Sunday, February 19, 2017

Use the good china





A friend gave us an entire china tea set that she herself had been given as a wedding gift about three decades ago, and we have been using it regularly. The plates are the ideal size for cake and cake-like food.

My sister made these no-bake brownies a few weeks ago, and since then I have made a batch (half the recipe, because I never seem to have enough of one of the ingredients) every Sunday to have on hand for the week. They are packed with dates and ground walnuts and almonds and technically quick to make, but since I don't have a kitchen machine, I use a large knife to chop the dates into smaller and smaller pieces until they resemble a paste. I have an immersion blender with a separate part that has larger blades, but my sister ruined the blades on her blender with sticky dates, so I refrain from trying it. There is a bit of icing sugar in the ganache (I put in less than suggested, and the consistency is fine), but no added sugar in the brownie itself.

An almost sugar-free dessert I make a lot and keep in the freezer is this raspberry ripe, which takes minutes to make. It tastes best when it is semi-frozen.

With both of these you can only eat a small amount, as they are very filling, and you don't get cravings for sugar or stodge. They are delicious, and eating them from beautiful delicate plates (with your fingers, though - my photo lies) adds to the pleasure.



Friday, February 3, 2017

Daily drawing | Cottage






This is not our house, though we had viewed a couple of old cottages and were tempted (I was living in a small house myself at the time). We realised quickly that we wouldn't be able to cohabit in one without killing each other, so instead we have a house that lacks charm on the outside, but has a studio and space for not just us, but family and friends, and we have had so many visitors, it was the right choice.

This is a sketch of a house we pass on one of our walks. Postcard-pretty scenes abound around here.

Speaking of walks, John asked his wider family to submit three songs each for a compilation of 'chill-out music' for the unstable times we are living in, and it has been a great way of discovering new music. I love the simplicity of this song (John's aunt's choice) about a summer walk, and it captures the whole spirit of this project, putting aside one's worries for a while. It was written for the songwriter's children, and I have listened to it countless times already and play it in my art classes.

Other recent discoveries include watching Hitchcock's Vertigo for the first time, courtesy of my brother-in-law, and being blown away by the sumptuous use of colour, the sheer abundance of mesmerising scenes and the many possible ways of interpreting it. And I have made an oft-repeated pledge to peruse our own library before buying more books and am reading The Shipping News. I am also re-reading Art & Fear, an invaluable book a friend gave me years ago, a compassionate and passionate plea for artists to make their own work without worrying about the audience and use their own material, their own time and place. Like a summer walk with your kids.


Friday, January 27, 2017

Early morning walks









While daily walks have become a non-negotiable for me, I would love to be the person who goes for a walk or a run first thing in the morning. Especially when working from home, as a pretend commute. And on days off.

At least once a week over the past three months I have got a sense of what it feels like to be that person. I was offered some part-time work in a neighbouring village for a few weeks on the days I would normally work from home (saving up for that external wall insulation!) that mainly requires me to just be there, so in the 90% of quiet time I can do my own (portable) work.

Since we share a car and the village isn't within walking distance, John drops me off on his way to work, meaning I arrive almost an hour early, and in that hour I walk to the next beach. It is wonderful - I get all the benefits of a walk and the sound and smell of the sea and the sublime colours of winter sunrises. The days I do this I feel less lethargic while sitting at the desk. And yet I haven't done it once on all the other days when I didn't have an extra hour 'imposed' on me in this way.

Habits take months to form (the 21 days is a myth, sadly), and this job will come to an end before that magic turning point might arrive, so I will need to rely on my willpower and overcome my 'inner pigdog', as the German language calls the lack of the former, to make it happen. I am a morning person, after all.



Monday, January 23, 2017

Wheelbarrow and bird house








The sun has been splitting the stones, an incentive to do the very few January jobs there are in the garden (this gardening column advised to simply take this month to read gardening books - sadly I am still very far from calling myself a gardener, but nearly all the books she recommends are on my to-read list). John's father gave us a new clothes line, which we baptised with four of my hand-wash only clothes, a dance of glittery silky dresses sparkling in the winter sun.

He also gave us a bird house, and John painted it with non-toxic paint, but so far there are no occupants. We may well have to find a new location for it among some yellow, as this colour, though muted, could attract predators where it is now.

I am sketching in my one-sketch-a-day and my regular sketchbook, but the only painting I have been doing lately is on skirting boards and walls. It feels overwhelming when I think of the entire house, but breaking it down into rooms and single-task thinking helps. Last week I became obsessed with caulking - who would have thought that fixing loose architraves and skirting could have such a grounding effect. I guess living in a house exposed to the West of Ireland winds tunes you in to the impermanence of anything man-built, and gaps and cracks and looseness heighten that sense.

A year ago the builders were at work, and progress since then (us left to our own devices) has been slow. The next six weeks will be the busiest of the year in my day job, coupled with a new illustration project with a very real deadline, which explains why I suddenly have this urge to get everything else done.



Friday, January 13, 2017

Books | The letters between Astrid Lindgren and Louise Hartung


 The German edition of the correspondence

 Louise would send Astrid pressed flowers and numerous gifts

The photo on the back cover shows the two women with an actor as Pippi Longstocking



This book of letters between the Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, without whom my childhood wouldn’t have been the same, and her German friend Louise Hartung (who worked with children and was instrumental in Lindgren’s success in Germany; her vision was to heal a traumatised post-war youth with high-quality literature) was published last year*. 

A lot of the media reaction focused primarily on Louise’s open lesbian love for Astrid, which was never reciprocated. It is heartbreaking to read Hartung’s passionate and at times needy pleas to her friend, which were met with a detached response. Yet they continued to share a deep bond, formed when they traversed the ruins of Berlin, Hartung's city, together. Both women suffered episodes of melancholy and depression and both were capable of rapture at how wonderful life could be, and these feelings go hand in hand in these letters. The topic of death and the meaning of life comes up repeatedly, often triggered by a wry observation of Lindgren’s.

In general Lindgren’s letters are more measured and more in the traditional epistolary form initially, though she later opens up. Hartung’s letters are intense from the start. A bohemian intellectual and former singer, she had lived through two world wars and done extraordinary things: she was part of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s circle and involved in their Threepenny Opera, had hidden Jews in her summerhouse, been bombed out of her house in Berlin - a life story Lindgren, who thought herself ordinary, marvelled at from calm, neutral Stockholm.

Reading this book made me regret that I haven’t written more letters and renew my resolution to change that. I used to, but then it dwindled to the odd letter here and there. Lindgren apologises when more than two weeks pass before she writes to Hartung (who is offended when a letter remains unanswered for too long), and it makes me ashamed – make that two years, no twelve years for me! I have no idea how they found the time to keep the correspondence alive. Lindgren was fast becoming one of the world's best-loved writers of children’s fiction and would have had tons of correspondence through her work alone, as well as being there for her friends and family - in fact, she often mentions feeling overwhelmed by and torn between all the expectations and obligations -, and Hartung was equally hard-working and had a busy social life. And yet they loyally wrote to each other, over 600 letters in a time spanning eleven years, until Hartung’s death in 1965, which overshadows the reading of these letters. 

John bought the book for me on our mini-moon in the Moselle Valley, and it was a nice synchronicity to learn that Louise sent Astrid wines from the region, during a phase when the two exchanged excited notes on the many bottles of wine Louise sent from Berlin to Stockholm, disguised as ‘grape juice’ when she realised there were restrictions on posting alcohol. It appears that on one of their trips together they also visited my hometown.

It is all the sensory pleasures these women pepper their letters with that linger with me, the wine, being in nature (Hartung’s love of the sea and her gardens, Lindgren’s solitary walks in winter landscapes), art, the music they described so beautifully, all the books they shared, the thoughtful gifts, all of which often form the starting point for philosophical musings. Their correspondence can be read as a lesson in how to live well (even though both Lindgren and Hartung repeatedly bemoan the fact that they work too much, but of course that work formed an invaluable contribution to the world) - there is so much life and so much humanity in these two very different life stories that happened to converge in such a wonderful way for a decade.


*There doesn't seem to be an English translation (yet), unfortunately. Lindgren's diaries 1939-45 were published in English recently.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

New year newness








Tim Lott's column in the Family section of the Guardian last week started with a sobering, though not surprising, observation - according to surveys of New Year resolutions, what people care about is themselves (apart from seeing more of friends and family, the top five concern me, me, me). Now there certainly is some truth in the belief that in order to a better person, we need to look after ourselves first, but it is still depressing (and I am aware I am writing this on a personal blog, which is part of the whole navel-gazing, self-improvement culture we live in). 

I haven't thought up any resolutions, but John set a good template, which consists of three SMART ones (lifestyle, creative and giving back) and one 'fluffy' one (i.e. vague and therefore probably hardest to do), and at least three of them have the potential to include the wider world. I need to think about mine.

The only 'newness' I have incorporated into this brand new year so far is cleaning the fridge, getting rid of paper (the only household chores I have felt fit enough for, as I have the flu), buying new music and starting a new sketchbook. Being sick has meant the luxury of listening to several Desert Island Discs episodes in a row and reading for hours. The programme had me in  tears several times, from George Michael's answer to why he was in a relatively good place (it was recorded in 2007) - "Nobody died on me...in years...it took years for me to believe that these blows weren't gonna keep coming" - to Emma Bridgewater talking about her mother's death, and in general just the sheer humanity pouring out of the guests (I loved Mary Robinson's episode).

It is of course an excellent source for finding or rediscovering songs (and books), and I have been listening to Rufus Wainwright's "Going to a Town" about the Bush administration (very timely again this month), one of George Michael's choices and a song he would later cover.

Going through a pile of cuttings, I ended up looking up different singers, which eventually led me to this heartbreaking video (more on the song and animation here), which includes drawings made by refugee and displaced children supported by CARITAS - all net proceeds from sales of the single go to Australia's ASRC (Asylum Seekers Resource Centre).

My sister knows me well and got me a sketchbook that is asking me to sketch every day, and I have a feeling that with this one, I will. My first sketch is of our small armchair by the stove in the kitchen, with the blanket my sister and brother-in-law gave us for Christmas last year and a cushion knitted by John's late grandmother, which is the object he chose from her house. 



Saturday, December 24, 2016

A wee winter wedding







Last Saturday we said yes in front of a small group of loved ones in my hometown and will spend our first Christmas as newlyweds with my family. It will be the first time my two nephews are together at Christmas, so there is a lot of excitement in my mom's house. Amidst the wonderful chaos, I just wanted to check in to wish everyone reading this a peaceful and happy Christmas!