Drawing Fears: Victorian Anxieties

I’m exploring the way drawing something that’s troubling or scary can affect the way I feel about it. In part 1 I drew a large spider.
This is part 2.

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After sketching a very large spider to see if drawing it would make me less frightened, I started to make a list of things that scare me or make me anxious or troubled – to see if any of them could be sketched and if I could include them in my experiment about fear and drawing. It turns out not to be quite so easy; hospitals, deep water, and plumbing are all too large, inaccessible and non-specific, though I could give them a go. Illness is too abstract and generalised, though I could break it down into component parts. Spreadsheets are simply not sketchable, or at least what worries me about them isn’t. I thought of guns – which definitely scare me, and are sketchable but I don’t have access to any and in fact have rarely seen one, (except once or twice on armed police officers at airports) and for the purposes of this experiment I have to draw from the real thing, and a photo will not do.

But making a list was instructive because I began to see a pattern; what these things have in common is a sense (for me) of something unpredictable or unknowable that I’m not able to control or understand, something that makes me feel vulnerable and powerless and even threatened.

Back in Victorian England there were plenty of things that scared people, that they didn’t understand and that they had no control over whatsover.

In the museum at Cliffe Castle there’s a display cabinet of Victorian Curiosities, and the largest exhibit is a stuffed lamb with two faces. I’d wanted to sketch this for some time because although it doesn’t frighten me, it does fill me with a complexity of different feelings and I wanted to let them rise to the surface so I could sort them out.
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What I’m looking at here is rather lovely but also strange, weird, and faintly disturbing and I feel amazed (that it could have lived to grow to such maturity), concerned (how well did it function? Did it suffer?) which it must have; sad (because in some way I’m sure it did), and perplexed and slightly horrified (to think that people at that time displayed creatures like this – both alive and dead – as a form of entertainment). As I drew it I became filled with a desire to stroke it, to run my fingers through the tight curls of the fleece on its neck and back and to feel the fluffy cloud of wool that is its tail, and its top-knot. I felt my heart soften as I carefully drew the three (out of the four) eyes that I could see from where I was standing. I love this lamb.

But above the sheep and to its right is an object I thought was a mishapen fruit stuck with cloves and in the few minutes left before the museum closed I sketched it, looking closer and closer – until I realised it definately wasn’t a dried fruit, and then read the label. And with a jolt suddenly felt differently about what I was looking at. That’s it at the top of this post – and here it is again.
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This is a counter-spell.

‘When one is bewitched, there must be a violent counter-spell to break the witch’s power: a sheep’s heart, pierced with pins and nails to break the spell of a black witch. Black witches were supposed to bring about the death of sheep and cows by casting a spell over them, or by surreptitiously introducing the poisonous leaves of the yew tree into their food. By taking the heart of a sheep which had fallen victim to these machinations, piercing it with pins and nails, and hanging it up in the chimney, the spell was supposed to be broken.’ — The Times, 5th March, 1917

Let me tell you, there’s a big difference between drawing something you already find troubling, and exploring that fear – and sketching something you think is benign, that looks rather nice, and then discovering it’s not at all what you thought it was. This gets more interesting all the time.

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Drawing My Fears

Some time ago I had the idea of sketching things I’m frightened of. Drawing something makes you understand it much more intimately, and I’m inclined to think that the better I understand, the more I appreciate, the less I’m likely to be frightened.

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The easiest thing to start the experiment with was a large spider – not a live one but a specimen in the Cliffe Castle museum. A live one only half this size would have made me feel a lot more uncomfortable, even safely trapped inside an inverted drinking glass, the classic spider-trapping protocol. (I can do this, even with large spiders – just).

During the first few minutes I wasn’t enjoying myself at all, what with the sensation of being close up and sort of connected, even with the glass of the display case between us, but gradually things began to change and I did find myself getting a lot more relaxed and comfortable as I went along.

I don’t know what kind of spider this is or where it came from, as it’s displayed just as a representative of its kind with no specific information, but it’s not native to these parts. What it is, exactly, that scares me is hard to work out but it’s something to do with all those legs, and the unpredictability of how fast and in what direction they’re going to run.

I was seduced, eventually, by the colour and the fur. I have to call it fur, because its legs are covered in what looks like the gingery parts of our cat (who’s a multi-coloured tortoiseshell) and they make it look like – well, a soft stuffed toy. Not cuddly, because something with eight legs can’t be that, can it? But by the time I’d finished I was comfortable. I think that possibly, if the glass had not been between us, I could have touched it……

I may try drawing other things that scare me.

Extract of Autumn

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It starts with blue. Autumn skies are different from the skies of summer or spring. This is the first ingredient. Then, copper, rust, terracotta, amber and gold, streaked with green – the green of glass bottles, the turquoise of the shallow sea, and the deep blue green of the ocean.

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I start to see these colours when I close my eyes and sometimes dream of them. They feel like perfume, or wine, or freshly ground coffee, or chocolate; I swear I’m absorbing them just by gazing at them. I’m drinking them in.

It’s not enough just to think of them, so I get out my palette and let two colours loose on the page. Phthalo Turquoise and Burnt Sienna spread themselves in brilliant glory and then collide, a confluence of energy swirling and merging, creating currents of soft new colours without names. I’ve stopped thinking; I think I’ve forgotten how to speak. I’m lost in colour.

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What does colour mean to you?

Softening The Heart With A Rat

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I have a soft toy rat who sits, most of the time, on my bedroom window sill looking out. He’s a good subject to draw and I like using him as a model.

I bought him two Christmases ago at IKEA and he’s remained nameless – I’m not that sentimental – though I can’t help noticing that I think of him as him rather than it. I pick him up at least twice a day whenever I raise or lower the window blinds and without fail, every time I handle him, my heart softens and I find myself caressing him a little, holding his round little body against my chest and stroking his soft fleecy back. I’ve been known to whisper in his ear.

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David Bennett just published a lovely image on his photography blog that had my heart softening in just the same way; he says

Here they are – three soft toys in a window.Though I saw them from across the road as I was passing and they were three small blobs in an upstairs window, I felt my heart soften – funny creatures that we humans are.

Funny creatures that we humans are. It’s true, we are. What is it about a soft rat or a teddy bear that has this effect on us?

We’re not responding to them as if they were the animals they represent (I don’t dislike rats but I wouldn’t feel quite the same sensation of love if I picked up a real one). As a child I didn’t have many soft toys (I do still have the small button-eyed bear I had from my earliest years, perhaps more of him in another post); growing up we weren’t short of real animals to stroke and play with, so perhaps the need for something cuddly wasn’t so noticeable – but really it’s not about that. There’s a friendship and a kind of love that can spring up between a human and a teddy bear, or a rat, or a soft-whatever, even though we know that in truth it’s a one-sided affair. These are creatures that are undemanding and reliable, but also vulnerable; they depend on us for everything – they can’t even move about on their own and for this at least, they need us.

We need to love, and these soft things melt our hearts.
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Install Helpful Updates

I’ve been doing some maintenance work on my phone, deselecting unnecessary processes, clearing out apps I don’t use, and emptying the cache (that always sounds alarming, like discarding buried treasure but it turns out it’s more like clearing the garage of junk). I even bought it a new battery, reflecting how nice it would be to install a new one in me, but since this isn’t viable I thought that at least if my phone worked better I might feel invigorated by proxy. My sense of wellbeing has become entwined with the performance, good or otherwise, of my computer and my phone.

But then I’ve suspected for quite a while now that my brain is afflicted with malware and viruses (quite apart from the actual organic maladies it suffers from), and this morning my suspicions were confirmed when I read this, and laughed (and if you read it now, the rest of this will make more sense).

Well, I can see now what the trouble is – like my phone, I have a whole string of applications that run all the time in the background without my realising it. Here’s a few of them: Gloom 5.0 is a general depressant, designed to come up with negative scenarios to fit any situation. Crisis Predictor 3.0 throws up notifications warning of potential disasters several times a day, and Wot If? Aaah! is a creative tool supplying imaginary experiences to challenge my ability to remain calm. I never knowingly installed any of these but can’t find a way of uninstalling them.

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The main parts of my mind; where exactly those unwanted apps are located is hard to say but my guess would be the Amygdala, the lurking place for primitive emotions. Stuff there is pretty hard-wired and basic and not easy to uninstall. Advice is to balance their effect by installing and frequently running other more postive applications...

However, I’ve now got a collection of programs to turn to which can reverse the damage and neutralise the system. In time, I feel sure I’ll be able to flush the unwanted items completely but in the meantime I can run a meditation app called Back Om, a calming and centering experience that never fails to bring me quietly into presence. Then there’s support at itmightneverhappen.org which reminds me that, well, that horrible thing might never happen and why am I imagining it anyway; and opening Go Flow 2.0 is a really good exercise in letting go, releasing my grip on anything I might currently be clinging to and allowing myself to slip effortlessly through time as everything changes from moment to moment.

I’ve given myself shortcuts to all of these and set up timed alerts to remind me to use them. I’m feeling better already – and maybe it’s a coincidence but my phone is working better too.

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Many thanks to the originators of the post I linked to (which is far funnier than what I’ve written), at http://imgbuddy.com/ and to https://otrazhenie.wordpress.com for re-blogging it.
Laughter is the best medicine!
And note: the apps and websites above are my own invention and as far as I know, they don’t exist. (Or do they?)

Snail’s Pace

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What do you do when the sun is shining and it’s warm – yes, warm! for the first time this year, and the breeze is pleasantly cool, and what you want to do more than anything else is to go for a walk, but you’re feeling as if your legs might not carry you much further than the garden gate. When your head feels fuzzy, on the edge of dizziness; when you ache and everything seems twice as difficult as it should, and your body is asking you to lie down. But outside, the sunshine! The way all the colours in the garden glow, and the shadows that are dappling the path – the blueness of the sky and the perfect whiteness of the puffy clouds – how can you possibly not go out and at least try to see how far you can go?

I went, and after 5 minutes I’d got about 100 yards into the park where the path turns away from the corner of the wood, where I stopped because I was too weary to walk another step. So I thought, hey-ho, I’ll stand here and draw whatever’s in front of me since I can’t do anything else but stand here and I’m not going to give in and sit down. I may not get up again. So I drew the small tree at the edge of the path, bare branches all twisty and striped with sunlight and shadows.

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A weary, dreary drawing but it made me feel so much better that I managed to dawdle up the path to the end of the line of lime trees and a bit further, where I did sit down, on a bank that was until recently covered in crocuses and is now waiting for daffodils, and listened to bumble bees and watched children playing cricket on the lawn, before heaving myself up and retracing my steps.

I went slowly because I had no choice. This is what ME (or chronic fatigue syndrome) is like, the condition that I’ve had for so many years; exhaustion and malaise rise up out of nowhere and just when you’ve started to think you can function almost normally it’ll drain you of all energy and drag you under. Sometimes when it’s at its worse it stops me altogether, sometimes for days at a time. It’s frustrating, worrying and depressing, but at other times, on those rare days when not being able to do much doesn’t really matter, I can see a glimmer of something more positive and allow myself to simply be how I am, without railing against it or getting angry or scared. I do what I can, and make sure that I do some of the things that I really want to do, that I need to do, the things that make my soul sing.

On my way home I thought of creatures that habitually move slower than I do, like snails, and found myself enjoying the thought of moving at their pace. I found a ladybird going even more slowly than I was.

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And then there are trees…

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Medical opinion says that the only successful way to manage ME/CFS is by pacing – by doing only half of what you think you’re capable of. It’s certainly true that to recover from a relapse, pacing is essential, and it’s also true that persistently ignoring warning signs and carrying on regardless will inevitably lead to trouble, but there’s something dangerously negative about only ever doing half of what you think you can. It’s depressing. It eats away at the joy of things. It stops you from living adventurously, makes you question what you are, and fences you in. So if I really, really want to do something, I do it, whatever the cost. On days like this, with the sun shining and birds singing in every tree, with tiny leaves just beginning to appear on branches that have been bare for so long, I’m never going to stay indoors when every bone in my aching body is saying, “walk!” Even at a snail’s pace, off I go.

I Remembered To Plant Daffodils

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Last November I remembered to plant daffodil bulbs, and almost a month ago now, up they came, and flowered. I’m a hopeless gardener; I amost never plan, and when I do I often get it wrong and plant things in totally the wrong places, but I always get excited when I see green shoots appearing from beneath bare earth and it always seems miraculous.

The daffodils stand amongst a sea of wild celandines which arrive unbidden and cover every inch of open soil, but I can’t bear to tear them out; I welcome them every bit as much as the plants I put in myself and I’m grateful that they feel at home.

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The flowers open and close again during the course of the day as warmth and sunlight reaches them in the morning and then fades away in the evening. Opening, closing; one of the natural cycles that is easy to see. I watch them from the kitchen  window as I stand washing dishes, and gaze down on them from the bedroom window first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Qigong is all about opening and closing, too; the movements are circular, everything flows. I have taken to practising Tai Chi in the garden.

Mostly I practise just standing, which is not as easy as it sounds but which my body seems to find strangely familiar, as if this is something it already knows how to do and has always known. In fact I’m beginning to suspect that my body knows an awful lot about healing, and even untutored could accomplish miracles if only I would listen to it and let it teach me. It’s so easy to forget but it just needs time, and patience, and the simple matter of paying attention.

Three Clouds Sail By

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Some days an early morning mist hangs in the valley and mingles with the steam from the dyeworks. Clouds of vapour rise above the houses and drift upwards, melting towards the sky.

Doing some Tai Chi the other morning I practised Hands Waving Clouds. Concentrating, after a minute or so as my body turned I glanced out of the window and saw three small clouds of steam from the chimney float calmly by across the rooftops from right to left, sailing a perfect horizontal line just as my hands had been describing.
I love Tai Chi.

‘As you get older, it really takes very little to provide a little excitement in your life.’

These words caught my attention recently as I was reading a post from one of my favourite blogs; Jim Work, photographer, celebrates ‘images of small things from the smallest county in Texas’. I love his pictures, gathered from the quiet corners of his life in the place that he knows; ordinary things made extraordinary through the eye of his lens and the quiet reflection of his thoughts. Here in Yorkshire people talk this way, without elaboration, getting straight to the heart of the matter in very few words, whereas I seem always to go the long way round and make everything too complicated.

Simplicity, stillness, focus. Less really is so much more.

Learning To Stand Like A Tree

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I’m trying to learn Tai Chi – or actually, Qi Gong (no need to get technical but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference) – and it’s turning out to be one of those why have I waited so long to do this? kind of experiences.

I love learning; in fact if I’m not in the process of learning something or other I feel that I’m in some way stuck, that the doors and windows of my life are closed and I’m not really alive. Like WordPresser Pamela Young, I’m a Magpie Learner – I tick all the boxes on her aptly described list of what makes a learner of this kind, and I love knowing there are others out there who feel that if they’re not learning they’re not living, and can’t wait to take on something new. But I’m not good at learning in a normal or formal way; I prefer to explore and discover, to root out and experiment, and this can be a meandering and unpredictable way of doing things.

In the end I found learning simple Qi Gong from videos was a great introduction. Once I’d spent time weeding out the good from the bad (and this took some doing, as I doggedly viewed my way through hours of YouTube footage, watching everything from home movies of performances against a backdrop of wild nature, to pedantic descriptions of how to stand in exactly the right way and use measuring devices to correct the angles of your arms and legs) I ended up with a short collection of clear demonstrations (and some fascinating background information) which means I can now practise simple moves and postures and be pretty sure I’m getting it right. I would love to learn at first hand from a good teacher, but for now at least I’ve got a road map, courtesy of some the best teachers there are through the medium of the internet (and I’ll put some links below).

There have been surprises. I hadn’t realised how just standing still in a certain way and sensing and releasing the tensions throughout your body can make you slide naturally into relaxation much more easily than, for me anyway, a sitting meditation can. And the slow, rythymic movements of Tai Chi automatically slow your mind down to the pace of your body – it’s as if you can feel the wheels engaging and then gradually, effortlessly moving together in a slow hypnotic descent. I’ve never felt anything like it – except when I’m walking slowly and aimlessly in the woods, being rather than doing, seeing and feeling rather than thinking. (Another discovery is that Tai Chi is said to be even more effective when practised out of doors and particularly under trees; I’ve tried this out and would swear it’s true. Ten minutes practice under an enormous spreading copper beech the other day and I felt I was walking on air, and even my eyesight was clearer. Colours were brighter. Everything looked crisp.)

The most unexpected thing of all has been finding that it simply makes me happy. I can’t understand why it should but it does, reliably and somehow without my noticing – until the realisation steals over me and I smile. Even the names of some of the movements make me feel good; White Crane Spreads Its Wings; Parting The Horse’s Mane; Calming the Waters of the Heart; and my absolute favourite – Immortal Paddles Boat. Yes, really! This one is an easy relaxation or song gong exercise; every time I even think about it I smile, and when I actually do it the smile often spills over into laughter. Its ridiculous; I feel like a child running in a playground, swinging on a swing, laughing for no reason. Immortal paddles boat. It’s wonderful.

Standing Qi Gong is a practice all of its own; you hold a position and ‘stand like a tree’, rooted, still, balanced, while at the same time staying relaxed and supple, simply noticing and accepting all sounds and sensations, being aware of energy. Now I not only walk in the woods and gaze at trees – I’ve found a way to exercise like one. Isn’t life extraordinary?

 

Various resources – in no particular order

Rolling The Ball by Dan Kleinman

5 YouTube Videos You Can Actually Learn From by Dan Kleinman

Daily Qigong – 4 minute exercise by Don Fiore

Tai Chi Standing Exercise from Beginners Tai Chi website

Qigong: the art of developing vital energy from shaolin.org