Creativity, Motherhood and Rats: How They All Go Together

Mom rat and baby

Image by Howcast.com.

I was asked to give a short talk today on creativity and motherhood for a local organization. Here’s the result:

When I became pregnant with my first child 26 years ago, I started to panic. It wasn’t that I was afraid something would be wrong with my baby or that I was afraid of the labor process — although these are justified fears and I did think about those things.

The real issue was, I was afraid that the idea I had for a novel would be subsumed by the demands of a newborn. Having a child would strike a death-knell for my creative dreams. My story would never see the light of day. I had floundered around with writing it, and had come to the realization that I needed help. This fear was foremost in my mind when I signed up for a novel-writing correspondence course offered by Writer’s Digest Magazine soon after I found I was pregnant.

I had heard all the cultural messages that tell women that being creative and having children are incompatible, and I believed them.

The novel-writing course provided me with structure that saw me through the rest of my pregnancy and motivated me to keep working on the story once I had my baby boy. The instructor’s encouragement also helped.

Even so, it took me a long time to finally finish my novel and to get it published — as long as it takes to grow a child into adulthood.

The thing that held me back wasn’t motherhood, it was waiting for the right moment to feel creative – the moment when I wasn’t busy, stressed, or emotional. I was too much at the whim of my outside life. I hadn’t learned yet how to control my inner life and allow room for the creativity to flow no matter what was happening “outside.”

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine backs up the premise that having children does not harm creativity. In fact, it can change the biology of the mother in ways that can allow for even greater creativity.

Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond, studies the maternal brains of rats. Yes, on Mother’s Day, I am going to talk to you about rats, and their brains, no less. Lambert found that when rats become mothers, their brains, which are closer in structure to a human’s than even those of mice or dogs, start reprogramming themselves.

Their sensory and motor systems sharpen. Their circuitry becomes more efficient. Maternal rats are more direct and lethal hunters, catching their prey four times faster than non-mom rats.

Even after having their babies, the changes persist. Lambert found that the mother rats experience less memory decline in old age and have quicker navigation skills than non-mothers, outsmarting them in mazes.

Although neuroscientists do not yet understand what direct impact pregnancy and childbirth have on the human maternal brain and creativity, I am here to testify that, yes, it is possible to be a mother and be creative, too. And I’m sure plenty of other women can testify to this. It’s just that sometimes when you’re a parent, you have to find more creative ways to allow for that creativity.

If you have a partner, have them take care of the kids for a while so that you can go on a writing retreat. Don’t allow your creativity to take a back seat to the other demands of life. Try different things until you find something that works for you.

I learned how to make this inner creative space while I wrote my second novel. Even though I had a second child by this time, after reading a story about right-brain, left-brain thinking and how to make both sides of your brain work together to foster creativity, I learned how to put myself in that elusive creative mind zone, instead of waiting for the zone to come to me. Thanks to this, it only took me two years to write and publish the second one.

You don’t need to be superhuman to have children and to be creative. Mothers have been doing it forever. As the magazine article said, creativity takes time and periods of reflection, and a willingness to let go of ideas that don’t work and move on to better ones.

Learning to look at the world through the eyes of your children, be they yours biologically or children of your heart, is not a bad way to make your own thinking more flexible.

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Getting my Blue Mind on — Part 2 of 2: Stuck Inside a Psychedelic Washing Machine

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The float pod in purple. Would you get in this thing?

At the suggestion of Wallace Nichols, I made an appointment for a sixty-minute session at my local flotation pod. The pod was in a room in the basement of a yoga studio, and it’s the only one in these here parts of northern Minnesota.

The pod technician led me to the room, which contained the pod and a shower. He gave me the choice of silence for my impending pod experience or four types of music. I chose piano music. He explained that he would have to program that into the computer, which was upstairs in the reception area.

The pod was about ten feet by eight feet. It featured a large hatch, which was open, and rotating, pulsating colored lights that illuminated the ninety-eight-degree water.

The technician explained that all the Epsom salt in the six inches of water is what makes a person float. A bottle of fresh water stood nearby to rinse the salt out of your eyes in case some happened to get in, plus a towel, and a small floaty tube if a person wanted it for head and neck support in the water. Earplugs were also available, to keep the excessively salty water out of one’s ear canals.

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The float pod in its yellow phase.

I asked the technician how I would know when my session was over. He said that the music would stop and a voice would say, “It’s time to exit the pod.” (Somehow this struck me as funny, and I almost giggled.) Then the filtration system would come on, which he said was rather loud and was bound to wake me up if, by chance, I fell asleep in the pod.

He mentioned that after the session, since it was late in the evening, he probably wouldn’t be at the desk once I finished, so I could just get out and head out on my own. I asked him how I should pay for my session because I hadn’t done that yet.

This seemed to surprise him and I ended up giving him my credit card, which he was going to process while I was in the pod. He said he’d leave the receipt and card for me on the front desk and I could get it on my way out. (Damn, why did I say something? I could have had a free session!)

Details done, he left me to my experience.

I was expecting soft piano music during my pod float. I expected to emerge totally blissed out. That didn’t quite happen.

After showering and putting in the ear plugs, I entered the pod wearing only my birthday suit. I wondered when the music would start. It never started. I suspect the technician was so distracted by processing my payment that he forgot to turn on the music.

I laid there in the water (which is weirdly buoyant), and decided I didn’t need no stinkin’ music. I even got brave and turned out the psychedelic lights. As I lay there in the silent dark, suddenly a jet of water came on. My body started spinning slowly around in the pod.

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The float pod in green.

The filtration system! Hey, I thought that wasn’t supposed to come on until my session was over. Surely, sixty minutes hadn’t passed yet? It only felt like ten minutes. Now what to do?

I could push the red button in the pod, which the technician said would cause an annoying sound to come from the computer in the reception area. But would that work since the music wasn’t working? Would anyone even be there to hear the annoying sound?

I didn’t feel like getting out of my warm pod and running upstairs in a towel to complain to the technician. Besides, that wouldn’t be very Zen.

So I stayed where I was, getting pushed in slow circles by the filtration jets. At some point, I turned the lights back on because it was just too weird having all this stuff happen to me in the dark.

Then I started giggling. This was like being stuck inside a giant psychedelic washing machine. Yes, I could always raise the hatch and get out if I wanted. But I didn’t want to. Besides, that wouldn’t make for a good story.

After about five minutes, the filtration system turned off. Although I wasn’t sure when it would strike again, I was finally able to relax and get into the floatation groove. It was very blissful. I could hear my heartbeat and my breathing.

Pods are supposed to inspire creativity and help with pain management. I didn’t have any pain. Mostly, what I thought about during my session was how to describe it in this blog post.

My bliss was shattered after about a half hour when the filtration system came on again. I floated around and around in more slow circles. As before, the system eventually shut off. I laid there until I thought my session was over and I emerged from the pod, checking my watch. I was only about ten minutes over my time.

I took another shower to rinse off the salt and got dressed. My credit card was waiting for me at the reception desk. Nobody was there. I debated again whether to find someone to complain about my expectations not being met.

Nah, that just didn’t seem very Zen. Besides, it was all kind of fun.

Would I try it again? Maybe, if I was really stressed out. But I don’t see it as something I would need regularly.

I picked up my card and walked into the night, peaceful.

***

Update: The owner heard about my experience and offered me a free float as compensation for my interrupted experience. I told him that I wasn’t dissatisfied at all by the experience and didn’t feel like I really needed another float. But I have a friend who is very stressed out lately. I asked him if my friend could have the float instead, and he said yes. How nice of him! Bliss all around.

Getting my Blue Mind on: Part 1 of 2

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Wallace Nichols

I had Dr. Wallace Nichols, author and marine biologist, captive in my car for forty minutes over the course of two days. Far from kidnapping him, he was in my car willingly because I was his morning chauffeur for a local science conference about the St. Louis River (the one in Minnesota, not the one in Missouri).

Nichols was the conference keynote speaker, talking about concepts described in his book, “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, in, on, or Under Water can Make you Happier, Healthier, More Connected & Better at What you do.”

As a watery kind of person myself, I relished this opportunity to learn more about the whole Blue Mind thing. Basically, it’s this: Being by or in water can calm people down and make them more creative. This idea is nothing new, it’s just that now it has a champion in the form of a Kevin Costner-esque man with a Ph.D. And it’s a nice side benefit that this man seems very humble and down-to-earth (down-to water?).

Book CoverThis is my rather jumbled account of things I quizzed him about in my car, things he said at the conference, and things I recall from reading his book. I tried to separate all the information out according to when I heard him say it, but it was useless. I guess I’m too holistic for that.

Although Nichols’s ideas may seem rather surfer-dude-ish — like they come from California, which indeed is where he lives — Nichols refers to himself as a Native North American. He grew up on the East Coast, but has lived various places in the Midwest and Southwest while on his eventual way to the West Coast.

In fact, Nichols credits the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for focusing his love of water and inspiring his career as a sea turtle biologist. He visited the area for ten days when he was in high school.

I wish I would have had time to ask him exactly what happened during his experience to inspire him, but in his speech he said his time in the Apostles led to his realization that water was, “. . . Where you feel like the best version of yourself. You are surrounded by nature, you’re in the elements. You’re where you should be.”

Something he didn’t mention in his speech was that he used to stutter as a child. I would expect that being in the water helped with that. “Just to be quiet in or near the water. To learn a new activity, learn to surf or to swim – those are very often the highlights of our childhood or adulthood,” he said.

His goal at the conference was to encourage the audience to bring science and emotion together in their work. He used a mixture of personal stories and research results to highlight how important water is to people from emotional, psychological and spiritual standpoints.

I read the Blue Mind book a few months ago. What struck me was that Nichols cited many studies, but most of them were associative – there weren’t many you could point to that were specific to how people react in and near the water.

I asked him if he was doing any more specific studies or if he was cooperating with any neuroscientists who were. He said that since his book was published in 2014, other studies have been published, and in his conference speech he described them.

Also, to the audience he said, “We talk a lot about the ecological, the economic and educational benefits of our work. We’re pretty good at quantifying this stuff, these 3 Es. We’re not so good at talking about or even including this emotional connection, the emotional benefits of healthy waterways. I would say, that should be switched to the top of the list. These are the benefits that grab people and bring them into the conversation.

”From a strategic perspective, first let’s not leave them out, and second, let’s prioritize them so that we’re fulfilling a larger movement. The emotional connection supercharges our understanding of ecological, economic and educational benefits of healthy waterways. By the way, emotion is something we can study. It can be as quantitative as you want it to be. It is hard science. Increasingly, organizations are using emotions as a tool to advance their advocacy work.”

Nichols offered this criticism and advice for environmental groups: “The environmental movement has used fear and anger to communicate about their issues. Guilt and shame are other motivators, and lots of facts — until they are confused. We talk about ecosystem services, we talk about the crisis. We blame you. It’s your fault. It’s terrible. The future is bleak. And by the way do you want to join my club? Sound familiar?

“Is that effective? We think it is. But we’ve proven time and time again, not so much. Maybe gratitude is another tool we can use. Love, what about that as a motivator?”

He left the conference attendees with this thought: “Water is life that makes life worth living as well. When we undervalue water, we lose that. When we undervalue anything or anyone, bad things happen. Water is our first medicine, for both physical and mental health. Bring the science of emotion to your conversations, do not ever leave it out.”

If you’d like more information, please check out his book. You can also read this blog post I wrote for my job.

Think about your own life. Are you stressed out? What helps you deal with that? Is it working for you? If not, remember the water. Remember music. Remember nature in general. Get out there. And don’t forget to breathe.

*

Another conversation I had with Mr. Nichols dealt with floatation tanks. You know, those are the tube tub things you can go in that are filled with warm salt water and silence.

They strike me as sort of scary, but Nichols He recommended them for dealing with stress or to inspire creativity.

A business in my town recently opened a flotation tank. I decided to live on the wild side and give one a try. My appointment is tonight. That’s what Part 2 will be about.

The Hardest Thing I Do All Day

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Drawing by Ruiizu-Chan.

I have an eye condition that requires me to put drops in them every morning and evening. To help the drops work better, I’m supposed to keep my eyes closed for about two minutes each time.

Being a good rule-follower and because I really do want relief from my condition, I do it, standing in my kitchen with the oven timer on. But I’ve come to think of it as the hardest thing I do all day (after getting out of bed, that is).

How can standing still with eyes closed for two minutes be so bad, you ask? Because it requires mind control. During those two minutes I think of at least a dozen things I should be doing rather than standing still: I should turn on my computer. I should unload the dishwasher. I should write a check for my son’s lunch money. I need to write down that appointment in my calendar. I need to change a word in one of my stories to something better. I wonder what the weather’s going to be like this week?

At first, I often gave into into these impulses and turned on the computer or wrote in my calendar. I’d close my eyes again later, but it felt like cheating. It wasn’t long before I took the two-minute task as a challenge. Let’s see if I can keep my eyes closed the whole time this time.

You know what happened . . . I tried to do all those same things with eyes closed. This had mixed results along with some bumps and bruises. (Smile.)

So, taking a cue from author Elizabeth Gilbert’s first experiences with meditation in “Eat, Pray, Love,” I challenged myself to keep my mind quiet so that keeping my eyes closed wasn’t such a hardship.

If you’ve ever tried mediation, you know it’s hard. An untrained mind is an unfettered being. It resists control. It wants to float around at will. You, dear blog readers, know how my mind loves to meander.

But by practicing twice a day, every day for a huge total of four minutes, I’m getting better at it. When I feel the urge to do something, I recognize it and deflect it. I give myself permission to do nothing. I concentrate on my breathing or on the sounds around me. I file away impulses for action until after my time is up. I try to be present.

I’d like to think the practice not only helps my eyes, it’s helping me master myself.

So if you ever want to try something really hard, try standing still with your eyes closed for two minutes. I dare you!

Skiing (and Waxing) Nostalgic

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Marie at the start of her first cross-country ski race, waiting for Charlie Banks to signal the start.

Last weekend, a friend and I revisited the Korkki Nordic Ski Trail, where I competed in my first cross-country ski race forty years ago. The year was 1977 and I was in eighth grade, part of my junior high school’s ski team. My equipment included wooden skis and bamboo poles with black rubber baskets. Clad in bell-bottom jeans and a ‘fashionable’ down vest, my head protected from the cold by a knit hat with a huge ball atop it, I ended up winning the race and the city championship for my grade.

Winning the first race I ever entered – you would think it would be a good experience and I’d return to the same trail dozens of times to relive the glory. But I didn’t. Why did it take me four decades?

20170116_145524That’s what I was trying to figure out as I shooshed down the trail on my fiberglass skinny skis (waxable ones) last weekend.

Now, the thing you need to understand is that Korkki Nordic is Old School. Only one track winds its way through pines on land tucked in the highlands along Lake Superior’s North Shore. And the trees are close enough to lean over and kiss as you go by – not ten feet away on either side like most ski trails. Classic skiing only; none of that fancy-schmancy skate-skiing.

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My friend, on the trail.

The trail system is maintained by a nonprofit organization and was started by the very man who kept time during my first ski race. Charlie Banks is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on.

The trail is sort of out of the way. With so many good ones in Duluth, that could be one reason why I didn’t come out here. It wasn’t a place my parents usually skied, and they were the ones driving the car when I was young. But still, why didn’t I come here when I was older?

As my friend and I started skiing, I noticed the timekeeping house was still near the trailhead. After we traveled down the trail a ways, I recalled how clueless I was during my race. Our “coach” didn’t even ski himself, and he did little to prepare us. I only knew that racing meant going as fast as you could until you reached the finish line, so that was my strategy after the staggered start. This led to overtaxed lungs and leaden arms and legs. But I kept going, although I was alone and scared by this new experience and unfamiliar trail. Finally overcome, I paused a time or two to catch my breath on the uphills, terrified that another skier would pass me, but I never saw anyone.

My friend and I continued skiing and I recognized the feel of the trail – lots of small hills, nothing too scary — especially if you take the easy route options, which I did, having nothing left to prove. We skied four kilometers, which I suspect was the same distance as the race. The finish line banner we crossed under looked suspiciously like the exact same one from my stressful race.

Was that it? Even though I won the race, was the stress of it so unpleasant that I had no desire to return to the scene until forty years later? Could be. I recall that in subsequent ski races, somehow I learned more about pacing and didn’t get as burned out.

As I crossed under the banner last weekend, I realized that whatever kept me away for so long, I’m finally over it!

I’m gonna return soon to this little woodland ski trail gem.

Two other local writers have written about their memories of Korkki Nordic, read here for Eric’s and here for Eddy’s.

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Just Call Me Mahatma

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By Jake Beech – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30859659.

All these years, I’ve somehow avoided taking the Myers-Briggs Personality Test. Then a potential manfriend showed me his results, so I felt obliged to take the free online test and show him mine. I was surprised to discover that I have one of the rarest personality types. No wonder why it takes a blog to explain myself to the rest of the world!

According to the test, I am an INFJ, which means I approach the world in an Introverted (we knew that already), Intuitive, Feeling, Judging manner. The description of this type says that only one percent of the population has this personality. INFJs are warm and caring, organized, highly intuitive, creative and imaginative, nurturing, and patient.

The description also goes into the weaknesses of this personality type and what INFJs look for in romantic relationships. Many of the traits described struck me as accurate and I learned some new things about myself.

The results also listed notable INFJs. Mahatma Gandhi is one of them. I think I have a new nickname!

Poor Zika Babies

It happened again tonight. Every time I see a TV news report about the Zika virus and the babies it affects with microencephaly (small brains), they are crying. Surely the babies don’t cry all the time, do they?

I suppose it’s more dramatic to show a crying baby, especially one that has been born with such a harmful defect. But in showing the crying babies in every newscast about the disease, I fear that news editors are stereotyping the babies forever in viewers’ minds as always crying.

At first I was going to rail that nobody’s produced or written a story about the quality of life these babies have, but I did a search and found that is not the case. There are balanced stories out there, but I doubt the average person will ever see them.

Poor Zika babies. They not only have brains that work differently, they will also have to overcome the stereotypes these newscasts are creating.