For the past 3-4 weeks I have been selfishly focused on my business, refusing to acknowledge and accept what is going on in the world. I've done it for the same reasons that most of us have: fear. Fear of not being able to pay the mortgage. Fear of losing everything that I have worked hard for. A feeling of having to continue and keep the wheels on, to the point where I am prepared to ignore and be insensitive to the plight of my fellow human beings.
Anyone who knows me very well knows that I did not become a professional stamp dealer to get rich. I do believe with time and hard work I can make a good living and a good return for my investors, but I did NOT do this to get rich. I became a professional stamp dealer because I have personally witnessed the transformative power that a good, wholesome hobby has on people. Hobbies slow you down, and they force you, through their ritual to pay attention to and to appreciate the little things - the little blessings in life. It is the going through the motions of setting your paraphenalia up and getting into the "zone" that calms the mind and makes all other concerns melt away. This type of activity leaves one feeling rested, refreshed an connected with the broader world.
Last night my wife Steph, bless her heart, finally got me to snap out of it. She and I had a serious discussion and through that conversation I had to accept the fact that our businesses may indeed fail and that there is nothing we could do about that. We have a B&B as well as the stamp business. But it became apparent that this is the time for me to really practice what I preach and try to help the people around me who are afraid, who are shut up in their homes with a silence and an amount of time that is completely unexpected and foreign to them. I recognized that some people are going to have a very hard time staying occupied in a way that will bring them peace.
The Need For Tactile Hobbies to Relieve Stress
The problem is that we live and function in a world where we are always looking at a computer screen, whether it is our phone, or whether it is a laptop or desktop computer. Because of that, any form of entertainment that comes through those mediums is actually not relaxing to most of us. We don't realize it though because we have become so conditioned and hopelessly addicted to it. In order to really unplug we need to do something real, with our hands that engages our senses, and if possible, connects us with other people. It can be a handicraft hobby, it can be baking, it can be knitting, it can be any kind of collectible. I make the case here for stamps for reasons I want to briefly explain and I hope you will consider. What does this all have to do with COVID-19? I promise I will get to that, but please bear with me.
I'll do it using real examples to illustrate my points:
Consider the above selection of stamps. With the exception of the Chinese stamp in the middle of the second row, all of these stamps are from 1990 and portray themes and subjects that were throught to be worthy of celebration in that year.
On the top row we have two famous Americans, A. Philip Randolf and Ernest Hemmingway, both of whom made positive contributions to society and remind us that it is natural for us to congratulate and celebrate the accomplishments of our fellows, that it isn't only about us. We have a celebration of the American Space program on the 20th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo moon landing, which was another monumental accomplishment. We have a First Nations ceremonial frontlet on a Canadian stamp, which reminds us of the beauty, sophistication and dignity of the First Nations people and humbles us when we realize what our ancestors put them through. For just a moment, we vow to ourselves to be better. The last two stamps on the top row are two artistic Christmas stamps from the Christmas Islands - a place most people have probably never heard of. These Christmas images are synonomous with peace and goodwill, but they are also juxtaposed with a place we never think about and this reminds us to step outside of ourselves and realize that there is a whole other world out there that we need to be aware of and consider.
On the second row we have four stamps from Nigeria that depict different tribal dress. Again, these show us the beauty and dignity of the Nigerian people - just a few of the many, many tribes of people found throughout the 54 countries in Africa. The middle stamp is Tiananmen Square - the site of one of the largest human rights demonstrations in history. It was an event that ended in bloodshed in late 1989 after a stand-off with the Chinese army that lasted several weeks. This stamp celebrates the place where it happened and athough it makes no mention of what happened there, it reminds us that life goes on and a place that was a scene of something tragic and ugly can become beautiful again.
In the last row, we have two stamps from Germany that celebrate the re-unification of the country after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now this was something really remarkable. I remember being in my history class in Hong Kong in 1986 and asking my teacher whether the country would ever be reunited. "No", was her answer. "Not in our lifetime. No way." Yet, less than 4 years later this would become the reality. What this reminds us is perhaps the most important thing of all: things can change drastically and can change quickly. No matter how bleak things seem, "this too shall pass" and we will come out of this on the other side. Not only that, but what may emerge is better than what we started with. That certainly has been the experience for Germany: it experienced massive growing pains as it tried to integrate bankrupt East Germany, but it did, and now Germany is one of the most prosperous and strong societies in Europe. Look at how they are doing with this pandemic: they are experiencing a lower death rate, thanks in large part to the swift and decisive action taken there, and a strong universal healthcare system.
Very appropriately, the last stamp in that row in the middle is the 1990 "Love" stamp from the US and reminds us of what really matters. The US has been issuing these Love stamps most years since the early 70's.
All of these things are positive, aren't they? They show the very best of what we are as a species. They show what we admire and celebrate, they show our accomplishments, they show our values that we aspire to. There is nothing negative here. There is nothing ugly. Just looking at this and being immersed in it for a few minutes can be very relaxing and fun. The act of sorting these little pieces of paper out and organizing them, displaying them is very relaxing and fun as nearly any collector can tell you.
Yeah, but these are just modern stamps that look like stickers and are mass produced, why would I want to collect those? I can hear some of you saying. A valid point: modern stamps are not for everyone, but then again, not all modern stamps look like stickers. There are thousands upon thousands of very intricate and beautiful stamp designs out there - stuff that you have no idea exists, I'll bet. Here are just a few taken at random from my collection:
Isn't that just gorgeous? The combination of colour, the detailed engraving and the overall design is just beautiful in my opinion. Laos was a French possession until the 1970's and France produced these kinds of really intricate, engraved stamps for their own country and most, if not all their colonies. A handful of master-engravers did all the work, so when you look at these stamps you are looking at someone's life work.
Here is another French issue for Louis Pasteur, the father of pasturization, which made dairy products and other foods safe for us to eat without worrying about botulism. Again, a really cool design: a detailed engraving of Pasteur himself against a background of scientific symbols, and such great use of colour.
Here is another beauty from French Southern Antarctic Territory. These designs are the norm for that territory.
This is a bit more subdued, but how about this tapestry on a Czechoslovakian stamp from the 1960's? Czechoslovakia, a country that no longer exists as such, was another country that produced really beautiful engraved stamps that are very rich in culture.
Can you picture a more detailed design than this on a stamp? This was hand-engraved before being transferred to a modern printing plate for the production of this 1970's stamp from Cyprus.
Here is a real beauty from Austria. Again, although it is printed in just one colour, the beauty of the design is unequalled. This was actually part of a set of 5 or 6 stamps just like it. Each would be printed in a different colour and have a different design, so that when viewed together on a single page, it is just a beautiful display.
Here is another very intricate engraved stamp from Austria, issued in the 1960's. Austria was one of several countries in the world that I consider to have issued some of the most beautiful stamps.
But these just don't really interest me all that much, I can hear some say. Fair enough, again they aren't for everyone. But the wonderful thing is that no matter what your tastes are, I can practucally guarantee that there is a stamp out there from some country that you will think is really cool. There are a lot of very off-the-wall, creative graphic designs out there. How about some of these?
Here is a stamp from Austria from 1978 depicting an old woman. What is striking to me here is the way it is drawn and the use of bright and contrasting colours.
Here is a 1973 stamp from Austria warning against the dangers of drug abuse. I think this is very disturbing and effective as an image.
If you are a cat person, I can't see you not thinking this is really neat and cool.
The thing is, these are just a few of the many thousands of cool, and interesting stamps out there. How many more are there? What awaits you in the stamp world? Well, you have to collect to find out, and that is 90% of the fun.
But isn't it expensive? No, it doesn't have to be. It can be, if you are collecting rarities from the 19th and 20th centuries, but every stamp I have shown you so far has a retail value of between 40 cents and maybe $3. Most of the stamps are all under $1 each. Now, these stamps I've shown you are all mint condition. But if you are willing to settle for used stamps with light cancellations that don't completely obliterate the designs, you can buy them in bulk for pennies a piece in many cases.
But what about storage and display? Where would I put them? Well, there are inexpensive albums you can buy where you can safely store your stamps that make it easy to look at ane enjoy your stamps and they fit nicely on a bookshelf. Easy peasy.
What Does This Have to Do With COVID-19?
What this all has to do with COVID-19 is that this pandemic will change life for the foreseeable future. Nothing will be the same after this. Before this pandemic we have lived very fast-paced, digitial driven, commodity driven lives, in which we simply take for granted our health and our freedom to move around. In fact, we have grown, as a society to take everything for granted, to the point that we have become a cynical and self-focussed society. As a matter of survival, nature is now forcing us to slow down and smell the roses. Many of us are going to be needed to care for and look after our communities and our families in a way that we weren't required to do previously. We are going to find ourselves with vast expanses of alone time and downtime, due to social distancing, and for people who are accustomed to being social, this is going to be a very difficult adjustment for a while.
Of course, many will turn to social media and their phones, or Netflix for relief from their anxiety. But many are going to find that there is only so much Netflix and so much social media they can take before it begins to lose its effectiveness in bringing peace to an anxious mind. These forms of entertainment aren't really designed with that in mind anyway, and I think people are going to experience this in record numbers.
One good thing that is emerging from all of this is that by being forced to develop different habits, we may be able to turn the tide on the biggest threat facing our species: climate change. Already, scientists have noted vast improvements in air quality above major cities, and I read that the canals of Venice are clear again - something that hasn't been seen in over 50 years. Imagine that, from just a week or two of national lockdown. It makes one think, doesn't it? The deaths so far are tragic, but it does not have to be an all-around tradgedy. If we can improve water and air quality this much in just a couple of weeks, then we can fix this. We can. As long as we can work together and be considerate of one another's safety.
This is another good reason to pick up a hobby like stamps: it is eco-friendly. The stamps have already been printed. Their carbon footprint has already been left - long ago. Except for new albums and supplies, which require production, most everything you need to become a collector already exists. Even the albums can be bought used, so it is possible to have a source of entertainment that is almost zero-emissions. Not a bad reason to consider it eh?
But What if I Just Don't Like Stamps?
That's fine. I only use stamps as one example of something you can get into to occupy your time and bring you solace. It works for me and it what I love and know, but I freely concede that it may not be for everyone. Fortunately though there are lots of other hobbies that have many of the same common elements that should appeal to you:
- There are craft hobbies that involving making and building things.
- There are other collectibles which are tactile and which give you an sense of accomplishment as you form your collection, but which are also of beautiful or inspiring objects that touch the soul.
The key is to choose something real. Choose something you can actually touch, see and appreciate. That is the most important thing.
I have a modest stock of worldwide stamps and beginner's collections here that I know I will probably never get around to sorting. So, I have decided to send anyone who writes to me a small packet of stamps to get them started in this hobby completely for free. Try them out, do what you want with them and see where they take you during this period of isolation. If the interest catches, fantastic. If it doesn't, you can either toss them (not recommended), return them to me or give them to someone else. For those in the local Saint John area, I will be wiling to hand deliver the packets and a small album to your mailbox, until I run out of stock to give away. It isn't much, but I want to do what I can to help. This is what I have to offer.