Friday, January 13, 2017

Books | The letters between Astrid Lindgren and Louise Hartung

 The German edition of the correspondence

 Louise would send Astrid pressed flowers and numerous gifts

The photo on the back cover shows the two women with an actor as Pippi Longstocking

This book of letters between the Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, without whom my childhood wouldn’t have been the same, and her German friend Louise Hartung (who worked with children and was instrumental in Lindgren’s success in Germany; her vision was to heal a traumatised post-war youth with high-quality literature) was published last year*. 

A lot of the media reaction focused primarily on Louise’s open lesbian love for Astrid, which was never reciprocated. It is heartbreaking to read Hartung’s passionate and at times needy pleas to her friend, which were met with a detached response. Yet they continued to share a deep bond, formed when they traversed the ruins of Berlin, Hartung's city, together. Both women suffered episodes of melancholy and depression and both were capable of rapture at how wonderful life could be, and these feelings go hand in hand in these letters. The topic of death and the meaning of life comes up repeatedly, often triggered by a wry observation of Lindgren’s.

In general Lindgren’s letters are more measured and more in the traditional epistolary form initially, though she later opens up. Hartung’s letters are intense from the start. A bohemian intellectual and former singer, she had lived through two world wars and done extraordinary things: she was part of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s circle and involved in their Threepenny Opera, had hidden Jews in her summerhouse, been bombed out of her house in Berlin - a life story Lindgren, who thought herself ordinary, marvelled at from calm, neutral Stockholm.

Reading this book made me regret that I haven’t written more letters and renew my resolution to change that. I used to, but then it dwindled to the odd letter here and there. Lindgren apologises when more than two weeks pass before she writes to Hartung (who is offended when a letter remains unanswered for too long), and it makes me ashamed – make that two years, no twelve years for me! I have no idea how they found the time to keep the correspondence alive. Lindgren was fast becoming one of the world's best-loved writers of children’s fiction and would have had tons of correspondence through her work alone, as well as being there for her friends and family - in fact, she often mentions feeling overwhelmed by and torn between all the expectations and obligations -, and Hartung was equally hard-working and had a busy social life. And yet they loyally wrote to each other, over 600 letters in a time spanning eleven years, until Hartung’s death in 1965, which overshadows the reading of these letters. 

John bought the book for me on our mini-moon in the Moselle Valley, and it was a nice synchronicity to learn that Louise sent Astrid wines from the region, during a phase when the two exchanged excited notes on the many bottles of wine Louise sent from Berlin to Stockholm, disguised as ‘grape juice’ when she realised there were restrictions on posting alcohol. It appears that on one of their trips together they also visited my hometown.

It is all the sensory pleasures these women pepper their letters with that linger with me, the wine, being in nature (Hartung’s love of the sea and her gardens, Lindgren’s solitary walks in winter landscapes), art, the music they described so beautifully, all the books they shared, the thoughtful gifts, all of which often form the starting point for philosophical musings. Their correspondence can be read as a lesson in how to live well (even though both Lindgren and Hartung repeatedly bemoan the fact that they work too much, but of course that work formed an invaluable contribution to the world) - there is so much life and so much humanity in these two very different life stories that happened to converge in such a wonderful way for a decade.

*There doesn't seem to be an English translation (yet), unfortunately. Lindgren's diaries 1939-45 were published in English recently.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

New year newness

Tim Lott's column in the Family section of the Guardian last week started with a sobering, though not surprising, observation - according to surveys of New Year resolutions, what people care about is themselves (apart from seeing more of friends and family, the top five concern me, me, me). Now there certainly is some truth in the belief that in order to a better person, we need to look after ourselves first, but it is still depressing (and I am aware I am writing this on a personal blog, which is part of the whole navel-gazing, self-improvement culture we live in). 

I haven't thought up any resolutions, but John set a good template, which consists of three SMART ones (lifestyle, creative and giving back) and one 'fluffy' one (i.e. vague and therefore probably hardest to do), and at least three of them have the potential to include the wider world. I need to think about mine.

The only 'newness' I have incorporated into this brand new year so far is cleaning the fridge, getting rid of paper (the only household chores I have felt fit enough for, as I have the flu), buying new music and starting a new sketchbook. Being sick has meant the luxury of listening to several Desert Island Discs episodes in a row and reading for hours. The programme had me in  tears several times, from George Michael's answer to why he was in a relatively good place (it was recorded in 2007) - "Nobody died on took years for me to believe that these blows weren't gonna keep coming" - to Emma Bridgewater talking about her mother's death, and in general just the sheer humanity pouring out of the guests (I loved Mary Robinson's episode).

It is of course an excellent source for finding or rediscovering songs (and books), and I have been listening to Rufus Wainwright's "Going to a Town" about the Bush administration (very timely again this month), one of George Michael's choices and a song he would later cover.

Going through a pile of cuttings, I ended up looking up different singers, which eventually led me to this heartbreaking video (more on the song and animation here), which includes drawings made by refugee and displaced children supported by CARITAS - all net proceeds from sales of the single go to Australia's ASRC (Asylum Seekers Resource Centre).

My sister knows me well and got me a sketchbook that is asking me to sketch every day, and I have a feeling that with this one, I will. My first sketch is of our small armchair by the stove in the kitchen, with the blanket my sister and brother-in-law gave us for Christmas last year and a cushion knitted by John's late grandmother, which is the object he chose from her house. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A wee winter wedding

Last Saturday we said yes in front of a small group of loved ones in my hometown and will spend our first Christmas as newlyweds with my family. It will be the first time my two nephews are together at Christmas, so there is a lot of excitement in my mom's house. Amidst the wonderful chaos, I just wanted to check in to wish everyone reading this a peaceful and happy Christmas!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Beauty | Moisture for winter

Last month I spent more money and time on make-up than in the last decade or possibly my entire life. I usually keep it simple: eyeliner and/or mascara, lipstick or gloss. I would like to be able to do make-up well, but even though I am a morning person and could find the time, I just never bother.

I only wear foundation on rare occasions, but when I do, my skin often shows up flaky, as I have the type of combination skin that is still prone to breakouts in my thirties yet can also get dry. After a professional make-up artist alerted me to this, I went and bought the hydrating mask shown in the photo, which comes with a muslin cloth for taking it off. My face drinks this up, and it has one of my favourite scents, rose geranium, which makes the 15 minute treatment time even more relaxing.

My sister got me the lavender hand cream (another favourite scent), and I have been using it on my lips as well as my hands. I also smooth it over my hair to tame flyaways and sometimes on my eyebrows and lashes, and it works wonders as a healing cream on scars and cuts.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The beauty that surrounds you*

Cottage at the bottom of our road

November morning kitchen view

Early morning commute view from the car

* John likes to sing this line from "Limerick You're A Lady" when we are in the car, accompanied by dramatic arm gestures pointing at the sunrise on the beach as we drive past, which prompts me to position his hand back on the steering wheel. While driving to work isn't fun generally, we are lucky to have such a picturesque commute (and it isn't long, 25 minutes). Whoever is the passenger (in the morning it's usually me, after one too many cringe-inducing driving incidents while at the wheel) marvels at the views and the light and tells the driver what they are missing. 

November has been kind but cold, no storms so far. We had a mouse, which made its way into the cutlery drawer and gnawed on our only pair of chopsticks. We think we have found and blocked the hole it came through and hope it didn't have a family.

Christmas is approaching way too fast, and I am busy wrapping up work projects and commissions, preparing for our (very small, thankfully) wedding, which is in December as well, and trying to paint at least one more room before the holidays, among countless other things. 

I haven't picked up any yarn in months, but with the dark evenings I think I will move from the studio to the sitting room (and the fire!) after dinner and do some knitting or crochet, something big but easy like a moss stitch blanket. It will probably have to wait until January, since I won't have many evenings at home between now and then, with all the Christmas parties. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Seaweed bath time

This week has made me crave hot showers. Even better is a seaweed bath. You can go to a spa, buy dried seaweed, or, if you live near a beach, get fresh fucus serratus, which is what we do occasionally. Afterwards we put it on vegetable beds in the garden as a fertiliser. This article about using seaweed and its miraculous properties in the garden also addresses how to collect it, as there are laws and rights (of course as individuals we only ever use a tiny amount, a small bucketful). It has become big business in the food, health and beauty industries, and it is important to harvest it in an environmentally sustainable way. During the Famine its consumption saved lives, and adding seaweed to meals is a simple way of upping your nutrients.

In a bath it is moisturising, extremely relaxing and soporific, healing and detoxifying, with a cocktail of vitamins and minerals. Some people feel squeamish about getting into the tub, as the seaweed is slimy, and while I do my best to avoid it when swimming in the sea (but more because of a fear of getting my legs entangled in it), I think it feels lovely to let yourself sink into it in a bathtub.

After scalding the fresh seaweed (or rehydrating the dried version for 15-20 minutes), it is added to the bath, which is filled with warm water. It releases its oils and also keeps the water hot much longer than usual. The body absorbs it easily, and your skin is wonderfully soft afterwards, and if you submerge your hair, it is better than any conditioner. Towards the end of the bath, which should take at least 30 minutes to get the full benefit, it is a good idea to scrub your skin with a handful of the seaweed. Apparently the seaweed can be reused, which makes the price tag of the dried seaweed  you can buy a bit less shocking (seaweed products tend to be expensive).

Baths are an absolute luxury, and we don't have them that often, as we try to be mindful of how much water we use. I am also strict about showers and never stay in there longer than necessary, turning the water off while applying products or exfoliating, so my hot showers are not of the wallowing type, but rather a short cathartic boost. Another (no waste) way of temporarily relieving a feeling of heaviness is doing this Yoga Rinse.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Paying attention

"The longer I live the more beautiful life becomes. If you foolishly ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you invest in beauty it will stay with you all the days of your life." Frank Lloyd Wright

"Pay attention. It brings such peace."
Charlotte Mendelson in the Guardian, 15/11/16

Predictions differ as to what kind of a winter this corner of the world will see this year, and it may not end up as stormy as last winter, but in any case we are making the most of the beautiful golden days and soaking up the light that October and three out of five November days so far have brought. Gradually more of the back garden is revealed as we clear away briars and nettles and free the stone wall, and the donkeys are taking care of the overgrown field behind it.

The writer Charlotte Mendelson keeps cropping up, and her non-fiction book Rhapsody in Green, about growing an abundance of food in her tiny urban garden, is on my reading list. There was a beautiful piece about her visit to Tolstoy's country estate in the Guardian recently.

I feel the need to slow down while trying to get things done that cannot be put off any longer. Late nights at work and at events or entertaining alternate with days we go to bed at 9pm. Thanks to Yoga with Adriene, I have been maintaining an almost-daily yoga practice, and I feel so much better for it, physically in myriad ways, including a stronger back and better posture, as well as mentally and emotionally. I had a bad headcold a couple of weeks ago and started burning peppermint oil while doing yoga and in the studio, and it has improved my breathing and my concentration.

Recently I started taking this skin supplement, mainly to prevent breakouts and cold sores (I stopped taking other supplement a good while ago, in the optimistic belief that I get everything I need with a good diet, and this is hopefully just a temporary aid for a stressful few months). I started with a low dose and still haven't gone up to the maximum, but it seems to be working. Then again, when you make a few changes at the same time, you cannot say which individual thing is responsible for any improvement you see, and I tend to introduce several changes simultaneously. This coincided with the beginning of my more serious yoga routine and remembering to take apple cider vinegar regularly.