Blind Drawing and Messy Living
Yom Kippur 2015 – 5776
September 22, 2015
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
Life is messy. It’s not neat and systematically filed like the cavernous corridors of Loews or The Home Depot where a friendly employee will tell you where you can find all of the obscure widgets you need. Life is not neat and ordered like the shelves of a grocery store before it opens to the public who, once they arrive, immediately begin moving things out of place.
Real life is messy. We hardly need leave our own yard to know that. The straight rows of vegetables in our summer gardens are hardly perfectly lined up. And our desktops – whether virtual or real – could certainly use some organizing.
But the messy nature of things should not surprise us.
Let me share with you a story of Sam Anderson. [“Blind Contour Drawing”, NYTimes Magazine 5/17/15]
Not only a writer, Sam is an artist. Not one who sells paintings at galleries, Sam is the kind of artist who draws on the open spaces of the newspaper when he is on the phone with you – likely the New York Times which he writes for – and sometimes he actually draws things that he wishes to save or give to friends and family.
Sam calls himself “an enthusiastic doodler”. But when he began to get frustrated with his drawings, finding them boring, he almost stopped drawing. He mentioned this to a friend of his who happens to be what he called “a real artist”. His “real artist” friend suggested he try drawing without looking at the paper. Instantly his drawings came to life!
“Finally, my drawing had life in it, just like the art I had always admired. It was ugly,” he said, “but it had a powerfully direct relationship to the world.”
“…a powerfully direct relationship to the world.” Wow!
Described by Betty Edwards in 1979 in "Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain", the technique Sam used is known as “blind contour drawing”. “The goal of blind drawing is to really see the thing you’re looking at, rather than retreat into your idealized vision of it,” Sam explained.
“Blind drawing,” he went on to say, “trains us to stare at the chaos, to honor it. It is an act of meditation, as much as it is an artistic practice — a gateway to pure being.
It forces us to study the world as it actually is.”
“[And] It turns out that the world, on close examination, is gloriously strange.”
“Things are lumpier and hairier than we have been led to believe,” he says. “Planes are never flat; colors are never solid. Matthew McConaughey’s hairline is not the Platonic ideal you might imagine: It is jagged and wandering, like a map of the coastline of a distant mysterious continent. Your father-in-law’s head is squatter than you ever knew. Sleeve wrinkles can be as beautiful as the most exotic flower. Every object (book, pencil, glove, banana) is in fact a bewildering universe of lines.”
The reality is that this “really seeing the thing that you are looking at” can be true not just for objects, but for all kinds of things, as well – things like ideas, people, relationships, love and war and everything that we think we know. Life. It is all -- all of it -- subject to our putting away our preconceptions and really looking at what is there.
Just as blind drawing forces us to stop imagining that flowers and faces and sunsets and boxes are symmetrical and even and easily captured, blind drawing also helps us see the irregularities and imperfections of nature in all aspects of life. Blind drawing helps us better see our own lives, too. It can help us get away from our idealized version of what we might think our lives are supposed to be. It can help us honor our true nature and discover that life is in fact ‘gloriously strange; a bewildering universe of lines; and a bit hairier and lumpy than we might have been led to believe’.
Looking to plan a perfect day, but somehow it goes a bit wrong? This – we can learn from blind drawing and paying attention to what is real, rather than hoped for – is not such an aberration. When was the last time you ever had a perfect day that had no bumps or wrinkles in it?
Allowing ourselves to get away from our preconceived notions of how life should be, blind drawing prepares us to understand that our relationships, our values and religion, our behaviors and our hopes and dreams are all a bit messy. Lots of things we wish were plain and simple and clean and neat and uncomplicated simply are not. Theologly. God. Religion. The conflict in the Middle East. Politics. Parenting. Health. Not one of these topics upon close examination is simple or easy. They’re all bewildering and contain far more nuance than a quick gloss could ever provide.
Real life – every bit of it -- is uneven, and wavy, and irregular and confusing – at times immensely rewarding and sublime, at times incredible aggravating; there are days when we see readily the beauty of life, and there are days when we painfully discover that life is less than perfect – if we can even understand it at And so it goes. Life is messy. And not only are all those wrinkles OK, but actually, it’s better to see the world that way. It is an embrace of life; it honors what’s really there. It honors the full complexity of human thought and emotion, and it honors the humanity of those we love.
On Yom Kippur, our Jewish tradition calls us to seek forgiveness for a litany of failures we have committed during the past year. We are reminded that despite the somewhat pristine image we wish to cast of ourselves, upon close examination, we, too, are “a bewildering universe of lines.” And as beautiful as wrinkles can be, we too need to iron out some of them.
We can be jagged in our thoughts, irregular in how our logic sometimes fails to direct our behaviors. We have complex emotions that can push us away from our friends and family and colleagues and pull us toward them all at the same time. We don't always say what we want to share, or react how we know we really want to. We mess up. Everyone does. It’s part of our essence. But rather than deny it, we ought to get closer to it.
And that is where forgiveness comes in. We are not perfect. We really don't aim to be.
Blind drawing makes us look at ourselves rather than the self we imagine us to be. Our goal, then, is to appreciate the very real undulating irregularities of our lives and those who share our world with us. And then we need to open our hearts’ closets, do a bit of straightening up, acknowledge we all have wrinkles, and then forgive others their failings.
Sometimes, though, blind drawing and seeing the madness is not so easy. When the only thing that meets our vision when we look away from the idealized fantasy is intolerable ugliness, such an encounter is not pretty at all.
The 19th century German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine once wrote, “All I ask is [for] a simple cottage, a decent bed, good food, some flowers in front of my window and a few trees beside my door. Then if God wanted to make me wholly happy, He would let me enjoy the spectacle of those trees with six or seven of my enemies dangling from them. I would forgive them all wrongs they have done me – forgive them from the bottom of my heart, for we must forgive our enemies. But not until they are hanged!” (As quoted in Edge-Tools of Speech,1899, Maturin Ballou, p. 169.)
Not quite offering a full embrace of forgiveness, Heinrich Heine, who might have benefitted from letting go of the wrongs done to him, certainly encountered some of the less flattering aspects of this world.
About the ones we resent, Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov who founded Chassidism, taught: when we push ourselves to look for the goodness that resides somewhere inside those who touch our lives, when we succeed in finding those redeeming qualities, then redemption can begin. Our redemption.
Let me share with you a short story – not from the Talmud, but from Japanese Zen traditions.
(A Heavy Load – from Zen Stories)
Two traveling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step out of her carriage. The rain had made deep puddles, and she couldn't step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there, looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her, so they couldn't help her across the puddle.
The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side.
She didn't thank the older monk, she just shoved him out of the way and departed.
As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. "That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn't even thank you!"
"I set the woman down hours ago," the older monk replied. "Why are you still carrying her?"
The well-known Jewish composer and musician Shlomo Carlebach understood this story. Carlbach was able to look at life and its imperfections with a clarity that was sure.
He had fled the Nazis as a young man. Now a famous rabbi and singer, he was once asked how could he go back to Austria and Germany to perform. “Don’t you hate them?” he was asked.
Carlebach responded: “If I had two souls, I’d devote one to hating them. But since I have only one, I don’t want to waste it on hating.”
Tonight, on this Kol Nidrei, this eve of Yom Kippur, we are reminded that we must look at our lives as they really are. Surely, we are not to waste our souls hating. Tonight is a time for letting go of such emotions; tonight is a time for putting down what we need to stop carrying. Real life is messy. People are not as perfect as we might wish them to be. No surprise.
On this Sam Anderson, the enthusiastic doodler, remarked:
“Part of the magic of blind drawing is the impossibility of doing it wrong. This makes it the perfect antidote to perfectionism, because its first and only step is to abandon any hope of perfection…. [I]nevitably, almost by accident, your hand will produce little slivers of excellence….”
On this eve of Yom Kippur, I encourage all of us to engage in a bit of blind drawing. Such an act of faith in our ability to embrace the true nature of others just might produce in us little slivers of forgiveness.
And that, perhaps, is the true artistry – not of drawing, but of living.