Fallow Time

For several months now I’ve kept a sketchbook as I attempt to learn to draw. When I examine the pen and ink drawings in the book I’m using as a guide, Rendering in Pen and Ink, and as I try to draw what I see, over and over I notice how one small squiggle on the page, one tiny turn of the pen can either make something feel real, or make an object look distorted. Details matter, and learning to get them right will take years of practice. I have to face the fact that most of what I’m going to make will look wrong, and will probably continue to do so for sometime. If I’m going to learn to draw, that’s something that must be accepted. This isn’t what drawing is really about, though, seeing well, and getting the details all down correctly.

So, why do I want to learn to draw anyway? What’s the motivation? It’s something about that when the pen is in my hand, I’m living right there in the tip of the ink flow on to the page. I am in the texture, the line, each turn of a curve. It doesn’t matter so much to the direction the world is moving in that I learn to draw. Of course the world will go on. It always does. Will it change the course of my life or anyone else’s for that matter? Who knows, really, if something we learn will directly lead to something else significant in the future. This will certainly be true in some cases. But this is not necessarily the best measure of the value of all things—their practical use. There are a number of things I am trying to learn that don’t necessarily have an immediately understood practical value: playing the clarinet, learning to speak Spanish. These could have utilitarian value at some point, but not in my immediate circumstance, and that is not why I want to learn them. Some things just call to us for mysterious reasons, and have value in themselves. The act of learning, just being with that process is somehow intrinsically engaging. Maybe these kinds of motivations are akin to playing in the mud when a child. Something about them just feels delightful. We don’t have to understand why we want to do everything we do; we just know we feel more alive, more human, or more full when we participate in them.

Over the past few days I’ve spent a few hours pulling weeds from the garden walkway. My husband offered to use the weed whacker to cut them back, but I preferred to pull them all by hand, sitting quietly in the sun, picking out the tiny blades of grass between the thyme I planted last summer. Slowly, the thyme plants reemerge from beneath the weeds. Even though the pathway looks very pleasant after the weeds have been pulled out, and it might have been a waste of time to pick weeds by hand, it somehow seems better. It’s satisfying. You can pull out the roots, not just cut off the top of the plants, and the thyme will have an easier time growing in the long run.

Like many other people, I work in a job where pretty much every moment counts, or you want to make it count for something. When I am drawing, or pulling weeds, however, I do not think of time. I’m not trying to make every moment count. Instead I’m gliding inside of time like a bird turning in an updraft of air at the edge of a cliff. I’m waiting there in space, doing some kind of mysterious thing soil does when it regenerates itself while sitting fallow. There is something wonderfully rare and precious about such moments. They are moments of being balanced against the moments where everything is measured out tick by tick. I don’t think I am the only one in this world hungry for such moments—for the space inside of time that existed before clocks. They keep me well, and as I peer forward into the new year, this is what I wish for, for more space in my life and of those around me to be found and given to unmeasured moments of being.

May you, too, be well.

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2 Responses to Fallow Time

  1. Doug McCluer says:

    Where I work, one of our clients is a brain health research institute. One of the “brain skills” they’ve identified as critical in cognitive performance is the ability to selectively discard information – to extract what’s important and not get distracted by the rest. Our brain has limited capacity, it can’t process everything our senses take in, so some stuff has to get ignored in order to for us to function. The greater your ability to 1. identify what is relevant and what isn’t, and 2. direct where your brain focuses its resources; the more successful you are likely to be at whatever you are trying to accomplish.

    If this is true, then I imagine that drawing/sketching from life must be good training for your brain, because that’s exactly what you are doing when sketching. You’re not creating an exact photographic copy – you’re finding which are the most meaningful details that convey the scene, and distilling it down to just those shapes and lines. (One fun thing to try is to see just how far you can distill it – what is the fewest strokes you can use to convey the thing you are drawing).

    Something the institute has identified as totally poisonous to brain health is multitasking. Trying to do multiple things at once makes us addicted to distraction – trains our brain to lose focus quickly. They say that one of the best things you can do for your brain is to engage in activities where you focus on one thing for an extended period of time. In this respect too, drawing must be good for you.

    • annacitrino says:

      Thank you for your thoughts. I’m interested in the brain research that you mention, and in fact had just made a short presentation about these ideas of the brain only being able to hold on to a few things at a time, as a way to talk about why it is important that we come back repeatedly to the practice of gratitude in our lives, so that we can continue to live in the awareness of the wonder life is. We become what we think about, and focus is so important to nurturing what it is we want to become. It’s a circular kind of thing. If you watch any one who is really good at something they do, it has been achieved through a consistent practice and continued focus.

      Sketching and drawing ans an excellent brain activity are a kind of meditation, as I see it. You’re concentrating on something for a very long time. What your eye has made whole, the person drawing must take apart and reconstruct in order to put it back together again on paper in its distilled shape. I love the idea of trying to see how far you can distill something down to its fewest strokes. Seems like Picasso was very good at that. It took him years of practice, but he knew how.

      I’m learning that I need to be less focused on the product, and more on the process of drawing. I want to make my drawings to look like something recognizable, and more than that, to be pleasing. It’s the act of seeing and re-seeing that I’m really practicing, though, and that’s probably more important than the end product in the long run–or at least as important, because that’s where the real learning is taking place.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You have practiced for years how to train your eyes to see. Your photos demonstrate that eye. The things that we need to see are in front of us. Knowing how to make the hand do what the eye sees is a whole other layer of challenge.

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