Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Sea and seeds

The Sea, the Sea and the sea

 Our hens love oats. They don't love cauliflower.

Gardening goals

Although the Irish weather isn't always conducive to an outdoor lifestyle, I have been spending as much time as possible in the fresh air. In theory I subscribe to the phrase 'There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing', but when rain and strong winds combine, it takes a lot of willpower to brave the elements. In my mid-thirties I finally own a proper warm coat (the Michelin man type) and a pair of posh wellingtons that I could run in if needed. Luckily there have been a lot of sunny days, including today.

I am gaining a more visceral understanding of the basic fact that humans are meant to move a lot and do so outside. My extreme hippy days are behind me, but I have become a serious tree-hugger (after rereading Luisa Francia, in particular), and I talk to our plants (and all the animals, of course, but that is nothing new). I have yet to do another lung capacity test, but have been running uphill and trying to gauge whether I get out of breath more easily now that I no longer have a middle lobe, but I don't notice a difference (the other two lobes expand to fill the gap).

We ordered seeds from this company and are thinking of moving the hens to the front garden. My 4-year-old nephew helped me weed one of the flower beds with astonishing stamina and determination on his part. All these activities are therapeutic during this difficult time, and every day I am grateful for our beautiful surroundings.

Thanks to a voucher (which we then forgot to bring) John and I spent a night in Ballymaloe House and walked the grounds when not eating or sleeping or looking at the art. We fell in love with a very friendly pig at the amazing Eco Preschool based there. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of playing 'kitchen' with things found in nature, and I was delighted to see they had a mud kitchen.

I still haven't been for a swim in the sea since my diagnosis (avoided it during and following chemo, and then there was a question mark over radiotherapy and swimming/bathing), but intend to go back. I am interested in the Wim Hof method, but also aware that I keep adding things to my very long list of healing modalities (which I will list in a blog post soon), and there is only so much I can do.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

We keep going

"There are so many things that art can't do. It can't bring the dead back to life, it can't mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change. All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other's lives."
Laing, Olivia: The Lonely City, Canongate Book, Edinburgh 2016, p. 280

"Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place."
Sontag, Susan: Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors
Penguin Classics, London 2002, p.3

In the midst of everything that is going on (our Christmas was a 2-week wait for results of a biopsy my mum had undergone, and she was diagnosed in early January*), I keep returning to art, to art-making (not as much as I want) and viewing (the joy of going to see exhibitions and looking through my art books, which I have shaken up and moved around, putting together new stacks and creating different orders here and there in the house).

And reading. I read almost at the rate of a book a day. One book I lingered over was The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, and, since she references Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, I was compelled to dig out my copy and reread it. AIDS, cancer, TB... not exactly light reading (I do read for entertainment and escape as well), but important, and I find some solace and connection in these types of books.

I don't agree with everything Sontag says; I believe there is a psychological element to disease, and it makes a lot of sense to me that in TCM the lungs are the seat of grief, but I can see the problem with the overuse of metaphor around disease and the assigning of a 'cancer personality'. The book is interesting in its exploration of how illness has been depicted, understood and utilised in literature and society over the centuries.

A cancer diagnosis propels you into a particular kind of loneliness (though simultaneously, I am closer to my friends and family than ever before), and Laing's genre-defying work about isolation and creativity would have struck a chord with me even if I hadn't been ill, but some of the passages about AIDS held a more immediate significance than they would have previously. Her book also made me discover artists that had never been on my radar (Klaus Nomi and David Wojnarowicz, who both died of AIDS) and revisit artists I have always been fascinated by (Edward Hopper and Henry Darger, with a moving and sympathetic essay on the latter's 'outsider art').

Updated to add: Here is an interesting episode of Dr Rangan Chatterjee's podcast, an interview with Stephen Deuchar of the (British) Art Fund about the contribution the arts (specifically visiting museums and galleries) can make to our wellbeing.

*I am not sure how much I want to post about my recovery or what my family is going through. Since it was World Cancer Day on Monday, I posted on social media, here and here. Sometimes I want to delete all my social media as part of simplifying every area of my life, but then I come back, and I am grateful for everyone who visits and takes the time to comment. If you are one of the handful of people who know about this blog and still read it and you haven't heard from me, I have been slow responding to letters and messages, but I will. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Favourite paintings

"I love Dorothea. I want to spend the rest of my life with her. The picture is part of that life." 
Max Ernst, refusing a collector interested in Birthday, quoted in Tanning, Dorothea: Between Lives, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois 2004, p.72

Even though I lived in Spain for ten months years ago, I never made it to Madrid during that time. For my birthday this year John was going to take me there, as he knew how obsessed I was with Las Meninas by Velázquez; ever thoughtful, he wanted to make sure I would get to see it in real life. This was back in May, and due to some sporting event flying to Madrid wouldn't have worked out, so we picked Edinburgh instead, another place I had never visited.

As fate would have it, my chemo started sooner than expected and the first round was on my birthday, so we had to cancel the trip. While we still haven't gone to Edinburgh, going to Madrid in November turned out to be perfect timing. Not only did we get to see Las Meninas (and had the room to ourselves for 15 minutes, as we went first thing in the morning) and Picasso's Guernica, both of which moved me to tears, but the Reina Sofía museum happens to be hosting a large exhibition of Dorothea Tanning's work, so I got to see another of my favourite paintings, Birthday (see first photo). Seeing those three paintings, and all within the space of two days, was so powerful, I won't even attempt to describe the impact they had on me.

I had read Tanning's memoir Between Lives, and while I knew her later work was very different from the surrealism of paintings such as the ones pictured above, I only properly discovered that part of her oeuvre through this exhibition. Her soft sculptures, including this installation, were also quite an experience.

I am highly attuned to synchronicities these days (my sister wrote about one relating to books here): I was delighted that Birthday came to me during a trip which should have marked my birthday; the significance of rooms and doors both in this painting and in Las Meninas; and later in the Prado I was struck by how some of El Greco's work had similar neon-like accents as Tanning's later paintings - vibrant pigment on writhing abstracted bodies. And just now, I realised that I wrote about Velázquez here exactly a year ago. And I can echo Laura Cumming's words, which I quoted at the beginning of that blog post. I, too, am so grateful for and consoled by Velázquez.

Thursday, November 22, 2018


 Meditating in the grounds of Ballynahinch Castle,  August 2018

Our hens and one of our four-legged neighbours

Aidan at the beach in Spiddal

Since I wasn't able to enjoy the outdoors much during this summer's heatwave, I have been making up for it in the subsequent colder months. The week before my surgery we spent a magical 24 hours in Connemara, staying in the wonderful Screebe House, where we were greeted with a hug and glasses of bubbly by Ursula and a surprise awaited us, courtesy of thoughtful friends. The following day we went to Roundstone and one of Ireland's best beaches, where I walked barefoot in the water (the closest I have got to swimming in the sea this year) and then to Ballynahinch Castle for more walking and a meditation amid mosquitoes by the lake.

While work in the garden is less now, there is always something to do, and we are surrounded by animals (though poor Daisy is no longer with us). We got two hens in the summer, chosen and named by my nephews: Petunia and You-Know-Huhn (the naming required some prompts from the adults. Huhn is German for hen). They may not be very affectionate, but I love closing the door of the hen house in the evening and saying goodnight to their huddled shapes, and opening it in the morning and watching them devour their breakfast (organic food - only the best), with their fluffy behinds up in the air. The two donkeys faithfully show up nearly every day, knowing there are carrots, apples and the odd oatcake waiting for them. The other neighbouring field is home to two horses at the moment. Then there is Phoebe, our neighbours' dog, and sometimes one of the other dogs from the baile turns up, as well as various cats, who know where we feed the birds. 

My current favourite song - and one of my all-time favourites - is "Galileo" by Declan O'Rourke. My own curly-haired bearded man sang it as part of Culture Night, accompanied by this amazing quartet. It was shortly after my surgery, so I wasn't able to go, but he sent me a video, and it makes me emotional watching it. A few weeks later Declan O'Rourke played a gig on campus, and John came home with two records, one for me, one for him, which we have been playing non-stop.

Friday, November 9, 2018


Some normality has crept back into my days, and that includes getting things done around the house (we are still renovating three years after moving in). In autumn last year I deliberated over decisions, mixing three paint colours to get a calming shade for our bedroom walls (named 'Marina's Tears' by John), and spent hours painting. Fast-forward to October 2018, and it took me five minutes to pick a new colour without seeing it in real life, and this time we hired a professional.

For months we had noticed a strange smell in our bedroom, and after some detective work and paranoia (a diagnosis like lung cancer makes you extremely sensitive to any smells) it turned out we had got a bad batch of paint from a well-known company. In an effort to make their low-VOC paint even greener (not the colour), something to be applauded, they ended up with paint that allowed bacteria to grow, hence the cat-pee smell. The summer's heatwave aggravated it, but with everything going on we left it and moved into the spare room.

When I had recovered sufficiently from the surgery, the painter came and Marina's Tears disappeared under coats of stain block primer and the new colour (see first photo), which goes well with the blush colour in the dressing room. He also painted all the remaining timber and the radiators, and it has made a huge difference. We moved back into our bedroom, and that in itself has brought back more normality.

Though I happily interrupt that with different sleeping arrangements. My sister and her family stayed the night recently, and Aidan and I slept on the pull-out bed in the map room / yoga room. I had never shared a bed with a three-year old before; it melted my heart hearing his breathing.

I decided to tackle some small projects of my own and finally finished knitting the blanket that had been sitting in a big lump in various places for months and, momentum thus built, went on to knit a cushion cover for the guest room in two days, designing it as I went along, necessitated by running out of yarn: the other side features a pink square on a grey rectangle that has drawn generous comparisons to the art of Patrick Scott and Mark Rothko (apologies to both). 'Great to get that bit done', as they say here.

Friday, September 21, 2018


Daisy and I earlier this summer. She loved that sheep wool rug

 Work-in-progress: Self Portrait with Daisy

Since my last blog post I have had surgery and Daisy has been put to sleep (it happened when I was in hospital; they let me go home for a couple of hours to say goodbye to her). She was over 16 years old, semi-blind and -deaf and had cancer on her nose and kidney problems. She was with us for one year, and it is nice to know that she experienced all four seasons in Spiddal. The scab on her nose had progressively got worse, and the monthly injections to prevent it from becoming infected no longer helped. Towards the end she was very disoriented, walking in circles and disappearing into the polytunnel - she loved her sauna - for long periods of time.

Animals feel it when we are suffering, and Daisy was so good to me. After the miscarriage she would lie on my belly, and she would curl up to me (or climb onto me as shown in the painting above) when I was unable to move during the worst times of the chemoradiation and nearly always cover or touch the affected area. I believe I received a lot of healing from her.

We miss her, but it was time to let her go, and we are so grateful for the year she kept us company. It is eerily quiet in the mornings without her demanding her breakfast.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The new reality

 Distraction and escape

Instructions from John

Discovering new pieces of music; a poem about a bee sent by a friend who bought my beekeeper painting; 
IMMA booklet; a sketch for a self portrait with Daisy the cat; a photo from when we thought all was well, 
sent with a wedding thank you card; a small apple from our garden, found in the grass by my nephew

That was a long unintended hiatus from this space. The chest pain I mentioned in my last post turned out to be a symptom of lung cancer, a diagnosis I never would have expected, but had begun to fear during the weeks of tests and worrying. It is a rare form that tends to hit young fit female non-smokers like myself. As I write this I am entering a four-week break after four cycles of chemotherapy and five weeks of daily radiotherapy.

In among the uncertainty, fear and shock and feeling ill from the treatment (as fate would have it, the week around my due date was the worst in terms of side effects), there have been a lot of good moments.  First and foremost, I am overwhelmed by the love shown to us. So much help and support has come our way, in myriad forms - practical things such as lifts to and from the hospital, visits, phone calls, lunches, road trips, lawn-mowing, impromptu birthday celebrations (the first round of chemo was on my 35th birthday - we have the best neighbours in the world on this little cul-de-sac that is our Baile), the kindness of health professionals and healers. Two friends in particular got me through the weeks before the diagnosis. There are always fresh flowers in our house; we have received hundreds of cards and letters and thoughtful gifts. I have regained old friends, and so many people, even people who don't know me, have got in touch.

I have never been closer to my family; they have been amazing. My mum has been looking after me for nearly three months now and is about to go home to Germany for a while. We have spent a lot of time with my sister (who, among other things, drove me to a faith healer three times and has been cooking and baking healthy meals and treats, all with a baby and toddler to care for) and her family, and my younger sister (+bump) and her family are coming soon - even though they are in Germany, it feels as if they have been here as well, as we have so much contact - she sends me carefully selected quotes first thing each morning and has been doing research for me. She also put me in touch with this incredible woman.

John and I made it to Dublin one Sunday to see the current Freud Project exhibition at IMMA. I felt like an old woman walking around the gallery, but I was glad we went. The curator has juxtaposed paintings by Lucian Freud with works by artists including Gwen John and Marlene Dumas and writers Emily Dickinson and John Berger, among others, as well as watercolours of plant and animal cells by Lucian's grandfather Sigmund Freud and various audio recordings (of a song, a short story, an interview with a plant biologist) - a fascinating, wondrous mix.

A few months ago John bought this beautiful book as a gift for someone, then decided to keep it. Most evenings he will look up that day's page and then find the corresponding piece and play it.

I was reading too many books about cancer and healing and have returned to reading for pleasure (getting lost in Zelda Fitzgerald's life and Michael Harding's latest memoir). After weeks of feeling stuck I am also drawing and painting again and have taught three art classes from home since starting treatment. John is helping me with my paintings based on views of Galway Bay - I would always take notes of the changing skies and the sea on our way home, and he supplied the one above, with detailed information and a gentle nudge...