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.


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.