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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Doodling could be the trick for tuning out the noise of never-ending to-do lists, faculty meetings, and endless emails

Sketches of three sea shells rendered in watercolor and ink

Now more than ever, you may need a sense of calm and rootedness. Of small, simple moments. Of deep connection to place. And, a parallel quietness of mind.

I'm thinking about that this week because I've been fighting a lingering sinus infection for the past month. It's been brutal headaches, gut-wrenching coughing, and fitful sleep if any. And I'm tired. I have felt suspended from the things that ground me, like walking my dog, hiking, and making pottery -- because I've been to miserable to do much.

Given it's only the second week of the semester, I've been pondering how to keep some equilibrium.

And, I'm circling back to what I do to suspend time and pause the do list in my head.

My trick is to sketch something small and interesting from the natural world.

Ink sketch of a bee with some notes about how it looks

Sketching is a powerful way to direct your attention and create a sense of focus and calm.

I've written about and studied this for years, but sometimes I forget to circle back to this practice myself.

Sketching the little things I notice or get curious about helps me reinforce my sense of place by making personal connections to to specific, local organisms or phenomena. Reconnecting or re-affirming these connections to tangible, visible, and appreciable life then helps me remember there is an immediate and necessary physical world that I can notice, engage with, and appreciate -- even when it feels like everything else in my life and the world is totally out of control.

If you sketch your observations regularly, you, too will begin to build a sense of place, whether you observe snails in a window flower box, weeds growing through cracks in the sidewalk, or migratory birds in a wilderness area. This sense of belonging and connection is increasingly vital as more and more people report that they feel isolated, alone, and hopeless about the state of the world.

Now, all this might sound like more of that self-help woowoo that pushes systemic problems onto individuals.

And, I hear you. As I write about and work toward all the time, systemic change is about changing the system, not about whitewashing the system and making individuals feel even worse about themselves.

But, to be honest, we all know that big change usually takes a while. Sometimes generations. And it takes all of us. And if we are individually in no condition to show up, because we are totally endangered by the systems around us, overwhelmed by all our commitments and expectations, and/or despairing that any of it will make a difference, we're not going to be able to contribute to the collective work of making the world a better place.

As I've navigated that gray area the past several years, I've learned from a lot of really wise people in and beyond academia. The key takeaway is that we do have to tend to ourselves in order to help others. And this sketching practice is one way I've found to do that.

Simple sketch of the shape of a bird. Most lines are drawn multiple times, as I worked to find the most accurate rendering of the bird I was watching.

More recently, sketching has become one of my favorite ways of approaching the practice of object meditation.

Now, I'm no yogi, but the basic idea of an object meditation is to "take time to smell the roses."

You do three things:

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