Marriage and the Midlife Crisis

Last week it was my husband’s and my wedding anniversary. We celebrated with hugs and kind words and time spent pottering about with our kids, getting on with the usual chores. In the evening we had a takeaway and dessert. In quiet moments I reflected on our almost 20 years together (13 of them as a married couple).

 

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

 

On the day of our wedding, it would have been good if, along with the marriage certificate, we were given a guide to negotiating the ups and downs of marriage, but as no one presented us with such a guide, like many other couples we bumbled along and came up with our own. Although it took a while to craft, it is, thankfully, short. It goes something like this:

  1. Love and respect each other.
  2. Communicate well.

And voila! That is it!

In the early days of marriage, when we were in our late 20s, it seemed so simple. We had it all figured out. Go us!

But you know what… we got older. We had kids. We were constantly tired. Number 2 sometimes seemed impossible. Simply because there was no time to communicate, let alone communicate well. Time seemed to have sped up and slowed down all at once. There was no time to just be. No time to be alone with each other. But equally, sometimes time stretched on forever… particularly when one of the children was ill or teething or going through a particularly challenging phase of development. You name it… it seemed to go on and on and on…. When we were childless, the importance of time spent together hadn’t even crossed my mind.

So in the glorious muddle of early motherhood I made a note to myself:

  1. Spend time together (with or without the kids, depending on their age & needs).

As the children became more independent and the hazy days of early motherhood began to clear I thought, Aha! We have more time now! We’re back on track. But you know what? We were now middle-aged. And you know what happens at middle age, don’t you? Yep. The midlife crisis.

 

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

 

But this wasn’t something that I’d ever considered in my 20s. The midlife crisis was only for men who had a penchant for motorbikes, wasn’t it? Turns out I was wrong.

Suddenly at the midpoint of our lives, it dawns on us that time is beginning to run out. We still haven’t been to Australia, won the Nobel Prize or travelled in outer space. This is the time of the midlife crisis, which Jung says is frequently marked in men by a period of depression around the age of 40, and at a slightly younger age in women.

Some women seem to hit the midlife crisis when their children have all started school and they suddenly have a bit more freedom. Others, especially those who are working full-time, seem to have a later one when the children leave home.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

Whoa! This was serious stuff! And we both seemed to be going through it.

Not only are us middle-aged folk ‘psychologically vulnerable’ at this time, biology seems to be against us too. Our bodies are changing. Growing older. Hair falls out. Or turns grey. Hormones are in flux. Ovaries are on the downturn… For many women it is a last chance to consider having children. Men don’t experience quite the same fertility anxieties. Yet the possibility of other partners – younger spouses – often adds to the mix of the midlife crisis. As does realising that the ‘career-for-life’ (often chosen in one’s 20s) doesn’t quite turn out to be the right career. Where do you go from there – particularly when the weight of financial responsibility is on your shoulders? Job stuck. Heart stuck. Mind stuck. It all sucks.

I hope (I trust) we are through the worst of it, but you know what, it was sometimes rough. Sometimes more down than up. But what really helped was this:

  1. Communicating well.

Although there was the whole ‘figuring out how to communicate’ thing! In our 20s, talking to each other had always come easily, but real proper communication… well, first we both had to figure out how to do that. Turns out it’s dead simple. But hard. It consists of a) LISTENING to the other person WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (that’s a challenge!) and b) LISTENING to oneself and one’s own needs WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (again, harder said than done). After that, comes honest discussion, with solutions put forward for ways to work through the particular challenge. It’s about remembering that if you do still:

  1. Love and respect each other

in essence you’re on the other person’s side. So make time to talk. To listen. To find a way through a challenging time.

Also, in the midst of the midlife crisis muddles I remember thinking that self-reflection was (again) a real saviour. Figuring out that I was a highly-sensitive person as well as a limerent helped. So I added the following to add to the guide:

  1. Know thyself. (Though I think some Greek philosophers got there before me!)

Finally…

Midlife crisis, then, marks the return of the opposite, an attempt on the part of the psyche to re-balance. Jung says that this stage is actually very important, because otherwise we risk developing the kind of personality that attempts always to recreate the psychic disposition of youth.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

So the last point I’d add to the guide is this:

  1. Be mindful of life’s rhythms, and how these rhythms and shifts in circumstances can affect a relationship. Wild beings (Wild Man and Wild Woman too) instinctively understand the importance of taking note of natural rhythms. There will be ups and downs; as long as number 1. (love and respect) is still there, one of the most worthwhile things to do is to hold on to each other and find a way through.

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On Boundaries & Being a Minecraft Mum

 

Last year, when I finally got to bed on Christmas Eve I had the sudden realization that we had come to the end of an era. You see, waiting under the tree there was a certain present for our children. The certain present had lots of circuits, a screen and a keyboard. And my husband was going to put Minecraft on it. I just knew that from Christmas Day onwards everything would change…

 

Minecraft books, photo by Marija Smits

I’ve read all these books cover to cover. At least 10 times. (Photo, by Marija Smits.)

 

My husband and I had thought long and hard about this gift. For one thing, it was essential to get the kids off my laptop which was full of work stuff. Also, my eldest daughter was being asked to do more and more computer-based homework. Third… well, Minecraft. Although I knew very little about it I could already see the appeal. As a sandbox game it allows you to be creative and build all sorts, but there are also certain challenges/achievements to complete, as well as the chance to play in multiplayer mode with other people. This was going to blow our minds!

 

Creeper, by Marija Smits

A creeper. Not mind-blowing but he does blow stuff up.

 

Four months down the line I can confirm that the Minecraft era is all that I expected it to be: 1) a lot of fun 2) highly creative 3) an educational experience – it’s been a steep learning curve but now myself and my children pretty much know everything there is to know about Minecraft: mining, crafting, mobs, fighting, farming, building, enchanting, potion-making, the Nether, the End. (There’s even some poetry in it! And a creepypasta in the form of the elusive Herobrine.) YouTubers I knew nothing about in the pre-Minecraft era are now household names: Mr Stampy Cat, iBallisticSquid, AmyLee. Stampy’s ‘hic-hic’ laugh is oft-mimicked.

These first 3 expectations are positive. So far, so good. Yet the fourth is not, for it is this: addictive.

So this is where the ‘boundaries’ bit comes in. It would seem that some people have a pre-disposition to addiction – in that they have a more sensitive reward system in place, and this, most likely coupled with a diminished ‘pause-to-check’ instinct, means that they are more vulnerable to addiction. And perhaps more likely to be risk-takers.

Addiction, as a topic, fascinates me, so it’s no wonder that addiction as a theme reoccurs in my short stories (one of these stories is to be published in a litmag this summer. Yay!). But it only feels like something I can view more dispassionately now, since I feel I have a better sense of my own addictive tendencies. (Though in the past [soft] substance addictions were an issue, my addictions are now internal rather than external. I know that I am only ever a few wobbly and perilously short steps away from OCD thoughts – which in the past have stolen hours, days, weeks, months from my life. And person addiction – aka limerence – is the other.) Also, having lived with a gambler for several years and had friends with alcoholic parents (as well as the requisite uni pals most definitely [and yet not] in control of their own chemical addictions) I feel as though I’ve got a bit of a handle on the issue. And TV programmes, branded with trashy titles such as: Help! I’m addicted to sex! (or food or social media or feet or whatever) actually make for an insightful (and fascinating) watch.

Anyway, back to boundaries. Obviously, computer games can be addictive. And I’ve noticed that my son finds it far more difficult to come away from the screen than my daughter. When it’s time to stop he complains and wheedles for just another 5 minutes. I do my best to always give him at least a 10 minute countdown, but still, it can be hard for him to stop. I can empathise. I have memories of playing Tetris over and over in a darkened room while outside the sun shone, and finding it very hard to detach from the screen. (And apparently, my husband, too, was a keen computer gamer in his youth.)

Still… empathy is good. It helps my son to know that I’m on his side. But also, boundaries are good. However, when I’m setting and enforcing boundaries, I always feel as though I’m being a big bad baddie. (Something that I think many women find tricky – saying ‘no’ and ‘enough’.) But I have to remind myself that boundaries are good. I’m actually a goody for imposing boundaries, because boundaries help us to cultivate personal integrity, and create wholeness, and also, they are necessary for healthy relationships: with ourselves, with each other and with our environment. They make for a healthy society.

Many adults already know what their boundaries are. For some it means zero alcohol. For others it means a certain limit on coffee. For those in a committed relationship it means a blanket ban on ‘friending’ exes or past lovers on Facebook. For children who love screen time it can mean making sure that there are time restrictions in place. (We also don’t have phones or screens in our bedrooms – I’m trying to ensure that bedroom = rest in their minds. I’ve also found that making sure that screens are off at least 2 hours before they go to bed is a big help with their sleep and temperament.)

Anyway, so far, Minecraft has been a positive in our life, but as usual, observing, reflecting and setting (and enforcing) boundaries on a day-to-day basis are paramount for something that has, like so many other apparently innocent things, the potential to become addictive.

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Limerence, and Are You Addicted to Love?

Limerence is defined as:

(psychology) An involuntary romantic infatuation with another person, especially combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated.

First coined by Dorothy Tennov (from Wiktionary)

 

As an ex-scientist I love a good definition, and the above is so concise and deliciously objective, that it absolutely delights me, but of course it can’t possibly convey what it’s like to be a limerent. Perhaps poetry can help.

 

BC eyes by Marija Smits

Eyes 1, by Marija Smits

 

Love Blurt

 

You’ve just met the most amazing/gorgeous/incredible man ever,

and believe it or not, as luck would have it, he totally likes you too.

There’s this connection between you, like electricity,

and a something about his eyes and voice and smile that makes you go weak at the knees.

And life is suddenly totally absolutely perfect; you can’t think about anything else

apart from this one man, and you just know that THIS IS IT!

This is totally it, and you’re going to be together forever.

 

And then…

 

you meet one of his friends, and he is so totally amazing/gorgeous/incredible

and there’s this real connection between you, like electricity,

a something about his eyes and voice and smile, the way he seems to really know you,

although you’ve only just met,

and you think Oh shit, I am so totally absolutely screwed,

I am in really big trouble this time…

 

MARIJA SMITS

 

James-Mcavoy-eyes-by-Marija-Smits

Eyes 2, by Marija Smits

 

I actually wrote this poem a few years ago, couldn’t find an immediate publishing home for it, and then forgot all about it. My husband (who’s not a big fan of poetry) said positive things about it (if my memory serves me right). Or maybe he said that it wasn’t like my ‘usual’ poetry – perhaps less contemporary poetry-like – and so that’s why he thought it okay!

 

02-2017-love-and-limerence-by-dorothy-tennov

 

Anyway, a while later I got hold of the excellent book Love and Limerence by Dorothy Tennov, and suddenly realized: this poem is about limerence. And of course I know what limerence is, because I am a limerent. Oh shit, I thought. But also, thank goodness! It explained so much about my life (in rather the same way that finding out that I am a highly-sensitive person did).

Love (and limerence, if you’ve heard of it and know what it is) isn’t something that many people reflect on. Okay, well, many people experience love, but thinking about it, in a dispassionate and analytical way? Nope, there’s not a lot of that going on.

Tennov’s book takes a critical look at the nature of love and this thing called limerence; within the book are many people’s experiences of limerence, and reading some of the limerents’ stories, I couldn’t help but see myself in them. Thank goodness, I wasn’t the only one, I thought. But still: Oh crap.

First, I feel it necessary to say that being a limerent DOES NOT EQUAL being unable to love someone deeply and to stay faithful to them for years, for decades or for a lifetime… (Here is an older, yet relevant, post about long-term love, becoming parents and clear communication.) But sometimes, yes, being a limerent does equal the inability to ‘love commit’ to someone on a long-term basis (I’m sure many of us know couples who have broken up after a short or long while, perhaps because of falling in love/limerence with someone else. It could be argued that serial monogamy is a symptom/outcome of limerence).

But taking personal experiences (and love) out of this, shouldn’t we be more analytical about our emotions and question the whys and whats and hows of love? Some might argue: No, it’s pointless, it has little use. Or no, it destroys the “magic”. Or that emotions can’t be analysed. But my, this limerence thing is powerful stuff, and a peek into its workings can surely only better equip us to understand ourselves and each other better? Sapere aude – dare to know!

So with this in mind, I thought it worthwhile to go through the major categories/stages of relationships (as outlined in Tennov’s book):

 

Readiness for Limerence and Longing

This is the part where a limerent person has not, quite, found the right someone to become limerent for. But oh, the idea of that person! And the longing and the loneliness… and oh how crushing each Valentine’s Day is when that other person still isn’t in our lives. Music helps. Poetry helps. Books help. The pre-teen and teenage years seem to particularly be about this stage.

 

Hope

Tennov defines the person a limerent falls in love with as the “limerent object” (she’s quite right, because often limerence is more about the limerent than the person they are in love with). My poem ‘Love Blurt’ describes transference – when the limerence one feels for one limerent object transfers to another. Transference (to my mind) is evidence that limerence is more about the limerent’s mind/imagination than the actual limerent object.

Our society may label the “the limerent object” as “the one” (a tricksy label, indeed, implying that there is only one right person for each person on earth. Really? In a world full of billions of humans, surely this can’t be right?). Still, the period of hope is when a limerent person finds the other – the limerent object – and every waking thought is given to that person. It is an obsession like no other, and it presents itself as an actual physical pain in the chest. And very often (like in my poem) the voice and eyes and smile of the limerent object communicate volumes, tomes even. And

The objective that you as a limerent pursue, as is clear in the fantasy that occupies virtually your every waking moment, is a “return of feelings”.

Love and Limerence, by Dorothy Tennov p. 57

 

Mutual Limerence

This is the stage in a relationship which is pure and utter bliss. It is the stage in which two people, who are limerent for each other have overcome the barriers to being together and finally are together, completely and wholly, in a romantic, spiritual and sexual sense. It is the part where Romeo and Juliet finally spend a night together. Utter, utter bliss.

But does it last? Like forever and forever? A lifetime? Hell, no! As blissful as the prolonging of this stage would be, one has to be realistic: it would be exhausting to perpetually be in limerence with someone. It fades. It simply has to. But it can transform into:

 

Affectional Bonding

Often this is felt by couples who have passed through the mutual limerence stage and discovered beyond the superficial limerence a deep respect, liking and love for each other. It is a very real and deep meeting of human souls; for to know someone, to really know someone and to see them “spiritually naked” – as it were – to see their pain, their vulnerability, their fears, their desires, and for them to see you spiritually naked too, has got to be one of the most worthwhile and connecting things we humans can do. And many in our society still look at those who have been happily married for decades and decades and decades with wonder and delight and respect.

 

zentangle-heart-by-marija-smits

Zentangle Heart by Marija Smits

 

Non-limerence

Perhaps some of you who are reading this may think I am speaking another language. All this stuff about chest pain and longing and intrusive, obsessive thinking and fantasizing and emotional dependence is utterly… bizarre. So of course I have to point out that there are some who don’t experience limerence. Tennov actually had a “theoretical breakthrough” in her research on romantic love when she had a long and involved discussion with a non-limerent. The idea of the absence of all the stuff that limerents feel led her to understand just what limerence is.

And of course, can you imagine all the awful misunderstandings, muddles, tragedies even when a limerent falls in love with a non-limerent…?

 

***

 

I have a complicated relationship with limerence (!), and I am still thinking and learning and writing about limerence and its consequences. To me, it is a fascinating psychological topic. And if, like me, you are curious/intrigued by love and limerence I can definitely recommend Tennov’s book. In the meantime I hope I have given a good-enough description of what limerence is. It is up to you, though, to sapere aude (dare to know) the answers to these questions: Are you a limerent? and: Are you addicted to love?

 

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Prose for Thought

 

The Power of Humour

So… these are dark times. Or so my Facebook and Twitter feed say. Since the inauguration of Donald Trump last Friday things have gotten a little crazy. There are many that I know who are fearful and scared. I am worried too. But before I succumb to fear I am going to be a ‘good’ scientist and watch and observe and think. When plunged into darkness it is best to remain calm and let your eyes acclimatize to the darkness. Shapes and forms and patterns will emerge. Even a little light.

There have been many positive things happening: the many Womens’ Marches and rallies, and organizations like ‘Hope Not Hate’ offering us ways to reach out and help one another. One of the simplest ones being: do a kind deed for someone today.

We all have our own ways to cope in turbulent times; I know that I tend to hunker down and look to my family and local community and see how I can help out. I also write and create art, which helps me, and (hopefully) others. Then there is the ultimate (healthy and 100% natural!) feel-good mood enhancer: humour.

I’m a serious person, and I probably don’t laugh enough. But laughing is rather wonderful, isn’t it? And of course it’s great for the body and soul.

There is a great chapter about the power of humour in difficult times in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ excellent book Women Who Run With The Wolves. If you haven’t got a copy of this book, please do yourself a favour and get it. It is simply an incredible and life-changing book.

 In laughter, a woman breathes fully, and when she does she begins to feel unsanctioned feelings. And what could those feelings be? Well, they turn out to not be feelings so much as relief and remedies for feelings, often causing the release of stopped-up tears or the reclamation of forgotten memories or the bursting of chains on the sensual personality.

This seems like such an apt quote for this moment in time.

And remember, too, the boggart in Harry Potter? It could only be vanquished by humour. Riddikulus!

So today I’m going to share some of my current favourite funnies.

 

Number One: We Go to the Gallery by Miriam Elia

We Go To The Gallery, by Miriam Elia

 

In this book, Miriam has done a brilliant job of explaining exactly what it’s like to visit a contemporary art gallery. Which was very thoughtful of her as contemporary art confuses and bewilders many. Me included.

 

From 'We Go To The Gallery' by Miriam Elia

From ‘We Go To The Gallery’ by Miriam Elia.

 

Number Two: I-Spy books by Sam Jordison

Stocking gifts, photo by Marija Smits.

Stocking gifts, photo by Marija Smits.

Last year, Father Christmas was kind enough to fill my stocking with wine, art materials and funny books. Over breakfast (cereal and tea and chocolate currency), with overexcited children running about in their pants, I began to read Sam Jordison’s I Spy book, At the School Gate: My Mum’s Better Than Your Mum.

Now, I love a good game, and the idea behind the I-Spy books is that you have to spy as many of the people in the book as possible to win points. No problem, I thought. I’m a mum who goes to the school gates! Surely I’ll quickly rack up some points for simply seeing myself in the book.

From I-Spy At The School Gates, by Sam Jordison

From I-Spy At The School Gates’, by Sam Jordison

Sadly, I immediately found myself in minus numbers as I had to subtract 40 points for being ‘The Family That Is Always Late’. Damn you Sam! And even when I discovered that I could award myself 20 points for being a ‘Guardianista’ mum (yep I’m the one at the school gates boring everyone silly with how right I am about the current sorry state of education, and Brexit, and austerity… etc. etc.) that still meant I was only at – 20. Damn you Sam!

But I’m not going to get hateful about it. Since the kids have returned to school I’m into positive numbers, what with spotting many ‘Exercise Bunnies’ and the odd ‘Chelsea Tractor’. Yay! Go me! But Sam definitely doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to ‘Hot Dad’. This is one parent I have NEVER EVER seen at the school gates. No sirree. Nope. Absolutely not. Definitely not. Never.

Hmm…

Goodness me! Is that the time? I’d really better get a move on…

Right! On to the next I-Spy book, Pets: When Human Friendship Is Not Enough. Sadly, we are cat-less at the moment but that didn’t stop me enjoying this book. I’m not sure I’ll ever spy a ‘Dog on a Trailer’ but hell! I can have fun trying.

From 'I-Spy: Pets' by Sam Jordison

From ‘I-Spy: Pets’ by Sam Jordison

My husband also received a couple of I-Spy books from Santa: The UK: While It Lasts and Signs and Instructions You Must Obey. All most certainly very amusing and worth buying and reading. But if you’ve got children be prepared to have to explain some of the surreal humour and answer philosophical questions like: “Why are there signs that say, PLEASE DO NOT THROW ROCKS AT THIS SIGN…?” and “Mummy, would you throw rocks at the sign? Because you may have to do a lot of soul-searching when trying to answer those questions.

 

Number Three: Would I Lie to You? Presents the 100 Most Popular Lies of All Time.

Would I Lie To You?

Would I Lie To You?

I ended up borrowing this book from the library for weeks on end. Yes the lies are predictable and some of the humour too, but the book very often had me laughing so much I ended up in tears. Lie #3 – Lies to watch out for from plumbers: I need to get a part created a wonderful picture of overcharging white van-driving absentee plumbers all gathering in some crowded cul-de-sac to eat Pringles, link arms and sing their plumber’s song: We’ve gone to get a part. We’ve gone to get a part. We won’t be back for over an hour, we’ve gone to get a part!’

Ah, good times.

 

Number Four: Peter Pan Goes Wrong

But if you need some visual humour right now (and suitable for all the family) do watch Peter Pan Goes Wrong on BBC IPlayer (there’s still a few days left to view it). It is simply fantastic and really does bear repeat viewing. (My daughter is somewhat obsessed by this at the moment… and I can’t help mimicking the pirate’s odd way of talking and telling my kids to “Just give me the suewooooooord…..” at random moments. Bliss.)

 

Number Five: Classic YouTube Videos

If you’re looking for an instant (and fast) hit of humour, there’s always Cats vs Cucumbers. (Worth watching just for the dog cameo. Just be aware that there is some over-the-top creepy cackling from one of the cat owners which constantly makes me wonder: Whaaaat…?)

 

And if that doesn’t do it for you I give you babies and kids falling over and being well… kids. (The kids being caught doing “naughty” stuff and mid-lies is particularly wonderful.)

 

Number Six: As seen on Facebook/Twitter/GodKnowsWhere…

Lastly, if you like a good bit of satirical humour there is always this:

Just another one of those awful magazines. Yet subverted.

Just another one of those awful magazines. Yet subverted.

 

And lastly, I give you cabbages:

Cabbages. Just that.

Cabbages. Just that.

 

I hope that one of the above tickles your funny bone, and if not, please do recommend me some of your own favourite funnies.

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On Darkness and the Age of Enlightenment

Today, I am full of tears. I am hormonal, I am tired. A short story not being placed in a competition has made me feel low. Money worries are ever-present. My eldest daughter has been ill (though, thankfully she is on the mend). News of children suffering and dying in my Facebook feed has overwhelmed me. I feel useless and so very helpless. Today, I am full of tears.

Yet there is light all around me; achingly bright sunlight currently fills the room in which I am writing and ice-white fairy lights snake about the walls of our house. The tree in our lounge sports ribbons of multi-coloured LEDs. Candles sit around our nativity scene, keen to be lit. There is light within me (though darkness too). And I see light in others. And light calls to light.

Chrstingle, photo by Marija Smits

Chrstingle, photo by Marija Smits

2016 has been a year of darkness and much ugliness for so many. It is now more than ever that light is needed. It is interesting to me that light is so important to many (if not all) of the religions, and in pagan festivals too, light, in the form of the sun or moonlight or fire, is key. Storytellers, as well, know about the importance of light (think Lumos! in Harry Potter). It is a theme I explore often in my writing. Artists are the wielders of light. But in addition to creative and spiritual light (which I equate with love – and so something we no doubt need more of) there is also the light of reason. This is something the world desperately needs.

The Enlightenment… …was an intellectual movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state…

…The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy – an attitude captured by the phrase Sapere aude, “Dare to know”.

from Wikipedia

Daring to know the facts and statistics and hence outcomes about uncomfortable things like sexism, racism, climate change, government policy, neoliberalism, even something as (supposedly uncontroversial) as breastfeeding is difficult. If a journalist, celebrity or (lowly in the eyes of many) mother cites facts about breastfeeding: breastfeeding reduces the risk of vomiting and diarrhoea, SIDS, type 2 diabetes and obesity (to name a few) or to state it another way: formula feeding increases the risk of vomiting and diarrhoea, SIDS, type 2 diabetes and obesity (to name a few) just wait for the outrage.

Yet these are facts. They cannot hurt us. But for some of us they can and do by causing cognitive dissonance; they turn our worldview upside down, they turn our comfy, cushy lives and perception of ourselves as ‘good’ people into something else entirely. They damage the shiny image we have of our ‘self’. And for some these facts are simply dull and they feel browbeaten by those who wield them. School has turned them off facts. And anyway, who doesn’t want to think of themselves as a ‘good’ person? One of the most difficult and yet enlightening conversations I had was with my husband this year as we talked through some of the stuff that had happened to us as a family this year. I did some hard self-reflection and found my behaviour to have been selfish and driven by selfish desires. Ow! There is nothing quite as searing (or purging) as examining one’s own ‘self’ and coming face to face with darkness.

Yet, there was also something liberating about this discovery. I am freer of self-deceit than I was before and in many ways this new knowledge allows me to give more energy and thought to positive things. It is a hard-won gift.

But the gift of knowledge, of self-awareness, is one that not many will want in their lives. For how much more easy it is to listen to lies on the news that tell us what we want to hear than to search out some evidence-based research. How much easier it is to vote for someone who appeals to the fear that they and their cronies have nurtured in us and our societies. How much easier it is to say that climate change can’t be happening because it’s all a made-up conspiracy. How much easier it is to think of ourselves as without fault, all issues and problems in our lives caused by others. How much easier it is to distract ourselves from life’s true joys and worries with fact-free click-bait; junk food of the soul, surely. How much easier it is to act like the herd mammals we really are and to go along with what everyone else is doing and saying.

In this age of post-truth, this age of outrage when the individual’s feelings trump everything else – you offended me, how dare you! the rallying cry of so many – we need to fall back on reason and the scientific method.

Science books, photo by Marija Smits

Science books, photo by Marija Smits

The age of enlightenment brought us so much. The scientific revolution followed soon after and so many of our advances in technology and medicine etc. come as a direct result of these two movements. It is the reason for the Cancer Act of 1939, which basically stops conmen and conwomen from pushing “cures” which don’t cure on cancer patients. (This Act is something I had to make someone aware of recently.) The age of enlightenment is the reason behind so much of the advantages and good stuff us wealthy-enough westerners get to enjoy. But as Sophie rightly pointed out in this blog post, sometimes (with a view to ‘equal debate’) there comes about a false balance as journalists and those in the media have allowed those without any facts and extreme views a platform. And closer to home, we allow ourselves and our friends and loved ones their own lies and myths.* We have done a disservice to those who brought about this age of enlightenment and our society too by letting lies abound.

We desperately need another age of enlightenment. I don’t know if or how or when it will come about. But I hope it does come about, and soon. But I am sure that we all have our role to play in helping it come about. Some of us can and will do more than others. But sometimes all it requires of us is the very act of questioning, ourselves and others. We need to ask these questions:

 

  • Why do you/I believe this?

 

  • What is the evidence?

 

  • How does this work?

 

  • And of course: What can I/you do to change this?

 

And especially, we need to nurture our children’s natural curiosity and encourage them to keep on asking: Why?

In 2017 I will be challenging myself to ask more of these questions.

 

* Communicating in an empathic fashion while making others aware of untruths is something I definitely want to explore in a future post.

Thank you again to Maddy for all her continued hard work throughout 2016 in making the What I’m Writing link-up so wonderful. 🙂

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Trump, and the post I didn’t want to write

The meaning of 'Trump'

 

This was the blog post that I didn’t want to write – but also the one that I thought that, eventually, I would have to. A few days ago, Maddy wrote very eloquently about her fears and anxiety about the US presidential election. Like so many (my husband included) Maddy was holding on to the hope that Hillary Clinton, an intelligent, liberal, hardworking individual of integrity, would become president. She would be the first female president of the United States. It was about time a woman entered the White House, not just as ‘the wife’ but the president. But after Brexit… well, I felt that it would be better not to hope. So when I rose this morning and my husband told me the news that Trump had got in, the faint glimmer of hope that my soul was secretly holding onto, died.

Intellectually, I can understand why this has happened. There is a majority of humans (a slight one, but still…) that either consciously or subconsciously believe that competition, not cooperation, is the name of the game. That the desires of the individual reign supreme and that the needs of others are irrelevant. For many in this slight majority, all that matters is that the individual succeeds, no matter the cost to other humans or the planet.

Cooperation seems subtly, morally tricksy, you see. Because what if you help someone out and they don’t help you in return? What if they’re cheating the system, and you’re working your butt off and they’re not but they’re still getting the benefits of your hard work…? It’s not fair, is it? No, it’s not fair, but a large, well-run and caring society can buffer the effects of the odd person who doesn’t pull their weight. I care more that the vulnerable are provided for than I care about the fact that some are possibly cheating the system and getting benefits that they don’t really need (although with all the benefit cuts happening in the UK at the moment it seems impossible that anyone could actually be ‘cheating’ the system).

So… those who strongly adhere to the idea that it is better that a few (read: many) vulnerable people suffer so that all the cheats are caught and stripped of their benefits buy into the principles of conservatism, of republicanism, of tradition (these political philosophies also happen to further the agenda of the monster, neoliberalism). And one of the oft-used tricks of these political philosophies is to blame others for the individual’s dissatisfaction or not-as-successful-as-they’d-like standing in society.

“The poor and the vulnerable – especially those who do not share the same language or customs or religion – have always been a politically convenient scapegoat for a society’s various ills. It’s the oldest trick in the book.”

Giles Fraser wrote in 2014.

And as someone who lives and breathes books, I also thought that what Alessandro Gallenzi, founder of Alma Books (an indie press) had to say about the election result particularly pertinent:

“What you sow is what you reap. Decades of lack of investment in education and the arts, decades of dumbing-down and anti-intellectualism can only lead to mental apathy and political passivity.”

He blamed the result on an “intellectual sheepishness”.

 

The Future

So what of Trump and the future?

Well, in this thought-provoking article, the author, Kate Aronoff writes:

“The upshot is already clear: in short order, the United States could slide from hawkish neoliberalism into authoritarianism.”

Authoritarianism and Trump appear to be very happy bedfellows. Yet, of course, authoritarianism, with its close ties to totalitarianism is something to be afraid of. (Although I’m willing to concede that a benevolent dictatorship is something that could maybe work well for a country.) Authoritarianism is up there with neoliberalism in terms of its potential for monstrousness. Though, interestingly, if you look back on history, totalitarianism can still arise under a variety of political regimes (and -isms): communism, capitalism, nationalism, fascism. (Feel free to play “guess the dictator” at this point if you want.)

But intellectual analysis aside, emotionally, I once again feel like the world has turned upside down. Overnight a backward step, in terms of the rights of the vulnerable, women’s rights, the obliteration of racism, and the halting of climate change, has been taken. And I am soul-sick and weary.

So what can we do? Well, first, we must feel. We must allow ourselves the time to come to terms with our emotions. We must think, and continue to think about what we can do. Very many of us, who are just about coping with our day-to-day lives, and all the challenges that life brings, will have to concede that there is very little we can do. But for the many, many of us who believe in cooperation and not competition, and who want there to be a caring society and a planet that hasn’t been fried to a crisp in the future, we have to fight, and do what we can with the skills and time we have available to us. We also have to remember that the every day small kindnesses that we perform towards each other and the planet matter. But taking a step back, away from history, taking the omniscient position, I have to remind myself that over the centuries, our societies are becoming more liberal and more caring. It is just that there will most likely always be these semi-regular blips, spikes of selfishness and aggression if you will, that will cause us to despair.

Finally, I am reminded that simply continuing – and holding the principles of empathy, love and cooperation close to our hearts – is a way of ‘winning’. Simply enduring. And surviving. For now, it’ll have to do.

 

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An Intention and Meet Starry-You

 

To date I’ve not been one to declare an intention publicly (I’m more the quiet person in the background puttering on with their work – vague intentions in my head, but never ‘out there’) so it feels a bit strange to do this, but I can see one big positive of declaring an intention of mine: that it’ll (hopefully) keep me accountable and on track to actually doing the thing that I want to do.

So here goes. I have a little dream of putting together a book – a collection of short stories in the SFF genre – and (whisper it) getting it published and ‘out there’. At the moment the whole publishing thing is not something I’m thinking about too much – it’s the whole good quality short story stuff that’s keeping me occupied!

But you see, something absolutely wonderful happened to me a short while ago. First, my story ‘His Birth’ was shortlisted in a competition. (The Wellcome Trust sponsored ‘Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities’ Creative Writing Competition.) And then second, it got awarded 2nd place by the judge Adam Roberts, who is like some kind of god when it comes to science fiction writing. And believe me, it gave me such a boost (and actually, some much-needed validation) that I started to think, Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can allow myself to consider putting together a short story collection. Maybe.

So… it’s going to take me a good long while (my writing happens at around midnight once or twice a week, or on the weekend) but I’m in no rush. The main thing is to get around 12 good short stories written that I want to include. Now, I’ve got a couple already that I want to include, but there’s still a whole lot more to write. And, there’s also the fact that only about 1 in 5 of the short stories I write are actually good enough to put in a collection. This I know because I only consider a story ‘good enough’ if my husband (aka my editor extraordinaire) really likes the story (and that only ever happens in approximately that ratio!).

So I’m going to aim to increase my publication history when it comes to short stories (no doubt there will be plenty of rejections ahead – perhaps some acceptances too!) but the main thing is that I persevere.

Inspired by Maddy’s image of her ‘Self-Doubt Demon’ I decided to draw a character that represents the opposite: the ‘Supportive Star’ (aka Starry-You in reference to the Pokemon, Staryu). Or does Sammy Star work better? Who knows? Basically, this little guy (or is she a gal?) is there to say: Well done! and You can do it! You got this! Because sometimes we all need a little encouragement when things get tough and the self-doubt demon appears…

 

Yay! You can do it! Starry-You by Marija Smits

Yay! You can do it! Starry-You by Marija Smits

 

Anyway… wish me luck, and if you ever have a spare moment please do ask me about how things are going. It will be good incentive for me to keep going!

Lastly… my blog turned 4 last month (although sadly, I was too busy to do anything about it then) but I’m creating a little something for a giveaway I’m going to run, so please do pop back in the next week or two if you’re interested in seeing what I’ll be giving away in celebration of my 4th blogiversary.

 

Some zentangle-art-to-be, photo by Marija Smits

Some zentangle-art-to-be, photo by Marija Smits

 

So, ta ta for now, and I hope to see you soon!

 

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