Wherever I Gogh

He just keeps turning up everywhere I go.

It started with the painting on the otherwise unremarkable side of a building in an uptown shopping mall last summer. An unexpected portal:

Got me thinking a lot about imagination, passages, transitions, transcendence, overcoming…and faith. See how prominent the church is. And maybe a touch of magic—who has not encountered mysterious doors leading from one world to another in fantasy novels?

The Starry Night beckoned, took me in, adopted me. It became a personal motif during the COVID pandemic. Consider these definitions of motif:

a usually recurring salient thematic element (as in the arts); especially : a dominant idea or central theme.  —Merriam-Webster

a symbolic image or idea that appears frequently in a story. —literaryterms.com

My version: A “salient” (noticeable, as in you can’t miss it) symbol that keeps recurring, that has significant meaning to a narrative. Which is, in this case, my life. For I began taking note of how often van Gogh’s famous painting appeared in my daily existence, and what it could mean. Perhaps it is those deep blues, or those stars, or the peaceful village, or the presence of the church, or all of the above, that impart a sense of calm, benevolence, and well-being to me in the time of crisis. Maybe much as the artist felt when he painted it.

I have The Starry Night on a mask. A sort of literal and figurative protection. I used its imagery in a poem I wrote about awe, the word that adopted me when I turned the pages of my planner from 2020 to 2021 and found it in a quote there on January 1st. Awe and well-being are also deeply linked. When I wrote the poem I was thinking of all those blues in the painting and how blue is the rarest color in nature. Like forgiveness. Hence my closing lines: “The color of forgiveness/in the blue hour.” Those lines were born of awe just after The Starry Night resurfaced yet again in a startling way; one day I will be able to explain, but the time is not yet ripe for that story. Let us leave it at love, for love and forgiveness do not exist apart from one another.

And so we come to February.

Where this quote appears in the pages of my planner:

He just keeps turning up everywhere I go.

I marvel at those words and their truth for an artist, a student, a teacher, a writer.

Furthermore, we learn life by doing it.

One more thing…

I recently stumbled across van Gogh’s paintings of shoes. I wasn’t aware that this was a favorite subject for him. The story is that he would buy old shoes from flea markets and wear them through mud until they were interesting enough to paint.

I have to wonder about the symbolism. Shoes are necessary protection in daily life. A motif with many meanings in many cultures. A fashion obsession and status symbol in some. Deep spiritual connotations in others; shoes are often mentioned in the Bible, especially removing them as an act of reverence and faith. I wonder if van Gogh thought while he painted about the places these shoes had been, the people who wore them, what their life-journeys were like. What stories the shoes might tell, maybe just metaphorically, humbly, in their layers of dust and mud from long, hard travels on this Earth.

Lots to ponder with van Gogh and his shoes.

As I travel through life in my own.

He really does keep turning up, everywhere I go.

My shoes.

I’ve found these to be the most comfortable since breaking my foot, a year ago today.
Lots more to explore there, on brokenness and healing
.

How perfect is it that they are Vans. Wherever I may Gogh.

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written for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers.
Our stories often remind us of where we’ve been, where we are going, and who we are.
Writing them leads to surprising discoveries.
Sometimes those within ourselves.
Sometimes awe, at what lies beyond.

Awe: The blue hour

In continuation of a series of posts on my guiding word for 2021, awe, I am celebrating the power of poetry.

For who among us was not filled with awe, listening to Amanda Gorman reading her inaugural poem?

Once again, we experience what words can do to inspire, unite, and heal.

Poems also paint a vision. Of things remembered, things hoped for things, things imagined…

Much as artists do on canvas.

Last year Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” took on a special significance for me. I wrote about it in The portal. For me, “The Starry Night” has become a symbol of looking beyond.

Van Gogh painted it while in the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. He didn’t paint what he saw from his windows, but what he imagined, maybe what he dreamed for, hoped for, in the innermost part of his suffering heart. Perhaps it was an act of faith.

All those blues and the night remind me of “the blue hour,” loosely defined as the time when blue wavelengths of the subhorizon sun paint the landscape at dawn or dusk.

Perhaps this had a hand in my recent spontaneous sketch of my word for 2021, awe. I depicted it as a sunrise, or maybe a sunset.

So now I ask myself: How is it that I imagine a rising or setting sun as “awe” in a metaphorical way? I think of van Gogh’s starry night, the blue hour, and the imaginings, the hopes, of my heart…which have turned into a prayer for the repairing of relationships. Does love not conquer all? What inspires more awe than that?

And so I wrote a poem.

I wove some of van Gogh’s quotes into it:

A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke

There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in the blue, then you must put in the yellow and orange too, mustn’t you?

Awe (The Blue Hour)

awe


on the blue hour
at the falling away of day
and the coming of the night


with hope of stars

givers of dreams

singers of songs

awe

that there is no blue
without yellow and orange

like the crackling fire
in our souls
beckoning one another
to stop, come and be warm

instead of passing by

in wisps of smoke

tendrils of wrongs

awe

in electric-blue currents of memory
love survives
by anchoring itself
to the last blade 
of living grass

awe

the color of forgiveness
in the blue hour

-F. Haley, 1/18/2021

-Walk in wellness, friends. Live and love deeply. Forgive. Keep your heart open for awe.

One of my masks

My original sketch of “Awe,” where the landscape spells it. Look for awe, and it will reveal itself.

The Starry Night version. The blue hour. How it all connects.

*******

-shared in the Poetry Friday Roundup. Thank you, dear Laura Shovan, for hosting.

and with the Two Writing Teachers’ weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge. Thank you all for continually illustrating the power of words, ideas, and shared stories.

The portal

Written for Spiritual Journey Thursday.

As COVID restrictions finally began to lift, my husband and I ventured out to a nice restaurant for lunch. We practically had the place to ourselves. Afterward, as the day was bright and breezy, we decided to walk along the outdoor mall’s trendy shops and boutiques. The sidewalks, normally crowded, were empty, perfect for a promenade… I almost felt as if I should be holding a parasol and that my husband should be wearing a striped jacket, a straw hat, and carrying an ornamental cane…on and on we strolled, aimlessly, just drinking in the glorious early-summer afternoon, temperate and rare.

“Let’s cross over here,” said my husband, grasping my hand, when I looked up to see…

on an otherwise blank, unremarkable wall…

a magical door.

“Oooh! Wait!” I said, dropping my husband’s hand to take a picture: I must write about this…

A painted portal. With light fixtures on either side to illuminate it at night. Even though it isn’t really a door.

—Or is it?

It seems straight out of a fantasy novel: A door to another world, a conspicuous portkey, an enchanted painting like that of the Narnian ship Dawn Treader hanging on a bedroom wall, coming to life as Eustace, Edmund, and Lucy rushed at it and fell through into the ocean…

Standing there on the vacant sidewalk, on that bright, ethereal afternoon so strangely devoid of other people, I could almost believe the portal was real, that it led to… something beyond.

I recognized the depiction, of course—a modified version of one of the best-known works of art in the world. Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. He painted it in his asylum room. It’s the view from his window, facing east, before the sunrise. He would write to his brother that “the morning star was very large.” The scene is dark. It is blue. At the time, van Gogh’s mind was dark and blue; he was a deeply religious man who’d suffered much mental and emotional pain, who’d sacrificed for his art to his own detriment, though most others found little value in his paintings until after his suicide. The full scope of the village can’t be seen here in the portal on the wall, and it wasn’t a village that van Gogh saw as he painted the original; it was in his mind. Those are cypress trees dominating the foreground—funerary trees, symbols of mourning.

I thought: Is this a portal I’d want to pass through? A place where I really want to find myself?

But then… my husband and I had just come out of a dark place. The COVID stay-at-home order. Shadowy, uncertain days swirling with horror and mourning as the worldwide death toll spiked. Refrigerated trucks needed for storing corpses, images of caskets lined up for burial… which of us ever expected to find ourselves here? Public places closed for the sake of public health, at last re-opening, tentatively, with social distancing requirements… we were still (and still are, even now) unable to return to church where my husband pastors…

—The church. Note how large it is, there in the mysterious doorway. Much larger in proportion to the one van Gogh actually painted. He wanted to be a pastor. He failed the exams. He became a missionary, gave up his own comfort on behalf of the impoverished congregation, and slid deeper into psychosis and poverty.

This artwork hits me anew with its unique, transformative force… for that is what art does. It speaks to the spirit. Van Gogh didn’t paint what he saw; he painted his interpretation of it. The tormented man looked through the asylum window and focused on the stars. A hundred and thirty-one years later I stand on a sidewalk before a quasi-reproduction of his famous work, looking at the enlarged church, with the words of C.S. Lewis echoing in my mind: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

A spiritual portal, leading to something beyond.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (MOMA). Photo: Wouter de Bruijn, 2014. CC BY-NC-SA.

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Much gratitude to Margaret Simon for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday for August on her blog, Reflections on the Teche. Margaret said: “My topic is spiritual art. I often find that art speaks to me in a spiritual way, like poetry.” Sparked by this challenge. my thoughts went straight to the portal, this painting, and van Gogh. Visit Margaret’s post, “Art for the Soul,” for more odysseys.

The C.S. Lewis quote is from The Weight of Glory, a wartime sermon first published in 1941. The title is derived from 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”