Friday, March 16, 2012

Social Graces with Dalloway, Vincent, and Others

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Certainly one of the most confident opening lines in literature and, after all these years, it is still one of my favorite initiations into a character and a plot. It’s a line that introduces the woman and her circumstances so effortlessly and, in a way, is the whole of the thematic character of the book in one line: Mrs. Dalloway in preparation for a party she will give – moving towards community, but also alone and intensely strained.

I have a tendency to “Mrs. Dalloway” my social scenarios. Strange - since I think of myself as someone who loves to meet new people and build small circles of friends who hug too much. I am, sad to say, a little socially handicapped. I spend vast amounts of time at parties near the cheese dip, stuffing my face and dusting broken tortilla crumbs off of my scarf, so that I don’t have to make too much conversation and thereby say one more off-color thing that proves me to be the socially inept hunchback that I am, leaving people to wonder who let me in.

Museum Night Fever
Here is this small insight into me. Perhaps I am talking to you at some well-lit party – a gallery opening in Seattle, say. There are girls wafting through the room, making it look easy to walk in heels, a band I haven’t heard of is whine-harmonizing in the background, and I am holding a glass of white wine more as a prop than to actually drink it. If I am stumbling through a story, laughing at awkward intervals and veering off the course of the conversation, or wandering dangerously close to unnecessary, blush-inducing innuendo and then spilling wine down my front, it is probably because I like you and I think you’re cool and I’m not necessarily up to the challenge of conversing with you as an equal. You’re probably either very funny or very intelligent (or worse, both). You wear a hat without looking like a poser. You’ve read more important books than I have, are disastrously well-informed about politics or the current financial crisis and I am terribly afraid that I’m about to be discovered at any moment.

Or another possibility: if I seem at all cogent or clever – if I manage not to mispronounce “endive” and don’t run roughshod with the volume of my voice, then I probably really like you and behind the steady and coyly, vague brown eyes, I am running a marathon in my head; Google-indexing everything I’ve ever learned, replaying past conversational faux pas at an alarming volume in hopes of side-stepping them this time around and wondering if you're preoccupied with the gap in my teeth.

Add the challenge of speaking in French to the mix and I’m absolutely blithering.

I’m socially useless and I know it, which means that I run at every communal occasion as though it were an episode of Survivor, wondering which round I’ll be eliminated in.

So, I am rather tense on the eave of a party – a dinner party for my small network of friends here in Brussels. I tried to buy the flowers myself, but they were too expensive. But, in spite of the nerves, in spite of the pressures I feel as a hostess for carrying off even a small party, I turned on the music, changed outfits three times and waited by the door while everyone arrived about a half hour late. Right on time for a slightly late European dinner.

Sunflowers by Van Gogh
I’ve been thinking about artists and their relationships. Probably my whole life, but certainly on this trip. Anne Lamott writes of her father who was an author, “I suspect that he was a child who thought differently than his peers, who may have had serious conversations with grown-ups, who as a young person, like me, accepted being alone quite a lot. I think that this sort of person often becomes either a writer or a career criminal.” A sentiment I agree with. Artists seem to come naturally to their own loneliness, but not necessarily comfortably. And the trend seems to be that artists are these funky creatures who are both in reverence for people and humanity on the whole and astoundingly lonely at the exact same time. Or maybe I just want to imagine better, awkward company near me at the cheese dip.

In Amsterdam, Kevin and I visited two museums. One was the Van Gogh museum, which thoroughly secured Van Gogh’s place in my heart. The whole experience is set up chronologically – shepherding tourists through his burgeoning impulses to become an artist into the full-fledged effort that he throws himself into in his early years, encouraged largely by his brother Theo, then on to his tours through France, Belgium, and Holland sampling different countrysides, colors, and landscapes along the way.

The museum, in this way, is also somehow a story of not only Van Gogh, but his brother who loved him so dearly – to their deaths, so close in proximity to one another. It turns out that much of Van Gogh’s acclaim is owed to Theo’s widow who felt honor-bound to earn Van Gogh his acclaim after both of the brothers had died, since their wish for his success was a shared passion.  It becomes clear as you walk through the work that much of it wouldn’t have happened without Theo encouraging him, without Theo to write to as Van Gogh tried to explain and hone what he was working on, without Theo to berate for not better advocating his work, without Theo to hearten him and tell him that he truly believed in the work he was doing.

Wheatfield with Crows by Van Gogh
I saw some of Van Gogh’s sunflowers which echoed my experience of seeing them in the National Gallery in London a month ago, bringing some amount of unity to the widely-flung net of my travel. I walked along his wheat fields, forests, still lifes of fruit, and looked at the grimly set faces of the Potato Eaters, admired blossoming trees, strolled along his garden paths and watched the world turn to whorls of water under Van Gogh’s paint brush. My favorite painting ended up being “Wheatfield with Crows,” which is supposedly his last piece. I didn’t read more about him until later that evening when I again had internet access (thanks, Wikipedia).

Self Portrait by Van Gogh
Never married. There were several women that he confessed his love to that refused him, a prostitute that he lived with for several years along with her two children. He had a professional fixation on Gaugin and was obsessed with the hope that Gaugin would someday view him as his equal (which never really happened). And then, as his mania reached a fever pitch, he went to confront Gaugin with a razor, thought better of it and went to the arms of a prostitute at a local brothel named Rachel where he cut off the lower part of his lobe, gave it to the prostitute and told her to bare the package carefully. Then hospitalization, cloistered experiences that still yielded paintings, and then, at the age of 37, he ostensibly shot himself and died two days later with Theo at his side. Another theory goes that two boys in a field shot Van Gogh who they knew to have a gun, though this theory seems to not be recognized by the Van Gogh museum. In any case, the gun was never found and Van Gogh’s last words were “the sadness will last forever.”

I’ve since been reminded by a friend of a book called Dear Theo, which is a collection of the correspondence between the brothers. I plan on reading it myself, but what seems most clear from my friend’s description of it is that Van Gogh wasn’t a raving, talented lunatic. His letters instead reveal that he is a complex, feeling, intelligent, troubled, and oftentimes lonely person. And, according to the museum and those letters, in spite of that loneliness and feeling of inferiority, so often what he wishes to express in his art is connection, reassurance, and hope. I think this desire comes to artists because they feel some gap between themselves and the rest of the world and are simply trying to build a bridge over it. Maybe everyone feels this way. I don’t know.

Otto Frank at the Anne Frank Museum
Kevin and I also visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, which effected me more than I thought it would. I hadn’t realized that it would be so hard on me (after not having read the book for such a long time), to visualize Anne Frank growing up here in this cage and then enter that final room knowing that she died of Typhus just a month before liberation and just a few days after her sister without any of her family left to mourn her (except her father, years later).

The museum takes you through the two stories of the secret annex and is completely unfurnished. It is an interesting choice meant to honor the wishes of Otto Frank who said that he wanted the museum to stay exactly as it was after the raid that exposed the family. Purely on a practical level, I don’t know how people would get through the place if they moved any of the furniture back in – there would be no room for maneuvering and the flow of traffic would be like the 520 highway between Bellevue and Seattle at rush hour. But, on another level, the empty rooms that were once her entire world communicate another sort of sadness, that isolation from the rest of the world that Anne describes in the book – something that I’m sure Otto Frank hoped would be implied. Even as you squeeze between the shoulders of other backpacked tourists, trailing curly-headed kids behind them, there is something inherently lonely about those rooms.

Whoever betrayed the Frank family was never discovered – the anonymous tipper remains anonymous to this day, in spite of extensive investigation. Which left this hollow ringing in my stomach as I thought of her while we exited the museum into the unreasonably pleasant sunshine outside. As someone who so desperately wanted to be a part of the rest of the world, I wonder what would have become of her book if she survived, what sort of writer she would have grown to be.

Amsterdam's Homomonument
So even though the sun was beaming as Kevin and I stopped by the nearby Homomonument (a large pink stone triangle in the center of a square, placed in honor of all those persecuted for their sexuality), I didn’t feel light and giddy in the spirit of Amsterdam, as I should have. I felt weighted, tired, and more reflective than social.

Kitties will Save You From Despair
We stopped at a cafĂ© called Walem and ordered a soup for me and a sandwich for Kevin, while we discussed plans for tonight, the order of operations for stopping into different night clubs, what we should wear, etc.  But the conversation was slow and half-hearted in a way that isn’t the norm between Kevin and I. As we ate lunch, a gray cat wandered through the cocktail tables and scratched on the wide-windowed back door of the restaurant that looked out over a terrace. The tall, balding, and well-assed waiter opened the door and went about clearing more dishes from the lunch rush. By the time I was at the bottom of my Diet Coke, I still had that lonely, hopeless despair rock in the center of my stomach thinking about the distance between Anne Frank and the rest of the world and was just about to ask for the check when the restaurant’s gray cat wandered back to the high bench I was sitting on, leapt up in one coiled move and settled onto my lap. And even though nothing had changed, even though I could still hear Anne’s father’s voice from the video at the museum’s finale telling me that he was not sure that any parent could really ever know their child, as I stroked the soft gray furry back while marshmallow paws gently kneaded my stomach, whatever sadness I was suffering as I pondered the human condition gradually melted away. I ordered a coffee and Kevin and I sat there gazing at each other over the lunch debris, smiling.

Along the Rue des Bouchers with Kevin
It is a good thing to have another writer alongside you as your companion. What is so often a solitary activity, suddenly takes on a new form as you and your friend settle in front of your respective machines and begin to clack-clack your way through an hour.

When we are out together in one another’s company, Kevin and I, we are often mistaken for a couple. We walk joyfully arm in arm and the two of us take turns sometimes resting our head on the other’s shoulder. On our first night in Amsterdam, in one of the city’s oldest coffeeshops, Bulldog, Kevin and I met two very nice older gentlemen on a one-day layover in Amsterdam. One was a ship’s captain, the other – a chief engineer. Kevin clarified “so you’re Jean-Luc Picard and you’re Geordi La Forge?” The two guys loved it and roared with laughter. “You’re right,” they said, slapping Kevin’s shoulder, “that’s exactly right.”

They bought us drinks and talked to us while we settled into the feeling of the city. They were both interested in us being writers and were glad to talk to us about it: why we liked it, what books we liked, what we were working on. When I left the table for a moment, the chief engineer turned to Kevin and asked “is it hard to date someone that you have so much in common with?”

Then the explanation that has followed a few times on this trip: no, we’re not together, we’re just good friends, he’s gay and we’re both single. We’re just here on an adventure together.

At SOHO in Amsterdam
And somehow giving the explanation is both an invitation to remember how single we both are, but also oddly comforting. Kevin looks at me and I look at him and as the chief engineer asks “well, then, do you have a boyfriend?” Kevin replies with the most subtle of sighs, “I just think it takes a long time to find the right person.”

And so it goes. Keats on his death bed saying that if he could only get well again, he would go back to England and convince Fanny to marry him. Jonathan Swift’s final wish to be buried next to the woman he had loved for almost her entire life. Van Gogh struggling against his sadness until the end as his brother held his hand while he died. Me, writing in my silly journal, scribbling away at my silly book and shelving my nerves for an evening to give a small dinner party. Because in spite of my nervousness, I rather like people, so I’ve found something really wonderful in writing. There are no shitty first drafts in the improvisational art of conversational charisma. But give me a word processor, several days of editing, copious cups of coffee, a dictionary and fact-checking capabilities and I might emerge from the experience with a whole person (either myself or an imagined character) that can manage the interaction. I can speak to you this way. Or at least try to.

So there we were, finally seated around the dinner table. A – my Italian friend who studies law, who inspires me to fearlessly say “yes” over and over again. She, of all the people who were to come to the party that night had the least amount of English, yet throughout the entire evening she participated in the conversation, asked to be corrected, and laughed loudly as we covered a range of subjects from public urinals to the fashions for tying scarves. So far, she has not once said "no" to something I've invited her to. My new friend, S, who arrived with both appetizers and desserts and was there by my side in the kitchen while I cooked offering advice and telling me funny stories and who didn’t know a single other person in the room when we sat down. R - who is always fashionably dressed was there with her handsome boyfriend, eating their way through their second, long meal of the day. L – a lovely, young German woman who lobbies for the organic produce industry and is constantly apprised and letting me know about interesting things that are happening in the city (like Museum Night Fever or the concert that is happening tonight that I will be attending with her). F – neighborhood actor and English teacher who I met on the tram. And Kevin – certainly the life of the party who sits down opposite me at the head of the table, each of us taking the position of matriarch and patriarch of the feast. We laugh all night long and yes, everyone does indeed stay for coffee. 

I’ve been asked several times throughout the course of this trip (more than ever before in my life, really) why I write and I find that in spite of having a buffet of reasons to select from, I tend to trip through all of them simultaneously and somehow end up poorly quoting portions of my favorite childhood novel, Watership Down – ending by finishing lamely “well… so… rabbits… as a metaphor… powerful stuff.”

But let me try to organize myself a little better here. I write, because it is the only vehicle for connection that I have found that I can drive with some degree of skill. I write to try to communicate with you, with all of the books and authors I’ve worshipped along the way, or yes, with myself, as well.

Bike Ride to Tervuren
I think I am interested in the lives of lonely or awkward artists, because it is the aspect that I most identify with. The sense of displacement, but also a sort of reverent love for the people around me. And well, the only weapon I have to defend everything that I’ve ever loved, never had, imagined or hoped for is my keyboard so that I can tell you about all of them. I can tell you that there is a woman I know with a view across the city who loves a gardener that she has known for ten years, I can tell you about a downy-blond dog in the park the other day who waggled his tiny butt when he saw me and and then shied away back to the knees of his rosy-cheeked, spectacled master, I can tell you how good it felt to ride a bike with my friend while the bike seat somehow shifted off its axis and I laughed as I almost tumbled a dozen times into the thorns lining the road we were on. These things happened. I can tell you that they did. And if I can tell you that, maybe the distance between us isn’t such a large gap to cross after all and maybe I’m not the only one by the cheese dip. Maybe you’re here too and we can both make our way through the conversation together.

I went to Amsterdam, stayed out late celebrating Kevin’s birthday, met new people, stopped at a bar that looked like the library on Titanic, toured through the red light district, bought more chocolates (also watched a whole lot of Downton Abbey), gave a dinner party, wandered Vondelpark, stopped for a drink at my friends’ place overlooking Brussels, visited churches, convents, and karaoke bars. I should have written about the canals, the views, the food. Instead I wrote about artists and writing. Ah, well.

In fact, I have written about all those things – just not here. If you would like to hear more about adventures in Amsterdam  or my attempt to make friends with a  goose, please email me – I’ll send it along.


  1. Email me more of the Amsterdam Adventures.

  2. I didn't know (or I did, and forgot) that Watership Down was one of your favorite childhood books. No wonder it felt like we were best friends before we met. Missing you loads. And grateful for all of this beautiful and funny insight you're treating us to. Also, yes - send me the goose story.

  3. I love reading your blog. Thank you for taking me on this adventure with you. My current journey sometimes requires diversion, and your stories are medicine.

  4. beyond medicine. far beyond. thank you so much for everything you share. and for your very well crafted sentences:)