The End of an Era

Four years ago today I published a post about the bittersweet experience of watching our children go through certain milestones. You see, I’d seen a mother, sitting in her car outside of school, crying secret tears, because of an important milestone – the end of her child’s time at primary school.

At the time, I felt as though I could empathise with the mother, but I also knew that I was a very long time away from going through what she was going through. But you know what, time passed, as it has a habit of doing, and four years went by in a blur. This July, it was me crying in the playground with my daughter who was leaving primary school behind her forever.

I think that particularly as we’re HSPs, my daughter and myself found this transition tough. We’re not fans of change. We prefer the familiar, the comfortable; of knowing what to expect from everyday life. And so any approaching change has the potential to feel scary, daunting and very overwhelming.

I’ve noticed a pattern though. We tend to get majorly upset beforehand as we run through all the horrible possibilities of the future event or change, whatever, in our minds, but that when it actually comes to the event, the change, the experience, we get through it okay. We sometimes even manage to enjoy it and perform well, getting used to the new situation in the process.

I think this is a useful insight – a helpful reminder that pre-processing the change (though it may be upsetting) helps to mentally prepare us. It also tells us another useful thing. That: I can do this. And that: she can do this.

As the prospect of secondary school looms before us – and along with it a whole new host of routines and rules and children and teachers to get used to, I know it has the potential of being overwhelming, of making us uncomfortable, even scorching us with its all-too-intense fire. But I will remind myself that intense heat and pressure don’t always burn or decimate. Sometimes they are necessary for new growth. Sometimes they produce beautiful things.

 

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Finding Your Style

Creatives, particularly those newer to their craft, sometimes despair that there’s nothing truly original left to create – that it’s all been done, or said, before. Usually, they are swiftly reassured by a more experienced writer/artist/crafter etc. that although it has all been done before, it hasn’t been done by them, with their own unique style.

Ah ha, ponders the earnest creative. I like that! My style. MY style. MY STYLE.

But, oh heck. What is my style? Do I even have a style? Do I have to go looking? And when will I find it?!

The good thing is, right from the word go, you have a style. You don’t think about your ‘style’ when talking to someone. You just talk to them in your own voice and use the words that instantly come to your mouth. Just like when you pick up a pencil and begin to write, or doodle. There it is. There’s your style. It’s evident in your handwriting, there in the shapes and patterns that automatically form beneath your pen.

 

It_takes_courage_quote_e_e_cummings

My handwriting. It’s very me.

 

But here’s the problem. We *whisper it* sometimes don’t like our own style. Now, that’s not too problematic, at first, as long as we’re still brave enough and passionate enough to keep learning and practising our craft and trying out different things. And a good deal of practise, particularly in the early stages of an apprenticeship, involves copying the greats. Through reading, writers learn about the style of other writers. It subconsciously seeps into the self and sometimes comes out in our writing. And artists, through viewing other artists’ works, are often inspired to paint/craft/sculpt in that particular artist’s style. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s an important first step in a creative person’s apprenticeship. However, once it tips over from well-meant copy-as-practise into plagiarism or forgery, well, a line has very obviously been crossed.

As you work your way through your apprenticeship, your own style will most definitely emerge and make itself known to you. You will start to spot things about your own work. Certain similarities, certain motifs, certain ticks. Like how a lot of your poems are about unspoken love, or nature, or grief. Or how you’re always painting butterflies, or cats. (Cats are good. I even like drawing their bottoms.)

 

Into the Woods by Marija Smits

This print is available to buy in my Etsy store, you know…

 

Sometimes, you may receive feedback about your work which tells you something important about your style. I write science fiction short stories and I’ve had reviewers compare my stories to those of Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem (most likely because of the subject matter, not my literary greatness, I hasten to add). Of my prize-winning story ‘His Birth’, the judge Adam Roberts said: “This is written with a plainness and restraint that helps to magnify its (deliberately) grotesque central conceit… The whole story is neatly constructed…”. And one reviewer said of my story ‘The Death of the Grapevine’ (published in Café Stories) that it was written in “brisk controlled language”.

Now, at first, this bemused me, because in my head my prose is lyrical and complex and full of literary loveliness. But you know what, they’re right. On re-reading my stories, yes, I am brisk and controlled. But I somehow rebel against this, because it seems… not literary enough? Not good enough?

Ah well, I can’t do much about it. Because, you see, here’s the thing. It’s my style. And it’s better to embrace it than to fight it.

As with my art. Oh, how I’d love to be able to create grand hyper-realistic paintings in acrylics, or stunning colour-rich abstracts. But you know what, I’ve realized something recently. Something that I’ve known for most of my life, in fact. I like neatness. I like the neatness and control that a fine liner pen gives me. However, I also love the freedom, the sheer lack-of-control nature of free-flowing watercolour paint. I began to put the two together recently, and you know what, I kind of liked what I made. So, who knows, maybe that’s my style too.

 

Zen fox by Marija Smits

Zen fox by Marija Smits

 

The fun is in the finding. The skill is in the honing.

What’s your style?

On Failing my Best Friend (Again and Again)

 

I have this friend. Actually, she’s my best friend. We go way back, like, to before primary school.

 

When I was a child our friendship was free and easy. We explored the world together, dreamt big dreams, and simply played the summer days away. We were the best team ever.

 

But then teenagehood beckoned. I became more self-aware, self-conscious. And critical of others. I started to judge my friend, and secretly thought her rather ugly and stupid. I often wished her away; wished for a better-looking friend, a “cooler” friend. Yet through all my harsh unspoken (and sometimes spoken) criticism, she stuck by me. Even when, at university, I started to abuse her – making her smoke, drink and dabble in drug-taking (God, what I put her through!) – she still stuck by me.

 

Thankfully, when I met my husband-to-be, my life calmed down. I started to be nicer to my friend. Slowly, I began to recall our early years of play; the fun we’d had on those summer days, climbing trees, running through fields full of wildflowers, playing hide-and-seek. My friend forgave me my shameful behaviour, and supported me through my twenties; was happy for me when I got married and then became pregnant.

 

Actually, she was amazing throughout my pregnancy and birth. And especially brililant when breastfeeding was a challenge. She got me through the tough days; told me that that I could do it. That I could breastfeed my baby. And she was right. I did breastfeed both my children. For years.

 

And even in that time of early motherhood when I was often bad-tempered and crotchety through lack of sleep, she was simply there, quietly empowering and supporting me, every step of the way.

 

But now that those years have passed, and I’ve found my creative groove through my publishing work and writing and art, I’ve taken her untiring support for granted again. Pushed her beyond her capabilities by making her work too much, stay up too late; forcing her to eat and drink more than she wants to.

 

This time, she has said a resounding, ‘No. Enough is enough.’

 

This has come as quite a surprise to me. But it’s forced me to really look at her, to realize that, like me, she’s only getting older. At 42, it’s time to treat her with the respect she deserves.

 

Because my best friend is irreplaceable, unique.

 

My best friend is my body.

 

And she is amazing.

 

An Update on an Old Intention (aka How Ideas Mutate and Grow)

 

The Moon's Sorrowful Face, by Marija Smits

Reaching for the moon? (Art: The Moon’s Sorrowful Face, by Marija Smits)

 

In October 2016 I did something unusual: I posted an ‘Intention’ (note the capital I) on my blog. The Intention was to put together a book – a collection of short stories in the SFF genre with the final aim of getting it published.

At the time of declaring my Intention I knew I was a long way off completing the book because I didn’t have enough  superb short stories to go in it, but I thought that it may take me (the reasonable time of) a year or so to finish it. Um, I was wrong…! For a start, I thought the collection would contain fantasy and science fiction stories, but a discussion with some friends on Facebook led me to the conclusion that keeping those two related, though very different, genres separate would be best. I do know of some writers – who are absolutely at the top of their game and winning awards for their writing – who mix and match genres in their collections, but I’m not (currently) one of those writers. Besides, the more I thought about it, the more the genre separation idea appealed.

So I started off down a new route: one which involved writing and collating more sci-fi stories. And having had a little publishing success in that area, it confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing by concentrating on that one genre for the time being.

So far so good. The body of work was growing. And buoyed by the lovely members of my crit group (as well as my husband’s ever-constant encouragement) I felt that things were progressing. But then, at the start of this year, I saw that one of my favourite indie presses – Unsung Stories – had an open submissions window. They were on the lookout for novels or interlinked short story collections. Now, my novel (or possibly novella) was/is way off being finished, but my sci-fi collection… it was almost ready. But it wasn’t interlinked. And I had never meant it to be linked/interlinked. But it could be linked because there were so many similar themes…  I knew I’d never make the deadline, but the ‘linked collection’ idea didn’t go away. If anything, it has taken on new life and grown in my head – to the point where I now need to add lots more stories to the book because it has become this vast, sprawling, very weird thing indeed. (A little like Cloud Atlas, perhaps?!)

So that’s where I am. I now have a novel-cum-linked short story collection in my head, which is only partially written. I will roll with that for the time being and see where it takes me… So my only intention now is TO FINISH IT!*

 

*Watch this space/wish me luck!

Luke Skywalker’s Midlife Crisis

 

antastic building in the desert - photo by leshiy985/Shutterstock

Photo by leshiy985/Shutterstock

 

A New Hope (the first of the original Star Wars trilogy) was first screened in cinemas in 1977. I was a one-year-old at the time. Throughout the eighties in the UK it was pretty much a staple of Christmas TV, so I would’ve been between 8 and 11 years old when I first saw it. So there I was, an impressionable pre-teen, and in love. Luke Skywalker was the first person I became limerent for, and boy was it confusing! I have a very distinct memory of being at home when my parents were throwing a party and walking around in a kind of love-induced swoon. There were lots of adults about, eating and drinking and chatting, and all I could think about was Luke Skywalker, and the burning ache in my chest that the image of his face produced in me. What was this strange, intense sensation, I wondered? It was, of course, limerence.

Another memory. We were in Spain for our summer holiday. Star Wars was being shown on an outdoor screen. The whitewashed walls of the Spanish villas, the dry heat and sand, all made me feel as though I was actually there, in Tatooine. There was something very magical about that screening (although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate exactly what at the time). And there was Luke Skywalker. The hero. Someone to fall in love with, but also… someone I could relate to.

Back home in England, living in suburbia, life an endless round of getting up, going to school, coming home from school, I understood Luke’s dissatisfaction with his dull life of farming. When was something going to happen to me? When would I be starting on my own hero’s journey?

Later, I cursed myself for wanting more of life. For wanting excitement, for wanting to grow up sooner rather than later. Because, in a way, my own hero’s journey began with a death. My father’s death, to be specific. And when that life-changing event happened I very much wished I could unwish my previous wish for something to happen. Remember – be careful what you wish for. It might just come true.

Throughout university, further studies and work, Star Wars was always there. A comforting reminder of a happy childhood. Of dreaming about other worlds. Of a hero battling adversity. Doing the right thing at all costs.

The prequels came and went in my twenties. I watched them, of course, but for me the magic just wasn’t there. Was it because of the actual craft of the films? The sometimes impossible CGI? The new characters? The sometimes dodgy storytelling, the ropey dialogue? Or maybe I couldn’t connect with the films because I was older…? I’d experienced real life, after all. And these films had very little to say to me.

A decade or so passed. I continued on my own heroine’s journey, motherhood the next stage of it

The third trilogy – the films that dealt with the years after The Return of the Jedi – was about to happen. Now this was exciting! We were, at last, going to find out what happened to Luke Skywalker. I’d get to see how my childhood hero was doing. What great things he’d achieved.

The Force Awakens came and went. Okay, no magic there. But it was a fun film, the new characters pretty cool. Having a female lead, Rey, was a breath of fresh air, but I felt her to be ever so… one-dimensional. And incredibly capable. Good for her, but I couldn’t really relate to her.

We only got a glimpse of Luke Skywalker at the end. I wanted to cheer, to whoop, when he appeared on screen. There was so much expectation as he was presented with his old light saber. Here was the hero, the hero of my childhood, and he was going to be marvellous (when things really got going in the next film).

But then, last year, The Last Jedi came out. I suspect that many other midlifers like me, were excited. Expectant. But, for me – for many – the film failed to deliver. Social media was awash with opinions. I read article after article. Interview after interview. Mark Hamill hadn’t been happy with Luke’s new story (no surprise there). I wasn’t happy. Other people weren’t happy, although some were. People argued. As what seems to be the norm in this “age of outrage”, deep reflection and nuance got lost.

So, as usual, I reflected on the film, took some time; came to some conclusions of my own. I thought some of the new characters were endearing, interesting, full of potential. The film visually impressive. But with my writer’s hat on the storyline was, um, problematic, shall we say? But these were asides to the real issue: Luke’s story.

So, on the assumption that approximately 25 (Earth years) have passed since we last saw Luke, what did he actually do during those years? Well, we know that he founded a school for young Jedi. Taught them. That his powerful nephew came to his school (about 15 years into his teaching career) and Luke had concerns… which led to a crucial moment of potential action (coupled with fearful indecision, hesitation) which plunged the whole galaxy, apparently, into turmoil. His school was destroyed, his whole belief system destroyed, and he became a recluse for the next decade.

In short, Luke goes through a midlife crisis and does not deal with it terribly well. In the film, “Luke the recluse” is the worst kind of teenage cliché – he is dismissive, stubborn, angry, uncommunicative.

This is a man who, in the original trilogy, learnt control, patience. When to strike, when to not strike. In The Last Jedi he has unlearnt all his learning. The hero who went on to mentor other Jedi is now a stroppy, sullen teenager. He is stuck in midlife, permanently in crisis. Way to go Luke. (Or rather, way to go screenwriters.) There will be some that argue that at the end of the film, all has come good. Luke, the hero, has returned. I’m open to that idea. But all the stuff before… no. Just no.

As a midlifer who has experienced challenges, crises, whatever you want to call them, and who will no doubt continue to have to ride stormy seas in the future, I do not want to see my childhood hero unable to cope with the hard stuff. I need to see him grow and face new challenges with maturity and wisdom. I still need him to be my mentor. He’s been teaching other Jedi. Where has all that experience gone? What has all his life amounted to?

Of course, it is just a film. Yes, but also no. Star Wars plays into the collective unconscious. It is full of archetypes. The hero’s journey. All things that speak to each one of us at a deep, fundamental level. So when a beloved character acts out of character in a film that means so much to so many people, it jars.

But this is out of my hands. Our hands. Maybe us midlifers need to move on, accept that our hero of the original trilogy has long-vanished; that this latest trilogy means so much more to the younger generations than it does to us; to allow them their own magic (which can maybe only happen in one’s formative years). We have other stories to look to. Other archetypes, other, perhaps older, characters to invest in. To look to for guidance as we move into the next phase of our lives and see our own children grow and mature and take centre stage. Of course those characters are there. Surely, they’ve always been there. Thankfully, the movie industry appears to be more open to other characters. To older characters. But, still, we may need to seek them out. They are there. In our lives. In the books we read. Maybe overlooked, but still there. Patient. Waiting for us to unearth them. Let us discover them. Let us find a new hope.

Prose for Thought

The Appeal of Halloween to an HSP Who Doesn’t Like Horror

I’ve never liked horror – films or books – and the few famous films in that genre that I did watch when I was in my teens/early twenties (Silence of the Lambs, Seven) pretty much freaked me out so much that I quickly realized that although a lover of fantasy and science fiction, horror was never going to be my thing. Two decades later I haven’t changed my mind on that. Which is why I think my husband gets confused by my love of Halloween. So recently, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about Halloween that I enjoy so much. This is what I came up with:

1) Halloween means different things to different people. Obvious, I know, but as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) I am really not into Halloween as ‘night of horror’ (or the accompanying gruesome, horror film-derived masks/costumes, or horror film watching). But, linked as it is to Samhain, what fascinates me about Halloween is that it is considered to be:

“…a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld thinned. This meant the Aos Sí (pronounced /iːˈʃiː/ ees-SHEE), the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’, could more easily come into our world and were particularly active.” From Wikipedia.

As a lover of all things fae, uncanny, otherworldly, (and the pleasantly spooky, but not horrifying, spine-tingling that otherworldliness affords) this is pretty much my thing.

 

Spirit of the Night, by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Spirit of the Night, by John Atkinson Grimshaw

 

2) Dressing up! As an HSP I hate getting out of my comfy tracky bottoms and into something… less comfortable. But as a lover of art and all things beautiful I relish the idea of ‘me as art’ i.e. transforming myself into something otherworldly. My kids enjoy this bit too.

3) Pumpkin carving. Another chance to get creative, but with fruit! (And to also light lots of cheery candles.)

 

Pumpkin eating pumpkin, photo by Marija Smits

Pumpkin eating pumpkin, photo by Marija Smits

 

4) Halloween baking. Over the years I’ve made my fair share of pumpkin soups, stews and pasta dishes (not to mention the sweet treats). Again, my creative side likes the opportunity to cook something I normally wouldn’t cook.

5) The chance to chat to neighbours. Okay, as a prefer-to-stick-to-the-comfort-of-my-own-home HSP I’d rather stay in my house than take my kids trick-or-treating, but going trick-or-treating does push me out of my comfort zone to actually talk to people. It helps me to put a ‘face to a house’ (if you see what I mean) and to remember that the majority of people are actually pretty kind and go out of their way to make little kids feel like the stars of the (Halloween) show. One lady always gives us apples as well as sweets, and I’m pleased to say that my kids seem to value her jewel-red apples as much as the sweets!

6) Recently, I’ve enjoyed finding out more about the Day of the Dead (my daughter’s been particularly fascinated by this) and making links between all the global Halloween/All Souls Day festivals as well as Skeleton Woman/Lady Death, from Women Who Run With The Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (Skeleton Woman being another facet of the Wild Woman). It’s important to acknowledge the ‘life, death, life’ aspect of our lives, and nature, and Halloween is one of the few festivals to do that.

7) A chance to play party games (such as apple bobbing) or to put on magic shows, shadow puppet shows… anything not too scary suits me just fine!

8) It reminds me of my childhood… and dressing up and going out trick-or-treating with my big sister and her friends. I felt ‘very big and grown up’ to able to do this, and I remember it as being fun (it helped too that my parents treated the whole thing as one big child-friendly party). I think I was nearly always a black cat (it was an easy costume to put together), which suited me fine, because cats are great.

 

Our new cat, Mitsie, photo by Marija Smits

 

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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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