Grounded

I’ve been rushing again. Not covering much ground, because most of my rushing is done at home and much of it doesn’t even require movement – it’s as much as anything a helter-skelter of the mind. Slowing down has become a much overdue necessity.

I’ve been unexpectedly helped in this by a companion of many years to whom I’ve given too little attention lately. He’s been with me since I was around the age of two, and apart from a lengthy leave of absence some years back when he went on extended loan to my mother as a teaching assistant, he’s never been too far from my side.

Treacle, my bear, outside the glasshouses

Treacle is taking part in a photographic project I’ve initiated that involves going out on location, and because he is a bear of diminutive stature this means that I find myself as often as not crouching down or even sitting on the ground.

There’s something about doing this – connecting with the ground more closely than I normally do when standing up – that is immediately calming. It’s also true that working with Treacle is always a reassuring and balancing thing to do, partly because he’s an old and trusted friend but also because of his expression which is subtle but encouraging. As my sister observed, it’s not always easy to tell what he’s thinking – but certainly he looks out at the world with a mixture of curiosity, interest and wonder, and an unfailing sense of optimism.

Treacle discovers a pair of antique binoculars bigger than himself

These pictures were taken in the Glasshouses at Cliffe Castle. Outside when it’s not frosty it’s muddy, but there are still places where we can find stone or other dry surfaces to sit on, or clamber over.

Treacle sitting on the rock he's climbed, admiring the fountain

And when the ground is frozen, there’s nothing better than getting down close among the leaves…….

Frosted leaves on the ground, sprinkling of snow

Postscript
It turns out that this is the two hundredth post I’ve published on this blog. I’d not been counting, but WordPress tells you these sort of things, and I can’t think of a nicer way to celebrate than with my small and constant friend.

A big thank you to all of you who’ve been with me along the way, and the wonderful people I’ve met and feel I know as friends in the blogging world of WordPress.

Every Leaf Tells A Story

Leaves fall in their thousands,
possibly their millions;
a landscape lit from below
like golden snow.

And as I stand and gaze, slowly
breathing golden air,
enter (stage left), a man
with dog.

‘Autumn leaves!’ he says
and ‘wonderful’ I reply,
watching the dog
nose down, pulling at the leash.

‘Ah, wonderful, except’ –
(and here he smiles)
‘he has to sniff
every
single
leaf‘.

It’s been a while since I posted here and it feels good to be back. I’ve been drawing and writing and posting on my other blog but I’ve slipped out of the habit of slowing down and being more reflective, so I hope to put this right.

It’s not that I haven’t been noticing things – but more perhaps that I haven’t been giving them enough space. And having a place to put thoughts like this is like having a quiet garden set aside, to sit in and not to think, and just to let things grow. It’s a good season for change.

Festive Focus 

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. 

 

A contribution to the WordPress prompt festive

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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Snatched Moments

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My life has been a bit of a blur for the last two weeks. The words hurry and rush and busy don’t go a long way to describe how things have been and it’s going to be like this for the next few weeks. Life can get like that – and some days I’ve had a hard time snatching more than a moment here and a minute there to stop and take a breath and just look at what’s around me. Sometimes the important things have got pushed right to the edges of my awareness and all I’ve been seeing is the list of things I have to do.

This afternoon I went for a walk and cleared my head looking at the early evening sky, clouds clearing and a glimpse of light from the setting sun. I slowed down and felt the dust of the day settle, and as I walked slowly on I passed someone else who had slowed down to a complete standstill, and heard him listening to the call to prayer on his mobile phone. Prayer at sunset. Time to pause and remember the important things.

It will be a while before I’ll be back to posting regularly here, or even to reading all that I usually follow. I’m grateful for this evening’s moment of peace, and for all the other snatched minutes that have come my way when I’ve remembered to slow down. In the meantime I wish you all the peace and calm of a brightening sky at sunset, and many more moments like this. 

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.

Manic Multi-tasking

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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.

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The simple act of doing just one thing at a time and nothing else is becoming a lost art.

Split-Second Story

A Lost Art

Writing Slowly

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I love writing fast, on a keyboard. It’s a good feeling, to be able to type at the same speed as I would speak. It helps me to get thoughts out of the tangle of my head and down on a page. But I also love writing by hand, and I do this when I want to write slowly, to choose and savour the words and watch them quietly establish themselves on the paper and take on a life of their own.

I love reading what others have written, especially when the words make my heart sing. Words that can take me out of time and space, shoot me up into the stratosphere of my mind and into another way of being.

These are the kind of words that when I come back down to earth, I like to write slowly. Words that I know will help me find my way back. These words I write by hand.