There’s something about a string of coloured lights. They seem to do so much more than you’d expect, as if there really is alchemy in the glow of colour in the long hours of winter darkness. This year my family has made the discovery of battery operated LED lights and the fun and the wonder of being able instantly to light up any dark corner or decorate some quiet forgotten object. (Not that this rat that sits looking out of the bedroom window is forgotten – he may be quiet but he is never ignored.)
I’ve rediscovered the extraordinary peace that comes from silently gazing at coloured lights. In fact silent gazing is something I’ve not done enough of for a long time and I’ve been consciously doing more if it whenever I can; I take long slow moments to look at the hillside across the valley, shrouded in mist; at the sun rising behind a cloud bank washing the sky with pink and turquoise and coral; at my neighbour’s Christmas tree put up hastily outside her door on Christmas Eve once the storm had passed and decorated with a flourish of warm white flashing lights.
And then I read Susan McCulley’s latest post and understood why I’m doing all of this gazing, and why I need to do so much more, and regularly. What I gaze at, I focus on. Everything else falls away. This is the festive season, but it’s also the season of peace.
By the middle of December our neighbour’s two cats were sheltering in the warmth and safety of a cardboard box in our covered porch. By the first week of the new year, the number had fallen to one; marmalade-and-white Molly, (aged 19 years), died – leaving Polly on her own for the first time in her life.
This is a hard thing for a cat to cope with, particularly an elderly cat; hard for her owner, and hard for us too. Over the next few days I watched Polly closely while she retreated into solitary sadness and didn’t eat. Occasionally she would roam around looking for her companion and then curl up again and go to sleep.
During this time I must have sketched her dozens of times. Something about her sadness made me want to connect to her in whatever way I could, and drawing does make connections for me that nothing else does – I think, though I can’t prove it, that the connection can sometimes work both ways. Whether it does or not, after a week she started eating again, started to look at us, talk to us and lie on the sofa with us. She rubs her head on my hand, leans on me, looks straight in my eyes and purrs.
I’ve often wondered exactly what happens when I draw. I know I do it for a lot of different reasons, and drawing from life with the subject right in front of you is an entirely different thing from working from a photograph. Sometimes it’s just because it’s a compelling and exciting thing to do, because I see something that I want to experience in a way that’s more meaningful than taking a photograph. Sometimes it’s to capture a moment and preserve it, so that years later when I look at a drawing it works like a time-machine and carries me back to a time and place with all the feelings I had at that moment. Sometimes it’s actually to escape from the present – or rather, to screen out everything else in order to make things bearable; 29 years ago on my first visit to Pakistan it was the only way I could cope with the onslaught on my senses as I experienced for the first time what it’s like to be immersed in the everyday life of a world so different from my own. I just looked at one thing at a time, and drew it.
And sometimes, it can be a way to cope with being with things the way they are, simply by being present with them and accepting them. Pain, fear, sadness, illness, death – they’re all things we run away from if we can, but running away doesn’t make it feel any better and we need a way to be able to stay there in the moment, something that makes it bearable, that feels like coming home. The sadness or sickness or even the death of a cat doesn’t compare to the sickness, for instance, of a child, that Richard Johnson writes about in this piece for the Washington Post, but at all times of confusion and fear we need a way to ease the pain and to stop running. And that’s what drawing does for me.
It’s a strange contradiction, the way a photograph can freeze a moment in time in a profound sort of stillness that doesn’t exist in the moment itself.
There is a kind of mad addiction to multi-tasking that has taken hold of us nowadays, so that we feel we’re being under productive if we’re not doing two or three things at the same time; but it only ends up by diluting the experience of everything we do. So while bringing home my shopping and fumbling for my door keys I notice a woman trying to take her dog for a walk and hold a conversation on the phone and struggling to do both – and seeing it I grab my phone camera with one hand whilst almost dropping my keys and wondering if I’ll be quick enough to record the image of her, all the while thinking this is a split-second story if only I can capture it. At the very same moment I am aware of how doing several things at once is to do none of them really well, and musing on the fact that we now believe that multi-tasking is the preferred – no, the required way to carry out our daily activities, and this belief is stealing all the enjoyment out of doing things, and in fact making them disappear. Walking your dog without actually noticing you’re doing it will result in you having no memory of it. (The dog is, quite literally, out of the frame.) Memories are made of things we appreciate, celebrate and enjoy.
The simple act of doing just one thing at a time and nothing else is becoming a lost art.