Perhaps They’ll Listen Now

Why Did Vincent Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear? - HistoryExtra

Imagine these circumstances:

A thirty-seven-year-old man has not held a steady job since he was twenty-seven, and he was fired from the six jobs he held until then in his adult life. He has fallen out with his father, lived with a pregnant prostitute and her daughter, and his younger brother gives him every dime he needs for food, housing, and supplies so he can paint. He claims (after saying he wanted to be a preacher, an art dealer, a tutor, and a bookstore clerk) he wants to be an artist, but every artist save one believes he simply isn’t at all good at it. The critics dismiss him as an amateur with no control over his craft, and everyone believes him to be a bum, a vagrant, a freeloader. He has a handful of maladies such as syphilis, bi-polar, manic depression, and “fits of dismay” we can today label as seizures, but in his day was simply considered signs of insanity. Four months after turning thirty-seven, he still has no job, sold no paintings, received no sign of hope from critics or artists, and has been rejected by women from his cousin to his landlord’s daughter.

Then on July 27th he shoots himself in the side (yes, he did it, not some teenager in town, not some unknown soul, he did it), and two days later on the 29th he dies. There seems every reason to consider this poor man has thrown away his life and took advantage of those he loved for some foolish “obsession” only he seems to believe in.

Yet, within a few dozen years he becomes one of the most influential, inspiring, and successful artists in the history of western culture. His letters found later reveal his passion to show others the humanity so overlooked in the poor and destitute of the world. In his day, this greatest of artists was considered the least of our brothers.

How many of us would pay attention to such a character, listen to what he has to say, get close enough to understand what bothers him, motivates him? How many of us would simply walk past this man?

I am not suggesting we are surrounded by genius disguised as misunderstood, downtrodden individuals. But it seems believing in others even when no one else does, especially when no one else does, can change a person’s life, and who knows what kind of ripple effect that might have.

I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?

Vincent van Gogh The Potato Eaters Poster 18x12 inch

Write to the Letter

Postal services history & origins | Postal history | stamps

Dear You,

This summer I’ve decided to sit at one of the tables here at Aerie, cover my iced tea from flies in the hot summer air, find the spot where the shade hits the table, place my pad down, and write letters. I’ll write about my garden, about the bay, about travel plans or family matters, depending upon who I’m writing. I won’t write about writing. I try not to write about anything negative, and I never have and never will write about politics in a letter.

Letters used to be the sole source of communication. Vincent van Gogh wrote more than two thousand pages of his thoughts to his brother Theo, a sister, as well as fellow artists. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams letters to each other famously expose the thoughts of our forefathers, and even as far back as the early Christian era we have Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

I’m just planning to write some stuff about my garden and mail it in an envelope to my friends. I learn so much when I write letters. Simply by telling other people what I’m doing, I’m reminding myself how I spend my time. It also allows me to sit in nature, slow down, and take my world one word at a time. In an age that is spinning at Mach 6, writing is like sitting on a stagecoach, but that’s okay.

Remember those days when we would anticipate mail from a friend or a lover? It seems like a long time ago now, but I recall the satisfaction of dropping a thick envelope into a mailbox or opening mine to see that marvelous white rectangle of someone thinking about me. My sister found letters our dad wrote to his mother when he was eighteen. When I was in college my Great Uncle Charlie, who was in his early nineties at the time, wrote me letters and often included poems he wrote. This was a man who fought in France during World War One, and when I was in my late teens he was still writing letters and poems and dropping them in his local postal box. I don’t know what happened to those; I moved around so much. Also lost are letters from my childhood friends on the south shore of Long Island. During the first year or so after my exodus in the mid-seventies, we wrote religiously. I am back in touch with a few of those people from that time, but the one who wrote the most letters, the one I was closest to, died last December, and now I can’t express how much I wish I still had those epistles of what we were like then, our hopes, our plans, our fears, and our indescribable confidence which time has eroded along with our penmanship skills.

On summer vacation from college I wrote friends in other parts of the country, and even after college kept a close written communication going with a few people. One is a woman I’ve known since we were freshmen, and another is a priest who I remained very close to through the years. I still have some of those replies, and some I recently sent back so my friend can see what was on her mind forty years ago. A few years after college, I wrote probably a few hundred letters to someone in the air force. Here’s how far we have come since then: At that time I would have to address the envelope with her full name, followed by her full social security number—right there on the front of the envelope. I still remember it, actually.

I know the problems in resurrecting such an ancient art form: besides the “slowness” of letter writing, there is the “I don’t really know what to write about” aspect my mother used all the time when I was away at school. Then there’s the “I don’t have time” factor which is just a crock. Sitting down to do anything for ten minutes is not an Olympic feat. And can we please just stop with the “it’s just easier to email” laments. Yes, it is. Write anyway. My favorite avoidance mantra is “I think faster than I write and I can’t slow down to do it.” Geez if you don’t think faster than you write than you’re probably legally brain dead.

As Neil Diamond wrote, “Slow it down. Take your time and you’ll find that your time has new meaning.”

Writing letters helps me remember what is important in life, and it reminds me that since I spend the vast amount of my time doing things I don’t deem worthy of including in a letter, I should appreciate the small stuff through the day as much as the grand letter-worthy events. It slows me down, helps with my blood pressure, my stress, and sometimes I might sit back while writing a letter to listen to the wrens or the cardinals, or leave it all on the table and wade in the river a bit before returning to finish. Mostly though, it is instigating a physical presence in another’s life in a completely non-threatening way; it is my DNA sealed and sent to another state.

I wish I had written back and forth with my father or kept in written contact with some friends from Spain, from New England, from New York. I’d love to have heard from my grandparents, or to read a collection of letters from ancestors from another land. They are treasures; they are history, humanity, emotion and time, all in the strokes of a pen.



These Five Books

Berger & Wyse on Ulysses – cartoon | Life and style | The Guardian

I started to read five books but simply could not get through them, so they sit on my shelf just daring me to take another shot. Understand, I did not major in English until I received an MFA at Old Dominion University in 2004, and that was strictly creative writing, non-fiction. At Penn State, my Masters’ were in art and humanities, and, sure, that included lit courses since the “humanities” part seems to think it relevant, but my undergraduate degree in mass communications, specifically journalism, didn’t call for it either.

Call me lucky.

As a writer I have read tons of books in my life just out of curiosity or research, and my shelves are filled with non-fiction works. Along the way I picked up books because of the cultural relevance when traveling. I have shelves of works I’ve read from Russia, the Czech Republic, Spain, and various locales in Africa, and good ‘ol American letters as well, including most of this country’s classics like Twain, Steinbeck, and Walker.

But still it has always been a struggle for me to sit and read at length, which my father was always able to do, and through him I read many volumes of Michener, Grisham, and historical works, as well as the great sports writing of Roger Kahn. My son, too, is a prolific reader and every once in a while will give me a book knowing I will like it, and I always do. When he was small I read to him tirelessly, and to this day I can recall just about every story of Pooh, Curious George, Richard Scary, and various zoo books. But that was fatherhood, not reading. Now, I simply don’t turn to literature out of habit. Some of it is my career for three decades demanded I read endless stacks of papers, and also stories and books in preparation for a course. Part of it is when I’m writing something, I avoid reading material not relevant to what I’m working on. And part of it is I simply prefer music, walking, talking at a pub with friends, to reading.

Still, as a humanities professor and a human being who knows books exist, there are a few works I simply know I should finish, but as of yet have not.

  1. The Epic of Gilgamesh. This earliest surviving literature in the world, and the second oldest “religious” text, was written more than three thousand years ago. It’s an epic poem about, well, Gilgamesh. I’ll get there. I do like epic poems—Canterbury Tales, Sir Gwain and the Green Knight, for instance. But the Gil never worked for me.
  2. Beowolf. Okay, to be fair, I have read this one, but that was so long ago and I think I skimmed it because it was, well, boring as hell. So now that I’m some months older I need to give it another shot, particularly since my son has a translation by Seamus Heaney, whom I deeply respect as a poet and writer. It is sitting there, daring me to pick it up. But it is so close to The Far Side Complete Collection, I’m afraid the competition is simply too strong.
  3. Infinite Jest. You’ve got to be kidding. 😊 The reviews as well as my peers in the writing world told me I must read this, and my more astute students said it really captured their generation, which encouraged me to read Wallace’s book, and I tried, I swear, I tried. Once I even made it to page 125. My goal was to get half-way through the thousand or so pages, but no. I put it down and thought, Surely, you… 
  4. Ulysses (the book by Joyce, not Tennyson’s poem which I do love). To my credit, I know a Joyce scholar who said he couldn’t get past page twenty-seven the first dozen times he tried. But still, I loved Joyce’s other works, admire Wolfe and Hemingway who deeply admired Joyce, and, well, I’m forty-two percent Irish, so. I’m not sure what my problem is but I do feel better knowing just about everyone I know who has tried to read the damn thing apparently had the same problem. First of all, I’m not nearly as smart as I should be for the life I have read or the career I have had, so there’s that. But more, I speak English and Spanish with relative ease, dabble in traveler’s Russian, but have never been able to absorb Joycean. Maybe if he drew me a Portrait I’d find a way in.
  5. Middlemarch. A writer friend of mine once said to me about this book, “If you’re going to spend that much time describing a woman’s blouse, that blouse better kill someone before the book is over.” I actually have this on the list as an example of the primary reason so many of us don’t read works we think we should—we find them boring. I know I can read the thing, and I know I’d understand it; George Elliot isn’t that complicated, and she didn’t exactly make it difficult to read. It simply bored the crap out of me, all the seemingly useless details, endless descriptions. I don’t need constant conflict, but I want something a bit more than a fashion lecture. I know that’s not the point, I do. But I also know I’m a modernist, a minimalist with a degree in journalism whose primary influences were of that profession, who learned to get to the point and leave off the fat unless it is absolutely necessary, and I still have difficulty finding so much of Middlemarch necessary.

The truth is, these books aren’t in my comfort zone, and that’s why I keep them near.  Hardly ever does one not gain something by stepping out of the comfort zone and challenging the norms of life. In fact many of my daily activities were, at one time, outside that comfort zone. My routine was at one time not my routine.

It happens.

Adding a book to my list of things to do instead of watching another repeat of a favorite show I’ve seen, and I watch again because it is familiar and predictable and safe; and so I know how my night will go, when I will laugh. But a new book challenges that, like anything new to our routine challenges us to grow a bit more.

Slowing down enough to actually read words on a page is not on most people’s minds, schedules, or even anywhere in their peripheral view of life. It is not “productive” in the contemporary take of that idea, it is not “on the way home,” or “part of my routine.” But step to one side for a second, let the traffic go by, go for a walk instead of, say, not going for a walk. Learn the name of a new bird—just one—each week. Then see if you can spot it. Honestly, how much time does that take? Routine follows the new, it never precedes it. Then it becomes expected. Then it becomes habit. Then not doing it seems wrong.  And as for boring—well, the truth is, most of us get bored because we believe we should be doing something else, or we think that whatever it is that bores us isn’t worth our time, despite the obvious reality that we simply didn’t give it a chance, slow down, take a breath, and let it have its way for a while.

I am reading, however. I just finished Ice Walker by James Raffan. Incredible journey with a polar bear family. Escape Envy, poems by Ace Boggess, who has one of the finest voices I’ve read in the genre. The Total Skywatchers Manual, which my son gave me for Christmas, and I try and learn a little something each week about the stars. Some of it takes, most not, but at this point I’ll take what I can.

I don’t know how long I’ll remember how much I enjoyed a book, will be able to recall the plot. Some books, already, I see on a shelf and know I enjoyed them immensely, but please don’t ask me what happened. I do know that right now, for a little while anyway, I can feel the arctic cold, get tense by the melting ice, as Raffan beautifully and tragically describes the protagonist bears’ trek. Later, I will know a few stars tonight, drink some Blue Lotus Flower Tea and enjoy the peace of stepping outside of myself for as long as I can, understanding fully that in my six decades so far, it has been when I push myself out of routine, challenge myself to understand what I thought I could never understand, and find the beauty in what I foolishly perceived as boring, that I have been truly and fully alive.

“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”
― George Eliot, Middlemarch

TBR stress - why I want a minimalist library

The Patience it Takes

I am proud now, today, to say I’m at the helm of a project I thought was going to be an easy ride, introducing people to writers who read their own work about nature. It turned out to be a much more involved undertaking than I ever imagined—legal issues, distribution and advertising issues, rights, writers’ rights, wrong turns and relinquishing enough control to start the process to go non-profit. I can honestly say I’ve learned more in the past seven months since the inception of this idea than I did in decades teaching. I am a student again, on the job training, and it is incredible.

As we build our catalogue and make sure everyone is happy and all the I’s are crossed and the t’s are dotted, we move closer to the end of stage one, which culminates in the Live Launch. I apologize to those who have waited, but I decided some months ago that for once in my life I was going to get this right, see it through properly and create something lasting that will continue to grow.

Chris the tech dude, Jamal the screener dude, and I are working in our free hours (I have more than both of them combined and they’re doing most of the work—go figure; it’s a specialty issue), and each day brings a new breakthrough.

We are fully funded thanks to the generosity of friends and nature lovers, the call for submissions has been quite successful as we daily view new incoming videos, and we are trying to make the growing site as user friendly as possible before users use it.

But underneath all of that is something fundamental, which has always been elemental in my life—nature itself. Two things dominate my adult life: First, I love to be in nature—canoeing, hiking, observing wildlife and landscapes from the Great Salt Lake to the alligator-filled swamps of Myakka, Florida. It has always been this way. My youth was spent in a state park, my middle years spent in as much nature as possible no matter where I lived—which was always in rural settings—to my AARP years, which find me where I have been for twenty-five years, here at Aerie on the edge of the river and the bay. And second, as a writer I find some deep need to express myself that I simply can’t, ironically, explain. I keep trying to get it right, find new words and expressions to bring readers closer to what I experience, but time and time again I simply don’t get there.

Then I read someone else who in one small way exposes something I had thought inexplicable. Then someone else from a different perspective, then someone new, and on and on…

So to bring all these voices together on one platform in various genres, for me, is a sort of culmination of the two most essential aspects of my nature-loving world.

I am glad it won’t be long before The Nature Readings Project is fully operational (insert Star Wars music), but I’m glad I was not the impatient, often immature operator I was on so many other projects in my life, from sports to music to people. Eventually we figure it out, and I hope when The Nature Project goes live it is obvious to everyone why we made sure we had it right—the natural world is all that’s left; it deserves the same patience it has always had with us.

but first, this: