Monday, August 26, 2019

A fairy tale in boxes


When I am at my mum's house, I love rediscovering books from my childhood. My sisters and I didn't divide up all our books when we left home, so our mother still has a substantial collection. Now that she has four grandsons, they are being introduced to our old books, and the last time I was there, I saw that this version of Rumpelstiltskin was in rotation for Emil, whose fourth birthday is this week. My sister feels conflicted about this strange primal story, with its explicit male dominance, and finds it rather bleak.* 

The book includes a note about the origin and possible meaning of this ancient tale (there are, as always with fairy tales, a lot of different theories and psychoanalytical interpretations), and when she reads the story to Emil she reads that bit, too, without missing a beat. So perhaps little Emil has an acute awareness of the potential motives of Rumpelstiltskin, who may be able to spin gold out of straw, but cannot attain human status and is therefore desperate to possess the queen's child, a 'living thing'.

This book has my name written in it and was a present, and I have a vivid memory of being in the sitting room of our first house and looking at it. The cover and one of the pages as well as a couple of details were imprinted in my mind, but I was surprised at how much I had forgotten. And it didn't register back then that the pictures were actually photographs of staged scenes of wooden cut-outs, made by Nanni Luchting.

Now that we are inundated with digitally created illustrations, it is extra special to see a book where every illustration was painstakingly created by hand, in this case using a method based on an 18th-century technique called 'B├╝hnenrahmen' ('stage frame'): for each picture Luchting built a framed wooden box arranged like a stage with a foreground, a painted background and partitions and peopled with 2-D wooden figures and props, adding in other materials such as gold thread and the straw visible in the second photo. The characters and objects cast shadows and look like they might slide across the page at any moment. The effect is eerie and reminded me of the so-called 'silent companions' from the 17th century, life-size cut-out portraits that served as a welcome for visitors to a house. 

I couldn't find any information on Nanni Luchting; online there was only evidence of one other box creation by her, and when I check now it no longer comes up. Whoever she is or was, I am grateful for these beautiful mesmerising worlds within boxes she gave us.


Friday, August 9, 2019

Slow and simple

Nearly two decades ago, in a secondhand bookshop, I came across a book that had Voluntary Simplicity in its title. I put it back, resolving to buy it a few days later, but when I wanted to do so, it was gone. I never found that particular book again, but of course there are thousands of similar books, and the topic remained on my radar and eventually became a passion.

The concept wasn't new to me, either. We were taught to care for the environment from a very young age, and Germany had a green wave during the late eighties and early nineties - on our holidays in England we were surprised at the ubiquity of plastic bottles and bags. A lot of our paper - from exercise books to toilet paper - was grey recycled paper, and plastic folders and the like were banned from school.

Even though it took a few years before I seriously started committing to a simple life (I was never a maximalist, but in my early twenties I was so attached to some of my belongings that I travelled with a 20kg suitcase when visiting home, just so I could bring certain CDs, books and clothes with me), I always felt drawn to it. There are several aspects to Voluntary Simplicity, and I am far from mastering them all, but living with less, more sustainably and at a slower pace, has been immensely satisfying and freeing.

Since my diagnosis simplicity and slowing down have become even more significant. I feel I am shedding anything superfluous, making space for what really matters. My need for tidiness may partly stem from anxiety and a need to control something that I can control, but it is so much more than that: Japanese Buddhism, for example, sees cleaning and tidying as a way to cultivate the mind, a spiritual practice - a view that has been popularised by Marie Kondo.

Through my meditations I have been accessing the observing self, often with great difficulty, and I am spending much more time in nature and can hold yoga poses for several minutes without getting agitated. Sometimes I schedule too much in a day, and it leaves me flustered, overwhelmed and reactive. That's when I am reminded of that proverb "You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day, unless you are too busy - then you should sit for an hour."

Holly recommended the unusual and wonderful book pictured above (The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey) and I got it from the library a few weeks ago. The book charts the author's observations of a woodland snail while bedridden during a mysterious illness. I could relate to so much of what Tova Bailey had to say about being ill, the isolation and alienation, though her illness was completely different (and I was lucky to only be bedbound during the worst of the chemoradiation. Incidentally, I was delighted to see that the author 'photograph' in the book is a painting of the author on a couch with her dog by her side. Last year I had painted myself and Daisy on the couch when I was unable to move due to side effects. Synchronicity!). The writing is lyrical and philosophical with a unique voice, and the writer and reader learn a lot about molluscs, and from them. 


Here is an interview with Elisabeth Tova Bailey.