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. 

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.” 

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.

Coming Up For Air

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It’s almost two months since I wrote anything here. After two months of hard work and exhaustion, when at the end of every day I could hardly think, let alone read, let alone write, I’d wanted my first post on returning to be full of gladness. But at the end of those two months, just as I was beginning to feel I might be about to surface again, we here in Britain have plunged over a cliff and are are falling into the unknown.

It seems impossible in the face of this to write what I’d hoped to write. I’m not going to try to put into words how dismayed I am at this decision, a choice that was always far too complex and much, much too important to have been made in this way.

I’m not one to shrink from reality, so I’m not going to bury my head in the sand. We are all going to have to ride this out, like white water rafting, and trust that we won’t perish in the rapids. And after too many metaphors in just two sentences, I’m left with this; the certainty that what will carry us through is attention to small things, the things that frame and form the bigger ones. Listening to each other. Stopping to look. Stopping to make tea. Greeting each other with a smile.

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No one can say where all this is going to lead, or even who will lead us, but we can still make choices. We can turn to each other with love, and listen; we can do all the little things that will begin to help us heal.

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Pinto

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Drawing something imprints it on my mind.

Back in the summer a furry black and white cat was living wild in our neighbour’s back garden; clearly visible from our bedroom window she was there day and night, curled up in the long grass or sheltering under bushes. I started to feed her under the fence.

This was not an attempt to befriend her but simply to supply her basic needs until we could find a better solution. (We already care for another neighbour’s elderly cat who doesn’t much like other felines and who has decided she likes our all-day company better than an empty house.)

As autumn approached we got her a weather-proof kennel and thought our garden might provide better shelter, so I approached her with cat-treats and talked to her, softly. She didn’t move, but when I was within striking distance she put her ears back and gave me a powerful left hook, claws out, catching me on the fleshy part of my outstretched hand. Bruised and bleeding I retreated and we both left it at that for a few days to think things over.

Black and white, and wild – so we called her Pinto, like a feisty little mustang. But every morning before breakfast I practise tai chi in the garden, and before long she started to appear over the fence and join me, weaving herself round my legs, and waving and curling her tail in the shape of a question mark. We fed her outside the patio door and she took up residence in the kennel, peeping out of the door like a miniature guard in a sentry box – black fur as soft and bushy as a bearskin helmet.
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Finding a place for a stray cat in a rescue centre isn’t quick or easy. We tried to trace her owner without success and got her on a waiting list in two different centres, and meanwhile day by day she became more and more a part of our lives.
She must have thought so too because one morning she left us the gift of a freshly killed rat on the garden path. Still limp, its ruffled fur was slightly damp and I wondered at its long, strong tail and exquisite ears like tiny crumpled petals.
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Last week one of the rescue centres offered us a place. For the next few days we let her into the house in preparation for her new foster home and she was calm, collected and perfectly behaved. I started sketching her as often as I could because I knew saying goodbye was going to be like losing part of myself, and I wanted to make the most out of our connection and remember every part of her.

Pinto has enormous paws. They’re like boxing gloves and she uses them like that – though softly now, without claws. Her silky black back is smooth and soft and rounded, and crouched over a food bowl she looks like a tiny black bear. Stretched out on the sofa she’ll roll on her back with her front paws folded under her chin and reveal her perfectly white chest and tummy. Watching her I could feel my heart soften and melt…..

So I’d do yet another drawing. But being very black and very white and very furry makes her hard to draw. In the end her paws are the only part of her I really drew at all well.
Pinto indoors005

The drawings aren’t important themselves, though. They’ve done what they were supposed to do, and imprinted the memory of her more clearly in my mind.

Extract of Autumn

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It starts with blue. Autumn skies are different from the skies of summer or spring. This is the first ingredient. Then, copper, rust, terracotta, amber and gold, streaked with green – the green of glass bottles, the turquoise of the shallow sea, and the deep blue green of the ocean.

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I start to see these colours when I close my eyes and sometimes dream of them. They feel like perfume, or wine, or freshly ground coffee, or chocolate; I swear I’m absorbing them just by gazing at them. I’m drinking them in.

It’s not enough just to think of them, so I get out my palette and let two colours loose on the page. Phthalo Turquoise and Burnt Sienna spread themselves in brilliant glory and then collide, a confluence of energy swirling and merging, creating currents of soft new colours without names. I’ve stopped thinking; I think I’ve forgotten how to speak. I’m lost in colour.

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What does colour mean to you?

Colour Catcher

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Every day a little more colour.

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Every moment, change – clouds part suddenly and then close in again; the afternoon draws in. The hour before dusk is a slow gathering of shadows and a ripening of glowing colour.

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I soak it all in. I stand about under the trees and look up, head back, gazing up through the canopy and the next moment I’m crouching down, with leaves rustling like paper bags and the smell of damp earth under me.

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Closer and closer. To get lost in it all, to forget everything else and sink into this colour, this hour, this moment that will never come again.

Blur

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I’m extremely shortsighted, and without my glasses everything’s a blur. But I like this soft, fuzzy world. I enjoy crisp sharp focus, but there are times when I seek out the soft quietness of blurred images. I look for them in photographs, and I can spend happy hours diving into the background of pictures I’ve taken, discovering strange worlds of mysterious fog.

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See other blurred images here: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/blur/

Against A Wall

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It’s a grey, damp day, and cold. It doesn’t feel like Spring when the wind whips icy rain against the window and when on the tops of the hills it falls as snow, lower down as sleet. Days like this with no sunshine and very little colour feel like a dead-end, a bit like running up against a brick wall.

But then again walls are not uninteresting. Whether brick or stone, they can be very promising. There’s always more to see when you settle in to where you are and look. They’re not as simple as they seem.

Walls have presence; even half broken down a wall is a substantial thing with a history and a meaning. Where doors and windows have been bricked up or moved, the whole purpose of the wall has changed but the story is still there to be told right from the beginning. People walked in and out through those doors, sat inside and worked by the light from those windows, and looked out. It’s tangible history, set in stone – and you can reach out and touch it.

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