Sometimes, there is no low-impact way to begin. We have to just look for the thing that matters the most to us and move toward it.
“I’d like to homeschool, but I’m not sure where to start.”
“Well, probably with having a kid. Oh, you already did that part? Well, you’re most of the way there.”
“I really want to have a cleaned out room, but it’s so messy I can’t figure out what to clean first!”
“Maybe go pick up something and put it away? Then pick up something else…”
“I’d like to talk to other white people about how we can reduce racism amongst ourselves, but I just don’t know how to begin!”
“Have you considered beginning awkwardly?”
When I don’t feel at home with myself I sometimes go and sit at the art museum with Vincent Van Gogh. Fair warning: this post is likely to be equal parts middle school report and shameless fan-girling.
This is Vincent Van Gogh’s The Large Plane Trees.
From the Cleveland Museum of Art’s website:
“In May 1889, Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to an asylum near the small town of Saint-Rémy in Provence. His doctors soon gave him permission to paint on day excursions to surrounding fields. While walking through Saint-Rémy that November, he was impressed by the sight of men repairing a road beneath immense plane trees. ‘In spite of the cold,’ he wrote to his brother, ‘I have gone on working outside till now, and I think it is doing me good and the work too.’ Rushing to capture the yellowing leaves, he painted this composition on an unusual cloth with a pattern of small red diamonds visible in the picture’s many unpainted areas.”
So, Vincent (I’ll call him Vincent because that is how he signed his paintings and how he wanted to be known) had just moved to a new place, and from all outward accounts his life was not going too well at the moment. He had only sold one painting for money (though people sometimes took them in trade for goods or services), but he saw things and just had to paint them. This piece in particular has become important to me because he couldn’t even wait for the canvases his brother ordered to arrive. He painted it on a table cloth (or possibly a tea towel, but you get the point). He did another work using The Large Plane Trees as a guide. It looks more polished. He took more time. The Road Menders (which you can see here if you like) is beautiful, but I don’t connect to it in the same visceral way.
I took this closeup of The Large Plane Trees during a recent trip to the art museum (don’t worry…I used my camera’s zoom because getting this close to a priceless piece of art is…well, don’t do that).
If you look closely, you can see the red and white fabric underneath the paint. It shows through in places; he really just had to paint what he saw before the moment evaporated. One of the wonderful (and, I imagine, stressful for him at times) things about Vincent is that he could not help but engage in his environment. His time here didn’t always go well, to put it mildly. But it went, and then it was gone. And by passionately engaging the world, he was able to leave us with some of the most inspiring works of art ever created.
As much as I aspire to remain present, there are times when I really do feel unable to find any point at which to pierce through to the world around me. It feels as though there is this impenetrable barrier between me and any useful thing. But I have found, more often than not, that the barrier that seems so strong bursts like a bubble the moment I touch it by doing the next right thing. I don’t mean that everything becomes fine. Please hear me. That is NOT what I mean. But there’s a reason that Lao Tzu proverb about thousand mile journeys and single steps is still being used to make cheesy (and not so cheesy) motivational posters today. Taking a single action may not fix everything, but what if it fixes something?
I took my kids to the park yesterday. They needed to run far and climb high and I needed to let them. In the throes of busy-brain, my plan was to find a secluded bench, read articles on my phone, and avoid talking to anyone if I could. When we got there, a lady was sitting on one of the three closest benches. E walked over and put our stuff down within easy conversing distance. Foiled! What do I do? If someone doesn’t want to talk I know how to leave them alone. But what if they want to talk to me? Do I stare at my phone and not talk to them at all, even if they are friendly? Only answer with normal person depth? What even is that? Make small talk? I don’t think I can do any of those things! “Resting Bitch Face” is completely outside of my skill set!
After a bit of an internal sigh, I decided to poke the bubble and just talk to her, since she was kind and interesting and clearly wanted to talk to me. We ended up talking for an hour and a half. We talked about marriages and divorces and deaths of old relatives and young children. There are lots of things I can’t do. But sitting with people and really caring about what they say to me? That’s one of the things I sometimes do really well.
It doesn’t matter if you know exactly how it will turn out. It doesn’t matter if some of your source materials show through. It doesn’t even matter if your brushstrokes look nonsensical to the Muggles around you. Just begin.