The Dreary Days of Winter, Brightened 

As I headed down the road towards Cliffe Castle this afternoon I met a friend coming in the opposite direction. ‘It’s very dreary in the park today’ she said. (She takes inspiringly beautiful photographs of local landscape and even on drab winter days usually seems to find something wonderful to shoot, so I thought her comment surprisingly downbeat.) 

So perhaps because of this I was more open than ever to let something extraordinary catch my eye……. 

Well, the ordinary can be extraordinary after all. Just depends on how you look at it. 

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…….

Facial Recognition

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….

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.

It’s Not What You Do It’s The Way That You Do It 

The 7th annual International Urban Sketchers Symposium starts this week in Manchester, and I have some thoughts and questions rattling around inside my head……..

I sometimes wonder, if I added up all the time I’ve spent drawing throughout my life how many hours it would come to. It’s the sort of odd question people sometimes ask when they get talking to me when I’m out sketching, and I always say that however much it is, it’s never enough. And I don’t have the strength or the energy to do anywhere near as much as I want to do. 
I know there are many sketchers – Urban and otherwise – whose sketching output is phenomenal. Some have more time and some have more energy than others, and those of us who have neither can sometimes feel a little wistful about this. (I’m putting that as gently as I can). I enjoy following several sketching bloggers whose volume of work frankly boggles the mind. I’m energised by their enthusiasm and excited by what they produce, but however often I hear them say that everyone has their own speed, and no-one should compare the sheer volume of what they do in a day, or be counting numbers of drawings done or sketchbooks filled – it still makes me sigh a little, now and again, and reflect that there are many people who, like me, for reasons of health or disability often struggle to draw for more than a few minutes a day, if at all.

Everyone knows that practice brings progress, and regular practice is much better than just now and again. The more you practise, the more you’re going to improve, and it shouldn’t be hard to make time to do something you love. But what do you do when the time that you’ve deliberately set aside for drawing comes along and you’re feeling limp and wobbly on your feet, foggy in the brain, generally unwell and drained of all the energy you had earlier but which you had to use to go out grocery shopping? (This is what life is like with ME/CFS). I’m not alone in this experience, I know that. It’s extremely frustrating and it can get you down. I’ve had to adapt and change my way of thinking, and be inventive and kind to myself.

The 7th annual International Urban Sketchers Symposium starts this week in Manchester, not more than a two hour drive from where I live, and when the venue was announced last year for a few moments I actually wondered if I might manage to go. (Last year it was in Singapore, the year before in Barcelona, next year’s will be somewhere else far-flung and unreachable; I will never get another chance like this). But for me this is an unrealistic proposition and I never seriously considered it; I have after all not even (yet) ever managed to meet up with my local chapter of Urban Sketchers to go on a sketch outing together. USk (as it’s known for short) emphasises that urban sketching is for everyone regardless of ability, that we ‘share, not compare’ and it is an amazingly kind, sharing, egalitarian community. I love it and I’ve got a lot of support from it. But that hasn’t stopped me wanting to write this post. In the next few days as the Symposium unfolds I’ll be keeping an eye out for news of anyone else like me – and for any activities on offer or discussions that happen about people who need to think differently about what they can achieve.

The drawing at the top of this post was done on one of the days when I felt well enough to stand for more than half an hour and draw something I’d deliberately gone out to sketch (the old public toilet block in Cliffe Castle Park that was about to be demolished). It was a wonderful feeling, doing this; the simple act of planning to go out to sketch and then not only having the strength to do it but to feel well while doing it is a piece of pure pleasure.

At other times I need different strategies.The following day I went back to sketch the same thing from a different angle (this is Urban Sketching for you) and by the time I’d dragged myself up the hill through the park all I could do was sit on a bit of low stone wall and stare at the building with an open sketchbook, and then finally manage a few rather meaningless pen lines. So I just sat there and did nothing. 

Struggling to push on at times like this is a bad idea. Doing nothing is a much better thing to do, but actually it’s the quality of the nothingness that counts. What’s needed is not a negative state of nothing, but a positive one; it’s counter intuitive but what you need is to let go of the desperate urge to do something worthwhile and with an intention of kindness, zone out completely for a minute or two (or longer) and just sit in a state of suspended animation. In other words, float….

This is takes practice. This feeling that I must achieve something, anything, is extraordinarily hard to overcome but usually, once I manage to drop all this urgency and clear my mind the next thing that happens is that I find myself just looking around, gazing, and enjoying where I am. Seeing things and just watching.

On this particular occasion, what happened next was a rabbit, and I found myself drawing before I knew I was doing it, hardly looking at the paper and just drawing without looking down, which I managed to keep up for the next ten minutes. And that was enough.

Letting go and doing nothing doesn’t suddenly give me energy or stop me from feeling ill, but it does take away the stress of feeling angry frustrated and miserable about it. It creates a new inner space for something better to materialise, and it generally does. 

Some days I resign myself to not drawing at all. Other days go well. I never know what sort if a day it will be when I wake up in the morning. I seldom arrange to meet up with other people because I never know how I’m going to be, and even if I’m well, being with people is exhausting and although I enjoy it, it’s stressful. This is not something that many – if any – of the sketchers attending the Symposium will experience, though perhaps some do, and if so I’d love to hear from them, or from anyone else who knows what this is like.

I wish everyone there in Manchester a hugely enjoyable time, and hope everyone enjoys doing what’s right for them, at their own right speed and in their own way, and that they make wonderful discoveries.

Postscript: anyone interested in following my sketching project, Drawing The Work at Cliffe Castle Park can find posts on it here.

Thinking Through A Lens

There are times that I take a photograph when I don’t understand what I’m thinking until later, when I’m looking at the shot. It’s only then that I catch hold of what’s going on, and even then I often can’t put into words what it is I’m thinking – although I know the thought is there, sometimes deeply layered and full of nuances, laced with sensation. It is a thought. 

Or is it?

When it all happens too quickly, and isn’t in the form of words, is this thinking or is it something else?

Sometimes it feels more like dreaming…

Just as there are dreams that you don’t want to describe in words, because the telling of them would diminish their meaning, there are images that should speak without words.

Or so I think….

The Blessings Of A Building Site

image

I do love a building site. Perhaps it’s that I enjoy watching people at work, and because it’s the next best thing to doing it myself. I like tools, and how they’re handled. I like watching how things unfold and change, and I really like mechanical diggers – especially the small ones that are quite nippy.

The restoration project in the grounds of Cliffe Castle is under way, and I’m up there whenever I can. It’s a blessing, because it’s so absorbing and interesting and it takes my mind off the horrible mess the country is in and is creating something good.

I’m going to try to post regular bulletins with drawings on my other site, here – because the story will run and run. It’s going to be a long process. And no doubt I’ll be writing about it here as well – because it’s such a blessing, and we could all do with such things. Here’s to all such projects, wherever and whatever – and may we continue to value our arts and our heritage enough to continue to find funding for them.