It’s that time of year when everything is so dark and grey and damp.
But that darkness and greyness and dampness gives life to everything we hold dear here.
Last year I assigned a grade twelve art class a design-a-tattoo warm-up assignment, partly with the intention of having the students investigate the symbolism and imagery associated with our names, birthdays, and birth places
My origins are associated with imagery that is both elegant and venomous. What does that say about me? (Eek.)
The art teacher I am filling in for has a collection of bones for still-lifes. This week in the senior classes we’ve been drawing them (and drawing inspiration from them) for a few minutes each day. The origin of the animals is unknown, but now they are immortalized in a few dozen sketchbooks.
Teeth in watercolour. Desert musings in acrylic and collage.
(*I should have posted this a few months ago when I originally made this sketch.)
Throughout the summer and autumn, my neighbour’s beautiful french horn playing drifted into my apartment.
I think I know which house it’s coming from but I don’t know the player. I painted this for them.
I printed out a copy and taped it to the utility pole outside the house. Unfortunately, it’s rainy here and the colours ran. Oops!
Still, I’ve caught people looking at it and that feels good.
Now that it’s winter and our windows are closed, I don’t hear the horn as often and I miss it.
“The beauty of playing together is meeting in the One.”1
“This is so magical,” I hear again.
This time the voice comes from below, where friends bundled up in hats and scarves lie in the sand and watch hundreds of lanterns travel above.
Seven thousand of us have gathered to observe the release of these lanterns that mark the end of Chinese New Year celebrations.
Cheers and laughter float across the beach each time another lantern is released. The paper aircrafts tilt and dance upwards uncertainly until they catch speed. Soon, the points of light become indistinguishable from sparkling constellations.
We are called to this ritual.
We are drawn to a unifying experience.
We are hungry for magic.
1 Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1990), 94.
As I drive around the corner, a tiny dark shape appears on the road through the fog. It’s already past midnight and I’m longing for bed, but I pull over and get out of the car.
A pigeon is sitting still in the middle of the lane. I crouch down close to it and I see that one leg is retracted protectively.
I approach the bird with a towel and it stumbles in circles.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I scoop it into my hands and hold it as carefully as possible but the pigeon cries out.
“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
I lay the pigeon down underneath a bush.
In bed that night, I think about why holding the pigeon “stopped” me. Realizing the rarity of being within touching distance of a wild animal makes me feel disconnected from the natural world, but realizing the rarity of being an active witness makes me feel disconnected from my humanity.
How many times have I been silent while witnessing an act of discrimination on public transit? How many times have I kept walking when being addressed by a panhandler? How many times have I neglected to ask if a stranger who may be struggling needed help?
In his book Becoming Human, Jean Vanier retells the biblical story of the beggar Lazarus in order to illustrate the gulf that exists between the privileged and the poor.
“What is the abyss that separates people? Why are we unable to look Lazarus straight in the eye and listen to him?
I suspect that we exclude Lazarus because we are frightened that our hearts will be touched if we enter into a relationship with him. If we listen to his story and hear his cry of pain we will discover that he is a human being.”1
Pulling over to hold the pigeon reminded me of how easy it is to remain isolated and ignore the needs of others. As an educator, I know that I must model being an active witness and allow my heart to work past fear so that it may be touched by compassion.
1 Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2008), 70.
A few summers ago at the Richmond Art Gallery, my teaching partner and I were demonstrating a new project when suddenly one of the students erupted into laughter. It became contagious.
“What’s so funny?” We finally managed to ask between giggles.
The student shrugged and smiled. We all continued laughing for a few moments longer.