May 4, 2011

I am so happy to be AWAY! Dear Will, what is with the human heart?! I’m away from you, my best friend in the whole world, my partner in crime, and I’m happy! But I know you understand. I mean, wasn’t that whole situation the perfect storm to drive someone like me crazy? I feel so bad for Ellen! But that was not my fault. Her sister is such a fascinating person, and I was totally wrapped up in what we had going on, could I help if it she also started having feelings for me? buh, I don’t know — was it really not my fault? I did kind of lead her on, and yes, I enjoyed the attention — I mean, you and I both thought it was kind of funny, but she was so sincere, it shouldn’t have been funny at all, and I — AHHH, what is WRONG with people! Why do we beat ourselves up like this?! I want to change, really, I mean it, I want to stop obsessing over every little thing like I always do; I want to enjoy the present moment and let the past stay in the past. It’s like you always say: there would be so much less suffering in the world if people — God knows why we’re made this way — if we didn’t spend so much mental energy reliving painful memories instead of just staying balanced and present.
Could you tell my mom I’m doing the best I can with the inheritance thing and that I’ll be in touch soon? I’ve spoken to my aunt, and it turns out she’s nothing like the frigid bitch I always heard she was. She’s peppy and full of life and actually a really sweet person. I explained to her how my mom was upset we hadn’t got our share of Grandpa’s stuff; she told me exactly why, and said that if we just do xyz she’ll be glad to give us everything, and actually even more than we’d asked for — anyway, I can’t really get into it, but tell my mom it’ll all be fine. And you know what? This whole business makes me that much more sure that 90% of conflict in the world could be avoided if people would just sit down and talk to each other instead of assuming the other person was out to get them.
Anyway — I’m doing really well here. The countryside is gorgeous, the isolation is incredibly soothing, and this season of growth is finally warming the shivers out of my heart. Every tree and every hedge is bursting with blossoms, and I almost wish I could float around in this sea of fragrance and feed on it like the ladybugs do :D
The actual town is awful, but the countryside is so beautiful, I can’t even tell you. One of those 19th-century tycoons was so inspired by it that, before he died, he planted a garden on one of the cute criss-crossing hills that make the loveliest valleys out here. The garden is simple, and as soon as you walk in you can feel it was laid out, not by some by-the-book landscaper, but by a sensitive soul who came here to commune with nature. There’s a half-wrecked summer house where I’ve gone a couple times already and cried, just picturing him there. It used to be his favorite spot, and now it’s mine too. I’m going to have the run of the garden soon; the gardener and I have really hit it off, just in the last few days, and I think we’re going to be good friends :)

May 10

I’m in such a good place right now…every morning I look out the window and see how spring-y it is and it makes me so happy :) I’m alone, and I feel so grounded just being alive somewhere that finally feels right. I feel so good, Will, so caught up in just being present, that I’m not really drawing — I can’t right now, not even a little, and at the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever been more of an artist :P When the dew steams up in the valley all around me, and the sun tickles the canopy of my impenetrable dark woods, and just a few stray sunbeams filter into my shady sanctum, I snuggle down in the high grass beside the rushing stream, and gah! it’s thrilling! The forest floor is WILD with life! There’s a whole world between the grassblades — millions of tiny plants, and the craziest-looking worms and bugs, every one of them so unique and beautiful — and when I feel them all buzzing and humming around my heart, I feel this incredible presence, like I can hear God whispering in the trees, rustling the leaves with the breath of life, the endless love that keeps and sustains us in eternal joy — gahhh, Will!!! When the twilight fades to black, and the sky and the earth still glow inside me like the image of a lover — I feel this pull, and I think: AHHH! if you could re-express that, if you could breathe out onto the page this thing that so fully, so warmly lives inside you, make the page reflect your soul the way your soul reflects the Lord! — Will!!! — but it’s too much, the vision hits me like a wave and I go under.

May 12

I don’t know whether tricksy fairies have put a spell on me or whether I have some Eden-fantasy I’m seeing this place through, but everything around me just seems magical! Right by the garden there’s a fountain, and I’m bound to it by a charm like a frog in a fairy tale :D You just walk over a little hill, through an arch, down a stairway carved into the rock, and there it is: beautiful clear water sparkling in a marble basin. The mini cave the cliff makes curving around it, the ring of tall trees swooping in, the cool, damp air — it’s all kind of alluring, kind of eerie. I sit out there every day for at least an hour. Sometimes I see people on picnics filling their water bottles, and I tell myself they’re servants of the King drawing water for His Majesty :P Oh, Will, when I sit there, images of olden times come so vividly to life around me — how Men in days of yore would joine and revelle by such Fountaines, back when kindly Nymphs frolick’d in every Brooke and Spring! And if that sounds silly to you, all I can say is, you’ve never cooled off at a shady fountain after a tough summertime hike :)

May 13

No no no no, do NOT mail me my books! For god’s sake, please, I don’t need anything focusing or inspiring or energizing right now, my mind’s already racing; what I need is a lullaby, and the Odyssey has that covered. I keep having to bring myself back down, I’ve been revving so high…you’ve never seen anything as unstable and unsteady as my heart. But you know all about that, Will…you’ve been there for me so many times when I’ve been swinging back and forth, from anxious to giddy, or in-bed depressed to scarily manic…and the whole time, I treat my heart like a sick kid: I give it whatever it wants…please don’t spread that around, it would really upset some people.

May 15

I’ve already gotten to know pretty much everyone who lives out here, and they all really like me, especially the kids. But I have noticed one thing that’s kind of sad. When I first started hanging out with them, being friendly and asking questions about stuff, some of them thought I was making fun of them and shut me down hard. It’s fine, I’m not upset; it just really hit me — and I mean, I sort of knew this before, but I never really got it — how standoffish privileged people usually are around more disadvantaged folks, as if they thought they had something to lose by getting to know them better. So when someone does reach out to them, they think he’s just messing with them or talking down to them. Sigh.
I mean, I know we’re not the same, and I know we never could be; but I do believe that distancing yourself from people based on class or income should be just as stigmatized as being racist or sexist or any other kind of discrimination.
I was just down by the fountain, and I saw a young poor-looking girl at the foot of the stairs whose backpack had burst its zipper and who was looking around to see if any of her friends would come help her pick up her books.
“Excuse me, miss, can I help you?” I said.
She got super awkward and said, “Oh, no thank you, mister!”
“Hey, don’t worry about it.”
She held the bag open and I slipped the books in. She thanked me and climbed up :)

May 17

I’ve met so many people here, but I still haven’t made any real friends. I don’t know why people seem to be so drawn to me; everyone always really likes me and tries to latch on to me, and it makes me sad when it turns out we aren’t really on the same page. What are people like here? I mean…same as everywhere! People are all pretty much the same. They basically work non-stop just to survive, and if they ever do have any free time it freaks them out so much they do everything they can to fill it up again. buh, people!
But they’re good people! Sometimes, when I can get outside my head a little, I get together with some of them and try to let myself have fun — hanging out laughing and chatting over good food, going out biking or dancing, that sort of thing. And I feel better afterwards; it just means I have to forget that there’s so much more to me than this, that there are parts of myself decaying inside me that I have to hide from everyone here. Eugh, it’s like squeezing my heart into a tiny box! But no one really ever gets people like us :(

I just…I just still can’t believe she’s really gone! Sometimes I wish I’d never met her! Then I could tell myself, don’t be an idiot! you’re looking for something that isn’t out there, but I’ve HAD it, I’ve felt that connection, I know what it’s like to be with someone and feel like I’m more than myself because I was everything I could be. God! We connected on every single level! And I felt like I could talk to her about the whole way nature spoke to me! Every conversation was this endless back and forth of the deepest feelings, and the most amazing puns, and even when we were just being goofy there was a kind of genius to it. And now…maybe if I’d met her sooner we could have had a bit longer together. But I’ll never forget her…so grounded, so amazingly patient…

A couple days ago I met someone named V., a friendly, sweet-faced guy, fresh out of college; he, quote, “still feels he has a lot to learn”, but I think he’s used to being the smartest guy in the room. And I mean, sure, he studied hard enough, it’s kind of hard to miss, but — well, whatever. He knows his stuff. When he heard I drew a lot and knew Greek (which is like having three heads out here), he came and found me and started throwing all these names around, from Ruskin to Parry, from McLuhan to Frisk, and he kept telling me how he’d read Gibbon’s whole Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and how he owned a first printing of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. I mostly just let him talk.
I did also meet the county district attorney, though, and he actually seems like a sincere, genuine guy. I keep hearing how adorable it is seeing him with all his kids (he has nine!), and people are always talking about his oldest daughter, who I think is about my age. He’s invited me over, and I’m really looking forward to visiting him. He lives in a mansion in the country an hour and a half from here. He moved out there when his wife died because he was in such bad shape afterwards that living in town so close to the courts was too much for him :(
Otherwise, it’s been one long line of self-important nobodies, just unbearable people, and the worst part is how hard they keep trying to impress me.

Bye! You keep asking “what I’m actually doing”, now you know.

May 22

I know a lot of people think we all sleepwalk through life, and lately I can’t shake that feeling either… I mean, the range of things people actually do and think is so limited: we use up all our energy satisfying basic needs whose only point is stretching out our shitty lives; and even when we think we’re getting somewhere intellectually, all we’re really doing is patting ourselves on the back while we paint pretty shapes and colors on the walls of our prison cells. Will, when I think about all this, I just…I don’t know. I pull back and look inside myself, and there’s a whole world in there! but again, it’s like 99% intuition and murky desire, with virtually nothing clear or decisive there at all. And then everything goes blurry, and I wind up back where I started, grinning and sleepwalking through life :-/
Anyone who’s taken intro psych will stroke their chin and tell you kids don’t understand why they want what they want, but the fact is, grownups are just as clueless — stumbling through life, no idea where they came from or where they’re going, couldn’t care less about actual goals, just as obsessed with cookies and cake and trying not to get yelled at…and no one wants to admit it, but I think it’s so obvious you can reach out and touch it.
Okay, I know what you’re going to say, so yes, sure: the happiest people are the ones who live every day as fully as children, who drag their little dolls around, dressing and undressing them, and hover obsessively around the cupboard where Mommy keeps the candy, and when they finally get their hands on what they want, they stuff it in their faces and scream, “More!” — those sure are happy people! And you know who else is happy? People who give their stupid jobs or even their passions fancy names, and talk them up to everyone as if they were the cure for cancer — good for you if you can pull that off! But if you’re humble enough to see what’s really going on, if you’ve seen how painstakingly every suburbanite slaves over his tiny lawn as if he were trimming Eden, and how tirelessly even people at the bottom keep slogging on no matter how oppressed they get, and how equally crazy ALL of them are about staying alive one extra minute……then yeah, you can just be, and live life your own way, and just be glad to be yourself. And then, no matter how boxed-in you get, you always know, deep down, you’re free, and you can leave this prison whenever you want.

May 26

You know the way I’ve always had of settling in — how when I find somewhere I like, I build myself a nest and just kind of roost and disappear? Well…I’m doing it again! I’ve found a little spot out here that really speaks to me :D
About an hour away from town there’s a village called Pickton*. It’s perched on a ridge in a super lovely way, and as you bike up along the road that leads out there you get an amazing view of the whole valley. There’s a café there run by this fun badass old lady who sells beer and wine and coffee, and my absolute favorite part is these two linden trees that stretch their branches over the little village green in front of the church, all surrounded by farms and barns and homesteads. It feels quiet and safe and it’s exactly the sort of place I’ve been struggling to find. The barista saves me a table outside, and I just sit there, and drink my coffee, and read my Homer :) The first time I happened to bike by, the green was empty. Everyone was at work. There was just a kid sitting on the ground, around four years old, holding a maybe six-month-old baby in front of him against his chest, sort of like he was an armchair for the baby, if that makes sense? And the baby was looking around super excitedly with these big dark eyes but sitting very still. Oh my god, Will, they were SO CUTE! so I perched on the hood of a truck across from them and had a great time sketching them being all brotherly together. I threw in the fence behind them, a barn door, and some broken tractor treads right where they were, and after about an hour I realized that I’d just finished a really well-structured pretty drawing without having to do anything to it myself. For me, that settles it: I’m only drawing from life from now on. Great artists don’t learn from art classes, they learn from nature. I mean, sure, the rules of composition have some things going for them — about as much as bourgeois social norms. If you follow the rules, you’ll never draw anything tasteless or ugly, just like if you’re all about laws and good manners, you’ll never be a horrible neighbor or a violent criminal; but, I don’t care what people say, ALL rules destroy your true sensitivity to nature and your ability to express it. What, you think that’s too harsh? “They’re just setting boundaries, pruning the lusty vines”, or whatever? — Listen, Will. Can I make an analogy? It’s the same as with love. Say there’s this guy, totally crazy about some girl, he spends all day hanging around her, wasting away, wasting his money, just to prove to her every moment how devoted he is to her. Now suppose some philistine comes along, some management consultant, and says to him: “Whoa there, young man! Love is normal, just keep your love within norms! Make a schedule, get a job, and hang out with your girlfriend after work. Make a budget, and if you’ve got something left over after rent and food, then go ahead and buy her presents, just not too often, maybe on her birthday or your anniversary”, or whatever. — Now, if he does all this, I’m sure he’ll turn out perfectly useful, and I personally would write him a recommendation for McKinsey; but as far as his love goes? it’s over, and if he’s an artist? same with his art. Gah, people! You want to know why the flood of genius so rarely bursts its banks and rushes in with roaring torrents to shake up your numb souls? Take a look: the narrow-minded people live on both sides of this river; it could destroy their cottages and rose-gardens and yachts, and they know it; so they’ve figured out how to dam it up to keep that threat suppressed.

*You don’t need to try to find this place; I decided I should replace all the names in the original letters. —Arden

May 27

Okay, so, looking back, I can see I got a little carried away there with the ecstasy and analogies and speechifying, and never actually got around to telling you what happened with the kids! I sat there in full-on painter brain (which you saw splattered all over yesterday’s email) on that truck for a good two hours. Then, just as it was getting dark, a young woman carrying a shopping bag hurried over to the kids, who hadn’t moved the whole time, and called out, “Phil, you’re such a good boy!” She wished me a good evening, I said thanks, you too, walked over, and asked her whether she was their mom? She said yes, and gave the older child a slice of Wonderbread while she picked up the baby and kissed him tenderly. “I told Phil to watch the baby,” she said, “while I took my oldest boy shopping in town for some bread and sugar and a new crock pot.” (I could see all of these in the shopping bag, which was sagging open.) “I wanted to make my little Henry [that’s the baby] some soup for dinner tonight, but would you believe, my oldest, what an animal, broke our pot yesterday fighting with Phil over who got to lick the bowl.” I asked her where the oldest was, and she was just saying he was running around in the meadow chasing a couple of geese when he jumped up beside her and handed the middle kid a hazel branch. We chatted a bit more, and I learned that her father was the principal at the village school and that her husband was off on a trip to Vermont to collect some money he’d inherited from a relative. “They tried to scam him,” she said, “they wouldn’t take any of his calls, so he went down there himself. I hope he’s okay — I haven’t heard from him in a few days.” I had a hard time tearing myself away from her. I gave each of the kids a dollar bill and gave her one for the baby, to buy him some bread to go with the soup next time she went into town, and we split up.
I’m telling you, Will, when I feel like I’m close to the edge, it soothes the chaos inside me to see someone like that, who moves happily and placidly through her little world, just trying to make it through the day, who can watch the leaves fall and all it makes her think is, oh, winter’s coming.
Since then I’ve spent a lot of time out there. Those kids have gotten really comfortable around me; they get a bite of my croissant when I’m drinking coffee and a couple of french fries in the evening. I’ve promised them a dollar every Sunday, and if I’m not there when church gets out, the lady at the café knows to pay them for me.
They trust me, they tell me everything, and I get such a thrill out of how excited they get and how unselfconscious they are when they’re running around playing with other kids.
It’s taken me a lot of work to convince their mother that no, they’re not bothering the nice man :)

May 30

What I said the other day about painting definitely applies to writing, too: all poetry is, is seeing what’s special and being brave enough to say it out loud, and that pretty much sums it up. I had a scene today that would make the perfect slice-of-life piece if you wrote it up — but why does it always have to be about “poetry” and “scenes” and “pieces”?! Why do we always have to make a whole thing out of it whenever we have a great experience?!
If you’re expecting something fancy and sophisticated after that introduction — wrong again! What’s got me so revved up this time is…a handyman :P I’m going to butcher the story, as usual, and I’m guessing that, as usual, you’re going to think I’m blowing things out of proportion, but it’s Pickton again, Pickton, every time, throwing these wonderful things my way :)
There was a whole crowd outside under the lindens drinking coffee. It wasn’t really my scene, so I made some excuse and hung back a bit.
A young man came out of a house nearby and got to work wiping down the truck I’d sat on to draw the other day. He seemed like a nice guy, so I went over to him, asked him how work was, pretty soon we got talking, and as usual when I meet people like this, pretty soon we were opening up to each other. He told me he’d been hired by the widow who lived there, and how great she was to work for. He went on so long about her, saying such nice things, that I realized pretty quickly he was head over heels in love with her. “She’s a bit on the older side,” he told me, “she was hurt pretty bad by her first husband and doesn’t want to get married again”; and as he went on describing her, every word he said glowed with how beautiful he thought she was, how charming he found her, how badly he wished that she would let him be the man to make her forget everything wrong her first husband ever did — I’d have to repeat it all word for word to make you see how pure his affection and love and devotion were, I’d have to be a master poet to bring it all to life — his gestures, the music in his voice, the smoldering fire in his gaze…blah! there’s no way to convey the tenderness in everything he said and did; whatever I could write here would be garbage. I was so touched by how scared he was that I might “get the wrong idea about them” and think less of her! And the way he talked about her figure, about her body, which had such a hold on him without being young or conventionally sexy — it makes me tingly just thinking about it :P The urgency and intensity coming off him, the desire and passion and longing — gah! I’d never seen anything like it — never even imagined it! Don’t laugh, but just thinking back to that innocence and sincerity makes me all hot and bothered, and the thought of that devotion and tenderness follows me around everywhere, and I’m as horny and mushy as if *I* were the one in love!
I’m going to try to get a look at her as soon as I can — or, actually, come to think of it, I’m not. It’s better for me to see her through the eyes of someone who loves her; maybe if I actually saw her, I wouldn’t see her the way I do now, and why should I spoil this beautiful image?