Nosocomephobia

I have an on-going, occasional project where from time to time I explore 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 five; these are the previous posts – part one, part two, part three, part four.

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There’s a word for the fear of hospitals. I looked it up, since there’s a word for most fears – it’s
nosocomephobia, a word I don’t know how to pronounce, which is a good thing because since I can’t hear it in my head I can detach myself from it quite easily and reassure myself that my anxiety around hospitals is not really a phobia, just a learned response.

This shouldn’t surprise me as I’ve had a history of hospital experiences that started with an admission when I was was two and a half, and another when I was six, both of which I remember as difficult times despite kindly nurses and frequent family visits. They must have contributed to the sinking feeling I get when faced with a hospital appointment, and they’ve been reinforced over the years with a considerable number of nasty moments supporting my husband through emergencies, admissions and treatments.

So now, whatever I actually see or hear or experience makes no difference – the older memories are hard-wired in me.
Or so I thought.

Last weekend I was admitted as a day-patient for minor surgery to a hospital I hadn’t attended before (which was a bonus – no specific memories attached -) and all my preconceived anxieties were dissolved away, as one by one each thing on my list of nasty possibilities not only failed to happen but was replaced by something reassuring and wonderful. The sun shone all morning. I sat waiting in the sunlit ward after being seen by the warmly sympathetic consultant (whose attitude was so exceptional, as consultants go, that it made me feel dizzy), and as I lay on my back in the operating theatre gazing at the stainless steel ceiling and chatting to the sweetly smiling theatre nurses, I wondered if all this was simply a miracle, (which I’m quite prepared to believe) or if I had, just perhaps, assisted the miraculous by arriving that morning in a different state of mind……

Just two weeks earlier I’d been in a different hospital for a different reason and in a different state of mind, this time as driver-and-carer and not patient, and I was distinctly nervous and wobbly. All the buttons that get pushed when I’m in a hospital situation were fully activated, and needing some focus and a chance to re-balance I took refuge in the coffee shop, found a corner table and whipped out a sketchbook. I sat and sketched whoever I could watch without drawing attention, and without thinking – simply observing. Patients, relatives, friends and carers, and surgeons on their coffee break. People, doing ordinary things. It calmed me instantly, as I knew it would.

I didn’t think much about it at the time, but looking back I realise that drawing there that morning did more than just give me a reassuring focus; it gave me a different viewpoint – an imperceptible shift of angle so that I was soaking up the ordinariness of the place, the way this is a normal place of work that happens to be a busy city hospital. I watched two surgeons in blue surgical gowns queuing for their coffee orders and chatting as they waited, and saw them as people. As customers waiting in line, having to be patient and wait their turn, talking to each other. Only later did I get to wondering what they’d be doing to once their coffee break was over….

Once again, drawing comes to the rescue, educates me into seeing what’s really there instead of what my mind imagines. Like putting on a pair of reality spectacles, opening me to learn about what’s actually going on. Reminding me to expect – nothing; to be open to everything, as it happens – and just to be there.

Pinto

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Drawing something imprints it on my mind.

Back in the summer a furry black and white cat was living wild in our neighbour’s back garden; clearly visible from our bedroom window she was there day and night, curled up in the long grass or sheltering under bushes. I started to feed her under the fence.

This was not an attempt to befriend her but simply to supply her basic needs until we could find a better solution. (We already care for another neighbour’s elderly cat who doesn’t much like other felines and who has decided she likes our all-day company better than an empty house.)

As autumn approached we got her a weather-proof kennel and thought our garden might provide better shelter, so I approached her with cat-treats and talked to her, softly. She didn’t move, but when I was within striking distance she put her ears back and gave me a powerful left hook, claws out, catching me on the fleshy part of my outstretched hand. Bruised and bleeding I retreated and we both left it at that for a few days to think things over.

Black and white, and wild – so we called her Pinto, like a feisty little mustang. But every morning before breakfast I practise tai chi in the garden, and before long she started to appear over the fence and join me, weaving herself round my legs, and waving and curling her tail in the shape of a question mark. We fed her outside the patio door and she took up residence in the kennel, peeping out of the door like a miniature guard in a sentry box – black fur as soft and bushy as a bearskin helmet.
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Finding a place for a stray cat in a rescue centre isn’t quick or easy. We tried to trace her owner without success and got her on a waiting list in two different centres, and meanwhile day by day she became more and more a part of our lives.
She must have thought so too because one morning she left us the gift of a freshly killed rat on the garden path. Still limp, its ruffled fur was slightly damp and I wondered at its long, strong tail and exquisite ears like tiny crumpled petals.
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Last week one of the rescue centres offered us a place. For the next few days we let her into the house in preparation for her new foster home and she was calm, collected and perfectly behaved. I started sketching her as often as I could because I knew saying goodbye was going to be like losing part of myself, and I wanted to make the most out of our connection and remember every part of her.

Pinto has enormous paws. They’re like boxing gloves and she uses them like that – though softly now, without claws. Her silky black back is smooth and soft and rounded, and crouched over a food bowl she looks like a tiny black bear. Stretched out on the sofa she’ll roll on her back with her front paws folded under her chin and reveal her perfectly white chest and tummy. Watching her I could feel my heart soften and melt…..

So I’d do yet another drawing. But being very black and very white and very furry makes her hard to draw. In the end her paws are the only part of her I really drew at all well.
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The drawings aren’t important themselves, though. They’ve done what they were supposed to do, and imprinted the memory of her more clearly in my mind.

Eating Lord Stradbroke and Lady Henniker

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Last week Lord Stradbroke and Lady Henniker sat side by side for some days on my drawing board, in the morning bathed in autumn sunshine and in the afternoons unlit but glowing with their own colour.

My sister brought them with her on my birthday from her garden in Suffolk, along with bright yellow courgettes and, astonishingly, figs, and I sketched them to look at them lovingly and enjoy them for as long as I could before eating them. Eventually we ate Lady Henniker stewed, with dates – she melted down into a light frothy mousse and was delicious with plain yoghourt. Lord Stradbroke is going to go in a pie.

Apples have always been my favourite fruit.

Facts about these English (Suffolk) apples, for those who like to know such things:
Lady Henniker: raised from a seedling between 1840-50, having been found in discarded cider must at the Henniker family home at Thornton Hall, near Eye. Introduced by head gardener Mr Perkins in 1873. RHS fist class certificate in 1875, became a popular garden variety. Cooks to pale yellow quite strongly flavoured puree, hardly needing extra sugar.
Lord Stradbroke: found, or raised, by Lord Stradbroke’s head gardener Mr Fenn at Henham Hall near Wangford in about 1900. RHS award of merit in 1905. Synonyms include Fenn’s Wonder and Fenn’s Seedling. Large and maroon in colour, prominently ribbed and crowned, bruises easily. A sweet light cooker in October.

Sketch-Fright, Cheap Sketchbooks And The Desire To Be Famous

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Drawing is a scary thing. I know writers think writing is scary and I agree it is, or can be, and sometimes I find it scary too – but a page of writing is hidden from view until it’s read, and then it reveals itself slowly word by word. Drawing is more like acting. The fear it engenders is more like stage-fright; a drawing is up there bold as brass, visible the first second you see it, and there’s no hiding. And make no mistake, the truthfulness of a drawing is there for all to see as well – you can’t fudge it or disguise it.

Sketching in public places is doubly scary, and drawing people even worse. It’s bad enough that every time I pick up a pen and a sketchbook I’m initially frozen by the fear that I’m not going to be able to draw anything meaningful – there’s also the worry that I’ll upset someone by drawing them and make them feel uncomfortable (although in fact this seems to happen very rarely). And then there’s the fact that sooner or later, someone’s going to come up and look at what I’m doing, and I’d better have something on my page that at least half way resembles who or what I’m drawing.
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I use cheap sketchbooks when I’m sketching people – any kind that has paper that’ll take pen and ink and a bit of wash, because better quality sketchbooks are too inhibiting and I simply dare not scribble and take risks and ruin good pages. I wish I were braver about this but I’m not.

Thankfully, once I’ve got going and immersed myself in looking, when my pen is moving about on the paper and I’m completely absorbed, nothing else seems to matter very much any more, so that when the inevitable happens and somebody does come over to look and to chat it’s not so alarming after all.

The other day I was drawing in the children’s playground as I often do, and a girl of about twelve came over and asked me what I was doing. She was there with her younger brother and they’d got tired of playing on the swings. “Are you an artist?” she wanted to know. (People ask this all the time and it’s not a straightforward question to answer, but I usually just say Yes.)

The conversation then went a bit like this:
Girl: Are you an artist?
Me: Yes
Girl: Are you drawing that man over there?
(shouting) Davy! She’s drawing you! She’s really good! Keep still!
Me: Shhh! You’ll disturb him and he’ll move about. (He didn’t; he kept completely still).
Girl: You’re really good. Are you famous?
Me: No! Heavens! Absolutely not!
Girl: So do you have your drawings in books and stuff?
Me: No, I just draw in sketchbooks, for myself. But I do sometimes put my drawings on the internet.
Girl: Can I have your autograph?
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I was a bit taken aback by this, and asked her if she meant it, did she really want my autograph, and she assured me she did, so I found a piece of paper and duly signed it and she solemnly told me I should also write artist after my name, which she found very satisfying. We chatted a bit more, she and her brother and Davy (not his real name) and afterwards I went off home musing about this desire to be famous, or to meet someone famous, that seemed so important and so desirable.

I was lucky, growing up. Very early on I had planted in me the enjoyment of doing, and I had plenty of opportunity to do the things I enjoyed. They say that those that really excel at something get good at it not because of being gifted, but because they do so much of it that the hours and hours and hours of practice make them excel. I haven’t done enough of any one thing in my life to be really good at it, but I know practice makes all the difference. I tried to explain this when we were chatting in the playground, and the girl and her brother became thoughtful for a while, as we all considered it and mulled it over.

I’ve thought about it quite a lot since. I wonder if they have too.

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Eclipse

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I had no idea that I’d even be able to see yesterday’s eclipse of the sun. It was cloudy and I hadn’t prepared for it in any way, so when it started to get dark and I looked out of the window I was astonished to see that the clouds had parted a bit, just where the sun and the moon were doing their thing……so I grabbed my phone and took a picture. The even more astonishing thing is that an image actually came out. Grainy, indistinct, a terrible photograph, but it’s there – and it lives more vividly for me now. I’ll remember it better, and remember how excited I felt.

A small piece of magic.

Thumbnail Sketches

If you were asked to describe someone you know in just ten words, could you find a way to distill everything into a thumbnail sketch as brief as that?

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Sometimes a drawing can capture the essence of a person better than words. I like trying to do this, trying to draw people as they’re moving about and doing what they do. Trying to describe them in a few lines. It’s terribly hard to do but addictive.

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I like drawing people in the park; they’re relaxed, (usually) and absorbed. I went there yesterday and stood and sketched for half an hour, until I got too stiff with cold and had to move about. There were the usual dog-walkers and people out for a stroll (including a man in track-suit trousers walking in a very funny way) and as it was half-term there were more families than usual in the playground, including parents and grandparents pushing their children on the swings and playing in the sand-pit. Some of the adults were happier watching from the sidelines and took charge of looking after buggies, or leaned on the railings or sat watching on a bench.

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The children are of course the hardest to draw because they’re bouncing and jumping and running and climbing and crawling and sliding almost without stopping – and drawing movement is the most difficult thing of all. But what fun trying! It makes you look harder than you’ve ever looked at anything, and everything else disappears.

Why Draw?

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By the middle of December our neighbour’s two cats were sheltering in the warmth and safety of a cardboard box in our covered porch. By the first week of the new year, the number had fallen to one; marmalade-and-white Molly, (aged 19 years), died – leaving Polly on her own for the first time in her life.

This is a hard thing for a cat to cope with, particularly an elderly cat; hard for her owner, and hard for us too. Over the next few days I watched Polly closely while she retreated into solitary sadness and didn’t eat. Occasionally she would roam around looking for her companion and then curl up again and go to sleep.

During this time I must have sketched her dozens of times. Something about her sadness made me want to connect to her in whatever way I could, and drawing does make connections for me that nothing else does – I think, though I can’t prove it, that the connection can sometimes work both ways. Whether it does or not, after a week she started eating again, started to look at us, talk to us and lie on the sofa with us. She rubs her head on my hand, leans on me, looks straight in my eyes and purrs.

I’ve often wondered exactly what happens when I draw. I know I do it for a lot of different reasons, and drawing from life with the subject right in front of you is an entirely different thing from working from a photograph. Sometimes it’s just because it’s a compelling and exciting thing to do, because I see something that I want to experience in a way that’s more meaningful than taking a photograph. Sometimes it’s to capture a moment and preserve it, so that years later when I look at a drawing it works like a time-machine and carries me back to a time and place with all the feelings I had at that moment. Sometimes it’s actually to escape from the present – or rather, to screen out everything else in order to make things bearable; 29 years ago on my first visit to Pakistan it was the only way I could cope with the onslaught on my senses as I experienced for the first time what it’s like to be immersed in the everyday life of a world so different from my own. I just looked at one thing at a time, and drew it.

Page from Pakistan sketchbook 1986
Page from Pakistan sketchbook 1986

And sometimes, it can be a way to cope with being with things the way they are, simply by being present with them and accepting them. Pain, fear, sadness, illness, death – they’re all things we run away from if we can, but running away doesn’t make it feel any better and we need a way to be able to stay there in the moment, something that makes it bearable, that feels like coming home. The sadness or sickness or even the death of a cat doesn’t compare to the sickness, for instance, of a child, that Richard Johnson writes about in this piece for the Washington Post, but at all times of confusion and fear we need a way to ease the pain and to stop running. And that’s what drawing does for me.

Telling The Truth

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I wrote in my sketchbook, “this is no exaggeration” – it isn’t a caricature. Drawn rapidly from a distance of 30 yards, in strong sunlight, all the inaccuracies are due to speed, a moving subject and lack of skill…..

I’m not always as honest as I could be, or should be – not even to myself; and being dishonest, even just slightly, can get to be a habit. You can start out small, with something that’s just a bit of an exaggeration and then before you know it you’re saying something else that isn’t quite true, and after a while you stop noticing. It becomes part of the way you express yourself.

When I first went to art college way back in the 1970’s I could already draw because I’d been doing it all my life, and I practised enthusiastically while I studied illustration. I became pretty good at producing work that was convincing and good to look at. I confess that with the ignorance and arrogance of youth I was rather pleased with myself and my drawing skills. If I hadn’t changed courses, if I hadn’t abandoned what looked like a promising beginning and struck out into the unknown, things would have been different; but after a while I found myself on a different course in a different college and, as part of my first year in fine art, doing a three week life drawing course in a remote and isolated old building in London’s Surrey Docks (which was at that time an undeveloped wasteland). The tutor for this course was Harry Thubron, who I now know was one of the best drawing teachers of his time and who revolutionised art education in England (though at the time I had no idea who he was).

Harry and his wife Elma taught us together as a team, which was just as well because by this time in his life Harry’s health was deteriorating, his communication skills diminishing, but nevertheless he was still a forceful and intimidating presence. He shuffled about behind us watching as we drew, peering over our shoulders and seldom saying much, hunched inside an old overcoat and smelling strongly of garlic. Elma was the one who gave us directions and interpreted Harry’s occasional muttered remarks, but as a team the two of them were formidably effective as teachers, and I realise now, strangely compassionate. They knew what they were doing. Together they quickly and thoroughly disassembled all I thought I was good at and changed forever the way I thought about drawing.

It took a full week of pain and confusion before everything I thought I knew and was good at was pulled out from underneath me, and I understood for the first time that drawing is really not about making beautiful marks on paper, but about the process of understanding through looking and exploring. You draw from a place inside yourself that is not available to you when you think. (Harry was fond of saying ‘When you’re drawing, you should cut off the top of your head’, a startling remark interpreted for us by Elma in case we hadn’t grasped the meaning and might be even more worried than we already were). You learn to use your eyes and trust them, and stop concerning yourself about how things look on the paper in front of you. You look, and look, and while looking you try to register that understanding and draw as honestly as possible – on a sheet of white paper with a pencil, or a stick of charcoal, or – as we frequently did during those three weeks – with a bit of broken stick and black ink.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so uncomfortable and at times so totally lost and miserable as I was at the beginning of those three weeks of the spring term. It was February, dreary and cold, and as we were miles from anywhere in the bleak wastes of the abandoned docks there was no distraction and no escape. But little by little I began to understand that I was learning something more important than I’d ever learnt before, something that fundamentally changed the way I understood drawing. I’d been good at putting up a show that was not much more than smoke and mirrors; now I had to take a deep breath and start again.

You can’t unlearn something like this, and thankfully I never have, but you can still choose to ignore it. The difference is that ever since those weeks in the Surrey Docks I’ve never done a drawing without being aware of whether I’m being honest, or whether I’m winging it. And another thing – it’s a transferable skill; the same is just as true for writing, and even (gulp) speaking, and (even bigger gulp, and a sigh) – thinking. I know, if I just stop to be aware of it, whether I’m being honest or not – and then I have a choice.

Honest drawings are remarkable, powerful things. Through following Shari Blaukopf’s lovely blog The Sketchbook I recently discovered Richard Johnson and his work as reporter and illustrator for the Washington Post. (Eternal thanks to Shari for this introduction). His drawings, and his writing, overwhelm me; I spent three consecutive evenings looking at everything I could find, being moved and stirred and woken up, loving everything I saw and read. His are some of the most beautfully honest drawings I’ve ever seen, and they do more for me than any photograph can (many readers obviously feel the same; Richard responded to the following he had for his postings from Afghanistan with this piece written on his return). I also felt the urgent need to do more drawing myself (though however much I practise I’ll never be able to do drawings as good as these.)

Ultimately, there’s no satisfaction in being dishonest with yourself or anyone else. It leads irrevocably in the wrong direction, undermines you and feels shaky and shallow, whereas even the quickest sketch (drawn or written) feels satisfying and right if it’s honest. I still find it hard to do and mostly I fail, but at least I know when I’m doing it wrong and recognise the rare occasions when I’m doing it right; and when I find work like Richard Johnson’s I can enjoy it and celebrate it for the rare and wonderful thing that it is.

Sign

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Capritx, pronounced capreech; the Catalan word for caprice, or whim.

How tempting it would be to put those inviting little wheels to use and do a quick bit of rearranging, on a whim, to spell – what?

Taxcrip sounds as if it ought to mean something; Catprix and Craptix are dubiously suggestive. Patricx could be a name. My favourite is Pixcrat; it sounds like a  diminutive, petty, small town official with self-inflated ideas.

I like rearranging. Recycling, using what’s already there – there’s something creatively satisfying about it, more enjoyable than starting from scratch with a blank page. These days I rearrange thoughts. Cranky, negative, anxiety-stirring ideas that pop up unasked and unwelcome. I observe them bobbing about, agitating for my attention and smile because once I’ve recognised them for what they are – just thoughts, not real – I can rearrange them, play with them, even laugh at them because often they are ridiculous. Its better than trying to banish them because they won’t be banished, they’re too resilient, they bob up again like corks in water and trying to be fierce or stoical or determined just wastes a lot of energy. So I deal lightly with them; it feels kinder and seems to work.

I look for signs that help me tread lightly and to smile, and they’re everywhere when you start to look and think this way. Some people do it naturally but I never did; I’m learning it as I go.

Capritx. I like it as it is. It’s a good sign.