Gone, Leaves

Overnight they left, flown
like a flock of bright birds
leaving bare twigs
dark trunks
against the autumn sky.

Now pavements strewn
with drifts of leaves
copper, yellow and brown
and every colour inbetween
bring memories as crisp
as every step;
snowdrifts are fun, but
oh! I remember
falling
into piles of leaves,
laughing.

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Dive In

Yellow, orange..... what?

As deep as you can,
dive in.
Breathe,
and forget
children’s voices
even the robin, singing.
Be astonished,
the shock
of yellow,
spotted with fire
like a fallen sun.

Photo, close-up, of yellow tulip

Wait

Empty bench, afternoon sun, January, Cliffe Castle Park

Wait.
In a few moments
the shadows will be longer.
Perhaps
someone will walk by,
or not;
perhaps a robin
a flash of tawny feathers
a splash of russet red
will loop suddenly
into the picture,
and perch. Perhaps,
perhaps not.
In a minute or two
warmed by the sun
maybe my shoulders won’t ache,
and my mind will be clear.
But my nose may be cold,
and my fingers, and
I’ll remember there’s tea
and chocolate cake,
and all my thoughts
in the space of a moment
changed, changed.

Letters to myself (5)

Attentive

Attentive


When I go for a walk I prefer to go alone, not because I don’t like company but because I can’t concentrate on noticing things. It requires letting go of thought, and it sounds like an odd contradiction that what we call mindfulness needs to be acheived by thoughtlessness – but it requires stepping off the endless loop of jibber-jabber that goes on and on inside my head all the time. Like leaving a room full of manic conversation and closing the door for a while. 

Paying attention means noticing. Animals do it all the time, constantly. But as a species we humans have become monumentally forgetful of the way it feels to just look, and listen, and sniff, and feel – and notice. I can’t believe how often I forget to do this myself, and I need frequent reminders to bring me back to it, again and again and again. 

It’s easier to do it in the presence of animals, or birds, or even insects. Words fall away. What they do, by paying attention, simply can’t be done with words. 

Little unknown insect in the sun

This is the fifth post in a series of letters to myself at the beginning of the year – the first one is here. I’d thought I would post one a day until 12th Night, and I’ve reached that point – but now I find I still have more to say to myself by way of nudges and pointers and so I think there may be more to come – just not quite so frequently. 

Last year I posted here only once in a while (being rather occupied with writing posts on my sketching blog) – but this space is special for me, and I’ve felt the lack of it. Writing and posting here again feels like coming home. It’s good to be back. 

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.

There’s So Much More To A Macaw

image

I heard through the WordPress cyber-grapevine that yesterday was Draw a Bird Day. (I wonder sometimes how many days designated for this or that there are in the course of a year – and how they come into being. It seems there’s almost no activity that doesn’t have its own special day.) Anyway I went up to the museum a few days ago where I sketched this macaw because of an article I read last week on parrots and healing post traumatic stress – and after having learnt such surprising things recently about crows, this fascinated me even more.

I’ve always known that parrots are sensitive and highly intelligent but I was deeply moved by this piece from the New York Times titled What Do Parrots Know About PTSD, and I’ll never think about parrots in the same way again. (It’s a longish read, but if you do skip any of it, whatever you do don’t miss the final paragraph).

There’s so much we have to learn from other living creatures, so much we can give to each other if we are attentive, respectful, compassionate. As I sketched this macaw I wished I knew more about it; I don’t even know if it’s a male or a female – and what sort of a life did he or she have? Who did she live with? Who cared for her? Who loved her and who did she love?

It seems I always come away from a drawing with more questions than answers.

The Unkindness Of Fear

I’m exploring drawing, and fear, and particularly the way drawing something that’s troubling or scary can affect the way I feel about it. This is part 3.

I may be scared of spiders (but less so, having drawn one and seen how lovely it was), but I’m not afraid of crows – though some people are. I wanted to see if drawing one would tell me anything about that fear – and if I could understand it.

image

This is a rook, not a crow, and I felt nothing but fascination, drawing it.
Rooks and crows are part of the same family and easily mistaken for each other – they’re both big and black; in many cultures they’re associated with death and if you encounter one close up, they can be alarming. Particularly if you’re being mobbed by a group of them. Perhaps this behaviour is why they’re known collectively as a murder of crows. A group of rooks, on the other hand, is called a parliament (because they’re sociable and talkative); but a gathering of ravens is called an unkindness.

I don’t know why this should be, but the word itself, unkindness, strikes me as being a close companion to fear; as related as rooks and ravens are to crows. Fear is unkind.

We humans choose at times not merely to defend ourselves (as crows do when mobbing a threat or a predator) but to deliberately cause fear and to terrorise each other, the most extreme form of unkindness. If you know how it feels to be afraid, then the threat of fear itself can make you very vulnerable. I know what it’s like; I am afraid of fear.

It’s an emotion that’s powerfully easy to transmit. We can pass it on to each other in a heartbeat and spread it like a virus that can quickly take root – and often it can be totally unfounded, or frighteningly misplaced. There are things we should be frightened of – but we really need to make sure we identify those things – or those people – with the greatest care and attention.

image

Amazingly, it seems that crows can do this really well. They have the ability to recognise individual human faces, at least as accurately as we do and probably better. And they remember which humans have done something to harm or frighten them – and then pass this information on to other crows, who learn precisely which individual humans to be wary of. They don’t change their attitude towards humans in general – just the specific ones they recognise as a problem.

This kind of accuracy requires paying very close attention – the kind of observation that happens when you draw – and it’s something we humans often fail to do. We make generalisations that are not informed enough, and end up frightening ourselves and getting panicky when we don’t need to. The sheer quantity of fear swirling around at the moment is out of all proportion to any terrorism that may be real; when Donald Trump says ban all muslims from entering the US, when asylum seekers homes are attacked or vandalised, when muslim women are verbally abused in public – fear is fueling fear, escalating as it goes and sweeping up everyone it touches.

Drawing makes me notice things – and not just the object that I’m drawing. I realise that the more drawing I do, the more observant I am generally all the time. The more I look the more I understand, and then I’m more likely to recognise what I’m seeing and be able to respond appropriately. So drawing does more than calm our fears and help to dispel them – it helps identify precisely what or who we should be frightened of in the first place.

If I practise enough, maybe I’ll get to be as discerning as a crow.