Thursday, March 29, 2012

Playing work

"I hope for your sake that when it is time to work, all you do is work. But in those hours when the choice is truly yours, what do you choose to put in front of you? Where do you cast your enraptured eye? Where do you lose yourself? Where do you invest your time, your life and your love, knowing that whatever you pay attention to thrives"? 
- Karen Maezen Miller

"The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both."
-James A Michener

I have been thinking about work vs. play and work as play.

Spring seems to bring new projects and new possibilities, and they all come together. I currently have five things to work on outside my paid work. One is bigger with a loose structure and deadlines that aren't written in stone, two are kind of flexible (dangerous), and two have very clear, non-negotiable deadlines that are very soon, so I feel the need to actually draw up a schedule and stick to it.

But before I do that, I have a few days in Germany (I am here for a family occasion), which may be procrastination or a much-needed break away from everything. I am always amazed at how the mind works in a different way when we are geographically removed from our usual surroundings. That may be a few kilometers away or on the other side of the world, on a train or on a plane (movement adds yet another level of shaking-up-thoughts).

Typically, whenever I am away from home, I get excited about the future, have lots of ideas, make plans and get impatient that I cannot get started yet. When I return to Ireland, however, that sense of urgency dissipates somewhat and I find myself back to my half-arsed passive approach.

I am not very good at working from home. I need deadlines, but even when I have them (or self-impose them) it often means a short burst of intense work just before the deadline, fuelled by pressure and panic. I am still undecided whether this is simply the way I have always worked and will always work -there are a lot of advocates of this model- or whether I need to force myself to change and gain some serenity and a relaxed attitude in the process.

I have become quite disciplined about Monday afternoons at home drawing, but that's the extent of my strict schedule so far. The main thing for me is to consider work play and bear in mind that I love and enjoy what I do. I feel stressed thinking about it all - and have been stress-eating to match it -, but I also feel blessed. I am lucky in that work and play for me are interchangeable a lot of the time and that I have many of "those hours when the choice is truly [mine]" and filling some of them with work is also filling them with play - and with something I am passionate about.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


 Sunset at Dogs Bay, Connemara

A dose of Fruehjahrsmuedigkeit (spring fever/tiredness) kept me from doing much this week, but now that the weekend is here I am craving a long run and day trips and even work. Maybe I am simply emerging from the last stage of hibernation.

I have taken advantage of the longer evenings to work in colour (in the winter I usually only do black-and-white drawings at night), mostly with water-soluble colour pencils, which I use for a lot of illustration work. They can be quite messy and unpredictable, and often a lot of patience and layering is required.

Yesterday we were in Dublin for a roundtable on the future of museums (I was tired and dazed, but made notes and will read up on the topic. One speaker in particular made lots of interesting points about moral creativity, cultural rights and the museum as an agent for cultural change, and I want to read On Identity by Amin Maalouf, from which he quoted). Afterwards, we spent some time smelling flowers and tree blossoms in Merrion Square, which helped to wake me up, and now I feel more energised. I also want to paint flowers and trees.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Long weekend

|  A new Saturday tradition is brunch and reading the Guardian in a tapas place called Black Cat. I have a fondness for establishments with "Cat" in the name (there was a bar called El Gato in Oviedo that is still among my favourite places). This one doesn't have many cat pictures and is quite bare, but somehow the lonely small picture hung quite high on the wall makes me very happy.

|  More food - making Hugh's Gratin Dauphinois (not pictured: too much sea salt chocolate)

|  I only discovered Elizabeth Jane Howard recently (I read The Light Years, and the good news is it is part of a trilogy). This book was one of four I recently bought at a charity book sale coffee morning; I love when I find older editions.

|  Swan-watching in Oranmore (and being told I must stop fearfully holding on to my bag all the time - I wasn't even aware of this habit)

The soundtrack: I cried my eyes out listening to songs that do that to me (a mention of Kaspar Hauser in Middlesex had led me down that nostalgia path, via Reinhard Mey, to relistening to all these songwriters, German, Spanish - Joaquín Sabina! - American, and new-to-me Czech music I discovered through the film Year of the Devil). During the week lots of Lisa Hannigan in my classes and then again in a café where I met up with a friend. Ella Fitzgerald in the Black Cat, and my older sister and her husband's first dance song on repeat at home.

I went for a nice run on the prom on Sunday morning, in glorious weather, passing lots of smiley early-risers. In the evening we went to our friends' engagement party, and I spent this afternoon drawing while listening to podcasts - I have become quite disciplined about my Mondays at home.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

House tour #2 - bedroom

March so far has been the month of 12 degrees celsius. Occasionally it goes up to 14 or down to seven, but most days my car thermometer tells me it's 12 degrees outside. I love all four seasons, but I am ready for warmer weather. So I put my winter coats away and wore a lighter jacket yesterday, only to regret it when walking through the ice-cold wind and rain. I still need an extra blanket in bed, but I have removed the winter sheet and like the lighter feel of the duvet without it. This weekend is a long weekend (although I usually have Monday off, anyway), and I will have a two-week break from teaching, so I am looking forward to more evenings at home.

My bedroom is an ongoing project - I change things around quite frequently, but this rarely involves spending money or acquiring new things, apart from books. If I owned the house, I would do something about the wardrobe situation (renting in Ireland often means working around the furniture that comes with the accommodation), but I just hang scarves and dresses over the doors, so not much of it is visible.

The pink walls can be calm and cool or warm and glowing, depending on the light, and while part of me would like to paint the room grey (I find grey walls soothing and great as a backdrop for colourful things), I still enjoy the pinkness of it. My number one rule for the bedroom is that there mustn't be anything under the bed (if I felt the need for under-bed storage that would mean I owned too many things), and I sweep the floor almost every day. Sleeping has become so much more enjoyable in the last few years after I upgraded from mattress on the floor with polyester-blend duvet covers to high thread count sheets, silk pillowcases and a goose down duvet. We spend so much time in bed, so it is worth investing in the things that make it. I love white for bed linen (it's all about peace and calm), but I want to make two floral or otherwise patterned pillowcases.

See also House tour #1

Monday, March 12, 2012

Drawing, baking, reading

I keep using three-word headings for my posts... The solitary parts of my weekend consisted mostly of these three.

 Drawing (works-in-progress):

I am drawing a lot of animals. The above are illustrations for a story about a baby elephant. I am also playing around with the photos I took on our walk last weekend and other kids-and-animals pictures. Working on these is so therapeutic - I don't worry about the result, the subjects make me happy, and I am in the flow.

banana bread (always halving the sugar):


Baking has become an integral part of my weekends - it is so relaxing. While I love my blender and the chopping thing that came with it, I don't feel the need for a stand mixer. I use a wooden spoon and an egg whisk for making cakes. Egg whites and hard pieces of butter can be exhausting, but I love the process.

At this stage I must have close to a hundred books I haven't read yet, and I keep buying new ones. I am also currently reading five books. Part of me would like to be able to read one book at a time (it sounds more mindful), but I seem to be unable to do that. It's not that each book isn't absorbing enough; I just like to have several on the go, and often they tend to be different genres (I rarely read two novels at the same time; that could get confusing). 

I am excited about these two books. Milner was an author, psychoanalyst, educationalist and artist. I had given On Not Being Able to Paint to a friend as a present and had been meaning to get my own copy. The title is self-explanatory: it's about creativity and what prevents creating and is illustrated with Milner's sketches. When I looked it up, I decided to get one of her other books as well, about her seven-year journey of finding out what she really wanted from life and what made her happy. So far I have only read a little bit in each, but I have a feeling they will be important for me and will post more on them soon.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sweet scents of change

On the other side of the bay - Co. Clare (my house is somewhere on the horizon)

Even though I have been quite content these past couple of years, I also feel I have been stagnating and drifting a bit (or are these two mutually exclusive?). It may be anxiety-related that I find it hard to know what I really want and how I really feel, and my default state of mind is confused.

In one of Oliver Burkeman's recent Guardian columns, he talked about our need for newness. This topic had been on my mind, since a few things in my life (mostly work-related) are going to change soon, and I was stressed and worried about some of them. I need the safety net of rituals, routines and habits, but I am always struck by how invigorating it is to do things differently or try something new, and how it may help in finding out what I want. So I have decided to welcome changes and see where they take me. As Burkeman concludes, neophilia tends to enrich your life as well as slow down perceived time - a very encouraging thought.

This week I have been obsessed (even more so than usual) with scents. I have been burning chamomile, eucalyptus and geranium oil in the oil burner, and smelling these oils reminds me to breathe deeply. For my laundry, I always add essential oils diluted with water to the rinse cycle - these past few weeks it has been May Chang, the "oil of tranquility". I use Ecover detergent and no fabric conditioner, so my clothes don't have that freshly laundered smell, but with the oils I can make them smell nice and subtly influence my mood.

While I love reading about the art of perfume, I wouldn't wear it much, as I find many fragrances too overpowering and headache-inducing and like to make my own perfume oils with essential oils (at the moment I love jasmine, ylang-ylang or geranium oil). But occasionally I like to wear a tiny bit of perfume or spray some on my sheets. I'd been researching perfumes since I used up the ones I had been given as presents, trying out different ones and reading up on them. I finally bought Stella by Stella McCartney, and I love it (it's rose, amber, peony and mandarin). It doesn't give me headaches, it's not too strong, and it reminds me of some place with a positive atmosphere and nice people, so that makes it the perfect choice. I won't wear it every day, but it is the scent I will associate with embracing change, and I hope that it will turn out to be a happy olfactory memory.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Flowers, horses, beaches

It is still freezing cold -I had to scrape ice off the windscreen yesterday-, but there is heat in the sun, and it was a weekend of mostly blue skies, beautiful weather that continued today. I went for a 7km run this morning and managed to run up the hill at the end, where I usually give up and walk. That small success, instead of setting the tone for a productive day, seems to have given me permission to procrastinate the rest of the day. I just spent two hours going through newspapers that had piled up - I always worry I might miss something, and it did yield some inspiring articles and reviews (for example this one I mentioned on my other blog).

The weekend was filled with light and love and flowers and cake and fresh air and children and horses and beaches, all picture-book perfection (apart from my unwashed hair - not included here...).

Wild garlic flowers in champagne flute and a beautiful foodie book

new work by this talented girl

 Little hooded people feeding the horses

 Finding new-to-me, empty beaches (it was too cold for swimming, unfortunately)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Red, yellow, white

RED |  I am wearing a lot of red these days. When I explained to Matt that red corresponds to the root chakra and wearing red can be grounding, he looked slightly worried and said I lived in a strange world. It was one of our typical artist-vs.-scientist conversations. I was feeling very much un-grounded this week; it is something I struggle with a lot and that creates a lot of fear. (Sonia Choquette also recommends various other things, including rubbing Vick's VapoRub into the soles of your feet, to strengthen the root chakra. These rituals may seem so small and insignificant, but I feel instantly better when I employ them.)

YELLOW |  Getting back into yoga (the Alexander Technique had taken over a bit)

WHITE  |  I genuinely love doing laundry; I find it very relaxing, and I like taking care of clothes. Complicated care instructions and delicate fabrics make me happy - perhaps it just means I have too much time on my hands. I am looking forward to being able to dry clothes outside again soon.