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. 

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.) 

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.” 

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. 

Spanish Solutions

(I’m trying to practise my rusty Spanish. Don’t be alarmed; a translation follows. My idea is to write posts in both languages from time to time.) 

No hago propósitos del nuevo año. No tengo suficiente energía ni voluntad, asi prefiero proponerse intenciones, (evidentemente algo diferente) y este año tengo dos: practicar español cuando y en cualquier manera que pueda y hacer más dibujos. Pensé hacer los dos a la vez – publicar aqui de vez en cuando bocetos de mi cuaderno y escribir en ambos lenguas, español y inglés. 

Bien, este dibujo – es una raíz enredada que fueron la única cosa en el parque cuando estaba allí otro día haciendo bocetos que tenía colores cálidos, o por lo menos más cálido que lo demás del paisaje de invierno. 

Me gusta intentar usar una lengua otra que la mía. Aunque que me cuesta bastante, una ventaja es que tengo que pensar sencillamente, siempre una cosa buena. 

Gracias a quienquiera que sea leyendo! 

***

I don’t make new year’s resolutions. I don’t have the strength or determination so I prefer to have intentions (obviously something quite different) and this year I have two; to practise Spanish whenever and however I can and to do more drawing. I thought I’d do both at the same time – publish sketchbook drawings here from time to time and write in both Spanish and English. 

So, this drawing is of a tangled root that that was the only thing in the park the other day when I was there sketching that had warm colours, or at least colours that were warmer than the rest of the winter landscape. 

I like trying to use a language other than my own. Although it’s quite an effort one advantage is that I have to think simply, which is always a good thing. 

Thanks to whoever may be reading this! 

Postscript:

Writing (or trying to write) precisely the same thing in two languages when you’re nowhere near fluent in the one that’s not your own is very much harder than I’d – stupidly – thought it would be. I may have to give up this idea and do an approximate and relaxed translation. Besides which I obviously think differently in English (because I can) and trying to say exactly the same thing has made me write in an odd way that I don’t quite recognise. Oh well. A work in progress. 

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.

Salmagundi: A Recipe For Laughter

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I like to cook, though my cooking is more about assembling, (except when I’m baking). Peeling, slicing; one of the things I love most about preparing lunch is chopping ginger (we eat a lot of ginger, finely sliced and then cut into the slenderest of matchsticks and sprinkled on almost everything – it’s delicious).

When my sister sent me a recipe for Salmagundi I thought that it was because it’s a promising sounding assortment of whatever you happen to have in the fridge and the larder – and that is, in fact, what it is – Wikipedia says:

Salmagundi (sometimes abbreviated as salmi) is a salad dish, originating in the early 17th century in England, comprising cooked meats, seafood, vegetables, fruit, leaves, nuts and flowers and dressed with oil, vinegar and spices.

But that’s not the real reason she sent me the link to this entry in Wikipedia. No. It’s because of the recipe lower down the page, for a pirate version of the dish (it was popular with pirates, apparently) but this isn’t a salad.

‘The following is taken from a reprint of Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, originally published in 1867 and republished by Applewood Books of Bedford, Massachusetts.’

‘Boil two calf’s feet; take the feet out when done; reduce the broth to a quart. The feet may be fried and used, first removing the bones. Let the broth become cold in an earthen vessel; scrape off all the grease; wipe the top of the jelly with a coarse towel; put the cake of jelly into a kettle lined with tin or porcelain; season it with two lemons cut up (removing the seed), fine blades of mace, a stick of cinnamon, pepper (white pepper is best), and salt to taste. Beat to a froth the whites of six eggs; stir these to the jelly just as it melts; it must then be left to clarify and not stirred again. When it simmers long enough to look clear at the sides, strain it through a flannel bag before the fire; do not squeeze the bag. Suspend it by running a stick through a loop made by tying the bag; rest each end of the stick upon a chair, and throw a table-cloth over all to keep out the dust. If the jelly does not run through clear the first time, pour it through the jelly-bag again. Set this aside. Prepare the meat and seasoning for the pie. Put into a stew-pan slices of pickled pork, using a piece of pork four inches square; if it is very salt lay it an hour in tepid water. Cut up two young, tender chickens—a terrapin, if it is convenient—two or three young squirrels, half a dozen birds or squabs. Stew them gently, cutting up and adding a few sprigs of parsley. Roll into half a pound of butter two tablespoonfuls of flour; add this to the stew until the meat is nearly done. Line a fire-proof dish, or two fire-proof dishes (this quantity of stew will fill two common-sized or quart dishes;) with good pastry; mix the different kinds of meats; put in Irish potato dumplings; season to taste; pour in the gravy and bake. When done, remove the upper crust when the pie is cold and pack in the jelly, heaping the jelly in the middle. Return the crust and serve cold or hot. The jelly will prevent them become too dry. They are good Christmas pies and will keep several days. Very little gravy should be used, and that rich. Should there be too much, leave the stew-pan open until reduced sufficiently. This kind of pie keeps well if made in deep plates, and by some is preferred to those baked in deep moulds.’

I think it was the bit about throwing the tablecloth over everything to keep off the dust that got me going – and the ‘terrapin, if convenient’ finished me off. I love the way it starts off sounding fairly straightforward and then goes off at all sorts of tangents and becomes baffling until you have no idea where all this is going to end and what it is you’re making – it’s exhausting even to contemplate.

I wonder what Heston Blumenthal would make of it? I think I’ll stick to the salad version, as I’ve got plenty of those sort of ingredients. Except for flowers. I don’t think daffodils will do……..

What are you eating this Easter?

Drawing Today, Remembering Tomorrow

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Sometimes drawing the everyday is not at all an every day thing. When you know something is going to happen, when there’s a goodbye to be said.

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Polly was only with us for a little over a year but she was more than 20 years old; she was mostly well, just increasingly stiff, a bit deaf, only able to eat a little at a time. And during that time she was gradually more conversational (she had a range of sounds that steadily expanded as well as a very expressive silent miaow for talking face to face at close quarters) and increasingly more loving. From above she looked like a bundle of autumn leaves. Underneath she was creamy white, silky soft, and she had the smallest little round front paws on any cat I’ve ever seen. She was gentle, polite, determined, and as time wore on a bit absent minded.

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Old age catches up. Eventually there was more pain from arthritis, and then other failings. It’s so hard to know when it’s time to say enough is enough, but when the suffering gets to a certain point you know the time has come to let go.

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Yesterday was that day. The rest of the day was full of sadness and the days to come will still feel empty and strange. I find myself still speaking her name and expecting to see her when I open a door or come into a room. Her chair is empty. Her dishes all put away, the litter tray gone, her basket packed up and hidden in the garage. Tears come suddenly at unexpected moments when I know her to be gone. Once again we are going through the pain of losing a friend, a special companion, a small creature who came to us because she wanted to and decided to stay. We loved her, and we won’t forget.
Love never stops.

Life Without The Internet (almost)

If someone drops out of sight for a while in the world of the internet there’s usually a reason. In my case it’s a been a hiatus forced on me by being without broadband and only an intermittent unpredictable and limited mobile connection. This is both horribly frustrating and yet in some ways liberating at the same time, and it’s thrown me into a completely different frame of mind.

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What do you do when your internet connection is so slow you want to scream? Pour a glass of wine, and in between sips, draw it...

Some of it is definitely bad.
Being cut off from news reports I can’t read, waiting for endless minutes for pages to load that finally won’t load at all, and trying to navigate sites that require bandwidth that web designers  assume is reliably supplied like tap-water – all this is just such a huge, debilitating waste of time, and I’d rather do without it.

But on the other hand, some things are good.
I only have a certain amount of energy and time to do the things I want (and need ) to do, and as I’d been wanting to do more sketching I’ve stopped bothering to stare at the unresponsive screen of my phone, and instead I’ve been drawing every day, recording little things that seem inconsequential – rediscovering the pleasure of connecting unexpectedly with something (or someone), focusing simply on that, and getting it down on paper. I’ve given myself time to get back to an older time, before the internet, and just draw.

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The Every Day In May sketching challenge got me drawing some surprising objects

In May, through following Australian sketch artist/architect and prolific urban sketcher Liz Steel, I discovered the Every Day In May drawing challenge and joined in – as much as I could. Knowing other people around the world are drawing a similar thing at the same time or at least on the same day gave it a friendly, connected feeling – even though I couldn’t post drawings on Flikr or look at what other people were drawing.

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Quietly drawing this lipstick was like sitting down with an old friend and getting to know it better

But I had to stay connected…
Several of the blogs I follow get delivered to my email inbox and I’ve lapped these up as if they were cool water in a desert. Thankfully, some of these posts will download complete with pictures even on weak and dodgy internet connections, and some are written in such a way that they still make glorious, rewarding sense even without images. They’ve been a lifeline for me to make connections and still feel part of a wider world.

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The urge to connect: nowadays more often by smartphone - but still sometimes the way we all used to, writing letters - and by hand!

A big thank you to those of you who have unknowingly been my oasis. Special thanks to Susan McCulley
who writes Focus Pocus for unerringly, spookily saying just the things I most need to hear; Cate Franklyn whose photo blog is a visual treat even without the photos – and Nina Mishkin whose Getting Old Blog is just such a very, very good read.