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. 

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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Half and Half

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There are times I take a photograph without knowing what I’m doing or why. Not consciously knowing in my head, that is; another part of me knows very well. This part sees and understands more quickly, bypassing thought. It uses images and not words.

Right brain, left brain; the two hemispheres governing the two very different ways we process and respond. Half and half. Sometimes I can even feel the change as my mind switches from one to the other.

With the rational, logical side I’m in control and plan what I’m doing.
I’m using it now as I write. But trying to pin down what’s happening when the other side’s working is like clutching at a dream that slips away as I’m waking up; the more I try to catch hold of it the quicker it slips away.

One complements the other, and the whole is more than a sum of the parts – we’re richer for using both these ways of thinking, if we can get the balance right.

Think it’s time I switched over. Time to go out and forget what I’m doing for a while, take a camera with me, and see what happens.

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Weekly Photo Challenge

Suddenly, New Worlds

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The world just became bigger. In fact it’s exploded into hundreds, if not thousands of new worlds, all just beneath my feet or under my nose.

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As I dive into the depths and explore, I lose myself completely in these mysterious places.

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I find myself lost for words.

I discovered this almost microscopic way of looking at things, while looking at pictures I’d taken on my touchscreen phone. It was a dull, grey afternoon when I went out for a walk and I found myself taking close-up photos of fallen leaves that were the brightest and most beautiful thing I’d seen all day. Later that evening I was browsing through the pictures and started to zoom right in and crawl around as though I were an ant clambering about on the forest floor – although something about the way you can move through the image makes it feel more like swimming underwater, sinking into the unexplored wonders of a coral reef, and marveling at things you’ve never seen before. It’s best done on a phone – I’ve tried it out on bigger screens, but something about the smaller size and the way that you’re using your fingers to navigate makes it more intense and magical. Shots taken using a macro setting at high-resolution work best because you can dive deep and still see details in crisp focus, but blurry images are equally fascinating – sometimes more so.

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I’m collecting images now, to sink into and explore in this way. Images that don’t need words, that are better off without them. As the days grow shorter and we have long evenings and dark afternoons, I will be gazing into new and extraordinary worlds, losing myself in landscapes that draw me in to go deeper, to sink further, to forget everything else…..

Love, and Never a Word Spoken

One afternoon not long ago I fell in love with an emu. It was at the annual fair, where the showground always has displays of animals – mostly horses and cattle – but sometimes some more exotic creatures.

In the centre of the animal enclosure was this enormous bird, corralled in a pen with no label or sign-board to say what it was or give any information about it whatsoever, and I gazed at it in wonder. Taking photographs simply wasn’t enough – I took out a notebook and started to draw, and became totally engrossed.

It was huge – a great feathery mound on massive, powerful legs which for most of the time were folded underneath it, supporting its extraordinary bulk like two perfectly positioned brackets, and the more I looked the more I found there was no part of it that didn’t fascinate me; the tail feathers were amazing, almost like fern fronds as they emerge from the growing plant, all crimped and crinkly, and its feet – I held my breath in awe when it finally rose to its full height and came over to inspect me, and I could see the huge scaly toes tipped with horny claws, and the soft squashy pads of the heel of the feet that looked as if they could run very fast over any terrain, and do horrible things if used as a means of defence.

The thing about drawing, rather than just looking at something or taking photographs is that after a while your awareness of everything else drops away; standing in that busy showground I could have been completely alone with that bird, in the middle of nowhere. And then something else happens; you’re drawing something, and you begin to feel that somehow the boundary between where you end and it begins is somehow blurred, and there’s no longer a profound distinction between the two of you. Which is when I realise I have fallen in love……

We live in a culture dominated by words, and learn and inform ourselves constantly by reading, talking, and thinking verbally – in fact so much so that we believe we can only understand something, or know something, or learn about it, by using words. This is so utterly untrue, that when you get used to the idea of letting go of verbal thought and instead start to understand in a non-verbal way, you realise how narrow and restricting it is to think all the time in words.

Of course drawing isn’t the only way to step aside from thought and immerse yourself totally in something so that you are in a different world of understanding. I know people who do it by gardening, and others who play an instrument, or listen to music, or walk in the woods, or play with their children. There must be hundreds of ways. Every day in the park, I watch people walking their dogs who are finding this kind of connection, and there have been cats, and dogs, and horses, and even guinea-pigs who have given me immediate entry into joyful, wordless love – there’s no other word for it. Thankfully I know that for me, drawing is always a reliable doorway into the non-verbal part of my mind, and I need this doorway – to get into this other way of thinking, of being in the moment.

The Colour Of Dreams

Sometimes, in order to stop thinking, I soak up a favourite colour. I’ll let myself be drawn into anything that overwhelms me with colour, whatever colour it is. I gaze at it wordlessly and marvel at what it is until I’m completely lost in the intensity of it.

There’s a Western called Billy Two Hats in which the character played by Gregory Peck is preoccupied by the colour green. Being Scottish and finding himself in the American West in a landscape with almost no green anywhere, he finds himself pining for the colours of his native land. I realise how during the course of this summer, much of the mid-west of America must have understood this obsession – while over here in Britain, until August the colour that we all fantasised about was blue, the iconic colour of a summer sky.

Here we have an abundance of green, and it’s one of the colours that I most often like to immerse myself in until I feel I’m almost swimming in it. There are times after rain, when the sun comes out and plants are still covered with water droplets  – and times when the sun catches blades of grass or shines through leaves, when you can stand under a tree and be dappled by shadows and enclosed in a green world; then it’s not hard to let everything else drop away, to find words have become unimportant and irrelevant, and to be aware only of where you are standing, and the colour green….

Then there’s red. So many individual shades of it – each one with its own character like different kinds of music. When I drop into the unconsciousness of colour like this it’s rather like breathing it in – like smelling it, or even feeling it like the air in my lungs.

White is not a colour, but the absence of it – as detergent manufacturers are always fond of reminding us with their products that are supposed get our whites whiter and brighter.

Paint companies on the other hand, understand that we know that white is never, well, just white. They want us to choose from Pearl White, Oyster White, Almond White, Rose White. The whites I know and love are Bedroom Curtain White, Cloud White (there are some wonderful ones as I look out of the window right now) and Sheep White (I can see some of those too in the distance, dotted across fields of green) – but there I go again – bringing words into it, getting away from the whole point of it all…..

….it’s the curse of language. We need words to disentangle our thoughts sometimes, and to explain what we’re thinking to ourselves and others, and yes, when used creatively they too can take us into the same state of mind that sensations, like the simple pleasure of soaking up colour, can. But how badly we need to spend more time without words, doing nothing more than watching a sheep (or a picture of one) and just loving its whiteness and woolliness. I think I need to go off right now and fold some newly washed sheets, and maybe iron some pillowcases.