Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Favourite paintings

"I love Dorothea. I want to spend the rest of my life with her. The picture is part of that life." 
Max Ernst, refusing a collector interested in Birthday, quoted in Tanning, Dorothea: Between Lives, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois 2004, p.72

Even though I lived in Spain for ten months years ago, I never made it to Madrid during that time. For my birthday this year John was going to take me there, as he knew how obsessed I was with Las Meninas by Velázquez; ever thoughtful, he wanted to make sure I would get to see it in real life. This was back in May, and due to some sporting event flying to Madrid wouldn't have worked out, so we picked Edinburgh instead, another place I had never visited.

As fate would have it, my chemo started sooner than expected and the first round was on my birthday, so we had to cancel the trip. While we still haven't gone to Edinburgh, going to Madrid in November turned out to be perfect timing. Not only did we get to see Las Meninas (and had the room to ourselves for 15 minutes, as we went first thing in the morning) and Picasso's Guernica, both of which moved me to tears, but the Reina Sofía museum happens to be hosting a large exhibition of Dorothea Tanning's work, so I got to see another of my favourite paintings, Birthday (see first photo). Seeing those three paintings, and all within the space of two days, was so powerful, I won't even attempt to describe the impact they had on me.

I had read Tanning's memoir Between Lives, and while I knew her later work was very different from the surrealism of paintings such as the ones pictured above, I only properly discovered that part of her oeuvre through this exhibition. Her soft sculptures, including this installation, were also quite an experience.

I am highly attuned to synchronicities these days (my sister wrote about one relating to books here): I was delighted that Birthday came to me during a trip which should have marked my birthday; the significance of rooms and doors both in this painting and in Las Meninas; and later in the Prado I was struck by how some of El Greco's work had similar neon-like accents as Tanning's later paintings - vibrant pigment on writhing abstracted bodies. And just now, I realised that I wrote about Velázquez here exactly a year ago. And I can echo Laura Cumming's words, which I quoted at the beginning of that blog post. I, too, am so grateful for and consoled by Velázquez.

Thursday, November 22, 2018


 Meditating in the grounds of Ballynahinch Castle,  August 2018

Our hens and one of our four-legged neighbours

Aidan at the beach in Spiddal

Since I wasn't able to enjoy the outdoors much during this summer's heatwave, I have been making up for it in the subsequent colder months. The week before my surgery we spent a magical 24 hours in Connemara, staying in the wonderful Screebe House, where we were greeted with a hug and glasses of bubbly by Ursula and a surprise awaited us, courtesy of thoughtful friends. The following day we went to Roundstone and one of Ireland's best beaches, where I walked barefoot in the water (the closest I have got to swimming in the sea this year) and then to Ballynahinch Castle for more walking and a meditation amid mosquitoes by the lake.

While work in the garden is less now, there is always something to do, and we are surrounded by animals (though poor Daisy is no longer with us). We got two hens in the summer, chosen and named by my nephews: Petunia and You-Know-Huhn (the naming required some prompts from the adults. Huhn is German for hen). They may not be very affectionate, but I love closing the door of the hen house in the evening and saying goodnight to their huddled shapes, and opening it in the morning and watching them devour their breakfast (organic food - only the best), with their fluffy behinds up in the air. The two donkeys faithfully show up nearly every day, knowing there are carrots, apples and the odd oatcake waiting for them. The other neighbouring field is home to two horses at the moment. Then there is Phoebe, our neighbours' dog, and sometimes one of the other dogs from the baile turns up, as well as various cats, who know where we feed the birds. 

My current favourite song - and one of my all-time favourites - is "Galileo" by Declan O'Rourke. My own curly-haired bearded man sang it as part of Culture Night, accompanied by this amazing quartet. It was shortly after my surgery, so I wasn't able to go, but he sent me a video, and it makes me emotional watching it. A few weeks later Declan O'Rourke played a gig on campus, and John came home with two records, one for me, one for him, which we have been playing non-stop.

Friday, November 9, 2018


Some normality has crept back into my days, and that includes getting things done around the house (we are still renovating three years after moving in). In autumn last year I deliberated over decisions, mixing three paint colours to get a calming shade for our bedroom walls (named 'Marina's Tears' by John), and spent hours painting. Fast-forward to October 2018, and it took me five minutes to pick a new colour without seeing it in real life, and this time we hired a professional.

For months we had noticed a strange smell in our bedroom, and after some detective work and paranoia (a diagnosis like lung cancer makes you extremely sensitive to any smells) it turned out we had got a bad batch of paint from a well-known company. In an effort to make their low-VOC paint even greener (not the colour), something to be applauded, they ended up with paint that allowed bacteria to grow, hence the cat-pee smell. The summer's heatwave aggravated it, but with everything going on we left it and moved into the spare room.

When I had recovered sufficiently from the surgery, the painter came and Marina's Tears disappeared under coats of stain block primer and the new colour (see first photo), which goes well with the blush colour in the dressing room. He also painted all the remaining timber and the radiators, and it has made a huge difference. We moved back into our bedroom, and that in itself has brought back more normality.

Though I happily interrupt that with different sleeping arrangements. My sister and her family stayed the night recently, and Aidan and I slept on the pull-out bed in the map room / yoga room. I had never shared a bed with a three-year old before; it melted my heart hearing his breathing.

I decided to tackle some small projects of my own and finally finished knitting the blanket that had been sitting in a big lump in various places for months and, momentum thus built, went on to knit a cushion cover for the guest room in two days, designing it as I went along, necessitated by running out of yarn: the other side features a pink square on a grey rectangle that has drawn generous comparisons to the art of Patrick Scott and Mark Rothko (apologies to both). 'Great to get that bit done', as they say here.

Friday, September 21, 2018


Daisy and I earlier this summer. She loved that sheep wool rug

 Work-in-progress: Self Portrait with Daisy

Since my last blog post I have had surgery and Daisy has been put to sleep (it happened when I was in hospital; they let me go home for a couple of hours to say goodbye to her). She was over 16 years old, semi-blind and -deaf and had cancer on her nose and kidney problems. She was with us for one year, and it is nice to know that she experienced all four seasons in Spiddal. The scab on her nose had progressively got worse, and the monthly injections to prevent it from becoming infected no longer helped. Towards the end she was very disoriented, walking in circles and disappearing into the polytunnel - she loved her sauna - for long periods of time.

Animals feel it when we are suffering, and Daisy was so good to me. After the miscarriage she would lie on my belly, and she would curl up to me (or climb onto me as shown in the painting above) when I was unable to move during the worst times of the chemoradiation and nearly always cover or touch the affected area. I believe I received a lot of healing from her.

We miss her, but it was time to let her go, and we are so grateful for the year she kept us company. It is eerily quiet in the mornings without her demanding her breakfast.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The new reality

 Distraction and escape

Instructions from John

Discovering new pieces of music; a poem about a bee sent by a friend who bought my beekeeper painting; 
IMMA booklet; a sketch for a self portrait with Daisy the cat; a photo from when we thought all was well, 
sent with a wedding thank you card; a small apple from our garden, found in the grass by my nephew

That was a long unintended hiatus from this space. The chest pain I mentioned in my last post turned out to be a symptom of lung cancer, a diagnosis I never would have expected, but had begun to fear during the weeks of tests and worrying. It is a rare form that tends to hit young fit female non-smokers like myself. As I write this I am entering a four-week break after four cycles of chemotherapy and five weeks of daily radiotherapy.

In among the uncertainty, fear and shock and feeling ill from the treatment (as fate would have it, the week around my due date was the worst in terms of side effects), there have been a lot of good moments.  First and foremost, I am overwhelmed by the love shown to us. So much help and support has come our way, in myriad forms - practical things such as lifts to and from the hospital, visits, phone calls, lunches, road trips, lawn-mowing, impromptu birthday celebrations (the first round of chemo was on my 35th birthday - we have the best neighbours in the world on this little cul-de-sac that is our Baile), the kindness of health professionals and healers. Two friends in particular got me through the weeks before the diagnosis. There are always fresh flowers in our house; we have received hundreds of cards and letters and thoughtful gifts. I have regained old friends, and so many people, even people who don't know me, have got in touch.

I have never been closer to my family; they have been amazing. My mum has been looking after me for nearly three months now and is about to go home to Germany for a while. We have spent a lot of time with my sister (who, among other things, drove me to a faith healer three times and has been cooking and baking healthy meals and treats, all with a baby and toddler to care for) and her family, and my younger sister (+bump) and her family are coming soon - even though they are in Germany, it feels as if they have been here as well, as we have so much contact - she sends me carefully selected quotes first thing each morning and has been doing research for me. She also put me in touch with this incredible woman.

John and I made it to Dublin one Sunday to see the current Freud Project exhibition at IMMA. I felt like an old woman walking around the gallery, but I was glad we went. The curator has juxtaposed paintings by Lucian Freud with works by artists including Gwen John and Marlene Dumas and writers Emily Dickinson and John Berger, among others, as well as watercolours of plant and animal cells by Lucian's grandfather Sigmund Freud and various audio recordings (of a song, a short story, an interview with a plant biologist) - a fascinating, wondrous mix.

A few months ago John bought this beautiful book as a gift for someone, then decided to keep it. Most evenings he will look up that day's page and then find the corresponding piece and play it.

I was reading too many books about cancer and healing and have returned to reading for pleasure (getting lost in Zelda Fitzgerald's life and Michael Harding's latest memoir). After weeks of feeling stuck I am also drawing and painting again and have taught three art classes from home since starting treatment. John is helping me with my paintings based on views of Galway Bay - I would always take notes of the changing skies and the sea on our way home, and he supplied the one above, with detailed information and a gentle nudge...

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A small island in winter

We picked the coldest day of this year for our overnight stay on Inis Meáin. To conquer the cold we spent most of the time walking and some of the time drinking hot whiskey. This was my fourth time on the island, and it has to be one of my favourite places for walking. If you struggle with practising mindfulness, walk on Inis Meáin. The view is spectacular no matter where you are, and the abundance of stone walls creates a trance-inducing pattern to traverse. You are reminded how very little you actually need in life. We certainly didn't miss wifi; we both read more than we had read in the previous two weeks.

I had brought Robert Seethaler's A Whole Life (I got it in the English translation, as I wanted to pass it on to others), and we both read it in one go and loved it and reread passages. With its themes of landscape and solitude, it was a fitting read for this place. Then I started and finished Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, and while it would be far-fetched to make a connection, it also seemed a perfect read for this island retreat. Perhaps it is something to do with the act of reading a novella in a small house on a small island, a strangely beautiful haunting atmosphere evoked in a slim volume, an entire universe revealed in one sitting. There was also this contrast: It describes an unusually warm day in March 1924, and I read it on almost the same date of this unusually cold March of 2018 and imagined feeling the buzzing warm air.

The renovated cottage we stayed in gave us a glimpse into what life would have been like for the islanders of the past and still is for some. We saw picture book scenes that no doubt were the beautiful façade of a labour-intensive existence - a lamb next to a cockerel in a field, cows with healthy thick coats, painted water pumps. The Harry Clarke windows in the church are worth repeat visits. The people we rented accommodation from were in love with the island and chose to come back after time on the mainland, and while it can be bleak and harsh, especially in the colder months, it has its own rewards.

I read and walked and slept (or attempted to sleep) through stabbing chest pains that have had me on edge for the last two weeks and returned, if not without symptoms, more at peace. And the sun came out on the second day; we opened the front door and got a chair and sat in the perfectly sheltered entrance.

Friday, February 9, 2018



Daisy is more affectionate than ever. Animals really are able to tell when somebody is in pain. She seeks my company and purrs at the loudest volume possible for her 15-year old self. I regularly fall asleep on the couch with her in my arms.

I am finishing illustrations for a sweet story about a walking stick, and Rab's new book (with my drawings) has just been published.

One thing the last two months have taught me is to slow down. I am quitting self-sabotaging, energy-robbing actions that used to be so much part of my daily life that I wasn't conscious of how corrosive they had become.  And I have only myself to blame for most of them. One example: Now my default is that I only check e-mail once a day unless I am in work and don't have it open in another tab while working on the computer. I have never been tied to my phone: I have very few apps, it is on flight mode half the day, and it doesn't ping. But on the laptop I used to have e-mail open, and since even the awareness of your phone/e-mail in your periphery affects your cognitive abilities, I make sure to clear as many of the surrounding distractions as possible.

The days I work from home I have been taking breaks to do some gardening. Earlier this week I removed all the dead dead plant debris that was in the way of the daffodils that are trying to emerge. I only spent half an hour outside and gathered three wheelbarrow-loads, but it cleared my head and it was satisfying to see the transition from brown to green. 

I re-read Oliver Burkeman's piece on underachieving, a timely reminder. The fortunate side-effect of all this slowing down and doing less is that I am doing more of the things that matter as a result.

Friday, February 2, 2018

In progress

The moss stitch blanket I had been wanting to make for years is finally taking shape and is the easiest thing to knit, which makes it ideal for knitting while talking, but not necessarily to switch off your brain. Something more challenging would be required for that, though I do try to enter a trance of knit-purl-knit-purl, akin to a breathing exercise. I am using DMC Natura XL (cotton may not be the warmest choice for a blanket), but with size 8 needles, not the suggested 12, as it was too lacy with the latter.

The sky and the horizon in the large seascape change colour every day, as I cannot decide on the combination. Originally this was upside down and the dark blue was a beginning blurry cloud, inspired by a view from the car on our way home. Then John came in and turned it on its head, and now the sea has become the sky and the cloud is turning into who knows what, but I like it.

We watched a BBC documentary about the artist James Dickson Innes last night, and it made me realise once more how vague and shy my colours can be. I am tempted to start afresh.

Monday, January 22, 2018


(This post contains some details about miscarriage)

A week before Christmas we got the bad news. It was the day of our 12-week scan (after five days of being ill, which turned out to be unrelated, but was worrying as I had started spotting parallel to it and ran a fever), and we found out it was a missed miscarriage: the embryo had died in week 7, but everything else had continued to grow and develop, accompanied by first-trimester symptoms.

I had been fearful of pretty much everything relating to childbirth and being a parent, but for some reason a potential loss was one thing I neglected to worry about - not that worrying has the ability to prevent anything. It all felt right, and I trusted my instinct. Now I cannot believe how I was so sure of my body.

Before it happened to us I knew several friends and acquaintances had had miscarriages and stillbirths, heartbreakingly sad stories. Since then so many more people have opened up about their experiences, including recurrent miscarriages. We do not know what the future holds, and I am trying to learn to not worry so much about what may or may not happen - we have no control over anything - and to live with uncertainty.

Strangely, the first book I read afterwards and derived some comfort from was 10% Happier by Dan Harris. It took this sceptic's memoir about embracing meditation and mindfulness (he is not particularly impressed by the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra) to get me back into meditation, an on-and-off relationship for me (unlike my almost-daily yoga practice), but now perhaps more needed than ever.

When I started meditating again, I was surprised at how fast the 20 minutes go by. I will experience physical discomfort when sitting still and have way too many thoughts, but it doesn't feel never-ending. It is the same when kneading dough for sourdough bread (my sister gave me a starter): 20 minutes that just evaporate.

It has only been seven consecutive days of meditating and yoga, as I took a break while regaining my strength; even though I knew it would aid the grieving process I couldn't bring myself to do anything beyond the basics to get through each day, and my energy went into holding it together in company. We buried what is referred to as the 'tissue' (in my case an intact fist-size sac with the embryo, and the placenta) under an apple tree in the garden, and I am glad we did. My sister had a baby boy a day after I miscarried, so there was some light and joy among the sadness.

My confidence in my body has been seriously battered, yet in some way I feel stronger, even though I am struggling to gain weight. I had always been convinced I would want a C-section - which of course is not easy either - if we ever were to have a baby, but having gone through labour pain (I used misoprostol at home*), I have conquered my fear of natural childbirth, even though it was terrifying and traumatic and with no happy ending. I can only assume it is similar to what women mean when they say you 'forget' the agony of labour.


Here are two articles about miscarriage and the silence that surrounds it, despite the fact that it is so common:

Earlier this month Kathryn Thomas, an Irish TV presenter, talked about her miscarriages on The Late Late Show

Actress Laura Benanti: My Experience with the Voldemort of Women's Health Issues

*There is no way to predict exactly how a miscarriage will proceed, and they vary depending on numerous factors. That may be the reason women are given so little information on what will happen (the lack of information is a recurring theme in the online forums). My obstetrician and GP were both wonderful. We were unlucky to have had a bad experience with Cytotec, including side effects, and I was weak from being ill, but I would choose this option (or waiting for it to happen naturally) again; I was glad I didn't have to go into hospital for a d&c.