An exercise in awareness

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Hobbies are what keep me sane. In a world wrought with responsibilities, hobbies are a way for me to learn about myself in a free, reduced-stress environment.

If I were a composer, what would my music sound like? What would it say about how I view the world? And of course, would engaging in composition in itself transform my world view?

Hobbies often do.

Here’s an exercise I recommend: Try learning how to draw by sketching what you see every day. Try it out for two weeks, you’ll find the way you look at things changes dramatically. Your memory for the way things look will begin to expand. Your understanding of shapes will improve. Your expectations about what you are about to see become more active.

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Characters at the airport

And when your expectations are off, you might find yourself stumbling upon a shape or shadow that you never noticed before, but that had been there, right under your nose, the whole time.

All of a sudden, the world is deconstructed for you by your mind. And you too are deconstructed. Your mind is no longer just a TV screen through which you passively observe the daily routines of your life. By drawing, you begin to see yourself as having three components: the hand, the eye, and the imaginative memory.

The hand is unsteady at first, maybe. You notice for the first time how difficult it is to draw what you want to. Your lines are shaky. Your circles, if you can even call them that, are strange, oblong, and perhaps a bit flat on one side more than the other. Your fingers want to drag your hand across the page as they go, which you’ll eventually notice smudges up the paper, coating it with oils from your skin and smearing graphite everywhere.

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A foot

The eye lies to you sometimes. After trusting it for a lifetime, you start to question it. Let’s say you start drawing someone in shorts and flip-flops standing at the bus stop. (In Florida it’s a common enough sight.) You draw his face, his arms, his legs, his feet. For some reason, you draw his eyes too big. Somehow, you draw his nose but forget to draw the anterior tibial tendon that juts out from the front of his ankle, pulling the tip of it up as he taps his foot impatiently. It’s at least the same size as his nose yet barely catches the eye of the beholder. You simply didn’t “see” it.

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Eye studies in ballpoint pen

The “mind’s eye” or visual memory is what you use to translate the moving, 3-dimensional world around you onto the timeless, 2-dimensional page. It keeps the eye in check. The man at the bus stop keeps moving around, yet you sort of average-out his many angles into something that looks more-or-less like him (or not). You start to create a model of him in your head, made of basic shapes that you understand very well. You start to remember things about him you would never have known before. You start to compare him to other people you’ve seen to get the proportions right. Maybe you could draw something like him from memory after a while.

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Group at a café

The world reveals to you more of itself. But more importantly, you reveal more of yourself to yourself.

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On the train, Shaoxing to Shanghai

Of course, just about every skill set can teach you more about yourself and the world. I invite you to engage in the creative process this week and see what you notice that you never knew before. The point isn’t to achieve perfection — there is no such thing. Instead, use it as a way to reconnect with yourself, or engage in the ordinary, every-day things around you. Things that you might take for granted. You might find a voice that has a lot to say.

If you only had a manual for your body and your brain, it would include thousands of chapters on different capacities you never knew you had. By playing an instrument, you will find that your brain can keep time for you with an internal metronome. By cooking, you find that you can tell when water is hot just by how it sounds when you pour it. And yes, your hand can bring your dreams to life on a page.

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Bird interrupting my grocery list
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