Lesson from a Donkey

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Our donkey Benjamin is sometimes a little timid yet has a great imagination. He can, for example, start chewing on your sweater only because it is green, or he might run wildly ¬†over the field while braying, pretending to be the leader of a wild pack, only to realize when glancing back that neither the horse nor his mother, not even the sheep or the dog followed his pretend game… His friend the cow would have joined in the fun no doubt, but she sadly moved to a different farm some time ago.

The other day when it was so hot outside he and his mother Molly decided to rest in the barn over the hot noon hours. They asked for permission to come in and while Molly marched into her stall she usually shares with Benjamin, her son walked down the aisle until he reached the horse’s stall and entered, a triumphant glimmer in his eyes. The horse chose to stay out in the field, for what is heat to an Arab? So I closed the doors and let them doze for a while.

In the late afternoon I checked on them and opened the doors to release them back into the field. They were in no hurry, but Molly walked out the barn for the sweet grass was waiting after all. Benjamin however stayed in the stall. I didn’t think anything of it and let him enjoy the horse’s kingdom for a little longer. However at night he still didn’t leave the stall, although he stood at the window braying to his mother and the horse. He stayed in the barn for the entire night with only the sheep snoring in a pen down the aisle.

In the morning, I could tell he really longed for company, yet he wasn’t willing to even get near the stall door. I put a halter on his head and tried to lead him out, but he showed me the stubbornness of a donkey. I asked his mother to come in to give his son a nudge, but she walked in and out of the horse’s pen without her son following. I bribed her with a handful of oats to try again. She tried, but soon left unsuccessfully on her own. The horse showed up and I asked him to chase the young donkey out, but even though he was willing, he had no luck.

Whether it was his guilty conscience of being on foreign ground, or his wild imagination that something terrible might happen if he stepped from the straw onto the concrete of the aisle, perhaps simply his unfamiliar point of view, … whatever it was he was petrified in fear. In the very end his patient mother lead him out while I chased after him with a broom, and finally he stepped onto the dangerous aisle and happily braying ran outside into the field unharmed, rolled in the sand, played with his friends and most importantly filled his hungry stomach with sweet grass.

Donkeys are said to be stubborn, but they are also one of the most intelligent animals I know. They are known for doing things only when they fully understand the task or the situation at hand. I too like to know the details before I sign up for something, I too like to know the pros and contras before making an important decision. But often our fearful imagination prevents us from taking the necessary step to get us over that threshold that keeps us from reaching our greatest desire.

It’s not the first time I learned from the donkeys…

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Camera versus Sketchbook

Like most people nowadays I carry a smartphone with me when I leave the house. I mostly enjoy it for its built-in camera, so that I don’t need to carry a bulky camera with me all the time. Usually I use it for snapshots or reference photos. Does it replace a sketchbook though? No. Not for me.

Most people I know use the camera on their smartphone to easily share photos and videos on social media, documenting their day. Well, my life is not that interesting that I would feel that need and I never intended to live my life for other people to impress or amuse. But that’s my personal worldview.

I like to experience life, and this is when my sketchbook comes in. From my experience, I don’t remember places where I quickly shot a photo of and then moved on. True, it’s nice to have a photo to share with the people you care about. But if I don’t remember that place with my own senses, how valuable might it be for others?

When I sit down to sketch, I take in much more than the lines and shades I put into my sketchbook. I make myself look. I see details, contrasts, and scenes I might have overlooked did I only take a quick photo. I make sure I notice the colours, sometimes I scribble them into my sketch, I observe textures, patterns, shadows, face expressions, …

My sketches can be very rough and often they make no sense other than to me, but years later I will still remember the sounds I heard, the atmosphere, the people I was with, the scents I smelled, even the weather or temperature of that moment in time. Sometimes even my thoughts.

Can you do that with your smartphone? Sure. Kind of … My daughter recorded sounds of the city when she was sketching in Montreal, or at the ocean. It too enhances our memory and I do enjoy our ever improving technology. However I doubt that she would remember the scene as much had she not taken the time to sketch and instead filmed the scene. When you draw, you are absorbed and yet alert. You take in much more than you know at that moment. When you take a video or a quick photo however you are not involved, but by putting a device between yourself and the scene in front of you, you detach yourself. Therefore you never really experience the moment, not at the time when you shield yourself from the scene with the device, nor later when you watch the photo or video and the moment has long passed.

Try it for yourself. A sketchbook and a camera both have its place – and combined, they’re miraculous!

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That’s me sketching in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal after the 2017 SCBWI Conference. The photos were taken by Rachel Comeau #rachelcomeauart and I’m very grateful to her for how can I now ever forget that day?