Friday, March 13, 2020

Biophilia






Homemade bird food - attempt #1, and a book on bees

'Barnabee', oil on canvas board (the model was already dead!)


"The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure."
 Oliver Sacks, quoted in this Brain Pickings post

"When humans come into contact with benign soil bacteria such as Mycobacterium vaccae, proteins from its cell wall trigger a further release of serotonin from a specific group of nerve cells in our brains. So it seems that a bit of weeding can be good for more than just your herbaceous borders."

Mitchell, Emma: The Wild Remedy. How Nature Mends Us
Michael O'Mara Books Limited, London 2019, pp.9f.



I have always found weeding therapeutic (although sometimes it can lead to ruminating), but it was interesting to read the scientific explanation in Emma Mitchell's wonderful book about the medicinal effect of nature on her depression. Through that contact with soil, together with inhalation of the volatile compounds and oils of plants (which produce some of the same effects on the systems of the human body as on plants - protection from viruses and bacteria), the endorphins from exercise, and the release of serotonin via sunlight on our skin and the eye's retina, a simple walk in a green space yields numerous benefits from nature's pharmacy.

There was an interesting article in The Irish Times recently about reconnecting with nature that specifically mentioned fractals, the visually complex patterns found in nature. I cannot find it online, but it quoted physicist  Richard Taylor, who explained that "Your visual system is in some way hardwired to understand fractals, and the stress reduction [of being in nature] is triggered by a physiological resonance when the fractal structure of the eye matches that of the fractal image being viewed." In some of Joe Dispenza's newer guided meditations, he uses fractals for tuning into the energy centres of the body, and I am keen to get back into those, though they seem too advanced for this lapsed meditator (I have only been doing very short meditations in the last few weeks).

I know I will always feel better after spending some time outside, but some days I don't heed that call and self-sabotage instead. So I am grateful for friends who get me out even on my worst fatigue days. This morning I lay on the couch and my body ached all over (the now familiar aftermath of going to see my oncologist for results - thankfully they were good! And yet, for the first few days the relief and gratitude are mixed with utter exhaustion), and just as I was tempted to binge-watch Grace and Frankie at 9:30 in the morning my neighbour asked me whether I wanted to join her for a walk. And of course it helped.

A few weeks ago we were dog-sitting, and even though I had a flu-like cold and there were almost continuous storms, I managed to take the dog for walks. They were exhilarating. I would slowly crawl up the hill to the bog road at the end of our cul-de-sac while the dog kept running ahead and looping back. There was a puddle that had turned into a pond and was effectively blocking access to the grassy bog road. But I wore wellies and waded through it, and each time I would stop in the middle, feeling the cold of the water around my feet and legs and looking at the abundance of lichen on a tree which seemed to glow in the dim grey daylight, and I would temporarily be lifted out of whatever thoughts were going around in my head and feel immensely grateful for another day.

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My nephew and I made posh bird food recently - it involved coconut oil and organic pumpkin seeds. I won't link to the recipe, as it wasn't really a success (it didn't hold together when I cut it). We might try the recipe from Emma Mitchell's book Making Winter next. The bird balls we usually put in the feeders all come in plastic packaging (though admittedly I haven't done much research around it. There must be other options - we did spot fancy ones sold individually in a shop in Oughterard, but they wouldn't be feasible for the amount the birds in our garden get through in a week!), so I figured making our own would be a good idea.

We had looked into getting bees, but right now it feels like a lot to take on, so for now we are focusing on making our garden as bee-friendly as possible. My sister gave John this beautiful illustrated book on bees. A while ago I brought a dead bumblebee back to life on canvas and we hung the painting at a child-friendly height in our sitting room.



Sunday, February 9, 2020

Retreat









"Time is a box formed by thoughts of the past and the future. When there is only the immediate now - when you’re not dwelling in the past or anticipating the future, but you are just right here, right now – you are outside of time."
Ram Dass


The first photo above is from October when we were dogsitting Georgie and my nephew stayed with us, but it is a good reminder to be in the moment, and it captures multiple sources I draw strength from: the unconditional love from my family; the pure affection and trust from animals; books; plants and sunlight; and lying down on the ground, connecting to the Earth. I was happy in that shot, even though I look - and probably was - exhausted.
 
After the good scan results in December I thought that I would be able to relax a bit until the next scan (which is now only a month away), but so far the beginning of the year has been tough. As much as I like to focus on oneness with all beings, there are times when this is a very lonely road.

The unanimous advice from healthcare professionals was to prioritise self-care and to make the return to work as gentle as possible and keep stress at bay. Instead I have reverted to people-pleasing and spread myself too thin and put the (perceived) needs and expectations of others first, running around and becoming breathless and frazzled.

I have come to realise that I have been trying so hard to function at a time when I need to mind myself and process everything. Then there have been pains and other symptoms, lingering chemo brain and the fatigue hitting me after a long day, and I neglected my routines, so it is no wonder that I haven’t been coping well.

In the past, this time of the year involved working crazy hours preparing for a festival. This year I am overwhelmed by my inbox alone. A lot of tasks feel like wading through treacle.

One of the most enjoyable couple of hours was a recent morning during a storm when the electricity went and I sat at the table reading and writing by candlelight and attempted to heat water on the stove. It seemed like a clear sign to slow down.

So it is back to basics again. I have been talking to people who have been through similar and to therapists and mentors, and what emerged was the need to retreat and to come back into my body and give myself a break. One exercise that is often suggested for grief and trauma is to gently hit or tap your body with your palms or fingertips, and you can do it throughout the day.

For a more passive practice, I often just lie on the floor, either on my front, propping up my hips on toilet rolls in the absence of chiropractic wedges (homework given to me by one of my healers), or in a legs-up-the-wall pose. Both are very soothing for the nervous system. 

Going to work is easier on several levels when I wear thermals and have a flask with ginger in hot water, two simple grounding things my healer also recommended. She also advised me to use oil all over my body. I like to add in warming essential oils such as chamomile.

The books I am reading at the moment are a good mix, though mainly non-fiction, apart from William Trevor's short stories (usually I always have a novel on the go as well). I keep getting the right recommendations at the right time. Joel Goldsmith is a revelation. The Source is further evidence that neuroscience is finally catching up with what Eastern wisdom has known for a long time (though I feel conflicted about some aspects of the Law of Attraction, as they seem to ignore the large proportion of people who are not cushioned in privilege).
 
I am doing Oprah and Deepak’s current 21-day meditation course ‘Perfect Health' and started writing Morning Pages again (I bought Julia Cameron’s book years ago and did some of the exercises in The Artist’s Way for a while, but never kept them up. I am about to join a local course on it). After several nudges towards A Course in Miracles, I am now doing the workbook via Paul Babin's Youtube channel The Abundance, at my own pace. His deep, calming voice has accompanied me on and off over the last two years. He also has new meditations specifically for women with major health challenges.

John gave me a sustainable yoga mat from Eco Yoga as a present, and it is so much nicer to use than the PVC ones. I had a standard mat for nearly 15 years that my sister's cat once used as a scratching tree and am keeping it for when somebody joins me (my nephews!), and I was shocked to read that some studios dispose of mats after three months. This Jute one also has much better grip, and when you are face down on the mat you don't get that plastic smell that never seems to disappear from PVC.


Saturday, January 18, 2020

Books for wholeness | Author Sophie Sabbage






from The Cancer Whisperer by Sophie Sabbage




"The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep."
Henry Maudsley


Back in November I posted a shorter version of the below on my social media accounts for Lung Cancer Awareness Month and have been meaning to include it here as well.

I want to start sharing some of the books I have found helpful in my recovery, a steady stream of books that seem to keep coming into my life each at the exact right time. I was going to put 'Books for healing' in the title, but these days I prefer the term 'wholeness' and putting the focus on (already) being whole and healed.  

Among these books are a couple that upon finishing leave you feeling almost complete and as though they had unlocked the secret to life, the universe, everything - years ago I felt that way when reading Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now, a book that seemed to make all other self-help books redundant. More recently books such as Michael A. Singer's The Untethered Soul and A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson have had this effect. And it has become clear that I need to read those kinds of spiritual texts on a daily basis, in order to fully absorb and consolidate the teachings, and that I enjoy reading 'variations on the same theme' by different writers and masters. 

There is a sub-section in this category: books that are specifically about cancer, though obviously go beyond that, and while I am a bit unsure as to how much I want to read about cancer - inevitably you come across statistics or other details pertaining to your own situation that you then try to erase from your mind - I still have a few of them.

One of those 'cancer' books is The Cancer Whisperer by Sophie Sabbage. She has stage IV of the same type of lung cancer that I was diagnosed with, but with a different mutation, and has miraculously overcome several rounds of brain metastases. Her book is part memoir, part self-help, part spiritual guide. She writes eloquently and beautifully, with wisdom and authenticity and a rawness that will resonate with anyone on a similar path. I can open it on any page and find something that will connect me to that inner source of strength we all have.

The book also acknowledges the role grief may play in lung disease. I was familiar with Traditional Chinese Medicine, and while it was a huge shock when I found out I had lung cancer, a part of me felt it made sense, as the lungs are the seat of grief in TCM and I had never worked through my grief following my dad's death from cancer when I was a teenager (he died within weeks of being diagnosed) and other trauma. Sophie has a lot to say about this topic. She gave a TedX talk about grief and loss in her exquisitely poetic style that implores us to express sorrow.

Hers is a book for anybody dealing with cancer (not just lung cancer) and their family and friends, and it would also be of value to people who are not affected by the disease. She wrote it not long after her 'terminal' diagnosis - an incredibly generous thing to do.
I first got it from the library, but then bought my own copy, as I knew I would want to return to it again and again. Her other book, Lifeshocks, is also worth rereading. She continues to inspire me, and it is wonderful to see her thriving.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

All calm



My current moisturiser, made by my sister


A present for a friend


Milk and mask



December can be stressful at the best of times, but we have a choice in how we deal with it, and while I never really got that worked up about the season and am striving to eliminate the word 'stress' from my vocabulary (I am a big believer in the power of words and Marisa Peer's approach), this year we simplified it even more by agreeing to no longer give presents to every family member and generally opting for low-key in all areas. I kept up the tradition of baking different varieties of German Christmas biscuits, with my nephews helping me. The highlight of the pre-Christmas period was hearing John sing with the ConTempo Quartet again, in three different venues. The last gig had me in tears throughout.

It is an emotional time of the year for me. Christmas heightens the absence of those we have lost - the other day it struck me that I am the age (36) that marks the point where I have had half my life with my dad and half of it without him. Two years ago I miscarried a week before Christmas on the day of our 12-week scan and then was diagnosed with stage III lung cancer out of the blue a few months later. Both last year and this year I had CT scans of the brain, thorax and pelvis in mid-December with all the scanxiety surrounding them, and last year around this time my mum had tests that would lead to her being diagnosed with breast cancer. My feelings are swinging wildly on the pendulum between exhaustion and fear on one end and immense gratitude (my new mantra, given to me by my amazing hypnotherapist, is "Thank you Life") and joy on the other: right now, my mum and I are doing well; we have food and shelter and peace in our countries and loving humans and animals around us. I spend my days with fulfilling and rewarding pursuits, and in a lot of ways life is good.

Self-care is high up on the list of priorities this month and always. Two calming and grounding elements I find easy to incorporate into every day are aromatherapy and nature. I painted the forest scene above as a present for a friend, and it was quite meditative and therapeutic. Forest bathing has become a vital part of my healing, and in a way it has returned me to my roots (excuse the pun): we grew up in a village close to a forest, and my friend still lives there (as do my mum and younger sister). It brought back memories of foraging for wild mushrooms and hiking with my dad and all the exploring and playing we did in and around the forests of our childhood. I loved using so many different greens in this painting. Patients looking out at green from their sickbeds tend to recover faster, and luckily the views from our house offer an abundance of green.

My sister made me a lotion containing frankincense essential oil - I have been using this oil in various ways since I found out about its anticancer properties (I put it in a diffuser during my daily yoga practice, for example) - and geranium oil, one of my all-time favourites. I haven't asked her for the recipe yet, but a quick Ecosia search (I still use 'google' as a verb, even though I switched to Ecosia) yields a lot of great homemade beauty products including frankincense oil. It works well for all skin types, and the scent is heady and musky.

My friend Vu gave me the Weleda lavender bath milk when I was going through treatment. The combination of lavender and a milky consistency makes for one of the most soothing baths. It comes in glass, as does the seaweed face mask from a local company worth supporting, White Witch - their products are organic, vegan and ethical. John bought the mask for me, and I first used it after the worst of the chemoradiation, on the morning I finally felt stronger again, as in strong enough to apply and take off a mask (the things we take for granted when we are well!). I visualised myself emerging renewed and clear of all toxins and illness after rinsing off the mask. It smells energising, as it also contains mint, which together with the seaweed and the green tea forms a perfect trinity of green.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Painting - real life and fiction






I have been busy painting (mostly commissions) and am currently doing some housekeeping on my website and this blog, so it might look a bit messy here over the next few weeks. 

I am extremely, obsessively tidy in most areas - after a day's work, I put everything away, and this photo shows my studio in what I would call a chaotic state... (Sometimes I wonder whether I would be more creative if I could embrace a messy environment. I find Francis Bacon's studio fascinating and horrifying in equal measures). But on the computer clutter comes in so many disguises, and a lot of them require an IT person to sort them out and/or are frustrating to deal with, so I tend to let things accumulate and close my laptop and go and arrange my skeins of yarn or tubes of paint by colour, both of which are immensely satisfying tasks.

Apropos painting, I just finished reading the novel Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale, a new discovery for me. I love when a writer is able to conjure up a fictional artist who is completely believable and whose imagined work comes alive on the page. Siri Hustvedt does it exceptionally well and so does Gale, and I was surprised to learn that far from coming naturally to him, it was "totally alien" subject matter and thus a challenge. I am still thinking about his character's paintings. 

The other themes of the book - death, grief, mental illness, family dynamics - are also close to my heart, and Gale writes with empathy and insight. The structure of the book is handled so elegantly that I wasn't really aware of its form until the end. And it makes me want to go to Cornwall again. I went through a Daphne du Maurier phase a while ago, and between being immersed in her life and work and now Gale's, the Cornish landscape has become tangible like a fresh memory, even though I was a child when I last spent time there.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Energy levels



 Recharging my crystals at Spiddal beach


One of my favourite soaps



I see that my last post is from August. In September I had another check-up (a chest x-ray, and it was fine. My next set of CT scans - brain, thorax and pelvis - is in December), interrailed through five European countries, swam in the sea between trains, and spent a lot of time preparing to return to work, which I did at the beginning of this month.

I just finished reading Mark Boyle's The Way Home about his life without technology, and while I am not quite ready to go to the lengths he does (although a lot of the aspects of his way of life appeal to me), I am tempted, as I so often am, to give up all social media or even all online activity. I do not like having a mobile phone and only use it when necessary. My laptop I open every day, though I limit the time I spend on it and have started writing more letters and cards again instead of e-mails. But then I still come back here (and to Instagram).

A lot of people assume that I must have been bored while on sick leave for 18 months, but I genuinely don't know what boredom feels like. I have painted more than in the two previous years, read a lot of books, prepared food from scratch almost every single day and tried a new recipe every week, started learning Irish and brushing up on my French, looked after the housework and grocery shopping, spent hours every week gardening,  participated in life outside our home to some degree, visited family and friends, taught a few casual art classes at home with a core group of loyal regulars, dealt with various workmen (we are still renovating / fixing a lot of things), and so on. I have kept up a routine of daily exercise, yoga, meditation and energy healing that I am now worried I won't be able to maintain. And while I have learnt the value of community and know how important it is to be connected to others, I also love my own company.

During the times when I was too weak from the treatment to do anything (for a while all I could do was lie in a dark room; I couldn't even read), in pain and full of fear, I got a taste of what despair must feel like, but underneath it there was always that core sense of being ok. One of these days I will write more about the inner work I have done, with the help of some amazing healers, that got me through all that and continues to help me deal with this diagnosis.

While there is still the uncertainty, with scans every three months, I feel lucky and grateful to be in a position to do things, to work, to live life. When I was first diagnosed I couldn't imagine this time, and I have seen others (including my dad) die within weeks of being diagnosed.

So the challenge now is to keep up my self-care and healing routines and this slower rhythm while also being back - albeit part-time - in the world of work. My older sister has the 24/7 job of being a mother to two small boys and still finds the time for what is called slow living, making everything from amazing meals and bakes to her own homemade cosmetics* in addition to all her sewing, knitting, crochet and other creative projects, and she doesn't own a dishwasher. My younger sister somehow musters the energy to do a set of intense TRE at the end of a day of looking after a baby and a 4-year-old and also puts together beautiful photo books** and translates difficult texts all on the side, among tons of other things. While I do not know how parental fatigue and cancer-related fatigue (or residues thereof) compare, I am inspired and energised by my sisters.


*She didn't make the soap in the photo, but 50% of the beauty products I am using these days are made by her.
 ** Sibylle - I didn't know there was a second Aidan book! It's adorable!




Monday, August 26, 2019

A fairy tale in boxes



 







When I am at my mum's house, I love rediscovering books from my childhood. My sisters and I didn't divide up all our books when we left home, so our mother still has a substantial collection. Now that she has four grandsons, they are being introduced to our old books, and the last time I was there, I saw that this version of Rumpelstiltskin was in rotation for Emil, whose fourth birthday is this week. My sister feels conflicted about this strange primal story, with its explicit male dominance, and finds it rather bleak.* 

The book includes a note about the origin and possible meaning of this ancient tale (there are, as always with fairy tales, a lot of different theories and psychoanalytical interpretations), and when she reads the story to Emil she reads that bit, too, without missing a beat. So perhaps little Emil has an acute awareness of the potential motives of Rumpelstiltskin, who may be able to spin gold out of straw, but cannot attain human status and is therefore desperate to possess the queen's child, a 'living thing'.

This book has my name written in it and was a present, and I have a vivid memory of being in the sitting room of our first house and looking at it. The cover and one of the pages as well as a couple of details were imprinted in my mind, but I was surprised at how much I had forgotten. And it didn't register back then that the pictures were actually photographs of staged scenes of wooden cut-outs, made by Nanni Luchting.

Now that we are inundated with digitally created illustrations, it is extra special to see a book where every illustration was painstakingly created by hand, in this case using a method based on an 18th-century technique called 'Bühnenrahmen' ('stage frame'): for each picture Luchting built a framed wooden box arranged like a stage with a foreground, a painted background and partitions and peopled with 2-D wooden figures and props, adding in other materials such as gold thread and the straw visible in the second photo. The characters and objects cast shadows and look like they might slide across the page at any moment. The effect is eerie and reminded me of the so-called 'silent companions' from the 17th century, life-size cut-out portraits that served as a welcome for visitors to a house. 

I couldn't find any information on Nanni Luchting; online there was only evidence of one other box creation by her, and when I check now it no longer comes up. Whoever she is or was, I am grateful for these beautiful mesmerising worlds within boxes she gave us.


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