Letters to myself (3)

Extraordinary clouds, lit by the sun

Adventurous

Every now and again, something stirs me to remember the feeling at the beginning of a holiday. Setting off on a journey at sunrise or even earlier, or the very first glimpse of the sea….. 

Now that I don’t go far from home, a sense of adventure is something I need to cultivate. The remarkable thing is that seemingly boring or irritating tasks become quite different when you see them as adventures. Unpacking and re-packing a carton of cardboard boxes with my husband this morning became an exploration of skills (or lack thereof) and an exercise in letting go of my desire to do everything my way and investigate his approach instead. As an adventure it was hardly bold or colourful, but it was fun.    I’m nowhere near as adventurous as I’d like to be. 

Drawing of Will Geer as Bear Claw/Chris Lapp, in the film Jeremiah Johnson
I often sketch while watching films on TV. This is the actor Will Geer as Chris Lapp the trapper, or ‘Bear Claw’ – in the film Jeremiah Johnson, a story full of adventures if ever there was one. That’s also him on the badly drawn horse that looks as if it’s got one leg shorter than the other and no hind legs at all. Drawing can also be an adventure.

(Part 1 of this series of posts started here if you haven’t read it already.) 

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Letters to myself: (2) 

Glass of clear water with bubbles

Clarity   

Too often, I find myself reacting without seeing something for what it really is. 

It only takes a moment to pause and look at what it is I may really be facing. It may not be what I imagine it to be, at all.

*
(This is the second in a series of letters to myself – the first is here.) 

Letters for the twelve months to come

Small white feather fallen on dry leaves


Softness

Standing at the doorway of a new year and just about to put a foot forwards, I realise there are certain words that I wish for myself during the journey through the next twelve months. Pausing and reflecting (a good time to do this, today, with a pale grey light in the window and the sound of rain on the glass) I know there are things I want to embrace and other things that I want to let go. These are not resolutions exactly, nor even intentions – they’re more in the way of senses, feelings, perhaps ways of being, and to write about them or try to explain them in anything more than a whisper would be to bring them under a harsh spotlight that will not help me remember them any better.

I don’t set goals. But I like the idea of way-markers, or torches to light a gloomy bit of path, or firesides to come home to. 

So here for the next few days I’ll share a handful of these – whatever you like to call them. They’re like one-word letters addressed to myself, to carry with me on the next bit of the journey, and at the end of the year I’ll be able to spread them out and look at them, and gaze at the way I’ve come, and ponder…. 

 Enchantment and Confusion 

The world of the imagination lies behind a door that I rarely open. Rich lands populated with who-knows-what stay hidden because I’m reluctant to go there; perhaps I’m afraid of what I might discover, but what’s to fear? Mostly I suspect it’s for fear of not wanting to come back. I stay in the real world (though what really is that?) because I would often like to escape it, and to go into that world of enchantment would be to risk getting submerged, sucked in and stuck….. 

Then of course there’s always the danger I might find myself in a place that I’d very much rather not be, like the town of Bad Kettle, and so when I draw from my imagination I don’t explore. I simply interpret. And this is not imagining, at all. This is simply thinking on paper, thinking, what is a Bad Kettle, anyway? 

Watercolour drawing of a rusty pot with handle
Is a bad kettle a rusty thing full of holes that wouldn’t hold water? Something with a fragile wire handle that burns your fingers, or worse, snaps off? A wobbly thing, more like a can than a kettle? Or is it something proverbial – as in the saying ‘You’ll never make good tea in a bad kettle’? Or is it, in fact, a place? 

If I dared, if I were bold enough to enter that world I’d find myself so out of practice that I’d lose my way completely, or so I tell myself. Probably get eaten by a dragon. Like Violet in Bad Kettle I assiduously avoid the path that will bring me into the unknown. 

I put my pen down on the paper and draw a face, one that I’ve never seen (though I can see its provenance). This is a start. 

Watercolour drawing of imagined face

Perhaps stories will emerge, or follow. Perhaps I’ll begin to feel more comfortable with exploring a world I’ve shut out for too long……. 

Little forays into the forest from time to time begin to seem less worrying. Maybe I’ll try a few cautious explorations and see how I get on, and as long as I don’t get pulled into the dark river, or fall under the spell of rocks that open their eyes at the quiet hour of dusk – if I get back with anything interesting to report – you’ll find it here. 

Author’s note: (I’ve always wanted to write that, it sounds so real). 

The words Bad Kettle arose out of an accident with predictive text that my friend and fellow WordPresser at Puffofsmokepoems.com and we became so delighted with that we resolved to let it have its way. Read Violet in Bad Kettle (if you haven’t already) and you’ll see what happened. It’s amazing what can unfold when you let yourself follow a red herring….and even more so when you can share the pursuit. Here’s to happy accidents and creative collaboration! 

Add to Basket

We are receivers. Every day, every minute, we are collecting, whether we know it or not – images, sounds, stories. Ideas. And we react to these things, because it’s human to do so, and some make a deeper impression than others. 

Drawing of little red insect

But just because we’re picking things up all the time, it doesn’t mean we have to stow them all away and keep them – it is possible just to notice some things and then allow them to leave, even if at first this sounds improbable. It requires practice. 

I don’t have any difficulty knowing which things I should keep and which to let go – but negative things stick more readily and tenaciously than positive ones. It’s how we evolved. It’s said that you need the conscious awareness of five positive things to balance out one negative one, because the negative is so much more powerfully drawn to our attention.  

Drawing of coriander

I’ve started keeping an imaginary basket that I collect things in. I choose these things, and at the end of each day I can take them out one at a time and look at them again, and feel the same sensation I had when I first encountered them…. like the red and black flying beetle that landed on the garden wall, and stayed for a few moments in the sun before flying off before I could identify it. Or like the smell of coriander when I was chopping it at lunchtime. And the children I watched one afternoon running around in the playground after their karate class while older people walked their dogs, or just stood around in the sunshine. 

Sketches of karate kids and man with dog

These are the things I can draw. There are other things that can’t be sketched, like the wood-pigeon and the blackbird that I hear when I’m sleepily awake at 6.00 am, and the taste of the melted dark chocolate sauce I made yesterday with brandy mixed in it to pour on vanilla ice cream. 

These are just a few of the things in my basket, and writing this I’ve tasted them all over again – but I realise what may be even more important is that now I’ve shared them as well. Good things are meant for sharing. 

The idea of a basket of collected memories is not my own. I wish it were, but I first heard of it from my mother, who inherited it in turn from a dear friend of my sister, so it kind of runs in the family. 

In the UK, when you shop online and choose your purchases you collect them by clicking ‘add to basket’. In the US this would be ‘add to cart’ which to me always sounds mildly hilarious because it conjures up images of a chunky wooden wheeled horse-drawn sort of a thing. In supermarkets in England we use a trolley…….or a basket. 

Learning How To Be A Beginner 

I’ve often wondered why it is when I draw something or make something, my first effort is often good, and later things go downhill. I know this sounds all contradictory and upside-down, but I’ve noticed it happens time and time again; the first drawing or whatever it is might be inaccurate, the proportions off, a bit wonky – but essentially it’s good. The trouble is that from then on I’ll continue in a different frame of mind. I’ll be thinking, ah, here we go, I know how to do this now – and my drawing will be worse. 

It was especially obvious when I did the #1week100people sketching challenge. Along with lots of sketchers all over the world, I sketched lots of people – around about a hundred – and not much else for a whole week. It was an exciting, freewheeling exercise and I was looking forward to seeing an improvement in my drawings. I was hoping – well, actually, expecting that. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Or at least, so it seemed to me at the time. I noticed as I went along that things weren’t going as I’d hoped because as I complained in my previous post, ‘every now and then I’ll find myself drawing with ease and fluency and suddenly it’ll all go right, and then the next minute I fall off the edge and lose the flow, and do something that’s completely off’. I thought I was going to learn and advance in an obvious way, and I thought at the time that this definately wasn’t happening – but in the end I discovered the answer to something that’s puzzled me for a long time, something more interesting and more valuable. 

I have Susan McCulley and her latest post, Revisiting Beginner’s Mind to thank for this insight, and it’s going to pop up again and again in everything I think and do for the foreseeable future. What it is, in simple terms, is that I need to stop thinking that I know what I’m doing and learn to be a beginner. Or rather, I need to think like a beginner, with all that freshness, openness and excitement about the unknown, because as soon as I start to think ‘I know all about this’ I’m no longer really looking, or not looking with a spirit of enquiry. I’ve boxed myself in and closed the door on all kinds of possibilities. 

There are all sorts of ways to do this, none of them comfortable. Like shaking things up and switching materials. Drawing with something uncompromising like a sharpened stick can be a good way. Drawing fast, drawing people in motion helps. But it all requires letting go of what I think I know, trusting my eyes and my hands and the mysterious process that happens when I really look at something as if I’m seeing it for the first time. 

None of this is easy. It’s not just about drawing, either – it’s about the way to approach everything. Beginner’s Mind is a concept in Zen Buddhism called Shoshin, which refers to “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”

If all this seems rather obvious, perhaps it is – but the implications are far reaching. If I slip into the habit of thinking the same way about something simply because I believe I know all about it, I’m never going to learn anything new about it. In the words of the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” 

Wobbly Challenge part 2: #OneWeek100People2017

I knew I wouldn’t get to the full quota of 100 sketches of people this week, (too wobbly – see previous post) but that never bothered me – to be honest, I never even counted. The point of the thing for me was to share the experience of knowing that lots of other sketchers all over the world were doing the same thing, and enjoy seeing what they were all up to. (Use the #OneWeek100People2017 tag to search the internet and you’ll find some amazing stuff.) 

I sketched in the park as usual. I have a bit of an obsession with drawing moving figures; I can’t do it, but it’s what I want to do more than anything else and I get a sort of morbid fascination watching myself try. I thought if I spent all my sketching time this week concentrating on that, I’d have to learn something. I probably did, but with drawing the funny thing is you’re never quite sure because the learning is invisible. Internal. Every now and then I’ll find myself drawing with ease and fluency and suddenly it’ll all go right, and then the next minute I fall off the edge and lose the flow, and do something that’s completely off. 

Since it seemed like a good chance to try to study the subject a bit I got someone I know to walk up and down while I took continuous shots of him on my phone camera, and then used the photos as reference to draw from, quite rapidly, trying to imagine that I was watching him in real life. Surprisingly I found it much more difficult than I’d thought because still shots don’t look real – there’s obviously a lot of processing that happens in our brains that turns the moving object we see into something quite different from what the camera captures. I mean, really, just look at this – 

I think I learned something from that, but I can’t be sure. (I realise it makes a rather odd drawing, particularly because I didn’t bother to get his features right so it looks like a string of different but oddly similar short men doing a strange shuffle from right to left for no apparent reason but with a sense of purpose). 

It all makes me appreciate even more the extraordinary way sketchers like Marc Taro Holmes and Suhita Shirodkar manage to draw movement so beautifully  and make it look so effortless – but equally I realise how much practice it takes. 

So, another strategy – drawing from the TV – and not talking heads; sketching from films. Interesting because just as in life, you get fleeting opportunities to observe faces from different angles and with different expressions. And this is really fun. 

So the week finishes – but I’m on a bit of a roll and I don’t want to stop. Even if I can’t get out and sketch from reality there’s always the TV. No film is ever going to be boring again, no matter how bad! Back to the sketchbook…….. 

One Wobbly Challenge: #OneWeek100People2017 

If you haven’t heard of the sketching event #OneWeek100People2017 that’s going on all over the world this week, have a look at Marc Taro Holmes’ blog Citizen Sketcher. His drawings of people in motion – or people of any kind doing just about anything or nothing – are completely wonderful and inspirational. 

I’m sort of trying to do this challenge myself, though I should have known that saying I’d do it would be a bit ridiculous and sure enough, my health threw a wobbly and hasn’t let me do anywhere near as much drawing as I’d hoped, and certainly not 20 people a day!  

Schoolboys in Cliffe Castle Park

But it’s a lot of fun. It’s great looking at what other people are posting online, and it’s really fun, drawing people in a sort of mad loose way and just enjoying it without worrying much about the outcome. Something to do a lot more of – whether I complete the challenge or not. And who cares – that’s not what it’s really about anyway. It’s all about having fun! 

Barbed Wire and Fairy Lights

I find it hard to know what to say these days. This last week, watching the new order play out under newly installed president Trump has been a bit like standing in a blizzard. I’ve found it hard to take in, and exhausting; if it’s having this effect on me here in Britain, I can only imagine how it feels on the other side of the Atlantic. When my thoughts are in a tangle, I write; when I can’t think, I draw, and often I discover more that way. 

Barbed wire from the trenches, 1st World War

My local museum has a cabinet with a miscellaneous collection of objects from the first world war and on Thursday, the day Theresa May travelled to Washington as the first world leader to meet Donald Trump I found myself standing in front of this display drawing strands of barbed wire from the trenches on the western front. I don’t have the words to describe how I felt, studying this stuff, thinking about what it means to create barriers of this kind and the horrors of what this did. I stood there drawing and thinking about walls, and fences, and detention centres; about refusing refugees. About people who are now living in increasing uncertainty and fear, and how the whole world is now a more uncertain place for everyone. 

I thought a lot after I’d come home with this drawing about what its opposite would be. Closing my eyes and drifting off to sleep that night I thought about Amnesty International’s symbol of a burning candle surrounded by barbed wire…….. 

Faced with such immediate threats to democracy, to freedom of speech and freedom of movement, being fed lies and witnessing ever more division and racism and hatred – it’s hard to know what to do, what to say, or how to say it. It’s overwhelming and intimidating, and it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing I could do that could possibly make the slightest difference. But neither can I bear to stand by and not do anything. I keep thinking of those words of Edmund Burke’s, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As true today as it was 200 years ago (except that today he would have said men and women). I can’t go on marches, the way thousands did last weekend all around the world. I can support organisations like Amnesty, I can show solidarity and add my signature to petitions and write to my MP. But none of these make me feel as if I’m creating any light in the darkness. 

I spend the first few minutes of every day after waking up simply filling the landscape of my heart and mind with light. I imagine I’m watching the sun rise and I watch it hit the tops of distant mountains and gradually flow down the slopes and into every valley. I consciously try to feel the warmth of the sun, and I greet it with every part of me. If I can start the day filled with light, it makes a difference to the way I read the news, the way I talk over breakfast with my husband, the way I think when I go out shopping, when I drive the car, when I speak to the assistant at the supermarket checkout. I smile more often. I think fewer dark thoughts, I’m less anxious and more relaxed. 

I think this can produce a chain reaction. I think it often does. 

Like a tiny ant, I’m not going to look up at the towering ant-hill above me and think, I can’t do this, building this is beyond me. I can simply be a good ant and do what I can as well as possible – and actually that feels good. And then I realise that there are thousands – millions – of us out there doing the same thing, glowing not terribly brightly but glowing all the same, and together we’re lighting the darkness like a string of fairy lights. 

Then I knew what I had to draw.