Letters to myself (5)



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. 

Close Up


No, this is not a knitted soft toy animal. I promise you, those lines that look so much like the ribbing on a Guernsey sweater are the real way the neck of an alpaca looks when it’s recently been sheared, and as for the rest of it – well, I wish I could tell you what it feels like to be this close up and personal with an alpaca, but I can’t, because I wasn’t there. How I wish I had been!

This wonderful picture was taken by my mother.

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.

Living Like A Giraffe

I have been trying to live like a giraffe. Yes, I know this is a picture of a squirrel, and yes, a more appropriate animal for me would be a wild horse – and no, I haven’t actually been living outdoors, grazing thorn bushes on the savannah or nibbling grass or acorns. But the giraffe is the animal in question when Martha Beck describes, in her book Finding Your Way In A Wild New World, what wild animals do at times of trauma, shock or danger.

Unlike humans, animals (or wild ones, at any rate) are not burdened with anything other than the feelings and sensations of the present moment. They react quickly to danger with flight-or-fight responses, and once the danger is passed they slip back into a state of relaxation.

How very different things are for us – or for me, at any rate; I am still learning how events trigger responses for me that are not limited to the thing that’s happening, but rather go flying back into the past and worse still, skidding uncontrollably into the future. Before I know what’s going on my stomach is churning with the re-lived feelings of some previous stressful time and my mind fills with stories of how it’s all going to happen again and again like some horrible personal groundhog-day.

It doesn’t have to be like this, because, amazingly enough, we do have a choice about how we feel. This extraordinary fact took me a long, long time first to believe and then to begin to put into practice, but it makes life an extremely different experience in almost every imaginable way.

I watch animals whenever I can, squirrels, sheep, horses – and often feel a connection that is completely indescribable in words, and needs to be left that way. Now I have even more reason to remember this feeling of connection, and try whenever I find myself lurching into horror-story mode at times of stress, that all I need to do is to live like a giraffe.

Wendell Berry’s poem says all this and more far better than I could ever hope to do.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry