Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A small island in winter

We picked the coldest day of this year for our overnight stay on Inis Meáin. To conquer the cold we spent most of the time walking and some of the time drinking hot whiskey. This was my fourth time on the island, and it has to be one of my favourite places for walking. If you struggle with practising mindfulness, walk on Inis Meáin. The view is spectacular no matter where you are, and the abundance of stone walls creates a trance-inducing pattern to traverse. You are reminded how very little you actually need in life. We certainly didn't miss wifi; we both read more than we had read in the previous two weeks.

I had brought Robert Seethaler's A Whole Life (I got it in the English translation, as I wanted to pass it on to others), and we both read it in one go and loved it and reread passages. With its themes of landscape and solitude, it was a fitting read for this place. Then I started and finished Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, and while it would be far-fetched to make a connection, it also seemed a perfect read for this island retreat. Perhaps it is something to do with the act of reading a novella in a small house on a small island, a strangely beautiful haunting atmosphere evoked in a slim volume, an entire universe revealed in one sitting. There was also this contrast: It describes an unusually warm day in March 1924, and I read it on almost the same date of this unusually cold March of 2018 and imagined feeling the buzzing warm air.

The renovated cottage we stayed in gave us a glimpse into what life would have been like for the islanders of the past and still is for some. We saw picture book scenes that no doubt were the beautiful façade of a labour-intensive existence - a lamb next to a cockerel in a field, cows with healthy thick coats, painted water pumps. The Harry Clarke windows in the church are worth repeat visits. The people we rented accommodation from were in love with the island and chose to come back after time on the mainland, and while it can be bleak and harsh, especially in the colder months, it has its own rewards.

I read and walked and slept (or attempted to sleep) through stabbing chest pains that have had me on edge for the last two weeks and returned, if not without symptoms, more at peace. And the sun came out on the second day; we opened the front door and got a chair and sat in the perfectly sheltered entrance.

Friday, February 9, 2018



Daisy is more affectionate than ever. Animals really are able to tell when somebody is in pain. She seeks my company and purrs at the loudest volume possible for her 13-year old self. I regularly fall asleep on the couch with her in my arms.

I am finishing illustrations for a sweet story about a walking stick, and Rab's new book (with my drawings) has just been published.

One thing the last two months have taught me is to slow down. I am quitting self-sabotaging, energy-robbing actions that used to be so much part of my daily life that I wasn't conscious of how corrosive they had become.  And I have only myself to blame for most of them. One example: Now my default is that I only check e-mail once a day unless I am in work and don't have it open in another tab while working on the computer. I have never been tied to my phone: I have very few apps, it is on flight mode half the day, and it doesn't ping. But on the laptop I used to have e-mail open, and since even the awareness of your phone/e-mail in your periphery affects your cognitive abilities, I make sure to clear as many of the surrounding distractions as possible.

The days I work from home I have been taking breaks to do some gardening. Earlier this week I removed all the dead dead plant debris that was in the way of the daffodils that are trying to emerge. I only spent half an hour outside and gathered three wheelbarrow-loads, but it cleared my head and it was satisfying to see the transition from brown to green. 

I re-read Oliver Burkeman's piece on underachieving, a timely reminder. The fortunate side-effect of all this slowing down and doing less is that I am doing more of the things that matter as a result.

Friday, February 2, 2018

In progress

The moss stitch blanket I had been wanting to make for years is finally taking shape and is the easiest thing to knit, which makes it ideal for knitting while talking, but not necessarily to switch off your brain. Something more challenging would be required for that, though I do try to enter a trance of knit-purl-knit-purl, akin to a breathing exercise. I am using DMC Natura XL (cotton may not be the warmest choice for a blanket), but with size 8 needles, not the suggested 12, as it was too lacy with the latter.

The sky and the horizon in the large seascape change colour every day, as I cannot decide on the combination. Originally this was upside down and the dark blue was a beginning blurry cloud, inspired by a view from the car on our way home. Then John came in and turned it on its head, and now the sea has become the sky and the cloud is turning into who knows what, but I like it.

We watched a BBC documentary about the artist James Dickson Innes last night, and it made me realise once more how vague and shy my colours can be. I am tempted to start afresh.

Monday, January 22, 2018


(This post contains some details about miscarriage)

A week before Christmas we got the bad news. It was the day of our 12-week scan (after five days of being ill, which turned out to be unrelated, but was worrying as I had started spotting parallel to it and ran a fever), and we found out it was a missed miscarriage: the embryo had died in week 7, but everything else had continued to grow and develop, accompanied by first-trimester symptoms.

I had been fearful of pretty much everything relating to childbirth and being a parent, but for some reason a potential loss was one thing I neglected to worry about - not that worrying has the ability to prevent anything. It all felt right, and I trusted my instinct. Now I cannot believe how I was so sure of my body.

Before it happened to us I knew several friends and acquaintances had had miscarriages and stillbirths, heartbreakingly sad stories. Since then so many more people have opened up about their experiences, including recurrent miscarriages. We do not know what the future holds, and I am trying to learn to not worry so much about what may or may not happen - we have no control over anything - and to live with uncertainty.

Strangely, the first book I read afterwards and derived some comfort from was 10% Happier by Dan Harris. It took this sceptic's memoir about embracing meditation and mindfulness (he is not particularly impressed by the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra) to get me back into meditation, an on-and-off relationship for me (unlike my almost-daily yoga practice), but now perhaps more needed than ever.

When I started meditating again, I was surprised at how fast the 20 minutes go by. I will experience physical discomfort when sitting still and have way too many thoughts, but it doesn't feel never-ending. It is the same when kneading dough for sourdough bread (my sister gave me a starter): 20 minutes that just evaporate.

It has only been seven consecutive days of meditating and yoga, as I took a break while regaining my strength; even though I knew it would aid the grieving process I couldn't bring myself to do anything beyond the basics to get through each day, and my energy went into holding it together in company. We buried what is referred to as the 'tissue' (in my case an intact fist-size sac with the embryo, and the placenta) under an apple tree in the garden, and I am glad we did. My sister had a baby boy a day after I miscarried, so there was some light and joy among the sadness.

My confidence in my body has been seriously battered, yet in some way I feel stronger, even though I am struggling to gain weight. I had always been convinced I would want a C-section - which of course is not easy either - if we ever were to have a baby, but having gone through labour pain (I used misoprostol at home*), I have conquered my fear of natural childbirth, even though it was terrifying and traumatic and with no happy ending. I can only assume it is similar to what women mean when they say you 'forget' the agony of labour.


Here are two articles about miscarriage and the silence that surrounds it, despite the fact that it is so common:

Earlier this month Kathryn Thomas, an Irish TV presenter, talked about her miscarriages on The Late Late Show

Actress Laura Benanti: My Experience with the Voldemort of Women's Health Issues

*There is no way to predict exactly how a miscarriage will proceed, and they vary depending on numerous factors. That may be the reason women are given so little information on what will happen (the lack of information is a recurring theme in the online forums). My obstetrician and GP were both wonderful. We were unlucky to have had a bad experience with Cytotec, including side effects, and I was weak from being ill, but I would choose this option (or waiting for it to happen naturally) again; I was glad I didn't have to go into hospital for a d&c. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Books | The Vanishing Man by Laura Cumming

"The painting I saw that day seems to hold death back from the brink even as it acknowledges our shared human fate. [...] Because of Velázquez, these long-lost people will always be there at the heart of the Prado, always waiting for us to arrive; they will never go away, as long as we are there to hold them in sight. Las Meninas is like a chamber of the mind, a place where the dead will never die. The gratitude I feel to Velázquez for this greatest of paintings is untold: he gave me the consolation to return to my own life."
(Cumming, Laura: The Vanishing Man. In Pursuit of Velázquez, Vintage, London 2016, p.4)

"The truth of life, the mortal truth of our brief walk in the sun, has to be set down in a flash of brilliant brushstrokes that are themselves on the verge of dissolution. The picture, the person, the life: all are here now, but on the edge of disappearing. It is the very definition of the human condition."
(ibid., p.264)

Velázquez's Las Meninas is my favourite painting, so I was thrilled to see Laura Cumming (whose book A Face to the World, about self portraits, blew me away) publish this gem of a book. It is the true story of a 19th-century bookseller's obsession with a portrait that led him into ruin, and a paean to Velázquez's genius, exploring the extraordinary humanity and dignity of his paintings, his deep respect for all his subjects.

So much has been written about Las Meninas, but Cumming adds her unique vision to all the voices. I felt a particular affinity with the genesis of this book, which was triggered by grief over the author's father's death, but the way Cumming weaves the universal truth of life and death into her story of this and other paintings is bound to move anybody reading her book. Cumming's life was changed by Velázquez and so was John Snare's (the bookseller), and The Vanishing Man has a lot to say about how we are affected by art, which of course we never perceive in a vacuum.

Las Meninas isn't the painting at the heart of this story, but it is a vital part and appears throughout the book, which combines (art) history, mystery, a double-biography and psychology in an intriguing blend of non-fiction. Both the bookseller John Snare and Velázquez are elusive figures, yet Cumming manages to bring them to life, and their presence in this world, which she conjures so beautifully and with such love and empathy, continues to haunt me long after finishing the book.

Here is a short video of Laura Cumming talking about the book.

Monday, November 20, 2017


The garden at Charleston

 The pond

 The front of the house, with bonus bearded man

  Walking across fields of gold from Charleston to Berwick Church

 Berwick Church

 Killer colour combo in Lewes

This summer, when we were in London for a wedding, we added on a night in Lewes at the beginning of the weekend, so we could visit Charleston, the country home the painter Vanessa Bell rented for decades, which was frequented by other members of the Bloomsbury Group, including John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry (and of course Bell's sister Virginia Woolf), as a temporary home, meeting place and refuge.

In Lewes we stayed in this lovely B&B, run by an artist. Our bedroom had a jasmine bush trailing outside the window, so this place ticked all the boxes and more and was the perfect prelude to our day trip.

I am fascinated by the Bloomsbury Set and am working my way through their oeuvres and their biographies. Years ago I bought two hefty volumes by and about Virginia Woolf, respectively, and more recently it has been the painters in the circle that have caught my attention. I left the museum shop at Charleston with Angelica Garnett's honest memoir about growing up as the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (for the first 17 years of her life she thought Clive Bell was her father) and a card of this dog, as I love long-nosed animals and the story behind this one.

We did a guided tour of the house, which was a good introduction (photos of the interior can be found on the website in the first link above), but the next time I would like to go on a Sunday, when there is a volunteer in each room and people can wander around at their own pace. The house is a treasure trove not only of all the artworks (both by inhabitants of the house and by artists they collected), but also of the idiosyncratic Charleston interior design by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. While my tastes are more minimalist, their style works so harmoniously, and on our return to Ireland I did feel the urge to decorate the panels of our doors and create my own wallpaper and fabric.

After the tour we spent some time in the beautiful cottage garden (my day job involves working closely with the University art collection, which includes this painting by Roger Fry - it was exciting to see the pond in real life) and then walked the forty minutes or so across the fields to Berwick Church, which has murals painted by Bell and Grant and Bell's son Quentin. We had dinner and drinks sitting in the beer garden of a nearby pub (we were very lucky with the weather) before getting a taxi back to Lewes, which is worth visiting in itself.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Natural beauty: Hair, skin, eye make-up

The less time I spend in shops, the less frazzled I feel, so I love finding things that work and sticking to them. Unfortunately, with hair care, the perfect product eludes me, and it may well be true that it is necessary to switch products every now and again anyway. Since I try to use only natural beauty products, this criterion narrows down the choice, thus simplifying the process, but of course that also means fewer options. On the rare occasion that I use non-natural products, my hair looks and feels better, but this is short-lived, and I would rather not use shampoo and conditioner with a long list of questionable ingredients. In that sense I am happy to pay the price in the form of sub-optimal hair.

I finished up the Trilogy shampoo and conditioner and don't think I will repurchase, as they did not do much for my frizzy hair. The castile soap I use for many of the 18 uses listed I haven't trialled for long enough on my hair, but according to my sister, the result is not satisfactory.

Now I am using Sukín, and so far, so good. My hair feels more manageable, though I got it cut shortly after I started using Sukín, so that is probably a contributing factor.

My Green Angel moisturiser was running low, and while I loved it, especially the jasmine and neroli scent, I had always wanted to try Egyptian Magic, which is all-purpose and therefore satisfies the minimalist in me (I also like Trilogy's Everything Balm). It is practically scent-free (the ingredients are honey, beeswax, olive oil, royal jelly, bee pollen and bee propolis), and while it doesn't sink into the skin completely, I have been applying it during the day (some people only use it at night for this reason) and haven't noticed an unwelcome oily sheen. You can also use it as a lip balm and on your hair and in numerous other ways. Daisy the cat has skin cancer on her nose, which manifests as a permanent scab-wound-scab cycle, and apparently some pet owners used Egyptian Magic successfully to make the scab disappear, so we might give it a go.

Going natural with make-up means I can avoid all the make-up counters and the accompanying indecision and just buy the products in a health food shop, where choice is definitely limited. I was out of both eyeliner and mascara and got Lavera for both. The eyeliner is probably the best I have ever had, and I don't have strong opinions on mascara. This one, while not giving an awful lot of volume, is great for everyday use.

I would prefer to use Irish products where possible and will look into it, and I will buy from Green Angel (the only Irish company mentioned here) again, but I think Egyptian Magic, like castile soap, is here to stay.