COVID-19 has swept into our lives in devastating ways. Across the country, it single-handedly has brought so much of life as we know it to a stand-still. If you live in the SF Bay Area, you’re now under a “shelter-in-place” directive. Everything closed. Everyone home. We’re all washing our hands and hording toilet paper. Stress is high and families are now going to face the challenge of forced togetherness. Oh joy.
As for me, retirement last June has taught me a lot about slowing down. It’s been a necessary lesson after so many years of teaching and running all day long according to timed bells. I started volunteering through our public library which has allowed me to focus my energies in ways that are familiar — books, literacy, children, English-language learners. But slowly, I’ve started to realize that I need also to be learning something new — to throw myself into something that is unfamiliar down to my bones. In my classroom, I used to call this “out of the box” learning — those “windows” of our lives can teach us so much more than the “mirrors.”
So in March, I signed up for a sketching class. I have always been a stick-figure kind of artist. Occasionally, if pressed, I could successfully draw a cube but I owe that more to geometry than any art class. This sketch class was to meet one day a week for four weeks. The class was full and I sat in the back where no one could see me or my “art.” While my classmates seemed to settle in and find comfort in the shapes, lines, and shadings they created on their sketch pads, I found anxiety. Buckets full of anxiety.
What I’d wanted was a Bob Ross kind of experience: put this line here, shade this there — oh, look, a happy mistake . . . and now we have a gorgeous ocean scene!” What I got instead was “pick out a picture you’d like to sketch and get to it!” The instructor walked around, giving helpful tips and instruction to people who seemed to welcome it. I worked diligently on my pieces but felt like I needed far too much help to call on the teacher. I toiled alone — and then finally, skipped the last class. So much for my act of courage and learning.
This week, though, as COVID-19 ramped up the fear factor across the nation, I found all my volunteering opportunities drying up. Schools are closed and so is the public library. With nowhere to go, I picked up the stack of pencils and my sketch pad. I found some photographs in magazines. I began to sketch.
What happened next was nothing really short of a tiny miracle. I’m calling it my Pandemic Discovery. This slowing down of time and space has catapulted me from stick figures to recognizable figures. I’m kind of shocked. It reminds me of stories where the patient, having awakened from a coma, finds that they can suddenly play the guitar or dance ballet after having been tone-deaf with two left feet before.
Obviously, I have a long way to go if I’m going “art” in any appreciable way. But I’ve learned a few things about the process that I think are helpful in these “sheltering” times.
For me, drawing over the past week has been meditative. Choosing the right pencil, concentrating on the pressure of graphite on paper, following lines and shape, form and shading, all have required focus. The world at large fades into the background while all I can see is black and white details of a figure that begins to emerge.
Meditation like this has given me respite . . . a much-needed break from a panicking world. Focusing on the details, I have control — what to darken, where to lift, sometimes what to erase and when to try again. Focusing on highlighting helps my mind show my eyes where to land. Landing there, on those highlights, gives me an idea of where the light is shining. As with everything, it’s always about the light.
The next weeks and months are going to be hard, no doubt. I have a perpetual headache about all of it. But I’m on the lookout for those things that will allow my brain a rest — those things that are a meditation for the soul. Sometimes, I find it in following a new recipe, reading a heart-grabbing novel, or breathing in a poem. Lately, I’ve found it in a sketch pad and some drawing pencils. I have one daughter who finds her meditation in welding, another who seems to find it looking for puppies we might adopt. My husband finds it on long hikes or when he is working on his motorcycle.
Here’s what I’ve been able to sketch so far. Like I said, I have a long way to go — but now, as I’m sheltering in place, it seems like I have quite a few days ahead for the journey.