On Penguins, Buttons and That Parallel Universe We Dream Of

19 May On Penguins, Buttons and That Parallel Universe We Dream Of

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 23.5.22


There is a job going that caught my eye – they’re looking for staff to run the “Penguin Post Office” in Antarctica and if you’ve seen a more evocative “Situations Vacant” I’d like to hear about it.

I’ve been picturing smartly dinner-suited penguins waddling about under crisp blue skies, some of them (and I know this is not what really happens) wearing leather satchels slung across their little bodies, full of mail to be delivered. I’ve even allowed myself to imagine them wearing deliveryman caps.

Really, the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy is run by humans – they need three – and it involves less cute cartoon glamour than the sign over the door suggests. Shared sleeping quarters for the trio, no running water and the average temperature is minus 5 degrees. There is also no internet access or cellphone coverage (so a couple of pluses there, depending on your mood) but it gets a lot of visitors each season of both human and penguin variety.

I mention it because, with autumn reaching its last mellow days, we can find ourselves melancholic and possibly imagining other lives. I’m not wanting to speak for you, but I find it’s A Thing – possibly even more so now. Two years of living with Covid has made us tired, scratchy, bewildered, frustrated, impatient, sad and cross – sometimes by turn, sometimes all of that at once.

We have not only been imagining new lives and jobs, we’ve actually gone and done it – in sufficient numbers for it to be known as, “The Great Resignation”. Having pondered what really matters, and grasped that life is both uncertain and short, we’ve been chucking in jobs we quietly hated and looking for something meaningful.

One of my favourite family dinners was years ago when one of us, no idea who, asked what we might have been if we’d had a parallel life. My mother’s choice – a lexicologist, devoted to studying the meaning and uses of words – was not exactly a surprise, but that the answer came so quickly and was described with such clarity was… interesting. It is always good to be reminded that the people in your life have whole other lives inside them.

Back then, I fancied living my parallel life as a criminal psychologist – a romantic notion based on watching too much TV. But now – pandemic weary – my dream has changed.

I would like to own a button shop. There’d be a bell on the door, and shelves stocked with glass jars of colourful, intricate, surprising, delicate, shiny buttons. All the types – shank, flat, toggle – and all with charm.

There are reasons for my button love. Mountains of shiny buttons at my parents’ clothing factory entranced me as a kid, but there is also a very early, very vivid memory of a set of light blue shank buttons with painted white swans on some childhood ensemble that had me mesmerised. A pretty picture on a button, and look! There were three!

Add to that a lifetime of knowing you can make any garment better by giving it better buttons and why wouldn’t you want to make it your business to help people find something matching, contrasting, subtle, elegant, or playful? To make a tiny change that makes something beautiful.

Which might sound crazy until you think that, right now, there are people actually applying to work at the Penguin Post Office in Antarctica. Dream big, I say.