Monday, June 19, 2017

Flower power



 Jasmine for the garden

 Florals on a jumper (from Part Two)

Peonies that never opened fully

Essential oils and tea from a local herbalist


Last week, on our way to the midlands to visit friends and family, we stopped at a lovely garden centre for presents and got a jasmine plant for our garden, which is a dream come true for me (if it survives the wild west of Ireland - the very helpful lady there assured us it would and gave us advice on how to plant it). The car journey for the rest of the day was an aromatherapy experience.

Sleeping with the window open and the intoxicating scent filling the bedroom may not happen for a while yet, unless I sleep in the shed, as we put the jasmine beside the door to the shed, where it is sheltered. Between the stock (another strong fragrance), the jasmine and the lavender, our garden is fast becoming a feast for the nose. 

Another favourite, though not as fragrant, are peonies. We have a few in the garden, but the ones in the photos came from a florist. They never opened fully, but I love the tight ball they start out with. 

John got me some essential oils and a specialty tea for clear skin (hint?) from a local herbalist. I had asked for neroli and rosemary, and he kindly added sweet orange oil, so I have been burning a lot of orange-focused blends to sweeten my time in the studio (it badly needs it, as a piece of furniture in there still smells musty from the damp in the last house - John calls it 'the smell of stale ideas' hovering in the studio, and I am determined to conquer it on both levels).


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

In the kitchen | Quark bread and coloured walls



 Kitchen work-in-progress

Bread-making work-in-progress.
Illustration by Heather Gatley in this book, which has nothing to do with the bread and which I feel ambivalent about.


One of the things I wanted to get back into this year was making my own bread. Ideally sourdough, but I haven't started the starter yet. I used to make wholemeal spelt bread all the time and have stocked up on spelt flour, but I wanted to try some new recipes as well.

The other day I had to use up some quark that was past its use-by date. I always pick up quark when I see it in the shop, as it is a German staple, but then I never know what to do with it apart from eating it like yogurt or the two ways our family used it - German cheesecake, and potatoes served with quark whipped up with sparkling water and chopped chives and seasoned with pepper and salt.

A quick search online yielded quark oil dough, which apparently is a well-known substitute for yeast dough. In Ireland you cannot buy fresh yeast in the shop, only from bakeries on request, if they are happy to give it to you, and I prefer not to eat too much food containing yeast and haven't bought any dry yeast in years, so I was interested in how the quark oil dough would turn out.

There are various recipes, all very similar, but I didn't follow any particular one - I used around 180g quark, 4 tablespoons milk, 8 tablespoons oil (rapeseed), 1 egg, 350g flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt to make a braided bread. You can add some sugar and raisins to make it sweet. It was so quick to make - no waiting, unlike with yeast - and came out well, despite my half-a***d kneading and braiding (hence the rustic look). It took only a few minutes to put together, still tasted fresh the following day, and we loved it, so this is where any leftover quark will end up from now on, and it will be great for making pizza. It is fluffy and moist, and I can imagine substituting kefir for the milk (inspired by my sister).

In August it will be two years since we moved into this house, and we still have a lot of work to do. The kitchen is one of two rooms where we left the old floor, and we also kept the kitchen that was there, but painted it (as well as the airing cupboard, on the left in the photo) and took out all the hanging cupboards. It is the only room that has colour on two small areas of wall (everywhere else is some shade of white, pale grey or charcoal, or - half the house - still unpainted). A few weeks ago, with the help of John's brother-in-law, we finally connected a lamp to the cable that was awkwardly sticking out of the corner between the blue wall and ceiling. Usually there is a small armchair in that corner by the stove - currently in the sitting room, as we had visitors and not enough seats -, so it is now a reading corner.

Monday, May 29, 2017

At the table



At home

At my sister's house


I had a week of the three sisters plus husbands and toddlers, cat and donkeys (not to forget a walk with Emilia, the micro pig from the Burren Nature Sanctuary), swimming in the sea and only doing teaching hours and urgent e-mail, followed by meals with my Saturday art class, visitors and neighbours, all a reminder of the truly important things in life. We ate the first salad from our polytunnel and hope to say goodbye to supermarket salad for the rest of the year.

This morning was the start of my summer: a much looser, more self-directed schedule work-wise, which requires discipline amid the freedom. There is a part of me that wants to lock myself in, plough through the work-load and neglect my needs, when I know I will function so much better on good food, exercise and sleep, books and art. From my maternal grandmother I must have inherited the busy-ness, always jumping up to do something, and in combination with my racing thoughts it does not make for a serene life.

Happily I now see my daily yoga as a necessity rather than something to tick off a list. Throughout the day I find myself craving to get into a certain pose or just stretch part of my body in a certain way it has stored in its memory from my yoga practice. I will also switch off early in the evenings and read all the books that have piled up (we have a tiny library in the village, and from my first visit I came away with books on Edvard Munch, a memoir by Graham Greene's partner and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.)

Once I have my current work project finished, I want to paint colourful things from around the house and the garden, calm seascapes as a counterbalance, and do more drawings of my nephews.



Friday, May 12, 2017

Books | Continuity, meaning, value



Furbo beach, 12 May 2017, 8:30am


"With 'a brush, the one dependable thing in a world of strife, ruin, chaos', they could return, whatever the stress and discord of daily life, to that continuously absorbing interior world in which the struggle to record observations of light, colour and form, however agonisingly difficult and intractable, resolves into an enduring happiness. Here, where the artist strives to shape, condense and order thoughts and sensations until they take on a form that communicates, is the promise of continuity as opposed to decay, of meaning as opposed to senselessness, of value as opposed to pain. Vanessa painted, not in order to forget anxiety and pain, but in order to transform them into the permanence of art." (Spalding, Frances: Vanessa Bell. Portrait of the Bloomsbury Artist, Tauris Parke, London 2016, pp.225f.)

I enjoyed this book about Vanessa Bell immensely, and once you get over the dreadful snobbery (an even bigger problem with Bell's sister Virginia Woolf, whose writing I adore), you get to 'like' Vanessa, a complex and at times intimidating person - not that liking the subject is a prerequisite for enjoying a biography. Spalding recreates Vanessa's and Bloomsbury's world so vividly, and her writing about painting is achingly insightful.

While she experienced quite a lot of hardship and finances were not always as free-flowing as it seems, it can be tempting to yearn for the lifestyle that allowed Bell and Duncan Grant to paint all day, travel widely, with lengthy stays in France, and shut themselves off from the demands of society. 

I am struggling to arrange for one week of painting (or more likely drawing) with no interruptions, but it seems almost impossible in our day and age, and I don't even have children. On Inis Meáin recently I could picture an island stay with no technology, so who knows. 

And I have to remember that I am extremely lucky with my circumstances - I can create pockets of time at home working in my studio, and more of time management is choice than I have allowed for - I can choose when to let e-mail distract me, for example.

Next on my list is another art book by another Frances, Seeing Ourselves by Frances Borzello, a book about self-portraits by women artists. My sister gave me one of her books a few years ago, and I want to read my way through all of her publications.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Things that work | Silk and lace






I get overwhelmed by too much choice and too many decisions to be made, which explains why I can be found skirting the deli counter nervously (and possibly walking away hungry) and why our house will be all-white on the outside when the external wall insulation is completed.

While I doubt I will ever resort to a 'uniform' that eliminates the need for deliberations on what to wear - I love clothes too much for that level of minimalism - shopping leaves me frazzled, so finding well-made things that work and knowing that in the future I won't have to wander around countless shops before emerging with the item I need simplifies things.

I prefer my clothes to be made from natural fabrics*, and one of my favourite materials is silk. Currently about half of my underwear consists of silk and lace sets from this range. I don't care that it is a celebrity line; it is beautifully designed and the sets are extremely comfortable and light, so suitable for everyday wear. They are machine-washable, and they last. I am sure there are various other silk options online, but I can buy these locally, which is a bonus, and the old-school department store assistants are always so lovely and chatty.


 *though I have a few polyester pieces that are years old but still look like new, so I don't rule it out


Friday, April 28, 2017

Springtime of the year



 Apple blossoms in the garden

A better world - my sister asked for a scene like this


The cherry blossoms have come and nearly gone and now the apple trees are in full bloom. This is always such a beautiful and sad time, and this year in particular.

The right music can be so cathartic, so today I spent nearly all day painting with two new-to-me songs on repeat.*

I must have been living under a rock not to have come across these before. John played me John Spillane's 'The Dance of the Cherry Trees' last night (it took him three years to play me one of his favourite songs), and we tried to find a word to describe the sentiment in that heartbreaking  'well done' line (all I could come up with was 'bittersweet', but it is so much more). It just destroys you.

The other song was one of those late-night car radio discoveries that are always heightened by the atmosphere of the night, but judging by the amount of views on Youtube the world has been aware of this song for quite some time: 'Emmylou' by First Aid Kit. (also, Emmylou Harris listening to 'Emmylou', and a cover of 'America' with Paul Simon in the audience).

* and last night was treated to this passionate violinist in concert, playing Gubaidulina (also previously unknown to me) - such a tour de force

Friday, April 21, 2017

Reading | Art as Therapy










De Botton, Alain and Armstrong, John: Art as Therapy, Phaidon, London 2013


This book was published a few years ago, but I only bought it last month and am enjoying it immensely. You've got to love a book on the purpose of art that has The Tiger Who Came to Tea as one of its examples.

De Botton and Armstrong highlight the ability of art to rebalance and to restore our frail, incomplete selves, and this book is a call for a radical rethink about how museums and galleries present art to the public, focusing on the psychological, therapeutic function of art. When de Botton applied this thinking to an actual museum, he was ridiculed for it, but I have a soft spot for his work and his empathy and don't agree with the majority of the criticism levelled against him. I admit to being a bit wary after all the hype, both positive and negative, but I was positively surprised.

The part of me that worries at times about being so obsessed with tidying was reassured to find Ben Nicholson's abstract piece used as an example of a work of art that embodies the 'pleasure of organising things' (p.54), showing a kinship with 'quiet domestic tasks' and similar acts of 'happy concentration', which should be taken more seriously. Likewise, a beautiful Chardin honours and celebrates the ordinary and 'recognises the worth of a modest moment' (p.56), thus encouraging us to be kinder towards ourselves and enabling us to make the best of what we have. 

There are so many instances of recognition when reading this book, and the works discussed include several of my favourite pieces (Las Meninas!). It even takes in interior decoration, suggesting that rather than showing off, our concern with what we place in our homes involves 'a far more interesting and human process', using objects 'to communicate our identities to the world', as in, '[this] crockery [...] is like my deepest self' (p.43). The writers are aware of how exaggerated this might seem, but there is so much truth and humanity in these observations, and they are able to articulate and distill feelings we all have and voice our non-verbal, often visceral responses to visual art.

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Brain Pickings has an excellent article about the book.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Three









1. A recent commission for a concert hall that has been renamed after this lady (they kindly gave me a photo-op backdrop banner with my drawing on it). Apparently no photos of her as an adult exist bar one small photograph in a newspaper article, hence the request for a portrait based on that image.

2. Evening light in the studio and the beginning of the 'layout wall' for a new book, a collaboration with John. The studio is one of the colder rooms in the house, and many times during the winter I would move my work to the kitchen table, but in the last few weeks it has become the space I spend most of my time. I have been working in and on the studio (the walls still need painting, but it is much more homely now) - more on this soon.

3. My cousin made the envelope for a wedding card out of this, and I put it in a frame, as I love the sentiment the title evokes and it is a beautiful piece of music. In my head it is a synonym for 'Kinderspiel', the figurative meaning of which is 'piece of cake'. Along with my tiny Laughing Buddha and other pieces it serves as a reminder to lighten up and not take life so seriously - a good word to look at when heading out the door.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Natural skincare | Hydration, soaps








On the one hand I am becoming more and more minimalist when it comes to beauty products (and pretty much everything else), on the other hand I have added eye serum to my routine...

The hotel we stayed in in London had one single bottle of organic mint body/hair wash in the shower, and I loved the simplicity of it - nothing else cluttering up the shower. I used to take a bottle of Dr Bronner's castile soap with me when travelling, which is for everything from brushing your teeth to washing the dog and apparently even for removing your eye make-up. My sister has started using it as shampoo, and I got a large bottle (the lavender scent) to have by the kitchen sink for washing dishes (as that lovely lemon balm one we had seems to have been discontinued at our supermarket) and will decant a bit into a bottle for the bathroom.

I have combination skin and still get minor breakouts at age 33 (nearly 34), but my skin can also get dry. When I ran out of my Weleda rose moisturiser I thought I would try something else.

I have been giving Green Angel products as gifts, as they are a great Irish company and stocked in the shop at the bottom of our road, so I can shop local. I am halfway through the moisturiser, which contains two of my favourite essential oils, neroli and jasmine. Since using this I haven't had any problems with dry skin, and my skin is clearer as well.

As for the eye serum, this is from another Irish company. I am a bit sceptical when it comes to eye products, as products for the face often do the job just as well (and when using olive oil for removing eye make-up, you are simultaneously caring for the area around the eyes), but I thought I'd give this a go, as I like the ritual and this has a cooling roller. I have only used it for about two weeks, but already can see and feel some improvement, with plumper skin that doesn't feel tight. It can leave a bit of a residue that looks like dried tears (or maybe I used too much), but as long as you blend your moisturiser or concealer into the edge, it becomes invisible.

I love that both these products come in glass instead of plastic, though would advise not to store them at a height it in a bathroom with a tiled floor - the cap of the serum shattered into a million pieces when it fell out of the cabinet.

I didn't own any lip balm for the last two years, at least. At home, when I thought of it, I would apply coconut oil or honey and dry-brush with a toothbrush to exfoliate my lips, and then during the day I would leave them alone or apply lipstick or gloss. But recently I must have neglected them, and I thought it would be handy to have some lip balm in my bag, so I bought the Trilogy one. It works really well, and I love mint in lip products - some energising aromatherapy right under my nose.

And finally, soaps. I know having the Dr Bronner's liquid soap ought to cover that area (another minimalism fail), but I don't have that many bottles I can decant into, and I like using old-fashioned solid pieces of soap. These are as local as it gets, and they don't dry out your skin; I can even use them on my face (one thing I no longer buy is facial wash). They also remain solid, unlike a lot of natural soaps that turn into mush, and they scent the bathroom nicely.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Four o'clock is teatime and other rituals








There are a few pages in one of my notebooks where I jot down things I feel I 'ought to' do daily (and another section for 'weekly', and one for 'monthly') in order to have a good day insofar far as my own actions and choices can influence it. It has grown to quite a substantial list, and if I were to run through this list every day, it would leave me exhausted and frantic, but I like to write things down when they occur to me or when I come across advice that I think might be useful to incorporate, and it serves as a choose-from menu rather than a to-do list.

The 'daily' things range from kitchen tasks such as 'clear all the dishes, make kefir and soak almonds before going to bed' to work-related activities, for example doing a daily sketch and using paints in some form.

We all know what we can do to be happier, healthier and better people, but so often we choose not to do those things, at times to the point of sabotage. 

Some items on my list have become habits by now, such as doing yoga (almost) daily and going for a walk or working in the garden. Others I dip into and then might forget for weeks or months until I return to them. What I am likely to forget or ignore I try to tie to another activity, until it becomes a habit to do B while doing A. For example, I stand on one leg while brushing my teeth or filling the water filter (balancing on one leg is one of the easier exercises I should be doing  two or three times a week for my patellofemoral pain syndrome) and having all the windows in the house open for the four minutes the coffee is brewing.

Recent additions include washing my eyes every morning (an ayurvedic practice I didn't know about) and drinking matcha tea every afternoon instead of every now and again. I cannot say whether my eyes are actually more refreshed, but I love the strange feeling of splashing cold water into them, and just thinking of all the green in matcha tea gives me a boost when drinking it.

My daily painting these days can be for hours on days I work from home or quick sketches with acrylics when time is short. I finally, finally am going through all the photographs I took of the view from the chalet, where I lived for almost seven years, and from our new house (with a very similar view, as it is just seven minutes further west and on a similar height) and making them into small paintings.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Art, books, art books and baby prints







We were in London for the weekend, and we couldn't leave the marvel that is Foyles without buying books. While I get overwhelmed by big cities and crowds, this trip was a tonic in various ways, and the books we got are extending that effect.

On the way over, my reading material for the flight was the tiny, almost weightless Penguin book of Katherine Mansfield stories that resides on the top of a pile of books in the guest room (I always appreciate it when rooms or cafés have books, so this was important to me). I thought I had perfected the art of travelling light, but on the way back our carry-on luggage was stuffed full with the aforementioned books and quite a lot of baby things for the newest family member, as John couldn't stop himself amidst the gorgeous prints and embroidery.

Reading Mansfield on the plane reminded me of how much I adore her work, so one of the books I sought out was a selection of her stories along with essays and correspondence. The other one I happened upon when browsing the A to Z of artists: a new edition of this biography of Vanessa Bell. Unfortunately we didn't get to see the exhibition in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Through my work in the University (there is a Roger Fry painting in the art collection and research being undertaken around this) the Bloomsbury group has been on my mind, so I am very excited. This is one of those books I think I should take my time with in order to make it last longer, but I have a feeling I won't be able to stop reading.

I love the epigraph, and while I don't necessarily agree with Murdoch, not being particularly good at happiness myself (reading this after viewing paintings by artists who ended up committing suicide didn't help), I get what she means and I do "live with" my craft and consider myself lucky. 

Being immersed in the beauty of the writing by one of the masters of the short story and in Vanessa Bell's circle (not to forget the gallery visits and tiny anchors on yellow fabric!) has made me eager to get back to the easel and most certainly is a source of happiness right now.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Festival artwork | Victorian bathing machine






 
It feels good to return to my normal routine after weeks of working for a festival. I spent yesterday morning in a cleaning frenzy - I had missed domestic chores when my only time at home over the last few weeks was occupied by sleep. Some people thrive on working for events and being surrounded by people and getting home late, but I am not one of them, although I do enjoy all the design work.
This year I also ended up doing the festival artwork again. I didn't even know what a Victorian bathing machine was five months ago.

I created two versions - one in coloured pencils, placed on a flat background, which I used for the invites and for the web, and one in acrylics for the posters and the programmes.

Now that all the stress (a word I swore I would not use anymore but that left my lips at least once per day) has fallen away, I look forward to following my Victorian lady's lead and immersing myself in the water of the local hotel swimming pool, courtesy of John, who got me a voucher, and soon the beckoning sea. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Use the good china





A friend gave us an entire china tea set that she herself had been given as a wedding gift about three decades ago, and we have been using it regularly. The plates are the ideal size for cake and cake-like food.

My sister made these no-bake brownies a few weeks ago, and since then I have made a batch (half the recipe, because I never seem to have enough of one of the ingredients) every Sunday to have on hand for the week. They are packed with dates and ground walnuts and almonds and technically quick to make, but since I don't have a kitchen machine, I use a large knife to chop the dates into smaller and smaller pieces until they resemble a paste. I have an immersion blender with a separate part that has larger blades, but my sister ruined the blades on her blender with sticky dates, so I refrain from trying it. There is a bit of icing sugar in the ganache (I put in less than suggested, and the consistency is fine), but no added sugar in the brownie itself.

An almost sugar-free dessert I make a lot and keep in the freezer is this raspberry ripe, which takes minutes to make. It tastes best when it is semi-frozen.

With both of these you can only eat a small amount, as they are very filling, and you don't get cravings for sugar or stodge. They are delicious, and eating them from beautiful delicate plates (with your fingers, though - my photo lies) adds to the pleasure.



Friday, February 3, 2017

Daily drawing | Cottage






This is not our house, though we had viewed a couple of old cottages and were tempted (I was living in a small house myself at the time). We realised quickly that we wouldn't be able to cohabit in one without killing each other, so instead we have a house that lacks charm on the outside, but has a studio and space for not just us, but family and friends, and we have had so many visitors, it was the right choice.

This is a sketch of a house we pass on one of our walks. Postcard-pretty scenes abound around here.

Speaking of walks, John asked his wider family to submit three songs each for a compilation of 'chill-out music' for the unstable times we are living in, and it has been a great way of discovering new music. I love the simplicity of this song (John's aunt's choice) about a summer walk, and it captures the whole spirit of this project, putting aside one's worries for a while. It was written for the songwriter's children, and I have listened to it countless times already and play it in my art classes.

Other recent discoveries include watching Hitchcock's Vertigo for the first time, courtesy of my brother-in-law, and being blown away by the sumptuous use of colour, the sheer abundance of mesmerising scenes and the many possible ways of interpreting it. And I have made an oft-repeated pledge to peruse our own library before buying more books and am reading The Shipping News. I am also re-reading Art & Fear, an invaluable book a friend gave me years ago, a compassionate and passionate plea for artists to make their own work without worrying about the audience and use their own material, their own time and place. Like a summer walk with your kids.


Friday, January 27, 2017

Early morning walks









While daily walks have become a non-negotiable for me, I would love to be the person who goes for a walk or a run first thing in the morning. Especially when working from home, as a pretend commute. And on days off.

At least once a week over the past three months I have got a sense of what it feels like to be that person. I was offered some part-time work in a neighbouring village for a few weeks on the days I would normally work from home (saving up for that external wall insulation!) that mainly requires me to just be there, so in the 90% of quiet time I can do my own (portable) work.

Since we share a car and the village isn't within walking distance, John drops me off on his way to work, meaning I arrive almost an hour early, and in that hour I walk to the next beach. It is wonderful - I get all the benefits of a walk and the sound and smell of the sea and the sublime colours of winter sunrises. The days I do this I feel less lethargic while sitting at the desk. And yet I haven't done it once on all the other days when I didn't have an extra hour 'imposed' on me in this way.

Habits take months to form (the 21 days is a myth, sadly), and this job will come to an end before that magic turning point might arrive, so I will need to rely on my willpower and overcome my 'inner pigdog', as the German language calls the lack of the former, to make it happen. I am a morning person, after all.



Monday, January 23, 2017

Wheelbarrow and bird house








The sun has been splitting the stones, an incentive to do the very few January jobs there are in the garden (this gardening column advised to simply take this month to read gardening books - sadly I am still very far from calling myself a gardener, but nearly all the books she recommends are on my to-read list). John's father gave us a new clothes line, which we baptised with four of my hand-wash only clothes, a dance of glittery silky dresses sparkling in the winter sun.

He also gave us a bird house, and John painted it with non-toxic paint, but so far there are no occupants. We may well have to find a new location for it among some yellow, as this colour, though muted, could attract predators where it is now.

I am sketching in my one-sketch-a-day and my regular sketchbook, but the only painting I have been doing lately is on skirting boards and walls. It feels overwhelming when I think of the entire house, but breaking it down into rooms and single-task thinking helps. Last week I became obsessed with caulking - who would have thought that fixing loose architraves and skirting could have such a grounding effect. I guess living in a house exposed to the West of Ireland winds tunes you in to the impermanence of anything man-built, and gaps and cracks and looseness heighten that sense.

A year ago the builders were at work, and progress since then (us left to our own devices) has been slow. The next six weeks will be the busiest of the year in my day job, coupled with a new illustration project with a very real deadline, which explains why I suddenly have this urge to get everything else done.



Friday, January 13, 2017

Books | The letters between Astrid Lindgren and Louise Hartung


 The German edition of the correspondence

 Louise would send Astrid pressed flowers and numerous gifts

The photo on the back cover shows the two women with an actor as Pippi Longstocking



This book of letters between the Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, without whom my childhood wouldn’t have been the same, and her German friend Louise Hartung (who worked with children and was instrumental in Lindgren’s success in Germany; her vision was to heal a traumatised post-war youth with high-quality literature) was published last year*. 

A lot of the media reaction focused primarily on Louise’s open lesbian love for Astrid, which was never reciprocated. It is heartbreaking to read Hartung’s passionate and at times needy pleas to her friend, which were met with a detached response. Yet they continued to share a deep bond, formed when they traversed the ruins of Berlin, Hartung's city, together. Both women suffered episodes of melancholy and depression and both were capable of rapture at how wonderful life could be, and these feelings go hand in hand in these letters. The topic of death and the meaning of life comes up repeatedly, often triggered by a wry observation of Lindgren’s.

In general Lindgren’s letters are more measured and more in the traditional epistolary form initially, though she later opens up. Hartung’s letters are intense from the start. A bohemian intellectual and former singer, she had lived through two world wars and done extraordinary things: she was part of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s circle and involved in their Threepenny Opera, had hidden Jews in her summerhouse, been bombed out of her house in Berlin - a life story Lindgren, who thought herself ordinary, marvelled at from calm, neutral Stockholm.

Reading this book made me regret that I haven’t written more letters and renew my resolution to change that. I used to, but then it dwindled to the odd letter here and there. Lindgren apologises when more than two weeks pass before she writes to Hartung (who is offended when a letter remains unanswered for too long), and it makes me ashamed – make that two years, no twelve years for me! I have no idea how they found the time to keep the correspondence alive. Lindgren was fast becoming one of the world's best-loved writers of children’s fiction and would have had tons of correspondence through her work alone, as well as being there for her friends and family - in fact, she often mentions feeling overwhelmed by and torn between all the expectations and obligations -, and Hartung was equally hard-working and had a busy social life. And yet they loyally wrote to each other, over 600 letters in a time spanning eleven years, until Hartung’s death in 1965, which overshadows the reading of these letters. 

John bought the book for me on our mini-moon in the Moselle Valley, and it was a nice synchronicity to learn that Louise sent Astrid wines from the region, during a phase when the two exchanged excited notes on the many bottles of wine Louise sent from Berlin to Stockholm, disguised as ‘grape juice’ when she realised there were restrictions on posting alcohol. It appears that on one of their trips together they also visited my hometown.

It is all the sensory pleasures these women pepper their letters with that linger with me, the wine, being in nature (Hartung’s love of the sea and her gardens, Lindgren’s solitary walks in winter landscapes), art, the music they described so beautifully, all the books they shared, the thoughtful gifts, all of which often form the starting point for philosophical musings. Their correspondence can be read as a lesson in how to live well (even though both Lindgren and Hartung repeatedly bemoan the fact that they work too much, but of course that work formed an invaluable contribution to the world) - there is so much life and so much humanity in these two very different life stories that happened to converge in such a wonderful way for a decade.


*There doesn't seem to be an English translation (yet), unfortunately. Lindgren's diaries 1939-45 were published in English recently.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

New year newness








Tim Lott's column in the Family section of the Guardian last week started with a sobering, though not surprising, observation - according to surveys of New Year resolutions, what people care about is themselves (apart from seeing more of friends and family, the top five concern me, me, me). Now there certainly is some truth in the belief that in order to a better person, we need to look after ourselves first, but it is still depressing (and I am aware I am writing this on a personal blog, which is part of the whole navel-gazing, self-improvement culture we live in). 

I haven't thought up any resolutions, but John set a good template, which consists of three SMART ones (lifestyle, creative and giving back) and one 'fluffy' one (i.e. vague and therefore probably hardest to do), and at least three of them have the potential to include the wider world. I need to think about mine.

The only 'newness' I have incorporated into this brand new year so far is cleaning the fridge, getting rid of paper (the only household chores I have felt fit enough for, as I have the flu), buying new music and starting a new sketchbook. Being sick has meant the luxury of listening to several Desert Island Discs episodes in a row and reading for hours. The programme had me in  tears several times, from George Michael's answer to why he was in a relatively good place (it was recorded in 2007) - "Nobody died on me...in years...it took years for me to believe that these blows weren't gonna keep coming" - to Emma Bridgewater talking about her mother's death, and in general just the sheer humanity pouring out of the guests (I loved Mary Robinson's episode).

It is of course an excellent source for finding or rediscovering songs (and books), and I have been listening to Rufus Wainwright's "Going to a Town" about the Bush administration (very timely again this month), one of George Michael's choices and a song he would later cover.

Going through a pile of cuttings, I ended up looking up different singers, which eventually led me to this heartbreaking video (more on the song and animation here), which includes drawings made by refugee and displaced children supported by CARITAS - all net proceeds from sales of the single go to Australia's ASRC (Asylum Seekers Resource Centre).

My sister knows me well and got me a sketchbook that is asking me to sketch every day, and I have a feeling that with this one, I will. My first sketch is of our small armchair by the stove in the kitchen, with the blanket my sister and brother-in-law gave us for Christmas last year and a cushion knitted by John's late grandmother, which is the object he chose from her house.