Barbed Wire and Fairy Lights

I find it hard to know what to say these days. This last week, watching the new order play out under newly installed president Trump has been a bit like standing in a blizzard. I’ve found it hard to take in, and exhausting; if it’s having this effect on me here in Britain, I can only imagine how it feels on the other side of the Atlantic. When my thoughts are in a tangle, I write; when I can’t think, I draw, and often I discover more that way. 

Barbed wire from the trenches, 1st World War

My local museum has a cabinet with a miscellaneous collection of objects from the first world war and on Thursday, the day Theresa May travelled to Washington as the first world leader to meet Donald Trump I found myself standing in front of this display drawing strands of barbed wire from the trenches on the western front. I don’t have the words to describe how I felt, studying this stuff, thinking about what it means to create barriers of this kind and the horrors of what this did. I stood there drawing and thinking about walls, and fences, and detention centres; about refusing refugees. About people who are now living in increasing uncertainty and fear, and how the whole world is now a more uncertain place for everyone. 

I thought a lot after I’d come home with this drawing about what its opposite would be. Closing my eyes and drifting off to sleep that night I thought about Amnesty International’s symbol of a burning candle surrounded by barbed wire…….. 

Faced with such immediate threats to democracy, to freedom of speech and freedom of movement, being fed lies and witnessing ever more division and racism and hatred – it’s hard to know what to do, what to say, or how to say it. It’s overwhelming and intimidating, and it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing I could do that could possibly make the slightest difference. But neither can I bear to stand by and not do anything. I keep thinking of those words of Edmund Burke’s, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As true today as it was 200 years ago (except that today he would have said men and women). I can’t go on marches, the way thousands did last weekend all around the world. I can support organisations like Amnesty, I can show solidarity and add my signature to petitions and write to my MP. But none of these make me feel as if I’m creating any light in the darkness. 

I spend the first few minutes of every day after waking up simply filling the landscape of my heart and mind with light. I imagine I’m watching the sun rise and I watch it hit the tops of distant mountains and gradually flow down the slopes and into every valley. I consciously try to feel the warmth of the sun, and I greet it with every part of me. If I can start the day filled with light, it makes a difference to the way I read the news, the way I talk over breakfast with my husband, the way I think when I go out shopping, when I drive the car, when I speak to the assistant at the supermarket checkout. I smile more often. I think fewer dark thoughts, I’m less anxious and more relaxed. 

I think this can produce a chain reaction. I think it often does. 

Like a tiny ant, I’m not going to look up at the towering ant-hill above me and think, I can’t do this, building this is beyond me. I can simply be a good ant and do what I can as well as possible – and actually that feels good. And then I realise that there are thousands – millions – of us out there doing the same thing, glowing not terribly brightly but glowing all the same, and together we’re lighting the darkness like a string of fairy lights. 

Then I knew what I had to draw. 

Escapee with a Sketchbook

20170115_080119.jpg

Last Saturday was a day like any other for the people of Saltaire, and anyone noticing me waiting on the station platform or joining the rest of the group of Urban Sketchers meeting up at Salts Mill for a day of drawing would have thought nothing of it. It was a day of clear skies and cold air, but if you stood in the sunshine you could feel the warmth of it and the light was wonderful. I’ve been trying to go along to one of these sketch-crawls ever since I joined the group almost two years ago and I’d never made it – until last week.

I’ve written before about my expeditions into the world where I try to push the boundaries of my life a little, forays into parts of my locality that are small adventures, but I rarely manage anything as satisfying as this. I couldn’t manage the whole day – that would have been asking too much – but a whole morning of drawing and meeting the people that I’ve got to know through posting online in this community of like-minded sketchers was enough to make me feel light-headed with the excitement of it all.

And that’s a problem in itself. I kept having to say to myself Whoa! Slow down, get quiet. Take a breath. Because the excitement that I want so much to give way to is also part of the way I get overloaded and exhausted, and I can’t afford to crash…….

I need to do days, or mornings like this more regularly. I really need the practice because not getting out and doing ordinary things like travelling on a train, or wandering around a bookshop or a gallery or having coffee and chatting with friends means that when I do get to do it, it feels weird and surreal. Meandering happily around Salts Mill and afterwards through the streets of Saltaire I felt a bit like an escapee; at times like this I’m suddenly surrounded by so much – so many sights and sounds and different possibilities that it’s quite hard to make simple decisions like what to look at next. Whether to stand still or carry on walking. Whether to turn this way or that. Having a sketchbook with me is what keeps me on some sort of track; I can stop at any moment and let my eyes do the thinking, and tell me why I’m there and what I need to do. Everything else just disappears.

I know I’m not alone in this experience – anyone who is a stay-at-home carer for example, who needs to be constantly in attendance on another; anyone with a long-term chronic illness or anyone who is elderly and no longer able to get out much will recognise what this feels like. I’m lucky; I have enough strength and the occasional opportunity to go out and explore and have micro-adventures. I just need to grab the chance whenever I can and do more, and celebrate and enjoy every minute of these expeditions into the wider world.

Spanish Solutions

(I’m trying to practise my rusty Spanish. Don’t be alarmed; a translation follows. My idea is to write posts in both languages from time to time.) 

No hago propósitos del nuevo año. No tengo suficiente energía ni voluntad, asi prefiero proponerse intenciones, (evidentemente algo diferente) y este año tengo dos: practicar español cuando y en cualquier manera que pueda y hacer más dibujos. Pensé hacer los dos a la vez – publicar aqui de vez en cuando bocetos de mi cuaderno y escribir en ambos lenguas, español y inglés. 

Bien, este dibujo – es una raíz enredada que fueron la única cosa en el parque cuando estaba allí otro día haciendo bocetos que tenía colores cálidos, o por lo menos más cálido que lo demás del paisaje de invierno. 

Me gusta intentar usar una lengua otra que la mía. Aunque que me cuesta bastante, una ventaja es que tengo que pensar sencillamente, siempre una cosa buena. 

Gracias a quienquiera que sea leyendo! 

***

I don’t make new year’s resolutions. I don’t have the strength or determination so I prefer to have intentions (obviously something quite different) and this year I have two; to practise Spanish whenever and however I can and to do more drawing. I thought I’d do both at the same time – publish sketchbook drawings here from time to time and write in both Spanish and English. 

So, this drawing is of a tangled root that that was the only thing in the park the other day when I was there sketching that had warm colours, or at least colours that were warmer than the rest of the winter landscape. 

I like trying to use a language other than my own. Although it’s quite an effort one advantage is that I have to think simply, which is always a good thing. 

Thanks to whoever may be reading this! 

Postscript:

Writing (or trying to write) precisely the same thing in two languages when you’re nowhere near fluent in the one that’s not your own is very much harder than I’d – stupidly – thought it would be. I may have to give up this idea and do an approximate and relaxed translation. Besides which I obviously think differently in English (because I can) and trying to say exactly the same thing has made me write in an odd way that I don’t quite recognise. Oh well. A work in progress. 

Festive Focus 

wp-1482689254426.jpg

There’s something about a string of coloured lights. They seem to do so much more than you’d expect, as if there really is alchemy in the glow of colour in the long hours of winter darkness. This year my family has made the discovery of battery operated LED lights and the fun and the wonder of being able instantly to light up any dark corner or decorate some quiet forgotten object. (Not that this rat that sits looking out of the bedroom window is forgotten – he may be quiet but he is never ignored.) 

I’ve rediscovered the extraordinary peace that comes from silently gazing at coloured lights. In fact silent gazing is something I’ve not done enough of for a long time and I’ve been consciously doing more if it whenever I can; I take long slow moments to look at the hillside across the valley, shrouded in mist; at the sun rising behind a cloud bank washing the sky with pink and turquoise and coral; at my neighbour’s Christmas tree put up hastily outside her door on Christmas Eve once the storm had passed and decorated with a flourish of warm white flashing lights. 

And then I read Susan McCulley’s latest post and understood why I’m doing all of this gazing, and why I need to do so much more, and regularly. What I gaze at, I focus on. Everything else falls away. This is the festive season, but it’s also the season of peace. 

 

A contribution to the WordPress prompt festive

The Dreary Days of Winter, Brightened 

wp-1482254754280.jpg

As I headed down the road towards Cliffe Castle this afternoon I met a friend coming in the opposite direction. ‘It’s very dreary in the park today’ she said. (She takes inspiringly beautiful photographs of local landscape and even on drab winter days usually seems to find something wonderful to shoot, so I thought her comment surprisingly downbeat.) 

So perhaps because of this I was more open than ever to let something extraordinary catch my eye……. 

Well, the ordinary can be extraordinary after all. Just depends on how you look at it. 

Little Adventures (At Night)

rps20161211_163801_609.jpg

I don’t go out after dark, or at least, very rarely. As I am still not Extremely Old (at 62 I do think I’m old, but chronic conditions like ME/CFS can make you feel relatively young one day and ancient the next) this probably sounds odd – but I use up all the energy I have in the mornings and early afternoons, and so evenings are not a time to venture out.

It means that at this time of year I miss the sparkle of streets lit up for Christmas. 

I try within my limits to live adventurously, which can sometimes be as small a thing as just breaking a routine; choosing to go for a walk in the morning instead of tackling the pile of ironing that’s been waiting for a week. If I don’t have enough strength to do it when I come back – well, that was my choice, and it feels good. And I try to do something every week that feels just a little bit daring, a small adventure. Yesterday afternoon I went into the centre of our small town and listened to a brass band play carols, and afterwards wandered around a bit in the dark streets and got dazzled and overwhelmed by decorated shop windows and trees with lights strung all over them.

There are advantages to having limits, and this is one of them – it doesn’t take much to find something small that is utterly, intensely exciting. I feel the way a young child does, looking at a Christmas tree. This is magical, really; who could imagine reliving that sort of excitement? I stood and gazed for ages into this wonderful wintery cake-shop Christmas window and smiled, and smiled, and smiled…….

Facial Recognition

Google Street View has recently been in the news for blurring out the face of a cow, grazing by the river Cam in Cambridge. The facial recognition software is attracted, it seems, to anything that has eyes and looks like it might be a face. How long before its attention is drawn to other things that (to me at any rate) seem to have recognisable features?

I’m not one for seeing faces in clouds, or in odd rock formations or even on the mottled golden brown of a fried pancake; other people exclaim about these phenomena and I still just see what’s there in front of me – usually. But there is a certain tree, at the corner of a path I take nearly every day, that just – well, looks at me as I approach. I’ve tried to see it just as a tree, interesting, beautiful, unique – but, I’m sorry, it’s all these things too but as well as that, I have to admit that it has a face. I have to admit, too, that I often smile or give it a greeting of some sort as I walk past. It really is odd, but we humans are so programmed to respond to anything that seems to have eyes, a nose and a mouth that we just zoom in on it, and connect. Silly. Foolish. But then again, what does it matter? It’s another small thing that makes me smile….

Small Things And Quiet 

The snails in my garden are very, very fond of the white rose that I love. Every morning after I’ve done a bit of tai chi, I examine the damage done during the night and pick off the flowers that are past saving. I do sigh a bit and wish they’d leave the rose alone, but it’s irresistible to them and obviously delicious. So I put the nibbled, mangled petals on the ground, and let them get on with it.

It seems only natural then to stop and watch for a few moments, and watching very small creatures slows everything down. You can stop the whole world for a short time. I watched the snail eat a good portion of petal while its tiny insect companion climbed up the precipitous edge of the rose, waving thin, delicate feelers.

And then…the world started again.

I went indoors and made breakfast.