“The long, long dialogue between earth and the water”
~ Kengo Kuma, architect
Something wonderful is happening in Dundee, Scotland.
Not just the building of a new design museum, but the creation of a remarkable and unique art space.
In this short film, we learn about the intricacies and cutting-edge techniques that are being used to develop the first V&A museum outside London.
I find it so inspiring to hear the passion and the enthusiasm of all those involved in this amazing project. And I love the idea that the museum will rise from the water’s edge like a rock face weathered over millions of years – such a clever juxtaposition with the building’s modernity.
“Architecture should be a part of nature” Kuma said in this talk, adding that “natural light is the most important material for architecture”.
Due to open in 2018, this will be a stunning edition to Scotland’s creative landscape. Can’t wait!
Meanwhile, there are plenty of other ways to get an art fix. I was delighted to learn about the latest initiative from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has recently expanded its open access policy. Images of all the museum’s works of art which it considers to be in the public domain have been digitised for unlimited use. Spectacular!
One of my favourite painters is John Singer Sargent. Indeed one of my all time favourite paintings is his portrait of Lady Agnew – I wrote about one of my encounters with her on my other blog here.
He is well known for society portraiture. Here is another of his most famous works which I have seen ‘in person’ a couple of times:
Browsing the Met’s online collection, I came across a completely different side of Sargent’s work: beautiful pencil sketches and watercolour landscapes. Here are just two examples:
Here is another picture, this time by Ingres, which I could examine for hours. My mum and I love looking at ‘fabric in art’ – this one is perfect. If you click on the image, it takes you to the Met’s site, where you can zoom in on all the detail – delicious!
How magnificent it is to be able to unearth all these treasures with just the click of a mouse, while in the comfort of one’s own home. The rise of worldwide technology has some drawbacks – such easy access to news we don’t really want to know about, for example. But these are wholly outweighed by the many benefits.
The Met is not the first to take this step – there are plenty of other galleries with digital collections. Why not take a look at the National Gallery of Art‘s site. And our very own National Galleries of Scotland is in the process of creating its online collection, which you can see here.
“Plato says that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons
I have spent January reading only fiction. Not deliberately – it just worked out like that. Perhaps it is that time of year when hunkering down with a good story, while it is damp and chilly outside, is a cracking option. Perhaps reality needs escaping from at the moment.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see a common theme across these books: the meticulous examination of lives where, in each case, we see how the extraordinary impacts on the ordinary.
There is also a sub-theme across three of the books: the consequences of, and involvement in, different aspects of the second world war. Again, this is happenstance, but nevertheless engaging, particularly coming along so soon after my reading of Anne Frank’s diary. Will we ever tire of learning about such events? I hope not.
The Wonder, Emma Donoghue
I enjoyed immensely Donoghue’s book Room, so was keen to try something else by her. The Wonder is the story of Lib, an English nurse returned from service with Florence Nightingale and sent to review the case of a young girl in 1850s rural Ireland who has stopped eating. It is described as a thriller in many reviews and I can see why, even though it did not come across in this way to me. The novel’s pace is very slow, giving the reader plenty of time to absorb the very strange unfolding tale. As expected of Donoghue, the writing is careful and considered, with a beautifully concise tone which enhances the overall atmosphere of secrecy, isolation and fear. The story is heavily steeped in the religious practices and beliefs of the time, so this might not be for everyone. But this did not bother me, and I was pleased to have read this unusual drama.
Read this if: you enjoy historical intrigue, loosely based on real accounts.
My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
I seem to be going through a phase of enjoying books where nothing much happens. This is another example, and one which I absolutely loved. Beautiful and profound, the writing is so absorbing as to give the reader a sense that the book is not a work of fiction, but a real-life memoir. As such, it very much reminded me of Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful Gilead. I felt as if I was in the hospital bed beside Lucy, listening to her talking and could happily have gone on reading for ever.
Read this if: you love lyrical, touching and embracing writing.
The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain
“We can’t know..until the moment arrives what choice we are going to make”.
This is another stunningly beautiful story, about the difference between love and friendship. It is also about nature and nurture. We follow Gustav back and forth through different episodes in his life, gradually coming to understand their impact on him and his relationships with family and friends. Set in the middle years of the 20th Century, the fear caused by and horrors of the second world war are at times distant and close up, creating a somewhat melancholic undertone, which frames perfectly the main storyline. I was utterly hooked and did not want it to end.
Read this if: you enjoy stories which examine meticulously the pain and joy of close relationships.
The Reader, Bernhard Schlink
This was my book club read for January. I saw the film several years ago and can’t remember much about it, apart from the very strong performance by Kate Winslet. Even so, I was surprised to find that, apart from one key aspect of the narrative, I had forgotten what ultimately happens to the characters. Told by a grown-up Michael looking back on the events of his life, and in particular his relationship with Hanna, this story reminded me in many ways of The Go Between by L P Hartley. Dealing with moral, behavioural ethical challenges arising from actions in and after the Second World War, it was a captivating read.
Read this if: you like to engage with a thought-provoking read about a relatively unusual aspect of a difficult subject.
Everything I Never Told You, Celest Ng
Another beautifully written, breathtaking read. This is the story of an American-Chinese family in the 1970s struggling to cope with the death of Lydia, the eldest child (no spoilers here – this is known right from the start). As the book progresses, it peels away layer by layer the different facets and back stories of the characters so that we gradually get to the tragic heart of the matter. On the one hand it is a real page turner. On the other, the writing is so thoughtful that I found myself actively having to slow down and, in some cases, flick back a page or two to take everything in. Stunning.
Read this if: detailed character exploration and inter-relationships is your thing.
The Tobacconist, Robert Seethaler
I was keen to read this, having enjoyed Seethaler’s previous novel, A Whole Life. I was not disappointed. We read about 17-year-old Franz, who finds himself taking up a job in a tobacconist shop in Vienna – a far cry from his rural Austrian upbringing. It is 1939 and the German annexation of Austria is just around the corner. The way in which Franz, his friends and fellow countrymen are affected by these events is skilfully portrayed. The writing is cleverly understated, and all the more powerful for it.
Read this if: you enjoy stories about displacement and tests of character.
On The Other Side, Carrie Hope Fletcher
This is a much lighter read than the books I normally pick up. But I can never resist a time-travel story. One of my favourite books is Replay by Ken Grimwood (said to have been the inspiration behind the film Groundhog Day, although I have also heard this said about Nietzsche’s The Gay Science). Anyway, Fletcher’s book is a charming story about Evie, who, upon her death, is presented with the necessity of facing the burdens she has acquired through life. I enjoyed skipping through this one, with its engaging characters and unusual plot.
Read this if: you fancy a nice romance to distract you from listening to the news.
There is nothing quite like a good book to provide a welcome distraction from life’s challenges. Role on the next batch of reads! 🙂
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
~ Jorge Luis Borges
What started off as a hunting and gathering exercise morphed into a discovery of a new mindset.
Moving across to the road less travelled
Initially, I was rather tentative about the prospect of finding as many as 496 items, particularly as I already saw myself as a pretty regular life-launderer.
I can also see now that I was approaching this project only from the perspective of looking for things that I don’t need any more.
Looking back, I have come to understand that this perspective changed in a number of ways:
it became more about actively deciding what I wanted to keep and why, rather than just about what to get rid of;
I felt that I had given myself permission to view differently the things around me, moving away from the notion of unconsciously meeting other people’s expectations (whoever ‘they’ were), to a position of conscious assessment about what is right for me;
I could see that I had acquired many things simply out of sheer habit, rather than as a result of well thought through choices.
Making a difference
Through the month, a huge sense of momentum built up. I enjoyed surveying my stuff anew. I was delighted to tackle drawers, cupboards and boxes to which I had never given much thought. And yes, for days 23-31 (my last post took me to day 22) I found more than 243 items to sprint past that sub-500 target for the whole month.
Hub and I went through the entire contents of our kitchen, completely emptying the equivalent of a side-board. I had yet another look at my yarn stash, this time with a view to making sure it takes up only the amount of room that I am prepared to devote to it. I found yet more CDs, DVDs, books, clothes, craft materials, jewellery, linens and papers.
In a modification of The Minimalists’ rules for this game, for practical reasons, I did not eject things day by day. Instead, The British Heart Foundation came yesterday to collect a van-load of boxes and bags. I will shortly be taking another trip to see the lovely ladies at Treasure Trove; packing up jewellery for The Alzheimer’s Society; and tripping to our recycling bins.
Leaving the usual path
The thing is, minimalism is not really about giving up stuff. It’s about looking afresh at all the things around you: identifying which of them add value in your life, and making sure they are able to fulfill that purpose.
Here’s what I learned in the space of just four weeks.
1. Own your stuff: don’t let it own you
This is something which Hub has always said. I have always understood it logically. Now I also understand it emotionally. Belongings can sometimes exert a tyrannical power over us, be it a sentimental memory, a feeling of guilt and/or shame about a purchase, or a sense of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Step back, though, and it is easy to see that stuff is just stuff, to be kept or not. Once I made this mental shift, it became very straightforward to make decisions about how to free myself from the clutches of my possessions.
2. Memories, not things, have meaning and value
This was one of the most striking messages I took from reading Essentials by The Minimalists. I came to understand that, when looking fondly at an item, it was not the thing itself that generated warm and happy memories. In some cases, I found items which had been given to me as gifts but I had put them away, not really knowing what to do with them. Initially, I put them out as ornaments. But I quickly realised that it was not the items to which I was attached, but the memory of the giving. The solution? I took photos of anything in this category and gladly passed on the physical items for someone else to enjoy.
3. I don’t need what I don’t need
When we were clearing out the kitchen we found all sorts of gadgets that had seemed utterly essential when we bought them, but which were now at the back of a cupboard because they were not of practical day to day use. I’m not sure when I thought I would need to use a special metal flour sifter when a sieve and a spoon does just fine. It was obvious that we have our favourite, go-to utensils, crockery, pans etc. All the rest was superfluous.
4. It’s ok to love things, and to keep them…..
I have lots of lovely things that make me very happy. I am a tea addict and love to drink interesting blends out of beautiful cups and mugs – for me, it enhances the experience. I adore having gorgeous pens and pencils with which to be creative. I love my beautiful powder-blue suede shoes that Hub bought for me in Paris about 15 years ago, and which are pristine because I only ever wear them when the weather is 100% guaranteed to be dry (a rarity in Scotland). Some of these things I use every day. Some only once in a while. That’s fine. These things enrich my life.
5. ……but I could live without them
I have come to understand the bottom line: Everything I own is replaceable in some way. If we had the proverbial fire, I would be concerned only about making sure Hub was safe. There is nothing I would worry about grabbing to save. Initially, I was rather concerned about this: don’t I like my home? Is my environment pointless and lacking in meaning?
No, of course not. We live in a fabulous apartment where we have a lovely life. But the fact is, our life is fundamentally happy because of the way we live and love together. We can achieve that wherever we are and regardless of what we own.
Next steps: a path of choice not habit
Reaching the last day of this challenge is not about the 496 items. It’s not even about newly-empty drawers, shelves and cupboards, nice though these are. It is instead the beginning of a new commitment to live with intention. Not simply treading the familiar and habitual path of amassing things in line with societal expections, but consciously choosing a different approach. Appreciating rather than acquiring. Space not stuff.
Let me give the last word to The Minimalists, since it is they who have helped me make these changes:
‘It’s important to own your things, and not to let your things own you’
~ Stephen Humphreys (aka Hub)
It’s week three of my January minimalism challenge, finding stuff to get rid of on the basis of one thing for day one, two things for day two etc.
In my last post, I highlighted the ways in which I had reached the 15 day milestone.
This week, for days 16-22, the challenge was to find 133 things to trash, donate or sell.
This proved to be both easy and hard.
I decided to get to work on my jewellery box. I have accumulated a vast collection of lovely jewellery over the years. Here’s my tray of earrings for example, all carefully sorted into colours, earring types etc.
Over the years, Hub and I have got very good at doing ‘life laundry’ – filleting out stuff we no longer need or want to give us both head space and actual space.
It is not surprising then that I very much enjoyed listening to a reading of The Minimalists’ book of essays before Christmas. This is a collection of thoughts from Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus on ways to live a more intentional life.
One idea I thought it would be fun to have a go at is their Minimalism Game. On the first of the month, you pick one item to get rid of; on the second, two items etc.
Now, I did not have a mass of things just lying around to be swept up – my last clear-out was just before the holidays, when I donated a load of stuff (books, clothes, DVDs, shoes etc) to the British Heart Foundation…