Saturday, December 15, 2012

A day at sea - classes, lectures, and drawing...

One of the loveliest things about being on board this ship is getting to know fascinating people from all over the world.  I have heard stories I’d only read about in books – a couple who each, separately, escaped from Castro’s Cuba; a woman whose father was in Dachau then got out and left Vienna with his family when she was four; a 93-year-old woman who looks 65 and who just founded her own school for gifted kids because the school she was at made her retire – people like that!  It’s amazing.  Then there are the kids – delightful high schoolers from a technical school in San Diego; college students from Morehouse – those young men are delightful – polite, articulate, talented, interested in everything; young kids who are missing school to be here and who come to my art classes full of intense excitement, ready to soak it all up.  I wouldn’t really care if we never went into port – just having the opportunity to speak with all these people is a journey in itself.
Today we were on board all day after having transited the Panama Canal yesterday.  We’re headed towards Guayacil, Ecuador, where many of the passengers will disembark for several-day journeys to either the Galapagos Islands or Manchu Pichu.  I was told I couldn’t go to the islands because of my on board duties during that time, but I could have chosen to go to Manchu Pichu.  I chose not to because of the cost.  Dylan managed to get there and back for something like $600, so when they quoted a price of $3000 (I think that was it), I decided that if I really wanted to go, I’d fly down here with Chris and the two of us would go for longer for that price.  As it is, Gerlinde and I will explore Ecuador and see what it holds.  I know nothing about the country, so my next task for the evening will be to read up on it on Wikipedia to see what might be there to see.  We’ll head to Peru after that where I’ll have the pleasure of meeting one of Laura’s great friends, Roxana, who is Peruvian but whom Laura knows from Stuttgart where they were both au pairs.  We’ll hang out with her for a day then we’ll have a couple of days on our own in Lima before the ship leaves the port again. 
Today was full of lectures by fascinating people and an opportunity for me to teach again. Early this morning I attended the meditation session with Bhante Sujatha, a Buddhist monk from SriLanka who has a temple in Woodstock, IL, outside of Chicago now.  His teachings are all about loving kindness and compassion.  I’ve read or heard similar talks before, but it is lovely to hear them here at sea – they’re a wonderful way to start the day.  Most days I’m not able to attend because he teaches at the same time I do usually.  Today they overlapped, but I was able to be there for ½ hour of it.
I loved how my class went today.  I taught Blind Contour Drawing.  I began it in a way that was completely different than anything I’ve done before.  I brought a bunch of craisins from the dining room and had the students do a mindfulness exercise I learned from Martin Keogh with them.  I had them take the craisins in their hands and examine them carefully.  Notice each wrinkle, the color, the texture, the stickiness – everything they could about them.  We took over five minutes looking at their physical characteristics. Once the anticipation had built up strongly, I allowed them to touch the craisin with the tip of their tongue to see if they could get any taste with it, then, finally, they put them into their mouths.  I had them take as much time with them in their mouths as they did outside of them, paying very fine attention to the texture and taste of it.  Then I asked them to notice how it felt as it went down their throats.  The whole exercise took over 10 minutes and raised their awareness quite acutely.  Then I had them begin the drawing exercise with their sensibilities and senses heightened.  I told them they would be drawing their hands and that I’d like them to do it with as much attention as they had given their craisin.  It was a terrific lead in to Blind Contour Drawing.  There were 25 people in the class and not a one, including the 5 kids, spoke a single word during the 10 minutes they were drawing.  It was magical sensing their extreme concentration.  Usually when I do blind contour drawing, I have to do it for 3 minutes first then 5 then maybe I can get them to do 10- they have to build up their concentration – but I think doing the craisin first helped them focus extremely well.  Their drawings showed a lot of skill too.  Normally I have them draw their keys next or something complicated like that, but I decided to have them draw a partner’s face instead.  Without looking at the paper.  Just like they did with their hands.  They drew them for 6 minutes.  When the first group was done, and they looked at their drawings, there was an excited gasp then an uproar as they shared them with their models.  They managed to not judge their drawings, thankfully – part of the gift of this type of drawing is that there’s no way it can be “good” because you don’t even look at what you’re drawing so there’s no pressure to make it “right”.  It was a terrific lesson, and I felt wonderful watching the students leave, excited and enrapt in conversations with others about their drawings and the process.  Tomorrow I’ll be letting them actually look at the paper occasionally as they draw.  I hope the same people return so they can build on what they learned today.  If I have a lot of new students, I’ll have to re-teach a lot – also OK, but not ideal.
So teaching is making me very happy.  I would love to have a situation at home where I consistently had so many students to work with.  I feel so alive and fulfilled when I’m able to share what I know in a way that ignites someone else’s passion.  It’s one of the best feelings I know of.
Another great feeling is actually creating art.  I gave myself that opportunity today.  Right after teaching, I scurried to my room, prepared my art stuff – my brand new travel easel, the drawing board Chris cut for me the day before I left, my pastels, and tape, and hurried out to the aft deck to draw.  The sky and ocean were changing every moment.  There was blue sky showing through bright white and neutral gray clouds, but the blue was being smeared away by the ever-increasing clouds.  The ocean remained a deep indigo with a reflected grey on top.  It brought me such pleasure to stand by the railing and take a deep look at the scene and to draw it as it changed.  Finding just the right color, or creating it out of several tints of blue and grey, figuring out how to make the clouds appear ephemeral and whispy, how to indicate the reflection on the water – all these thoughts whipped through my head as I chose colors and moved them across the paper, hardly pausing to look at the drawing itself in an attempt to get everything down before it changed – a fool’s errand – it simply is not possible.  I hope to draw more tomorrow – I only had time for two quick drawings today.  I’ll post them here along with one I did our first day aboard which includes part of the deck and the railing along with the wake from the ship.  The sky was virtually cloudless that day.
The lectures I went to today were interesting.  Ying Compestine is a fascinating woman – she was born and raised in China and didn’t come to the US until she was 23 and was working on her Master’s degree.  She has written 20 books since then including one about her childhood during the revolution in China.  It sounds like a book I’d like to read.  She has also, oddly enough, written cookbooks and children’s stories as well.  Her husband and editor both told her that people aren’t generally successful at writing in different genres and that she should just stick to one of them.  She said she doesn’t like to be told what to do so she decided to prove them wrong.  It sounds like she has become very successful in her chosen profession so far!   I look forward to reading Revolution is not a Dinner Party, the one about her experiences growing up in China.
After lunch I went to hear another author speak – Fran Cannon Slayton.  She wrote a children’s book called When the Whistle Blows about her father’s experiences growing up in Appalachia during the time when the culture was changing from steam engines to diesel engines – something which changed everything for those communities, apparently.  I certainly don’t know anything about it.  Fran talked about the concept of suffering as it pertains to literature, but also to life.  She has done a lot of research about the inclusion of suffering in literature and how necessary it is to a good story – we need our heroes to go through a journey which includes suffering and challenges and redemption in order for us to feel like the story works.  She mentioned Joseph Campbell’s book Hero with a Thousand Faces as well as Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.  It was helpful thinking about writing in terms of those concepts, and it was easy to see how many books fit into the hero’s journey Campbell describes:
A.                  Departure (Beginning)
1.       Call to adventure (a new phase of life unfolding)
2.       Assistance (supernatural aid)
3.       Initial Challenge (Crossing the first threshold)
4.       Retreat (belly of the whale).
B.                  Initiation (Middle)
5.       Facing greater challenges (the road of trials)
6.       Further assistance (support from others)
7.       Temptation (test of personal standards)
8.       Renewal and rebirth (the ultimate boon)
C. Return (Resolution)
9.       Responsibility (accepted or refused)
10.   Boon shared (the crossing of the return threshold)
11.   Living consciously (master of the two worlds)
It’s very helpful for me to be thinking about writing in these more concrete terms.  Up until now I’ve been writing a lot but haven’t been able to figure out how to structure my work.  I’ve been muddling through and probably would have gotten there eventually, but now it feels like it’ll go more smoothly and more quickly once I get home and have a chance to get back to it.  I’m excited to do so!
From Fran’s talk, I hightailed it to hear Doug Mack, the travel writer who went throughout Jamaica with me and Gerlinde a few days ago.  He talked about what you need to know to be a travel writer.  He, like every single other person I’ve heard speak on this voyage so far, talked about the importance of telling ones own personal story, replete with emotions and feelings and insights, etc.  Travel writing, it seems, is not primarily about the places one visits, but, rather, it is about ones personal journey through whatever one needs to learn.  I am fascinated by the overlap between his talk, Fran’s, and Bob Atkinson’s.  Each talks about being true to oneself, following ones bliss (I know that one is familiar to my friends and students!), and telling ones personal story including emotions.  I get it!  I get it!
Up until now, I’ve been feeling shy about telling my own story – who would want to read it?  Bob counters that by telling what a gift it is to humanity to share deeply with others of ones own travails and triumphs and especially what a gift it is to ones children to leave an honest legacy behind.  Doug talks about staying in the moment as you travel and says that, in writing, the emotional journey is much more important than the physical journey – always.
Somewhere along the way, I got the message that emotions are too messy and should be suppressed.  I learned that it’s unthoughtful and bad to feel them, much less express them and that my job was to not have them because they made others uncomfortable.  To now hear time and again how important it is to write about the feelings and about the suffering and the trials and tribulations – that it’s important and that it’s good writing to explore the past and to make stories out of it – that is very affirming for me.  It makes me feel like I’m on the right path and like I have permission to write my story for real now.  I think these teachers are eroding the blocks I’ve put in place out of concern for others’ feelings.  I’m beginning to see my story as a gift to share with others.   I’m starting to craft my struggles as part of a hero’s journey, each of which has taught me something I needed to learn for my journey towards becoming an empowered woman.  It’s going to be fun to write this book now with these insights in mind!
After listening to Doug’s delightful talk, I went downstairs to the large theater where William Webster gave a talk.  He is the former head of both the FBI and CIA (at different times) and is now the Chairman of the  Homeland Security Advisory Council.  I had a feeling I might not agree with everything he said, but I was curious to hear him.  He was going to speak about “how the US continues to balance national security and personal freedoms.”  I personally find that the balance seems to be off, so I was curious to hear what he had to say.  What I found was that he basically spent a half hour telling us about his various jobs, a bit about what each agency did, and how much he liked his co-workers and other people he knew throughout his life.  It was a very skillful speech which filled a lot of time but gave virtually no information other than 3-4 sentences of personal factoids.  At the end there was an opportunity to ask questions.  Some of the audience members got fairly aggressive with their questions such as the gentleman who asked what he thought about waterboarding and other methods of information gathering which, he assumed, we all agree should really be called by their true name, “torture.”  Mr. Webster said he personally felt that the FBI’s methods were more effective ultimately and led to more information being gathered, but he realized it was important that the current heads felt it was important to keep those possibilities open.  To me, that felt like a non-answer.  Someone asked about the war in Iraq.  After the response to that, a young man stood up and said, “I am from Iraq.  I was born in 1970. Our country was very, very beautiful, then the United States came in and everything changed.  Now my country has so many problems and is no longer what it was.  When will you give us our country back?”  He said that with a laugh at the end, so it was difficult for me to discern if he was joking – sort of – or if it was a laugh of discomfort or what.  Mr. Webster said that he found it interesting that even in India people blame the CIA for the typhoons and hurricanes that come through.  That was his response.  People laughed.  The tension was diffused.  But again, I found that to be a diversionary tactic and certainly a non-answer.  I can understand that he is a politician/bureaucrat and is beholden to his agencies to uphold secrecy and the infallibility of their choices, but that type of response lacks integrity as far as I’m concerned, and I wish it weren’t the way things are.  I left the talk feeling frustrated but not surprised.  And I ended up with a nice Zendoodle done while listening to him because there was nothing he said which had enough substance to write down!  I have pages of notes for most of the other talks I’ve attended.
 Sometimes I have a vision of how I’d like the world to be which does not correspond to how the world actually is, and the discrepancy frustrates me and saddens me and makes me wish it were otherwise.  Hopefully I’ll be able to attend more of Bhante’s talks and will learn to accept what is with equanimity and I will no longer feel such sadness and frustration and will be able to change things from a place of detachment and love. 

I was speaking with several people today about One Billion Rising and felt my passion for that movement arising again.  I am loving where I am and am also aware there is much to do once I return home and dig into making our rally in Richmond happen!  The good news is that many of the people I’ve met on the voyage sound interested I making their own events happen in their home towns, so perhaps this voyage is good for OBR as well as for me and my personal journey!

1 comment:

  1. Hey excited to read and catch up on your adventure!
    I was particularly struck by the sky/sea images you created as they feel more concrete than previous ones. They feel as if they are made of the matter they depict.
    They also move me in a slow mannered way...I expect something....but don't know what...
    Lovely...Love Tom