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Van Gogh April 14, 2010

Posted by jayocallahan in Adventures.

There are some artists who follow you through life. Van Gogh is one of those artists for me. When I was in college Van Gogh’s letters opened up a world. I loved his intensity, his love of color, literature and life. He inspired me. I wanted to create but that seemed a dream, an impossibility. In time I broke away from my job and began to write assuming I’d be a novelist. I spent the next seven years as a caretaker on a beautiful salt-water marsh and was telling my children hundreds and hundreds of stories.  I’d found my path, a path that has allowed me to explore the beauty and the pain of life.

Ten years ago I led a workshop in Provence with my friend Doug Lipman. Van Gogh’s letters drew us there.

Last Friday, April 9, my wife, Linda and I took the train from Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise, the last place Van Gogh lived and painted. We get off the train and see trees are just blooming and the tulips are out. Van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise on 20 May 1890. I imagine the trees would have been fully green when he arrived and the forsythia and tulips would have passed. Linda and I find much in the village unchanged from Van Gogh’s time. There are flowers everywhere. We have a café crème at a tabac and the young man who brings us the coffee would have delighted Van Gogh. “Americans,” the server laughs, “I love Americans.” He is joyful as a clown and bounces with life.

Staircase to Van Gogh's room

At the visitor’s center we see a short video showing some photos of Auvers in the1890’s and paintings Van Gogh did at Auvers as well as short phrases from his letters. He wrote of the beauty of the country and his love of art and life. “It is so difficult to be simple,” Van Gogh, wrote which is poignant because he was living in a dark bedroom on the third floor of the Ravoux Inn. The bedroom was just big enough for a bed and chair; the walls were unpainted and cracked. The stairway to his room was very dark and we could almost hear Van Gogh’s footsteps as he left to paint each morning and return at night. He wrote that he hoped any portraits he did would look like apparitions in a hundred years. “Painting,” Van Gogh wrote, “is becoming more like music and less like sculpture.” This is the voice of a vibrant artist. But then he writes of the threat of being uprooted and says, “I did not need to go out of my way to experience sadness and extreme loneliness.”

This man who gave the world such beauty shot himself in Auvers on 27 July. His brother Theo was at Vincent’s side in that dark bedroom at the Ravoux Inn when Vincent died at one-thirty in the morning on July 29, 1890.

Church at Auvers by Van Gogh

After the visitors’ center, Linda and I walk up the curving road to the village graveyard. Vincent and Theo are buried side by side in very simple graves. The fields surrounding the graveyard are as they probably were in Van Gogh’s time.  The green wheat is a foot high; there is the smell of tilled earth. Spinach is growing. The sky is blue and the silence is broken by small birds.

After a picnic of cheese, tomato, baguette and a flan for dessert we walk down the hill and stop by the church, L’Eglsie D’Auvers, which Van Gogh painted. There is a funeral going on inside and we wait until it is over. Mourners leave wiping tears away. They’re sad and so am I.  Sad Vincent Van Gogh’s life was so lonely and so hard. I’m also deeply indebted to him for his letters, his inspiration, his paintings and his life.


Paris April 8, 2010

Posted by jayocallahan in Adventures.
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Paris is alive.  Parisians dress with style.  There’s an elegance about them as you pass them on the street. And you can hear them because a great many of the women and some men wear boots with hard heels that make a sharp clicking sound on the stone sidewalks. It’s an expensive city.  A cup of coffee can cost five dollars. But it’s vibrant.

Every day we’ve taken the Batobus, a passenger boat, down the Seine.  Standing on the stern of the boat we revel in the cool air and look at the grand buildings of Paris while an occasional gull glides above us.  We see Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower.  We go into Musee D’Orsay and are taken with Degas’s color.  His nudes are sensual and warm but mostly they are beautiful.  He catches an intimacy that is true.  Then on to Van Gogh and this year I spent nearly an hour looking at a single paining, Chaumes de Cordveille a Auvers-sur-Oise. It’s a painting of a thatched cottage with a garden in back and a hillside above.  His trees bend and curve and the white clouds in his blue sky seemed to be in motion.  It’s as if Van Gogh could see the energy and beauty inside trees, sky, hay and even a thatched roof.

The sun seems happy to be in Paris reminding me of Baudelaire’s lines in his poem, The Sun.  “He (the sun) enters like royalty, unaccompanied by officials.”

All the palatial hotels and all the hospitals. So many writers, painters, sculptors and thinkers have wandered the streets of Paris. Baudelaire, Van Gogh, Monet, Hemmingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil.  It is Simone Weil who speaks to me most deeply now.  She was as one writer put it, one of history’s clearest witnesses to light and grace and to a genuine compassion for others. Weil writes with a lightening clarity and urges us to learn to pay attention.  As I looked at Degas and Van Gogh this morning it was clear they paid attention with heart and soul.

Paris awakens in me the desire to tell the truth in my stories.  As I sit on the Batobus in the Seine I know the main image in my next story will be the Nolachucky River. May the story have truth and beauty.  There are both in Paris.

Discovering the Narrator April 1, 2010

Posted by jayocallahan in Jonesborough.

I think I’ve discovered a narrator for the Jonesborough story. He’s relaxed, loves Jonesborough and his ease delights me. It’s clear he’s spent his life in Jonesborough and acts as a tour guide who we can trust and enjoy. One of the nice things about the narrator is he’s not bound by time. He’s clear at the beginning that it’s the late 1950s then in moments he takes us to the early 1970s.

The narrator tells us about these beautiful old brick buildings that he loves and he says that the bricks were made by both black and white hands and that the craftsmen were so able that the buildings are still standing. He also tells us that the Nolachucky River is only six miles away and that everyone in his audience has the Nolachucky River inside them. Way beyond are the Appalachian Mountains.

It’s been very helpful to email Jim Rhein and Janet Browning whenever I have questions about the river or the Main Street or the barbershop or the beauty parlor. And it’s also been very helpful to work here at home with storytelling colleagues. It’s with them I’ve tried out the narrator. In any story there are certain moments that stand out. The discovery of the narrator is one of those moments.

I hope April 22 to tell some snippets of the Jonesborough story. It’ll be a chance for the narrator to leave my living room and enter into the bigger world. The threads that are appearing as I work on the story are: time, the ability to listen deeply, the beauty of East Main Street, the possible death of downtown Jonesborough and the strength of some of the ordinary folks there. In the early scenes we’ll meet Pearl and Jim Jackson. Pearl Jackson was famous for her cream pies at Rush’s Restaurant. Jim Jackson, her husband, was a farmer who grew up in extraordinary poverty, but he had the strength of character to make a fine life for himself. If there’s time we’ll also meet Eva Taylor and Curtis Buchanan.

I feel that the Nolachucky River is flowing through me and the story has begun.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood April 1, 2010

Posted by jayocallahan in Uncategorized.

In the New York Times on Thursday, March 18th there was a story about a bronze statue of Mr. Rogers. The statue was unveiled in October at the Old Manchester Bridge Pier in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Rogers was a gentle man and a visionary. Early on in my storytelling career I sent him a cassette of my story The Bubble and he called and said he would like me to come to Nantucket to talk. He met me at the ferry landing and I found he was even more charming than he was on television. He told me that he began his career as a puppeteer. He said he was afraid of being out in front of people, but the day came when he put the puppet away, stepped forward and that was the beginning of “Mr. Rogers”.

Mr. Rogers asked me to call him Fred but I still think of him as Mr. Rogers. He said he was going to create a week long opera for his show and the opera would begin with my story The Bubble. A few months later I flew to Pittsburgh and did the show. In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the mailman always brought the mail and I was the package that was delivered that day to Mr. Rogers. After I told the story of The Bubble, the two of us sat down with the cameras still rolling and began to blow bubbles. One bubble came out from my little wand and the rest popped. Mr. Rogers blew and the bubbles just flowed out. I was delighted with his sense of fun and ease.

It was my only encounter but I’m so glad there’s now a statue of Mr. Rogers tying his shoes on the Old Manchester Bridge Pier in Pittsburgh.