Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"The little winters of life"

early morning bird, September

“If, when you look clearly at the situation, you seem to be making the right moves and the world isn’t responding, it may be time to take the desperation out of your voice and eyes and respond to the deeper rhythm of events. You may have entered a period of winter. Winter isn’t terminal, it isn’t death. It’s simply time to hibernate, to turn your energy inward and do your growing underground.

Westernized culture doesn’t support hibernation. People lead global 24-hour lives where nothing ever sleeps. TV, radio, news, transport, light, heat, internet all keep going like a funfair. Nothing switches off any more and life is full on, or seems to be, so when it goes quiet for us it seems like a violation of the natural order, but it isn’t.

[...] ‘To everything there is a season’. [...] If you look closely at your own life you can see it too. The rhythm changes. Sometimes things flourish, events pile up. Sometimes life feels as though it’s gone into slow motion, even stopped.

I’ve found that the way to survive the little winters of life is to keep working but to reduce your activity and greatly reduce your expectations. At times like these it never works to force anything. When the sea is rough, mend your sails.   

[...]These are times for editing your possessions, harvesting your resources, evaluating your progress, learning new skills, cultivating friendships, catching up on reading or sleep, caring for your body, going within and reconnecting with your dreams. There may be lessons to be learned and now you have the time to learn them. Your maps may need to be redrawn and now you have the time to redraw them, knowing all the time that the season and the energy will shift. “

(from "When the Sea is Rough, Mend your Sails", a chapter in Lesley Garner's Everything I've Ever Done That Worked)

This summer was my winter, and it continues, even though I am slowly coming out of it - just when the actual winter is drawing close. A friend did a Tarot reading for me yesterday. It was precisely about the above, about going with the flow, having no expectations, no goals, and just being in the moment and looking after myself. I have exhausted myself wanting things to be different in a certain area of my life, and with work I am trying to get things done, which at times can feel like forcing them, but I am able to prioritise and realise that nothing is that important, and I have days when I am in the flow and everything seems to make sense.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Roses, etc.

My obsession with flowers continues into autumn (I see botanical art everywhere), and I keep collecting them via my camera as summer's offerings gradually fade.

I arrange them by colour (I often don't know their names - my knowledge of flora and fauna has lots of gaps) and they go into a folder for inspiration - I think I want to do some watercolours. I haven't worked on any of my own projects for a while now, and flowers will hopefully ease me back into that.  There is something calming about doing plant portraits and following nature's design, and unlike the illustrations I am working on, they require no research and preparation once I have the photograph or the real thing in front of me.



Monday, October 22, 2012


| Pleasure. Earl Grey tea and hours spent reading, listening to the new Bat for Lashes album (in her notes, Natasha Khan says "This is an album of healing, of being glad to be alive and letting go of the ghosts..." - words that resonate; I keep attracting the right things for me at the right time), a glistening garden in the morning, and enjoying the view from my couch - a woodcut print I was given that I finally got framed (the framer suggested hanging it like this, as he wasn't sure which way it should go, and I am very happy with the result).

The weather was far too nice at the weekend to be stuck indoors working, so I took most of it off. This means a busy week ahead, but there are times when it makes sense to procrastinate - in this case, I gladly threw out my plans for a couple of days suffused with light, Vitamin D and people in high spirits.

Speaking of work (pleasurable work), on Saturday a friend and I went to a Baboró talk about writing (and illustrating) for children with the prolific authors Joyce and Polly Dunbar and Steve Hartley. I didn't take notes, but here are some random things I remember:

Joyce Dunbar reckons the golden age of children's books ended a few years ago and emphasised how difficult it can be to get published and how long it can take, which was a bit disheartening and makes me want to rewind a few decades. However, she also said never to throw work away, as it might well be picked up ten years after the idea was conceived; sometimes it is simply not the right time. She compared the structure of a picture book to that of a poem, with meaning to be found in the shape itself.

 Her daughter Polly was asked to change the colour of her heroine's dress for a TV adaptation, because apparently "green doesn't sell". They talked about the ruthless editing and paring down that is required in a genre where the word count is quite low and about the solitary nature of their work. Oh, and we learnt - from Steve - that children love anything to do with underpants.

Friday, October 19, 2012


Repetitive patterns are calming to an over-anxious mind:


|  I chose this Noa Noa dress (a present from my mom) partly because of the print - dots in wobbly squares with rounded corners are very satisfying. I can stare at this print for a disproportionate amount of time - it is a type of meditation.


|  I have been making more crochet cuffs and knitting socks.

|  Tempting liquid blue in Ballyvaughan.

On a different note, today I am procrastinating by reading a book about procrastination that a friend lent me. I am only a few pages in, but it is interesting what Fiore has to say about the role anxiety, self-criticism, fear of failure/success and guilt play in the context of procrastination. We need compassion for who and where we are now to overcome the underlying causes of procrastination. I always knew that I procrastinate because I feel I am not good enough, so why even bother starting something, etc. And I can see that while putting things off leads to anxiety, the reverse is also true, so it is important to tackle the anxiety. Fiore is adamant that laziness and disorganisation are not the reasons people procrastinate, which is worth reminding yourself of.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Books to read when feeling low

I have been needing books such as the ones I mention here like air and water. There are many more I could recommend - and will in future posts -, but these are the ones I have been reading or re-reading in the past few weeks. Books are a huge part of my life, and there have been times in the past when I was so depressed I was unable to concentrate sufficiently to read, and I just had to accept it and wait. I know what I am going through at the moment is mild in comparison and circumstantial, and luckily it hasn't affected my ability to absorb content via the written word (as I said, it's the non-verbal activities that have been difficult).

Eckhart Tolle - The Power of Now
This is the book that I would keep if I had to get rid of all my self-help books except one, and it is likely that it is the only one you really need to read in order to change your life.* I have found a lot of books life-changing (and not only self-help books, of course - some of the best insights have been within the pages of fiction and poetry), but this is the one that I think of every day without needing to be reminded.

I first read it years ago, and while I "got" it, theoretically, I didn't consciously apply Tolle's teachings - perhaps because I wasn't ready/willing, and maybe part of me enjoyed being miserable and embroiled in drama. I went back to it this summer, and it helped me enormously with what has been going on. My sister read it, too, and we keep checking in with each other and saying things like "what would Eckhart say/do?". Of course neither of us has turned into a beatific, serene and zen-like being (it doesn't happen overnight with everyone...), and we confess our -minor- relapses, but we are taking first steps.

Nothing Tolle says in this book is new or innovative as such, but he seems to have a unique gift for distilling the teachings of spiritual masters throughout time and making them accessible and concise. Whenever my mind wanders and I get caught in repetitive thoughts and start worrying, I remind myself to stay in the now - there are no problems in the present moment - and that I am not my mind/thoughts/ego. It makes everything so much easier. It takes practice and patience, and I still struggle with it, obviously, but I do get glimpses of how truly transformative it can be.

Lesley Garner - Everything I've Ever Done That Worked
This book's first private incarnation was as a folder Garner kept with things she had written down that helped her when life was tough. I have various lists like that myself and love reading those of other people. I knew Garner's writings from her magazine columns and always liked her writing voice - there is something warm and generous about her.

Each chapter is only a few pages long, so it is perfect for dipping into anytime you need comfort or ideas for finding ways to feel better. What worked for her were things like joining a choir or being primitive for a while every day (she mentions Carl Jung's observation that he would have no patients if everyone could experience being primitive for five minutes a day - this could be walking barefoot or swimming in the sea, activities children do all the time, but a lot of adults have forgotten or don't make time for). Described as an "emotional first-aid kit", it is far more than that and just as valuable in good times, as inspiration for enriching your life.


I also recently re-read Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest and just finished reading Sally Brampton's memoir Shoot the Damn Dog. It may seem counterintuitive to read memoirs about depression when you are low, and there is a lot in these two that is difficult and heartbreaking, but there is something to be said for being reminded that you are not alone (as Brampton writes, "The nature of depression is that it narrows our focus until we believe that our problems are insuperable and we are the only people who feel the way we do"), and ultimately these books offer hope (they are also beautifully written).


Another helpful and practical book I am reading (though not doing any of the exercises) is Embracing Uncertainty by Susan Jeffers. Even though I am not actively working with it, the ideas she presents in the exercises have stayed with me - simple things like the power of maybe - "Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm not right" - and how this attitude makes us more open and free. Ultimately we don't know anything, and accepting/surrendering to the fact that we cannot control anything can be very liberating. I also love the part about being excited and curious about what the future may hold and creating a "wondering life" instead of a "hoping life", replacing "I hope" with "I wonder" - it really does relieve the pressure. She touches on Buddhism a lot, and a core message is to let go of our need for things to be a certain way. I cannot say that I have successfully incorporated all this into my daily life, but at least I am aware of it, and I find even just reading this book calming, which is why it is and will remain by my bedside.


A few people have recommended Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart, and it is on my to-read list. I have only read excerpts of her work. Ditto Thich Nhat Hanh.

* I tend to use the term "life-changing" liberally, and there are various degrees of it, but this really is profoundly so.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Trust and change

Yogi tea reminder

French and leaf

1. Having had my ability to trust other people badly challenged, I am focusing on trusting Life, the universe, the grand design (and I keep receiving little nudges and reminders - thank you, teabag). 

2. This spontaneous still life has taken on a lot of meaning: it is the juxtaposition of summer and autumn and the transition from one into the other (Change is the only constant, etc.), a souvenir of a gift, a memory of a nice weekend, complementary colours, the beauty of the imperfect and bruised - and hopefully it will serve as a visual impetus to retrieve my French (I am planning to buy a French magazine and then move on to the French books I have, some unread).

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Slowly, slowly


While I strongly believe in the therapeutic effect of art-making, I recently experienced first-hand that if you go through a phase of repetitive negative thoughts, the non-verbal nature of creating visual art can lend itself to facilitating that. In short, up until last week I hadn't been able to draw or paint for months, and it was not simply my usual habit of procrastinating. Other non-verbal tasks, such as cleaning the house, were no problem, perhaps because they are more physically active, but going into that space where it is just you and a piece of paper or a canvas seemed impossible.

I knew that if I persevered, I would eventually enter the Flow, but I couldn't get past the initial resistance of the fear of being with my thoughts when the more appealing alternative was to distract myself by reading or talking - particularly because there were so many other times, the worst of them the dark hours after 3am, when it was just my mind at me.

The longer it went on for, the more stressed I felt, because I was aware of deadlines looming and people waiting. But I always knew I would return to what is essentially one of my favourite ways to spend time and the solitary environment it happens in. 

And now I am back in my tiny north-facing studio (or at the kitchen table, accompanied by a TED talk or music or silence, depending on my mood), with more enthusiasm than before the hiatus. And all this has served as a reminder that there have to be times of non-activity (such as spending an entire day in pyjamas watching Downton Abbey and staring into space) and that they will always be followed by productive periods.

In the photographs, top to bottom:
My kitchen counter has been covered with sheets of first layers drying. | About to start the second layer, with water-soluble coloured pencils | In a week marked by clumsiness I managed to spill tea over some illustrations | The artwork in the last photo is not recent at all, but the book it is in is brand new, and it came just at the right time. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Interview | Rab Swannock Fulton on his new (e-)book Transformation, the writing process and storytelling

Rab and duck
I am lucky to know the wonderful writer and storyteller Rab Swannock Fulton in real life, and we have collaborated and are collaborating on various projects that marry words and visual art (though he could easily illustrate his own work - he drew a goat for the paperback cover of the book we are talking about here). 
Marina: How would you describe your book Transformation? Is it a love story? Erotic fiction? A horror story?

Rab: [laughs] Well, I'm not sure what it is. It does have love and passion and terror as well as a goat. I guess it would be best described as thinly disguised autobiography.

M: Fifty shades of green perhaps?

R: Does that have a goat in it?

M: You also tell stories in live shows (which I highly recommend). Where do those stories come from, and what is the link between your performance work and your written work?

R: Well, the performance work is built round Irish and Scottish stories - or rather my take on them - folk tales, the big myths as well as urban legends. And I also have family stories and my own stories. And then again sometimes somebody in the audience will throw in a comment or a question that just suddenly has me going off on a spontaneous free flow. But the thing is, no matter what kind of story I'm telling or just making up on the spot, there is always a little part of my brain very aware of how important it is to keep the energy and narrative drive of the story up. And that is a skill that I very consciously bring into my written work. It is very easy for writers, when they are on their own, sat in front of the keyboard, to go off on tangents that may have all sorts of delightful word play and metaphors and allusions, but actually do not move the story on. So performing before an audience has definitely helped tighten my prose work.

M: What came first, the storytelling or the writing?

R: Well, in fact I always wanted to be a painter - still do - but couldn't afford the materials, so instead I used words to try and capture images. But the first work was in the form of poetry and it used a lot of Scots as well as English. But I was also communicating in other ways, not least in finding ways to articulate the campaigns I was involved with in Scotland in the run up to devolution.

M: You stayed on Faslane Peace Camp, the anti-nuclear protest site in Scotland.

R: That's right. For just a little over a year. A very educational and inspiring experience, but it left me burnt out, so I came to Ireland to get a bit of rest. Ended up staying. Have been here for nearly fifteen years now.

M: You also edit riskybizzness, the blog set up by NUI Galway's Student Services Health Promotion.

R: Yes. Health Promotion does an incredible amount of work to get students to look after themselves and after their friends. I set the blog up to support that work. It is a mixture of humour and more serious issues as well. But the same goes with the blog as with the storytelling and story writing. Each post has to keep the narrative going and the energy up.

M: What are you reading just now?
R: At the moment I am reading Five Little Ducks every night to my children, which I love. When I'm not with the boys I read or listen to all manners of stories. I've just finished Inkarna, a wonderfully weird and wild novel by Nerine Dorman, and at the moment I am listening to a recording of the incredible storyteller Clare Murphy called 'Live At Jonesborough National Storytelling Festival 2011'.

M: Any advice?

R: Watch out for goats!

Rab's e-novel Transformation is now available on amazon. The Galway City Tribune described it as "a dark, supernatural story that manages to make you cry, laugh and scare you to bits."

Monday, October 1, 2012

Kitten in garden centre

This got me through a tough few days:


I had to include both photos. The first one, where it looks past me, graced my computer screen all day on Friday. I have been working on myself a lot, I have been reading extremely helpful self-help books (more on that soon) and am investing in counselling, but sometimes it only takes a little innocent feline face to feel better about everything.

And then there was this:

I love what the last kid had drawn (the feet!) and the transient nature of drawing on a blackboard, that visitors can only see the latest portrait. There is a real chicken in the photo, too. 

Its housemates look like cotton wool.

The kitten and the chickens live in a garden centre I like to escape to that is close to work and has a café and seas of heather in beautiful colours.


I also had delightful human company (you know who you are).