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.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Current obsessions

1. Late evening novel-reading and knitting (not simultaneously). It's a good thing I love this yarn so much, as this is attempt number 3 after two unravellings... I guess it's all about the journey.

2. Coconut water (diluted with water, because I am poor - this stuff is not cheap) after a run. Maybe it's just a fad and a placebo effect, but I really feel better rehydrated when I drink this. My coconut obsession knows no end (I drink this, I use coconut oil in food and on my hair and skin, shredded coconut in various recipes) - I should be half coconut by now.

3. Soft legwear. I don't like it when tights come up to your armpits or cut into your stomach. In the spring and autumn I tend to wear stockings, as I find them more comfortable, but winter calls for complete coverage (though I also own a pair of wool stockings - they might work with a heavy coat). I also don't like hosiery that feels like plastic. Life is too short. I found these extremely soft viscose-based tights and have been living in them. I can wear them all day, whereas with other tights I often have the urge to take them off as soon as I get home. I used to have all kinds of crazy colours, but at the moment I like greys a lot, and they work better with colourful dresses.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Picking sloes

This morning we finally made it out to a quiet country cul-de-sac to pick sloes (not, as Matt suggested, on the side of a busy road - I had a panic attack at the thought of it). I wish we'd thought of it when my sister and her husband were visiting this week - it was fun.

It's November, and it was a chilly morning, but there is still heat in the sun.

It may look as if I was just taking pictures and Matt was doing all the work, but that's not true. I was faster! My hands have the scratches to prove it.

Since it was a spontaneous idea, I was not prepared. You have to lean into the thorny bushes, so tights, dress and cardigan are not the best items of clothing to wear... My sleeves kept getting caught in the branches.

This is what's left from last year's sloe gin. Matt was anxious to make more before it is gone completely, which is a real concern, as I am responsible for its dwindling (all those homeopathic quantities I have consumed add up).

It has the most beautiful colour, is velvety and sweet, but not sickly sweet. Here is Matt's recipe:

Sloe Gin 

Pick the sloes in October or November (two big handfuls to make a 700ml bottle). Remove the stalks and all the woody bits (and any leaves - I somehow picked lots of leaves...). Wash them (the sloes). Put them in the freezer overnight to mimic the effect of a frosty night (unless you pick them after the first frost). Defrost them the following day and prick each berry with a needle, so that the sloes can infuse the gin properly (although Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall says there is no need, as the cold bursts them anyway). Half fill a jar with the sloes, fill with gin, add about half the weight of sloes in sugar or honey, a few cloves, a bit of cinnamon (optional) and shake well. Shake every day for the first week, then every few days, and less often as time goes on. After a few months strain into a bottle. Any sediment will settle after a few weeks. Carefully decant into a clean bottle. Don't leave the sloes in the gin for more than six months.

Apparently sloe gin is also nice in berry compote - the place we went to for lunch today had a dessert including this combination, but I haven't tried it yet.