"Vincent pitched into his work once more. If only he could make a living, the very simplest living, out of his work. He asked for nothing more. He could be independent. He would not have to be a burden on anyone. And best of all there would be no hurry; he could let himself feel his way slowly and surely toward maturity and the expression he was seeking." -- Lust for Life page 171
I write. I am a writer. This is all I have ever wanted to do, really, for a career, and somewhere inside of me I know that. Somewhere out there, I think others know that, too. Is everything else getting in the way? Am I getting in my own way? These are some of the thoughts I thought while standing on the Woodside platform last night awaiting the Long Island Railroad train. It is an outside station. It was bloody cold! I was absolutely exhausted, but sated, after an evening with some fine friends. I stood there on the platform thinking "Good god, can I really have another 25 minutes to wait in this cold wind? I am so tired. Can I sleep for those 25 minutes? Am I going to die on this platform?" I paced back and forth willing my eyes to stay open and my heart to keep pumping warmth to my extremities and I just kept mulling over what an interesting day and evening I had had. And I thought - I know who I am. I really do.
Do I have a lust for life? Do you? I'm sort of starting to think I do.
I don't really know when it occurred to me that I'm happy with my life. Here's something I do remember. More than a dozen years ago, I for the first time saw Indigo Girls perform live. It was at Mesa Amphitheatre in Arizona. I had just that week begun classes at Arizona State University. I went to ASU for only one year. I had fled my first university after two years and returned to Phoenix, so there I was, chez Mom, without a clue as to what to do next. I registered at ASU because I knew I didn't actually want to quit school, and it was the local university (and, I might add, a place I never thought I'd end up). In my two disgruntled years at my first university that shall not be named, I'd vaguely settled on English Secondary Education as a major, having been more inspired by English teachers both in Dead Poets Society and in real life than by much else up to that point. (And having concluded I couldn't major in Theatre because I was a crappy actress and I couldn't actually become a veterinarian because I couldn't be bothered to attend/study for daily chemistry and biology classes.) So Secondary Education was what I declared to the powers that be at ASU.
But I still didn't really KNOW what I was doing. This, coupled with my newfound disillusionment with God/religion/churches/what humankind has done with notions of the divine, had brought me back to my parents. Dad helped me buy a car. Mom shared my fries with fry sauce and watched ridiculous television with me. I don't really remember the other details of that summer--I worked at Best Western, I probably read a lot, I drove to Tucson to see friends on my days off. I had come "home" to Phoenix, but nobody was there anymore. My sister lived in Utah at that time. My friends from high school had all left for college and they hadn't come back. And I had just chosen to leave behind all my new friends and what I had once thought was my new world. I was officially someone who needed to Find Myself.
Within days of my return to Phoenix in May 1994, the Indigo Girls released their album Swamp Ophelia. I remember lying on the living room carpet listening to it and thinking it was so dark and electric and unlike anything they'd ever done. I didn't know what it meant, but I hesitantly liked it, despite how uncomfortable its unfamiliarity made me. Like Vincent, when he arrives in Paris where his brother has been getting in with the newly forming Impressionists crowd. "He gazed at his canvases. God! but they were dark and dreary. God! but they were heavy, lifeless, dead. He had been painting in a long past century, and he had not known it..."- p. 295
I bought two tickets for the Indigo Girls concert the minute I heard about it, but that last week in August rolled around and I had no one to go with. I'm sure I asked my buddy from Best Western, and the one high school friend I had who went to ASU and still lived in Phoenix, and I'm sure they both were busy working or studying or just generally not caring about my favorite music group ever. I think I even asked my mom, as I got ready to leave. I remember talking to her about it. I believe she considered going just because either I or she was horrified at the prospect of me going to a concert alone. At any rate, off I went. And it was nothing short of miraculous.
First of all, there they were! Live! On stage in front of me! Indigo Girls! Look, it was really them! I've since seen them live about 28 times. (I say "about" because I can't remember if I saw them two or three summers in Hampton Beach, NH. I went to a few concerts around New England every summer.) Not all of those were actual concerts. In 2004 I saw "Shed Your Skin" twice, where they played live while the Atlanta Ballet performed to their music, and in 1995 I drove to Seattle (hi Amy! et. al.) to see them perform in Jesus Christ Superstar along with a slew of other Atlanta area musicians.
Secondly, I was remarkably content to be there alone, sitting on the grass surrounded by people who were friendly but also content to let me enjoy my solitude and bliss.
Most importantly, though, I had an epiphany. I was transformed that hot night under the stars. One of the songs from Swamp Ophelia that most resonated with me that soul-searching summer was "Language or the Kiss." Its narrative was one of bizarrely relevant personal significance, and that night I reveled anew in its notions:
...When we last talked we were lying on our backs
looking at the stars, looking through the ceiling
I used to lie like that alone out on the driveway,
trying to read the Greek upon the sky, the alphabet of feeling
Oh, I knew back then,
it was a calling that said if joy, then pain
The sound of your voice these years later is still the same
I am alone in a hotel room tonight
I squeeze the sky out but there's not a star appears
Begin my studies with this paper and this pencil
and I'm working through the grammar of my fears...
That night, I knew something for the first time. I knew that creativity was divine and beautiful. I watched Amy Ray and Emily Saliers peform an amazing concert and I was awestruck. I was grateful. But I was also galvanized. Galvanized.
I knew that creativity was the highest call.
Specifically, I knew that it was my calling.
I may have been actively running from talk of God by some severely misguided servants, but aren't they really speaking of a Creator above all else? All the notions of being a scientist, a linguist, a veterinarian, a French teacher, an English teacher, a drafter, whatever....they all melted away in that moment because I knew -- I KNEW, for the first time -- that what I needed to do was create.
And, what to do with this information, this revelation?
Well, I drove home in a stupor of thought. When I went to school I headed directly to the building where I could change my major from Secondary Education to just English. I thought -- I'm a writer. I'm a poet. I need to put my energies into that. Those are my people. People! Writer people! Here am I! Send me!
A lot of you know what happened next. Here's a hint. The best friends I made that year were a group found in my creative writing class whose favorite joke was: What's the difference between an alcoholic and a poet? A pen.
I also made radio friends, worked at a couple stations, and by the end of the school year had been accepted to the University of Southern California's broadcast journalism program. I transferred to USC in the fall of 1995 and spent the next seven years in Los Angeles. But I switched to print journalism around my second semester at USC, finding the broadcast world too much a world of evil television, and deciding the pen was mightier still than that particular sword. And I double majored in English of course.
Vincent himself bounced around a lot, trying to find his place in the world geographically and artistically. I love Lust for Life. I love that it makes me think about writing, art, and the creative life. I have never really given much thought at all to Vincent Van Gogh beyond the thought we all give to him in that he is utterly famous and renowned and unless you live under a rock you know at least one interesting fact about him. But in Irving Stone's novel I have found a guy I like. A creative person I want to hang out with. He -- and by "he" I mean the imagined Vincent who is Stone's creation/representation -- is so awesome. And so awesomely misunderstood.
He tried his hand at religous life first, but in the Borinage he was just stymied by the regulations that prevented him from actually helping the people. He wanted to do good and change the world, but his efforts failed. In the end, he changed the world through his art.
In Paris he hangs out with Gauguin, Seurat, Cezanne, and everybody and they are thisclose to starting an artist's commune together when Vincent suddenly realizes he can't do it. He can't stay. He has to back out.
"Paris had excited Vincent. He had drunk too many absinthes, smoked too many pipefuls of tobacco, engaged too much in external activities. His gorge was high. He felt a tremendous urge to get away somewhere by himself where it would be quiet, and he could pour his surging, nervous energy into his craft. He needed only a hot sun to bring him into fruition. He had the feeling that the climax of his life, the full creative power toward which he had been struggling thse eight long years, was not so very far off." - p. 368
Was that me in Phoenix? Daegu, Korea? Los Angeles?! Is Manhattan my Paris?
Perhaps it is interesting that that building where I changed my major also happens to be the one where I saw the poster with a picture of an old, African-American man and words to the effect of "this man had to overcome years of injustice, overturn laws, endure suffering and arrest, protest, walk so many miles, etc. etc. in order to be able to vote...all you had to do was turn 18." Perhaps not. Sometimes I see things that stick with me for years. Sometimes I feel like I'm on the verge of doing something. Sometimes I trust that I'm on the right path. Years ago, I questioned that every day. Lately, I don't. I also take risks. Risks need to be taken. I also hope in quiet moments that I'm not waiting until it's too late.