I’ll be joining 1000 Voices for Compassion, which currently stands at the mathematically-pleasing number of 1024 bloggers who will write about compassion on February 20. What do you think compassion is? What does it mean in your life?
The day I did this drawing, I knew it was some kind of breakthrough. It has to do with the cleanness of the edges of the shadows. I get really frustrated with myself when all my marks are mushy. These are not mushy. They’re almost Cubist in appearance in places, as happens when I work so much and so firmly with the long edge of the charcoal. But the shading on the belly is subtle without being wishy-washy. Something really good was happening here.
Three weeks later, with lots of unsatisfying attempts in between, I managed to keep that same firmness. There are places where the edges are soft, maybe too soft, as in the left calf and foot. I’m not sure whether those work, but to the extent they do, it’s because not every mark on the page is like that. Most are more clearly delineated. This is a case of the first longer pose (seven minutes) maintaining some of the spontaneity and energy of the warmup one- and two-minutes.
There’s usually one spot that grabs my attention, and without taking time to analyze why, I almost always start there. On the next drawing, done the same day as the previous one, it was the dramatic light on the right hand.
I have brown and sanguine conte crayons in the art box I bring to drawing, but I seldom get them out. This time I wanted some color, and wanted to try the different medium, which has a little more drag than charcoal; it’s stickier, smoother. This next drawing is a bit of a mess, but I like the gesture, and the left hand, which is far from an accurate rendering but conveys the energy of the pose; intense, intent on something inward, but braced for what’s outside.
This next one is a more tranquil pose from the same day as the previous. Still working on the clarity of all those planes–there are so many on her belly, revealed by, and revealing, of the light. I like the light in this, overall.
On the next one, three out of four limbs (all but the left leg) are flat and undeveloped, and the neck–feh–but I knew right away that the hands and foot would need my attention. Even with 45 minutes for this pose, that’s not much for me when two hands and a foot are visible, and so clearly what the pose is about for me. They’re all a bit rough, but real to my eyes. I also like the torso.
If you look at shadows you’ll often see a gradation, from darkest at the outside edge of the shadows, to lighter farther in, farther from the light it seems. You see it here, on both breasts and the left arm. I notice that phenomenon often but can’t reproduce it as well as I can see it.
More art journaling. I included this one . . . why did I include this one? I see almost nothing but flaws now. I’ll try to take off my perfectionism goggles and look again. Well, the left hand works. And the overlapping shadows along her right side. And I can feel the slump, the way her weight resting on her hands has made her stiffen her arms a little.
Same day, same model. Three different approaches. In this next one, I used much lighter marks, but still kept a strong sense of light–so, that can be done. The hand . . . well, sometimes you can draw a hand, and sometimes you can’t.
This was a departure. It was an accident, if I remember correctly; I was so compelled by her face that I put a lot of time into it, and didn’t get to much else except an outline (which I often like to indicate, not by a line at all, but by a contrast in shade between foreground and background. People don’t actually have lines around them).
This one makes the cut mostly on account of his head and face. Speaking of foreground and background, this was a situation in which the hair and background were almost indistinguishable. I’m pleased that I conveyed that, though I didd’t have time to draw in the background on most of it–not that I felt the need to. There’s also some good stuff going on with the hands. When a pose makes visible both hands and both feet, I should pick two at most to focus on. There’s really not time for detail on all four. The result here was that the feet look half-finished. I could have just sketched the gesture of them instead, not even tried to put in any detail.
What am I always telling myself? More contrast! Advice I only occasionally follow. Sometimes I grit my teeth and limit myself to just a few shades: white, black, and almost-black. I did it in the next drawing and it was powerful.
I like how different the hands are on this next one, and how you can tell the tilt of her head from just a few lines. Also, I trusted the shadowy, indistinct nature of her right hand. I really couldn’t make out much except that dark silhouette. It’s hard not to extrapolate and mess up by drawing more than I can really see, but this time I resisted.
The munchkin asked if she could keep this next one. It is her favorite on account of the bun. I didn’t know until then that she considers herself something of an expert in drawing hair, and with good reason–she went on to draw a spectacular hairdo. I got nothing on her for hair.
Still, I did okay with the hair here, but what made me keep this one was the light on the shoulderblades, arm and hands.
I’ve been following Ryan Bell’s Year Without God on and off, on Facebook and his blog. I’d heard him preach at a conference for clergy involved in PICO and been very impressed by this Seventh Day Adventist pastor and his passion for economic justice, so when I heard about his year-long experiment in “challeng[ing] his beliefs and let[ting] the world watch,” as his girlfriend Rebecca Pratt summarized it, there was no question but that I’d be among the watchers.
Now, the year has ended, Bell is firmly humanist and atheist, and the responses from many Christians, especially Adventists, are predictable: a sense of loss (“Very sad”), concern for his well-being (“I will pray for him”), anger (“He has made a calculated and sharp deal with his Master”), dismissal (“It is apparent that Brother Bell was living a lie for much of his life“), condescension (“Send him a Bible”), and running through them all, a powerful assumption that no one can be happy without the kind of belief that they themselves have (“Sad, dark and empty life”).
It’s tempting to see these responses as evidence that his former co-religionists are a particularly smug and self-righteous lot, and that if the tables were turned–if, say, a Unitarian Universalist became a Methodist–we liberal-religionists wouldn’t respond this way. However, I’m afraid many would.
Would we be able to let them go to their new spiritual home without criticizing it–“Christianity is just a myth–I prefer reality”? Would we insist on rewriting their life story–“You must not have understood science to begin with”? Would we proclaim our superiority with statements such as “Well, some people need a crutch”?
I cited the Christians whose responses to Bell’s journey have been defensive and judgmental. Fortunately, many others seem secure enough in their own faith to wish him only the best, accepting that spiritual paths other than their own might lead to a person’s being good, happy, and fulfilled. I hope every Unitarian Universalist who ever meets an ex-UU will do likewise. “Not all those who wander are lost,” we seekers like to say. And not all who choose a different path than ours are heading in the wrong direction.
Something happened to me several sessions back. I was drawing away, trying to pay attention to what was really before my eyes, how the light fell, how the shadows were shaped, what was the length of this limb, the bend of that joint, when suddenly, quietly, something turned right around inside. It felt as if I were on one of those big rigs that camerapeople sit on to shoot a movie scene from above, and it spun around 180 degrees and I was looking out from the model’s point of view. Instead of trying to draw what she looked like, I was trying to draw what it felt like to be her at that moment. And I thought, I’ve been doing this all backwards. I don’t want the viewers to see what I see; I want them to feel what the model feels.
Not that I know what that person feels, of course. But I know what it feels like to be a body, to twist my foot this way, to bend over so that my breath comes a bit short. I know what it’s like to be a human being who’s carrying a whole history inside. Maybe if my drawings help the viewer to feel some of the physical reality, not just see it but feel it, they’ll also enter empathetically into what it might be like to be that person. What is she thinking about? What worries, memories, speculations are in her mind? What emotions are occupying her right now? What events brought her to this moment in her life, and where does she imagine she’s going next?
It was humbling. Here and there, though, looking back at drawings I did months before that chair spun me around, I can see that happening. This next one made the cut and was photographed on account of the stretch of the left arm and the slightly uncomfortable twist of the right foot. Looking at it, I begin to feel what it might be like inside this person’s skin.
The next one is the same day, the same model, and again I like the gestural quality best, the sense of what it’s like to be sitting there, turned that way. Now, her left arm looks tacked on like a Barbie’s, and I somehow situated her navel a couple inches above where it really is, so I can’t bear to put it in the very limited rotating gallery on my home-office wall. But I like a lot about it, particularly the tilt of her head and the feeling of her left hand pressing down on her thigh.
On this one (another day, another model) I just like the hand, especially the thumb. It’s very sketchy, but I got a lot across in seven minutes. Also, it represents the fading of my Fear of Buttocks. It’s just so hard to draw that part of the body without it looking like a cartoon: a caricature, the two scoops we all know are there but are actually very subtle. I’ve really worked on it.
Sometimes I feel the urge to use the tip of a charcoal pencil to draw contours of shadows and planes. It’s very spontaneous, the loosest I usually get. I’ve been fearful that it will be gimmicky, but it evokes a whole different kind of energy; I want to remember that and listen to when the situation is calling me to use it.
Same day, same model, different kind of marks. Here what works best is the hands, and again the gesture that makes me feel in my own neck the tension of that twist, and makes me feel in my own belly the way his belly folds on itself.
As part of the 40 bags in 40 days de-cluttering challenge, I’ve tackled the backlog of drawings that have been piled, some flat, some rolled, some unceremoniously squashed, in various stashes around my car and home office. They ranged from late 2013 to this past Monday. I went through them rapidly, pulled out the best ones to photograph, put a few of those on the office wall, and put the pile you see here into the recycle bin.
There were 44 I deemed photo-worthy, which is too many to post at once, so I’ll post five or six per day over the next several days as part of this online art journal and try to cement in my mind what qualities made these some of the best of the past year’s work.
One thing I learn from this overview is that I am generally trying to do too much. The poses in these sessions last 45 minutes at most; the majority are seven to 10 minutes. That’s enough time for me to capture either the overall gesture with relatively little detail, or the details of just a couple of spots.
Here, I focused on the hands. Their attitude and the briefest of sketches of the body in between would have been enough to convey the feel of how she is sitting. The time I spent on her torso is mostly a diversion. The subtle shading of her lower back is a whole project unto itself, which I couldn’t do justice in 15 minutes, though I did better here than I often do.
I included the next one largely on the basis of the light across the chest and belly, and the overall gesture.
What works in this one is the light in certain places: collarbone, knee, foot. I am often tempted to put slight shading in almost everywhere, which leads me down my oft-traveled road of low contrast. Leaving some of the paper really white is as important as going really dark.
This one commits a lot of the errors that make me want to ball the paper up–it’s stiff, I can see the hesitation in my marks, there are scale problems–but I like the hands, especially the right one, and the light on her right hip.
So much to learn, so much pleasure in the learning.
You’re strapped face-up to a board so you can’t move, with a cloth pressed over your face, and turned head-down by 15 degrees or so. Water is poured over your nose and mouth. You gag, you vomit, you pass out as your lungs gasp helplessly for air that can’t get through. It takes only a second for the experience to become unbearably painful, and it goes on and on. In your desperation to escape, you may break your own bones against the restraints. The cloth keeps the ultimate effect, death, from happening too fast–the person pouring the water doesn’t want you to die, not yet–but you may well die if the brain damage from oxygen deprivation is extreme enough, or if you breathe vomit into your lungs. You don’t just feel like you’re drowning. You are drowning.
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. (“The Principles of Newspeak,” appendix to 1984, George Orwell)
The CIA calls this “waterboarding.” That word sounds harmless, even fun. Maybe it’s a sport, like waterskiing or surfing–something involving a board and water and good times. Someone might say, “I’m tired of longboarding and snowboarding–let’s go waterboarding!”
No word in the B vocabulary was ideologically neutral. A great many were euphemisms. Such words, for instance, as joycamp (forced-labour camp) or Minipax (Ministry of Peace, i. e. Ministry of War) meant almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean.
What the CIA and its defenders want us to call “waterboarding” is torture, and calling it by the gentler name the torturers invented helps conceal the crime. If a more descriptive term than “torture” is needed, the term might be “drowning into unconsciouness” or “drowning to a point just short of death,” or simply “torture by drowning.” Every serious news source has a reader representative (email@example.com, for example) or ombudsperson (here is the contact form for National Public Radio’s), or of course a Letters to the Editor section. Whenever I hear or read the term “waterboarding,” unless it’s clarified by “as the CIA calls it” and replaced in subsequent uses by an accurate term, I’m going to write to the source in question and tell them their job is to give us news, not Newspeak.
Take for example the well-known passage from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government. . .
It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink. A full translation could only be an ideological translation, whereby Jefferson’s words would be changed into a panegyric on absolute government.
I took up regular walking because I needed to tend my physical self better. Most weeks, I walk five days, and usually, I’m walking around San Francisco. I took it up as exercise for the body, but it’s turned out to be an important spiritual practice too.
Walking brings things into focus that just aren’t visible from a car or bus, or even a bike. I start to wonder: why is there so much trash in the street in this neighborhood, and not in that neighborhood? Do the street cleaners skip this block sometimes? Do people just throw more stuff onto the sidewalk here? The city trash cans are often overflowing on this block–why is that?
A street planted with trees feels completely different than an otherwise identical street one block over.
The city’s many murals become intricate paintings at a walking pace. I’m in an art gallery now.
Walking creates enough small encounters to fill a Jim Jarmusch movie. One afternoon as dark was falling, I passed an apartment building and heard a woman in the stairway crying as if her heart were breaking. I paused for a long time, pulled between sympathy and respect for the privacy so hard to come by in city dwelling, unsure whether to venture up the steps and ask if she was okay. I resumed walking; my own heart stayed at that building for the rest of the evening. Another time I passed a couple standing still on the sidewalk, holding each other, eyes open, not speaking, not kissing.
Walking along the San Jose Expressway, where walking is not encouraged (the sidewalk ran out), I could peek into back yards that are a few meters from rushing traffic. Some houses predate the expressway and clearly used to have a quieter yard; others were built later than the road. One of these has a balcony; its view is four busy lanes, and I wonder whether anyone has ever sat out there.
On that walk, I discovered a pathway that meanders behind the houses for a few blocks along the expressway. I had had no idea. It was like entering a secret world. That was the kind of walk I like best: I set out in a new direction, just taking streets as the names take my fancy, allowing myself to get lost and then find my way back home. I can’t get lost for long before I come to a street with a familiar name, but I feel like an explorer anyway. One house has its Christmas tree up in the front window (it’s November 15). This whole block has a sweet, Hobbiton feel to it, and I muse a while before I figure out why: to enter a house, you pass through an archway and up a roofed set of steps. It makes everything feel cozy.
Behind these walls, people are sleeping, talking, watching television, eating, making love, worrying, reading. It seems both odd and fitting that each of these stories is playing out just feet from another one, with nothing separating them but a wall and almost complete ignorance of the other’s existence. Sometimes I think about the beings in the houses; sometimes I speak a prayer in my mind for each one, wishing them well. Other times I’m miles away, listening to the podcast that comes through the earbuds into my head. Those stories aren’t really any farther than the ones right here.
I walk a tiny circuit, a few miles of this planet, a twisted line beginning and ending at my own house, all on a bit of concrete someone poured and called the sidewalks of San Francisco. When I get to the end of my journey, I’ve traveled in more than space.
A colleague just asked me if a sermon I gave to our chapter two years ago is online. It wasn’t, until now. I sent the text to chapter members right after the retreat at which I gave the sermon, but it felt too tender at the time to put on this blog. Now I’ve added it to the sermons page.
What can’t be conveyed is the joy of singing “Rocky Ground” with a band of colleagues on that occasion. I gave another, very different sermon in my congregation two months later, using the same song, which several members of my congregation, and guest musicians Be’eri Moalem and Yuri Liberzon, performed beautifully.