The winter sky was overcast as we stepped off the bus on our way to a conference on the October Revolution. Through Halle’s bustling Christmas market where schoolchildren were tooting some holiday tunes to a meager crowd, down a side street where the only spot of color was a fence that boldly stated, “IT’S TOO LATE TO BLAME YOUR PARENTS,” we wound our way to the rather grand university building and slipped into seats just as the event was set to start.
For all that’s said about Germans being punctual, you can depend on German universities to start events late. Nearly every university event I’ve attended over the past two years has begun well after the set time- but maybe that’s just German consistency. In any case, the first lecture started a solid 20 minutes late, a good chunk into the first of three 90-minute sessions which would address how the October Revolution has affected or will affect the past, present, and potential future of communism.
Now, I’ve been learning German for eight years and use it regularly in everyday life for conversation, correspondence, and even intellectual discussion- but academic German read in a monotone about a topic I am not very familiar with is still far over my head. I spent the entire first hour with my chin in my hands, staring blankly at the lecturer and trying desperately to make sense of more than the occasional phrase. The second speaker, if less monotone, was equally as unintelligible, and I left for the first break feeling rather frustrated.
Even after years of learning a language and over two years living in a country where the language is spoken, there are still ups and downs. Most days I can communicate with ease and hold even relatively complicated conversations, but some days I wake up and feel like I can’t understand anything.
That day in December hadn’t started as as an I Don’t Understand German day, but it certainly turned into one. My friend and I left the campus, avoiding the clusters of students in oversized coats, round glasses, and ankle-length pants discussing the lectures and trying to out-intellect each other. That was too much even for him, so we walked back towards town so he could buy another pack of tobacco and have a smoke somewhere in peace. I was still so frazzled that I was even having a hard time understanding him, and that didn’t help matters. Eventually I got so frustrated at being able to neither understand or express anything about the lectures, and thinking of the four hours still ahead of us, that I said I might just sit out the next round and enjoy the rare sun that had broken through the morning’s clouds.
Somehow he convinced me that the first round was bound to be the most difficult and that I should give the Present section a try, and then skip out on Future if that proved to be too much. So I said goodbye to the sunlight that would already be gone when the second round finished, took a deep breath, and returned to the lecture hall.
Out of character, I had not brought any reading along with me (which always seems to happen just when you need something to do), but I did have a slim unlined Moleskine notebook that was about one-third filled with my writing, thoughts, and drawings. Taking notes on the conference had already proved fruitless (the entirety of my notes is as follows: “Halle, 16 Dez. 17. From Russia With Love- 100 Jahre (Russische) Oktober Revolution. Vergangenheit: Was war/ist der Kommunismus? Unterschied zwischen “C” communismus und “K.”), so I decided to try to draw something…but what? Even though I like to draw, I don’t do it very often.
I started with a small circle in the middle of the page, then added eight ovals surrounding it, each with one end touching the circle. Then little leaf-shaped things, then dots, then crescents, and on and on. I repeated each individual shape or line or shadow eight times, making the circle more and more intricate as it grew out from the center. In the process, I realized that, though I still couldn’t understand very much of the lectures, I could listen uninhibited by frustrating or self-deprecating thoughts. In fact, my frustration completely went away. I continued to work through the rest of the lectures and discussion (though I did leave for the break), and even stopped drawing for long pauses during the last lecture, of which I actually understood a decent amount. At the end, I felt much differently than I had following the first section. Rather than frustrated and feeling like I had wasted my time, I was pleased to have had the time and space to make something beautiful.
Drawing through frustration was a good experience to have just as the deep darkness of winter began, and it gave me a way to combat the lethargy and uselessness that sometimes accompanies that season. I am a fairly active person, but on the days when I couldn’t motivate myself to go to the pool, or I felt it was too dark or unsafe to go for a run, or I couldn’t even breathe myself through much more than child’s pose and cat/cow on my yoga mat, I would sit down at the kitchen table, put on Lord Huron or Oh Wonder, and remind myself that sometimes it is best to work out from the center.
I am pleased with the mandalas I have drawn, both through the winter and into the spring. Each one represents an hour (or more) of my time, an hour of peace, an hour of focus. Each one is unique and detailed, and I never know how it will look when I stop drawing. Sometimes, especially now as the world is in bloom, I pull inspiration from the natural world, but sometimes I just pick out colors and start going. I look forward to continuing to experiment with colors, shapes, and materials, and now it is almost funny to think of the December day in Halle. Even though I didn’t end up getting much information about the October Revolution, I am so appreciative for the experience of struggling to understand, and finding a different way to focus.