on His Birthday, Thoughts about van Gogh

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in art. My paternal grandfather, Arthur Curtis, owned a windshield-repair shop but in his spare time he was an artist; I have one of his landscapes hanging in my basement. He wasn’t well-known, but his art has always been a point of pride for me. I am not an artist, but I feel a deep connection to art anyway, and I think “my grandfather was a painter” is a fact that influences my desire to be a writer. As if that need to live a creative life is a trait I inherited and can carry on into the future, even if in a different form.

I also can’t remember when I started loving the post-impressionists: Cezanne, Gaugin, Seurat, Rousseau, van Gogh. Van Gogh especially. In my twenties I read a battered old copy of his Letters that I got at a used-book store (and I am currently drooling over this Folio edition); I had cheap poster copies of a few of his paintings hanging in my classroom when I was teaching. I love his art, and I think my affection has been influenced by my fascination by European culture. Plus, by now you know I am drawn to the stories of people who grapple with depression, and van Gogh is no exception. It is a struggle for many of us, and for me, reading about people in history who also struggled with it has been helpful to my own wrangling. Plus there’s the fact that a century later, the whole world knows who he is, even though he was relatively unknown in his lifetime.

When Haley and I went to Europe in 2016, one of the places I wanted to go most was the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I had it on the schedule, and I had other art I was looking forward to seeing before we got to Amsterdam—“The Fall of Icarus” at the Musee de Beaux Arts in Brussels, the Elgin sculptures at the British Museum. I also had the National Portrait Gallery on our itinerary; it was the second museum we went to on our first day in London. I imagined it to be in an old home with dusty carpets with paintings of a bunch of British people I never heard of lining the walls. It was a sort of time filler while we waited for Haley’s traveling friend to arrive.

Of course, it was nothing like what I imagined and turned out to be one of my favorite spots on our trip. It is in an old building, but not the dilapidated one I had imagined, but the beautiful one built in the 1890s. There were portraits of Anne Boleyn, Richard the III, Queen Elizabeth, and William Shakespeare that I had seen in books but never imagined I’d see in real life. (Also portraits of Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter, and James Joyce that I was happy to discover.) It was just perfect to me; we just wandered, looking and pointing out familiar images to each other, reading about paintings that caught our eye which we didn’t know much about.

My first thrill in the National Portrait Gallery came when I was walking through a room in the museum. “A room,” like it is just a place, but a place with paintings by Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Cezanne, Renior, and then there, right in front of me? A Klimt. A KLIMT! Not “The Kiss,” which I know is a cliché to love but which I nevertheless adore, but “Portrait of Hermine Gallia,” a painting of a tall woman in a frothy white dress. I stood in front of that painting for several minutes, admiring it. That was the first time I really experienced seeing paintings I’ve loved via art books in real life, and there was something magical and moving about it that I wasn’t yet ready to put into words. I was so entranced by the Klimt, by Monet’s “Irises” and Cezanne’s “Bathers” and “Lake Keitele” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (a painting by an artist I knew nothing about but that nevertheless expressed a feeling I have had when standing in nature; I don’t have words for that feeling, but he put it into a painting) that I totally ignored the sounds of a large, loud crowd gathered around a painting in the next room.

My admiration of Klimt et al done, I wandered into the next room, past the big group to the painting after it. I looked…and then I looked again. And I literally started crying, right there in the National Portrait Gallery, because completely unexpectedly, I found myself standing in front of a van Gogh painting. Not “Sunflowers,” which the crowd was gathered around, but “A Wheatfield, with Cypresses.”

van gogh cypress with wheat

They weren’t my first tears of the day (those happened in the Egyptian room at the British Museum), but they were the ones that changed me the most. I think because my first experience with a Van Gogh was unexpected—I didn’t imagine I’d see one until we were in Amsterdam—it was even more magical. A little bit like finding the door in the back of the wardrobe. I’ve read about van Gogh’s life, I’ve looked at his paintings in books, I’ve wandered through his landscapes in my cheap classroom posters. But to stand in front of the actual painting. To be so close as to see the actual brush strokes. To see not the reproduced colors but the colors themselves.

Art is many things, of course. Even to different individuals it means different things. While I stood in front of van Gogh’s painting, I thought about the sadness of his life, his despair and loneliness and his sad, untimely ending. This painting, framed in a museum, still exists more than 100 years after he painted it. This act of painting was, I imagine, a refuge, a way of escaping what was painful. That such beauty can come from such darkness—that is one of the reasons I love art. It is a medium not just of oil or watercolor or ink, but of emotion. That I could witness it so many years later, after his death, his darkness turned to light—it gave me a sense of hope. That some voices can linger long past death, maybe; that beauty is, in some ways, all ye need to know, especially in the face of the world’s ugliness. But the world is beautiful, too, and some creative people are able to capture that beauty through the lens of their perception, and then we get to see it again through our own lens. I’m certain that that van Gogh on that day in that place, with my daughter in the room somewhere behind me: that experience was unique, even if a hundred thousand other museum-goers saw that painting that day. It is something about the colors, the turquoise of the sky, the lavender cloud shadows, the purple mountains, those tiny pink flowers. And about the shapes, the way you can almost feel the breeze and the heat, the way the cypress flame up, nearly like green fire—can’t you almost smell them?—the movement in the golden wheat. It is the world speaking to the artist and then the artist speaking back to the world and, in turn, to me.

I will never be a renowned artist. I will never be like my grandfather, renowned as an artist only among his descendants. I will likely never be a well-known poet or writer. But I will still keep working, and that moment in front of the cypress trees is one reason why. Making art (in whatever form) is a way of leaving a piece of yourself behind. My pieces are small, but perhaps they will matter to someone.

The British Library: a Mecca for Book Nerds

When I went to London, one of the places I most wanted to visit was the British Library. It was less than a mile from our hotel, so on the second day it was the first place we visited.

I actually was fairly giddy to step onto the grounds. As a librarian, I always love passing by other cities’ libraries, but to have the time to explore this one was a really good moment for me.

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The library has an exhibition space, with exhibits that change often. I had no idea what might be there, so I was surprised & excited to discover it was a display about the history of punk rock. (Me: former goth girl, lover of books, and current librarian, in the British Library, wandering through a punk rock display: I might have clicked my heels together. “Excited” is hardly the word.) There was a wall of 45s and display cases full of fanzines, catalogs, concert flyers and tickets. Handwritten notes from the Sex Pistols and other punk rock icons…album sleeves…photographs.

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That might just have been the highlight of my days in London.

Except after the security guard got miffed at Haley for taking pictures of the album display, we wandered into the library’s Treasures gallery, where they have their rare books on display. And yes—that punk rock exhibition struck a chord. But those old books…they were so moving to me. It is the old thing I have tried to write about many times, how an old object can be a sort of time-travelling device. The world’s oldest known book, which was found preserved in a grave…A Gutenberg Bible…the Magna Carta…a handwritten version of Beowulf. These are the famous pieces, and it was incredible to see these ancient pieces of world-changing documents. DaVinci’s notebooks, some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a letter by King Henry VIII. (There is something so intimately real about another person’s handwriting, especially someone historically famous; it makes you realize that they didn’t just live in history books but in this very world.) There are also newer cool things to see, like Jane Austen’s writing desk, handwritten lyrics by the Beatles, and Orwell’s revisions.

But the best, for me, was the display of prayer books. They were my favorite because they felt personal, and because they seemed like they would be owned by women. (Both Lady Anne Grey’s and Anne Boleyn’s were in the case.) They are beautiful in their own right, but when I thought of them being used, of the thumbing-through and the reading and the comfort they might have brought, well. I embarrassed Haley again by crying right there on the display case. For me, the prayer books are achingly sad, little bits of flotsam left in time, a place where the owner’s sorrows and hopes gathered between pages.

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(There is no photography allowed in the British Library Treasures Collection, but I loved this one huge wall of old books that was also at the library.)

I confess: I had desperately hoped that the gift shop would have a tiny replica of one of the prayer books, made into a piece of jewelry. I probably wouldn’t have cared how expensive it was. Alas, they did not, but the gift shop did not disappoint me. I bought a T-shirt (with a quote from one of the punk rock fanzines, an illustration drawn by one of the Sex Pistols), a book (The Beautiful Librarians by Sean O’Brien) (go on—click through and read that poem and then tell me it isn’t gorgeous and amazing and heartbreaking), and a few postcards. Also stamps, and then Haley and I stood at one of the tables and wrote our postcards, stuck our stamps on, and found the post box (it’s on the wall in the basement near the cloak check).

We really only had a couple of hours to spend here; I would have liked two more to explore everything, but as our time was limited we hurried. But I think it is the first place I will go to when I get back to London.

The British Library is definitely a mecca for book and history nerds.

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The British Museum: How Ancient Artifacts are Like Time Travel Devices

Our first stop in London (after getting breakfast and checking in to our hotel) was the British Museum. I was excited to see the Elgin Marbles, but before I write about what I loved about the museum itself, I must write about walking there. We stayed at the Swinton Hotel, which was about half a mile from St. Pancras and Kings Cross train stations; I suppose we could have taken the Tube to the museum but I wanted to walk so as to see this part of London. It was raining, so I didn't take any pictures, but I have a perfect image in my head of Haley and I walking down the rainy streets, both umbrellas up. We walked (following the Google Maps instructions) and talked and laughed. I don't even know what we talked about, although Virginia Woolf was in the mix. The cityscape—Bloomsbury—seemed made of parks and tree-lined streets and elegant buildings. My feet were wet and I was a little bit dizzy with exhaustion but that walk: it was one of my very favorite experiences of our trip, the rain and the feel of being in a city, my first glimpse of London with my daughter.
The British Museum building is enormous. It sort of reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome, in the sense that the feeling you get from the outside is very different from the feeling inside. _MG_8704 british museum
Outside, it is all old stone and columns and a Greek pediment; it looked old, but inside it felt...not exactly modern, but contemporary, with an inner courtyard and a circular staircase that winds around the reading room and a glass-and-steel ceiling that seemed to curve (it might...I'm not sure if the arching bands just give the illusion of a curve). We stopped to admire the statues, lighting, and just generally awe-inspiring beauty of the courtyard, and then we wandered in to the Egyptian wing.
Here we saw all sorts of things: statues of Egyptian kings, sarcophagi, an enormous granite scarab beetle, mummified cats, the figures of the Goddess Sekhmet, and a fragment of the enormous Great Sphinx. I cannot say that I am a dedicated scholar of Egypt; I know a little bit about its mythology but it is not a country I am enamored of. But I was several times brought to tears at the objects in this room. There is something about an ancient piece of man-made something that is so moving to me. That it survives when its creator is long-gone is part of it. But there is also an element of suspension of disbelief involved in learning about history; we have stories and accounts of what happened, but we can't experience it. Ancient pieces like this are, for me, a way of coming closer to experiencing them, because they exist in this world while their long histories lead back to a world I'll never see.
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(Objects from the Library of Ashurbanipal; Ashurbanipal was the last great king of Assyria, and this library, located in Ninevah, is where the tablets with the Epic of Gilgamesh were held. This was a fairly swoony spot for me, as these ancient tablets—from 7th century BC—are simply pieces of ancient books. Who held them when they were still functional? Who carved them? Books are an inherit part of humanity just as stories and history and written records are.)
We did see the Rosetta Stone, but it was fairly difficult to have any sort of Moment with it, as at least 100 people were gathered around it. I explained to Haley what it was—a translation tool—and what I knew of how it works, and she didn't know much about it, which sparked a conversation about how I think colleges are failing to teach students all of the General Information about The World that they should know. The flimsy art & culture class required for graduation is a joke.
Ranting over, we wandered toward the space I had wanted to see so badly, the Parthenon gallery. More than two centuries ago, the British gathered up about half of the broken statues and friezes that had fallen from the Parthenon in Athens and brought them to the British Museum. (Most of the rest of the statuary is in Athens.) There is quite a bit of tension now about this, as Greece would like to possess the statuary it should own. The British maintain that the museum is a collection of historical pieces from across the globe and as such, the pieces already there should remain so that more people can see them.
(I'm torn as to which side is right; part of me thinks it's Greece's own fault for not valuing its antiquities in the first place, but maybe that is my long line of British DNA speaking?)
_MG_8687 elgin marbles demeter and persephone british museum
(The plaque beneath this section said that perhaps these two figures are Demeter and Persephone.)
But I felt lucky to be able to see them. When we went to Italy, one of my biggest disappointments was how Christian everything was. Yes, Rome is the capitol of Christianity and yes, I am a Christian. But Italy is stripped of its pagan history. I was hoping for statues of Venus and Minerva and Proserpine, but all of that is gone, replaced by Christian icons and relics. My psyche is so connected with the Greco-Roman mythology that the lack of it in the place it should be was just...depressing. So seeing the Elgin Marbles was fairly thrilling for me.
But my absolute favorite thing in the British Museum was a surprise.
I think somewhere I had read that this display was there, but I hadn't remembered until I wandered through room 41, which is full of artifacts from Britain during the Anglo-Saxon period. And there it was: the Sutton Hoo display. Sutton Hoo is a place in England that is covered with burial mounds. Most of them have been robbed, but in the 1930s the land's owner had one of them excavated. There they found a "ghost" ship (imprints in the sand of a wooden ship) where someone of wealth and power was buried. Many of the artifacts are still at Sutton Hoo (which is now on my list of places to visit when I return to England), but most of them are at the British Museum.
If my psyche is tied to Greek mythology, a large chunk of my ancestral longing is tied to the history of Britain. Seeing the pieces in the display—dishes, weapons, that haunting helmet with its flying bird—gave me literal chills and I had to catch my breath. ("Hysterical in museums": I didn't know until this trip that that is one of my personality traits.) Bits from a thousand tales and novels and history and ideas were in that display. 
And the display itself! Everything is in glass, of course, but in cases with varying widths, so it feels interactive and modern. But the best thing is that, on the glass, are some lines from Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf. Swoon. (I adore Heaney, and his translation of Beowulf​ is...well, it's testament that people read such things outside of being forced to in their Ancient British Lit university courses.)
I loved that display.
(So much that I only thought to snap a few photographs, none of which turned out. I didn't want to photograph it, though. I wanted to look at it.)
I could've stayed in room 41 for the rest of the day, honestly. But Haley was feeling antsy, and we still had other things on our itinerary, so reluctantly I left the British Museum. But I left with a feeling of being better connected, both to a larger sense of history and to myself. There is something powerful and perhaps even magical in viewing ancient artifacts. Someone else in history touched that object, made it and used it and then left it behind when he or she died, but here I am, sometimes thousands of years later, looking at the same object. (I wish I could touch them, too! In another life I would like to be a museum docent.) It is almost a sort of time travel, a way of being in the presence of so much time all in one moment, as if, if I could just know how, I could flick away the layers of time to see and know and understand the person for whom that object was significant.
I don't really have a name for that feeling. But I am filled with it in history museums. It is the reason I love going to museums. I only got a small taste of the British Museum, just enough to know how much I want to go back again one day.


A Book Lover's First Trip to London or, In Which I Have to Work to Find My Chill

When I was in Europe in June, Haley and I visited four cities: London, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris. "Which was your favorite?" people asked me once I got home, and even though I loved and adored Amsterdam, I'm not sure I could have loved and adored anywhere else more than London.

In fact, when I arrived in London, just as we walked off the plane, before I had actually seen any part of London save a white cement hall in the Heathrow Airport, I started crying. Haley was all sorts of embarrassed and requested that I just please chill.

But I couldn't.

Because for this English Geek, London is a sort of mecca. Don't get me wrong: the pull of London (or even England in general) has absolutely nothing to do with the royal family. I don't care a whit how many babies Kate has or what dress she wore three hours after giving birth. I'm not obsessed with British royalty in the least. (Although we did walk to Buckingham Palace. When in London...)

No, for me, the pull of London has everything to do with history and books.

I hail from a line of people who lived in London (sure...during the 17th and 18th centuries, but still).

am​ fascinated by British history, especially the ancient, pre-Roman part and the stories of the wives of Henry VIII.

How many novels set in London have I read?

How many poets and writers who have influenced me (as a writer and a reader and a human being) have lived in London?

Arriving in London felt to me nearly as magical as arriving in Narnia or Middle Earth might. A place I have imagined and wanted to see but wasn't sure how to get to. Well, OK, London is a little less magical than a made-up place, but look: C. S. Lewis and Tolkien both were British.

Loving London (and England) is part, for me, of being a lover of books and literature and so is fairly inherent part of my identity.

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(The statues in the courtyard outside Buckingham Palace.)

When Haley and I came out of the Underground at St. Pancras station (which is right across from Kings Cross Station where, you know, platform 9 3/4 is) it was pouring. And I had forgotten my umbrella! So I was pulling my suitcase and carrying my bag and holding my cell phone so I could follow the Google Maps directions (I could not have managed this trip without Google Maps!) and getting soaked. So at the second shop I saw that had umbrellas (the first one had some for £50), I tucked into and bought one.

Looking back a month later, the memories of my first foray into London are so sharp. The rain, and trying to find a way to balance everything, and how odd it felt to look right-left-right before we crossed a road. The undeniably British feel of the buildings. The bubbling up of excitement: I was in London.

After we found our hotel—we stayed at the Swinton Hotel, which felt dowdy and comfortable in a British way, like the sort of place the Fossil sisters would stay—we headed round the corner to a tiny...I don't think it was a pub, but it wasn't a restaurant. A cafe? It was called Nivens, and they made us breakfast, and I still was pinching myself (and Haley was still telling me to chill!)

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(Walking by the Thames. I sort of have A Thing for Walking by European Rivers.)

That was the beginning of our London adventure. Here's a list of the things we managed to cram into our two days:

The British Museum

The National Gallery

Walk through Trafalgar Square

Walk down Charing Cross Road (because books)

Buy a used copy of something from a book store on Charing Cross Road

Visit Liberty of London and buy some fabric

Sightsee: The London Eye, Big Ben, The Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London (These were places we walked past but didn't have time to go inside of)

Eat: Fish & chips (Haley had both, I just had the chips)

The British Library (quite possibly my favorite place in London)

St. Paul's Cathedral (Although, alas, we got there after it was closing, so I only got to do a quick walk through)

Shop at the Top Shop (Haley spotted this and wanted to stop, I'm definitely not cool enough to know this is a Thing)

Find the original place where the Globe Theater used to be (one bit of the circle can be seen in a parking lot between two apartment buildings

Visit the rebuilt Globe Theater

Cross as many bridges as possible (we did Tower, Southwark, Millennium, Westminster, and Golden Jubilee)

 The list of things we didn't do is fairly long, obviously; I am saddest about not being able to tour St. Paul's or enter the Tate Modern. We got a late start on our second day—we got up and ate breakfast, but when we got back to our room we all crashed—and I didn't time things quite right (I should have left Haley shopping at the Top Shop while I went into St. Paul's because churches weren't her thing). But I think we fit in almost everything we could in the time we had.

(I will write more detailed posts about several of my London experiences.) 

IMG_8862 haley amy tower bridge

(The Tower Bridge in the background.)

Two days in London was definitely not enough for this English Geek. It was just enough to give me a taste and to let me know that I need to plan another trip, my fabled one: a grand tour of the British Isles, with hiking and museuming and architecture gazing and castle exploring and maybe even driving on the left side of the road.

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(Outside of the Globe Theater.)


Home from Europe: A Snapshot of a Vacation

I’ve been home from Europe for a week now. The jet lag is finally worn off; I am down to waking up only two or three times a night wondering how I fell asleep in my hotel room with the door open and panicked because certainly someone’s stolen my suitcase and don’t I need to catch a train? I’ve made a cursory pass through my photographs and I’ve sorted out my souvenirs (mostly post cards of my favorite paintings from the many museums we went to) and put away all of my travel gear—except for my suitcase which is still by my bedroom door.

(Maybe I should put it away and then I could sleep through the night.)

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(Outside the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Yes, I totally wore trail runners and skirts.)

People keep asking me how the trip went, and I have to be honest: I have some conflicted feelings about it. There were some really, really good moments: when Haley and I first saw our hotel room in London, and it felt like the very best kind of shabby British establishment. Braiding Haley’s hair for her before we left for the day, and the next day when I tried to fishtail it and it was a big fat mess. Eating fish & chips (for Haley) and chips (for me) in our room on the second night, thoroughly exhausted from all our walking. The moment it stopped raining and the sun came out in London. Walking across so many bridges. Belgian waffles (more than one!) in Brussels, shopping for souvenirs in little shops, a cruise of the river Seine, a meal in the late Paris twilight. There were tears of many sorts, and wet shoes, many wrong turns and not a few wrong buses. There were three distinct miracles—four, really—and one near disaster.

I learned many things, about myself and about Haley and about our relationship. I learned how to get around on a metro. I learned I don’t only get anxious about missing air plans, but about missing trains, too. I learned there are bathrooms that are dirtier than the filthiest Ragnar honeybucket. I learned that the keyboard on French computers are different from English ones, and then I laughed to realize I’d never thought about keyboards in other languages. I learned that even with wrong turns, stops closed because of construction, and a language barrier, I can figure out how to get around in an unfamiliar city. I learned I can survive for quite a while without eating anything much at all. I learned you should always bring a back-up credit card, photograph your passport, and print your boarding passes from home.

I learned I am quite the museum crier.

The museums! The art. That was my favorite part. Not seeing a painting in a book, or a print on someone’s wall, but the real, actual painting touched by the person who created it: that is, to me, an amazing thing. It’s sort of a time travel mechanism; the artist is gone but his (usually!) art is still here, a way to sort of experience the artist, except in some sense you know more about his (or, rarely, her) life than he did. I adored visiting the museums.

But it was hard to be the tour guide. It’s different to experience a city in real life, as opposed to plotting out your route on Google maps. Well, obviously, and of course I knew that, but I felt overwhelmed the entire time, and like I had to hide my overwhelmed feeling so the trip could feel smooth for my traveling companions. I had a moment at Heathrow, when we’d gotten our luggage and it was real: I had to get us from the airport to our hotel, which was luckily a straight trip from Heathrow to St. Pancras station on the tube. I wasn’t ready for transferring trains yet. I almost panicked right there, but then I took a deep breath, tried to remember what I learned from all the guide books I read, and followed the signs to the Tube station. Our Oyster cards worked, we could only go one way on the train, and we made it to the hotel (eventually…I had forgotten my umbrella and it was pouring rain, so I stopped at a random shop and bought one, but then I was trying to pull my suitcase, keep my carry-on bag on my shoulder, hold my umbrella up, and follow the navigation app on my phone).

And needing to be on time for four different trains really did give me a constant, low-level anxiety that ran underneath everything.

It was difficult for me to decide where to eat, between trying to keep a reasonable budget and feeding vegetarians.

And I think I was thirsty 90% of the time.

Still, it was a week in Europe with my daughter and her friend. I got to see a Van Gogh almost every day. I got to go running in Amsterdam and Paris. I walked all over London and sat in underappreciated churches in Brussels and walked through the red light district in Amsterdam. I got brave asking “parlez-vous anglais?” in Paris. I saw priceless, ancient statues in the Louvre and the British Museum; I bought fabric at Liberty of London and a used book at a bookshop on Charing Cross Road. I recounted British history and I bought a small (and likely not authentic) piece of Delft pottery and I wandered around the Grand Place in Brussels.

How was my trip? It’s hard to sum up. I keep thinking about how to blog about it, and I think I will have to break it down into very small parts. It wasn’t a relaxing trip by any means. But it was an adventure, one I will think about a remember for my entire life; one that made me hope for other European experiences (hopefully not so rushed next time); one that I was glad to share with my daughter.

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