I Am That Horse

Watercolour drawing; close-up of a horse's eye

From time to time I think about the title of this blog. Ever wondered why it’s called Invisible Horse? I thought I knew, and I’ve talked about it before, even if sometimes I was explaining it to myself in the way I have to when something does make absolute sense but I’m not quite sure why.

One explanation is that horses have always run deep through my life as a constant thread, as far as I know from the day I was born because I don’t remember a time when this wasn’t so, even though there were no visible horses or ponies in my life until about the age of six when I finally started to ride and spend time with ponies (from which time on I thought of little else until the age of about sixteen). But even then this thread was never broken. They’re always there, the feel and the smell and the sense of them, and I only have to catch sight of a real live horse and I sort of melt and everything else drops away.

Thankfully I know there are other people like me, and this isn’t a kind of madness (although on the other hand perhaps it is). Some of them explain all this much better than I can – like Anna Blake, in her blog Relaxed and Forward – she knows how this feels, and how it always has…. ‘Maybe a better question is what is it about horses that hook us so deeply? I’m not being rhetorical; since the beginning of time, when horses first started trying to domesticate us, we’ve painted them on cave walls, burst into tears watching them run, and for some of us, took the blame when we fell short.’

But not too long ago I stumbled upon Andrea Datz’s blog Integrative Horsemanship,and now I know exactly why this title of mine has always been so right. The Invisible Horse is me.

Watercolour drawing of trotting horse

Earlier this year I wrote a series of posts called Letters To Myself, trying to be more self-sensitive, aware and compassionate, trying to plant signposts that were supposed to say, stop! Look! Here’s the way, and actually you know it……! But I’m not too good at these conversations, or rather I don’t listen or take the advice. I carry on in the wrong direction. When I notice (for the twentieth time in an hour, often) that my jaw is tight, my shoulders are hunched, my stomach’s in a knot, I’m liable to snap irritably and tell myself oh, for goodness sake, get a grip, stop doing this! And it’s not effective. It’s not even polite. It’s certainly not respectful. And the thing is, what I now realise is that although it seems I don’t know how to behave towards myself, I do know a bit about how to behave with a horse.

It’s been a long time since I worked with horses but it’s there, inside, as clearly as if it were yesterday – all the sensations intact – and the feeling is strong. I need to talk with myself as I’d talk to a horse.

Andrea speaks horse. She’s learned to slow down, to pay attention, to wait and to observe. She’s learned to let horses be horses, to speak in their own way through body language and resonance, teaching her to understand what they’re saying. And how she accomplished this is important – because as she describes it was largely by paying close attention to herself – to her own emotions, her nervous system, her reactions and responses – all the things humans ignore and repress.

The language of horse is subtle and easily missed or overlooked. So is the equally expressive body-language of humans (something else we don’t pay enough attention to). The language of my inner horse – my Invisible Horse – is subtle too, but easy enough to understand when I give it the chance and let it speak, and the best thing is that I immediately want to take up the conversation because I recognise it, and I’m happy to listen and respond.

There’s an African greeting, Sawubona, that means ‘I see you’. The response, Ngikhona means ‘I am here’. The sense in this Zulu greeting is that in a way, until you saw me, I didn’t exist. *

Sawubona, Invisible Horse. Ngikhona.

Notes on the sources:

Thanks to Bridget Edwards for the definition of Sawubona and Ngikhona.

I sketched both these watercolours using photos from Andrea Datz’s blog as a source. They were both painted directly in watercolour with no initial drawing in pencil or pen, partly as an exercise in Marc Taro Holmes’ current #30x30DirectWatercolor2018 challenge for the month of June. But there was another reason for me to paint like this, which I only understood while doing it, and that was to work more instinctively and responsively than I would if I’d drawn first and then painted. Another kind of communication, I suppose. I know enough about horses to see all the errors I’ve made in the drawing, but I’ll let that go. The painting was what mattered.

Letters to myself (4)

Beech Tree with spreading limbs, in summer

Grounded


There’s no springing into action without first being grounded. A spirit of adventure will fizzle into nothing at the first wobbly bound. I know this by experience because I’ve tried it too often and come unstuck, simply by forgetting to pause and take a slow breath…..

A tree is such a powerful reminder of balance, strength and stillness – a flexible stillness, because on days like today when a gale is blowing, the branches that in summer stretched up motionless into the green canopy are whipped and bent and thrashed in the wind – but the tree remains. It abides. 

This beech is a favourite of mine, one I pass frequently and often stand under. The simple act of standing under a tree helps me do what I try to do when I practice hesitant Tai Chi moves in the garden every morning before breakfast – an attempt to be at one with myself, and still.

There’s also a way in which this is a listening, a paying attention to what we already know deeply in our bodies, and what we can learn there. As children we were all more naturally able to do this (- just watch small children standing, running, playing) and it makes me smile just to think about it. I take a long deep breath, and remember….

This is the fourth post in a series of letters to myself. If you haven’t already read it, the first one is here) 

Letters to myself (3)

Extraordinary clouds, lit by the sun

Adventurous

Every now and again, something stirs me to remember the feeling at the beginning of a holiday. Setting off on a journey at sunrise or even earlier, or the very first glimpse of the sea….. 

Now that I don’t go far from home, a sense of adventure is something I need to cultivate. The remarkable thing is that seemingly boring or irritating tasks become quite different when you see them as adventures. Unpacking and re-packing a carton of cardboard boxes with my husband this morning became an exploration of skills (or lack thereof) and an exercise in letting go of my desire to do everything my way and investigate his approach instead. As an adventure it was hardly bold or colourful, but it was fun.    I’m nowhere near as adventurous as I’d like to be. 

Drawing of Will Geer as Bear Claw/Chris Lapp, in the film Jeremiah Johnson
I often sketch while watching films on TV. This is the actor Will Geer as Chris Lapp the trapper, or ‘Bear Claw’ – in the film Jeremiah Johnson, a story full of adventures if ever there was one. That’s also him on the badly drawn horse that looks as if it’s got one leg shorter than the other and no hind legs at all. Drawing can also be an adventure.

(Part 1 of this series of posts started here if you haven’t read it already.) 

Add to Basket

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…….. 

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.

It’s Not What You Do It’s The Way That You Do It 

The 7th annual International Urban Sketchers Symposium starts this week in Manchester, and I have some thoughts and questions rattling around inside my head……..

I sometimes wonder, if I added up all the time I’ve spent drawing throughout my life how many hours it would come to. It’s the sort of odd question people sometimes ask when they get talking to me when I’m out sketching, and I always say that however much it is, it’s never enough. And I don’t have the strength or the energy to do anywhere near as much as I want to do. 
I know there are many sketchers – Urban and otherwise – whose sketching output is phenomenal. Some have more time and some have more energy than others, and those of us who have neither can sometimes feel a little wistful about this. (I’m putting that as gently as I can). I enjoy following several sketching bloggers whose volume of work frankly boggles the mind. I’m energised by their enthusiasm and excited by what they produce, but however often I hear them say that everyone has their own speed, and no-one should compare the sheer volume of what they do in a day, or be counting numbers of drawings done or sketchbooks filled – it still makes me sigh a little, now and again, and reflect that there are many people who, like me, for reasons of health or disability often struggle to draw for more than a few minutes a day, if at all.

Everyone knows that practice brings progress, and regular practice is much better than just now and again. The more you practise, the more you’re going to improve, and it shouldn’t be hard to make time to do something you love. But what do you do when the time that you’ve deliberately set aside for drawing comes along and you’re feeling limp and wobbly on your feet, foggy in the brain, generally unwell and drained of all the energy you had earlier but which you had to use to go out grocery shopping? (This is what life is like with ME/CFS). I’m not alone in this experience, I know that. It’s extremely frustrating and it can get you down. I’ve had to adapt and change my way of thinking, and be inventive and kind to myself.

The 7th annual International Urban Sketchers Symposium starts this week in Manchester, not more than a two hour drive from where I live, and when the venue was announced last year for a few moments I actually wondered if I might manage to go. (Last year it was in Singapore, the year before in Barcelona, next year’s will be somewhere else far-flung and unreachable; I will never get another chance like this). But for me this is an unrealistic proposition and I never seriously considered it; I have after all not even (yet) ever managed to meet up with my local chapter of Urban Sketchers to go on a sketch outing together. USk (as it’s known for short) emphasises that urban sketching is for everyone regardless of ability, that we ‘share, not compare’ and it is an amazingly kind, sharing, egalitarian community. I love it and I’ve got a lot of support from it. But that hasn’t stopped me wanting to write this post. In the next few days as the Symposium unfolds I’ll be keeping an eye out for news of anyone else like me – and for any activities on offer or discussions that happen about people who need to think differently about what they can achieve.

The drawing at the top of this post was done on one of the days when I felt well enough to stand for more than half an hour and draw something I’d deliberately gone out to sketch (the old public toilet block in Cliffe Castle Park that was about to be demolished). It was a wonderful feeling, doing this; the simple act of planning to go out to sketch and then not only having the strength to do it but to feel well while doing it is a piece of pure pleasure.

At other times I need different strategies.The following day I went back to sketch the same thing from a different angle (this is Urban Sketching for you) and by the time I’d dragged myself up the hill through the park all I could do was sit on a bit of low stone wall and stare at the building with an open sketchbook, and then finally manage a few rather meaningless pen lines. So I just sat there and did nothing. 

Struggling to push on at times like this is a bad idea. Doing nothing is a much better thing to do, but actually it’s the quality of the nothingness that counts. What’s needed is not a negative state of nothing, but a positive one; it’s counter intuitive but what you need is to let go of the desperate urge to do something worthwhile and with an intention of kindness, zone out completely for a minute or two (or longer) and just sit in a state of suspended animation. In other words, float….

This is takes practice. This feeling that I must achieve something, anything, is extraordinarily hard to overcome but usually, once I manage to drop all this urgency and clear my mind the next thing that happens is that I find myself just looking around, gazing, and enjoying where I am. Seeing things and just watching.

On this particular occasion, what happened next was a rabbit, and I found myself drawing before I knew I was doing it, hardly looking at the paper and just drawing without looking down, which I managed to keep up for the next ten minutes. And that was enough.

Letting go and doing nothing doesn’t suddenly give me energy or stop me from feeling ill, but it does take away the stress of feeling angry frustrated and miserable about it. It creates a new inner space for something better to materialise, and it generally does. 

Some days I resign myself to not drawing at all. Other days go well. I never know what sort if a day it will be when I wake up in the morning. I seldom arrange to meet up with other people because I never know how I’m going to be, and even if I’m well, being with people is exhausting and although I enjoy it, it’s stressful. This is not something that many – if any – of the sketchers attending the Symposium will experience, though perhaps some do, and if so I’d love to hear from them, or from anyone else who knows what this is like.

I wish everyone there in Manchester a hugely enjoyable time, and hope everyone enjoys doing what’s right for them, at their own right speed and in their own way, and that they make wonderful discoveries.

Postscript: anyone interested in following my sketching project, Drawing The Work at Cliffe Castle Park can find posts on it here.