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.


Friday, August 9, 2019

Slow and simple

Nearly two decades ago, in a secondhand bookshop, I came across a book that had Voluntary Simplicity in its title. I put it back, resolving to buy it a few days later, but when I wanted to do so, it was gone. I never found that particular book again, but of course there are thousands of similar books, and the topic remained on my radar and eventually became a passion.

The concept wasn't new to me, either. We were taught to care for the environment from a very young age, and Germany had a green wave during the late eighties and early nineties - on our holidays in England we were surprised at the ubiquity of plastic bottles and bags. A lot of our paper - from exercise books to toilet paper - was grey recycled paper, and plastic folders and the like were banned from school.

Even though it took a few years before I seriously started committing to a simple life (I was never a maximalist, but in my early twenties I was so attached to some of my belongings that I travelled with a 20kg suitcase when visiting home, just so I could bring certain CDs, books and clothes with me), I always felt drawn to it. There are several aspects to Voluntary Simplicity, and I am far from mastering them all, but living with less, more sustainably and at a slower pace, has been immensely satisfying and freeing.

Since my diagnosis simplicity and slowing down have become even more significant. I feel I am shedding anything superfluous, making space for what really matters. My need for tidiness may partly stem from anxiety and a need to control something that I can control, but it is so much more than that: Japanese Buddhism, for example, sees cleaning and tidying as a way to cultivate the mind, a spiritual practice - a view that has been popularised by Marie Kondo.

Through my meditations I have been accessing the observing self, often with great difficulty, and I am spending much more time in nature and can hold yoga poses for several minutes without getting agitated. Sometimes I schedule too much in a day, and it leaves me flustered, overwhelmed and reactive. That's when I am reminded of that proverb "You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day, unless you are too busy - then you should sit for an hour."

Holly recommended the unusual and wonderful book pictured above (The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey) and I got it from the library a few weeks ago. The book charts the author's observations of a woodland snail while bedridden during a mysterious illness. I could relate to so much of what Tova Bailey had to say about being ill, the isolation and alienation, though her illness was completely different (and I was lucky to only be bedbound during the worst of the chemoradiation. Incidentally, I was delighted to see that the author 'photograph' in the book is a painting of the author on a couch with her dog by her side. Last year I had painted myself and Daisy on the couch when I was unable to move due to side effects. Synchronicity!). The writing is lyrical and philosophical with a unique voice, and the writer and reader learn a lot about molluscs, and from them. 


Here is an interview with Elisabeth Tova Bailey.

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.