The weather has been rather mild after the snow and ice that covered this part of the world just a few days before I arrived. Impractical dresser that I am I brought elbow-length evening gloves and no other type, but, coupled with my moss-stitch wrist warmers (the length of the gloves scrunched up underneath), they suffice for now.
I am knitting socks with leftover yarn at record speed - usually it takes me weeks, as I pick up the needles now and again for a few minutes, but I knitted one sock in two days this time.
I am still reading and re-reading Marion Milner- I always have several books on the go, and this is one that is accompanied by plenty of note-taking (and I will share my thoughts soon), and The Lacuna tempted me not only because I was in need of books that make "everything else in life seem unimportant", but also because it takes in Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and things I spent a large chunk of my university years on.
But right now I am reading my airplane book (the requirements for that are 'lightweight' and 'easy to read'; I usually fly in the early morning after getting up at midnight) - Nicci French's The Safe House. I read tons of psychological thrillers when I was a teenager, and somehow, being back in my childhood home, it seems appropriate. Not that it isn't appropriate at other times. I am intrigued by husband-wife writing duos, how they work, and particularly how both female and male sensibilities imbue the writing as a result. I am not saying that a male author is not able to convincingly get inside the head of a female character and vice versa, but there is a difference when the book is written by authors of both genders, even simply in the reader's knowledge of that fact.
"I will not have any clear blocks of time to give the new book until next year. I have fat files of facts. I don't have its spirit. But I am beginning to sense it. As winter closes in I feel as if I am opening the door of a child's Advent calendar. Each picture is tiny and in brilliant colour. Each is a glimpse, each is separate. But as the days go by they will add up to a story."
-Hilary Mantel in The Sunday Times Magazine, 9.12.2012
I feel the same about a couple of new projects. Winter is a time for slowing down but also for letting ideas develop and brew, subconsciously perhaps. I was talking to a friend about this yesterday who felt unproductive and frustrated - even if nothing seems to be actively happening, our minds process things all the time, and in quiet periods we are still constantly adding to our artistic well, simply by being in the world, seeing, reading, listening, feeling. And occasionally we get these glimpses of what is preparing to emerge.
I am getting ready to go home for three weeks, and usually the time spent there yields a lot of new thoughts and renewed enthusiasm (though I harldy need to renew that).
The only way I have been working with colour lately is in choosing yarn, since I have been focusing on black-and-white drawing. This weekend I am hoping to get my paints out and use bright colours as an antidote to the short days. I don't suffer from SAD, but like everyone I am happier if I see daylight every day, so whenever I can I go outside - no running this week so far, but walks, errands and forgoing the Ride of the Park-&-Ride and going by foot instead.
The lack of daylight meant I couldn't get better pictures of the crochet bracelets, but I actually like when pictures come out slightly blurry - as a myopic person, it feels so familiar.
Living between two of the most beautiful landscapes, Connemara and
the Burren, I have the luxury to go on the kind of day trips people come
here from all over the world for any time I want. I don't intend to
glorify driving without a destination - I do try to be green - but since
the railway no longer exists, it is the easiest way to see a lot and be
independent (as an occasional treat). My head is always clearer after
moving through these landscapes and under their skies. I will get a
bicycle at some stage, though.
...bread (though I want to eat less stodgy food)...
... artwork - revisiting/layering in this case (realising just how versatile watersoluble coloured pencils are)...
...time: for people, for running (my new rule is: if I am at home and conditions are acceptable - no horizontal rain! - and I am not expecting anyone, I go for a run, no matter how busy I think I am. The hour it takes up I get back through increased energy and clarity.)
I don't have a dog and I don't have children, but last weekend I was given one of the former and two of the latter on loan. I got no painting done (the kids did - eight paintings between them in less than half an hour; they are very prolific), but I did get out of my head, which is just as valuable.
Then Monday came and I spent it very much in my own head, so much so that I took to bed to make it stop. I know spending time with children and animals isn't the only way to feel grounded, but left to my own devices I often sabotage myself and don't do what I know would be good for me while fully aware of how I am blocking my wellbeing.
There have been some blue-sky days, but mostly it has been typical November weather, wet and windy, and I haven't been out for a run or a swim in over two weeks. The last three days I didn't get home until after 8pm, and running in the dark doesn't appeal to me either. I shouldn't blame the weather and lack of daylight, though - dedicated people don't let these things deter them. Last night I saw a runner with a headlamp dodging puddles. It is possible, and I really need to be in my body more.
Crafting also takes me out of my head - it does leave plenty of space to think (so does exercise, but even if running sometimes stimulates my brain too much, at the end I always get that rush of endorphins that dissolves whatever was going on in my head), but for some reason the thoughts I have while engaged in crafting are of a less obsessive, less negative nature. It seems to sedate you. I am enjoying knitting round things at the moment - the sense that there is no beginning and no end; it just goes round and round... mesmerisingly absorbing.
Allardice, Lisa, "A Lesson in Love", p.20, Review Saturday Guardian 03.11.12
After I bemoaned my temporarily slow reading pace in my last post, I decided to remedy the situation, and today I have done little else but read. There are enough unread books in my house to last me well into the new year, but thanks to the Guardian's Review section, my to-read list is ever-growing, and with the allure of the new I can become greedy. I have to remind myself that the unread books I already have are just as new as the ones that are out there in the world waiting. I will resist the temptation to buy new books for now, but I suddenly feel it is absolutely vital for me to read Colette.
I have never read anything by her, but I think I will enjoy Break of Day (her memoir-as-fiction account of spending a summer alone in her house and garden in the middle of her life, turning to the natural world and away from love), which has been reissued by Capuchin Classics. I am still reading Marion Milner, and this appears to be similar territory, if completely different in style - women artists finding themselves seems to be a recurring theme for me. And of course I couldn't help noting that Colette was a crazy cat lady - another recurring theme and something I aspire to...
In the meantime, I am going back to poetry. I don't tend to re-read novels, unless they are favourites, but the great thing about books of poetry is that they get re-read - and thus energised - a lot (I do subscribe to the Feng Shui view that books that just sit on a shelf untouched become dead energy).
Sylvia Plath was one of my first loves. Faber and Faber has just published a collection of her poems chosen by Carol Ann Duffy, and in her article for the Guardian she emphasises that, although influenced by confessional poetry, for Plath "craft was as important as the exploration of self", that her poems move beyond the life they draw from and take on a life themselves. Duffy also reminds us that despite the often dark themes, there is a playfulness to Plath's work, which displays her "great appetite for the sensuous experience" and her interest and delight in the shaping of the poem.
"Poets are ultimately celebrators, of life and poetry itself. A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language - life with great suffering, yes, but also with with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships." (Duffy, Carol Ann, "Permission Not To Be Nice", p. 14, Review Saturday Guardian, 03.11.12)
Speaking of poetry, I love this from William Carlos Williams's Paterson, posted by Leo Babauta on Zen Habits today.
I used to read a book a day, but lately I have been a slow reader. The pile of books by my bedside has been the same for a month now, and the weekend papers last me all week (the latter is always the case, in fact - I like to stretch them out, pretending that every day is Sunday). I know I will get back to my usual reading pace, but I am still finding it difficult to concentrate, and my eyes get tired, so I am giving them a rest and indulging inthe audio and olfactory instead - ok, and Downton Abbey.
At the moment I am using jojoba oil with a drop of geranium or mandarin essential oil as a moisturiser. This actually suits me better than the Dr Hauschka facial oil I was using before. I have been burning clary sage oil and using it as a massage oil and in the bath - this oil has a euphoric effect, and I reckon it might be a good choice for people suffering from SAD at this time of the year. I use it whenever I feel lethargic or depressed, and it is great for PMS and period pains.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ "... I felt a little bit disenchanted and empty of inspiration, and I
thought the best thing to do would be to stay at home in England and
live by the sea, so I bought a kitten and did lots of home cooking and
walked to the ocean every day and ... was trying to rebuild myself" -
Natasha Khan, in Bat for Lashes - Letting Go of Ghosts - Creating The Haunted Man (beautiful video).
This reminded me of Lesley Garner's words and, of course, the healing quality of the feline-human relationship (speaking of which, in the week I discovered I am sharing my house with a mouse, getting a cat has moved to the top of my list of priorities, though
I realise I need to shift my focus from what I don't have to
what I already have, and trust that the cat will come when we are both
Apart from Bat for Lashes, David Byrne and St. Vincent's"Who" has been playing on repeat - just the one song; I haven't bought the album yet. When I first heard this it was via the video clip, so now the audio and visual are inextricably linked for me. I wonder to what extent watching the video for a song prior to a pure listening colours our experience of it.
| Simmering lemon, vanilla and rosemary. I burn essential oils almost every day, but occasionally I like to use the stovetop method. And it always strikes me how different the oils smell from the plants they are derived from. Today I needed to focus, and rosemary is great for concentration. I didn't have any fresh rosemary - that would have been even better.
| Thinking of outlines as shared boundaries rather than lines is vital in
learning how to draw and paint. Incidentally, I photographed this quote
after spending a few hours doing black-and-white line drawings. I was given this book (Creative Scribbles - Where Dreaming and Drawing Cross Paths) recently by someone I had told I felt stuck - such a thoughtful present. It is filled with prompts such as "Don't think, just draw" or "Draw a brawl between four colours".
| Still trying to manifest a cat sartorially and to perfect the shoulder stand (no picture).
I may have posted this before, but I found this again while sorting through my bookmarks - Peggy Fogelman from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Bad Hair (4 min audio with slideshow). She was one of the speakers at a conference I went to earlier this year, and I looked up the Met's website afterwards - I love the Connections feature that Bad Hair is part of.
“If, when you look
clearly at the situation, you seem to be making the right moves and the world
isn’t responding, it may be time to take the desperation out of your voice and
eyes and respond to the deeper rhythm of events. You may have entered a period
of winter. Winter isn’t terminal, it isn’t death. It’s simply time to
hibernate, to turn your energy inward and do your growing underground.
doesn’t support hibernation. People lead global 24-hour lives where nothing
ever sleeps. TV, radio, news, transport, light, heat, internet all keep going
like a funfair. Nothing switches off any more and life is full on, or seems to
be, so when it goes quiet for us it seems like a violation of the natural
order, but it isn’t.
everything there is a season’. [...] If you look closely at your own life you can
see it too. The rhythm changes. Sometimes things flourish, events pile up.
Sometimes life feels as though it’s gone into slow motion, even stopped.
I’ve found that the
way to survive the little winters of life is to keep working but to reduce your
activity and greatly reduce your expectations. At times like these it never
works to force anything. When the sea is rough, mend your sails.
times for editing your possessions, harvesting your resources, evaluating your
progress, learning new skills, cultivating friendships, catching up on reading
or sleep, caring for your body, going within and reconnecting with your dreams.
There may be lessons to be learned and now you have the time to learn them.
Your maps may need to be redrawn and now you have the time to redraw them,
knowing all the time that the season and the energy will shift. “
This summer was my
winter, and it continues, even though I am slowly coming out of it - just when the actual winter is drawing close. A friend did a Tarot reading for me yesterday. It was precisely about the above, about going with the flow, having no expectations, no goals, and just being in the moment and looking after myself. I have exhausted myself wanting things to be different in a certain area of my life, and with work I am trying to get things done, which at times can feel like forcing them, but I am able to prioritise and realise that nothing is that important, and I have days when I am in the flow and everything seems to make sense.
My obsession with flowers continues into autumn (I see botanical art everywhere), and I keep collecting them via my camera as summer's offerings gradually fade.
I arrange them by colour (I often don't know their names - my knowledge of flora and fauna has lots of gaps) and they go into a folder for inspiration - I think I want to do some watercolours. I haven't worked on any of my own projects for a while now, and flowers will hopefully ease me back into that. There is something calming about doing plant portraits and following nature's design, and unlike the illustrations I am working on, they require no research and preparation once I have the photograph or the real thing in front of me.
| Pleasure. Earl Grey tea and hours spent reading, listening to the new Bat for Lashes album (in her notes, Natasha Khan says "This is an album of healing, of being glad to be alive and letting go of the ghosts..." - words that resonate; I keep attracting the right things for me at the right time), a glistening garden in the morning, and enjoying the view from my couch - a woodcut print I was given that I finally got framed (the framer suggested hanging it like this, as he wasn't sure which way it should go, and I am very happy with the result).
The weather was far too nice at the weekend to be stuck indoors working, so I took most of it off. This means a busy week ahead, but there are times when it makes sense to procrastinate - in this case, I gladly threw out my plans for a couple of days suffused with light, Vitamin D and people in high spirits.
Speaking of work (pleasurable work), on Saturday a friend and I went to a Baboró talk about writing (and illustrating) for children with the prolific authors Joyce and Polly Dunbar and Steve Hartley. I didn't take notes, but here are some random things I remember:
Joyce Dunbar reckons the golden age of children's books ended a few years ago and emphasised how difficult it can be to get published and how long it can take, which was a bit disheartening and makes me want to rewind a few decades. However, she also said never to throw work away, as it might well be picked up ten years after the idea was conceived; sometimes it is simply not the right time. She compared the structure of a picture book to that of a poem, with meaning to be found in the shape itself.
Her daughter Polly was asked to change the colour of her heroine's dress for a TV adaptation, because apparently "green doesn't sell". They talked about the ruthless editing and paring down that is required in a genre where the word count is quite low and about the solitary nature of their work. Oh, and we learnt - from Steve - that children love anything to do with underpants.
Repetitive patterns are calming to an over-anxious mind:
| I chose this Noa Noa dress (a present from my mom) partly because of the print - dots in wobbly squares with rounded corners are very satisfying. I can stare at this print for a disproportionate amount of time - it is a type of meditation.
| I have been making more crochet cuffs and knitting socks.
| Tempting liquid blue in Ballyvaughan.
On a different note, today I am procrastinating by reading a book about procrastination that a friend lent me. I am only a few pages in, but it is interesting what Fiore has to say about the role anxiety, self-criticism, fear of failure/success and guilt play in the context of procrastination. We need compassion for who and where we are now to overcome the underlying causes of procrastination. I always knew that I procrastinate because I feel I am not good enough, so why even bother starting something, etc. And I can see that while putting things off leads to anxiety, the reverse is also true, so it is important to tackle the anxiety. Fiore is adamant that laziness and disorganisation are not the reasons people procrastinate, which is worth reminding yourself of.
I have been needing books such as the ones I mention here like air and water. There are many more I could recommend - and will in future posts -, but these are the ones I have been reading or re-reading in the past few weeks. Books are a huge part of my life, and there have been times in the past when I was so depressed I was unable to concentrate sufficiently to read, and I just had to accept it and wait. I know what I am going through at the moment is mild in comparison and circumstantial, and luckily it hasn't affected my ability to absorb content via the written word (as I said, it's the non-verbal activities that have been difficult).
Eckhart Tolle -The Power of Now
This is the book that I would keep if I had to get rid of all my self-help books except one, and it is likely that it is the only one you really need to read in order to change your life.* I have found a lot of books life-changing (and not only self-help books, of course - some of the best insights have been within the pages of fiction and poetry), but this is the one that I think of every day without needing to be reminded.
I first read it years ago, and while I "got" it, theoretically, I didn't consciously apply Tolle's teachings - perhaps because I wasn't ready/willing, and maybe part of me enjoyed being miserable and embroiled in drama. I went back to it this summer, and it helped me enormously with what has been going on. My sister read it, too, and we keep checking in with each other and saying things like "what would Eckhart say/do?". Of course neither of us has turned into a beatific, serene and zen-like being (it doesn't happen overnight with everyone...), and we confess our -minor- relapses, but we are taking first steps.
Nothing Tolle says in this book is new or innovative as such, but he seems to have a unique gift for distilling the teachings of spiritual masters throughout time and making them accessible and concise. Whenever my mind wanders and I get caught in repetitive thoughts and start worrying, I remind myself to stay in the now - there are no problems in the present moment - and that I am not my mind/thoughts/ego. It makes everything so much easier. It takes practice and patience, and I still struggle with it, obviously, but I do get glimpses of how truly transformative it can be.
Lesley Garner -Everything I've Ever Done That Worked
This book's first private incarnation was as a folder Garner kept with things she had written down that helped her when life was tough. I have various lists like that myself and love reading those of other people. I knew Garner's writings from her magazine columns and always liked her writing voice - there is something warm and generous about her.
Each chapter is only a few pages long, so it is perfect for dipping into anytime you need comfort or ideas for finding ways to feel better. What worked for her were things like joining a choir or being primitive for a while every day (she mentions Carl Jung's observation that he would have no patients if everyone could experience being primitive for five minutes a day - this could be walking barefoot or swimming in the sea, activities children do all the time, but a lot of adults have forgotten or don't make time for). Described as an "emotional first-aid kit", it is far more than that and just as valuable in good times, as inspiration for enriching your life.
I also recently re-read Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest and just finished reading Sally Brampton's memoir Shoot the Damn Dog. It may seem counterintuitive to read memoirs about depression when you are low, and there is a lot in these two that is difficult and heartbreaking, but there is something to be said for being reminded that you are not alone (as Brampton writes, "The nature of depression is that it narrows our focus until we believe that our problems are insuperable and we are the only people who feel the way we do"), and ultimately these books offer hope (they are also beautifully written).
Another helpful and practical book I am reading (though not doing any of the exercises) is Embracing Uncertainty by Susan Jeffers. Even though I am not actively working with it, the ideas she presents in the exercises have stayed with me - simple things like the power of maybe - "Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm not right" - and how this attitude makes us more open and free. Ultimately we don't know anything, and accepting/surrendering to the fact that we cannot control anything can be very liberating. I also love the part about being excited and curious about what the future may hold and creating a "wondering life" instead of a "hoping life", replacing "I hope" with "I wonder" - it really does relieve the pressure. She touches on Buddhism a lot, and a core message is to let go of our need for things to be a certain way. I cannot say that I have successfully incorporated all this into my daily life, but at least I am aware of it, and I find even just reading this book calming, which is why it is and will remain by my bedside.
A few people have recommended Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart, and it is on my to-read list. I have only read excerpts of her work. Ditto Thich Nhat Hanh.
* I tend to use the term "life-changing" liberally, and there are various degrees of it, but this really is profoundly so.
1. Having had my ability to trust other people badly challenged, I am focusing on trusting Life, the universe, the grand design (and I keep receiving little nudges and reminders - thank you, teabag).
2. This spontaneous still life has taken on a lot of meaning: it is the juxtaposition of summer and autumn and the transition from one into the other (Change is the only constant, etc.), a souvenir of a gift, a memory of a nice weekend, complementary colours, the beauty of the imperfect and bruised - and hopefully it will serve as a visual impetus to retrieve my French (I am planning to buy a French magazine and then move on to the French books I have, some unread).
While I strongly believe in the therapeutic effect of art-making, I
recently experienced first-hand that if you go through a phase of
repetitive negative thoughts, the non-verbal nature of creating visual
art can lend itself to facilitating that. In short, up until last week I
hadn't been able to draw or paint for months, and it was not simply my usual habit of
procrastinating. Other non-verbal tasks, such as cleaning the house,
were no problem, perhaps because they are more physically active, but
going into that space where it is just you and a piece of paper or a
canvas seemed impossible.
I knew that if I persevered, I would eventually enter the Flow, but I couldn't get past the initial resistance of the fear of being with my thoughts when the more appealing alternative was to distract myself by reading or talking - particularly because there were so many other times, the worst of them the dark hours after 3am, when it was just my mind at me.
The longer it went on for, the
more stressed I felt, because I was aware of deadlines looming and people
waiting. But I always knew I would return to what is essentially
one of my favourite ways to spend time and the solitary environment it
And now I am back in my tiny
north-facing studio (or at the kitchen table, accompanied by a TED talk
or music or silence, depending on my mood), with more enthusiasm than before the hiatus. And all this has served as a reminder that there have to be times of
non-activity (such as spending an entire day in pyjamas watching Downton Abbey and staring into space) and that they will always be followed by productive periods.
In the photographs, top to bottom:
My kitchen counter has been covered with sheets of first layers drying. | About to start the second layer, with water-soluble coloured pencils | In a week marked by clumsiness I managed to spill tea over some illustrations | The artwork in the last photo is not recent at all, but the book it is in is brand new, and it came just at the right time.
I am lucky to know the wonderful writer and storyteller Rab Swannock Fulton in real life, and we have collaborated and are collaborating on various projects that marry words and visual art (though he could easily illustrate his own work - he drew a goat for the paperback cover of the book we are talking about here).
Marina: How would you describe
your book Transformation? Is it a love story? Erotic fiction? A horror story?
Rab:[laughs] Well, I'm not sure what it is. It does have love and passion
and terror as well as a goat. I guess it would be best described as thinly
M: Fifty shades of green perhaps?
R: Does that have a goat in it?
M: You also tell stories in live shows (which I highly recommend). Where do those stories come from, and
what is the link between your performance work and your written work?
R: Well, the performance work is built round Irish and Scottish stories - or
rather my take on them - folk tales, the big myths as well as urban legends. And I also have family stories and my own stories. And then again sometimes
somebody in the audience will throw in a comment or a question that just
suddenly has me going off on a spontaneous free flow. But the thing is, no
matter what kind of story I'm telling or just making up on the spot, there is
always a little part of my brain very aware of how important it is to keep the
energy and narrative drive of the story up. And that is a skill that I very
consciously bring into my written work. It is very easy for writers, when they are
on their own, sat in front of the keyboard, to go off on tangents that may have
all sorts of delightful word play and metaphors and allusions, but actually do
not move the story on. So performing before an audience has definitely helped tighten
my prose work.
M: What came first, the storytelling or the writing?
R: Well, in fact I always wanted to be a painter - still do - but couldn't
afford the materials, so instead I used words to try and capture images. But
the first work was in the form of poetry and it used a lot of Scots as well as
English. But I was also communicating in other ways, not least in finding ways
to articulate the campaigns I was involved with in Scotland in the run up to
M: You stayed on Faslane Peace Camp, the anti-nuclear protest site in Scotland.
R: That's right. For just a little over a year. A very educational and
inspiring experience, but it left me burnt out, so I came to Ireland to get a
bit of rest. Ended up staying. Have been here for nearly fifteen years now.
M: You also edit riskybizzness, the blog set up by NUI Galway's Student Services
R: Yes. Health Promotion does an incredible amount of work to get students to
look after themselves and after their friends. I set the blog up to support
that work. It is a mixture of humour and more serious issues as well. But the
same goes with the blog as with the storytelling and story writing. Each post has to keep the narrative going and the energy up.
M: What are you reading just now?
R: At the moment I am reading Five Little Ducks every night to my
children, which I love. When I'm not with the boys I read or listen to all
manners of stories. I've just finished Inkarna, a wonderfully weird and wild
novel by Nerine Dorman, and at the moment I am listening to a recording of the
incredible storyteller Clare Murphy called 'Live At Jonesborough National
Storytelling Festival 2011'.
M: Any advice?
R: Watch out for goats!
Rab's e-novel Transformation is now available on amazon. The Galway City Tribune described it as "a dark, supernatural story
that manages to make you cry, laugh and scare you to bits."
I had to include both photos. The first one, where it looks past me, graced my computer screen all day on Friday. I have been working on myself a lot, I have been reading extremely helpful self-help books (more on that soon) and am investing in counselling, but sometimes it only takes a little innocent feline face to feel better about everything.
And then there was this:
I love what the last kid had drawn (the feet!) and the transient nature of drawing on a blackboard, that visitors can only see the latest portrait. There is a real chicken in the photo, too.
Its housemates look like cotton wool.
The kitten and the chickens live in a garden centre I like to escape to that is close to work and has a café and seas of heather in beautiful colours.
I also had delightful human company (you know who you are).