Midsummer Dreams

Is it just me? Books tend to frequent my dreams as well as real life.

Lately I’ve become a bit obsessed with non-fiction. History, psychology, anthropology – you name it. These tend to be massive books too (although on e-readers it’s hard to tell until you’ve spent literally months reading it and the chapter mark still chirpily says 33%). 

But if you get the book edition, its heft makes you feel both studious and knowledgeable (placing your glasses slightly down your nose helps, as does twiddling a pencil). It also looks amazing on the shelf. Let’s be honest it’s the aim to impress that finds such editions gracing our shelves.

“This? Oh yes, the latest Yuval Noah Harari. I find his views rather postmodern to be honest.”

“Where are your thrillers and romance novels?”, asks a friend, scanning the room.

“Get out.”

And so on. Funny how many fantastic non-fiction books I’ve read and now I can’t remember a thing. Stories stay a bit longer I suppose. 

One book that still comes to mind though is Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep.’ It’s always been a source of intrigue for me, this odd species requirement to remain unconscious for hours every day. And this book is both fascinating and frightening. 

And then the fish said I was now the queen and. . .

Matthew Walker is professor of psychology in the university of California and conducts frequent sleep experiments. In the book he explains that REM sleep, and the dreams it brings, quite simply keeps us alive. Without good sleep, he argues, we get sick, grow old too quickly and cannot function. I heartily recommend his chapter on dreams – why they happen, what they’re for and those incredible neurological activities as neurons fire and get up to all sorts of things while we’re unconscious. 

And if a grizzly bear runs alongside your car and tries to open the door before politely asking if he can get in? Well, maybe Freud can help me with that one. 

Get an early night, reduce the glare from your screens, avoid caffeine later in the day – it’s not rocket science, it’s sleep science. And I’m learning.

The Food of Love

In honour of World Music Day this week I’ve been reminiscing about musical moments that still resonate today. What an amazing thing for our species to create – come to think of it, who was the first human to pluck a string or sing a note? 

I studied music at school and at various concerts we pupils would obediently take to the stage and plonk or honk our way through set pieces before sitting down again, affecting boredom but really quite nervous. Then Julie would stand up with her violin and play the méditation from Thäis by Massenet, leaving us less talented pupils smiling through gritted teeth and the parents and teachers open-mouthed in astonishment.

I ignored the emotion at the time (too cool for school you understand) but I’ve never forgotten how those notes made me feel. Years later in Lübeck town square in Northern Germany, a violinist was playing Julie’s piece as I strolled by. All was well until that final harmonic note and I started to cry. It was so sudden and surprising that I laughed too. Music had taken a direct hit and control, for once, didn’t win. 

Music does this. Art does this. Somehow it speaks to sections of our hearts and minds that otherwise remain closed. Creating playlists for different life events simply brings colour – the pop mix for driving along on a sunny day; the chill out mix for reading by the fire; the dramatic soundtracks for a walk in the mountains. Music triggers dopamine, dilates the pupils, increases blood flow – it’s like being in love. And that moment when the chord finally resolves (Beethoven is the best at this) is just so pleasing

I’ll never forget driving through Norwegian tunnels for miles and miles while Hans Zimmer’s movie soundtracks added spooky accompaniment to the darkness. Or listening to a worship song while watching the waves crash. Or moving my shoulders because the rhythm of the pop song just won’t let me sit still.

Music speaks. How marvellous that we can listen and respond. Pop your headphones on, even for the length of one song, and turn up the volume and close your eyes. Your soul will be grateful.

Here’s One I Made Earlier

Just got back from a few days at the north coast. Gosh it’s gorgeous! Blustery walks, fish n chips, ice cream on the promenade and that Atlantic view that honestly can’t be beaten. Rathlin shone, Dunluce glowered and Whitepark Bay sang with pleasingly curly waves. 

Nice work Giant’s Causeway

I laughed out loud on a trip to Coleraine thanks to the cute and quirky work from local yarn bombers. All over the town there they are – covers on seats, hats on postboxes, even shorts on statues. It was just such a happy sight.

Crafting is not only fun, it’s good for you too. It reduces stress as we focus on the present, allowing anxiety about the past or future to recede for a little while. And our brains are doing all sorts of things – both hemispheres are in use when both hands are working so all sorts of new neural connections are being made. Plus there’s the social element if you get together with like-minded people.

Granny used to knit stunning Aran jumpers and make us kids traipse around the place in woollen garments that reached down past our knees. Our grumpy faces in old photographs seem to indicate that we were not best pleased with this fashion statement. Now, of course, I love those jumpers and cardigans and artisan markets even sell them at extortionate prices. Mum patiently taught me to knit and it feels like an Irish skill being passed down the generations.

Not long ago I worked and worked on a tank top (sleeves were too much added pressure and let’s face it, even more work). I was so proud of the end result until I tried to put it on and discovered that it wouldn’t go over my head. I’d cast off too tightly round the neck. It looked good but I couldn’t wear it. There’s probably a moral in there somewhere.

At any rate I threw it down in a huff and next day set about unpicking it (oh the sadness that ensued) and learning how to cast off more loosely. I placed it over my head and it looked…well…okay. To be honest it looks better on the hanger. But I’m proud of it and crafting is surely never time wasted. All the same I don’t think the Coleraine yarn group will be in touch any time soon.

See how the neck fits so loosely? Now that’s skill…

Hobbies are big and important things but can fall by the wayside as life happens and busyness takes over. Find some wool or a pencil or a camera and set aside the stress just for a moment. Creating something, even if it’s a wonky work in progress, is food for the soul.

Amazing Empathy

For Empathy Day on 10th June I made a short video for NI Libraries that (spoiler alert) discovered how reading fiction can help us learn this amazing skill. 

Incredible to think that when we say “I feel your pain” we might just be telling the truth. Neuroscience has shown that pain response areas light up in our brains when we see someone else suffer. This is probably why we flinch if we’re innocently holding up a picture for someone to attach to the wall and then catch sight of that inevitable thump of hammer onto thumb. It’s not your thumb but for a small moment it feels like it. And a general rule of thumb (see what I did there?) in this scenario is that the victim is the only one allowed to swear profusely. 

Empathy is a marvellous thing and surely offers great hope for the future of our social species. I hereby promise to walk in other shoes and reserve judgements. Happy Empathy Day everyone.

Books make us better people. I knew it!

The Humble Brag

One doesn’t like to blow one’s own trumpet but…I was shortlisted in a writing competition recently. My poem ‘Metamorphosis’ was chosen as one of the final three pieces. I shared the news on Twitter and then felt a bit embarrassed and full of myself. Why?

The art of the humblebrag is a relatively new one but it’s growing in popularity. Social media is the perfect home because we can hide behind our screens, tell half-truths, use image filters and generally make things out to be better than they are. This online arena has forced the humble bragger to wrestle with the attempt to share good news but without tone of voice or body language, so it’s a particular skill. I’m not sure we’re getting it right.

Some good recent examples:
The fake complaint: So stressed: my company has outgrown my tiny office and I don’t know where to put all the orders coming in!
The fake humility: Is this really me standing on the podium with an award for best newcomer? #blessed

No doubt about it, these statements rankle and tend to produce an eye-rolling smirk. But why shouldn’t we be happy for others when things go well for them? It’s probably because it’s such an odd juxtaposition – bragging and humility don’t sit well together. Which is it: proud or bashful? Perhaps a simple statement rather than a confusing cloak of false modesty would produce the response sought after (the ‘like’ button or the ‘congrats’ emoticon or a comment of approval). In the end we all just want to be liked.

It’s no doubt rooted in shame, too. We are the only primates to blush, we learn from a young age that boasting is bad and pride is a sin, and women and minorities, in particular, don’t feel as if they have permission to ‘big themselves up’ in public.

So today without fear and with a due sense of pride I’ll show off my poem (it was shortlisted you know). And please share your good news with me, I promise I won’t roll my eyes.