Sinistra occulta timeo

Did you ever find yourself doodling at a meeting? Was it ever a depiction of you, or always of something else? Just wondering… I assume that most of us are intimately acquainted with our appearance; we all check to see how we look in a mirror before leaving the house, don’t we? Okay, I do anyway… Well, actually, I used to -before I retired, I mean. Things change as you age, though -I’m less happy with my appearance the more my branches begin to lose their leaves, and my profile is nothing like the stick-people I was so proud of drawing in kindergarten. And even then, I usually drew my mother walking along a curving sidewalk in the front yard of our house with its wavy line of smoke rising from the chimney to greet the spokes of a welcoming sun. But I don’t remember ever drawing me back thenand now the stick man would be too naïve. Too revealing.

But, revealing what? Not my shape, alas: I am more Hitchcockian in profile nowadays; and the purposive stride that all stick-figures seem to demonstrate is missing: I am retired and largely bereft of teleology. No, it seems to me that any doodles I might attempt would be allografts, not autobiographies. And anyway, I would hesitate to misrepresent myself, for fear they might be taken as tokens of my identity, feeble pre-mortem attempts to showcase something -anything- that I had accomplished. One has to be careful about such things; not all achievements are visual, or lend themselves to frames. Not all skills are recordable. A sketch of my face would likely reveal a smile, and little else, I fear. There would be no viral meme.

I have also been strict about photographs of me -or nowadays, ‘selfies’. At first it was because the etymology of the word ‘selfie’ conjured something else to me -like making faces in store windows, or something equally inane; I didn’t really know that they were supposed to be self-made pictorial chronologies of journeys along famous streets with recognizable backdrops, or seemingly unposed shots near trees or waterfalls suggesting that one’s smiling head was at one with Nature. I’ve never felt a need to prove that.

I suppose I was also doubtful that I could ever find a use for a gallery of pictures of a me obscuring whatever was hidden behind. After all, it would only be me showing off the pictures to me, wouldn’t it? Of course if I were famously controversial, I could post the selfies on social media, or tart them up as portraits to hang somewhere (the portraits, not me, you understand). 

Portraiture was actually quite a thing in the old days, I have read.[i] Famous people, powerful people have always enjoyed being portrayed -after death if it came to that- but also to get more ‘likes’ than their competitors. A painting of oneself was an intoxicant difficult to resist, but stand-alone portraits of those in the middle ranks of society apparently did not appear until the 15th Century. The growth of cities saw the rise of a mercantile elite which wanted to mirror the nobility by having their portrait painted.[ii] As a child, however, I was blissfully unaware that sometime, years hence, my children might wonder what I had looked like when I, if ever, was young.

Although I realized I’d left it rather long, now that my children have achieved adulthood themselves and no longer seem to care what I looked like as a little boy, I did attempt a current sketch of my head with my left hand as part of an exercise demanded by a fascinating drawing book (it was highly recommended by a friend).[iii] Supposedly, drawing with your left hand is the purview of the artistic right brain. Unfortunately, neither of my brains is particularly talented, but the author emboldened me to give it a go nevertheless. My left brain, however, insisted I merely skim through the first part of the book without following the author’s suggestions -it’s like that sometimes. So, I only enjoyed, not practiced, the drawings of childhood pictures, the face/vase stuff, and especially the upside-down things. 

I was still not following the instructions which would help with a dextral cerebral shift, though. When my left brain eventually decided it was in no danger of a coup at my age, I was finally allowed to try sketching my head as was suggested in the book. I embarked upon an embarrassing journey which began with my left hand, unaccustomed to holding anything other than a dinner knife, promptly snapping the innards of the pencil on its virgin attempt. I did not think this was a particularly auspicious start, but I persevered with another pencil, an eraser, and several jagged lines that kept crossing over each other in barely disguised frustration. The book further instructed me to label the drawing, store it someplace safe, and then wait for more instructions. There was no doubt -but perhaps some condescension- because the clear inference was that I would not recognize its subject matter should I happen upon it later to compare with the promised future improvement. 

The author was complacently prescient, cleverly ignoring not only the left hand side of the Bell curve, but also those whose mono-dexterity forbade attendance at any Bell meetings. I -briefly- thought I might slip through, though. While I am a card-carrying dextrophile, there was a time when I struggled to know which way to shoot with a hockey stick, which hand to hold the bow in archery practice at school, and which hand to offer when I was first introduced to a blind date -well, okay, my only date. The same confusion did not extend to the never-ending dextrocursive requirements throughout the years, however. I was inextricably a rightie. My left hand was never my crayon hand either; it stubbornly refused to be confined within the lines in my colouring books; and it kept hurting its wrist and smudging the writing in performing the contortions necessary for transferring ink to paper let alone readable sinistral cursivity. And I’m damned if I could ever use it to cut with scissors.

But, having spent good money on the book, and hoping for a dextral comeuppance in my dotage, I accepted the challenge. ‘Draw your head from a mirror’, it commanded. “Don’t worry if it seems awkward. Don’t expect too much yet…’ Of course I’m paraphrasing the instructions which were eerily predictive of what my left hand was doing to both the pencil and the paper into which it was digging irregular grooves.

Finding a mirror was the easiest part of the instructions -I have mirrors all over the house, for some reason. But I have never been able to draw a head even with my right hand; I think the front-on features of the nose worry me the most; I suspect that’s why I bought the book in the first place. I’m moderately better with a side view, but it’s devilishly difficult to draw sideways from a mirror using just the corners of your eyes, especially with a left hand that keeps dropping the pencil. So I tried a frontal with fingers gripping so tightly they hurt. I was not surprised at the result -the lines crossed each other and wandered over the paper like children playing tag. So, it was with an expectant heart, and not much regret that I hid the drawing, just as the phone rang. Unfortunately, as with other things involving aging neurotangles, the phone call terminally distracted me. It was an invitation for a walk and by the time I returned, I had not only misplaced the book, but have so far been unable to find the pitiful head. 

That happens with any good hiding place, I suspect. I hid my passport once and only  found it by accident behind an aging book in one of the innumerable bookcases scattered through the house.

But I have not given up; the years have left my curiosity undiminished -they have just made it more difficult to sate. And although I have found the drawing book again, I have to wonder if my left brain is frowning from behind a book nearby. Sinistra occulta timeo… I fear the Left even when it hides… (Okay, I haven’t taken Latin since high school, eh?).


[ii] Ibid

[iii] Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards


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