I left off wanting to be the girl under the tree, with wild hair and apricots falling around my feet, the one who scrawls words dangerously, with no consideration of time or consequence. I also shared my fear of being forever, instead, the draftsgirl. Carefully engineered, a single life drafted, one side, straight lines, four squares per inch. . .
Lately, something has been changing in this landscape, Vincent. I can feel it. Something is twisting in or out, tectonic plates are shifting, and things are being arranged and rearranged in subtle, precarious ways. The tycoons, politicians, and bankers are everywhere, moving like specters through the fog.
I am scared, Vincent. The ground beneath my feet has become shaky. Things are falling and colliding and sliding away. Fires are being extinguished, leaving a chilling void. All around me are eyes, bereft and empty, accusing and congratulatory, desperate and frightening. There are hands in pockets, hands engaged in work, and so many fingers pointing. . . there’s a deficit of warmth and a surfeit of greed.
In this new landscape, draftsgirls like me count their pennies and desperately cling to faith. Our voices lilt upwards in apologies, begging forgiveness for the slightest mis-mark; the most inconsequential step out of line. We no longer see Arles or fields of flowers in our dreams, but debtor’s prisons, and ourselves as the potato eaters who must survive yet another harsh season.
Once, Vincent, I lost myself in your novel reader. I saw her, wrapped in a warm shawl, surrounded by amber light, left wide-eyed by some adventure, or captivated by some turn of phrase that her mind might repeat over and over again to spark her imagination or salve her heart. I imagine she might have followed Thoreau as he left the ship’s cabin to stand “before the mast and deck of the world” where he could “best see the moonlight amid the mountains”. Or Dante – “Consider your origins; you were not born to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.”
In a warm room, with other appetites sated, transcendence comes easily. Ragged men in ragged clothes become poetic symbols; weathered faces lined in pain become lyrical epithets. In a virtuous existence, where there is no desperate struggle to make what is essential matter less – where there is no forceful tamping down of hunger, or violent scramble for the last piece of this or bit of that – where there is warmth, and light, and plenty – it is easy to transcend the faraway, brute reality of cold bones and empty bellies.
I used to close my eyes against the grimness of your Potato Eaters. The hope-filled and dreamy child in me found it a particularly ugly piece. I hated that it was there, amidst the achingly beautiful starry nights, and the gardens of Arles. I shuddered against the humble faces in gray surroundings, with their slumped shoulders and distant eyes, and I believe I might have even said aloud, not me, not me, never. What arrogance I had then, Vincent, in my cast-off clothes, with my sun-burned face and impertinent temper. I believed that boldness, above all else would see me through – that courage was the great equalizer that would bring me out of the muddy fields and into the sunlit gardens. And at night, under bright yellow stars and the bluest of skies, I would sit under the awning of the café terrace, my heart filled with the grace of distance, writing the stories I promised to never forget.
I can’t say exactly when it was that I looked at the Potato Eaters and found myself there, or when the Café Terrace at Night became the more painful vision, but it was recent. One day, I simply emptied my pockets of impossible dreams, and found myself face to face with the woman pouring coffee. And she was no longer entirely un-beautiful to me, but worthy. I wanted to wrap her in a warm shawl and give her a feather bed in which to rest her weary head. I wanted to wake her with roses and music and fill her long, bent days in the fields with hope. I felt the languishing pain, too, of having none of these gifts to give.
Poverty and politics are maliciously entwined, Vincent. Those closest to the earth feel it first – the swelling winds and jagged cracks – the subtle, perilous changes in landscape. We feel it, and we fear the long drought ahead.
I hear them calling out to us, Vincent, like barkers in some nightmarish carnival – Get your hope here! Don’t panic! All is well, or will be well! – and I think of something else Dante said, about the darkest places in hell being reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of crisis. Certainly, there’s hell enough right here on earth to hold the corrupt, yet they are rarely the ones who suffer the darkest of days. It’s wealth and power, Vincent, and not courage that takes one deep into the sanctified gardens. There, behind the guarded gates, beyond the reach of justice, the violators transcend the broken bodies, empty wallets, and torn spirits they’ve left behind, writing their own histories or forgetting them altogether.
I have a sudden urge to go home, my friend, but where? There is no place I can truly call my own. I am living on borrowed time, in rented spaces. I cast a glance upward and see only the reflections of a bitterly divided earth. A silver thorn on a bloody rose, and an earth that’s trembling.
What I wouldn’t give now to be a shepherdess instead of a draftsgirl, on another landscape altogether.
I wish you were here to paint me something beautiful.