Thursday, December 29, 2011

Some good memories of 2011

Although my camera lives in my bag, I am not very good at actually remembering to take pictures, especially when I am out in the world and with people, but here are some moments from this year that were captured and that (I think) I haven't posted before.

Swimming naked here:

Lots of walks and runs in my neighbourhood:


Birthday picnic interrupted by showers and transferred to the car:

Private concerts:

Two weddings -

my little sister's:


and a dear friend's:

Climbing mountains (still smiling at the bottom):

Putting on our children's show with my favourite storyteller:

Spending quite a bit of time on boats:

just the two of us for a spontaneous weekend trip,

for island visits with my older sister + husband,

and with the honeymooners:

The kindness of people in the college, manifest in our office:

I lost my fear of public speaking this year (at least the utter sense of panic), was healthier than ever, ended a pattern of destructive relationships and drama and committed fully to my current relationship (and have been very lucky that he was so patient and forgiving), started seeing a counsellor again, stopped caring so much what others think, decluttered and organised the hell out of my entire life (slightly exaggerating), indulged my obsession with silk, joined the pool again, discovered green smoothies, grew my collection of essential oils, spent more time with my family,  and painted and crafted not as much as I would have liked, but enough to feel I am back in the creative zone.

These are some of the good things from this year, from my own personal bubble. There were lows and losses, too, but they shall remain private for the most part. Certain things still hurt, and I am still learning from some of them. These last days of the year are for reflection, and I haven't even begun to order my thoughts. 

I had plans and intentions for this year - some materialised, others didn't, but I won't beat myself up; I make them to guide me, not to dominate me. More on that soon.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Christmas at my family's house is more wabi-sabi than magazine perfection.

Case in point: headless crib figurines

I like wabi-sabi.

Regarding the tree, the priority is that it is cat-safe (as is the case with just about everything else in the house; one of the cats has figured out how to open the bread bin), but we still have real candles (lit only when somebody is in the room):

In the past every single ornament we had (and we have hundreds) would go on the tree, but in recent years it has become more minimalistic. The baubles are glass ones we painted when we were younger, and my mum made the straw stars.

Over the next few days things might be a bit chaotic here, as I'm trying to solve some technical problems (to do with two different Google accounts) and update a few elements. In case I don't post again before January I want to thank you all for reading and wish you a Happy New Year!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Coming home for Christmas

 Santas running - in Ireland, not Germany

I arrived in Germany on Sunday. I come here twice a year for three or four weeks. It always feels strange coming home to my old home, and then also going back home to Ireland. I would prefer to see my family more times during the year even if that meant shorter visits, but this makes more sense, and I am so grateful I can do it.

The reason I am able to spend such large chunks of time here is because my work in the college is not full-time. Which doesn't mean that I don't work while I am here - there are commissions and then my own work, and with so much time on my hands I am able to dedicate several hours a day to creating. And with my laptop I can work from anywhere in the world. So far I haven't done any work, though; it always takes me a few days to settle in.

I got a bad cold just before I left Ireland (just when it had struck me that I hadn't had a single cold all year), so the journey was a bit miserable, but I wore lots of layers (being stuck in an airport last year taught me to wear more clothes), and the lavender oil I always carry with me helped me to sleep a bit on the plane - I rub it on my temples, the back of my neck and my wrists and it becomes a protective cocoon of calm.

We had snow on Tuesday, but now it is just wet. Yesterday I wrapped up and went for a half-hour run, and it was actually perfect running weather - I didn't mind the rain at all. Until I realised that there's a huge hole in one of my trainers. No wonder, they must be at least five years old - I left them here when I was about to get new ones in Ireland. The years go by so fast and whenever I come back here it hits me that both people and things have got older.

So once Christmas is over I will buy a new pair of trainers and leave them at my mum's house. Since I spend so much time here I figured it is easier to just get certain items twice and leave one here, especially when it comes to running gear, cosmetics and art materials. It has taken me all this time to establish some sort of routine. In the past travelling was always haphazard and chaotic. I must admit, I have been doing this for nine years -I moved to Ireland in 2002-, but only recently have I started to find ways to make it all go more smoothly. I guess I never thought about it much, but now I like to have certain routines so I can focus on the important things.

I wish I could just travel with hand luggage and be free, and I am getting closer to that ideal: this time my suitcase was five kg lighter than in the summer, and this was with heavier winter clothes and including presents! I did bring books, the ones I am currently reading, even though there is no need really, as my mum's house is full of books, so there is no shortage of reading material and unexpected discoveries.

I have come home to huge soft square pillows (Matt reckons this is a German thing), Christmas cookies, Lebkuchen and Stollen, the darker, melancholy landscape with dense fairytale forests and creeks, and precious time with my family. Every visit I appreciate it more.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Real books

I have bought a good few novels recently. During my last decluttering episode I decided to get rid of a number of novels, the ones I was sure I wouldn't read again. I thought I would try to mostly borrow novels from the library instead of buying them. And, if I were to buy any, then there are charity shops, bookcrossing, and passing them on to friends or family.

I don't want to start reading on a kindle. It may be great for travelling, and the minimalist in me likes the idea, but I love physical books -their smell, look and tactility, even the sound of turning pages- too much. I like being able to open a different page to check something while still having the current page open, to have it all there at once, not just one page at a time.

I don't see books as visual clutter, as filled bookshelves can look very decorative, but I don't like the idea of "dead" books - books that sit there never to be read again, when someone somewhere might like to read them. So generally that is my criteria - those books have to go.

The reason I did buy piles of novels again, without knowing whether I would like them enough to reread, is that they were beautiful. There are several books I own that I display as works of art, and I don't tire of looking at them. And I love dandelion seed heads, so I had to get the hardback edition of The Sense of an Ending (I also had heard great things about it).

Apparently making visually beautiful books is big right now (I love that Barnes thanked his book designer in his Booker acceptance speech), when e-readers are becoming more popular, in the same way that in recent years a lot of musicians have released CDs in elaborate packages, with extensive booklets and extra material, as an answer to the rise of digital music.

Now that I think of it, I don't have many ugly books. I don't like neon colours, and sometimes I find bright-orange spines with black and white writing a bit too much. I don't like it when a non-chick-lit book gets the chick-lit treatment (including a swirly candy-coloured font and often some cringeworthy illustration of The Modern Woman), and I was very disappointed when I saw what one English edition has done to Pippi Longstocking (it involved glitter on the cover, and Pippi looked sort of sexualised). But most of the books I own I actually really like the look of.

So perhaps I will never be a minimalist when it comes to books and instead will end up with the big library I used to dream of having one day, dust and all.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Out of the rut



Lately I have been thinking a lot about how hard it is to make certain decisions. I have been struggling with getting it right. On the one hand I realise I need to learn to say no more often, because my inability to do so has landed me in all kinds of trouble in the past and keeps making my life difficult and more stressful than necessary; but on the other hand I feel I sometimes have to push myself and say yes to more things - that perhaps I try to avoid too many social situations (because I often feel awkward), for instance, or other challenging, frightening things. It's about finding some kind of equilibrium between being Marina and making an effort, stepping out of my comfort zone. I wish I were able to instinctively know which situation calls for which approach, but I guess it's not that easy.

Sometimes I feel a nudge, though. After a row of days of the same routine, I know it's probably good to say yes to something that comes my way. One small example from last week: it was a rather unstructured day and I was very close to just going home after work, like on all other days that week, where I would then probably procrastinate and feel lethargic and go to bed early. That had suited me fine all week - I am in hibernating mood. But on Friday, after hesitating and resisting at first, I followed my friend's suggestion to go into town and to an exhibition.

My workplace is quite close to town, a ten-, 15- minute walk, yet if often seems too overwhelming a prospect to me, especially in the colder months. I might feel achey and tired, and not in the mood for rain and wind and dodging fellow pedestrians and cars, the bustle of an -admittedly small- city. [Oh, and at this time of the year, the pre-Christmas mayhem.]

But I did make it into town, walking in the fading light, and it was exactly what I needed. The studio sale was in one of the most picturesque parts of the city (see photos), which I don't frequent nearly enough, the work exhibited was beautiful (and we bought a few pieces for the university's collection), and I watched the night fall on the water, with velvety, rich shades of blue. It all injected energy and joy into an otherwise unremarkable string of days.

Friday, December 9, 2011

So many good books...

...and so little time. Being aware of the abundance of good reads that is out there carries a bittersweet tone for me, as it is a reminder of how short life is and that a lifetime is not enough to read all the books I want to read. Browsing bookshops, though one life's greatest pleasures, I often get this visceral sense of panic at the brevity of life. But I digress.

Particularly around this time of year so many good new titles come out. The Guardian's Review section and I are inseparable on a Saturday, and it is one of my main sources of book recommendations. While I sometimes have a problem with critics (particularly when they are downright nasty and have the power to destroy an artist, or when a book/film/CD/artwork is graded. After all, so much of it is subjective - any individual's opinion reflects their individual taste), I love the mostly thoughtful reviews and the palpable enthusiasm of the favourable ones in Review.

Here are some of the books that are currently on my to-read list (just noticed a heavy leaning towards memoirs here) :

Blue Nights by Joan Didion: I read her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking about her husband's death, and this is about their daughter's death shortly after. Certainly no easy read. Grief memoirs have taken a beating recently, but I think Didion's are an exception and among the more powerful ones.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson:  I actually haven't read any of her books, only some essays and articles, which I loved. The latest was an excerpt from this memoir, and it was beautifully written. I wonder whether I should read one of her novels first; I tend to read a writer's fictional output before reading the life, the background story (in the same way that I prefer to read the book before seeing a movie version), but it can be interesting to do it the other way around, approaching the fiction with that prior knowledge of what shaped it. And of course art and life are intrinsically linked.

Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend by Diana Athill: I like her style. I also want to get her book about ageing, Somewhere Towards the End. I love reading books by or about older people, their insights, their wisdom, invariably finding it all reassuring, comforting, somehow; it alleviates my own fear of getting older and death.

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan (written a decade ago, but has been reissued recently): About a model, perception, seeing and being seen. I focused on aesthetics when studying Philosophy and am obsessed with writings -fiction as well as non-fiction- about seeing and looking.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: I loved The Virgin Suicides (still haven't read Middlesex), and I really enjoyed this interview with Adam Thirlwell.

Clicking on each book cover will take you to the author's website, a review or the book's amazon page (I also always link the book under "Currently reading" in the sidebar. No affiliate links or anything!)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Wavy weave

I keep learning new things about knitting. The latest is nice and lazy - an open weave that's very fast to knit. I found it through a pattern on the yarn ball band of the berry-coloured wool in the second picture.

You knit wrapping the yarn around the needle twice for every stitch (i.e. in between stitches). In the next row you drop the extra wraps from the previous row, and so on. I like the light weight and the wave-like appearance. I used the blue wool for a thin short scarf and made a cowl with the other wool by knitting a scarf and joining the ends.

Whenever I saw a knit like this I used to think it had been made with gigantic needles... Now that mystery has been solved!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Light and bright november

It has a bad reputation, but this year it was not at all oppressive. I quite liked November.

Proof of the light-filled days:

Granted, in the last picture the sun was struggling. There were days of all-blue skies, too, but I love the drama of the changing weather patterns in this part of the world.

December started with rain, but thankfully no ice. Today was the first time I thought it a remote possibility to wear a winter coat and threw it on the backseat in the car before I headed out (spending the weekend at Matt's while he is out of the country). I recently read some advice that advocated not making more than three plans for the weekend, otherwise you could end up over-scheduling. I do the latter all the time and wonder why I feel overwhelmed. It has been so freeing to apply that 3-plans "rule". Of course I don't adhere to it rigidly. But no more than three things are planned in advance (as in before the weekend), and then I can spontaneously throw in some more arrangements if I feel like it. It is nice to have long stretches of time to myself, to do with as I please. This weekend's plans so far are a work party and meeting a friend for a walk. Yesterday evening was spent reading, knitting and thinking up recipes and going to bed ridiculously early, after a week of rising at 6.30 to go swimming before work. My body is hurting, in a good way, and I think I will have a rest day tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In the water

Since the end of the summer I haven't been swimming in the sea much - my favourite activity for forgetting all my worries (when the cold hits you, you don't think about stuff)- but I'm in the pool at least four times a week, and while it is not as breathtaking as being in the ocean, it still has its benefits. In a recent post I lauded running, but swimming is up there with it, another solitary sport I enjoy. [ I think I did too many team sports when I was younger. At this stage in my life I like exercising on my own, although it's also nice to have a running buddy.]

What I love so much about swimming is that you do not touch the ground; you are temporarily suspended (if in a body of water), and it's the closest I can come to flying in my day-to-day life. 
I also like that while I'm in the water I am away from my mobile phone and the world, no one can reach me (unless they come into the pool!), and everything just falls away. Until you end up in the sauna, and suddenly human interaction is on the agenda again.

In the last two weeks I have become more serious about my swimming routine. Until then I tended to spend far more time in the sauna and steam room and less than 15 minutes in the pool. Now I regularly do 1000 metres and am hoping to keep it up.

In my gym swim bag (which was a gift from my sister. I love it - such a gorgeous colour and retro style - thanks again, Sibylle!):

- Flip flops. I am not sqeamish about these things, but I'd prefer not to get athlete's foot, and the floors and showers can be quite wet and slippery, so I wear flip flops. The leopard print and glitter of my current ones -and long may they last- brighten my mornings.

- Goggles. Mine are similar to, if not the same as, these (and I am so glad the shop I went to had such a small selection - looking them up online I am amazed at the variety; I'd be so indecisive), and I am very happy with them. My last pair started leaking recently; it was more fidgety (and more expensive), and I prefer the new ones.

- Bikini. This is an adidas bikini made for proper swimming. I may get a swim suit at some stage (even with this bikini I sometimes find myself checking if everything is still where it ought to be), but I like to be as naked as possible, with not too much material between the water and me. The same goes for the sauna and steamroom (in Ireland you have to wear swimwear in the sauna).

- Not pictured: swimming hat, towel, hairband, 1-euro coin for the locker, wide-toothed wooden comb for detangling hair prior to blow-drying it, soap, shampoo, moisturiser, and change of underwear

On the days I go swimming I am more careful about what I wear - sometimes I am still steaming from the steam room, and then it is very hard to get into a tight lace top. So I usually wear comfortable tights or leggings and a dress, making it as hassle-free as possible. Sometimes, if I have to be somewhere, I only have a quick water-only shower after my swim.

Monday, November 28, 2011

From last week

"Short stories are a modern invention and reflect something of the loneliness of the acts of writing and reading." (Lorna Sage in her introduction to The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield)

1| Escaping into books. Pocket-sized reading makes for a lighter handbag (my right shoulder has been hurting from being on the computer and knitting, and carrying a heavy handbag doesn't help). Katherine Mansfield is one of my favourite short fiction writers.

2| Painting with watercolours and trying to decide what to use this blackboard for

3| To the Lighthouse - a long walk on a sunny warm-ish day (last year on that day we had snow!)

4| Knitting and catching up with all the weekend papers that had accumulated

It was also the last week of teaching before January. I tend to crash when a phase of work is over and get a cold or something similarly trivial but slightly annoying, but it hasn't happened yet and maybe/hopefully won't. I still have other work for a few weeks, but I like having more time for my own art practice. I feel so inspired when I see my students' work, but invariably my own work suffers - teaching, as much as I love it, takes a lot of energy. I don't know how full-time teachers do it. On Friday I spent almost the entire day painting, only stopping to boil the kettle (and to eat), and the knot of tension I had felt in my stomach gradually disappeared (only to come back today. Work this morning has left me frazzled and feeling low, but that's another story, and some meditation tonight might help). It's so good to be in the Flow.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Five-second drawing...

...and you can tell. However, I am quite fond of it.

It captured a lovely moment, sitting in front of the fire with Matt, sipping Pinot Noir. I drew it on Matt's iPad, a medium I never use normally (incidentally, David Hockney has been "painting" on the iPhone and iPad a lot). It may have been my only creative output that day, but it still counts. It was just a spontaneous doodle and not at all how I usually sketch (nor is that my usual handwriting), but it has made me recommit to drawing every day. I often find it hard because I worry I'll get frustrated if the outcome is not what I aimed for. But then I think of this quote, which is on the wall in my studio:

"To practise any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make the soul grow. So do it."
- Kurt Vonnegut

Sunday, November 20, 2011

On my mind

Saturday reading... I like how my name slipped into this photo - didn't notice when I took it!


I am just back from a perfect run (the type that feels like flying; I didn't have to stop and walk, no side stitches, almost no effort). Now I am letting a hair mask of coconut oil with eucalyptus do its wonders before I shower, taking advantage of the fact that my head is steaming after the run, and heat and hair masks go together (keeping the heat in with a shower cap).

I finally got Haruki Murakami's book about running. After scanning the Memoir section in the bookshop, I found it in the Sports section - in my opinion it belongs in both. I have only started reading it, but am loving it already and would have bought it for the foreword alone ("Just a book in which I ponder various things and think out loud").

The above is a sketch I did for a mental health project that asked people what they do to build their resilience. I chose running by the sea, and, after fretting about it for a while, I just went for a literal illustration - runners, shells, sand, water. I find being close to the sea healing and getting sweaty cathartic, and combining running and the sea is a cure for everything, and I am only exaggerating a little bit!

This morning I had to persuade myself to go for a run, and I am so glad I did. When I'm feeling lazy I just have to remember that I always feel better after a run, physically, mentally and emotionally. I don't have a strict timetable for exercise: The swimming part is easy; it gets incorporated into my workday. With running I try to aim for three times a week, but my general "rule" is, especially in the colder months, if the weather is nice and I have time, I go for a run, no excuses. On wet and windy days I don't feel bad if I don't go. November is still very kind (with an interlude of flooding rain on Thursday), and it has been easy to get Vitamin D and exercise. I hope I'll stick to my routine.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Restoring calm, or a semblance thereof

Button, thread, afternoon light

I have, for the most part, stopped stressing about everything so much, rushing, anticipating the future and losing the present moment. Reframing is the magic word, turning chores and routines into meditation and enjoyment.

Take walking to get somewhere (as opposed to walking for the sake of walking - but really they shouldn't be that different): I used to rush, thinking of where I was heading. Going into town from work - which isn't even that far - I would walk briskly, forgetting to breathe properly, and wonder why I was exhausted upon arriving. Lately I have been focusing on my breathing, on the air, on sights and sounds and smells, and enjoying the walk, the journey. It makes such a difference.  I can still walk fast, thus getting some exercise out of it, and enjoy it for that. It doesn't leave me depleted as before.

I think I used to be this ball of tension and it drained the life out of me.


All those unfinished knitting projects that were everywhere in my house, with their threads hanging out physical reminders of the loose ends in my life right now, have been tamed. I always thought I disliked weaving in the ends. It seemed necessary but boring (I also thought I didn't really know how to do it - turns out there is no right way). When I finally set to work on it I actually found it quite enjoyable and the feeling of accomplishment almost stronger than while actually knitting - obviously because this is the point where it turns from a work-in-progress into a finished piece.

Similarly, I also used to put off mending clothes, sewing on buttons, etc. Now I find it therapeutic. [Although, I might have thought I was very mindful sewing on a button on Matt's jacket, but I totally managed to sew the pocket together in the process! Start again...]

The list goes on. I like tidying and cleaning because it restores some semblance of order and calm to my world, if only for a brief time before it has to be repeated. But there are certain chores that I used to dread at times. After dinner the pile of dishes in the sink can look a bit daunting, especially if you feel you could go to sleep. I reframed it in my mind - it gives me the opportunity to stand and move after sitting at the table and makes me feel more energetic. Now I get up and just do the dishes. And then they're done. Easy. And while I do them I focus on the task and it becomes a meditation.

Apparently, for unemployed people small things like going to the post office can become a huge chore. I am like that sometimes (though luckily not unemployed): when I have a lot of free, unstructured time, the small things just grow. Whereas during busy times I get into a rhythm of just getting on with stuff. I am trying to approach everything in this way all the time now, incorporating whatever comes up into the flow of my days. After all things big and small all make up the rhythm of our lives.

Obviously there are still moments  when I get stressed, tasks I dread, and situations I find difficult to navigate or enjoy, and I don't go around with a constant Zen-like smile on my face, but on the whole my life has become so much easier since I started focusing on what I am doing in the moment and seeing the beauty in everything. 

Life mostly isn't ordered and calm; it is chaotic and unpredictable, and that makes it so exciting, but it is good to know, especially for an anxiety-plagued person like me, that certain areas can be made somewhat calmer and more ordered and thus replenish our energy, making it easier to face life's struggles and turmoil.

Monday, November 14, 2011


(1. kale, 2. curly kale, 3. kale in my Green Monster, and 4. apples, for balance - I know, what a well-edited selection... In my defense, there has been a lot of kale in my life, and it's very photogenic. Also, I was going to crop the last picture to take out the mouldy grout but decided to keep it real...)

Despite my best intentions, I haven't been eating that healthily lately (I blame my sister and her husband's visit - once you've eaten out a couple of times, it's hard to stick to your habits).

Mainly I started eating bread again. A lot. Quite often with nutella - my downfall. Eating less sugar has made my taste buds very sensitive - most sweet things I find too sweet. But nutella is an exception. I never buy it usually, because when it's there I will eat it. As is the case now.

I don't think bread is the devil; a healthy diet can include bread. But personally I find eating more than a slice a day makes me tired, heavy and lethargic. I'm not really allergic to gluten, but I feel so much better without it.

I know my family think I worry too much about food. And I want to be relaxed about it. If I'm invited somewhere I will still eat everything that's put in front of me, and enjoy it, but in my own house I want to eat in a way that makes me feel good. With the occasional treat, of course.

The whole food thing has become so much more important since I started a more rigorous exercise routine - what you eat affects your stamina, etc., so much.
Other areas, too - medical, especially - I don't know to what extent food played a role, but I am certain it is not to be underestimated: last year I was sick every few weeks; this year I have only been sick once or twice.

And then even seemingly trivial things, like noticing that the corners of my mouth don't get chapped and sore if I eat enough oils, or Matt commenting that when our paths first crossed two years ago he thought I looked ill and puffy in my face, have made me more aware of food issues. All this tells me it is a big deal. I may sound fussy and precious when I talk about it, but food is such a crucial element of our wellbeing. If people feel healthy and good eating a not-so-great diet, good for them. But I know I don't.

Anyway, I am just getting back into a healthier regime again. Green foods are making an appearance more often instead of going off in the fridge (I hate when food goes off). I am replacing the bread with millet and quinoa as before. Throughout these two weeks of craving and consuming stodgy foods I did drink a green monster almost every single day, so that hadn't changed.

Since I posted three photos of kale, I should mention how I use it. I usually don't do anything fancy - I like it steamed as a side with whatever meal I'm having. Sometimes I put it in soups and green smoothies (though spinach is nicer in the latter), and I like making a batch of kale chips - I use this recipe and only season with coarse sea salt and cracked black pepper.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sloe progress

I love the taste, but making sloe gin is also aesthetically pleasing. Whenever I go to Matt's place now, the first thing I do is take a picture or two of the gin. It changes every day and makes me want to get out my watercolours. I am sure it will keep me entertained for the months it'll take to infuse.

 November has been quite mild so far. We had two cloudless days in a row and I went running on both and realised that for me the weather plays a huge part when it comes to exercise. Those two days I wanted to run so badly, it was all I could think about when I woke up. I admire those runners who do not let the weather deter them. Running in the rain (gentle rain) is fine and can be exhilarating, but throw in strong wind, and I chicken out - running against the wind gives me headaches and leaves me feeling exhausted. There are gale-force winds right now, so I am not sure my running gear will make an appearance this weekend, but that's okay. When I didn't run or swim this week I walked, walked, and walked, to soak up as much sun as possible, so a weekend of rest sounds tempting.