Monday, January 30, 2012

Across the bay

Over the weekend I had a full day at home on my own and spent a good while observing the changing weather. The camera (well, my camera) never captures it, but I get the most amazing views. Sometimes I almost take it for granted, especially when I am in a rush, but most days I take in the view before I get in the car, and on days I don't have to be anywhere I love seeing the sun rise and watching the world transform outside.

It goes through a wide range of blues and greys and greens, and every now and again County Clare in the distance is pink and lavender and seems heightened and so much closer (see photo). Often there is a silvery blurred strip between the water and the land and then, of course, all kinds of mist and clouds and foam. This being the west of Ireland, the weather can be very dramatic, so there is a lot happening in the course of a day..

It occurred to me that I have lived in this house for three and a half years and have never painted the view. I always suggest an exercise to my students where you tape a sheet with a rectangle cut in it on a window and record the changing weather patterns within that frame, and I still haven't done it with my kitchen window. So that is my next project.

Somebody who lives here but comes from another place by the sea in another country once said they missed the feeling of vastness that you get when looking out at the endless sea without land in the distance. I understand what they mean, but you don't have far to go to get such a view, and I have grown quite fond of seeing tiny houses in the distance across the water. At night you see lights twinkling there, together with the odd one from a ship on the ink-blue water. On very clear nights stars get added to this, and it is magical.

Friday, January 27, 2012

House tour - the reading and crafting corner

Another photo-heavy post. Words feel elusive at the moment. There is so much spinning around in my head, but I cannot seem to put any sentences together this week (thankfully my classes were an exception).

I have been consuming words a lot instead. All my evenings and the weekend were spent reading with candles lit, dipping into books new and old, then crocheting while processing it all.

Even though we still haven't found somewhere to move into together, I am beginning to feel nostalgic about my current place, as if my time here were already over. It has made me go into documenting mode, taking pictures of every corner. So this may well be one of several house tour posts. I am extremely curious about how people live and known to look at everything -as long as it's on display; I don't open drawers and the like- when visiting somebody's house. Here are some of the things I want to remember about my own humble abode:


Piece of furniture that was here when I moved in and I painted antique white. It's where I put current crochet and knitting projects, magazines and books - all in view to make sure I go back to them.

Coffee table given to me by a friend that I painted antique white; couch dressed in second-hand bedsheet and lots of cushions; the bird ring was a Christmas present from a friend

White books and donkey - a gift from a friend who knew of my obsession

Re-reading this at the moment - one of the books that are always on my coffee table

Grey books & photograph cut out of a newspaper years ago that I was viscerally drawn to - the girl looks like the younger me (unfortunately I didn't write down who the photographer was)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bits and pieces

I started teaching again today, and it was good to see returning students and welcome new ones. A few days ago I felt a bit overwhelmed, but now that I am in the middle of a busy week, I am enjoying it all. The Alexander technique and meditation are definitely helping. I am also swimming and/or running most days, and I set myself a certain amount of time every evening to draw baby elephants and hippos (new illustration project) and then work on some crochet cuffs. It all combines to make me content with life right now.

 |  My bear wisdom for this week is this:

It may seem superficial, but what I wear does have an impact on how I feel, and I love wearing nice clothes. (Incidentally, the first illustration is one of my favourites - my dad once sent me a postcard of it when I was little)

|  I am planning things - maybe a trip to London very soon, where I want to see this exhibition:


|  Drinking gallons of green tea (from my favourite cup):


|  And curling up with this (beautiful inside and out):

...when I'm not reading The Light Years, which I am also enjoying a lot; it is so evocatively written.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Beautiful books: Molly Fox's Birthday

 "What kind of woman has a saffron quilt on her bed? Wears a white linen dressing gown? Keeps beside her bed a stack of gardening books? Stores all her clothes in a shabby antique wardrobe, with a mirror built into its door? Who is she when she is in this room, alone and unobserved, and in what way does that differ from the person she is when she is in a restaurant with friends or in rehearsal or engaging with members of the public? Who, in short, is Molly Fox?" (Madden, Deirdre: Molly Fox's Birthday, faber and faber, London 2008, p.9)

This, for me, is one of those books that make you feel almost bereft when you finish it. I didn't want to leave the setting and the characters. I came across Molly Fox's Birthday while browsing in my favourite bookshop in Galway, and now I cannot wait to read Deirdre Madden's other books. It is not only a good story, taking place in one single day, with flashbacks to events in the past, but addresses big questions ranging from philosophy to art history (specifically the role of memorials) and religion. It is ideas-driven, with the ideas seamlessly woven into the narrative most of the time. I love this kind of novel. I kept a notebook handy while reading it - on almost every page there was some truth that I wanted to write down to revisit.

 It happens to be about so many things I deeply care about. I love both non-fiction and fiction about art and artists' lives. The nameless narrator is a playwright struggling to write her next play who is staying in her friend Molly's house in Dublin while Molly is in New York. Molly is a gifted actor with an extraordinary voice. The narrator ponders their friendship and who Molly, who takes on so many different roles and in her personal life is shy and private, really is. Other characters include a mutual friend (an art historian), the narrator's brother (a priest), Molly's brother, who suffers from depression, and a stranger who is a fan of Molly's. We see everything and everybody through the narrator's eyes. I loved the descriptions of Molly's house and garden - the atmosphere including smells and changing light is brilliantly rendered - and how they and the things they contain contribute to her identity and trigger memories in the narrator.

The novel examines the nature of friendship and family bonds, the concept of home, the shifting and fluid nature of identity, how well we can really know another person, and the vital role that art plays - "so much social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial" (p.214) - and along the way offers many beautiful insights into life, raising questions about how to live a full and true life and what that means.

The blurbs by Frank McGuinness and Sebastian Barry on the book jacket both emphasise the compassion or sympathy in Madden's writing, and it does suffuse every single page. I am so glad I stumbled upon this writer.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Country vs. city

 This is just about the busiest time of the year, as we are in the middle of organising a festival, and it has manifested itself in pain in the right side of my body. I got temporary relief from a massage (such a welcome gift), but working on a laptop for hours on end has taken its toll, and I need to do something about it. My friend gave me some Alexander Technique mp3s, and I am trying to do the exercises (just lying on your back with a few books under your head and your knees pointing at the ceiling and imagining your body expanding while listening to a soothing voice and nice background music) every evening.

We are looking out for a house, but have had no luck so far - I have a feeling there will be more on offer in the warmer months. Right now I keep moving between my house and Matt's apartment, and while this is clearly a first-world problem, now more than ever I am ready to move in with him and not have to constantly worry about whether I forgot to pack something for the next day if I stay at his.

I talk about simplifying my life, but things don't seem that simple when I am forever lugging my clothes, gym bag, laptop, reading material, artwork I am working on, bags of spinach (I often bring food from my fridge that would go off otherwise) and other "essentials" from one place to the other and back. There are always at least three bags in my car. Maybe I'm not that minimalist after all.

He lives closer to work and town, and it makes for a welcome change to only be five minutes away from everything, but my heart still belongs to the country. I like coming back to my house at the end of the day and looking out on the sea. There is so much space around me; I feel like I am back in my sanctuary, breathing cleaner air and able to see the stars. He is more of a city person, so we will have to compromise if we are to finally move in together.*

Photo is of my country bathroom window.

*Galway is a very small city, admittedly.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Skin deep #2

When you try out several new things or make various changes all at the same time, it's hard to say which one makes a difference. For instance, last year I incorporated several positive changes into my diet within a few weeks, or days even. Maybe they all help, but only eliminating one thing after the other would tell me which are vital for me, and somehow I cannot be bothered to do that. I just choose to think that all the changes I have made help, and as long as my diet works for me, I am happy.

Similarly with skin care I cannot pinpoint what single thing has made the most difference. And of course there are so many other contributing factors. Skin responds to what you eat, and to exercise. Deep breathing helps. My skin is much better when I go to the sauna or steam room regularly (whenever I spend time in Germany where I don't go, it gets worse). Stress makes me break out more. Swimming in the sea is great for your skin. And so on. But I have found some products that seem to help, too, and work better than others I have used.

I have the annoying type of combination skin that means you have to deal with oily skin and break-outs as well as dry patches and peeling skin. I switched to Dr. Hauschka facial oil a few months ago, and unlike before then, it was the only moisturiser I have used since. However, I also use a separate SPF sometimes, and I do facials with other oils, such as jojoba (with essential oils added, and I vary these, too).
All this to say that, even though I cannot vouch that this product has made all the difference, I like it a lot. Oily skin actually needs external oil to regulate itself, and while it may seem counterintuitive at first and feel greasy, after a while you do notice that your skin absorbs it better and your skin becomes soft to the touch, without the grease. Sometimes I still am oily-faced at the end of the day, when I've been anxious or stressed or nervous (and forgot to breathe deeply), but overall it is more rare. The only downside is that the dispenser bottle is prone to leaking from where the top is attached to the bottle, no matter how I adjust it. I'd prefer if it just came in a normal bottle with a screw top. Before I bought this one, I had a sample -a tiny glass bottle- and I use it for travelling and for the gym; it doesn't leak at all.

I also have the Translucent Bronze Concentrate. I don't like using foundation (it often looks cakey and clogs my pores), and this is completely different. It doesn't cover your skin like foundation does, but it gives it a healthy glow and unifies it. You can mix it with the oil or any moisturiser. So all in all a more subtle approach. It is very dark but adjusts to your skin tone. You have to be careful how much you use, though - I would recommend applying it in daylight. It is also great for contouring the space between your brow and eyelid and your cheekbones. And of course it is all natural, too. I don't use it every day, especially because nowadays I do have more of a natural glow, compared to my former pale sickly appearance, so I don't need it as much.

Dr. Hauschka products are not cheap, but I find they last forever and are well worth the money (they are also an ethical company).

Argan oil and Maria Sibylla Merian prints

I have also started using Argan oil. I had a sample of the much-hyped Moroccan Oil and loved it, but I prefer using pure Argan oil. So far I have only used this on my hair and elbows, knees and scars, but it's supposed to be great for your face as well. You can put it into your hair half an hour before washing it or rub it into the ends afterwards. It makes my hair stronger and easier to manage and adds shine.
 I also use coconut oil and jojoba oil for my body, instead of body lotion and for shaving. I find using oils feels more natural and nourishing than lotions and conditioner.

See also Skin deep #1

[Update - I forgot to say: I did not get paid to endorse these products]

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Flying and dreaming

I got home last night, with mixed feelings as usual - missing my family and happy to see Matt and be back. I scrubbed off the journey and washed my clothes. I am burning lemongrass, orange and cedarwood oils, a blend for "when you feel the need to relax and trust that all is happening as it should be", according to this book. I went to work today and it was easy to get back into it - this is always the busiest time of the year, but it feels right after the indulgent slowness and quiet of Christmas.

On the journey my mind was spinning - being in a moving vehicle really does help me think. It's similar when I am walking, running or swimming, but perhaps the passiveness and sedentary nature of being a passenger, with something external moving you through space, means the thinking process is more dreamlike. During exercise my thinking is sharper, clearer and I kind of talk to myself in my mind, whereas on a journey my thoughts swirl more and are often more surprising and seem to come from my subconscious.

I had made my resolutions for this year, but as I was trying to sleep on the plane and later on the cold bus, many more formed in my head - it was more dreaming than planning. The images that came were of cats, gardens and interiors of houses (moving house is on the cards this year, and I would love for it to include a cat and the possibility to get into gardening, something I have always admired but have very little direct experience of) . Many other things, too, but the point isn't so much what it was about, but rather that I am excited about the future, that I have so many ideas and plans and dreams and the energy to seize the day.

I am guilty of letting days go by without filling them in ways that are satisfactory or at least appreciate what they bring when I don't have the luxury to fill them as I please. I don't mean that they have to be extraordinary, but every day is precious. So I am using this evening to order my thoughts, see what my priorities are this month and make space for social and creative stuff as well as work.

I am reading a beautiful book (Deirdre Madden's Molly Fox's Birthday - more on this soon) and have a pile of others to look forward to (among them Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides -thanks again, A&A!- and The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard), and that alone ensures a pleasant easing into the new year.

(The photo is of one of my nightdresses)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Objects and memories

When I visited my family last year, I spent several days in a cathartic letter-and-diary-burning frenzy.

I have been thinking about this and about memory in general a lot since I read The Sense of an Ending (I won't divulge more - I try not to include spoilers when talking about books here), and I just dug out this article from my bookmarks (she also has a beautiful blog), which says it better than I could. I wanted to "smoke [people] out of my life", too. I also found it painful to reread those words from years ago and felt it served no purpose to hold on to them and revisit the past or leave them for others to read.

As somebody who loves reading biographies, autobiographies and collections of correspondence, which are easier to write and in the case of the latter only possible if the subject's letters and diaries remain, perhaps I should be in favour of preserving personal writings for posterity*, although I do have mixed feelings about posthumous revelations (especially when no consent was given). The writings and other paraphernalia people leave behind necessarily represent only a tiny portion of the complexity of a life, and the snippets we salvage are often taken out of context and misinterpreted. A false story can be constructed. Of course this is a problem that all biographers face, and words have limitations.

This very space is a kind of diary that anybody can read. But it is written with that in mind and a million miles away from something I wrote for myself or others wrote to me privately.

It was a relief to get rid of all these remnants from the past, even if I have no control over the letters I wrote. Expunging the physical reminders of certain phases in my life does not delete the memories themselves, but I am a big believer in decluttering one's life, and this was a crucial part.

On  my visit this time, however, I didn't get rid of anything, but instead searched for things that I had been thinking of recently, like the beautiful mountain-and-moon necklace in the photo. My late father brought it back from a trip (my sisters also got one each) years ago, and I rarely wore it at the time. It ended up in my jewellery box, occasionally to be looked at.

A few weeks ago it popped into my mind and I made a note to look for it. When I found it, as well as other pieces that hadn't seen daylight in years, I made a resolution to wear more jewellery, especially the jewellery that was given to me and has meaning beyond its appearance. Although some time ago I decided not to save anything for special occasions and instead use the things I love, it somehow never extended to jewellery. I was too worried about losing it. Seeing my sisters both wear the necklaces my younger sister had commissioned for the three of us almost every day made me reconsider this. One of the quotes I have attached to my mirror is about letting go the things that are taken from you (to which my sister added the words "or replace them" when I ordered a replacement for a scarf I had lost!...). I will be sad if I lose an object precious to me, but this outcome is better than never using the object in the first place.

*Since I don't expect to become famous and my letters and notebooks will hardly be of interest to the wider world, I exclude myself from that. My aunt is compiling a chronicle of our family. If subsequent generations decide to do the same, they may not find much among my belongings.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Wooden boxes

Last year around this time my flight back to Ireland was cancelled due to snowstorms. While we've been spared the ice of previous years so far, there is a storm raging outside right now - hailstones and snow included -, and I am holed up in a room upstairs in my mother's house burning lavender oil to get rid of the headache I got in response to the changing weather. Running is cancelled today, as is, sadly, a trip to see my older sister and her husband (due to the weather, not my head).

My holidays are coming to an end. I didn't get to read all the books I'd planned to, and I didn't finish the illustrations I am working on (and haven't started the new ones - well, there are still a few days left), but I am content. Spending time with my family is my priority.

While I used up all the yarn I'd brought with me, I haven't tackled any of the more complicated patterns and ideas that are gathering in my notebook. Instead I got distracted by storage for craft supplies.

At home I have a perfectly sized box to store long knitting needles, but my mum has this cute wooden box for circular needles (the cover slides off), and another one for crochet hooks, and I am inspired to make something similar:


They must be from the 1970s. I love how they are decorated. They are functional and pretty - I always aim for both with practical things. I don't think I own a single item of plastic storage. 

While most of the stuff in my house doesn't require elaborate storage solutions because I keep it to a minimum, my art and craft supplies are growing and therefore I frequently reorganise my space. If I keep things in containers that are nice to look at, they can be displayed - I store a lot of food in kilner jars on the kitchen counter, for example, and they are decorative as well as practical. I also like having things within easy reach and view, especially when it comes to art and crafts materials - that way I will use them more, and the added benefit is that I feel more creative in a home that displays the tools needed for creating.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cautiously optimistic (intentions for 2012)

I feel a bit torn about sharing plans and resolutions, here as well as offline. I find myself talking about some "project" I am working on and I worry it sounds pretentious. But I like the accountability that comes with sharing. I often tell people about my plans and dreams, in the hope that it will give me more of an incentive to actually realise them instead of having to admit failure or defeat. But I don't really care if I have to do the latter - I have become more gentle with myself. It also helps not to have a strict timeline - all those things I wanted to do years ago may be part of a (never actually expressed as such) ten-year plan, in which case I still have a year or two...

A lot of my long-term dreams have come true. I always wanted to live in Ireland, by the sea, and that's what I'm doing (the donkey in the garden hasn't materialised yet, though, but there is a field full of them just around the corner). I wanted to work as an artist, and although I'm not a full-time artist, I am happy I am working in the arts and grateful that I get the odd commission, and I find teaching fulfilling and inspiring. But in the last few years I have felt a bit stuck, stagnating, and although I realise that it may have been necessary, a time of healing, this year I have felt ready to get out of it.

Some years I didn't make any resolutions, and I can't say with certainty whether making any would have changed anything, but I found that this year it helped me to have some words to guide me.  I wrote them on the first page of my notebook and checked in occasionally. For me not making any feels like there is no structure; time just goes by without the thrill of new beginnings and fresh starts.

For 2011 I wanted to focus on the areas of health, work (the freelance part), relationships and fitness. I did get my health back in order, and I started exercising seriously as opposed to half-arsed. I got my own website, though never developed it (and haven't told many real-life people), and I started to work on something that I hope will turn into part-time work someday (small steps). I also connected with people more. 

So this year I want to continue with and build on all of the above.
As well as:

- Get better at working from home. Dedicate a portion of the day to working on commissions, etc., and stop telling people I'm flexible and available.

- Keep running and swimming and vary my routine more. Maybe sign up for a race or two. And walk more. Also finally acquire all the appropriate gear I need for these activities. It took me years to get the few items I own. I love clothes, but workout clothes were never a priority for me. Now that I have realised that not having any clean running clothes can easily stop me from going for a run, I will get some more - and I might even get walking boots (for hill walking).

- Get my hair cut professionally at least four times. For years I never went to the hairdresser, arguing that with long hair you didn't need to. I cringe when I look at old photos. Bad hair days aplenty. And although my sisters are quite capable, when I finally discovered the benefits of having your hair cut professionally it was a eureka moment, as I became aware that this was one important part of self-care and self-respect I had ommitted for so long, a simple ritual of changing your outer appearance and along with it something within (yes, I feel quite strongly about the transformative powers of having someone take care of your hair).

-Follow the skincare regimen that seems to work at the moment (involving oils - more soon) and start wearing SPF again

- Draw every day, anything

- Daily meditation, yoga or progressive muscle relaxation (I did well for a while, but fell off the mat in the last couple of months)

-Similarly, deep breathing every day - so important for overall health and calm, and so easy to forget

-Send more snail mail. I have a proper fountain pen and a small stationery collection. It's one of life's pleasures to receive something in the mail, but it has become so rare.

- Eat sugar-, dairy- and wheat-free most of the time, but treats are allowed.

- Be a better friend (see snail mail, but also to those around me - make more of an effort. I have lost touch with several old friends, and I am to blame for the most part. I know this is bound to happen after living in three different countries, but I could have been better at correspondence. Recent e-mails from people I haven't seen in years have moved me, and I intend to write more and see the friends who live near me more often)

-Maybe start cohabiting

So nothing major, no huge adventures planned (although the last thing on the list feels huge to me), but all these small things feel like steps in the right direction, and most importantly, they feel right.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Slightly neurotic planner thoughts

A new year, a new diary (the planner kind).

I know people (and I am sure there are a lot of them) who don't have a planner, and I both admire them and cannot believe how they function. I would love the freedom I imagine comes with not having a diary, but in my case that would soon translate into panic and anxiety. I have to write everything down. And I'm not even a person with a crazy schedule. My life is quite simple.

Even though I like to think of myself as well organised, I am not very good at diaries. It used to start with the timing of buying a new one - I'd always forget and would spend the first few days of January feeling unanchored due to the lack of a physical manifestation of the structure of my days. Then there would be the frantic hunt for an appropriate diary, made difficult by the fact that most people buy them in advance. Also, I always need one with one week on a two-page spread, as I have to be able to see the whole week. I can't imagine working with a day-per-page view - I'd lose the whole picture (even though I try not to think in terms of weeks). Anyway, the weekly diaries are few in numbers come January.

So this time I was prepared and bought one, my first Moleskine diary, in the middle of December.

 new versus old

And with it I have found an even better type of diary. It has the week on the left page and a whole page for notes on the right. This is genius! Because it's not like I have so many appointments every day - most of what I write down is something I either need to remember or I need to do at some stage, but not necessarily that day, ideas, random thoughts, etc. All that can go on the right page now, including a general to-do list, which I used to transfer from one day to the next if the tasks hadn't been ticked off.

To illustrate the craziness that is my brain, a typical two-page spread in my old diaries used to look like this (and I have blurred it not because there is anything that absolutely needs to be kept private, but because I am embarrassed by the things I take down):

I really hope that this is a thing of the past. I will still write down ideas during the day that I will then transfer into my other notebook, which I don't carry in my bag (and which has categories), but I expect it to be less chaotic.

The other great thing about this new diary is that it is very small and light. My last one was small, too, but before that I used to carry an A5 diary around with me, and that meant even more mad scribbling (and more weight in my bag). I am proud I was able to downsize.

Oh, and it has a pocket and adhesive labels for all kinds of (and some strange) things you may want to mark:

[As always when I post about specific brands, Moleskine does not know I am singing its praises, and I am not getting paid for this.]