The Dread of the Tax Return (especially if you’re an HSP)

Cartman doing taxes, photo by Marija Smits

You gotta respect the authoritay.

So… January has come and gone, and with it the deadline for filing personal tax returns. For various reasons, which I won’t go into here, I ended up in a bit of a mad panic filing my return on the day before the 31st January deadline. I hadn’t planned on doing it so late, but that’s the way it turned out. As I felt my chest tightening, frustration gnawing at my throat, I sort of stepped outside my body, looked at myself in an objective way and asked: Why are you so stressed? You’ll have to have a good think about that one day. Write it down. Figure it out. (The two are interchangeable nowadays.) It may help.

            Now that it’s February – ah! beautiful February – I can put down into words my thoughts on the matter. It will: a) be useful for me in the future and b) may be of help to others.

Some observations about the actual process of filing tax returns:

  • HMRC, a governmental authority, is, in many ways, an “authority figure”. Rather like a great big God (complete with flowing white beard) who lives in the sky. Or Big Brother watching you. Or a strict Victorian patriarch who must be obeyed. Or a faceless, voiceless, disembodied entity who hovers above and behind one’s head, just out of sight.
  • There is a deadline for filing returns. A penalty awaits those who fail to file their returns on time.
  • The form is long and involved. Like (to quote Eric Cartman) “hella” long. It is full of financialese, and incomprehensible to most “ordinary” people.
  • Sometimes just getting through “security” (and all the associated texts to mobiles/letters to old addresses/chanting various incantations in just the right order, to have the pleasure of even beginning to file the return) is a challenge/mystery in itself.

Some observations about HSPs:

  • HSPs are (obviously) very sensitive to changes in stress levels. HSPs like things to be calm, quiet and not overwhelming/over arousing (and I’m not using the word ‘arousing’ in a sexual sense here! Just in a general, sensory overload way). Yet even thinking about HMRC waiting for me to file my return brings me out in a cold sweat. I believe that HSPs have a particular sort of fearful respect for authority figures – which, in part, comes from our high level of conscientiousness. Doing the “wrong” thing i.e. not filing the return on time, very much strikes at our moral compass, our integrity, almost like a physical pain, and so the idea of not filing the return, and doing something wrong can bring about panic. Also, HSPs don’t want to displease the authority figure; to anger someone so powerful. We just want everyone to get on, be happy, be calm, because that makes us feel calm.
  • For some, time pressure can help them focus; bring about brilliant work. Not so much for HSPs. And especially not for something like filing our tax returns. We hear the clock tick tocking, every second bringing us closer to the deadline and a potential telling off from the Daddy of All Taxes. Panic sets in. Clear thinking goes out the window.
  • And what do you need most when faced with a series of questions written in financialese – a language us freelance creatives only ever encounter once a year? Yep, that’s right. Clear thinking. (Which has already gone out the window if you’re getting even a smidgeon too close to the deadline for your liking.)
  • And… finally. All this panic (which results in hand wringing, hair pulling, teeth grinding, pleas to the financial gods-that-be etc.) most certainly reinforces the idea in one’s head that one is not a competent, intelligent and rational person who is even capable of filling in a form. Hell, you’re not even sure you’re worthy of appearing before the Grand High Overlord of All Things Tax-related, you’re that much of a lowly maggot. Cue an existential crisis. Or at the very least, crushing despair and a lowering of self-confidence.

 

So, have I got any tips for patching up this egregious mismatch between HSPs and filing tax returns? You betcha!

  1. Get an employer who will give you a PAYE tax code and remove all tax filing responsibilities away from you. Seriously, I often long for an employer-knight in shining armour to take away all my tax troubles – although past experience has told me that being in a bad job is simply bad, bad, bad. THE BOSS may well very quickly dump his/her shining armour to become the new dreaded overload. Sadly, good bosses are few and far between.

 

  1. If no. 1 isn’t an attractive-looking option, or not at option at all for whatever reason, do consider employing someone to take away the stress of the tax return. Even the spectacularly useless Bernard from Black Books wisely took on someone to deal with his taxes. Brilliant comedy ensued. If this option is too costly either find a patient and financially-minded friend who is willing to help you out (either for free or in exchange for some of your brilliant art) or…

  1. Put on your I-can-do-this superhero cloak and prepare for battle! Ideally, you’ll be needing to enter into battle 3-6 months before the deadline to make it as stress-free as possible. Remember, you can actually save your return as you go (it does work, I’ve checked) and do it in stages.

 

  1. Take screenshots of every single page of the tax return as you go (with your answers within). As these will be timed and dated you will end up with a series of screenshots that take you from beginning to end. (I’ve found that the PDF/HTML completed return that HMRC provides you with at the end is baffling/gobbledygook, so screenshots page by page are better.) Then file them away safely. This will hopefully be incredibly useful for next year when you find yourself stumped by any particular question (that’s as long as year on year your tax return remains pretty consistent).

 

  1. Stock up on chocolate/tea or whatever takes your fancy while you do the task. Keep giving yourself treats and it may just trick your mind into thinking that you’re doing something pleasant.

 

  1. Keep reminding yourself that despite any tax return problems you encounter, you are in fact a worthwhile, confident, intelligent and (mostly) rational being, and that YOU HAVE GOT THIS. And if all else fails? Overcome your fear and unwarranted reasoning that you don’t want to waste anyone at HMRC’s time with silly questions and give them a call. Often, a very nice person will help guide you through the form. And if you get stuck in a phone cue, a jangly tune rattling in your ear, grab a pencil or pen, start doodling or start writing a poem or short story. Or sing along. Or rant. Or practice your deep breathing. Who knows, you may end up so blissed out you may start levitating.*

 

To recap. You are brilliant. And intelligent. And worthy enough for the financial gods-that-be. And… YOU HAVE GOT THIS.

 

*Not guaranteed.

 

 

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On Feeling Invisible

Today, I am having a low day, a sad day. Today is a day to remind myself that there is a rhythm to life, a rhythm to creativity. It is a day for me to be mindful of the fact that energy ebbs and flows. Today is simply a low day. It will pass; these days always pass, but I wanted to document this so that when this happens again I will be comforted by this reminder. Also, if anyone else ever feels like this, I want to say this: I hear you.

Invisible Woman, by Marija Smits

Invisible Woman, by Marija Smits

Today is a day when I’ve felt as though I’m invisible. A few tiny tiny things (in the grand scheme of things) have occurred to make me feel like the character Amos Hart from the movie ‘Chicago’ who memorably sang the heart-achingly sad ‘Mr Cellophane’. A friend I was conversing with this morning wandered off mid-conversation to chat with another group of people. My inbox is continuing to remain desolately free of meaningful emails, although I’ve sent off many emails in the past fortnight (both professional and personal). Friend requests via Facebook of people I admire and would like to get to know better (though not in a creepy way, of course!) are just not happening. A Twitter conversation I started the other day trailed off into nothingness… My blog stats tell me that no one (well, okay, few people) are reading my blog. I am also failing to “see” my own work. It’s all rubbish, it’s all a waste of time. And most mothers can probably relate to this: all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, admin work, shopping, present-buying, birthday party-organizing, caring and loving that goes on unseen and unacknowledged by society (and sometimes friends and family too). Only a (work) rejection (for some funding) today made me feel something: Ouch!

I have to remind myself that other people have lots going on in their lives; to be patient, open-hearted. I have to remind myself that I am also guilty of forgetting to reply to friends’ emails (or social media exchanges) and that there’s no malice in my oversight – just an overstuffed schedule and a holey memory (and possibly also embarrassment when I realize how much time has passed since they first contacted me!). In short, we are all human. Forgive me. Forgive them.

The trouble with feeling invisible – for an HSP at least – is that a commonly offered solution is to: Speak out! Make yourself heard! All very well if you’re an extrovert and/or have enough energy to assert. But when I feel low this feeling invisible thing is self-reinforcing. I am invisible, ergo, I must hide away. Sometimes, hiding away (maybe with a large tub of ice-cream to watch a movie, or to play Minecraft, or whatever – at least the villagers interact with me!) is just the right thing to do. But there’s not always a chance to do this, and of course work, and household chores etc. etc. are an impediment to hiding away. And sometimes, hiding away can seem a bit scary, because there’s always the worry, Will I ever come out of this?

The answer is always, always this: YES. You will come out of this. There is a rhythm to life, a rhythm to creativity. Have trust in the rhythm of your body, the rhythm of the feminine wild. Do what you have to do in the “low” – hunker down, cry, make yourself heard – and then, when you are ready, come out once more to shine.

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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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