Ottawa·Point of View

Drawing on the good, even in bad times

After her brush with cancer, Andrea Ross started doodling something positive once a day. 940 days later, she writes about what it's done for her drawing skills, her mood and her ability to cope with COVID-19.

After cancer, Andrea Ross started to doodle daily. 940 days later, she's still at it

During her cancer treatment, Andrea Ross walked twice a day to see this statue at Dows Lake. She vowed that if she lived five more years, she would visit its twin in Appeldoorn, Netherlands. She did (see below for doodle). (Francis Ferland/CBC)

April 2018 had been tiringly snowy, so that first coat-free Saturday was a treat. 

Early the next morning, pen in hand, I peeled the cellophane wrapper off a blank journal and replayed my day. The sunshine. The crisp breeze. My toddler niece squealing as she sailed high in a bucket swing between my husband and me. 

Doodling had always been a spontaneous — and often sassy — way for me to express myself.

But doodling on purpose, it turned out, was tough. Some straight lines, some curvy. A big U-shaped smile. My stick figure depiction was no masterpiece, but I captured and posted it. 

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A healthy habit was born. And I have stuck with it for 940 days since.

Ross decided to start drawing one positive thing from her day, every day. She calls it 'gruntling,' and it started with this doodle. (Andrea Ross)

Before I drew

My laser focus on what had and could go wrong had been an asset to me for my 20 years in software development. That is, until the demise of Silicon Valley North. In 2009, I left my job as a software designer and was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Ross's daughter Bayla Ross-Blevis, then 8, decorates her mom's portacath, a valve device sewn into the upper chest for insertion of chemo infusions, in the spring of 2010. (Submitted by Andrea Ross)

I spent the next year dragging myself and my young family through the initial horror, the many painful decisions, surgeries, injections, medications, scans, X-rays, chemo, radiation and the disorienting turmoil and uncertainty.

But the feeling of mortality did bring a gift. Life was stripped to the bare brilliance of present moments and each commonplace treasure that I enjoyed. This grateful noticing was life, I realized. This was joy.

I survived cancer and thrived.

Ross calls this doodle gif Gratitude. It references the statue at Dows Lake that she walked to see every day during her cancer treatment. (Andrea Ross)

In the wake of treatment, my newfound sense of mortality propelled me to push past my hang-ups. I presented at conferences, braved belly dancing and burlesque, led community events, volunteered and taught. 

Each new thing I tried gave me a feel-good jolt, but my grateful noticing of the small "normal" things was my biggest joy. 

Which is why, on that first glorious spring weekend of 2018, I chose to train the spotlight right there. I decided to draw one bit of joy each day, and post it online.

For the 940 days (and counting) since then, I have mentally scanned my in-progress day, picking out a bit of goodness to doodle and post to my site. Some days I've had loads of joyful moments to choose from and some days have been bad, yet this dependable creative habit always gives me precious moments to take note, take in, reflect, relive and remember for days to come.

Five years after her cancer treatment, Ross and her family travelled to the Netherlands to visit the twin statue. (Submitted by Andrea Ross)

Better at art, life

I've progressed as an artist, and that's felt good, especially since I didn't start out that way.

But more importantly, my daily doodle practice is polishing a lens that brings the brilliance of the big picture into view. It's a shift I can feel — and science backs it up.

Ross says over her years of daily doodling, she's progressed as an artist. She can see that when she looks back at her annual drawing of her first bike ride each spring. (Andrea Ross)

It turns out that this daily practice has been retraining my brain to overcome the obsolete human negativity bias that can keep contentment at bay. According to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, our brains are Teflon for good experiences and Velcro for bad.

My daily doodle practice helps make the good stuff stick.

Ross says drawing one positive thing each day helped train her brain to appreciate the happy moments during lockdown. (Andrea Ross)

Concocting an apt visual, I vividly re-feel (and re-glue) good emotions and, in this COVID-19 era, the routine itself provides sanity-saving structure while friends and fun are out of bounds.

While doodling, I'm firmly present. Each completed image provides either the glee of success or, when the result is cringe-worthy, the chance to hush my inner critic, knowing tomorrow is another doodling day. 

Ross calls this piece, doodled in March 2020, My Social Distancing Prowess. (Andrea Ross)
Ross drew this piece in April 2020, calling it the 'daily do-over.' (Andrea Ross)

My featured loved ones are often tickled to see the joy they've brought me and the string of captured happy moments provides an over-arching perspective that my memory can't grasp on its own.

Since that first sunny doodle, I've peeled the cellophane off three more journals, upgraded my eraser and replaced a few pens. It's a brain-training bargain I can highly recommend, and I look forward to it every day.

So long as my hand is steady and my eyes still work, I hope to continue happily ever after.

Daily doodles highlight everyday moments of joy

3 months agoVideo
1:13
After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Andrea Ross started drawing every day. Now in recovery, she says it still brings happiness — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 1:13
Ross says her daily doodling has helped create a narrative of all the good she's experienced, even during the pandemic. (Francis Ferland/CBC)
Ross calls her daily doodle practice 'gruntling.' (Andrea Ross)

Want to give this daily doodle practice a try? Here's how:

Ross offers this advice on how to use drawing to focus on the positive. (Andrea Ross)

Andrea Ross is an adept social distancer who, while grateful for the respite from the grind of social anxiety, looks forward to resuming her roles at Re-Cycles bike shop, The Ottawa Tool Library, Lee Hayes's choirs and the Central Ottawa Kundalini Yoga Co-op. Luckily, she's colossally crazy about her partner, daughters, dogfriend, bicycle, yoga, sourdough, home, niece and life. You can see her doodles at gruntled.ca.

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