Thursday, December 31, 2020

Healing tools



Healing can be a full-time job, though I don't like to think of it as work. But for various reasons I haven’t been able to stick to all of my routines over the past few months, so the following - incomplete - list is for those who are interested in the tools I have been using in my recovery from stage III cancer and also a gentle reminder to myself. And of course these are not exclusively for cancer patients, nor do you have to have been sick to use these. They are for 'general maintenance' as well as active healing.

First of all, I should state that I underwent the standard conventional cancer treatments and remain under the care of my oncologist, with frequent surveillance scans. I am lucky to still be in remission and aware how precarious a state that is after the type and stage of cancer I had, and I would never advocate for using alternative treatments at the expense of medical care; I very much put my faith in a combination of conventional and complementary therapies. Everyone has to find what feels right for them. Some patients are happy to be in the hands of their consultants and don't explore other options, and that is their choice and valid, too.

When you do a lot of different things, it is hard to pinpoint which individual elements work, and it may well be the mix (and there is no prescribed formula). While I cannot claim that any of this is curative, I have personally experienced miracles along the way, in particular with the complementary therapies (for example feeling vibrant and strong after a session I had walked into depleted and weak from chemoradiation).

Also, I believe (and my history is an example of this, as I was doing all the right things prior to my diagnosis of lung cancer at the age of 34) that you can have the perfect healthy lifestyle in terms of diet and exercise, but if there is unresolved trauma, grief or similar chronic stress, those physical, matter-to-matter aids can only do so much to prevent dis-ease. That is why energy healing is so important to me. Of course a lot of the physical tools go beyond the physical, too, so none of the below are easy to categorise.

Diet: I have always had a healthy diet, but after my diagnosis I became 95% vegan (I eat eggs every now and again - we have our own hens - and occasionally have milk, cheese and yogurt). The main aim food-wise has been to incorporate as many vegetables (and fruit, but to a lesser extent, because of the sugar content) as possible - more than the 5-a-day, a low number adjusted to the Western way of eating - and mainly eat unprocessed organic food and no refined sugar. We grow some of our own food and get an organic box delivered.

I bought a juicer before I got my full diagnosis - it was one of the things I did in those awful weeks of waiting for test results that helped me feel a bit more empowered and not completely helpless. I started with a lot of carrot juice, but then switched to greens and have been making mostly green juices since, as well as smoothies. For a while I was drinking celery juice every morning (see Medical Medium, though I don’t agree with everything he says) and plan to take it up again in the spring.

Supplements – I know many patients take an array of supplements, but I didn’t want to get into too strict a regime, and I generally feel we should get most nutrients via food if possible. It can be overwhelming to navigate the huge selection of supplements and the claims made about them, and with all my choices I try to balance adopting helpful habits with not putting pressure on myself (which would create more stress). Having said that, I have tried a few supplements: CBD oil and turmeric were recommended to me by a healer early on. I haven’t taken the CBD oil in a while, but try to add turmeric to meals as much as I can or take the capsules. A friend gave me a bottle of Essiac when I was waiting for test results, and my sister has been making the concoction for me ever since. Again, it is something I haven’t kept up, but may return to. I also take B-vitamins or a multivitamin and certain minerals when needed.

Sea-swimming: I started doing this regularly again this year, and I think that in addition to retreating from the world (largely due to COVID) this was the reason I haven't had any colds or the flu since - after recurrent respiratory infections following my treatment and especially since my return to work. And that is just one of its physical benefits - swimming in the sea has been amazing on so many levels and is a spiritual practice in its own right.

Walking and running: I like exercising on my own, but I did Parkrun once a month (with a group from our local cancer centre, led by the resident physiotherapist) before it had to be cancelled due to the restrictions and trained in the gym of the Cancer Centre once a week. I also joined a running group with my neighbour. All those activities are on pause at the moment. This year I did more walking than running and tried to get in as many forest walks (to add in forest bathing) as possible.

Strength training: I bought dumbbells for the exercises I was given to prepare for surgery and now do short workouts with them at least once a week. During chemo I lost weight (when I had already been underweight) and my muscles dwindled alarmingly, and I will never take strong arms and legs for granted. Using weights makes me feel strong physically and mentally.

Acupressure mat: I got one this year, and it is a game changer. Thousands of spikes apply pressure to the skin and muscles, targeting a lot of acupressure points simultaneously. The effect is deeply relaxing, like having a massage. I use it on my back and on my feet and sometimes rolled up under my neck, but you can use it for other parts of the body as well. John loves it, too.

Yoga: My main yoga practice is hatha and yin yoga, for deep healing, but I also do some other classes (all via Youtube or with the help of books).

Yoga Nidra: Something I had done occasionally, but this year I made it a regular practice, with this video my healer sent me.

Meditation: A friend and seasoned meditator introduced me to Natural Stress Relief meditation, and it has replaced the Joe Dispenza meditations I had been doing (though I do want to get back to those as well). It is similar to Transcendental Meditation. Ideally you do two sessions of at least 15-20 minutes per day. I find focusing on the mantra (in this case one syllable) helps quieten the chatter in my brain and easily gets me into a trance-like state. 

Ho’oponopono: Somebody gave me a printout with this Hawaiian prayer years ago and it had been sitting in one of my folders. Whenever I came across it I was intrigued, but only this year, again with a nudge from my healer, I started practising it properly. I also like to listen to one of Sandra Rolus's videos with repetitions of the prayer that you can fall asleep to.

Aromatherapy: Frankincense has anticancer properties, and it has become my number one essential oil – I put it in the diffuser during yoga and meditation. I also use a lot of other oils, depending on what I need or feel like, and I always have a bottle of lavender oil in my bag.

Deep breathing: I do Wim Hof's exercises and use the 4-7-8 technique as described by Andrew Weil in Spontaneous Healing - breathe in on a count of 4, hold for 7, breathe out on a count of 8, and do this for about five minutes (my hypnotherapist is also a big fan of 4-7-8 breathing). Since reading James Nestor’s Breathe, I have also started taping my mouth to encourage nasal breathing, and I try to slow down my breathing to five or six breaths per minute whenever I think of it.

Hypnotherapy, visualisations, counselling, energy healing: I had a couple of sessions with my RTT therapist Rachel Gotto and continue to use her customised audio recordings. She has also become my mentor and I schedule Zoom calls with her when I feel the need. A friend who is also a hypnotherapist guided me through visualisations and I use her recordings as well. I regularly see the psycho-oncology counsellor at our cancer centre (a free service) and have calls with a mentor and friend. I do ongoing work with divine clearing therapist and 'spiritual midwife' Dr. Yvonne Murphy (a recommendation from a friend who also had cancer). Other healers who have helped me a lot include Jeff McInerney and faith healer Aidan Wrynne. [I will do a separate post on these real-life healers and therapists and all the teachers and authors I follow.]

I have also tried EFT and do the Healing Code (a similar technique) on myself and others (my mum still does the Healing Code for me twice a day; she is so good). And sound healing - a friend played her Tibetan bowls on me one day, which was incredible, and I listen to videos with the Hu chant, amygdala healing and other binaural sound therapy and similar.

Purpose: Another topic for a separate post, but one of the key factors in healing, is finding and following your purpose. Of course that is rarely just one thing. For me, painting and drawing is up there (something I had neglected before getting sick), as are family and friends, writing, being of service, and living a simple life, one that aligns with my values.

Gratitude and slowing down: Prioritising what is important, not sweating the small stuff. Being present with whatever is happening and whatever I am doing. A friend gave me a gratitude jar when I was diagnosed, and even on the darkest days I managed to find something to write on one of the coloured pieces of paper, and I make a point of reflecting on things to be grateful for every day.

Doing things that bring joy, relaxation, meaning: All of the above and more. Art, reading, writing (including Morning Pages), gardening, playing and listening to music, conversations, community, being out in nature, walking, sea-swimming, cooking and baking, play and laughter come to mind.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Silence and Quiet (and kale)



Some snapshots from the last few months:

1  |  The perfect book pair. I had been meaning to read Susan Cain's Quiet. The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking ever since its publication spawned myriad articles, talks and interviews. This summer I finally bought it in a small independent bookshop in West Cork (sometimes it is nice to wait for serendipity - I will always remember where I got this book). It has helped me focus on the positive sides of my (often extreme) introversion instead of beating myself up for the downsides, of which there are many: to name just one example, in my thirties I still have a phone phobia that means I have to settle and prepare myself in a quiet room to ring places such as the dental surgery, and I will shake when making those calls.
My sister-in-law gave me explorer Erling Kagge's book Silence in the Age of Noise, and I read his philosophical vignettes parallel to Quiet

2  |   Light-and-shadow patterns in the living room

3  |  Kale is officially this year's polytunnel star - it has been thriving. I add it to nearly every meal I make and we have been giving a lot away, yet I still cannot keep up.
Cut off in the corner of this photo is my paperback of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, another book that had been on my list for a while and that also 'came to me' when I was browsing that new-to-me bookshop on holiday. I had given my mum a hardcover copy a year earlier. Patchett is one of my favourite writers, and this may well be my favourite novel of hers - it also fit perfectly with my ongoing preoccupation with the symbolism of houses (I still have strange dreams about my childhood home). I love the story behind the painting on the cover: Patchett commissioned an artist friend, Noah Saterstrom, to paint one of the main characters for the book jacket, and the mesmerising portrait has taken on a life of its own.
Speaking of paintings, I only realised after I had taken the photo of the kale bouquet that John is in it twice - on the couch in the background and in the painting on the wall, both in profile and in the same shirt!

4  |  More light at play. An (indoor) plant that hasn't been thriving is the money plant a friend and former housemate gave me over ten years ago when she moved out. It is down to a stump, with some struggling tiny green leaves that I won't give up on. I am fairly certain that where we put it is not the correct location according to Feng Shui, but refuse to worry about what this might signify. But the citrus trees are doing well, thanks to John's green fingers and my nephew's diligent watering (it is one of the first things he will check whenever he visits - he loves refilling the drip-watering glass bird planters). 
We have the late Tim Robinson's Burren map in the living room (from where we can look out across the bay at the Burren) and his Aran Islands map in the guest room.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

In the studio



Just a few glimpses of my studio/office (a spare room in our house), where I am spending even more time now that I am also teaching remotely:

 1  |  I have four of these bamboo picture ledges in two rows on one wall, with finished canvases and paintings that are drying. On the wall opposite I put this one up behind my desk to keep pencils, pens, small brushes and other supplies I use frequently within reach, but where they don't clutter up my desk. This is currently the backdrop for the majority of my video calls and classes.

2  |  One of these skinny drawers (which are great for storing work on paper) holds an antique letterpress tray I got John as a gift, with the type pieces he had bought. We use these to make cards and similar and are going to create the text for our next picture book with them. The plan is to get a glass lid made for the tray and put it on a frame with legs, so it can be used as a side table, but for now it is stored away in this drawer.

3  |  I have a couple of desk easels for smaller canvases and one standing easel. I try to paint standing at the large easel as much as possible, and the desk easels are great for displaying work-in-progress, as I tend to have several paintings on the go at any one time and like being able to have them all in view.

4  |  For oil paintings I mainly use water-mixable oils, for environmental reasons and so I don't have to breathe in turpentine fumes and other toxic solvents. Cleaning up is much easier with these, too. I bought a Dyson purifying fan heater (with a cooling function and a detailed analysis of potential pollutants) a few months ago, as I was worried about the air quality in the room, but it tells me everything is in the green range, so that is reassuring. We also had the house tested for radon after I was diagnosed with lung cancer as a young non-smoker. I try not to worry too much about all the external factors that may contribute to cancer, and some, such as electromagnetic radiation, are beyond my control to a large extent, but it gives me peace of mind to have these tests done. 

5  |  Marion Milner's books have their own shelf (most of my art books are kept in this room). I have started using my ink pen (not pictured) and bottled ink more again. The beautiful glass pen was a present from my aunt - I had kept it at my mum's house for years and finally took it with me after my last visit. 

6. We have plants in every room of the house and I am trying to keep these two happy. The vegetation in the self-portrait is a field with thistles close to my childhood home in Germany.


The window is to the right of my desk and I can see a large part of the garden, including our three new hens and one of our bird feeders. There is a white horse in the field across the road, which offers some consolation in the wake of the departure of 'our' beloved donkeys that used to come to the wall in our back garden. They must have been moved to a different field, as that land was sold recently. We miss them a lot.

I have rituals around working from home that I have been using for years to mark some sort of division between work and home life (though the lines are blurred), but now they have taken on extra significance. At the moment I am recording videos for some of my classes, and I plan my outfits, jewellery and nail polish for those, whereas on days nobody will see me I put on my large painting jumper or apron (I am looking into sustainable boiler suits and dungarees for more coverage, even though I am not that messy a painter, but I still manage to get stains on unlikely areas of my clothes).

In any case I attempt to generate a 'going to work' feeling by getting ready as if I were leaving the house. This also involves a few morning routine clichés such as meditation, a yoga sequence, making celery juice and writing my morning pages. I air the room for a few minutes and clap to clear stagnant energy, and I mix essential oils for the diffuser that are stimulating and help with concentration or create an uplifting atmosphere, so a lot of peppermint, rosemary, clary sage, geranium, lemon, orange and lemongrass. There are endless mugs of (mostly herbal) tea and some of them get spoiled by accidentally dipping my brush in them, but I try not to eat in this room (as I want to eat mindfully - nothing to do with weight control; I am trying to put on weight!), though snacks will find their way in here.

I have my laughing Buddha on a bookshelf to the left of my desk and a stuffed elephant my younger sister made for me on my desk for a similar reason (or up on a shelf when I am recording videos for children and the elephant represents my audience - this was a tip we were given) - it keeps me in touch with my inner child and the playful side of life and is a reminder not to take anything too seriously.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Walking, swimming and Sufjan Stevens

"Going barefoot in nature immediately helps clear your energy. Stepping out onto the sand, putting your feet into the ocean, hugging a tree, all of these clear your energy. Nature is an incredible neutraliser of energy." Anita Moorjani

A lot of my routines have fallen by the wayside. The fatigue has been acting up quite a lot lately and I am technically on holidays, so I took a break from my normal day-to-day, including elements of my healing-from-cancer regime. I am aware that I put a lot of pressure on myself to do all the right things, and that pressure equals stress, which is what 'all the right things' are supposed to ease... I am still trying to find a rhythm that allows me to trust the process and not beat myself up when I fall short of my often unfeasible expectations. 

Exercise is an antidote to fatigue, though I have a tendency to overdo it and then pay for it the following day(s). And sometimes only proper rest will help. But while I haven't touched the dumbbells and haven't done any running for a few weeks, gentle exercise such as walking and swimming has been a salve.

Stripey symphony: My sister and nephews in the Burren - hats made by my sister
John and I went away for a few days (within Ireland) and did a lot of hiking - since the lockdown walking has become a huge part of our life. In recent weeks I have walked around islands (Cape Clear and Omey Island, Inis Oírr - we cycled around the latter), in forests, on beaches, Greenways, the karst landscape of the Burren, on the loops near our house, 5km along the rocky shoreline to a pub and returning via the coast road. We have walked together (often in silence) and each on our own, with family and friends, with dogs, and with strangers: I took part in a forestbathing session with a lovely group and two wonderful guides and hugged a lot of trees on my personal forestbathing forays.

The old runners I have been wearing in lieu of hiking boots are now falling apart, and on the recommendation of a friend I am tempted to buy a pair of recycled barefoot boots. Feeling the texture of the ground is like a foot massage (I also regularly walk barefoot in the garden or on the beach to ground myself) and the balancing act of walking on a rocky shore or any other uneven surface makes you use different muscles in your legs.
I still go swimming in the sea at least twice a week, and it was a joy to explore other beaches and find hidden swimming spots. We took my nephew to Inis Oírr and swam in clear turquoise water. On Cape Clear I waded into the water among rocks covered in shells and emerged with bleeding scrapes all over my legs, from what had felt like lightly brushing against the stones as I floated. I loved even that. Being in cold water makes me feel so alive. 

 On the ferry to Inis Oírr
I spent the Irish heatwave of 2018 indoors suffering the side effects of aggressive chemotherapy and radiotherapy and unable to handle the hot weather. Last year I stayed covered up (the advice was to do so for a year following radiotherapy) and didn't swim until September. This year I have been exposing the surgery scar on my back and my radiotherapy tattoos with abandon (and SPF 50). Sometimes those souvenirs catch me by surprise when I see them or when my hand touches the scar in the shower - it all still feels unreal - and I marvel at what my body has been able to do since I finished treatment.

The soundtrack to these last few months has been at least 50% Sufjan Stevens, an all-time favourite. One of the songs I have been playing on repeat for the past couple of years ("Casimir Pulaski Day") is about remembrance and cancer and I connect with it on so many levels. This concert from 2006 is one I keep returning to. I almost feel I am in the audience when I watch this, and something about the overall aesthetic and the atmosphere - the wings, the uniforms, the group dynamic on stage, and of course the music - gets me every time ("Casimir Pulaski Day" starts at the 6-minute mark).

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Books: On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

"The Misses Williamson inspired in her the gift of transforming the everyday that has enriched my whole life." Cumming, Laura: On Chapel Sands, Chatto & Windus, London 2019, p.145*

Laura Cumming writes about art like no other critic and with great sensitivity and empathy towards her subjects, evoking the life behind the work. Her books on self-portraits and Velázquez were both outstanding, and her most recent, a memoir about her mother and thus a deeply personal project, is no exception - I read it in April and still think about it almost every day.

The photograph shown in the last image above is reproduced early on in the book and then again at the very end, with a revelation that moved me to tears (not the only time while reading this book) and that has been hinted at in some articles and reviews, but I don't want to include any spoilers here.

Cumming's art critic's eye is evident throughout and she brings alive the art of famous artists (Bruegel's "Fall of Icarus" is central to the book) as well as artworks by her relatives, some acknowledged and celebrated during their lifetime - her father's, who died prematurely of cancer -, others hidden and only freed from obscurity through this labour of love - the photograph that looks like a Vermeer painting, taken by her grandfather, a "travelling salesman who would like to have been an artist", with dreams unfulfilled and buried. Her mother was a gifted artist who gave up painting when she got married, as she felt there "was only room for one painter", but she took up weaving instead, painting compositions with wool.

Cumming unravels her mother's life and the secrets around her disappearance as a young child (when she was abducted from the beach) with the help of images, constructing a biography via the interpretation of pictures both real - photographs, paintings - and those formed in the mind. She also quotes passages from her mother's own memoir, which like her daughter's is beautifully written and was a birthday gift to Laura. The book is suffused with her mother's artistic sensibility and ability to "transform the everyday".

I don't write detailed book reviews here, and I am hesitant to sum up the content. I noticed that a lot of the marketing centered on the kidnapping, a sensationalist approach that is misleading and does the book a disservice. While the book does relate a real-life mystery, there are so many layers to it: It is about family and memory, community and the individual, the psychology of identity and consciousness, art, the power of images and objects, silence and lies, class, the sea, and most importantly, about love in its many forms. It is a delicate and intimate piece of life writing and an exquisite meditation on loss.

*The US title is Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother's Disappearance as a Child

See also: Laura Cumming talks about On Chapel Sands in this interview in The New York Times

Friday, July 17, 2020


I have been painting and drawing a lot of people and animals, especially portraits of family and friends. If anyone is interested, I posted some work-in-progress photos of two of the paintings above on my long-neglected art blog (though the plan is to merge the two blogs in an effort to simplify). At one point I had all my nephews keeping me company in the studio, albeit in 2-D!

While I sometimes have people sit for me, the examples shown here were all based on photographs and screenshots of paused videos - the latter works very well, as I can choose the 'pose' from a much wider range. I tend to start out with a very rough sketch and let the face emerge gradually.

In Enda's portrait (third picture above - when he was one year old and pre-haircut, for those who know him only with short hair) he is wearing a soft knitted top my sister had made for him that is tied at the back with a ribbon. I loved painting the stocking stitch and the ribbon and the light in his hair. With Henry (fourth picture) it was the oval of the snap fastener on his little shoulder that caught my attention - sometimes it is those small details that I find particularly poignant.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Love, compassion, light: Celia Paul's Self-Portrait

This memoir by the artist Celia Paul has accompanied me for the last few months, moving from bedside table to coffee table to dining table to my desk in the studio. I read it almost in one go, but I have been going back over certain passages and revisiting the reproductions of her work and the photographs.

While substantial parts of the book are about Lucian Freud (another artist whose work I admire - Celia Paul was one of his lovers and muses and they had a son together), she emphasises that he is made part of her story instead of the other way around, "as is usually the case".

I was more intrigued by her relationship with her family and her mother in particular and the work that arose (and continues to arise) from those family bonds. Her paintings of her mother and of her sisters are very moving and tender. Paul does not consider herself a portrait painter, but rather an "autobiographer and chronicler" of her life and her family, telling their story in images.

The memoir charts finding her own voice as an artist and breaking away from the role of the muse. So many artist couples have played out the dynamic of the woman making sacrifices that enable their partner to thrive. Paul shares a lot of insight into the challenges and obstacles to becoming an artist that women face and offers up her experience of working out "a strategy" to carve out the solitude that is essential for making art. This involves not living with her husband, as she needs to have her own private space*. She also talks about the conflict between motherhood and artistic creation, how being with her son makes her unable to work, as "all my concerns are for him" when he is present, and how she feels the guilt and separation acutely.

This interview includes interesting observations about Paul's connection to other artists (I love her voice; she emanates such calm and poise). She feels "this moral quality to Constable, this kind of love and compassion that comes through...", informed by familiarity with the subject matter: "you can't do anything unless you understand it".  As she writes in her memoir,

"I only ever work from people and places that I know well. This insider knowledge gives me freedom to take liberties with the forms and structures of the faces and figures, the clouds, the waves, the houses. [...] If I know my subject well, it's almost as if I don't need to look at them in order to give them intense attention, and yet I need their physical presence."
(Paul, Celia: Self-Portrait, Jonathan Cape, London 2019, p.3)

This is what gives her paintings their intimate and empathic quality. Even in reproductions in print or on the screen the spectral light in her paintings is powerfully conveyed - her work contains a "juxtaposition of the mystical with direct observation" (p.5). Her mother would regularly travel to London from Cambridge, climb the 80 steps to Paul's flat and pose for long periods of time, during which both artist and sitter would enter into a meditative, elevated state. Paul often uses spiritual language to describe the process of painting people, and her sisters and husband also give their perspective of what it is like to sit for her, by all accounts a transcendental experience.

In the interview the curator asks her about the evanescence of her seascapes and Paul reveals that she only really started working from water after her mother's death, when "forms broke up, nothing seemed permanent. So my subject seemed to be water, in a new way." She also talks about her "struggle between dark and light", with the light always emerging from the darkness, and the influence of Goya, how the light behind the figures in his family group paintings seems to be the subject of the painting, and how there is a "melancholy feeling about that, that the light will actually outlast the figures".

The language in the book is often sparse, and this minimalism, coupled with clear-eyed honesty, carries an even stronger emotional impact. There is one passage, when describing her mother's childhood, that relates a tragedy her mother was witness to and haunted by, and it is something I haven't been able to get out of my head.

Gwen John was another inspiration that is apparent in the two paintings above and below, in the containment and stillness of the self-portraits (John is also another example of a female artist having an all-consuming affair with an older male artist - Auguste Rodin. It appears Freud expected a similar subservience from Paul).

The book is also a meditation on the intersection between the written word and visual art. Paul says writing the memoir - she had not written much previously, apart from early diary entries and poems, and found 'freedom of speech' in painting instead - has affected her art: "I feel a new assurance in my painting, through a growing confidence about using words again."(p.5)

* Her husband Steven Kupfer wrote this essay about Celia Paul's art: "Celia Paul - Painting her Life"