When Paul Gauguin was my age he arrived in Tahiti after cutting his prior life adrift. The previous year, 1891, he had lost his job as a stockbroker after a market collapse and faced a choice. He had to decide whether to chase the security and respectability of a professional track, or give up all he had built to paint. Either decision meant surrender. In the end he elected to live as an artist, and sailed to Tahiti in search of the primal life he imagined there. Though personal desolation was likely he vowed to end what he saw as a cycle of generational submission to a prescribed being.
“The work is to become native to one’s own heart.”- Gary Snyder
I have been studying the lives of artists for next year’s project, and appreciate the sacrifice Gauguin made. Admire is the wrong word. The impressionists only had eight showings, and his paintings had not ignited the public fervor that others had. Gauguin understood how terribly chasing his passion could. His close friend Vincent van Gogh only sold one painting in his life even though his brother was an art dealer in Paris and promoted his work. Still Gauguin left the mooring of respectable existence to follow sirens’ song innate in an artist’s heart.
This year (by fortune, forfeit, or failure) I have followed Gauguin’s model. For a while I wavered on the line of commitment that he did, and we all must. I considered a position in Texas, and turned down another in Michigan which I dreamt romantic but felt stranded. I moved away from the angry, contracting world, from social media and the news cycles, and retreated into the wild where no howl or birdsongs can break the peace I find there. I surrendered to my writing completely for the first time in my life. There is no chart to follow, no shore on the horizon, but I am sailing.
“Suffering is not enough.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
And I stay busy. At times I feel like a prisoner who dreads his release because he has so much left to do in his private world. My French is gradually improving from daily study. My trail runs are quicker. A few weeks ago I refurbished a mid-90s Giant Boulder 500 hardtail mountain bike, and can ride rock falls and jumps I would never have tried before. Every bruise a lesson.
“Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become that path himself.” – Henry Miller, Henry Miller on Writing
The novelist Richard Ford says that every novel has to make its own place in the world. They are not needful things. I like to think that every novel is a love letter, and keep faith without signs that if you love hard enough then others will too. Though I am careful to adopt any story I tell myself a fact or a guiding star for now it is enough to dream of beautiful islands offering refuge somewhere on the other side of the words I leave in my wake as I cut ahead through the headwinds of this stormy year.
Vincent van Gogh The Letters of Vincent van Gogh
Listen to this:
Philip Glass Glassworks
Amyl and the Sniffers “Some Mutts”