Sunday, January 27, 2013

Back at the easel

Large chunks of this weekend have been spent painting, adding and subtracting layers, with cups of tea going cold, a sign that I really forget everything else when I am immersed in the process.

I was reworking an old painting that I no longer liked, and the face that emerged this time around is happier. While it isn't a self-portrait per se, I have put myself into this figure and feel an attachment to her - painting this was more cathartic (or rather celebratory) than anything else I have done so far this year.

Boats keep appearing everywhere, and crowns and cats. After working in response to words for the last few months - which is also enjoyable - it is nice to have completely free reign. I had missed painting. A new talisman is this miniature lighthouse I was given recently. I focus on it when I need to think and when I need to stop thinking.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should have more of a plan, but then I remember this John Cage quote that is pinned to the board in my studio: "I really think that it's important to be in a situation, both in art and in life, where you don't understand what's going on", and I am reassured. Because it is very much the case for me right now in both areas, and maybe I need to yield to that and not try to actively figure anything out.

Monday, January 21, 2013


wet day, joyful creature

"Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children's letters - sometimes very hastily - but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote: 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I've ever received. He didn't care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it; he loved it; he ate it."
~ Maurice Sendak

Tara Brach (whose treasure chest of a website I found via Sarah, only to realise Tara is the author of Radical Acceptance, a book my counsellor lent me seven years ago - I have been meaning to get my own copy ever since) quoted this in her talk "Committing to Joy" shortly after Maurice Sendak's death last year, and I keep thinking and smiling about it. There is so much to learn from children and animals when it comes to just being in the moment - though I probably wouldn't go as far as eating paper!

And I love the synchronicity here: that these days working on illustrations fills me with so much joy and with the sense that this is where I belong.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

Herzzeit - the correspondence between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann

I finished Herzzeit before I came back to Ireland and now regret that I didn't take it with me, as it is a book for re-reading, especially when revisiting the two writers' literary output. It is the correspondence between the two most important German post-war poets, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. Celan's poetry has at its centre the Holocaust and language as the one thing that "remained secure against loss" (both his parents died in the camps), whereas Bachmann's work hinges on the struggles of a woman in a male-dominated world and her search for truthful expression. They are among my favourite poets, and my sister, who knows me well, recommended this book. I had been oblivious of this literary sensation - publication of the letters was supposed to be blocked until 2023, but released by the heirs in 2008.

This was a devastating, difficult read, particularly bearing in mind the tragic deaths of Celan and Bachmann, but also because of the palpable pain - often between the lines - that pertains to their doomed relationship: the misunderstandings, mistrust, missed opportunities and loneliness, and the hurt and subsequent arguments over the reception of Celan's work (critics attacking him; the Goll-affair, when Claire Goll accused him of plagiarism; him becoming a target for antisemites - all of which led to him feeling more and more alienated, angry and lost and made him fall out with friends who did not agree word-for-word with his response).

It may be almost unbearable to read at times, but it is also rewarding - there are a lot of passages where the language can compete or at least comes close to the impact of the poems. Ultimately, the letters provide insight into the dynamic between these two writers, lovers and friends, who came from such different backgrounds, and into their personalities, and how this relationship and the way it shaped them informed their work.

The book also includes poignant letters from Celan's wife Gisèle Lestrange-Celan to Bachmann (in the original French as well as the translation) and correspondence between Celan and Bachmann's lover of four years Max Frisch.

(There is an English translation.)

Saturday, January 12, 2013


 Recent crafting has been dominated by pink lace (an antidote to potential January blues):

cat and cuffs

And my rocking horse made its way from the easel...

... into a festival:

(invites and the most beautiful personalised diary a friend made for me, cat included)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"A door between me and the world" - on Marion Milner's A Life of One's Own - Part I

"I had sometimes found changes in mood follow when I tried to describe in words what I was looking at. So I said: 'I see a white house with red geraniums and I hear a child crooning.' And this simple incantation seemed to open a door between me and the world." 
(p. 55, Milner, Marion, A Life of One's Own, Routledge, Hove, 2011)

I have been wanting to write about the psychoanalyst, artist and writer Marion Milner (1900-1998) for so long now. These two books have accompanied me ever since I bought them, especially A Life of One's Own. The right books always seem to come to me when I need them, and this is a book that I know will be re-read many times.

Written in 1934 as a record of her seven-year quest to find out what makes her happy, it has a timeless quality and ranks among the classics in happiness literature.What she advocates is very Power of Now and mindfulness practice: that happiness is to be found in the space between thoughts, in letting go, in being in the moment, in being an observer instead of analysing.

The book is a very personal account, which makes it all the more absorbing and ultimately universal. The writing is beautiful and deep (yet very accessible), her sentences mirroring the movement of her thoughts, often in a stream-of-consciousness style. She is also as honest as possible, chronicling her petty thoughts, vanities, fears and failings as accurately as her eloquent musings and successes.

I will not attempt a summary or review as such, but mainly compile the parts that I want to remember. Here are those from chapters 1-4:

Milner starts by recording her experiences and feelings in a diary and soon comes to understand that the act of seeing is more important than what she sees. Writing helps her access her automatic self "beneath the ripples on the surface of my mind" (p.38): "It was as if I were trying to catch something and the written word provided a net which for a moment entangled a shadowy form which was other than the meaning of the words." (p.47)

She begins to notice that frequently thoughts get in the way of her enjoyment when, for instance, listening to music, visiting a gallery or watching a play. Feelings of inadequacy tend to intrude because she reckons she doesn't know enough about the subject and therefore cannot take it in properly, but she finds a solution: "I lost myself in a Schubert Quartet [...] partly by ceasing all striving to understand the music, partly by driving off intrusive thoughts, partly feeling the music coming up inside me, myself a hollow vessel to be filled with sound." (p.23)

All her insights lead towards inactivity and letting go and simply delighting in things. She discovers that she can move the core of her "I-ness"around her body, feeling herself into her heart, for example, to quieten her mind. Her awareness needs to flow around things she sees and does and expand from her body, as "my usual attitude to the world was a contracted one, like the sea anemone when disturbed by a rough touch" (p.51). She finds that this expansion, "that fat feeling", has physical benefits - it makes her breathe more deeply, refreshes her and prevents exhaustion.

 The pattern the leaves of a tree make against the sky prompts this response: "I had an aching desire to possess the pattern, somehow to make it mine." She thinks of drawing, yet doesn't have the time. Instead, she lets her awareness flow around the trees and their patterns "till their intricacies became part of my being" (ibid.).

At the zoo she finds "Joy in the animals and joy in the desirelessness of shapes" (p.18), and on another occasion, watching a little boy in a sailor suit dancing and skipping: "I thought what an awful thing is idealism when reality is so marvellous." (p.24) More often than not it is the simple things and nature she is drawn to. When writing down what she wants, one conclusion is "To give up to the creative chemistry and live among things that grow - a child, a garden and quietness." (p.27)

Apart from perceiving, she finds that doing things could also be altered by moving her awareness. When darning stockings, she notices that when she detaches and just lets her hand do the work, she derives pleasure from what she used to perceive as a chore. The realisation that a loose arm makes playing ping-pong easier leads her to relinquish the way most things are taught, with its emphasis on trying and effort. (for more on this, there is another wonderful book called The Art of Effortless Living)

Chapter 4 ends with questions that bother her, such as: If just looking was so satisfying, "why was I always striving to have things or to get things done?" (p.56)? Thus, Chapter 5 is titled "Searching for a Purpose".

To be continued...