Imagination, Inspiration, and Ursula Le Guin

01 2018 Ursula Le Guin books, photo by Marija Smits

 

Since my husband is a scientist and I’m an ex-scientist, we both love science fiction (reading and writing it). We often discuss science fiction and enjoy having a good old rant, or rave, about the plausibility of the science within the stories. When I’m reviewing science fiction for Shoreline of Infinity I very much consider the book from a scientist’s viewpoint, and am strict about the plausibility of the science. (Though this occasionally gives me the wobbles – the tame woman in me not wanting to be disliked for saying something not 100% pleasing to the masses. My wild woman sighs and roars off the tameness that has a habit of clinging on.) Just the other week my husband, wanting to give me some encouragement, emailed me two of Ursula Le Guin’s articles – about plausibility in imaginative fiction and literary snobbery and, once again, I was eminently comforted by the fact that such a great writer continued to be such a passionate champion for the SFF genre (as well as a champion for the importance of plausibility in the genre).

So when social media became awash with the news of her death, I, like many, was saddened by the news. People were sharing her poetry, snippets of her writing; what her books had meant to them. These quotes stood out for me:

 

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality…

…Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula Le Guin from her speech at the National Book Awards

 

To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it. Ursula Le Guin from Steering the Craft

 

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add to what others have said (indeed, I questioned whether I should even write this blog post), but I had an urge to say something. To write something. For as a woman who writes science fiction, who passionately believes in the genre and the importance of plausibility within the genre, and who wholeheartedly believes that the act of creating something requires a “surrendering”, I wanted to say ‘Farewell’ and ‘Thank you’ to Le Guin. She will continue to inspire me and countless others.

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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

The 100th Post! Blue Sky Tag (a Q&A with me), 5 Year Blogiversary & Giveaway

 

Pop art me, photo by Marija Smits

Pop art me, photo by Marija Smits

 

A while back, I was lucky enough to be nominated by the ever-thougtful Dawn from Journal of Dawn for the Blue Sky Tag. Thank you Dawn! So I thought I’d combine the Q&A, my nominations, and a giveaway in my 100th post (which also happens to be my 5 year blogiversary). I can’t quite believe I’ve been blogging for 5 years now, but I have, and I still love it.

 

THE Q&A

  1. Is your Life, today, half-empty, or half-full?

Such a tricky question – and somewhat like the problem of Schrödinger’s cat. I believe that just like light – which is both a particle and a wave – life is both half-empty and half-full simultaneously and it is only the observer that gets to decide at any particular moment. An optimist at heart I think I’ll pretty much always go with half-full. Today, because I’ve had a walk in the September sunshine and just now written a poem I’m pleased with (and fingers-crossed all my loved ones are okay) it actually feels like it’s three-quarters full.

  1. How have you found goodness from the bad situations in your Life? Example, please :))

Most of the bad situations in my life I’ve put into my writing, in one way or another. My father’s death, for example, I wrote about in this poem here, called ‘The Pulmonary Embolism’. I have found healing from exploring these things through writing (and no doubt, these life experiences have fired me, like clay, into a more clearly defined person). And if anyone else finds consolation in my writing then I reckon that’s a good thing.

  1. Which relationships have been the most challenging for you, and what strategies have you created to improve them?

Two challenging relationships… hmm. One has been with my mother (who, in so many ways is like me, but in other and, fundamental ways, unlike me), and ditto my mother-in-law. I think that first there needs to be reflection and understanding – of our differences and that our differences have the possibility to cause friction. But people will only change if they want to change – I have no control over that change. After that comes acceptance, and the grace (from within) to let go of my own judgement and the friction. If I felt that there was anything I could concretely do to change one aspect of our relationship I would use compassionate communication to do so. In the past I’ve used it in certain occasions where it was of immense help. I can highly recommend the book People Skills by Robert Bolton if you want to improve your communication skills.

  1. What causes you angst, and how do you overcome it?

Oh goodness! As an HSP, anything and everything! Global warming, neoliberalism, Donald Trump, Brexit, racism, sexism, social media, unisex toilets in secondary schools, so-called education gurus, people being outraged by the use of the word poetess, the billion-dollar infant formula industry (which is a law unto itself), scratchy jumpers, noisy neighbours, coffee shops that don’t serve cream to go with the said coffee, owners who don’t clear up their dog’s poo and leave it on the street for you to squelch in… The list is endless! I’m not actually sure if I do overcome it. I guess I just figure out how much I care about the issue, and if there’s anything I can meaningfully do about it then I will try to do that. If I can’t do all that much about it I have to accept that and move on (remembering that it’s okay to focus on the good/meaningful stuff I’m doing already).

  1. Have you ever written your own jokes???? Memorized them, and tried them out in a long, boring line at the Post Office . . . Did anyone chortle??? (ie — do you have a good joke ready for a sour circumstance :)) (I had a lot of fun writing my Cow Jokes.)

Writing a good joke is seriously hard! So, no, I don’t have any great skill in this area. In a tricky situation I’ll fall back on this:

‘Knock, knock.’

‘Who’s there?’

‘Interrupting Cow.’

‘Interrupting cow wh-’

‘Mooooooo!’

  1. What challenges are you facing in your Life right now?

My main challenges are to do with my work, family life, writing balance. Trying to do all three successfully sometimes feels like too much of a struggle. Something for me to review.

  1. What do you obsess over? How do you rein in your obsessions?

I’m prone to OCD. Not particularly with physical compulsions e.g. needing to wash my hands, check things are off (although I do have a tendency to do these things probably a little too often)… but when I discovered from a book that some OCD sufferers have mental compulsions, that was a revelation. Here’s how it works: having a worry/fear/regret and thinking about it endlessly and obsessively, then feeling compelled to say a ‘special sentence’ (or whatever) in one’s head, a certain number of times to find relief from the obsessive worry. Others can’t see that there’s anything wrong, but it’s absolutely debilitating. OCD can permanently put life on hold.

Somehow, I summoned up the strength to talk to my partner (now husband) about it. He didn’t think any less of me for having this strange issue (I was sure he would look at me like I was bonkers), and his listening ear and support helped immeasurably. After that I made the connection that stress has a huge impact on OCD, so I had to make important life changes. Switching careers was part of the solution. And funnily enough, birthing and breastfeeding my children helped too. Apparently mothering hormones can help some women in combatting OCD.

  1. What strategies do you employ for stress relief?

Stress relief for me means ‘saying no’ and cutting back on everything that isn’t vital. Listening to music, exercise, and eating healthy and wholesome food – as well as laughing and having fun with my husband, children and friends. And of course cuddles help hugely too! (Books too. Sometimes chocolate.)

  1. What other-wordly phenomena have you experienced? (Intuition, dreams, deja vu, ET, communication with lost loved ones, etc.) What have your learned from them?

None! As much as I like the idea of otherworldly phenomena (they often crop up in my stories) I’m an earthy woman and haven’t had stuff like that happen to me. Though I swear that underpants gnomes exist…

  1. How do you make new friends, or strike up a conversation with a stranger?

‘Hello! How are you? My name’s…’ is usually where I start.

  1. What do you love to create? How do you motivate yourself to do more of what you love to do???

I love to create stories. Worlds. In pictures and words. I don’t tend to need to motivate myself to do something I love doing so much, but like all creative people, I guess, I can get lazy and spend more time dreaming up new creations rather than actually making them happen. That’s when I give myself a good talking to: Who d’you think’s going to finish that story? That piece of art? The fairies? Yeah right. Get to work woman! That’s usually enough of a butt kicking for me to get going.

Photo of Marija Smits by Tom Bellamy.

The final fruit of the writerly labours: reading the published piece. Photo of Marija Smits by Tom Bellamy.

 

My Nominations

So… quoting from Dawn here, via Mr Hush Hush who nominated her…

For those of you who don’t know, the rules of the Blue Sky Tag go something like this:

  1. Thank the person who has nominated you.
  2. Answer their questions.
  3. Create 11 questions for your nominees.
  4. Tag your 11 nominees.

And here are my 11 nominees:

  1. Jane
  2. Helen
  3. Maddy
  4. Nikki Young
  5. Rebecca Ann Smith
  6. Rachael
  7. Renee
  8. Sophie
  9. Alice
  10. Johanne Winwood
  11. Because I know so many fab writers/bloggers it’s been hard to limit this to just 11. So I’d also like to invite the following to join in if they’d like to (and have the time): Angela Topping, Ana Salote, Cathy Bryant, Clare Cooper, Sarah James, Alison Lock, Becky Cherriman, Ruth Stacey, Katy Wareham Morris, Suzie W, Teaching Tiny Minds, Cara McKee, Mumturnedmom, Rhyming with Wine, Antonia Chitty, Iona, Chrissie, Victoria, Katia, Sarah, Kamsin Kaneko, and any other of the wonderful women who make up the What I’m Writing group.

 

Here are my 11 questions:

  1. How are you? (No, really, how are you?)
  2. How do you feel about the season changing from summer to autumn? Do you have a favourite autumnal poem? (If not, simply share a favourite poem.)
  3. On the introvert-extrovert and sensitivity continuum where would you put yourself?
  4. Have you ever been ‘stuck’ in life? Or are you ‘stuck’ (in some way) right now? Any tips for getting unstuck?
  5. How do you balance family life, work and creative time? Is ‘time scheduling’ the way forward? Or do you have a more relaxed approach?
  6. What creative work are you focussing on at the moment?
  7. Are you a one-project-on-the-go person or do you flit between different creative projects?
  8. Some of your favourite books…?
  9. An inspiring piece of music?
  10. A favourite ice cream flavour? If you don’t like ice cream, here’s another question: tea or coffee? (And how do you take it.)
  11. A photo of one of your favourite places to create (or the place you mostly end up creating, though it may not be your favourite!).

And just to be awkward here’s a bonus question (feel free to expand or not, as you see fit): Where are you on the limerent/non-limerent scale?

Thank you again Dawn for including me in this fun exercise. And do feel free to answer my questions too, if you’d like. 🙂

 

The Giveaway

Lastly… here’s the giveaway – a fine literary bundle that all feature a piece of my writing. To be in with the chance of winning the below simply leave a comment on this post (and perhaps a why as to why you’d like them…).

 

Lovely literature!

Lovely literature!

 

The giveaway will run until midnight GMT on 24th September 2017 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, I’d need a contribution toward postage.)

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Our Cat, a Little Bird and Some Thoughts on ‘Persuasion’

A couple of weeks ago I had a total of 20 creative pieces ‘out there’ in submissions land. I was pleased with the progress I’d made, considering my time for creativity (and the organization time necessary for sending off and keeping track of subs) is so limited. I went to bed with a sense of achievement. Some pieces were then longlisted, so I went on to the next phase of waiting, which involved (in the main) being grateful for the longlisting + positive feedback, as well as trying to remain not too hopeful.

In the past few days the 20 submissions have whittled down to about 10 still being under consideration as the to-be-expected rejections have dropped into my email inbox.

A sense of Why am I doing this? clouds my mood. Particularly as financial worries are always there in the background. Writing, I know, is not lucrative. Hell, it’s not even pin money lucrative. And importantly (cue maudlin violins) will I earn enough from it to keep our new cat, Mitsie in food?!

 

Isn't she a cutie? Photo by Marija Smits

Isn’t she a cutie? Photo by Marija Smits

 

So I’ve been thinking a lot about creatives and makers recently. In this noisy, social-media obsessed, neoliberal and individualistic worldYou can do anything! There is no limit to how rich or successful you can be! – it seems more vital than ever that a maker also has to be a persuader. Not only do creatives have to create but they also have to sell themselves and their creations. They have to persuade others of the worth of their work. To make them want and desire it. It’s something that creatives (mainly introverts and/or HSPs) don’t like to do. It doesn’t come easy to us. Whereas there are people (mainly extroverts) who – shock horror! – actually like selling.

The internet is now full of persuaders persuading us to buy their book, ebook, course, or whatever, on how best to persuade others to buy our work. It’s all getting a bit meta. The sheer number of these persuaders serve to illustrate how marketing and publicity can be make-or-break for an artist, and them making a living from their work. Or is this perhaps a false perception?

Often, I simply don’t have the energy, let alone the will or enthusiasm to persuade others to read my writing or buy my art. It seems as though I only have a certain amount of ‘oomph’ in me. And that will have to go on the art and the craft of making. Because, rejection fug aside, it is the one thing that makes this whole submitting merry-go-round worth it. And from time to time I have to remind myself of that. Creating is play. Creating is flying for the soul.

 

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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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Women in Science

As we’re currently in British Science Week (10 – 19th March), I thought it the perfect opportunity to write about something close to my heart: women in science.

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Now, I used to be a woman in science, but then I left for all sorts of reasons, which I outlined in an earlier post. To clarify, it was not the science that was the issue, rather, a male-dominated environment (and the competitiveness, extrovertism and ‘blokey’ jokes that was a huge part of that environment). It was also a time when work email somehow allowed people (okay, let’s admit it – they were men!) to send pornographic images. At one university I worked at I walked past the odd computer screen seeing some things I’d much rather not have seen. This experience didn’t make me (one of about 5 women in a group with 20 men or so) feel so great about myself.

In addition, looking up the hierarchy, I could see that the female lecturers and researchers were clearly juggling so much – their careers and motherhood and trying to run a household, and, and… and still the male lecturers would make comments about the women ‘not pulling their weight’.

In conclusion: I did not love scientific research enough to continue in that career. And that is okay. I am glad I realized this sooner rather than later.

However, I am immensely thankful for the women who do love research and overcome all kinds of obstacles to pursue their research and excel in their specialism. But why is it that at the age of 40 (and even as an ex-scientist) I still find it difficult to name the contributions women have made to science? Once again, and as in so many fields of endeavour, women’s achievements in science have been overlooked, sidelined, ignored. Or been appropriated by men. In general, women scientists have been put on ‘mute’.

So when I came across this image on Facebook on International Women’s Day – from the excellent Compound Interest page – I was delighted to discover more women scientists. (Chemists, like me!)

 

And when I went to my local library the other day they had a wonderful display full of cards with inventions and discoveries by scientific women on them. Such as:

Stem cell research – Ann Tsukamoto

Kevlar – invented by Stephanie Kwolek

Semi-conductor theory/telecommunications research – Shirley Ann Jackson

The life raft – Maria Beasley

Computing – Grace Hopper

Solar-energy technology – Maria Telkes

This display was for International Women’s Day (or to call it by its other name – ‘Why Isn’t There An International Men’s Day’?). Sad but true, every year outraged men take to Twitter to wonder aloud Why oh why isn’t there a special day for men? Richard Herring, bless his heart, answers many, many of them to let them know that yes, there is an International Men’s Day. It’s on 19th November. He also encourages his followers/those interested in his cause to educate the incredulous to donate money to the charity Refuge).

And another good resource for women scientists I came across recently is Sheroes of History.

Having been a teacher (and now a parent) for a fair while now, I’m pretty sure that girls and young women have got the message that science is something that both sexes can excel at. But it cannot be overlooked that academia is very much an environment for the privileged white middle-class male. That’s not to say that boys and young men shouldn’t be encouraged to study science – they should be, it’s brilliant! It’s just that schools, universities and scientific companies need to look at their environment through the feminist (as well as racist) lens. How can we make academia more accessible to women? How can we keep mother scientists still involved in research if they don’t want to spend virtually all their waking hours away from their children? How can we get away from the competitiveness that so obviously suits highly-driven testosterone-fuelled men? Indeed, can scientific research be a cooperative endeavour? And why oh why must everything be measured by publication in the ‘big’ journals, Science, Nature et al.? Is this really where all the ‘good’ science is? Just as with poetry, there are the ‘big’ journals/magazines. That does not mean that the smaller literary magazines aren’t publishing just-as-good (if not better) poetry. They are!

Sadly, again, so much of the problems of academia come down to that monster, neoliberalism. Universities are more companies nowadays, the students the ‘customers’ – the power taken from academics and given to the bureaucrats and the private companies they fling money at. The people at the top enjoy six-figure salaries for formulating things like: strategic mission and the academic vision, innovative streamlining, the student-centred approach etc. while the academics (who are irreplaceable, because, let’s face it, how many of us have a good working knowledge of quantum mechanics, or crystallography or neuroplasticity or… or… ?) grind on, trapped between teaching, research and the huge amount of administrative tasks they have to complete. They do not enjoy six-figure salaries. And especially not if they’re women.

However, all that said, there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. There are high-earning women at the top, just as there are high-earning men at the top. Check out this link if you want to know just what the heads of some unis pay themselves. I will add two words here that are appropriate: fat and cat. But as always, there are good stewards at the head of universities, who are perhaps worthy of their salary. And there are bad stewards at the top of many universities too, who are most certainly not worth of their salary. Also, there are women who thrive in a competitive environment. And those who do not. But the lower down the hierarchy you go the more likely you are to find women not negotiating for extra pay, not negotiating for better working conditions for themselves and their families, and not speaking out about inappropriate conduct or unprofessionalism of male colleagues.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, although I think it’s clear that separating business from academia is key. Commercialism is making science less science-y. And in these post-truth times, scientific rigour, objectivity and the pursuit of truth (no matter if that truth pains us) is absolutely vital. I also think that talking and writing about all the many women scientists of the past and today is also key in helping girls and women to know that science is something that they can really get involved in. And excel at. Lastly, we need to give young women the tools to assert for themselves so that they can make the changes to academia that are so badly needed to free it of capitalism’s grip so that it can become a true place of learning and creative investigation, irrespective of the student or teacher’s sex, skin colour, class or financial background.

 

My daughter's base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits

My daughter’s base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits (with thanks to Red Ted Art for the YouTube video on how to construct the volcano).

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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.