Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Drop the Phone and Draw!

I love taking photos with my cell phone, but I'm thinking that maybe, just maybe, it might be doing more harm than good to my quality of life.

Let me explain.

When I see a beautiful or interesting thing, my impulse is to try to capture it so that later I can revisit it, remember it, and experience that beauty all over again.  Experiencing the beautiful thing made my life better, so why wouldn't I want to repeat that, right?

Here's a photo I took on a recent vacation to St. John in the USVI.  This is of Coral Bay.

Lovely, right?

Yeah, except a picture of a thing almost never does the subject justice.  A photo might capture the details , but somehow it can't capture the experience of that live encounter.  It's a lovely picture, but in a few weeks, it won't much remind me of what it was like to stand on that mountain.  To feel the sun and the breeze.  To smell the salt and the greenery all around me.  To hear bugs and birds and goats enjoying the warmth.

I had read the weather reports.  I knew that when I came home from that vacation it would be during a polar vortex cold snap, including a 100 degree temperature drop.  So I knew I would really, really want to remember the experience of being there on that sunny warm mountain!

What to do?

Ten years ago, I would have used my camera to snap a photo.  I'd have thought, there, I've got it.  I would have moved on to the next thing to look at, secure that I had captured the scene and could revisit it and rekindle the experience whenever I wanted.

But!  In my experience, that never worked.  I can refer to the image and be reminded, sure.  But I can't revisit the experience through a hastily taken photograph.  Bummer!  Hundreds of photos, slideshows and photo albums or scrapbooks later, I while I can remember, can't recapture the feelings of being on that beach, or hiking that mountain, or watching that rainstorm.

A better way exists.

I discovered this better way of capturing memories almost by accident when I began keeping an illuminated journal some years ago.  This type of journal is a combination of writing and drawing.  In order to fill my pages, and to increase my own mindfulness in each moment (a spiritual practice which I took on at about the same time) I needed to heighten my attention to the world around me.  Instead of capturing the photographic facts, I needed to pay attention to all five of my senses, and then try to capture those.

At first, this felt incredibly awkward.  I'd sit on a beach and walk myself through my five sense.  Sight.  Hearing.  Touch.  Smell.  Taste.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  What can you feel on your skin?  What do you smell?  What do you taste?

I'd jot notes.  Sometimes I'd jot haiku (more on this in a future post!).

Later, when I got more brave, I began to draw.

But it was only months and years later that I realized the magic of keeping that sort of record.  Unlike looking at snapshots which really triggered only intellectual memories and some emotions associated with those, my journal entries full of notes and pictures created after periods of intense attention, helped me re-experience the moments themselves, almost without effort on my part!

I could look at a picture I drew of a particular beach and--bang!--instantly I was there.  When I read a series of haiku I wrote in a particular restaurant while waiting for the food to come, suddenly I experienced the smells, the hunger, the cacophony, the anticipation all over again.

And here is the best part: the quality of my drawing and my writing do not matter in terms of the value these little pieces of art bring to my life.

The only thing that matters is that I paid attention, and then created something with what I experienced.  I used images to get what was happening in my head out of my head and onto a piece of paper.  That paper then became a prompt to reignite the memories formed by that close attention.

For example, here is a sketch I did one morning as I sat and just watched the water at Haulover Bay, also on St. John.  I look at the picture and I go straight back there.  I remember the sky and water and rocks.  The sound of the low waves.  The textures of the gray cobblestones in the sand (which aren't even in the picture!).  The roosters who hovered hoping to snatch a potato chip.  The donkey who hoped we'd move so he could snag our spot in the shade.  And so much more.

Yes, I have plenty of photographs of Haulover Bay as well.  Probably too many.  Certainly too many to ever show to friends and family, who would wither and die if they had to look at all my travel photos.  So I'm certainly not saying that I plan to give up photography!  No way.  And it can, of course, depending on the mindset with which it is approached, capture much more than just an record of something in front of you.

You'll find an interesting article here about John Ruskin and his views on the importance of drawing as a tool for experience life at its fullest.  He wrote:

Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.

As with most of life, I guess, it's all about the mindset. I'll keep taking photographs, that's for sure.  But I will also always remember to put the phone (or the camera) down, take a deep breath, pay attention with all five of my senses, and draw.

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