Festive Focus 

There’s something about a string of coloured lights. They seem to do so much more than you’d expect, as if there really is alchemy in the glow of colour in the long hours of winter darkness. This year my family has made the discovery of battery operated LED lights and the fun and the wonder of being able instantly to light up any dark corner or decorate some quiet forgotten object. (Not that this rat that sits looking out of the bedroom window is forgotten – he may be quiet but he is never ignored.) 

I’ve rediscovered the extraordinary peace that comes from silently gazing at coloured lights. In fact silent gazing is something I’ve not done enough of for a long time and I’ve been consciously doing more if it whenever I can; I take long slow moments to look at the hillside across the valley, shrouded in mist; at the sun rising behind a cloud bank washing the sky with pink and turquoise and coral; at my neighbour’s Christmas tree put up hastily outside her door on Christmas Eve once the storm had passed and decorated with a flourish of warm white flashing lights. 

And then I read Susan McCulley’s latest post and understood why I’m doing all of this gazing, and why I need to do so much more, and regularly. What I gaze at, I focus on. Everything else falls away. This is the festive season, but it’s also the season of peace. 

 

A contribution to the WordPress prompt festive

Little Adventures (At Night)

I don’t go out after dark, or at least, very rarely. As I am still not Extremely Old (at 62 I do think I’m old, but chronic conditions like ME/CFS can make you feel relatively young one day and ancient the next) this probably sounds odd – but I use up all the energy I have in the mornings and early afternoons, and so evenings are not a time to venture out.

It means that at this time of year I miss the sparkle of streets lit up for Christmas. 

I try within my limits to live adventurously, which can sometimes be as small a thing as just breaking a routine; choosing to go for a walk in the morning instead of tackling the pile of ironing that’s been waiting for a week. If I don’t have enough strength to do it when I come back – well, that was my choice, and it feels good. And I try to do something every week that feels just a little bit daring, a small adventure. Yesterday afternoon I went into the centre of our small town and listened to a brass band play carols, and afterwards wandered around a bit in the dark streets and got dazzled and overwhelmed by decorated shop windows and trees with lights strung all over them.

There are advantages to having limits, and this is one of them – it doesn’t take much to find something small that is utterly, intensely exciting. I feel the way a young child does, looking at a Christmas tree. This is magical, really; who could imagine reliving that sort of excitement? I stood and gazed for ages into this wonderful wintery cake-shop Christmas window and smiled, and smiled, and smiled…….

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.

Summer’s Sweet Dream

Even at quieter times of the year when life shouldn’t be frantic, it seems I can still become frazzled and overwrought. It sometimes feels like I’m caught in an endless repeating cycle, but at least if nothing else it serves as a reminder that feeling stressed is less to do with circumstances and more to do with how we meet them. This is not the first time that I’ve written about this and I’m certain it won’t be the last.

Feeling like an over-wound alarm clock about to go off is a pretty good signal to pause and take stock. I know I’m not as wise or considerate towards myself as I should be, and I also know that somewhere inside me there’s a wiser and kinder person who’d like to help if only I’d let her. On this occasion I realised it was time to go for a walk.

Wandering around with a camera and not thinking, at all, of anything, is a pretty reliable way for me to unwind. It’s a bit like just floating about, and looking, and blinking – and suddenly you have a photograph (such is the extraordinary wonder of a phone camera that doesn’t even feel like a camera) and I can relax into doing this for long minutes at a time, until I’m just happily bumbling about in a sort of visual dream.

I haven’t done nearly enough of this lately and it’s like taking a long drink of cool water when you’re hot and tired and desperately thirsty….

I have a suspicion that all this aimless wandering around gazing at things with an empty mind is probably far more valuable and powerful than it would seem. It’s hard to quantify or describe, but it’s far more than just a way to relax. And long after I’m home again, not just hours or days later but months, even years afterwards, at times a part of me is still out there in the woods, under the trees. Sometimes when I catch myself whirling into wound-up alarm clock mode I remember to pause and grope for stillness and a way back. And occasionally memory will float to the surface in the form of words, which then turn into pictures, which then become once again a kind of dream…..

Raspberries, strawberries,
peaches and cream,
sunlight and shadows
are summer’s sweet dream.

Wandering slowly,
unhurried, through trees;
picking up words as they
fall through the leaves.

Picking up words
and writing this song;
meeting each moment
as it comes along.

Raspberries, strawberries,
peaches and cream,
sunlight and shadows
are summer’s sweet dream.

Coming Up For Air

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It’s almost two months since I wrote anything here. After two months of hard work and exhaustion, when at the end of every day I could hardly think, let alone read, let alone write, I’d wanted my first post on returning to be full of gladness. But at the end of those two months, just as I was beginning to feel I might be about to surface again, we here in Britain have plunged over a cliff and are are falling into the unknown.

It seems impossible in the face of this to write what I’d hoped to write. I’m not going to try to put into words how dismayed I am at this decision, a choice that was always far too complex and much, much too important to have been made in this way.

I’m not one to shrink from reality, so I’m not going to bury my head in the sand. We are all going to have to ride this out, like white water rafting, and trust that we won’t perish in the rapids. And after too many metaphors in just two sentences, I’m left with this; the certainty that what will carry us through is attention to small things, the things that frame and form the bigger ones. Listening to each other. Stopping to look. Stopping to make tea. Greeting each other with a smile.

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No one can say where all this is going to lead, or even who will lead us, but we can still make choices. We can turn to each other with love, and listen; we can do all the little things that will begin to help us heal.

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Snatched Moments

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My life has been a bit of a blur for the last two weeks. The words hurry and rush and busy don’t go a long way to describe how things have been and it’s going to be like this for the next few weeks. Life can get like that – and some days I’ve had a hard time snatching more than a moment here and a minute there to stop and take a breath and just look at what’s around me. Sometimes the important things have got pushed right to the edges of my awareness and all I’ve been seeing is the list of things I have to do.

This afternoon I went for a walk and cleared my head looking at the early evening sky, clouds clearing and a glimpse of light from the setting sun. I slowed down and felt the dust of the day settle, and as I walked slowly on I passed someone else who had slowed down to a complete standstill, and heard him listening to the call to prayer on his mobile phone. Prayer at sunset. Time to pause and remember the important things.

It will be a while before I’ll be back to posting regularly here, or even to reading all that I usually follow. I’m grateful for this evening’s moment of peace, and for all the other snatched minutes that have come my way when I’ve remembered to slow down. In the meantime I wish you all the peace and calm of a brightening sky at sunset, and many more moments like this. 

As Quiet As A Mouse

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A whole day given over to silence! Today in the USA it’s National Day of Silence, a wonderful idea, and I wish I’d been able to do this – to be completely wordless for 24 hours. Drawing is always a good way for me to drop into silence and to stop even thinking in words – which is a difficult thing to do when I try to meditate. Then often as not my mind goes into non-stop random pop-up mode and thoughts just jostle and push to try to get my attention. (The idea is to notice them, acknowledge them, and then quietly let them go and come back to a space of wordlessness, again and again. I do a lot of this.)

But there’s something about drawing that makes this state of silence happen automatically, and depending on what I’m drawing, it can be a lively, awake sort of silence or sometimes a deep and profound sort of wordless attention – which is what happened when I drew this little yellow-necked mouse in the natural history gallery at Cliffe Castle. The Easter holidays are over, children are back at school, and afternoons in the museum are quiet again. All alone in the gallery, I sketch tucked away in a corner amongst the Small Mammals. Not a sound. I’m as quiet as a mouse.

Fast Sketches on Slow Art Day

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Watercolour sketch of Liza Dracup's work 'greenfinch' - a collaged archival photographic print

Every year, one day in April, people all over the world take time to slow down and look at five works of art, slowly. Slow Art Day takes place in galleries and museums internationally; from New York to Shanghai, from London to Helsinki – and about 200 other places in between, scattered across the globe. One of these venues is Cliffe Castle in Keighley; last year was the first time they hosted Slow Art, and 5 people came – on Saturday the place was buzzing with almost 50 enthusiastic art-watchers – and quite a few sketchers.

My favourite of the five selected artworks was Liza Dracup’s ‘Greenfinch’, which fascinated everyone because no-one really understood the technique. (See the original online here.) I loved it so much I spent rather longer than the allocated 10 minutes, getting completely absorbed – and then had to rush round to try to give the other four selected pieces a fair deal before we all gathered to drink tea, eat cake, and discuss. This is the other enjoyable part of the day – listening to each other’s thoughts and feelings about the artworks, and learning some more about what we’ve all been slowly looking at.

I whizzed past the enormous and sumptuously gorgeous portrait of an Italian opera singer in stunning pink satin whose name I forget, because I’d indulged myself by looking at it for a long long time only the day before, and set myself stoically to sketching Queen Victoria by Lowes Cato Dickinson. The room where it’s hung is small and I couldn’t get a good view for the crowd, but even allowing for that my drawing was pathetic (perhaps through lack of enthusiasm) and things didn’t really perk up when I found the next piece, a fantastically detailed painting of an elaborate baroque interior with the diminutive figures of the Emperor Napoleon lll and Empress Eugenie, by Guiseppe Castilione.
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There was only one thing to do – concentrate on tiny Napoleon and his Empress, and in the process somewhat surprisingly I found myself getting drawn into the painting and lost in its own world. It’s strangely three dimensional and gives you the weird feeling that you could be looking through a window into a separate but solid reality. I could only photograph it from an angle, and it’s poorly lit, but drawing it made it far more interesting than I could have imagined.
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Only five minutes to go, and I scuttled back to the entrance hall and two gigantic 1890’s Chinese bottle vases, porcelain and enamel and a rather horrible mixture of sky blue with wishy-washy yellow and coral pink. Not really my cup of tea but again, once I started drawing, I started to get seduced by the shape and intrigued by the decoration. What are those squiggly things around the middle that look a bit like bats? I didn’t have time to sketch them recognisably, but it turns out that they may in fact be bats after all – red bats. A monk from the Buddhist centre is coming in on Tuesday to help with some interpretation…..
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Ten minutes spent looking at a work of art either seems like the blink of an eye or an eternity, depending on what you normally do in galleries. There are times when I flash past a painting or a piece of pottery without a second glance because I don’t much like the look of it. But there’s so much to see, when you stop and stand and stare. And some of it very surprising. It’s good to be challenged this way; I should do it more often.

Going With The Flow

Anyone following my posts for the last few weeks will know I’m in the middle of exploring drawing and fear – but I felt I needed a break so this is a brief detour for a short exploration of something else. Like most artists I love playing with new materials and exploring what they can do, and I just had the chance to try out some new permanent inks for fountain pens……

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Whatever you do in life, well designed tools and materials that are responsive make you happy. And when you combine a certain amount of skill with the right tools and a relaxed attentive state of mind, what you get is flow.

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Anyway for anyone who sketches in ink and watercolour these new inks by Rohrer and Klingner are worth exploring, so if you’re a bit of an art materials addict or just rather fond of drawing with a fountain pen (so much better than using a fineliner) – you may be interested in a really in-depth review of how they perform that I’ve written here.

So that was my brief technical break; normal posting will resume shortly!