The Perks of a “Look at That!” Attitude

Sometimes we forget why we do what we do.

I fell back in love with sketching outdoors about six years ago, after a very long hiatus. I had drifted away from sketching, and in doing so I had forgotten what magic it held. The magic is simple.

When you draw on site, you become simultaneously more alert and more relaxed.

How can that be? It makes no sense. But it’s true.

At first I sketched by myself, then I took a few online classes, and there I made friends I would not have met otherwise. Here is the blog of one such friend I met through Sketchbook Skool, Dana Burrell.  Dana lives about an hour away, and she and I get together to sketch while also introducing each other to our favorite sketch-able places (others might call them ‘photogenic’ places, but we choose to take ‘pencil-pictures’ instead.)

My journey from sketcher to sketchbook-art teacher surprised me, and I enjoyed the three years I spent working with adult students. I retired from teaching at my local art school a few months before the current pandemic temporarily closed the school as well, and until today, I thought I didn’t really miss teaching.

But then I watched this video. Pour yourself a cup of tea or a glass of water, and settle back to enjoy watching about 12 minutes of this inspiring man, John Muir Laws.

The best way to teach: Appreciation

I understand what John Muir Laws talks about in this video. Think back to a time when, unbeknownst to you, someone was watching you and silently cheering you on. Then afterward they told you how impressed they were: at the impromptu speech you gave, at the way you paused to help someone for a moment, at the way you took time for them. Pretty motivating, right?

My first watercolor teacher, Giffin Russell of Antrim, NH, had the ability to spot the one thing you did well in your painting, and then she told you all about it. I love the word “admire”— from Latin, meaning to be ‘at wonder’.  Regular sketching can lead to wonderment, as John Muir Laws so clearly emphasizes in his many free online classes. His three prompts are “I notice… I wonder… It reminds me of…” With this approach, we are allowed to simply take notes on what we see, spend more time being curious, and less time judging the ‘handwriting’ of our sketches.

Attention is a Skill

As John says, attention takes practice, just like everything else. The good news is that even when you are new at paying attention to what you see, you are instantly getting better at it. There is no time limit to how long you look at something before picking up your pen or pencil. For me, it helps to fall in love a little bit, before I start to draw…

Will you too become a nature journal ambassador?

Perhaps. Can you start by becoming a flora observer? (It moves around less than fauna!) All you need is a pen, paper, and an impromptu pause.

Yesterday I was walking to an appointment, and I realized I would arrive about 15 minutes early. Knowing they would not want me in the waiting room that far in advance of my appointment (due to the strategic reopening methods being honored by most businesses nowadays), I decided to pause a block away and lean on a granite post while I sketch-doodled parts of a nearby rhododendron bush. The first marks were quite uninspired, but I loved looking at what I was looking at (that is a key!), so I kept going. I intentionally used a gel pen because I knew it would later react well to a selective application of moisture from my waterbrush. With that bit of water, I was able to reactivate the ink and give the black & white sketch some depth and life.

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Note: This shows an example of the ‘technique’, if I can call it that. (I forgot to take a picture of the actual in-progress sketch you see below!)

When I got back home, I decided to toss in a splash of color, not necessary, but still fun.

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If there ever was a time when we need to be re-inspired about being alive, it is now.

There is so much truly scary stuff in the news nowadays, not only in America, but around the world. Indulging in a time-out to look, observe, sketch, and breathe is not denial of the state of the world around us, not by a long shot. It is how we restore ourselves, how we resolve to observe, carry on, and keep participating in this life. Sketching resurrects courage. Perspective is not just an aspect of art, it is an aspect of life.

Keep calm, carry on, and don’t forget the paper and pencil.

Posted in Art-Making, Pen and Ink, Sketchbooks, Storytelling & Pondering, Watercolor | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Memorials and planting seeds

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Here in New Hampshire it is common wisdom that certain garden crops should not be planted until Memorial Day weekend. In the past it was because there was still a chance of a killing frost even up until the end of May. With the warming of the planet, I don’t know how many gardeners still follow that guidance. Nevertheless, the end of May has always felt like an ending and a beginning.

This morning I was reading a blog post about  nature journaling by my good friend Michelle Geffken and it got me thinking. “What is my version of ‘pencil inches’ ?” What skills do I want to grow?

Step One: Know Thyself.

If I had a magic genie lamp, and could make three attainable wishes, what would they be?

1- To be as fit as possible, considering my age. My desire for this has grown exponentially in recent weeks. I gaze with deep envy when I spot someone my age who is a healthy weight and reasonably spry. I mentioned this desire to a friend a couple weeks ago, and her response was, “There’s no reason why you can’t attain that also. That’s a very reasonable goal.” I was taken aback. A reasonable goal? You mean I am not kidding myself? Her response has had a lasting impact.

2- To be a published author. In order to do that, I need to devote focused chunks of time each day to writing, and not just writing in my journal, or even here on my blog. I need to select one of the three writing projects I have on the back burner, and focus on just one of them until it either starts to sprout real potential, or proves it is not truly compelling. My plan is to work on one book draft for four weeks, and only then evaluate my progress toward the ultimate multi-month goal. (…suddenly thinking of this as a humble update on Dickensian sensibilities, more like “Reasonable Expectations”…)

3- To be a published illustrator. Again, this is where study and practice come in. I love the illustration shorthand used by illustrators like E. H. Shepard of Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows fame. When I take the time to actually copy one of his illustrations in my own sketchbook, I learn so much more than I would by simply studying it visually. Of course the only way to make this skill my own is through practice, practice, practice, by “cutting down a lot of trees”. Truth be told, I already own enough sketchbooks and pads of paper– no more vegetation need sacrifice itself in my name. All I need to do now is begin in earnest, every day.

Three wishes, three activities that will give me joy, and that are simple to do. All that stands (and has ever stood) in my way is Impatience and Unreasonable Timelines. The goals have always been fine– the timelines, not so much.

Encouragement and evaluation don’t mix.

My life-long journey toward these three goals has been stumbling at best because I have tried to encourage myself while at the very same moment I was evaluating my progress. No, it can’t be done!  When looking at my own work, evaluation comes more naturally than encouragement. Oddly enough, that is the exact opposite of how I treat my friends.

The good news is that with awareness, change becomes possible.

I am not married to my past, so today I choose Encouragement most every minute of the day, and I save Evaluation for special occasions, moments in time that I select in advance.

In the meanwhile, I am free to fly.

How about you? If you could have three reasonably attainable goals, what would they be? Could you reach that goal in, say, a year? Could you be kind and encouraging to yourself, assessing your progress only monthly? In the meantime, could you maintain a belief in your ability to reach the next mile marker?

Can you start by simply wondering what your three secret dreams truly are?

I believe in you, even though we have never met. Tag, you’re it!

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Shadow Graffiti

Posted in Art-Making, Storytelling & Pondering | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Have you ever taken a nap with your eyes open?

That’s pretty much what sketching was like today. I was gently focused on what I was doing, and at some point I thought. “Yeah, I think I’m done.” (Wow, I wish you could hear how I enunciated that ‘yeah’—it was more like ‘yehhhhh-aaaaaah”—it had about four syllables.)

When I finished, I took a picture of the painting, and took another of what I’d been looking at, and it really did feel like waking up, like coming out of a trance. And if you do it right, it is also a mood lift.

“You said ‘Do it right’—is that a technique?? I collect techniques!”

You wish! No, it is not a technique, it is a change of eyeglasses, a whole new perspective. ‘Doing it right’ is giving yourself the same space, the same elbow room, that any musician has when they practice a riff over and over, or they simply practice scales in different keys, over and over, mindlessly. They are working on hand coordination and muscle memory and building up those really tiny muscles in our hands that otherwise don’t get used. Practicing scales is mindless, you just do it. And if your sketching skill is ever going to improve, you have to think less, and cut down a lot more trees.

It’s the opposite of what you think: You are aiming for Quantity, not Quality, isn’t that a relief!

As a beginner you simply can’t afford to be invested in the results of your time spent sketching. Later on, you also can’t afford to be invested in the results, but for some odd reason (wink wink), the results will improve on their own.

So sketch often, but not long

Try not to work on a single sketch for any longer than 30 minutes. This is for two reasons.

  • One, there is less chance of overworking it.
  • Two, if you’re anything like me, if you lose all track of time, you might also lose your ability to move. Honestly. At my age, when I get so into it that I forget to move, I have trouble unwrapping my crooked sitting position and I forfeit any semblance of grace in trying to stand up again. So remember. move!

Today’s Adventure

Today I had an errand to run (a reason to go outdoors), and it was a beautiful cool/warm day, so I donned appropriate clothing, visor cap, sunglasses and my face mask, and ventured out with my brand new, never-before-used art-kit: the one I didn’t need, the one that initially gave me buyer’s remorse, and yes, the one that I now love with a passion.

The main new item in the kit is the canvas organizer itself, from the wonderful Maria Coryell-Martin at Expeditionary Art in Port Townsend, Washington. Let me walk you through everything.

The Art-ToolKit: I bought the empty version of the large canvas kit because I have a huge stash of supplies already (many previously bought from Maria). She also offers the two sizes in fully ‘kitted out’ versions as well. The canvas is high quality, rugged, well-constructed, and I know it will stand up well with respectful use.

Sketchbook: I have learned I prefer to use a nice 5″x8″ (A5) size sketchbook (like the beige one shown here) instead of anything smaller. It gives me a place to rest the heel of my hand, and a place to attach a palette if I like.

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The tools:

 in the above photo, from left to right are:

2 watercolor pencils, grey and brown

1 water-brush

1 regular drawing pencil and eraser

1 Pocket Mister to moisten the paint as well as pre-mist the paper for large washes

(My sketchbook is tucked in the big pocket underneath)

On the right side, from top to bottom:

3 little clips to keep my pages secure in the wind

a refill syringe, (needle-free!), helpful to refill my water-brush from my water-bottle

a Pilot G-2 gel pen

a round travel brush, about size 10

little bits of scrap watercolor paper for notes and color testing

In the large pocket underneath I have:

my collapsible water cup

my wrist sock for wiping off my brush as I paint

The Palettes:

my 2 Palettes from Expeditionary Art: Pocket and Demi size (the ‘larger’ Pocket Palette is exactly the size of a business card holder- amazing!)

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From ‘Bag’ to ‘ToolKit’

Truth be told, before today I simply carried most of these same supplies loose in a 7”x12” canvas zipper bag which I then rubber-banded to whatever sketchbook I was using at the time. It worked perfectly well, except for breaking pencil leads by mistake, fumbling looking for things, dropping some of them, and the bag occasionally spilling out entirely. Also, it was easy to forget and leave something behind, because there were no designated ‘empty spots’ crying out, “What about me??” Like the time I was psyched to watercolor, and the only thing I forgot was a paintbrush…

The old canvas zipper bag worked fine, but not fine enough. Because the #1 obstacle to creating an enjoyable sketching habit is…

Lousy Momentum.

Another name for Lousy Momentum is “Giddy-Up-Whoa Syndrome.” Imagine you have a real itch to go outside and sketch but, um, which palette? Which sketchbook? Do I even want to bother with color, or should I just take a pen and paper? Which pen? Aw, forget it, there’s another Miss Marple series on Britbox I haven’t finished watching yet…maybe I’ll go outside tomorrow.

The magic moment is lost.

Not so with a really good artkit, especially one with designated slots for all your favorite tools. (I can’t help but picture all the garage workshop walls that have the ghost outlines of every hammer, wrench, and tool spray-painted on the pegboard. You instantly know what is missing!)

When I organized my kit, I first decided I wanted the two tools that stay filled with water (the water brush and the mister) to store vertically so leaks are less likely–that’s why they are on the left. (See photo above—notice that my Mister has lime-green tape wrapped around the cap, making that precious piece of clear plastic harder to lose!)  After that, I just added everything according to instinct. I may switch out one pen for another, one pencil for another, but the Pen Slot and the Pencil Slot will probably remain in the same places. I have only used my Art-Toolkit once, but I was up and running surprisingly fast, instead of fumbling around wasting time making decisions. A palpable difference.

The best part of having a kit all set to go is, well, that you actually go. You get out of the house on a whim and really put your kit through its paces. You might decide you need little changes, so you jot yourself a note on one of those little scraps of paper that reads, “Replace this water-brush, it is clogged!” or “Add a pan of buff titanium.” These are things you will never figure out at home, you figure it out on site, en plein air, on the go.

Finally, the only thing better than a sketchbook is an illustrated journal. I enjoy doing the artwork first, then on the facing page I ponder. I ask myself, what worked and what was difficult? What surprised me? I have a chat with the sketch I just completed, and we compare notes. That way I am left with a story that captures more than just a picture, more than just a collection of words. It becomes a time-travel recording, available anytime, anywhere, right at my fingertips.

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So here’s your challenge: If you are already a Facebook user, consider joining my Facebook group, Drawing Attention NH. It is open to anyone pursuing this life-changing humble habit. Check it out, and after you join, I hope you will become a frequent contributor to the ongoing conversation.

As always, let me know how you got on.

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Periwinkle Pleasure. Can you spot the flowers?

Posted in Art-Making, Pen and Ink, Sketchbooks, Sketching tools, Storytelling & Pondering, Urban Sketching, Watercolor | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Random thoughts on being fidgety

This will probably read like a ‘letter home’ in answer to the question, “What have you been up to since your virtual trip to Wales?”

It has been ten days since my last blog post (that suddenly sounds like a formal blogger’s confession), and I admit the well has not refilled quite yet. I have been editing rough drafts for my memoir collection, and have enjoyed revisiting those original journals which contain familiar handwriting yet describe bumps in the road that I have long since forgotten.

Why on earth would anyone bother writing a memoir?

Good question. One delightful reward is perspective, because sometimes I catch myself thinking I have wasted much of my life, and that simply is not true. Like everyone, I have kept busy working on things that weren’t planned. Having a family ended up not being in the cards. My professional life didn’t end up in a tidy package called a Career— instead I had a series of Jobs. I worked full time throughout my life, often with no inspiration other than paying the rent and having continuous health insurance for a chronic medical condition. I moved every few years, either because the home situation became unacceptable, or a new job drew me to live elsewhere. A good example of ‘unplanned’ is the time I was in a perfectly lovely apartment, very contented until a chain-smoker moved in next door and his smoke wafted from his balcony and windows to mine every day, all year ‘round.

I sometimes moved because of work. As an office staff member working for very small businesses, the work environment could easily become overly intimate, or when working for a non-profit, the funding would simply run out and I would have to seek work elsewhere. That is both the upside and the downside of having transferable job skills. You can go anywhere, but you are also expendable.

On the subject of ‘moving’, it sounds like it refers to Moving Day, right? No, that is the easiest part of the job by far. The rest, no matter how few possessions you have, is a long tedious process of sorting, making trips to the recycling center, trips to Goodwill, downsizing as you go, then wrapping and packing all the breakables and books, swearing all the while to never move again, at least not for a while. I just counted up, I have moved 18 times in the last 53 years, on average every three years during my adult life. No wonder I’m tired! Luckily I collected a lot of stories along the way as well, and packing tales is a joy.

Music to my ears

On a brighter note, I recently invested in a piece of equipment so I could transfer 1980s homemade cassettes to my computer. It is wonderful to once again hear the voices and humor of the singer-songwriters who were such a big part of my life back then. For years I lived in a folk-music-centric world, happily attending open stages, and participating in some of them as well. Today I loved listening again to the banter and the jokes which were the glue that held it all together. Best of all I heard Comradery in the air, even richer than the music itself.

What I miss now, despite being fairly content…

I miss my cafe! I’m sure you know what I mean. I miss having a place to go when I have no place to go and no reason to be there.

Every Tuesday morning pre-Covid-lockdown, I used to pack up this cheap little tablet computer and even cheaper wireless keyboard (possibly a sketchbook too), and head up the street to my cafe. There I would indulge in a few of my favorite things: a large cup of freshly brewed coffee, an elegant cafe-made oatmeal raisin cookie, and the luxury of writing in public. Sometimes the writing came easily, but other times, when nothing came to mind, I would simply sit and ponder…and eavesdrop.

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A sketching date with myself, at White Mountain Gourmet Coffee, Pleasant Street Concord NH, in early March 2020.

Unfortunately, a few months ago, people-watching went out the window along with hugging. I look forward to my next chance to hang out with people I will never really meet, and I will appreciate the experience as I never did before.

People are most relaxed when they think no one is watching (have you noticed?), and you just can’t get that ambience in a Zoom meeting, no matter how beautifully staged the background environment may be. There is still you, sitting right there in the middle of the grid (Hollywood Squares or Brady Bunch, depending on your perspective), and every urge to twitch is self-monitored carefully. I have been known to turn off the video and mute the audio, just so I can stretch and yawn and mutter and scratch my nose unobserved.

Zoom life is odd, there’s no getting around it. It’s not like sitting in a room with a bunch of friends, even if they are your friends, because the body-language is so limited. Online we interrupt unintentionally way more than we used to do in person. We sometimes even raise our hands if we are of a certain age! I notice when I am a bit bored with the conversation, my mind has a field day, making up stories, planning grocery lists, wandering far and wide without moving a muscle. I look at all the other people on my computer screen, so many of them sitting absolutely motionless, and I wonder, “How do they do that? Are they still there? Is that an avatar? Did their computer freeze?” Then I smile, thinking, “I wonder how many of them wish I would stop touching my face, stop fidgeting, stop nodding and smiling?”

Can you imagine if we all had cartoon thought-bubbles over our heads in all these video chat meetings? To have buck-naked brains would be way too much information, but it’s fun to think about it when you’re not paying attention. Perhaps you too are doing that already, watching the imagined bubbles overhead. Once again, cartoons are the way I make sense of my world.

So that brings us all to this curious place called “in the meantime.” This is where we are, a place where we can make loose plans, because firm plans are ill-advised. This is the time to consider possibilities, since all the certainties of the past seem to have vanished. It is either an insecure time or an exciting time– depending on your perspective, which of course belongs 100% entirely to you.

My advice as always, is to be well, keep doodling, and keep making stuff up. It’s the way of the future, a path some call resilience and creativity.

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One of my cartoons from years ago, when words were just not enough…

Posted in Cartoons, My Story, Sketchbooks, Storytelling & Pondering, Writing | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Episode 11/11…wherein I return home to 2020, and ponder next steps

I always experience a bit of emotional jet-lag at the end of a long trip, and this time is no different, despite having done all this travel sitting right here at my laptop in the living room.

It was exhausting at times. Each of the ten episodes took over six hours to create (research, writing, editing, drawing, and painting), and I know each one took about five minutes to read! That is why, every single day, I made sure I was still enjoying myself, despite the work involved. If it isn’t a labor of love, it’s not worth doing. Like so much in life.

(Before I forget:  Here is the link to the Road Scholar Adventure that was the basis for the tale I just spun for you. Feel free to sign up, and see how much of it I got right, or not!)

What’s Next?

In the past, when I have arrived home from a trip, I felt cured of wanting to see a suitcase for a very long time. Today I feel a bit ‘cured’ of the need to write for hours on end every single day, but I know that will be short-lived. In a few days I will continue writing this tale, but more privately, as I write about the next leg of this imaginary trip, next in England in 2022, to visit five wonderful women who actually do exist, who live in England, Scotland, Belgium, and Germany. These are ladies I met through our friend Michael Nobbs whom you met in Episodes 6 & 7. Who knows what trials I will put them through before I am done with them!

I am also eager to get back to ‘studio painting’: painting on nice thick watercolor paper, making big juicy messes with all sorts of experiments, without the pressure of an impending one-woman show.  As some of you know, when I started this virtual journey through Wales, I had just come off of several months of working diligently in ‘direct watercolor’, creating over two dozen framed 10 x 14 paintings. To go from that to doing small watercolor-and-ink sketches in a book with fairly flimsy paper for this Fake Journal Project was an adjustment!

Having said that, I don’t want to abandon the quick shorthand of sketchbook art. Studio painting and sketchbook art are exciting in such different ways. I became so comfortable with this simple approach while working on my Wales sketches at home, that I actually ventured outdoors in April, right here in Concord NH, to do some ‘urban sketching’ in the style I have done for years now.

I have been 98% house-bound since early March (I am in the high-risk group for Covid-19), but nevertheless, I suited up one day in mid-April with hat, sunglasses, mask, coat, gloves, and an outrageously flimsy notebook, a Pilot G-2 bold gel pen, and a water brush, to see if I could remember how simple it can be. And I did!

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Seriously, cars?? But just to be outdoors, sketching anything, felt good.

Other future plans

I want to establish a more normal, healthy rhythm (where I am not glued to my computer chair for hours on end every day), and incorporate stretching, strength-training, and a bit of cardio into the day, even if I don’t go outside.

I want to return to studying watercolor techniques with the amazing Lois Davidson, whom I support on Patreon, and whom I recommend to anyone who wants to see their watercolor work go to a higher level of loose, inspired semi-realism.

After a bit of time has passed, I want to also go back to my ‘Wales Tale’ and flesh out this 10-day journey that you have just read, by creating a few more characters, adding more interactions and conversations between them, as well as sprinkling in an unavoidable mishap or two! If it seems like it has gone well, I will look into ways to offer this funny little story as an e-book and as a small paperback, as I mentioned in Episode 10.

Why the heck am I telling you this?

Isn’t this blog supposed to be about “celebrating words and watercolor”? Well yes, and no.

It is about creating a life that is well worth living, and for me personally, that does include words and watercolor. I spent decades just surviving, and now during this pandemic it is more important than ever for all of us to remember to tuck little bits of joy into every day, and not wait for later when there may actually be no time left.

All of this is to say that if I can do it, you can do it. Exercising your imagination is as important as exercising your biceps. Otherwise, how will you be able to move aside the boulders, real or imagined, that may fall in your path in the future?

What we’re after here is resilience, every possible kind of resilience, and it is built one gentle, frequent stretch at a time. Stretch your muscles and stretch your mind. The imagination you use in writing fiction, and drawing from online photographs during this pandemic, is the same brilliant imagination you will have at your fingertips later when you need it to create a new world that is far better than the one we left behind a couple months ago. I need your imagination as much as I need my own.

We are all in this together. Get sketching. Or writing. Or, oh heavenly day, both.

Posted in 2022 Fake Journal - "My Wales Tale", Art-Making, Sketchbooks, Storytelling & Pondering, Travel, Watercolor | 6 Comments

Episode 10/11…wherein we explore all of Wales, in just one place

Sunday the 10th of April, 2022

Hard to believe that by the end of the day we will be at our final destination, a hotel near London’s Heathrow Airport. Along the way though, we will dawdle and wander and smile in appreciation at all we have learned together. It is fitting that our last stop will feel very much like a country-wide sweep, as well as traveling through centuries of time, landing us at St Fagans National Museum of History, a.k.a. the Museum of Welsh Life, four miles outside the capital city of Cardiff.

This morning, for the first time ever, we were all at breakfast on time, our suitcases stowed on the coaches, with time to spare. (Third time we’ve done this, finally getting the hang of it!) After breakfast we settled in our coach seats for the next-to-last time and were off for a two-hour trip from Lamphey to Cardiff. The first hour or so was quite scenic, along lovely country roads, then we crossed over the River Loughor and joined up with the M4, a major motorway that will take us first to Cardiff, then later on to our hotel near Heathrow.

My sketchbook went on a little tour of its own this morning, making its way all around my coach! This happened once before, at the end of my 2016 English Gardens trip, when a number of my travel-mates wanted to see what I had been doing hunkered down with my sketchbook, while they had all been running around snapping pictures! It was fun to hear them exclaim and laugh as they looked through it. I wasn’t self-conscious about them reading my notes as well as looking at my sketches, because I cleverly had also carried a separate little notebook for all the entries that were ‘for my eyes only’!

My friend David, the retired professor from Houston, had become a great chum over the past ten days, and when he read my cautious comment about him on our first travel day together, he laughed out loud. “You had reason for concern, my dear,” he smiled. “I am grateful for the folks who  took turns looking after me!” He was right, for some reason this lovely group of travelers were natural shepherds, keeping a watchful eye on each other so there were no strays, no need to call out the search party for lost souls.

So my sketchbook was passed around the bus, people took photos of pages they liked, and many vowed to bring a sketchbook with them the next time they travel. Some of the ‘nature folks’ (the ones who always travel with binoculars) had actually begun sketching with me yesterday in Cardigan, using their tiny photography notebooks. We sat scribbling away, while our traveling companions scrambled about the neighborhood, making sure they didn’t miss a thing. Great self-directed fun for everyone.

It’s funny to think that, in a way, each of us has had a unique experience of this program here in Wales. There has been a nice amount of ‘free time’ built into many of the days. The more of these RS programs I join, the more I am impressed by the planning that goes into making each itinerary  flow seamlessly. Road Scholar programs are about learning, as much as they are about travel, so no time is ever wasted in boring tourist traps full of souvenirs made in China. Never! These adventures are also designed so that the detail-oriented folks, as well as the big-picture gazers, are all happy at the end of the day.

On to today’s travelogue! Around 10 am we arrived at St Fagans, and gathered for a brief talk by our Study Leader Kevin. Then we were given 3 full hours to explore this immense 100-acre parkland and open-air museum. What fascinated me was the variety of full-size, original buildings, from various historical periods, that had been brought here from all over Wales and reassembled in this one place.  The forty buildings include farmhouses, barns, cottages, a craft workshop, a castle, a 13th-century church, and much more. Each structure had been on the verge of demolition at its original location because it was too far gone to be worth restoring. The buildings lucky enough to be selected for this massive Museum of Welsh Life were painstakingly moved from their original locations and reconstructed here, preserving not only the buildings, but the stories that went with them. The signage everywhere was interesting and clear, so you could easily learn the entire back story of each landmark building as you wandered the grounds. I later discovered the website  for this Museum is equally brilliant.

The place where I decided to sit and drink in the details was here, at the iron-ore miners’ house, the Rhyd-y-car Terrace, originally built in 1795 in Merthyr  Tydfil, some 23 miles to the north.

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The final Herding of the Road Scholar Sheep (that’s us!) was done swiftly at 1 pm, and as we boarded the buses we were each handed a packed lunch (a sandwich, fruit, and a drink) to tide us over until we reached London in late afternoon. The final ride was about three hours, through gorgeous countryside we had not seen before because 10 days ago we had landed to the north, in Manchester. Now we were departing from London further to the south.

Riding on the M4, and especially crossing the River Severn, I was reminded of the TV series “Gavin and Stacey” which I really enjoyed watching way back in 2020 during the stay-at-home quarantine. What a great show, light and funny, right when I needed a laugh. Today I kept glancing over to see if James Corden was racing along in the car beside us. We traveled through the beautiful rolling hills of North Wessex Downs, an officially designated “AONB”, or “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. Honestly, how wonderful is that?

By around 4 o’clock we arrived at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Heathrow Hotel located near the airport, checked in, and had a bit of free time before our final meet-up downstairs. At this ‘last supper’ together, I know many of us were remembering our first supper only ten days ago, when we were exhausted from traveling, did not know each other, and were wondering what sort of odd bunch of folks we would have for traveling companions. Now many of us feel like we really are old friends– how on earth did that happen!

When tea, coffee and dessert were served, we followed the Road Scholar tradition of a round-robin sharing time. Each of us told one funny or poignant story (hopefully brief but not always!) about a special moment during the trip. With two dozen of us, it took over an hour to get all the way around the room. Well worth it, lots of laughter and a few sentimental tears as well. The microphone came to me near the end, and thanks to everyone’s encouragement, I announced that after I am home again and have some time to catch my breath, I will start my next project: turning my travel journal, complete with stories and sketches, into a little book that anyone can buy online, either as an e-book or small paperback. My new friends cheered and I blushed—now I have to actually do it! Exciting new learning curve, I am eager to start.

Since tomorrow morning will be a blur, with all of us leaving at slightly different times on different airlines, tonight was the time for goodbyes. The only farewells I will have tomorrow will be with our two wonderful Group Leaders and my roommate-now-friend Ellen. Since she lives in Maine, we have plans to meet up in Portsmouth, NH sometime over the summer.

At that time, together, we will look to the northeast, over the 3,057 miles of Atlantic Ocean, look past the southern tip of Ireland, and wave to the lovely Chapel of St Non on the Pembrokeshire peninsula. Travel makes old friends of one-time strangers. The country of Wales is now a friend as well, one I hope to meet again someday.

Ellen is asleep, and I feel a rich fullness that will easily accompany me to dream land. All that’s left is to check the alarm clock, shut off the light, and snuggle down one last time.

Posted in 2022 Fake Journal - "My Wales Tale", Art-Making, Sketchbooks, Storytelling & Pondering, Travel, Watercolor | Tagged | 4 Comments

Episode 9/11…wherein the names of several places are hauntingly familiar

Saturday 9th April 2022 (a very sleepy girl is writing this!)

Although we didn’t travel far today, only about 70 miles round trip and just a couple hours in the coach, it ended up being the longest day full of scheduled events so far. We left the hotel heading north-northwest toward…wait a minute. I am totally distracted. I have to tell you a funny story first.

Decades ago when I was a kid I lived in a few places, but the spot with the deepest influence by far was the Lakes Region of central New Hampshire in America. Our home there was in the heart of a small village which stood in the shadow of our beloved Mount Cardigan. I climbed Cardigan once with a good friend, and the view of the surrounding lakes and mountains was spectacular. Another seemingly random note is that in the 19th century, one of my ancestors started a knitting mill in the nearby town of Bristol, and called it Cardigan Woolen Mills.

Today, here in Wales, I did a double-take when I saw the day’s itinerary: the plan is to first head to the town of Cardigan before we move on to Carmarthen where we will learn more about the Welsh wool industry. Carmarthen is located on a river that spills into the sea at, you guessed it, the Bristol Channel. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.

Okay, back to today’s real story. We headed out, and about an hour later we arrived at the town of Cardigan (pop. 4,000), situated on the River Teifi, which feeds eventually into Cardigan Bay to the north. Cardigan Castle, built during the 11th-12th centuries, overlooks the river. The town has been home to a variety of industries over the years, and now has a fairly balanced economy, with businesses, schools, retail, and healthcare establishments. We learned all sorts of historical details from the Study Leader, and around mid-morning we were set free to roam the town.

I settled in to sketch the waterfront area. “Keep it simple,” I told myself. “Sometimes less is more, right?” No color, and I’m glad of it. Had fun mixing up those warm and cool greys though!

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After regrouping we were off again, heading southeast to Carmarthen, a place thought by many to be the oldest town in Wales, with records dating back to 75 AD. It is located on the River Towy, which feeds into Bristol Channel, just to the north of the South West Peninsula of England.  I think you need a map now– at least I do!

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In Carmarthen there is still evidence of Roman ruins, and that was something I found downright amazing. Time for further childhood confessions:

History classes, for me growing up, were just a big blur of names and dates and maps with an awful test waiting for me at the end, that’s all. I never ‘got it.’.

As an American kid, growing up in mid-20th century American schools,  I just couldn’t grasp history. 90% of everything I was being taught was a blur because it all happened “over there,” whether it was in northern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Africa, or the  Far East. I admit the expression ‘The Middle Ages’ never meant anything to me. (“Middle of what?” I wondered.) Thanks to this trip (better late than never, right?), I learned ‘The Middle Ages’ have that name because they mark a gap of sorts, the time between the 476 AD  fall of imperial Rome (which had included most of the land from Western Europe all the way to the Middle East). and the beginning of early modern Europe (about a hundred or so years later). It was a time of great instability and migration throughout the entire region, including Wales.

As I think back to my school years, how wonderful it would have been if we were taught not only what to learn, but also why it was worth knowing. Then and now, I needed a heartfelt, human scaffolding on which to hang all that data. Standing here today, in this very spot in Wales, it suddenly feels real to me as it never did before. I see that the history I studied happened where my feet are right now. Travel gives ‘history’ context and texture.

So now, back to Carmarthen. Many industries came and went from this lively town as well, including iron works, printing presses, and the Welsh wool industry which we learned more about today at the Dre-fach Felindre Woollen Mill. I enjoyed the tour of the mill (I used to teach weaving so the industrial-sized looms were familiar to me in a way, and fascinating.) I was spared any temptations in the gift shop though because, despite raising sheep as a kid and having taught weaving as an adult, I am deadly allergic to wool! Crazy, right? But it sure saves me a lot of money, never being tempted to buy or even touch those luxurious spun, knit, or woven goods I saw in gift shops today.

Instead of lingering inside, I grabbed a take-away lunch and headed for the millstream area behind the buildings to hunker down and sketch for a while. My trusty bubble-wrap ‘sit-upon’ came in handy again, as well as the bottle of water that I used this time for painting. That riverbank was way too steep and slippery to fetch river water with which to paint, and I was not about to risk a midday swim!

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Back on the buses and on to Laugharne, another small coastal town perhaps best known for being home to Dylan Thomas, the famous Welsh poet and writer, during the last four years of his brief life (he lived to be only 39.) There I enjoyed the view of the sea and of the rolling landscape which now feels so familiar. The long shadows of late afternoon  were enticing, and I almost began another sketch, but by then I was hitting that ‘pause’ between the day’s activities and the evening’s ‘settling-in’ time, so I looked, and I listened, and spent time simply breathing Welsh air.

Our dinner tonight was at a local restaurant that looked pretty humble from the outside, but was anything but inside. I was thirsty more than anything, so I finished off the bottle of water I had carried all day, then sat down to enjoy a tall cool glass of Belvoir elder flower sparkling water. Delicious! My travel-mates tucked in to enjoy mussels, fresh fish and chips, and all sorts of yummy selections, while I had a delicious house specialty, a combination French onion/minestrone soup, a colorful mixed salad, and more than one slice of their crusty homemade bread. Many of us also indulged in Pwdin Eva, a Welsh apple dessert that is similar to apple cobbler. I will certainly try making it when I am back at home.

Our real treat of the evening was a pre-arranged mingling with some of the locals, lively fun for many of the extroverts in our group. Our new Welsh friends were warm and curious, happy to answer our questions as well as asking some of their own! The evening in the tavern ended with a performance by a Welsh ‘mixed-voice choir,’ very impressive.

Upon reflection, I began to think there might be a simple secret to why so many Welsh people have such beautiful singing voices. For years, many children in Wales have grown up in an atmosphere of group singing, the same way my brothers grew up playing baseball and I grew up riding bicycles with my friends. When you grow up thinking that singing out loud in front of people is no big deal, then you have a chance to develop the skill that can only come with practice. (I am suddenly reminded of all the great American singers who grew up singing in gospel church choirs.)

I think oftentimes when you meet someone who seems to be ‘naturally good at,’ or ‘have a natural talent for’ something, they might be that way because they grew up in a household where that behavior was simply normal: not encouraged, or discouraged, just normal. Our childhood homes and neighborhoods are the Petri dishes for our early development. And in my opinion, no amount of intentional instruction can hold a candle to a child seeing a parent enjoying themselves doing something.

Kids want to be happy more than they want to be talented. If Mom is happy gardening, I am more likely to think it is a good idea too. If you are lucky enough to grow up in a household that is always humming and whistling and singing, you might not be so shy about joining in yourself. The choir members we heard tonight were happily hanging out singing, having a good time together, in perfect pitch.

The coach ride home was only about 40 minutes long, but I am sure I heard the not-so-perfect-pitch sounds of snoring along the way. That made me smile; it’s proof we are now officially a family I suppose! But no rest for the weary—tomorrow we head out first thing. By 7am we need to have our suitcases downstairs in the front hall, ready to be loaded onto the backseats of our coaches, so we can all snuggle up front together as we head for our final day’s adventures, and the hotel at Heathrow Airport. We have done this routine a few times by now, so we are old hands at it. As usual, Ellen and I will be all packed up by later tonight, so we can each sleep well.

I plan to dream of all the places in Wales that are now 3-D vivid for me. I am one lucky girl.

Posted in 2022 Fake Journal - "My Wales Tale", Art-Making, Pen and Ink, Sketchbooks, Storytelling & Pondering, Watercolor | Tagged | 2 Comments