ invited people to share those messages in a series of recordings broadcast on its radio news programme, Morning Ireland.
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Sean, 12, from Ballybay, County Monaghan, reads out a cheeky message from his younger cousin, Jack, in Clontibret.
“PS,” writes Jack, “I’m not writing in joined up because you wouldn’t be able to read it.”
Seanna says the card sent to Elizabeth cocooning in Kerry was “better than gold to gran”.
She adds: “It literally gave her wings”.
And Niamh from Skerries has a simple message for her mother: “Hang in there, you’re doing great.”
Their messages echoes Jan Carson’s words and the love-at-a-social-distance sent out in postcards across globe.
“You’re not alone. I’m still here. I’m thinking of you.”
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