Mind your head

Mind your head

Until recently, if someone told me they had a hobby, I’d automatically think, “Trainspotter — who has difficulty making friends.” And start backing away. But Himself was forever “at” me to get an interest, because as he often said: “All you do is work, sleep and watch telly.”  “And buy shoes,” I’d always remind him. “Buying shoes is an ‘interest’. I watch telly, I eat chocolate and I buy shoes. This is the modern way. I have a full and rounded life.”

However, during a particularly unpleasant bout of poor mental health, I suddenly started baking, which came as a huge surprise, because I’d never been domesticated or “crafty”. But it had become fashionable for modern women, many of them proud feminists, to knit or embroider or make cupcakes. So I was very zeitgeisty. Also stone mad.

For 18 months, I baked like a maniac. It was an absolute compulsion and I simply couldn’t stop. Nor could I stop eating the cakes I’d made, and I tripled in size. Then, almost as suddenly as it began, the baking urge vanished and I needed another hobby to fill the void, preferably one where I couldn’t eat the end product.

But there was nothing I was interested in, until I realised I had to do some reconnaissance (if only there had been a magazine called What Hobby?). It was like the quest for true love, or the perfect job — it doesn’t just appear on your doorstep, saying, “Hello there! I’m the answer to all your prayers.” Effort had to be put into finding it and this seemed counterintuitive — if I loved something, surely I’d know? But what if I just hadn’t “met” the right thing yet?

While I’m painting furniture, I really am released from the bondage of self

So I gave various activities a lash and learnt that, like true love, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. I did evening classes in pottery — that sounds like a total cliché, but yes, I actually did evening classes in pottery.

Sadly, it didn’t “take” — trying to work the wheel thing with my feet while shaping wet clay with my hands was well-nigh impossible. (No co-ordination, you see, and for that reason Zumba was also a bust.) Next, I gave jewellery-making a go and found it way too fiddly. And card-making was a disaster — the problem was the glue, it clung to me like napalm and I kept getting stuck to things.

Then my sister made a passing comment about “chalk paint”, and even though I wasn’t aware I knew the first thing about it, something hopeful and eager perked up in me. I Googled it right away, only to discover there was a place nearby doing a course that very weekend. I mean, what were the chances? It was clearly a sign (although I don’t believe in signs).

Along I went and it was love at first sight. Chalk painting is perfect for the likes of me — lazy, slapdash and all about instant gratification. Nothing needs to be sanded or stripped back, or anything else dull and responsible. You’re just straight in, slapping colour on, making everything look lovely. The moment the course ended, I bought a crappy second-hand cabinet for 30 quid, which I transformed completely. (It’s unseemly to boast — good manners dictate that when we’re praised we should say, “God, no, it’s awful. Look at how streaky it is and see all the bits I missed here” — but when it comes to my upcycled furniture, I actually egg people on, drawing their attention to features they might not have noticed. “See how I did the inside of the drawer a different colour? And look at the silver bits on the legs. Isn’t it fantastic?”)

Overnight, I was obsessed with chalk paint, and every time I thought I’d accumulated enough colours, I suddenly needed more. I spent about a million pounds on paint and brushes and waxes and knobs (a whole other subsection of obsession) and more paint, yet I was feeling delightfully thrifty and “make do and mend”.

In a lifetime first for me, I voluntarily went to a hardware store, which was like visiting a foreign country — they spoke a different language and the men were very flirty. (Honestly, if you’re looking for love and you’re not too choosy, hang around a hardware store fingering the screws.)

When I ran out of furniture in my house to paint, I became “known” to the second-hand furniture shops in my area and I couldn’t look at anything without wanting to paint it. At a funeral, I was jolted from my grief when I found myself eyeing the carved pew-ends and thinking, “Heliotrope, with a dry-brushing of Silver Pearl.”

Visiting my parents became exquisite torture, because their house is crammed to the gills with mahogany stuff that I itched to improve upon. But my mammy refused to surrender anything, so, in three separate instalments, I stole a small nest of tables from her sitting room. (In fairness to me, when I’d made them far more beautiful — blue and black leopard-print — I offered them back. However, she declined. What can I say? Her loss.)

The way I’m constructed is that I’m never fully at peace. Down in my depths, there’s a shark in perpetual, uneasy motion, and I’ve spent 15 years trying, and failing, to calm myself with meditation. But while I’m painting furniture, I really am released from the bondage of self. Stuff unravels in my head and if I find myself remembering painful patches of my life, instead of my usual kneejerk attempts to escape (like jumping on Twitter or speed-eating a Twirl), I do what any expert would advise: I stay with the feelings.

The soothing back-and-forth of the paintbrush enables me to examine whatever it is, until eventually the discomfort subsides. I can honestly say, I’ve (dread phrase, I apologise) “worked through” more of my issues while painting chairs bright pink than during any other of the many, many therapies and fixes I’ve tried over the years.

The thing with hobbies is that what works for one person might not work for another. My friend Posh Kate gets her fix by sawing logs (I know!). My husband gets his by running up mountains. My sister says she would go out of her mind without yoga. Other people cook or crochet or play bridge, and a man I know, a writer and an intellectual (and perhaps a bit of a tormented soul), does woodcarving because “it makes me truly happy”.

I used to think I was too busy to have a hobby. Any precious spare time was allocated to activities I didn’t enjoy, like trying to get fit or attempting to meditate. But for me, painting is meditation, except that at the end I have a beautiful piece of furniture that I can swagger around boasting about.

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