Wednesday, July 10, 2019

In the studio

Sibylle and Emil on Spiddal Beach

The finished painting

These days I am painting more than ever and finally finishing the book John and I are collaborating on. He says I tend to go from zero to 50 really quickly (the initial enthusiasm for a new project), then to 95 soon after, but then the remaining five per cent get dragged out. For me the last five per cent are usually a mixture of 'it's not as good as I wanted it to be and I need to start again' and frustration surrounding technical problems - I am self-taught in InDesign and Photoshop, and there are some gaps in my knowledge that are ultimately time-consuming and draining. I hasten to add that I do not procrastinate like this when there is an official deadline, so perhaps I have been too lax about working as part of a husband-and-wife team.

While I appreciate having a type-A high achiever by my side who always pushes me to do better and whose compliments often come with a flip side, I am proud of myself for having completed so many illustrations and paintings since my diagnosis. It has been therapeutic, and getting lost in something you are passionate about is the perfect antidote to scanxiety and worrying about the future.

Projects aside, the painting flows more easily now that I just paint whatever I feel like and have stopped worrying about themes and writing artist statements that could be straight from the arty bollocks website. It is so liberating, and the themes emerge after a while - I think I have always been drawn to the stream-of-consciousness approach to art-making.

I have been painting sea- and landscapes and family portraits and am working on a life-size (!) self-portrait, in the largest format I have ever worked in. To balance it out I am also painting mini canvases of nature studies.


I am watching The Durrells on Netflix. It is wonderfully escapist, and I only regret not having read the books first - they are on my list. My sister is also a fan, and as a seamstress extraordinaire she has been inspired by Louisa Durrell's wardrobe, in all its high-waisted 1930s glory. It is a pleasure seeing her latest creations whenever we meet up.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Garden glory

If John knew I used the title 'Garden glory' for a post about our garden (he doesn't read my blog), he would laugh. The reality of our garden is still far from our vision for it, and John regularly curses the lawn. I love having a big garden, but we are working towards transforming this soccer field into more of a roaming, meandering, garden-paths-among-trees-and-bushes-and-flowerbeds scenario. The bottom of the garden (visible in the background of the last photo) is marshy and sometimes turns into a pond. We contemplated sowing wildflowers, but despite the name and the associations it conjures, apparently they are not that easy to grow. A sea of irises, Van-Gogh style, would be lovely, too.

I am filling a sketchbook with botanical drawings. The one pictured is of a wildflower from a bunch John got me in the market.

At the other end of the lawn John discovered that there was a flat rock underneath the moss, hence the moss (though there is a lot of moss on the lawn in general), and has started exposing it (see second photo).

We are putting down mulch along the perimeter of the lawn to gradually move inwards with flowerbeds and other elements. And of course moving the hens (current names Petunia and Henrietta - still the same hens, but my nephew keeps changing Henrietta's name) onto the front lawn doubled as a step towards reducing the grass. And I can now see them from my studio. Donkeys or goats would be great, but for now we get our donkey fix from the two that come to the back wall.

It cannot be a coincidence that so many of our flowers are either yellow or purple, with a Wexford man as the main gardener (my responsibilities are currently on the weeding side of things, which is very therapeutic).

Thursday, April 18, 2019

All the vegetables

Scones made with grated courgette

Daisy last year

I have always eaten healthily, and these days I am 95% vegan, with no refined sugar and very little wheat. I do eat our chickens’ eggs maybe once a week, and I make the odd exception when eating out or invited somewhere, though I draw the line at meat. 

After stage III cancer I feel it is important to do everything in my power. Joe Dispenza says that when he worked as a chiropractor, the clients with most problems were those with 'perfect' diets and lifestyles, and I can see some truth in that as well. Putting pressure on myself and feeling stressed when some sugar or dairy passes my lips is perhaps just as ‘bad’ - or worse - for me as said sugar or dairy.

So instead of becoming too obsessed, I focus on including more of what is definitely beneficial: eight or more portions of vegetables and fruit a day, supergreens in the form of matcha tea and spirulina, and vegetable juices.

We grow some vegetables ourselves and get a box from Green Earth Organics every week, and we base our cooking around what is in the box. I always order extra carrots, as we juice every day (at the moment a mix of carrot, beetroot, ginger, kale and parsley). The day after I got my diagnosis I bought a juicer. There are stories of people curing their cancer with carrot juice, and while I would never have taken the risk of going for a dietary approach at the exclusion of other (including conventional) treatments and doubt those people did only this one thing, I am convinced by the benefits of juicing (and green smoothies). 

I make a lot of curries, chilli, soups and salads and I always throw in some extra vegetables. I have also mastered the vegan moussaka. Anke and I love roasting big trays full of vegetables that can then be eaten with anything and leftovers turned into a salad.

Another way of incorporating more vegetables is to use them in baking. Every summer we grate the abundance of courgettes into chocolatey tray bakes, and that cake always reminds me of home. I adapt a lot of the recipes in this wonderful book (see also photo above) by using other types of sweeteners and halving the amount. Each recipe includes a vegetable and alternatives to wheat such as rice flour or spelt. I have always liked baking, and now more than ever I think why bake any of the traditional white-flour, white-sugar, nutrient-deficient cakes when there are so many ways of baking healthier versions that don’t leave you with that sugar rush and crash. And they taste great, too.

These are my go-to websites for mostly vegan cooking and baking (they have published books as well):

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Yoga for healing

Yoga bolster, the only prop I have, thanks to a friend - I use cushions instead of blocks

View from my mat

Soy candle and diffuser

My 'yoga room' is also the 'map room' and where visiting babies and toddlers sleep

Shortly before I was diagnosed, I had completed one of Adriene Mishler's 30-day yoga challenges, which was no longer challenging, as I was doing yoga almost every day anyway. I felt confident that it had become a habit (again... I have a history of breaking habits*), in the same way that meditating for 20 minutes a day had become a habit. I saw both as a crucial part of healing from the physically and emotionally traumatic miscarriage the previous December.

The shock of a cancer diagnosis burst that lovely routine, and for quite a while afterwards, even when I had started doing other types of meditations and visualisations, I couldn't go back to yoga and the zen meditation. It felt so far removed - there I had been all those weeks on my mat feeling strong and healthy, oblivious of the fact that there was a 2cm tumour in my right lung that had already spread to a few lymph nodes.

Eventually I pulled up one of the YouTube videos again, with Adriene, who is a similar age and similar body type - and I felt as if I were from another planet, looking in on the activities of people who were 'well' and carefree. She talked about doing yoga after a tough day or something along those lines, and I remember thinking that for the majority of those listening, this meant 'tough' in the region of a difficult day at work, an argument or some back pain.

In real life, too, some alienation had set in - being healthy and starting a family seemed to be taken for granted by a lot of my peers, and both had collapsed within the space of months in my case. And it went deeper: most of the people in my life who are also in their thirties still have both parents and some even grandparents, while my dad died when I was 18. But I have never begrudged anyone their good luck or 'normality'; I am delighted for them. Paradoxically, along with the alienation I also began to feel closer than ever to my fellow human beings. And this was reflected in and no doubt helped by yoga (which is after all about union and being one with the source of all life).

We are all connected, and I focus on our shared humanity and how everybody is experiencing the human condition. And I am acutely aware that despite everything my family and I have been through, we are still incredibly lucky compared to people in other parts of the world, and I never really entertain the 'why me/us?' thoughts.

With the treatment I underwent, which was gruelling during the weeks I had both chemo and radiotherapy, it took a few months of feeling doomed and broken before I felt part of life again, and yoga has been a vital component of my healing.

I had never done yin yoga (where you hold a pose for several minutes) before. My hypnotherapist had suggested doing restorative poses for five minutes, and then I came across Yoga with Kassandra. Previously, I would have chosen videos around the half-hour mark and glanced at the clock every now and again, but now I regularly do 75 min or 90 min classes and lose all sense of time (well, I don't when a pose is hard to hold!).

It has a wonderfully calming effect on the emotional and spiritual level and has made me physically stronger and changed how I hold myself and how I move. For example, when I reach up to reach a shelf, I do it like a dancer and enjoy the stretch, possibly annoying anyone present. I crave stretching, and if by the evening I haven't done any yoga, I get restless.

I used to burn peppermint oil in the room I do yoga in, as it is energising (this was when I did a lot of vinyasa flows) and helps with the breathing, but now I nearly always use frankincense oil, after a friend recommended it for cancer. For some reason, I had twenty different oils, but had never bought frankincense oil before. So when I smell it, it is a reminder to say my healing mantras; I know that during my practice my cells get the benefit of the oil; and of course, being frankincense, it contributes to inner peace.


Here is an article about yoga and cancer. 

*It made me smile when I typed that, as it reminds me of the title of one of Joe Dispenza's books, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself -  I am doing very important work on breaking that habit! A lot of people find the title confusing, as it sounds counterintuitive, but it means releasing the subconscious programs that have been running us for most of our life.

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.