Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A meditation on revolution's infidelity, or: just one canvas!

I remind you here of page 476:

"If I had painted just one canvas like this, Vincent, I would consider my life justified. I spent the years curing people's pain - but they died in the end, anyway - so what did it matter? These sunflowers of yours - they will cure the pain in people's hearts - they will bring people joy - for centuries and centuries - that s why your life is successful - that is why you should be a happy man."

This passage seriously affected me. I've finished Lust for Life but I still think about this passage every day. I returned the book to the library but I carry the text of that paragraph around in my phone. "That is why your life is successful..." Amazing stuff.

Irving Stone based Lust for Life on Vincent's letters to his brother Theo. Stone said that every event in the book was true but the conversations he wrote were imagined. There really was a Dr. Gachet who was Vincent's last true friend. And he probably really did say something remarkably similar to those words above. But Stone deserves credit for making it so inspiring. It stopped me in my literary tracks.

I ramble through my days here at law school, extremely interested in the things I am learning and not interested whatsoever in becoming an attorney after I learn them. I came here for my own fulfillment, or something like it. And this semester has been a bizarre combination of legal learning, interpersonal mistakes-revelation-growth, artistic development, coloring pictures, shaking my head in disgust, wishing, drinking, running, hiding, emerging, and wondering. Sometimes I've held my head in my hands (literally and metaphorically) and other times I've stood with arms outstretched (again, both) overlooking the world, my world, the life I have created.

Grant Lee Buffalo has just popped into my head, of course. "It's the life you have created, it's the life, it's the life..." What an amazing song that is. Do yourself a favor and listen to it if you never have. Let this wondrous internet bring good things to your ears. Speaking of ears, and of the wonders of creation, what would ol' Vincent would have thought of the internet? It's so crazy to contemplate what that gang of artistic revolutionaries would have thought of our revolution. After all, when they fantasize about their little artists' commune Zola pontificates (on page 339), "Let's formulate our manifesto, gentlemen. First, we think all truth beautiful, no matter how hideous its face may seem." Well, that sounds like he could definitely have an appreciation for MySpace or YouTube, eh? But he goes on to say that pain is beautiful, because it is the most profound of all human emotions. That's a hard one to swallow, but it might be a hideous-faced truth.

I think about the life I have created and whether I'll "paint" even one "canvas" before I go.

You see, I joke a lot about procrastination on MySpace but in all sincerity I am just a deadline person as opposed to a start-the-assignment-early person, and that isn't necessarily a problem. In school, it's fine. The time eventually comes to hand things in, so they always get done somehow. But in the creative life? The one I'm more and more sure I'm trying to lead, despite all indications to the contrary? The one where you have no one to answer to and no one to mete out consequences except yourself? Whiling away the hours and not meeting my personal deadlines and watching another year go by without finishing the book -- well, these are indeed problems.

Vincent Van Gogh had an amazing thing. He had a monthly income from his beloved brother/best friend that enabled him to work as an artist before and until he could sell his paintings (which was basically not in his lifetime). But you know what? I have equally amazing things in my life. As I read Lust for Life this semester I was also wrapping up my journey through The Artist's Way, which I managed to elongate from a 12-week program into nearly 19 weeks. OK, so I had to repeat a few chapters. I had issues. Serious September issues. Maybe some October issues as well. We shall not get into them here. But the thing is, they weren't really just about law school or lies, although those things can definitely be a shock to the system.

No, it was back in August, on the bus to New York, when I sat doing Chapter 8 of The Artist's Way...

...where I cried and I cried
I knew I was trading on things that I didn't have
the things I didn't have
Now you come to me
with revolution's infidelity
with blacklisted friends and tupperware kin
and your big history...

--indigo girls, of course. that song's called 'cordova'.

I was ON THE BUS MOVING TO NEW YORK and there was my weekly Artist's Way assignment making me sketch out my dreams, and artistic ambitons I'd chosen to forget I had were bubbling up from within me and Connecticut was passing in the night and I was reaching out saying "Help me! Help me! It's all so scary!" and my friend, my good and true friend, was saying, "It's OK. Don't be scared. Why ever are you afraid, Linda? Because you should have been writing this whole time?"

But haven't I been writing this whole time?

What does it mean that I write and write and write bu I never finish my book, even as Fidel lies on his death bed?

If anyone thinks I'm saying I don't want to be in law school, au contraire! In fact, that's a major part of my point. I've always hated the notion that one has to choose between academia and creativity. I think people like Galileo and Da Vinci could be multi-faceted scientists/artists/ astronomers/painters/whatever they wanted and no one batted an eye but in this day and age we're "supposed" to "figure out" what we want to do with our lives, as if there's one thing.

If anyone thinks I'm saying I don't have amazing oodles of support from my family, au contraire again! I can't believe how much they've given and continue to give me. In that sense, I am like Vincent. I think he, too, felt frustrated and guilty, and always thisclose to being able to finally "make it"...surely the sketches and paintings must start selling someday.

I think it's easy for an aspiring creative such as myself to say "If only..." Well, if only I had a monthly stipend to do My Work. If only I had wealth and a room of my own. If only I had more time, more money, more reliable transportation, the list of excuses is endless. Instead of reading about Vincent and Theo in envious awe, it should have been more like recognition.

"For those who have a talent for poverty, poverty is eternal." -- page 407

Vincent discovered that; I think I've known it about myself for quite some time. Just as homework can expand to fill the time allotted for it, the amount of money I need to spend can magically grow until it equals the exact amount I have. The whole "I could be a full-time writer if I just had a means of supporting myself until my writing sells" is a crock of shit, frankly.

So what else? Law school, then? I believe I've made it clear that law school takes time -- but not all my time.

Korea? Actually, we started a writing group in Korea. I also participated in other ways in the full-blown Daegu expats' renaissance. Korea was good. It reminded me of other artistic parts of me, anyway. There are other parts, you know, besides the writer. Two other big ones.

After a long and tiring weekend, the other night I curled up in the cool gray dark of my room to watch one of my absolute favorite movies, The Hours, as I went to sleep. I knew I needed it. I love that movie so much. I've heard others call it depressing (and by "others" I mean "everyone else on the planet who's seen it") but I find it so enriching! So enlightening! So everything! Writers. Women. Life. Life's entanglements. Novels that take ten years to write. Trying to catch a moment's truth. Artists going mad. New York City. Love. A woman's whole life in a single day...

Throughout this roller-coaster of a semester -- or was it more like trekking in the Himalaya and going higher than I should without oxygen? -- I've recognized my occasional foolish behaviors and marveled at them and had many a philosophical chat about Life and Studies and Art and What It All Means but it's been almost like watching myself in a play, wondering what I'll do next. Somehow I think I get it.

"He had known before that one could fracture one's legs and arms and after that recover, but he was rather astonished that one could fracture the brain in one's head and recover after that, too." - page 428

Twentysomethings fascinate me right now. I mean, most people who know me remember that turning 30 was something I took very seriously. Not in a particularly depressed sense but in a "Wow I really need to get going on doing something meaningful" sense. And in fact I have begun checking off items on my life's things-to-do list, such as teaching English in Asia and going to law school. (Yes, I noticed that "finishing the Cuba book" has not yet been checked off.) It's funny. I had a million great experiences as a twentysomething, but I think all that time at Borders was the epitome of being a "shadow artist" as Julia Cameron calls it in the Way: spending time around books and writers instead of being a writer myself. She's seen others do it. Film critics who really want to direct. Band managers who should be making their own music. Shadow artists.

"Vincent had lashed himself into a fury. He had been working progressively at his craft for six years under the most heartbreaking conditions; now that everything was made easy for him, he was faced with a humiliating impotence." - page 341

But I reached my escape velocity from Borders, and I went and taught in Korea, and I got a scholarship to Hofstra, and I went to the mountain and learned many things. And then came back to the U.S. and I sold off a million earthlypossessions and I extricated myself from a messy joke of a disaster of an idea of a relationship and I finally completed The Artist's Way and sure, I rave endlessly about that book. (It's getting up to the level of Indigo Girls.) But seriously. It's a gem. It makes me realize things. And do things. And draw pretty pictures. And work out new arrangements on the guitar and the piano. It makes me have vivid dreams, by night and by day.

"Of course he's crazy. But what would you? All artists are crazy. That's the best thing about them. I love them that way. I sometimes wish I could be crazy myself! 'No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness!' Do you know who said that? Aristotle, that's who.'" - page 469

When Vincent first goes to the maison de sante (that would be an asylum) the other inmates basically sit around all day being quiet and trying not to have a fit. Finally, one of the patients freaks out in the night and Vincent tries to hold him down and calm him. He beseeches the others to help him and an old man does so. After the episode the man fills Vincent in:

"'The boy was studying for the bar,' he said. 'He overworked his brain. These attacks come on about every ten days. He never hurts anyone. Good night to you Monsieur.' The older man returned to his bed and promptly fell asleep. Vincent went once again to the window that overlooked the valley. It was still a long time before sunrise and nothing was visible but the morning star. He remembered the painting Daubigny had made of the morning star, expresssing all the vast peace and majesty of the universe . . . and all the feeling of heartbreak for the puny individual who stood below, gazing at it." - page 441

I've tried before to explain to people a sensation that comes over me from time to time. I've usually been laughed off. Here goes. Occasionally, I'll see a stranger on the bus, or in a store, or most recently walking down the law school hallway after an evening class let out, and I will be so suddenly profoundly overcome with a blend of pity and well wishes for that specific person that I actually have to catch my breath. I look at them and understand so clearly, just for a moment, that he or she is struggling, trying to do good things, trying to work through the difficulties life has thrown at him or her. I want to do something to help these people, whom I don't know and have never seen before. I want to reassure them; I want to tell them, "I understand." It's like I suddenly recognize in them our shared humanity. It is beautiful, and utterly heartbreaking.

Maybe Vincent first goes crazy long before there are any outward signs. He has a weird moment of gratification while painting a canvas, and imagines a conversation with a beautiful woman who says she loves him. She also tells him that "sometimes one has to be a fool in the beginning, to become wise in the end." - page 399

I guess there isn't much more one can ask, then. My god, I am lucky. I am a lucky, lucky person. But I have a haunting sensation this week. I feel I need to do something before it's too late. I also feel like I still have a long way to go.

"Is there no end to this, Theo? Must I go to school all my life? I'm thirty-three; when in God's name do I reach maturity?" -- page 304

Just one canvas, Vincent. Just one canvas.

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