Reflecting on 2018 and a Giveaway!

Reflection is always valuable, but the end of the year provides the perfect excuse to pause and reflect on one’s achievements and mess-ups with a view to planning for the year ahead. My husband calls it ‘scheming and dreaming’ and it’s one of my favourite things to do.

First, though, a look back on 2018. It’s been a good year for me writing-wise. Although the first half of the year didn’t yield many publishing credits the pieces that were accepted I was incredibly proud of, and it felt great to be part of the publications: Bonnie’s Crew – a fundraising poetry anthology edited by the amazing Kate Garrett – and Café Stories: The Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2018. Dinesh sounds to have been an incredible man and I’m ever so grateful to Comma Press for introducing me to his writing.

In the last half of the year I also achieved some ‘firsts’: having a poem being published in Prole (which I’ve tried to get into a fair few times) as well as receiving my first pro payment for a speculative fiction story (‘The Green Man’ in Reckoning). Two other firsts were writing some science fiction poetry and seeing it published in Multiverse, as well as having my short story ‘ATU334 the Wise’ be featured in a podcast created by Shoreline of Infinity. There’s something very special about hearing a great narrator read your story (and knowing that other people are actually listening to it!). An article about small press publishing in Mslexia was another wonderful first. Publication in Atrium, I Am Not A Silent Poet and Zoomorphic (with a strange short fiction piece about jellyfish which I thought no one would ever publish) were also highlights.

 

Created during Inktober 2018

 

Having my essay ‘The Darkness Within, The Darkness Without’ win the short non-fiction category in the 2018 Nottingham Writers’ Studio Awards was pretty special too, and it made me brave enough to think that just maybe I could write more non-fiction about fairy tales. So off I went to offer an essay on one of my favourite fairy tales – ‘Bluebeard’ – to Luna Press Publishing for their Evolution of Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction collection. I have to admit that I found the 3000+ word essay a real challenge as I haven’t written in an academic style for a LONG time. And in the course of writing the essay I wrote a ‘Bluebeard’-inspired short story (about 3000 words long) which I had super fun writing. The story took me a couple of hours over the course of a couple of days to write. The essay took me an hour or two every day for almost 6 weeks. A reminder to myself: fiction is easier to write than academic prose!

Amidst all this short story writing and academic writing (as well as all the work I do for my press) was the creation of a novella and the start of a non-fiction book. Now, the novella is finished but my editor-extraordinaire husband says it needs rewriting (he’s right, it does) and that perhaps I could explore some of the themes in more detail (I can, and I want to). But it does rather mean that the novella would then turn into a novel, which is something that I can’t commit to right now. The non-fiction book is interesting too…. Because at the last moment I decided to enter it into a prize thingy. Then it turned out to have been shortlisted (with some agent interest in it). I found out about it one Friday evening in the middle of cooking burgers for our dinner. I almost burnt the burgers whilst busy doing an impression of Galadriel from Lord of the Rings when offered the one ring by Frodo.

 

 

Me: (Addressing the astonished cat.) “You offer me your interest freely. I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired this. (Arms slowly being raised while my hair floats about my face majestically.) In place of a dark lord/career author you would have a queen of prose! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn, treacherous as the sea. Stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love my books and despair!”

The cat fled, terrified, and thankfully I passed the test, calmed down a bit and rescued the burgers from setting on fire. Phew! The upshot of all this craziness is that the agent is still interested in the book but she needs to see a lot more of it. So, in 2019 I really need to get my non-fiction hat back on and to get typing! (Though the first thing I’ll have to do in January is my tax return. Damn it…!)

Lastly, taking part in #100DaysofWriting was a big help – I don’t think I would’ve written quite as much if it wasn’t for the incentive to write something every day, hence ensuring that each writing project trundled that bit further along to completion.

What are your plans for 2019? I’d love to hear about them. And if you leave a comment below I’ll enter you in my (somewhat belated) 6 year blogging anniversary giveaway in which I’m giving away these 3 goodies. 🙂

 

Goodies galore!

 

The giveaway will run until midnight GMT on Sunday 27th January 2019 and I’ll announce the winners shortly afterwards. (This offer is open to anyone living in any country, but if someone outside the UK does win, a contribution toward postage would be appreciated.)

Whatever your plans for the year ahead I wish you a very happy, healthy and creative 2019!

 

The Rise and Rise of Renaissance Woman

A year or two ago I went to an event at the excellent Five Leaves Bookshop and got chatting to one of my fellow attendees who set something alight in my head. I don’t remember the context – just that this person mentioned ‘Renaissance Man’ or ‘Renaissance Woman’ and I thought Aha! This is of interest…

My brain filed it away under ‘inspirational bits and bobs’ and then forgot all about it. Then, a week ago I was talking to my daughter about school. And how it seemed like there was always some kid who was brilliant at science and some kid who was brilliant at art and some kid who was a maths whizz and some kid who could run the cross-country race in, like, two seconds flat. Yet my daughter bemoaned the fact that she wasn’t brilliant at any one thing. She was merely all right at most things. I tried my best to listen and empathise. For I, too, was the kid who was all right at most things. If I studied really hard and put in the effort I could even be good. Good enough to have the option to study either the humanities (I was particularly fond of English) or the sciences. But brilliance in one subject always evaded me.

 

 

Then I remembered Renaissance Woman, and sought out a dictionary definition. Basically, it is the term for a woman who is a polymath i.e. a multi-talented woman who excels in a number of different areas. (Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance Man, Queen Elizabeth I the Renaissance Woman.) But nowadays, polymaths seem to be a rarity. (Well, Stephen Fry immediately pops into my head as being a modern-day polymath but who else…?) Perhaps they seem to be a rarity because we don’t grant them polymath status until they are famous in at least two, if not three, of their endeavours (which often takes decades to achieve). Then I considered many of the creative men and women I know. Sometimes they’re writers, sometimes they’re scientists, or artists, or crafters, or musicians, or designers, or bloggers, or publishers (sometimes all these things), and they’re, all of them, busy plugging away at their many creative endeavours alongside day jobs or part-time jobs or freelance jobs, or running the household and looking after their families, as well as taking part in a sport and community clubs/charities. What of these talented individuals? Surely they qualify for polymaths status?

Again, I would suggest, that polymath status is only conferred when a certain level of success/fame is achieved. And until then we might label them with the rather less charitable status of ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’. I can see the distinction, particularly when someone repeatedly dabbles in one area only to give it up shortly afterwards to dabble in another area. But what does an emerging polymath look like? Mightn’t they look like the curious child who is all right at most things? Or the imaginative twenty-something who likes to do lots of things but can’t make up their mind which one thing to do? Or the older man or woman who is finally making some progress in their various creative endeavours after years of continual effort?

Of course, if one day I had enough of a body of high quality creative work to have critics look upon it and say, Aha, the work of a Renaissance Woman! that would be wonderful, but it’s really not the be-all-and-end-all. Because through the years I’ve spent working on my various creative projects the one incredibly important thing I’ve learnt is that this kind of multi-endeavour work is slow. Incredibly slow. Tediously slow. Because you continuously need to practise in each area every day. You don’t focus on just the one thing over and over, you pull each project along, making only a tiny amount of progress each day. Sometimes it feels like a painfully stupid way of working (particularly when financial remuneration for the work is negligible), but that’s why you have to love the work, love doing the work. Because the work itself is the reward. And occasionally you’ll feel that yes, you’re getter better at the work, you’re making progress. And that feeling is incredibly good.

So, to all the emerging polymaths out there, some encouragement: keep going, keep doing your thing. Continue to be curious about the world, continue to feed your vast, expansive and technicoloured imaginations. Just keep going. There are many of us out there who can’t wait to see what you’ll create next.

Reflections on a Decade of Mothering

As we near the end of the year I can’t help but look back. 2017 was a big ‘mothering year’ for me as my firstborn, my daughter, turned 10. A big milestone – for her, for me. It’s taken me a while to process this! So I wanted to share my reflections, but to sort them into two sections – a serious part, and a less serious part. Feel free to read one or the other, or both. 🙂

The new bike, photo by Marija Smits

The new bike, photo by Marija Smits

 

Reflections Part 1 (The Serious Part)

 

1. Strength

When my daughter (who is a highly sensitive person [HSP] like me) is worried about something – some upcoming event, some friendship issue – I always tell her that she is strong; that she can get through it and cope. She always disagrees, saying something like, ‘But I don’t feel strong!’

I do find it difficult to articulate how we all have this inner strength (especially when externally we don’t seem “strong” – physically, or even socially) but I show her the evidence – reminding her of times in the past when she got through difficult or stressful events. That seems to help (a bit). But this reflecting on her past also reminds me that my decade of mothering has helped me to tap into my inner strength. As a quiet, highly sensitive person, I often feel weak and wobbly – not strong at all – and then I remind myself: hey, you gave birth! That wasn’t “nothing”. And don’t forget the fights you fought on behalf of your baby girl and yourself: to continue to breastfeed when nearly everyone thought you were “cuckoo”: to continue to co-sleep and keep close to your girl for years and years… And the “fights” continue although, of course, they are different, centering mainly on school/academic issues, friendship and social issues. I don’t welcome the fights, but at least I can tell myself this: you are strong. You can handle this.

 

2. Empathy

When times have been acutely tough I’ve had to remind myself: hey, you’re the grown-up here. Deep breaths, tapping into the inner strength that I mentioned earlier, and digging deep for the empathy that’s always there but may have vanished temporarily for any number of reasons – sleep deprivation, hunger, lack of time to oneself – have absolutely turned a high-stress situation around. Humour, too, can be an amazing way to alleviate (or at least pause) a fraught situation. And this ‘honing’ of empathy has benefitted me in all areas of my life.

 

3. Compassionate Communication

For me, one of the biggest benefits of becoming a mother has been the discovery of my tribe (a group of like-minded mothers). I found my tribe when I went to La Leche League GB breastfeeding support meetings. And then I went on to become a voluntary breastfeeding counsellor. Part of the training to become a counsellor involved me learning about compassionate communication. Oh my goodness! Learning about this stuff was absolutely eye-opening; it really has made me aware of all the barriers to clear communication, and how to shift those barriers, and to also find the middle ground between passive and aggressive ways of communicating (it’s called asserting). For an HSP who finds it difficult to speak up and out it really has been a godsend. Check out my thoughts in the ‘life-changing books’ section of the blog if you want to know more.

 

4. Trusting your Instinct/Learning to Let Go

Gosh, this one’s tough! Again, part of maturity, to becoming a ‘whole’ individual – a true wild woman – is knowing when to let go. Accepting that your children have to grow, step away from you, fight their own fights, and make their own way in life is tough. This can feel absolutely heartbreaking, but it’s also necessary. The key is to listen to one’s own inner voice – a mother’s instincts have been well honed over time (we’re talking millennia here) – so we instinctively know when our child is, or isn’t, ready for taking on a new challenge. The trick is to listen to that voice and to be true to it (which can be especially hard when lots of other people have loud opinions that contradict yours).

 

My girl and me, photo courtesy T. Bellamy

Toddling days, photo courtesy T. Bellamy

 

5. Acceptance

Some parents have very specific ideas of who their children should be. They may have laid out whole career/life paths for them. It’s understandable to make plans and have dreams like these, but the reality of who our children really are often ‘upset’ these plans. That’s when a flexibility of outlook, open-mindedness, and non-judgement all come into their own. Our child may not be the genius academic/Olympic medal-winning gymnast/maths wizz that we wanted/expected them to be. What then? Accepting our children for who they are, just as they are, and supporting them in their own life choices is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

 

6. Self-care

In the early years children’s needs – to be fed, to be held, to be close – are frequent and intense. This is natural. But meeting those needs (particularly without support from extended family/friends) can be tough, just because of the intensity and frequency of the needs. Asking for help can be difficult but often essential. When I was in the thick of cluster feeding, frequent night waking and round-the-clock nappy changing it felt as though this stage in my life would never pass. But of course it does. I now focus far more on meeting my needs. Like my need for exercise, eating healthy food, time for creativity, time with my husband. I remind myself that all these things are about investing in my children too. I want to stay as healthy (in mind and body) for as long as possible so that I can enjoy watching my children grow into adults; and maybe go on to have children of their own.

 

7. Boundaries

Another tough one; particularly as it’s something that I find hard in my day-to-day life too. Boundaries are about setting sensible limits for the kids (for instance, on things like screen time, eating junk food/sweets) as well as the precious ring-fencing of family time, sleep time etc. but of course this principle extends to other things – like when friends/family/colleagues impose themselves upon you and try to move past the boundaries you’ve made that keep you comfortable, safe, happy. That’s when saying things like, ‘no’, ‘enough’ or asserting in a diplomatic way (things that doesn’t always come easily to me) is ever so valuable. This takes practice, but it can be done, and will make your life better because YOU are the one in control. Sometimes saying ‘no’ to a social event/volunteering gig/work thing (so that you, the parent, have some precious time to yourself), or saying ‘no’ to your child when they whine for sweets is actually the most loving thing that you can do for yourself or your child. But it’s tough to do. And you’ll often have to deal with the immediate (and possibly) spiky consequences, but in the long term it will pay off.

 

8. Love

There’s nothing quite like going through the intensity of parenting to make you look at your partner with fresh eyes. To see their strength, their empathy, their fierce love is really quite something. I will always be grateful for having my husband alongside me in those intense years of parenting our babies. And I am glad to continue to have him alongside me as we venture into the future, the challenges of parenting not as intense perhaps, but still just as challenging, because of their complexity. Plus, I just happen to really really love him.

 

Walnut hearts, photo by Marija Smits

 

Reflections Part 2 (The Less Serious Part)

 

1. Baby Wipes

If I hadn’t become a mother I may never have discovered baby wipes. Seriously, they are amazing. Everything can be cleaned with baby wipes – dirty bottoms, dirty faces, the oven, the floor, kitchen surfaces, car upholstery, even the cat! Everything. Genius. (Oh, and for very tough-to-remove carpet stains I can recommend Mr Muscle oven cleaner.)

 

2. Playground Frolics

Children give you a good reason to have a sneaky go on the swings, or roundabout, or see-saw, or whatever. (You know, so that you can check that the equipment’s safe and fun.) Just don’t get too carried away. A toddler crying because mummy won’t share is not cool.

 

3. The Perfect Excuse to…

not go shopping, or out, ever again. (Introverted HSPs who could happily stay at home 24/7 will understand what I’m talking about.) Also, the perfect excuse for being late. Like every single time.

 

4. Computer Games

I often justify playing Minecraft by myself because my son asked me to ‘do a little something’ in our world. So what if the ‘little something’ turns into a whole afternoon mining (or killing zombies)? God dammit, sometimes you’ve just gotta do what you gotta do to help your kids out.

 

5. Getting into Art/Building Humility

Okay, this one’s a tiny bit more serious, but there’s really nothing like doodling alongside your kids, having fun with colouring pencils/felt tip pens/paint and allowing yourself the opportunity to create crap (or otherwise) pictures. Who knows, you may grow a whole new career out of it, just like my talented friend Doodlemum did – or, like me, you could just be very pleased to have created something you wouldn’t ever have dreamed of creating a decade ago.

And as an aside, it was just the other day I realized that whenever I draw an idealized version of myself (see below) what I’m actually doing is drawing a picture of my daughter in the future. Seeing myself more as the background, as opposed to the foreground, is a humbling (and useful) experience.

 

At the swimming pool, by Marija Smits

At the swimming pool, by Marija Smits

 

A realization, by Marija Smits

A realization, by Marija Smits

 

6. Cake

The past decade has seen me ingest a huge amount of cake. You see, there’s always so much of it about (at toddler groups, mums’ meet-ups and breastfeeding support groups, as well as school which regularly holds fundraising events where baking and cake stalls are a feature). But I’ve done my duty manfully (or, rather, womanfully…?) and eaten ALL THE CAKE in aid of many a good cause.

 

7. Time Pressure

Seriously, there’s nothing like becoming a parent for having the realization that time is precious. Before I became a mum I had oodles of time – huge bin-bag sized heaps of time (which I filled appropriately i.e. with junk). Pre-motherhood I used to talk about how busy I was to write because I had work and house stuff to do, oh, and watching telly and socializing and faffing about. Then I became a mother and realized that, actually, this is what ‘no time’ looks like. Round the clock care for a tiny human being hugely contracted my available time to create. But… what’s amazing about motherhood is the sheer ingenuity of mothers who magic time out of the day to create. It might just be a scrawled five lines of poetry while your toddler happily plays with blocks (though realistically we all know they’re more likely to be pulling off books from bookshelves/busy flushing your phone down the loo/ingesting cat food or Geomag balls etc. etc.) but that poetry making is precious. And worthwhile. If you keep at it, you’ll soon build a collection. And even watching CBeebies can help to motivate you to become a poet/poetess. If Abney from Abney and Teal can do it, so can you.

p.s. I am not endorsing letting your toddler ingest cat food or Geomag balls. Both have scant nutritional value, and as someone who’s spent a worried 18 hours from the said ingestion of a Geomag ball to its evacuation (and subsequent rifling around in poo to recapture the damn thing) it’s really not worth it. But judging by this thread on Mumsnet I am not the only mum who has had this experience!

 

8. Christmas

Ah, this one’s bittersweet. For me, Christmas was never quite the same since my dad passed away (I was fifteen when he died). But now Christmas is something I look forward to again. It’s just so wonderful to see the grins on the faces of both kids as they wake up on Christmas Day, sleepily muttering, ‘It’s Christmas!’ And luckily, Father Christmas happens to be rather good at packing my stocking with lovely goodies too.

***

And lastly…

…a THANK YOU to all the kind readers of my blog who continue to pop along, read, share and comment on my eclectic posts. Wishing you all a very Starry-You Happy Christmas and all the best for 2018!

 

Starry-You by Marija Smits

Starry-You, by Marija Smits

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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Seeing Myself in My Parents; Seeing My Parents in Myself

Sometime last year I took my daughter to a friend’s birthday party. As I stood in the café area of our local swimming pool, chatting to one of the birthday girl’s grandparents, hands deep in the pockets of my bulky khaki-coloured parka, I suddenly had a moment of what can only be best described as déjà vu. Only it wasn’t that I’d experienced this moment before (because yes, I know, déjà vu is nothing uncanny, it’s just a memory short) it was that for a moment I was my dad and my dad was me. A memory of my dad had suddenly inhabited me. He was waiting for me in an equally unremarkable setting, hands deep in his pockets, rocking back and forth from the balls of his feet to his heels, effortlessly exchanging pleasantries with someone he’d only just met. I saw myself in him. And him in me.

And just the other day, driving my son to gymnastics, I saw him in the way I had splayed my fingers across the steering wheel. Another habit of my dad’s. My father also had a deep respect for science but, also, he loved an uncanny mystery. Erich von Däniken’s books fascinated him. One of the last ever conversations I had with him before he died was about the film Inner Space. He had picked me up from a friend’s house where I’d just seen it, and as we drove home we enthusiastically discussed the concept of miniaturization, whether it would ever be possible, and what its consequences would be for humans and whether or not it could play a role in medicine. (Something I explored in one of my short stories, which, one day, will hopefully be ‘out there’.)

I cherish these findings. Although of course they make me remember how much I miss him.

Because my dad died when I was pretty young (15) I never really went through the ‘I’m so embarrassed by my dad’ stage. However, I’m not sure whether or not I would have ever gone through this stage with him anyway. I’m pretty sure he was an HSP – though a ‘gregarious’ one, because he was adept at socializing – and so in public places he would keep a low profile. (Though this could’ve also been something to do with being an immigrant.) Anyway, he didn’t embarrass me. My mum, on the other hand, specialized in embarrassing me. (Although, interestingly, she is an immigrant too, and sensitive at heart. But she’s an off-the-scale extrovert. I guess that trumps all!)

For a start, she had a stint as a nude model. At a well-known private boys’ school. Then there was the Russian accent, flamboyant clothes, and a tendency to make everyone in a public place know that she was there. As an HSC (highly-sensitive child) tending towards introvertism this attention-grabbing (to my mind) behaviour made me cringe. All I wanted was to be ‘normal’ like the other kids. My mum was badly letting the side down.

 

An Important Lesson

However, from the one phrase that my dad said semi-regularly (the one thing that I didn’t like to hear him say, because of course, it meant I had a chore to do!): “Teika, sometimes in life, there are things that you don’t want to do. But you’ve still got to do them.” I must’ve subconsciously taken the following:

  1. Some things are out of our control. (Like having an embarrassing mum.)
  2. You have to find a way to get through them. (You keep your head down and promise yourself you’ll never embarrass your own kids in the future.)

Nowadays, I relish repeating his words to my kids. They groan and roll their eyes, but actually, it’s a wonderful thing to discuss, as it give us an opportunity to consider things like fairness, doing and sharing chores, and the importance of finishing tasks. It also leads on to bigger issues – must we like our work? If we don’t, do we stick with it, or not? – and other such things.

Now that I’m a lot older and understand more about my father’s background, and his home country, Latvia, which was besieged by both the Russians and the Germans in WWII, I can read far more into those words. In a wartorn homeland there will be difficult choices to make. Difficult things to do. I thank God that so far I haven’t had to make those kinds of difficult choices.

So when it comes to my childhood “suffering” as ‘being a bit embarrassed by my mum’ I see how trivial my apparent tribulations were. Still, as a child, fitting in seems to be so crucial, doesn’t it? We want our ‘tribe’ – our peers – to accept us, don’t we?

So I hope I’m getting the balance right for my kids. As an HSP my default is to keep my head down and keep quiet, not draw attention to myself. Yet there is a time and place to make a noise, kick up a fuss. My dad once spoke to me about making a fuss, going to the papers etc. if my school wouldn’t allow me to change one of my GCSEs (from Design to French) halfway through the first year of our GCSEs. The Head said it couldn’t be done; I’d be too far behind, I’d fail. When I asked him what he’d tell the school if they said ‘no’ he said that he’d threaten to chain himself to the radiators, and call in journalists. The headline would be ‘SCHOOL STOPS PUPIL FROM LEARNING!’. (We had it all figured out.) Thankfully, it never came to that. His diplomancy and quiet insistence won out. But still, his patient determination – being the discomforting stone in the Headteacher’s shoe – impressed on me. In many ways I’ve inherited this ‘rebellious’ streak, and my own ‘quiet’ acts of assertion on behalf of myself and my children when faced with ignorance, prejudice or baroque attitudes to education (or breastfeeding or whatever) have been bolstered by my memory of his fights on my behalf.

Oh, and by the way I got an A in GCSE French. (Take that, school!)

 

My Lovely Mum

I realize that this post has focussed more on my father than my mother (it can be easy to take a living loved one for granted, can’t it? I apologise Mum!) so I will remedy that now.

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

After all the “years of embarrassment” of having an extrovert mother, when I was sure that our differences were so great we couldn’t possibly be related (!) I grew up. Mellowed. Heck, today is my 41st birthday. I can finally see our similarities. Both of us find inaction abhorrent. She seems to either be cooking or washing up continuously. Or cleaning our greenhouse (only to have the kids mess it up within a few minutes…). I can’t not tidy or pick up after the kids; I can’t not be writing or planning something creative in my head. We’re both musical and emotional, cry in church or at films or at the theatre. Or well… virtually anything that even somewhat pulls at our heartstrings. We’re both pretty optimistic, and she is big-hearted and generous. We’ve both got green fingers, laugh too loud and too long at silly jokes, and as I age I have to admit that physically, I’m pretty much just a slightly younger version of her (though definitely far less attractive, as she is a genuinely beautiful woman, a bit like a Russian Marilyn Monroe). She also likes to tell me that people still knock 20 years off her age most days. I agree that she doesn’t look her age (she’ll be 71 soon) so I smile when she tells me. (Although sometimes the old teenager-me kicks in and I roll my eyes!)

Now that I’m older I sometimes look back at my much younger self and feel bad about all the times I wished away my “ugly” dumpy body or stupid name or strange foreign parents. Sitting here, in my home, surrounded by much much love, I feel incredibly blessed to have had two wonderful parents who gave me so much in the way of gifts. Most days I don’t feel as though I can live up to all that potential; I’ve certainly failed when it comes to that ‘list of things I plan to do’ which I made as a teenager. But sometimes, when I catch myself just going about my everyday life: working, writing, cooking, gardening, hugging my children, husband and loved ones (as well as our new cat) I think that actually, I’m doing okay.

 

I'm never going to behave like that cartoon, by Marija Smits

Cartoon by Marija Smits. The wonky fringe in the top picture is not a mistake.

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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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Anticipation, persistence and um… hairy legs

Although there were a couple of crappy things that happened in February – family illnesses and me managing to dent my husband’s car (don’t ask!) I was just thinking today that I would miss February. I think it’s because I actually like really like this in-between time of year. I’m all about anticipation. As Kipper the dog in the all-time classic Kipper’s Christmas Eve by Mick Inkpen (a wonderful name for a writer, don’t you think?) says:

Which is best I wonder? Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? Presents or expecting presents? Who knows?

He too, like me, comes to the conclusion that expecting presents i.e. anticipation is better than gratification. (Though gratification has its good points too!)

February was also a fairly productive month for me, which made me happy. Despite being ill on and off I managed to finish a couple of short stories and send off quite a few submissions. And yes, another reason I like February is because of the whole ‘love’ thing. Any excuse to eat chocolates and to go out for a meal with my husband is appreciated. I also got to have an actual real meet up with local friends, which was lovely too. 🙂

I’m hoping that the odd submission will ‘take’ (although, I know the chances are always slim) but in the meantime, while I’m trying to patiently wait for the results – I’ve been waiting for a year to hear about one submission! – I am squeezing as much pleasure as I can from the knowledge that all this creating is helping to move my writing forward. And today I was reminded (by a meme on Twitter, of all things) that:

Through readiness and discipline, we are the masters of our fate.

Bill Paxton

Also, as I flicked through my lovely Mslexia diary – a gift from my most trusted supporter, my husband – I spotted this quote from the most excellent Octavia Butler:

We don’t start out writing good stuff. We start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.

Which coincidentally chimed with me as I’d been creating some art on a similar-ish theme:

At the swimming pool, by Marija Smits

At the swimming pool, by Marija Smits

 

And although I can’t make myself taller (why do I always picture myself as taller than I am in reality?!) I can simply persist. And the (inevitable?) good outcome of persistence will surely have to put a smile on my face. Right?! 😉

 

Anyway, whether you will spend your March fasting or feasting I hope you manage to pack in lots of creative loveliness.