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We are receivers. Every day, every minute, we are collecting, whether we know it or not – images, sounds, stories. Ideas. And we react to these things, because it’s human to do so, and some make a deeper impression than others. 

Drawing of little red insect

But just because we’re picking things up all the time, it doesn’t mean we have to stow them all away and keep them – it is possible just to notice some things and then allow them to leave, even if at first this sounds improbable. It requires practice. 

I don’t have any difficulty knowing which things I should keep and which to let go – but negative things stick more readily and tenaciously than positive ones. It’s how we evolved. It’s said that you need the conscious awareness of five positive things to balance out one negative one, because the negative is so much more powerfully drawn to our attention.  

Drawing of coriander

I’ve started keeping an imaginary basket that I collect things in. I choose these things, and at the end of each day I can take them out one at a time and look at them again, and feel the same sensation I had when I first encountered them…. like the red and black flying beetle that landed on the garden wall, and stayed for a few moments in the sun before flying off before I could identify it. Or like the smell of coriander when I was chopping it at lunchtime. And the children I watched one afternoon running around in the playground after their karate class while older people walked their dogs, or just stood around in the sunshine. 

Sketches of karate kids and man with dog

These are the things I can draw. There are other things that can’t be sketched, like the wood-pigeon and the blackbird that I hear when I’m sleepily awake at 6.00 am, and the taste of the melted dark chocolate sauce I made yesterday with brandy mixed in it to pour on vanilla ice cream. 

These are just a few of the things in my basket, and writing this I’ve tasted them all over again – but I realise what may be even more important is that now I’ve shared them as well. Good things are meant for sharing. 

The idea of a basket of collected memories is not my own. I wish it were, but I first heard of it from my mother, who inherited it in turn from a dear friend of my sister, so it kind of runs in the family. 

In the UK, when you shop online and choose your purchases you collect them by clicking ‘add to basket’. In the US this would be ‘add to cart’ which to me always sounds mildly hilarious because it conjures up images of a chunky wooden wheeled horse-drawn sort of a thing. In supermarkets in England we use a trolley…….or a basket. 

Learning How To Be A Beginner 

I’ve often wondered why it is when I draw something or make something, my first effort is often good, and later things go downhill. I know this sounds all contradictory and upside-down, but I’ve noticed it happens time and time again; the first drawing or whatever it is might be inaccurate, the proportions off, a bit wonky – but essentially it’s good. The trouble is that from then on I’ll continue in a different frame of mind. I’ll be thinking, ah, here we go, I know how to do this now – and my drawing will be worse. 

It was especially obvious when I did the #1week100people sketching challenge. Along with lots of sketchers all over the world, I sketched lots of people – around about a hundred – and not much else for a whole week. It was an exciting, freewheeling exercise and I was looking forward to seeing an improvement in my drawings. I was hoping – well, actually, expecting that. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Or at least, so it seemed to me at the time. I noticed as I went along that things weren’t going as I’d hoped because as I complained in my previous post, ‘every now and then I’ll find myself drawing with ease and fluency and suddenly it’ll all go right, and then the next minute I fall off the edge and lose the flow, and do something that’s completely off’. I thought I was going to learn and advance in an obvious way, and I thought at the time that this definately wasn’t happening – but in the end I discovered the answer to something that’s puzzled me for a long time, something more interesting and more valuable. 

I have Susan McCulley and her latest post, Revisiting Beginner’s Mind to thank for this insight, and it’s going to pop up again and again in everything I think and do for the foreseeable future. What it is, in simple terms, is that I need to stop thinking that I know what I’m doing and learn to be a beginner. Or rather, I need to think like a beginner, with all that freshness, openness and excitement about the unknown, because as soon as I start to think ‘I know all about this’ I’m no longer really looking, or not looking with a spirit of enquiry. I’ve boxed myself in and closed the door on all kinds of possibilities. 

There are all sorts of ways to do this, none of them comfortable. Like shaking things up and switching materials. Drawing with something uncompromising like a sharpened stick can be a good way. Drawing fast, drawing people in motion helps. But it all requires letting go of what I think I know, trusting my eyes and my hands and the mysterious process that happens when I really look at something as if I’m seeing it for the first time. 

None of this is easy. It’s not just about drawing, either – it’s about the way to approach everything. Beginner’s Mind is a concept in Zen Buddhism called Shoshin, which refers to “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”

If all this seems rather obvious, perhaps it is – but the implications are far reaching. If I slip into the habit of thinking the same way about something simply because I believe I know all about it, I’m never going to learn anything new about it. In the words of the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” 

Wobbly Challenge part 2: #OneWeek100People2017

I knew I wouldn’t get to the full quota of 100 sketches of people this week, (too wobbly – see previous post) but that never bothered me – to be honest, I never even counted. The point of the thing for me was to share the experience of knowing that lots of other sketchers all over the world were doing the same thing, and enjoy seeing what they were all up to. (Use the #OneWeek100People2017 tag to search the internet and you’ll find some amazing stuff.) 

I sketched in the park as usual. I have a bit of an obsession with drawing moving figures; I can’t do it, but it’s what I want to do more than anything else and I get a sort of morbid fascination watching myself try. I thought if I spent all my sketching time this week concentrating on that, I’d have to learn something. I probably did, but with drawing the funny thing is you’re never quite sure because the learning is invisible. Internal. Every now and then I’ll find myself drawing with ease and fluency and suddenly it’ll all go right, and then the next minute I fall off the edge and lose the flow, and do something that’s completely off. 

Since it seemed like a good chance to try to study the subject a bit I got someone I know to walk up and down while I took continuous shots of him on my phone camera, and then used the photos as reference to draw from, quite rapidly, trying to imagine that I was watching him in real life. Surprisingly I found it much more difficult than I’d thought because still shots don’t look real – there’s obviously a lot of processing that happens in our brains that turns the moving object we see into something quite different from what the camera captures. I mean, really, just look at this – 

I think I learned something from that, but I can’t be sure. (I realise it makes a rather odd drawing, particularly because I didn’t bother to get his features right so it looks like a string of different but oddly similar short men doing a strange shuffle from right to left for no apparent reason but with a sense of purpose). 

It all makes me appreciate even more the extraordinary way sketchers like Marc Taro Holmes and Suhita Shirodkar manage to draw movement so beautifully  and make it look so effortless – but equally I realise how much practice it takes. 

So, another strategy – drawing from the TV – and not talking heads; sketching from films. Interesting because just as in life, you get fleeting opportunities to observe faces from different angles and with different expressions. And this is really fun. 

So the week finishes – but I’m on a bit of a roll and I don’t want to stop. Even if I can’t get out and sketch from reality there’s always the TV. No film is ever going to be boring again, no matter how bad! Back to the sketchbook…….. 

One Wobbly Challenge: #OneWeek100People2017 

If you haven’t heard of the sketching event #OneWeek100People2017 that’s going on all over the world this week, have a look at Marc Taro Holmes’ blog Citizen Sketcher. His drawings of people in motion – or people of any kind doing just about anything or nothing – are completely wonderful and inspirational. 

I’m sort of trying to do this challenge myself, though I should have known that saying I’d do it would be a bit ridiculous and sure enough, my health threw a wobbly and hasn’t let me do anywhere near as much drawing as I’d hoped, and certainly not 20 people a day!  

Schoolboys in Cliffe Castle Park

But it’s a lot of fun. It’s great looking at what other people are posting online, and it’s really fun, drawing people in a sort of mad loose way and just enjoying it without worrying much about the outcome. Something to do a lot more of – whether I complete the challenge or not. And who cares – that’s not what it’s really about anyway. It’s all about having fun! 

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

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 

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 

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.