In a few moments
the shadows will be longer.
someone will walk by,
perhaps a robin
a flash of tawny feathers
a splash of russet red
will loop suddenly
into the picture,
and perch. Perhaps,
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
When I go for a walk I preferto 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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here in the north of England we walk through it, drive through it, see it everywhere we look. It’s become the normal state of the landscape, urban and rural; if not actually flooded the reality is mud. But for those of us who have dry houses to come home to it’s just a minor inconvenience; it’s different for anyone who is living day in, day out, in a sea of mud – or for those people whose houses have been left filled with the grey mix of silt and slime that flood water has deposited after the water has subsided.
Bear with me – there are not going to be too many pictures in this post because I don’t want to copy images and risk abusing any ownership; instead I’m going to give links and ask you if you will, to follow them and see for yourself what it looks like. The stories are not all grim. Some of them are unexpected; some are astonishing. And – don’t go away – if like me when you read these stories you’d like to do something to help, I’m offering a small gift to anyone who donates to any one of the appeals that I’m linking to. If you join in and leave a comment at the end of this post, I’ll send you a high resolution image of one of my original watercolour drawings, Autumn Leaves, to use however you’d like – to send as an ecard, or use as wallpaper, or even print out – whatever.
Yorkshire alone has seen the worst flooding for 70 years; this article from the Yorkshire Post gives an idea of just some of the devastation.
These are the realities for many people in northern England and parts of Scotland where floods have wreaked havoc, where people have had to leave their homes and find refuge elsewhere. And in the refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk, where heavy rain has turned the ground into a swill of mud, things are worse – because even before the rain and the mud these people had only tents and flimsy temporary shacks to shelter in, and they have nowhere else to go.
The migrants in these camps had already been through untold suffering before reaching northern France. Homeless and still persecuted, outdoors in perilous winter conditions they don’t have the support of families, neighbours, community or government relief. As this report from Doctors of the World describes, ‘the refugee crisis is taking a heavy psychological toll on the thousands fleeing war, violence and poverty. Mental health problems are widespread as appalling living conditions exacerbate past traumas.’ One way to help ease the pain is through art; by the simple act of letting people relate their experience through drawing. ‘These sketches tell us much more than words ever could. Because when you’re traumatised, words are the hardest thing to find.’
For me, perhaps this was one of the easiest things to understand.
Extraordinary things can happen when the shock of sudden disaster turns your world upside down, and people come together in unexpected ways. One man in Sowerby Bridge, helped by people he’d never met after he lost all his belongings in the Boxing Day flood made his second ever post on Facebook to say ‘It took a tragedy to bring a dawning of a new year with more hope for myself than I have felt in a long time, all thanks to a community I didn’t believe existed’.
Not all the reports are uplifting, like the looting of flooded businesses, a crime that adds insult to injury and really hurts. But in the overwhelming majority of cases people have found support and a sense of community that many hadn’t known or had thought was forgotten, and others have started to see each other in a whole new light.
This article from The Guardian gives links to appeals from Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester to raise funds for those affected by the floods.
Aid Box Convoy is a Bristol based charity that sends volunteers and aid packages out to the camps in Calais and Dunkirk.
You can donate to Doctors of the World here; and to Art Refuge UK here.
Thank you for reading, for creating a space and time to think about these stories and these people, and thank you for any contribution you feel able to make.
The back of our house faces south west. When I practise Tai Chi outside in the garden before breakfast, dawn is breaking, and for the last few days there have been times when the clouds have parted, or lifted, or thinned in pale grey washes, and sometimes rippled across a clear background like waves of chiffon or melted towards the horizon like smoke.
I’m not much good at Tai Chi. I know very little and I’m clumsy and unbalanced – but looking across the back of the house towards the east I do Hands Waving Clouds, and feel for a moment as if I’m a part of the sky. Even if the clouds are too thick to catch a glimpse of sun, even if it’s raining, I can still sense a brightening, a sense of light, and it’s perhaps the best part of the day. If I can’t grab a camera quickly enough I do another sort of practice later with a brush and watercolour; a similar focus – just a different kind of immersion.
The side of the house and the top of the wooden fence make two sides of a rectangle framing the sky which makes it easier to focus on the clouds and the colours in isolation, and it makes me think of James Turrell’s Skyspace installations. It’s not the same – it can’t be – but in a small way it draws me in and fills me with something of the same sense of quiet wonder. I looked again at this short film about Turrell’s Skyspace in the Deer Shelter at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and realised I’d never truly appreciated the subtle variation of the greys in English clouds, and never consciously thought of England as being an island at sea, and having a ‘maritime light’. (It’s taken someone from a larger continent to draw my attention to that).
I’m never more aware than when I’m watching clouds that peace and stillness come only from within, and that happiness has very little to do with what I have or don’t have, or my circumstances. I’m more and more aware that a deeper, more widespread peace can only come from my being at peace in myself, and from being able to let it spread out in small ripples wherever it can. This season of peace and goodwill I’m surrounded by people in a tearing hurry, pressed on all sides to do a thousand things to satisfy the Christmas spirit. Every now and then someone stops in their tracks to reflect on this, pauses for a moment to declare the need to remember-what-it’s-all-about (I’ve been doing the same thing myself) – and then jumps straight back into the race. It’s the way it is (though not always the way it was), or really needs to be. But to pause in the middle of a race is to feel the best of what it is to be still.