This time last January I was far away from Boston but a similar place – looking out at the snow, wondering what futures hid latent in the soil beneath.
I was at a writing retreat in the Scottish Highlands – it was a Christmas gift – and had awoken before dawn so as not to miss anything. A single yellow lamp lit the empty pages of my notebook on a wooden desk, facing a window. Outside the morning was black as ink, lights floating like stars on the invisible hills. Simmering pinks peeled the horizon into earth and sky. Birds imprinted their silhouettes across the horizon and on my page, where I was trying to construct some resemblance of their poetry. I scrawled down a few more sentences. From my second floor room of the cottage I could hear the footsteps and silverware clatter of the other writers taking their breakfast downstairs.
If only I did this every morning, I thought, by next year I’d…
Before lunch I pledged to myself that I would do yoga, draw, and write a story every day (the sketch I had written of my witness of dawn was later corrupted into a narrative). And then a year passed.
I returned to Aix-en-Provence a week later. In the months that followed, in between my duties as an alumni fellow at the Marchutz School of Fine Arts, I painted a ton. I did do a lot of yoga. I never managed to finish (or successfully start) a piece of fiction, but I did write pages in my sketchbook about my three dates with a French guitar player and about a yellow bird I watched fly into one of the studio’s windows and die (I had the idea to put him on a platter to paint as a still-life and save a day under plastic wrap, much to the dismay of anyone with basic hygiene standards). Come April, I pulled my Livre de Brouillon out of a paint-soaked backpack and bemoaned my inability to capture the essence of a narrow canal bridge at mid-day in Venice. Then, in the heat of summer toward the end of my fellowship, I took to its pages like a starry eyed teenager after one fortuitous night at the Bar Sextius and went back to it periodically, between long mornings and bed and afternoons at the bar tabac, until that one morning when I watched him watch my bus pull out of the Gare Routiere. I never completed anything. But as I sat on the TGV headed toward the Paris Airport, a light-soaked curtain of trees and green landscapes and rivers blurring past me in reverse, I wasn’t so sad as much as I was…grateful. If I was blue it was only at the wonder and loneliness of approaching so many frontiers.
As time nudged on into August and September, the fact that I hadn’t finished any pieces of writing that I was proud of, or that the progress I had made in painting had reached a stalemate (or so it seemed), became a problem. I had half a year left, but what of it? The most important months of 2015 (or so it seemed) had ended. But from them I could retrieve no narrative arc. No words to aptly describe the overlaps of art and poetry and life, no words to describe the extremely personal frustrations of laboring to capture light and color and love and loss in paint from a little house over a wheat field of Provence, France. Not yet.
In my latest attempts, I latch onto writing flat characters, to people I half-knew, yet who manage to communicate some character of that place without much effort on my part. There was the man with flat white hair and a burlap-looking three piece suit and an endearing frog-lipped frown who would sell his delicate mountain paintings in the square by the cathedral. There was Poussy, walking down the bend of road by the Chateau Noir with close-set eyes, tousseled hair possibly with the MOST endearing frown, a rugged southern accent and a tendency to greet one with animal noises rather than the typical Bises and Bonjour. I think about Marek, the Marchutz gardener (did we describe him once as a very large cherub?) with a kind-eyed smile and a Polish inflection to his thick southern French who would bring cakes and champagne after long days working on the architecture project. I write about these people because I can describe them in two sentences and know that matches the extent of my knowledge of them. Then there are the professors, who stood just far enough away, or above, for us to see. John is Socrates, Alan is Aristotle; John is Tintin, Alan is the Ship Captain – although something of their warmth, humor and intellect (and what of those things?) is lost in making such comparisons. It’s the ones I am closest to who are impervious to description. The best friends whose I could list right here but won’t, because names don’t cut it. They are vast, endless; they don’t fit perfectly into adjectives. And so it is was with that year. Maybe I have had trouble writing about it, back then or now, because there is no end to what I learned from living in France and apprenticing at the Marchutz School – its lessons are still unfolding, through every painting that I make, through whatever I see and write and film, forever.
Including right now. I am heavy with neglected beginnings: on my computer desktop are the first pages of stories, research ideas, bad poems, expansions of journal entries, screenplays, enough to scrap together a printed volume that’d weigh as much as War and Peace, only more fictional. In the corner of my room are last year’s paintings; moments frozen at the edge of truths I haven’t yet reached. I want to finish things. But I also don’t want to cease to begin out of some fatalistic desire for clean conclusions. I want to reflect more and to share more, more of the progress I’m making and the things I’m seeing right now. I need to blog.
A blog looks at what gets lost in the grand scheme, in the summary, in the narrative arc. Although I wrote pages and pages of my own back then, sometimes I regret not sharing what was happening in the moment-to-moment (no matter, I was too busy living). Which brings me share something that doesn’t quite fit into the narrative of my year in Aix, and consequently I haven’t shared – that week in the Scottish Highlands. It wasn’t productive in the sense that I finished much worth sharing with anyone, but I did try haggis. I took a long walks through an empty, snowy, hillside, and took pictures of sheep on the snow. I met people I would have never known existed otherwise, with whom I shared dinners and shop talk, and on the last night of the week, our stories. A 60-year old fisherwoman read a poem she’d written in a journal many years ago about an unrequited love (what I remember is she was the sea). A PHD student from Edinburgh read the first pages of a noirish novel which sees a dead girl return to her grave. A Glasgow police officer shared his vision of city violence as hyenas or cougars – I can’t remember which – at a watering hole in the wild. Their stories rang more true to me than most things I had mulled over that week, more true than the essay I’d been trying to write about going to Morrocco with my family, with the exception perhaps being one little prose poem I wrote one morning, about seeing the ground split from the sky.
I was charmed, moved by these former stranger’s inner lives. Sometimes it seems to me that in whatever form it takes, artistic communion is the most we have.
So what have I left to share? The mind set on constructing futures, I’m finding, has a hard time believing that the past is composed of unremarkable moments of presence, and that the meaning each day holds in retrospect was once tenuous, ungraspable. Like right now. Here I am again, not facing a narrative, but a window.
Three windows, really, bay windows at the front of my mint-green living room. Outside the sky stretches out across the rooftops and branches of my neighborhood, now swaddled in a mad flurry of white flakes, flakes jagged and delicate, obscuring the distant skyscrapers and bringing the present into focus, just beyond the thin glass of my warm room.