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Black Holes and Hot Chocolate

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I’ve written my first radio story. It’s about space and mental health and it’s aimed at upper primary school children.

A friend who listened said he thinks it’s a helpful way of talking about mental health for adults too.

I wanted to write about what it’s like for children and families when one family member disengages. Here’s a wee section from the middle of the story, Ben and his mum are stargazing but Dad has stayed at home:

She poured him a cup of hot chocolate and they sipped together. It tasted good.

“It feels like he doesn’t like me” said Ben.

“That must be so hard Ben. But it’s not true, we both really like you a lot – we love you Ben!

Ben sipped his hot chocolate. He didn’t look at Mum.

“When your Dad sips hot chocolate, it doesn’t taste good to him just now. So it’s not just you, he just doesn’t enjoy things like he used to, because of the way he’s feeling. It’s not because of anything you’ve done and we can’t fix it”

“I wish we could. That must be rubbish for him” said Ben “I love hot chocolate”

“But sometimes he does enjoy things though, like the other night when you laughed so much that milk came out of your nose?”

“Yeah, that was gross. Dad really laughed. I wish he was always like that!”

“Me too Ben……         Do you see the moon?”

Ben forgot they’d come here to look up.

“We can only see a bit of it, but is the rest still there?”

“Of course!” said Ben

“But how do you know it hasn’t gone, you can’t see it?”

Ben thought for a moment.

“Well because the crescent is enough of the moon to know there’s a moon. The rest is hidden in shadow but I know it’s there”

“Well it’s the same with Dad. He’s with us but we might just see bits of the old Dad, the one who laughs lots. But he’s still here. And in time – he’ll be back to his old self”

Listen to Black Holes and Hot Chocolate on the BBC Scotland Schools radio website here, play from 9 minutes 20s.

The commission was to write something for KS2 with a stargazing theme and a link to Australia. I set it on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh but it could be any hill near a town or city in Scotland.

Half way through writing the story, physicist Stephen Hawking gave a lecture to celebrate his 70th birthday. He talked about black holes and compared them to depression. I’d pitched black holes as a metaphor to the BBC before Stephen did his lecture (tiny bit annoyed he got there first!) but I loved his beautiful words:

Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out.

Stephen Hawking

Read more about his lecture on ‘Image’ here.

Here’s how I wrote about black holes in the story, They’re looking at the constellation signus the swan:

“Signus is where the first black hole was discovered. It’s called Signus X1. The X means black hole…

“And one because it’s the first one?” Said Ben

“Right. It’s kind of darker than the surrounding area – can you see?”

Ben could see a sort of dark shape but he wasn’t sure if he was just imagining it.

“It sucks everything in, even light.”

“Do you think that’s how it feels for Dad?” asked Ben.

They were quiet for a moment, staring at the stars.

“Maybe, sometimes” said Mum “I think sometimes he feels like he’s in a dark tunnel but he’s holding on. Like if you’re on a train – you don’t jump off when it’s dark, you wait until you come out of the other side.”

“Do things come out of the other side of the black hole?”

“Well, not exactly… they get squashed.”

They laughed.

“I prefer the idea of a tunnel” said Ben.

“But things can’t just disappear. No one knows what’s on the other side of a black hole. Energy can’t be destroyed, it just changes from one form to another. There’s always hope Ben.”

The BBC team tested the story in school at different stages and I worked hard to rewrite it while keeping the story to it’s 8 minute broadcast length. We knew this was a potentially difficult subject to engage children on, I was asked to give it a happier ending. We also knew that one in three men in Scotland suffer from mental health problems in their lifetime so this is something children in Scotland will have come across, even if they’ve not talked about it. That’s why it’s important people do talk about it.

So often it’s the stories of people with metal health problems we hear but there’s also the story of those around them. Their story is just as important.

The school curriculum in Scotland has relevant outcomes that all children are required to learn in school from nursery age upwards including:

  • I am aware of and able to express my feelings and am developing the ability to talk about them.
  • I know that we all experience a variety of thoughts and emotions that affect how we feel and behave and I am learning ways of managing them.
  • I understand that there are people I can talk to and that there are a number of ways in which I can gain access to practical and emotional support to help me and others in a range of circumstances.
  • I understand that my feelings and reactions can change depending upon what is happening within and around me. This helps me to understand my own behaviour and the way others behave.
  • I understand the importance of mental wellbeing and that this can be fostered and strengthened through personal coping skills and positive relationships.
  • I know that it is not always possible to enjoy good mental health and that if this happens there is support available.

I’m so grateful for a school system in Scotland that supports conversations like this one. I really hope you enjoy it. Please pass it on to any teachers you know who might be interested.

Listen to the whole program for a fab space story from author Gill Arbuthnott proceeding mine, it’s called ‘A Long Way From Home’. Black Holes and Hot Chocolate starts at 9.20. Both stories were first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 22nd March 2017. Listen to the whole episode here.

Thanks to Rob Pearson, Producer at BBC Scotland Learning; Angela Darcy and Terence Rae who read the story; to the school children who fed back on the first version, to my agent Lindsey Fraser and to everyone else involved. Finally – thanks to you for listening. 

 
 

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Making Space in Italy

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I’m staying here, in the mountains in Italy for a month. I’m on a writing retreat. I’ve been here a few days now and I’ve been thinking about what it means to have space and slow down.

Claudia
I was working in the piazza earlier in the week when a girl asked to draw in my notebook. She was about five and her name was Claudia.

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She started her drawing with a line at the top and bottom of the page. She smiled at me and I said “very good” in Italian. She continued to draw a figure at the bottom of the page. She explained it was her and she wrote her name. I smiled and went to take my notebook back. She pulled it back and started another picture on the next page, with a line at the top and bottom. She explained in Italian, this was her friend Bernadette:

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She turned the page and explained she now needed to draw Stephanie. At this point I turned the page back and pointed to the space above her self portrait. She could draw Stephanie there.

She shook her head and smiled and turned the page again. I turned it back. There was loads of space and this was the only notebook I had. 

She said something Italian in a loud annoyed voice and shook her head. So I said okay and she turned the page and grinned. She left a page defiently and grinned again before drawing Stephanie. And then she left me to play with her friends.

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We All Need Space
And I realised the thing she wanted was space. It was part of the picture. Yeah there was room to squeeze Stephanie into her first drawing but she wanted to use more pages. That’s why she marked out the top and bottom first – the whole page was part of the picture, space included. And even at five,  she wasn’t going to let anyone take the space from her.

Boundaries
When we’re busy our space gets less and less. We’re not always good at drawing lines to mark our boundaries like Claudia did. We squeeze things into every gap and we miss out on the space in life.

Space to rest. Space to think. Space to create. Space to notice others. Space to love. Space to be.

I had an email from my literary agent Lindsey earlier today. It was reminding me that I had the luxury of time and space. Normally I’m writing to deadlines, this trip was something different. Lindsey said:

give yourself room to breathe

So I’m going to try to do that here. I’m listening to Lindsey and I’ll try to be like Claudia, the kid I met who used lots of pages and knew she needed space.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2015 in illustration, Writing

 

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Travelling in Time and Space

pioneers

On Friday a mad lady scientist took her time machine through history to pick up some lady scientists and bring them to the Dundee Women in Science Festival. The resulting ensemble was called the Lady Scientist Stitch and Bitch. This was the fourth performance since the Illicit Ink spoken word show began a year ago at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

I’ve loved being part of it – sitting in a sewing circle with such wonderful characters. These wonderful characters are wonderful writers too – they each researched a character from history and wrote and performed a piece as that character. I’m mostly quiet during the show while the scientists talk about who they are and why their achievements matter. I play Emma Darwin, she is brought along by accident (The mad lady scientist was going for Charles but he was stuck in the privy). The other scientists dismiss Emma but right at the end I speak to question if any of it matters. I talk about having kids and knowing loss and about the fear of loving someone who has completely different views on the most important things in life. I wanted to get to the heart of what really mattered to Emma:

“I’m not a scientist, does that matter? I am a woman, does that matter?

Read about the Lady Scientist Stitch and Bitch in the Dundee Courier here.

Lost Among The Stars

And now it’s happening again, a collaboratively written Illicit Ink show. But this time I’m lost in space, not time. Again I say very little until the end. Again there are many different beautifully written characters. Some performed by the writers and some performed by actors. I’ve written and am performing as Tara the astronaut. She’s the one who gets lost. In Space.

Getting Into Character

I found it quite challenging – trying to imagine I’m alone in space and about to die. I listened to astronauts talking about their experiences on Radio 4. I looked at pictures of the earth from space. I had to record a few audio sections ahead as part of a conversation with mission control – but it didn’t smell right (I was slow cooking sausage casserole at the time – space shouldn’t smell of sausage casserole).

But when I read the heartfelt, beautiful monologues written by Tara’s boyfriend Jeffrey (I keep calling him ‘my imaginary boyfriend’ but that sounds a bit odd! His name is Ricky in real life) and the piece by Tara’s sister, who’s kind of half hates her but also loves her too (that’s written by Mel and acted by Roanna) – when I read their work I realised, it isn’t about being lost in space. It’s just about being human. So I managed to write a response to other human’s beautiful words with space as a geographical location. It’s about being real with stars. And I’ve always loved stars. I studied physics, I’m a planetarium presenter, I’ve written space episodes of Nina and the Neurons, I was making rockets on mothers day – I’m still kind of geeky with all things space. Maybe I’m more like Tara than I realise.

Space Wobbles

I’m pretty nervous about my writing and the performance. We had a rehearsal last week and I was totally impressed with everyone’s pieces. There were proper professional actors who were really good. Even the voice of mission control sounds like he’s actually working for NASA! I’m hoping I won’t spoil it with my bit. I’m hoping I won’t pee in my space suit. If I were an astronaut, that would be okay – they wear giant space nappies. The thing is, I will actually be wearing a space suit. But not a giant astronaut nappy. I expressed my fears to show producer Babs, she reassured me that they asked me to do this part because I can write sentimental without being crass. I keep trying to remember what she said.

ANYWAY, this isn’t the first time I’ve written a last address to the world, just before gruesome death. Last time it was for another collaboratively written Illicit Ink show during a zombie Apocalypse. You can read about that and see a video here.

AND this isn’t the first time I’ve written about being lost in space. Here’s a comic, created by me age 11. Okay so it’s about a dog going into space but use your imagination. I needed to go somewhere after giant nappies and zombie apocalypses. Meet Space Dog, yes I know – classic school ending to the story too (sorry!):

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Sadly there is no happy awakening at the end of Apollo 21. And no dogs. There will be space and music and humans. I may or may not make it back to Earth. 

Apollo 21: Lost Among the Stars will be performed on the evening of Wednesday 15th April at The Royal Observatory Edinburgh. Get Tickets from the Edinburgh International Science Festival website here. The Lady Scientist Stitch and Bitch sold out at the Science Festival Last Year so get your ticket early to avoid disappointment! 

 

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Blast Off at Solas Festival

rockets

Nine years ago I wrote a rockets show and workshop and took in on tour around Wales and England. That’s me back then – blasting off an alza seltzer rocket from a film canister at Hatherop Primary School. It was part of an MSc in communicating science, my dissertation title was ‘developing and evaluation space themed education materials for primary schools’. So I got to do space in schools. I loved it!

Now I’m taking rockets to the Solas Festival in Scotland. We’ll be blasting off in the big barn (Venus 1) at 2.30pm on Saturday 22nd June. Here’s what the programme says:

5, 4, 3, 2, 1… BLAST OFF! Join us for an interactive family science show and workshop. Predict, experiment and discover the science behind forces as we launch rockets up into the air. Make your own straw rocket and enter it into our family rockets competition. We’ll finish up outside with one big blast off!

For the workshop section every family will make their own wee rocket and we’ll all have a chance to fire them through a hoop during our rockets competition.

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The show ends outside with the water rockets – they go really high so we need to be outside for that. I’ve been ordering rockets from all over the place and they’ve started arriving in the post – rocket deliveries are really the best kind of deliveries to get!

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Storytelling and Spoken Word

I’ll also be storytelling in a yurt (Lyra) at 12.00 on the Saturday and I’ll be doing a bit of spoken word for teenagers and grown ups in the yurt (Orian) at 4.30pm too so if you’re heading to the festival please do come and say hello.

This is what I look like now by the way (I won’t be wearing that green T shirt but I do still have it!):

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Top Tips for Solas

I’m excited about seeing one of my favourite shows ‘The Man Who Planted Trees‘. This will be the eighth time I’ve seen it. I know, I’m a groupie. In fact I like it so much I once interviewed the dog from it, he is very funny! Listen to the interview on audioboo here.

I’m also looking forward to seeing poets Liz Lochhead and Harry Baker. The music looks great too, I’m especially looking forward to seeing fab Edinburgh folk band Kite and the Crane again. There’s also a Zombie Science show that I feel I must see!

Oh and coming back to the space theme – can’t wait to see the show ‘Let’s talk about Space‘!

Find out more about the Solas Festival online.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2013 in Education, Events, Science, storytelling

 

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Banana me beautiful: Spotlight, space and John Muir

In three days I launch my first book. I wouldn’t belive it but there are two big boxes of ‘Banana me beautiful’ merchandise in the middle of my lounge, intent on tripping me up and continually reminding me, IT IS REAL. I’m going public with my life and I’m afraid. An encouraging quote on the Scottish Book Trust for writers Facebook wall helped me to feel better:

‎And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt. ~Sylvia Plath

Today I watched Atlantis launch into space live on NASA TV, it was wonderful. I thought about how small the world is, you can’t help but notice it four minuets after take off – the Earth is a ball in space. But also, watching something live from America makes the world seem small too. The internet beams signals up to space and back, I couldn’t help but think that someone on the other side of the world could be reading the Edinburgh Spotlight feature that came out today and bam, my book has traveled round the world via space too.

Today I had a message from Jeffry Koterba. He draws the most amazing cartoons. He’s a multitalented man and he wants to talk to me about Banana me beautiful. I’m astounded 1) that he’d want to talk to me and 2) the world really is that tiny place, connected through space.

Today I was astounded by floods in Edinburgh, sometimes things you don’t expect just happen.

Last weekend I was fortunate to attend a John Muir Art Eco Lab. John Muir didn’t see the Earth from space but without seeing it, he got it. He shines the most magnificent spotlight on our wee planet:

When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with islands and continents, flying through space with all the other stars, all singing and shining together as one, the whole Universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty. This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere. The dew is never dried all at once. A shower is forever falling; Vapour forever rising. Eternal sunrise, Eternal sunset, Eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn as the round Earth rolls.

 
 

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