I select a purple Sharpie from my mug of markers and hit play on my laptop. The first smooth line of ink coincides with the first notes of music. Then I take a deep breath and color in a teardrop-shaped leaf in this wilderness design, as Aaron Mahnke’s voice fills my ears. The page beneath my pen is from Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Colouring Book by Johanna Basford, and the story in my speakers is “A Devil on the Roof,” Episode 9 of Lore, a podcast about the facts behind some of our culture’s scariest stories. This is how I’m spending my evening.
Podcasts are new to me. Coloring is not. I loved coloring books as a child, even up into middle school. I still have some of my favorites—The Little Mermaid and She-Ra among them. Coloring was such a peaceful past time. I’ve always been a stay-in-the-lines kind of person (my creativity comes out in other ways) and sitting down at a table with an open coloring book and a box of crayons was such a relaxing experience. We used to keep our assortment of Crayolas in an old metal cookie tin, and I can still remember the smell when I pried open the lid—wax and paper and dust and metal and childhood.
When I got older, I sought that sense of serenity from my youth and sat down with an old coloring book and a box of crayons, hoping to recapture it. But, sadly, it didn’t work. She-Ra was still awesome, but the blocks of space were so large, too open to capture my stress, too simple to keep my attention anymore. I wandered away before the picture was finished.
Instead, I made my own designs. In high school and college, most of my doodles were stick figures and silly cartoons or just stars everywhere in the margins of my notes. But when I became a teacher and had to distract my brain during endless hours of staff development, my doodles changed into shapes I could fill in with patterns and blocks of color. Sometimes, a picture emerged or at least an inkblot-esque form in which I saw meaning. When that happened, I named the doodle.
When coloring books for adults became popular, I jumped on board immediately. Here was just what I’d been looking for—the serenity of childhood with enough complexity to keep my brain happy. Unlike with my own doodles, the outlines were already done for me, and they were so much cooler than anything I’d scribbled on the back of a fire safety handout.
While the art of coloring is something I’ve always understood, the art of listening is new to me. I mean, I know how to listen. In high school and college, I usually got A’s on tests, even if I doodled in the margins of all of my notes, and when I was a teacher, I knew how to escort my students out of the building in an emergency, despite the elaborate designs on the back of my evacuation map. But that’s when I was a captive audience. Put me in my office or my living room at home and give me words to listen to with no visual, and you won’t be able to recite a Shel Silverstein poem before I’m lost in a book, or writing a story of my own, or traipsing off to do some spontaneous laundry, or snoring on my couch. Left to my own devices, I just can’t seem to focus my ears unless my hands and eyes are also busy.
That’s why I listen to audio books in my car. With my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road and no urge (thank goodness) to fall asleep, I can drive to work, run errands, or sit in traffic with a smile as I check another title off my Goodreads list. Right now, my car companion is Dracula. But due to the age of my car and the battery life of my phone, it’s not easy to listen to digital files while driving, so the podcast bandwagon passed me by. The ones I heard about sounded interesting, but I couldn’t fathom how/where/when to listen.
Then I got two new coloring books for my birthday, and suddenly everything clicked.
Podcasts and coloring books—it’s a match made in heaven. Like Abbott and Costello, or peanut butter and jelly, or holiday decorating while watching The Muppet Christmas Carol, it just works. My hands and eyes are busy creating something simple but beautiful, while my ears are engaged with stories and interviews and ideas.
I’ve tried a few different ones—Dinner Party Download, NPR’s Invisibilia, Nature Podcast. (Of course, I’m biased about that one.) But so far, my favorite is Lore. In just twenty minutes, Aaron Mahnke transports me to another time and place, tells me a creepy story that I constantly doubt, believe, and doubt again, and leaves me feeling both shivery and inspired. The history he shares behind famous hauntings and unexplained phenomena is great fodder for my own horror writing. In Episode #9, “A Devil on the Roof,” he tells the story of the Jersey Devil, a creature with wings, a horse’s head, and two deer-like legs, who was sighted multiple times over the course of a century.
I still read, of course. I still watch TV and interact with other human beings from time to time. But lately, on cold autumn nights, you’re likely to find me sitting by the fireplace with my laptop, a coloring book, and a glass of wine. Tonight it’s another page of Enchanted Forest, a glass of Cabernet, and Episode #10 of Lore, which is about the spirits that haunt the Stanley Hotel. If you’re interested in such things, you should grab a handful of markers and join me.
What’s your favorite podcast? When and where do you listen to it? Share in the comments!
* * *
[Don’t forget—If you comment on my blog posts between now and December 31, 2015, you’ll be entered in my book giveaway!]