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Lord Rutherford, the great atomic scientist, famously said there are two kinds of science: physics and stamp collecting.

He undoubtedly meant by "stamp collecting" the pointless collection of things, the accumulation of trivial observations, typified by cabinets full of butterflies - or stamps.

These thoughts occur to me now that I spend my time sitting around at home coping with chemotherapy for lymphoma. One of the many side effects of treatment is a condition called "chemo brain," which the patient is not really aware of until it momentarily fades and the mind clears.

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When that happens you realize you have just emerged from a swirling fog of confused impressions and agitation, made worse by the slightest interruption, such as the phone ringing.

At its worst, this fog of thoughts becomes a blend of dreams and nightmares with feelings of depression, guilt and responsibility - how do I avoid making myself more sick and vulnerable?

Focusing on simple repetitive tasks is a good way to clear the head, leading to a state of mindfulness in which the mind and body relax into a kind of meditative trance. Painful outside sensations vanish and all you think of is the task at hand. Sorting stamps is particularly good for getting you into this relaxed state.

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My particular stamp specialty turned out to be more profoundly engaging than I first imagined it would be. My late father fled from Czechoslovakia in 1939 as a penniless Jewish refugee from the Nazis. When I was a schoolboy in the sixties, I loved sorting stamps - sorting things is what schoolchildren instinctively like to do. So I decided to make a collection of stamps from Czechoslovakia, an easy choice since we received mail regularly from friends and surviving relatives still living there.

I acquired so many stamps that I never had enough time to stick them all into an album properly. Time went by and the whole collection went into a box.

Now the time had come to blow the dust off the box and finish the task. The album lay open with its gaps ready to be filled at last.

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I sorted all my loose stamps out on my desk, making piles of colourful little pictures - portraits, landscapes, cities. History coming alive, the very history that my father lived through.

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Pictures of a vibrant industrial and artistic country in the twenties and thirties gave way to the solemn commemoration of the death of President Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (TGM), the founder of the state.

Within a few years the stamps had a new portrait and the country had a new name - Adolf Hitler lording it over the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Hidden behind these stamps are the deportations and deaths of my father's brothers and sisters.

Through sorting stamps and sticking them in the album I was drawn into a vanished world. My father preserved many letters written by his mother from 1939 until her death in 1940. They are filled with a mother's hopes and prayers. No need to bother her son with the real thoughts going through her mind as day by day the noose tightened - her niece can't go swimming, they can't go to a restaurant, the insurance policies have been cancelled. The details were too painful to spell out.

But then in 1945 appeared stamps printed on the flimsiest paper - tiny woodcuts in only one flat colour, showing devastation but proudly asserting the freedom of expression.

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Soon after comes an outpouring of colourful stamps of TGM once again, the national figure whose memory was suppressed during the war years.

A few years later and another new leader is portrayed - Lenin announcing the triumph of communism in Eastern Europe.

The years that follow glorify communism and the success of the Soviet Union. There are colourful images of the first space satellite, the first astronaut, and surely the first man on the moon will soon arrive from Russia.

These are the years of letters from distant cousins and friends, endlessly hoping for permission to visit the West and meet us.

I turn another page and it is now 1990. A new set of portraits led by Vaclav Havel and, beside him, an echo of history - a new image of TGM.

So much is condensed in these colourful miniature artworks. National history and family history - plenty to absorb the mind as it works through its chemo brain fog.

Charles Heller lives in Toronto.

Illustration by Sue Todd.

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