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.

New Year’s Resolutions? No thanks. I’ll do ‘Sustainable Positive Habits’ Instead.

 

The years go by... photo by Marija Smits

The years go by… photo by Marija Smits

 

Oh dear, my title has given away all the exciting stuff I was going to explain. Never mind. So yeah… I haven’t really ‘done’ New Year’s Resolutions for a few years now, and that’s mainly because those huge, rather amorphous resolutions like: I’m going to lose weight! Get richer! Become famous! (<– the last being something I’m not very interested in but still you get the drift) are simply that: unquantifiable, vague desires. So instead I’m dismissing the vagaries and set-up-to-fail resolutions and instead keeping going with my (probably not that exciting) but overall, positive habits. These are:

 

  1. Listening to my body more. Part of this involves continuing to go swimming once a week and doing two HIIT (high-intensity interval training) sessions a week because my body needs and appreciates it. Since September (when I posted my ‘Publisher’s Bum’ post) pretty much without fail I’ve kept up with this routine. So I’m pleased about that. Another part of this listening habit involves me dealing with the RSI in my wrist. To that end I’ve ordered myself an ergonomic mouse and I’ll see how it goes. The final part involves questioning myself more at dinner times, and whether I really really need to eat the kids’ leftovers and finally, continuing to listen to my body when it’s telling me to sleep and rest (and actually acting on that) which I mostly do already.

 

  1. Listening to my family more. My youngest still needs me and though my oldest child, my soon-to-be ten-year-old daughter, doesn’t ‘need’ me in the same way as she used to, they (and my husband) want to share and spend time with me and I want to do the same with them. So this habit mainly involves being fierce about protecting family time and reminding myself to listen to their cues.

 

  1. Listening to the voice of the ‘stern but fair headmistress’ in my head more often (just one of the many voices of the Wild Woman). Thankfully my inner critic isn’t too shouty anymore but I really do need to be more respectful of the headmistress. She’s the one who tells me to stop being such a magpie about shiny new creative ideas and FINISH THE CURRENT WORK. She also tells me to get off Facebook and knuckle down to the to-do list. The stroppy (and yet creative) part of me thinks she’s a party-pooper, but deep down I have great respect for her. Because it is only by finishing things that I can truly grow as a writer and artist.

 

  1. Listening to the hands of time more often. Okay, so this seems like a pretty gloomy habit. But there is only so much time to go around. It’s one of the most precious resources any human has. So learning how to make best use of it is worthwhile.

 

  1. Listening to quiet more often. This simply sometimes involves exiting cyberspace and leaving behind the noise of the internet with all its attention-grabbing headlines, tricksy ads, outraged voices, and shouty ‘me, me, me’s that make my head spin, and then tuning into my own voice. (The whispers of the Wild Woman perhaps…?) What is it trying to say? What am I thinking? How am I feeling? Better still, going for a walk in a wood where the trees grow so thickly that you can hear the sound of silence… or along the side of a lake so mirror-like it is as though the Lady of the Lake may well emerge from the waters… ah well, for me, those are some of the best experiences in the world.

 

Swan on lake, photo by Marija Smits

Swan on lake, photo by Marija Smits

 

So on that rather quiet note I will leave you to your own listening. I wish you all the best for 2017. Thank you, loyal readers (all 11 of you + my wonderful husband!) for continuing to drop by to read my reflections.

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On Darkness and the Age of Enlightenment

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

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

Chrstingle, photo by Marija Smits

Chrstingle, photo by Marija Smits

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

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

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

from Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

Science books, photo by Marija Smits

Science books, photo by Marija Smits

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

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

 

  • Why do you/I believe this?

 

  • What is the evidence?

 

  • How does this work?

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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