This is an excerpt from a letter that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1882:
...one is afraid of making friends, one is afraid of moving, like one of the old lepers, one would like to call from afar to the people: Don't come too near me, for intercourse with me brings you sorrow and loss; with all that great load of care in one's heart, one must set to work with a calm, everyday face, without moving a muscle, live one's ordinary life, get along with the models, with the man who comes for the rent, with everbody in fact. With a cool head, one must keep one hand on the rudder to continue the work, and with the other hand try to do no harm to others.
I am moved by these words, as I am by any that try to express the relationship between the self, the work and the anchoring of those within our everyday life; how do we, as creative practitioners, keep one hand on the rudder? How do I?
Earlier this month I took a holiday week to a quiet and secluded village in the north of Lanzarote. One of my favourite quotes (as proved by its presence on my facebook page) is 'Your mind is like a bad neighbourhood; don't go there alone'. This is very apt for me as I can easily wander into endless suburbs of near madness, roaming about, getting lost, never quite being able to ask for directions but hoping to bump into a friendly guide to enable my return home. I was nervous about holidaying alone, but didn't want to be defeated by that. There was also the desire for some sun on my back, so off I went. I arrived on a Friday and the initial exhilaration of arrival, of driving in an unfamiliar landscape in an unfamiliar car, of sitting on a sunlit balcony, of swimming in the sea that buoyed me through the weekend. Then, on Monday, bump, I met myself again; the landscape became all too familiar, Lanzarote disappeared and I was back in the 'bad neighbourhood'. I had brought with me lots of books (of course), even though this was a holiday I had an essay deadline to meet and planned to begin writing while laying in the sun. However once the dreaded suburbs have been entered, all becomes dislocated. There is a constant mental dissonance, as if a radio is being tuned, re-tuned and tuned again. Thoughts fracture and splinter making the act of writing feel both impossible and the only activity that will save me. The initial din is so loud that all I can do is go back to basics which is to write my journal; something I've been doing since 1978. The journal is the 'friendly guide' that will lead me back to myself. Journal writing turns the initial roar into a low-level hum, the low-level hum is tolerable enough that I can once again read and think and so a fragile peace is found. I am returned. The fragile peace is strengthened by establishing a routine and sticking to it and so I eat breakfast, chip away at my essay, lay in the sun, swim, eat dinner and then sleep.
Although it feels very fragile, I can now maintain a continuity of self even under duress. Maybe I can do this because I am older or maybe all those years of therapy are finally paying off ....I don't know. What I do know is that this self holds maps to the landscapes of all my varied internal landscapes and is able to journey within them and between them, creating stores of imagery and journals filled top-line to bottom full of words. She is the self that needs both protection and exposure, silence and noise, loneliness and companionship. She is the self that has one hand on the rudder.
NB: with special thanks to Lisa Wolfe who gave the diary that has the van Gogh qute within it.