Fly on the Wall—New Mediums, New Methods

Giving Ourselves the Gift of an Uncredited Elective

Deep in Amazonian South America live capybara: boxy beavers who intermittently refresh themselves by wallowing in mud.  It nourishes and hydrates their skin and probably feels great.  Like AU students, capybara life is about perpetual progress.  This stands in notable contrast to their cousins the prairie gophers, who take the easy way out of winter by entering hibernation, much like traditional university attendees who get two weeks off following their Fall exams.  For we at AU, a Solstice hot tub might be just the ticket for a certain type of rejuvenation; taking a break from our studies and trying out new creative avenues might be another.

As we descend into the seasonal abyss of a December replete with celebrations and responsibilities, this may be a perfect time to actively engage in a hiatus from our studies.  If we so choose, we may wallow productively and, just as the capybara absorbs much-needed moisture in a mud bath, we might give ourselves the gift of an uncredited elective this holiday season.  The spirit of the season is a spirit of refreshment and replenishment, after all.  So here’s to wallowing!

Imagine brushstrokes grazing a canvas with elegant and eloquent deft swoops; images invite the eye across your canvas as you swoon to the sensation of embodying your creative essence.  The act of engaging with a new medium can be a lovely rejoinder to our brains, addled as they may be from all the assignments and deadlines.  As we enter a winter that can seem to drag on without egress, and its prelude that is the chaotic Christmas cavalcade, it helps to remember that this need not be a season of discontent.  Far from it, because by trying a couple of new methods and mediums we may expand our capacities for learning and expressing and thereby make the most of a much-needed December break.

The 1960s-era Toronto sociologist Marshall McLuhan famously proclaimed that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, online).  So what new mudhole medium might suit each of us as we take a break from our regular studies; where should we wallow?  As the Fly on the Wall I’m personally partial to the vagabond author Henry Miller’s pastime of choice: painting.  At the ripe, (or perhaps unripe, or over-ripe depending on which demographic of distance student you ask) age of 37, Miller embarked on his voyage as a painter.  By his own account he delved right into the centre of his mind and the mind’s eye as enhanced and expressed through the medium of his paintbrush.  Miller came to believe that no written word could quite enhance his experience of life’s intricacies, exigencies, and universalism than that imparted by painting.  “To paint is to love again”, he proudly stated with his irascible Brooklyn accent.

“It’s only when we look with eyes of love that we see as the painter sees.  His is a love, moreover, which is free of possessiveness.  What the painter sees he is duty-bound to share.  Usually he makes us see and feel what ordinarily we ignore or are immune to.  His manner of approaching the world tells us, in effect, that nothing is vile or hideous, nothing is stale, flat and unpalatable unless it be our own power of vision.  To see is not merely to look.  One must look-see.  See into and around.” (Popova, online).

Miller’s new way of seeing and feeling is akin to the enlightening lyric by the band Bikini Kill: “If you were blind and there was no braille, there are no boundaries on what I can feel” (Bikini Kill, online).  There are many ways of being, after all, and setting aside our coursework can open new vistas of vision for ourselves.

Our studies may draw us in (as it were) such that we become immured in a concrete well of meaning, a disciplinary silo, as goes the pejorative term.  And even though we bring up answers our well water may become tainted merely by our being too close and too involved with our studies.  Interdisciplinary studies are not immune from this outcome either, being limited by necessity to disciplines that define themselves originally as such, with their demarcations, hinterlands, and boundaries.  Maybe this Christmas season can be less about lowering our expectations for productivity than about erecting new towers of meaning for ourselves: ones more about exploring and map-making a private and creative treasure hunt.  Winter snow hides as well as reveals, and just as new forms appear where barns or trees or plains previously resided, so too can we see ourselves and our academic worlds anew.  So why not pick up a cheap paint set and give Miller’s extra-curricular hobby of choice a try?   As Levar Burton of Reading Rainbow used to say when turning testimonials over to his young co-hosts, “you don’t have to take my word for it” (Burton, online).

Miller illustrates the value he gleaned from the painting process and how, like a good wallow, it rejuvenated him, “I turn to painting when I can no longer write.  Painting refreshes and restores me; it enables me to forget that I am temporarily unable to write.  So I paint while the reservoir replenishes itself.” (Popova, online).

Now, any of us might be forgiven for wondering where on earth we’ll find the time to partake in a new hobby even if it is as a temporary replacement of our regular studies.  But time is an odd beast over the Holidays: it rides in flows of prepping and planning and entertaining and engaging and then lapses and morphs into lulls and ambiguities before rushing headlong into routines and schedules.  Let’s face it, no student of any age has a normal December, and no adult, small or tall, does either.  It’s a season unto itself and maybe the perfect time to learn more about ourselves.

Bikini Kill (2018).  “Feels Blind.”  Retrieved from
Burton, L.  (2017).  “You Don’t Have to Take My Word For It”.  Reading Rainbow.  Retrieved from
Mcluhan, M.  (1964).  The Medium is the Message.  Retrieved from
Popova, M.  (2015).  “To Paint is to Love Again: Henry Miller on Art, How Hobbies Enrich Us, And Why Good Friends Are Essential For Creative Work”.  Brain Pickings.  Retrieved from