How Ordinary Yet How Perfectly Sublime

How Ordinary Yet How Perfectly Sublime


In May of 1889, Vincent van Gogh checks himself into an insane asylum after cutting off his left ear. At the same time very close by, a girl starts a diary.


May 2nd, 1889

Dear Alice,

Beatrice said I should get a diary. I had written several poems for her as a thank you for allowing me to stay at the café and getting me a job here. She liked them so much that she said I should write my way to happiness, health, and that, so she said, my words could heal me. I asked her, why can’t my paintings do the same? To that, she said my love for painting came from my father. And my love for writing comes from inside of me. And that this is about me.

So, Alice, I feel sick. Not in my body, but in my mind. The sickness has hit me right where it hurts the most, my painting. I can’t seem to do it anymore. And I haven’t been able to for weeks.

I think the sickness is made worse by this place. I am staying in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a commune located about a two-day walk from Marseilles. When we first arrived, I loved it here. But the idyllic streets and houses that first inspired me are now haunted. Since Dad’s death, the town has no color, the otherwise sweet air, no flavor. But I can’t leave yet. I have very little money saved so far and no parents since Mother died when I was born. There are no other relatives I know of. Only Beatrice, and you, my diary whom I named Alice.

I am not yet sure, but I don’t think you will be an ordinary diary, Alice. You will know my every thought, but you will also be my novel. My first steps into this literary journey Beatrice has put me on.

Since the town is so haunted, I decided I should find another place to do my work. I visited the ancient Roman ruins just south of the center. Unlike some other artists coming here, Father didn’t pay that much attention to the ruins. Isn’t that weird, Alice? I never really thought about it until now because I got so caught up following my dad around.

He preferred to paint everyday life. The hustle and bustle. He used to say that painting the past, was a thing of the past. And now, we have to give center stage to the smaller things. But these ruins were free of ghosts. At least those summoned by my dad’s memory. While I didn’t sketch the ruins in the end, I allowed my hand to move freely. And my eye to wander aimlessly. I saw... lines...

My wispy hair dances in the wind like a broken web. I catch sight of it and lock it in my mind. My pencil moves. A single line. Graceful. Two. Moving together. The lines turn into a long tail. A bird. Flying over the ruins. What bird is this? I have never seen it before until now. Then, like a whisper, the bird flew from my mind. It vanished. But I had caught it on my page.

“Thank you, Father David, for helping me get into this place. Perhaps solitude is what I need after everything that has happened. Did you see the garden?”

“I agree it is for the best for now, Vincent. You will have a private room as well as a studio at your disposal. You will be able to work.”

“Good. Very good. This will be a new beginning. Of what, I don’t know yet.”

“I am very glad you are so optimistic. Try and leave it all behind. Move forward.”

Vincent moved his fingers over a dusty desk by the window and looked outside. “Simplicity and solitude. Free of ghosts.”

May 8th, 1889

Dear Alice,

I went to the ruins again today, but after sitting there like I did before, nothing happened. No birds flew through my mind. No inspiration to draw anything. Perhaps it only worked the first time because the scenery was new. What do you think?

I decided instead to go for a walk outside of town and into nature. Dad was never much of a nature painter, but he did like his nature walks. He always insisted on going alone. And today, I found myself wondering why.

Grassy plains were dotted with fields of budding grapevines, olive trees and wheat almost ready to be harvested. The weather was mild and pleasant, with a crisp spring breeze creating a symphony of sounds.

I lay down in the grass and listened. Rustling. Chirping. The wind blowing. I allowed every sound to come and go. I took a deep breath. I lay there for what could be minutes, hours or even days when I felt a warmth coming over me. A sensation that started down in my toes and spread throughout my body, like a rising flame.

Colors danced before me like oils coiling in water. I closed my eyes and felt a warmth filling my chest and my heart started to race before coming to a stop. The wind, the rustling and the chirping stopped. Time stopped. The warmth rose to my head and for a moment, my mind also stopped.

“Vincent, is this your latest work?”

“Yes, Father. Irises.”

“Why Irises? And why only Irises? You didn’t feel these flowers would come into their own a bit more with some context? This nice building, perhaps. Some people. Maybe the rest of the garden?”

“This garden has brought me something I haven’t felt in a long time. A peaceful mind. Or at least something approaching it. Are you familiar with Japanese woodblock prints?”

“I can’t say I am.”

“I collect Hokusai prints. I suppose he is most known for his Mount Fuji series, but he has also printed other things, like Irises. He has a way of turning the most mundane detail into something monumental. We see the top of the Irises blotting out the sky as if they are soaring.”

“But you clearly painted these Irises coming up from the ground inside a garden. Not soaring in the sky.”

“These Irises won’t create an illusion. You have to get down on the ground to experience them properly.”

“You said these gardens give you a peaceful mind, but I am not really seeing peaceful here. I see... Chaos. The Irises are popping out in every direction as if they are fighting to fit into the frame. Or they look like they are painted moments before they would collide and tangle. Destroy each other.”

“The Iris doesn’t want to destroy itself. It has a momentary yet passionate desire to live that shows in a very expressive way. They are seasonal. They flourish in the Spring and have to perish before coming back again.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“We don’t all of us bloom all year.”

Father David wandered around, observing the studio walls. “Like your Sunflowers.”

“You have seen my Sunflowers?”

“Paul Gauguin mentioned them to me. Why aren’t they here?”

“Fresh start, fresh flowers.”

“There must be more to it than that.”

“My friend Gauguin is a fine artist. He and my brother both have some of them. I painted some of my Sunflowers in Arles for him. I decorated his room with it. Only those flowers. The serene yellow of a flower in all stages of its one life, from bloom to death.”

“Mortal. Unlike your resurrecting Irises.”

Vincent smiled.

“I will be visiting regularly to see how you are doing. Keep an eye on your progress.”

May 10th, 1889

Dear Alice,

Dad once told me that an artist had to observe everything, be open to everything and question everything. Today, I found myself particularly susceptible to this lesson.

It was a pretty uneventful day in the café except for one family that caught my attention. There was a mother, father and daughter. The girl was no older than twelve or thirteen. Her parents were talking excitedly while the girl was holding her head down, fiddling with something on her clothes. They weren’t paying any attention to her.

I think it is time I told you a little about Dad. My dad spent most of his life working as an accountant in Paris. He was raised by relatively poor parents but when they noticed my dad’s affinity for numbers, they pushed him to study. He achieved his father’s biggest dream for his son and built a comfortable life for himself, but he wanted something more.

When I was eleven years old, he decided to sell our house, take his earnings and travel to pursue his true passion of becoming an artist. He wanted me to grow up knowing a different kind of life than those laid out before most people. So, he took me with him and also took it upon himself to educate me. He had always taken my education very seriously.

While he was opening my mind in so many ways, he was also closing it in others. And I suppose his plan worked in that I can no longer imagine leading an ordinary life.

The girl looked up at me when I set down the drinks her parents had ordered. It was only then that I noticed she only had one leg and was seated in what looked like a homemade wheelchair. I didn’t see them come in and from the bar, I could only make out her face popping up from behind her indifferent parents. She shyly smiled at me and looked back down.

When I was around her age, Dad took me to see The Blind, a play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Six blind people are abandoned in a forest by their caretaker, a priest. They plead for mercy, from us as well as their unforgiving surroundings, and seem completely helpless. They wanted to go home, back to the asylum, where they live alongside the mentally ill.

Are the blind the same as the mentally ill? I asked my father. He said that a person is often measured by how much they can contribute to our society. And that to most, a blind person can be as unproductive as a crazy one.

He added that this play asks us, the public, to change. We are all blind to certain people in our society. Some will always be rejected, and it is our job to help them feel included. Always be kind. He told me. Not everyone has your gifts.

I told Beatrice I would be back in a minute, and I ran upstairs. I came back down with my favorite book in hand and walked up to the girl. The parents didn’t notice.

I knelt down. “Can you read?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I don’t go to school and never learned,” she said.

I hid the book I wanted to gift to her behind my back.

Her parents stopped talking and turned to me.

“Can I help you?” the plump woman asked.

I stood up. “I would like to teach your daughter to read.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop myself.

She stared at me in disbelief and asked what good will reading do her. “No sense in filling her head with garbage. She can’t do anything.”

The father didn’t say a word, but his poisonous gaze told me he agreed with his wife.

She got up from her chair and gestured her husband to take their daughter and follow. Drinks untouched.

I was left standing. At a loss for words.

I suppose that play was more realistic than I originally thought. Dad said it was a revolutionary piece, breaking with all conventions. But while it seemed to break with the conventions on stage, the conventions of our everyday lives were confirmed. The world isn’t kind to those who are different. And I was sad to see that even parents could join in on the cruelty. I realized how truly lucky I was.

“Ahh see now this I like. A nice view of the gardens and the building. Let’s see.”

Vincent sat down and tried to get some paint off his hands.

“Now wait, there is something off about it. Are the trees really that wild and tall? I can’t remember that they are.”

“I may have embellished them a little.”

“I can barely see the building.”

Vincent got up, resigned to his now perhaps eternally painted fingers, and stood next to Father David. “The building really only has a secondary role. Let me ask you. How do you feel when you are walking through nature? A forest?”

“I feel the presence of God. I feel I can escape. It is His finest work, next to us.”

“Certainly. We can see God’s reflection in nature. But we are a reflection of Him, so we can also discover something about ourselves.”

Father David looked up, surprised. “I forgot your father was a minister...” He turned back to the painting. “So, then what do these embellished trees say?”

“What do they say to you?”

“Oh I see, you are going to play it this way. Hmmm... I suppose I can see... disquiet. There is something about the trees obscuring the building. And... the trees are moving beyond the frame. On the top. Your canvas finished before they did.”

“My friend Emile Bernard is working religious themes into his painting, much like Gauguin does. He feels that real emotion is communicated through a story. A scene between characters. I disagree.”

“You believe emotion can be painted into the trees?”

“You are the one who used the word disquiet almost instantly.”

Father David chuckled and sat down in the nearby chair.

“Your Irises really looked like Irises. These trees really look like trees, but with a surreal touch. Sorry, embellishment. Why the shift, Vincent?”

“No shift, just the same reality from a different angle. My Irises were alone in that frame. Or nearly. Don’t forget the building is in here too.”

“Yes. Barely visible. You feel it should be hidden?”

“I feel a building has rigid lines hiding true meaning while trees are far more dynamic. I also feel I am staying at a place with a whole menagerie of human emotions expressing extremes in one way or another. And I think you have proven that I don’t need to paint a person experiencing disquiet, to actually communicate disquiet.”

Father David looked stern when he said, “I hope you would be more forthcoming about your own disquiet, should it arise.”

May 20th, 1889

Dear Alice,

Sorry I haven’t talked to you in a while. Truth is, I am not sure yet what we will mean to each other. I share everything with you that I want or need to. But in terms of writing, I suppose I am still figuring it all out. The worst part is, I feel happy when I write to you. I feel like I am forgetting everything about painting and that writing is all I want to do. It feels like I am betraying Dad.

Beatrice sat me down today to ask how I was doing. She had closed the café for the day so we could spend it together. I was honest and said my writing is still pretty sporadic. I told her about my countryside experience and the several I have had since. Whenever I am not helping in the café, I am out there. The sounds, the smells, the colors, it all makes me feel like I am part of something sublime and beautiful and for a short time, I forget whatever pains me in my mind.

I just realized I haven’t told you anything about Beatrice yet. Beatrice is one of those people you can truly call good. Her blonde, curly hair is always floating, even when there is no wind. She has a warm smile that is instantly disarming and makes her look a lot younger than her forty-one years. Whether it is because of her baking or by some magic spell, she always smells of cinnamon. For me, cinnamon is the smell of nostalgia. It makes me long for the Christmas evenings when Dad and I would sit down with a hot chocolate, topped with an oversized cream and cinnamon hat. The only time we would have it.

We rented two rooms from Beatrice, and she allowed me to stay in mine after Dad died. While we have a very close bond, I wouldn't go as far as to call her a surrogate mother. More like a sweet and crazy aunt you would run to when you want to escape your parents.

My father opened her mind to new things. They talked about books, art, politics, our travels. She was captivated. So was I, Alice. I owe my love of books to my father. He encouraged me to read from a very young age.

My dad saw painting as the mother of all arts. You can write a story that is not restricted to words, he would say. You can create a tale that can be told a hundred times and still be different every time, depending on who tells it.

I don’t feel guilty about writing. I feel guilty about forgetting.

Beatrice and I went for a walk in the countryside. I explained to her how calm and safe I felt here. That I bring you along as well as some sheets of paper and a pencil. No paints. The reason I am writing to you now is because of her. She said that nature is a fine thing to escape to, but without something pulling me back to the real world, I might get lost.

I don’t see nature as an escape, I said. It feels more like coming home.

She asked me how you made me feel. You and my writing.

I said that yes, it also feels like home but one that is more tangible. More painful, too.

She said that perhaps you are my bridge between nature and a life I should be trying to get back to.

It has been a hard two months since Dad’s death, Alice. And while my day with Beatrice feels like a big step in the right direction, I don’t intend to jump in too fast. I understand I need you. I understand my writing might just save me. But I also understand that my dad has left his legacy in me. All the times we shared together painting and sketching, laughing and dreaming, they can’t have been for nothing. They can’t just disappear forever.

“Where has it all gone?”

“What are you referring to, Father?”

“The sketches that decorated your studio walls. The paintings.”

“Ah, right. I felt like a clean slate. I have sent them along to my brother.”

“Are you planning for a big change in your work, then?”

“Not as such. But I am acutely aware my view will soon change.” Vincent stared out the window.

Father David nodded and sat down. “So, you have discarded your past in pursuit of this new view.”

“Not in the slightest.” Vincent kept his eyes fixed on the window. “But I won’t have it muddle my mind either. A collection of incomplete thoughts.”

Father David lit his pipe and gestured to Vincent if he wanted to do the same. He did.

“I am aware that this is a time of great change for you. But I would advise against any rash decisions. However appealing they may seem.”

“Surely coming here was a rash decision that has done me some good. I will keep following my impulses, wherever they may lead. My past matters. The sketches do. They are what got me here.”


Vincent smiled. “I have been thinking about past and future quite a lot. Some of my favorite artists are Romantics and Realists, as you know. Millet tops the list. I feel like novelties, and Impressionism might be one of them, will never achieve more than Romanticism did. Maybe drama peaked at Gericault’s Raft of Medusa, and maybe sentiments will never run as deeply as they do in Millet’s Angelus. But here is what I do know. Following my impulses has always led to an art that was real to me. Maybe few people around me feel the same, but I know I can only really be successful if I keep true to myself. And what is truer than an impulse?”

“Impulses are misleading. Driven by emotion. You may feel differently tomorrow.”

“I accept that. But then at least, I won’t regret today.”

“I am not an expert in painting, you may remember. Why would art have peaked with the Romantics and the Realists?”

“What I mean is that new stylistic tricks won’t help art evolve. My friend Gauguin sees everything flat. One tonal color, flat surface against flat surface. I see color. Movement. But style can only be meaningful if it is carried by a message. Style itself can’t be the message. It’s hollow.”

“You think Impressionism is just style without meaning?”

“I think Impressionism should be pushed further.”

“By impulse?”

“By expressing impressions of the soul. Not just catching impressions on a canvas.”

“Like you did in your trees,” Father David said more to himself than anything. “Oh wait, there is a small canvas on the floor behind your desk. An enclosed wheat field... Is this from imagination?”

“Not at all, Father. Have a look outside the window.”

“I see. That would explain why it is cut off in such a weird way. And why you seem to be looking down at it.”

“There will be more to come with the changing seasons. One view can yield so many different stories... Truth is, Father, I am really looking forward to going out there. This month of seclusion has made me want to run back to where the action is. Battling time and the elements to get that scene on my canvas. The colors, the sensations, the smallest moments waiting to reveal themselves.”

“After this month you will indeed be allowed to take the occasional trip outside, under supervision. Look at it as a reward for your good behavior. And I should also tell you Vincent, that I will be visiting you less when that happens. I will still receive my reports from the director, and of course come by when you’d want me to. But this first month was a crucial time for me to share with you.”

Father David gave one of his rare smiles. “I have to admit you exceeded my expectations. Your transition was uneventful and frankly, harmonious. You remind me more of a monk finally finding his calling in a monastery than you do a patient at an asylum.”

“Well, it might just be that way, Father. It was my choice to come here, and I suppose choice is what sets me apart from most people here. You can’t underestimate the value of that.”

“It is still a little over a week before you can head out there. What will you do with that time?”

“I still intend to make full use of that garden as well as this view. Even when I can leave. But I know I will mainly be counting the days to my first visit to the countryside. You only need to take something away for a short period of time to know how much you value having it in your life.”

“Your freedom?”

“My model. The whole world is my model, Father.”

Chloé stepped out to visit the rolling hills that had now become close friends. She would wave at the trees. The grass would giggle and chatter under her feet. And the sun would be as welcome and warm as a hug in deep winter.

But there was something different today... The scenery, otherwise empty other than the occasional farmer, had now welcomed someone else. “An easel! A painter!” she exclaimed. She ran towards the figure in the distance.

“Hi!” she said gleefully.

The man looked up, his straw hat casting a filtered shadow over his face. He looked tired, yet peaceful, and his beard was a wild orange only matched by the paint staining his hands.

The strange man wished her a good morning and turned back to his painting. His quiet and reserved demeanor didn’t put a damper on Chloé’s excitement. “I love this place and have been coming here regularly, but you are the first artist I have seen.”

“Perhaps there are other distractions in town,” the man replied, as his searching gaze settled on Chloé’s hands. “What is that you are holding?”

Chloé looked down at the empty pages in her hand. “Nothing, unfortunately,” she mumbled.

“I am Chloé.”


Chloé braved a little closer, craning to try and spot some details on the canvas. “It is weird I haven’t seen you here before. I have been here a good while. Are you new in town?”

Vincent’s hand stopped mid-air. His eyes darted from the canvas to his brush, as he squirted some blots of paint on his pallet, some overflowing and dripping on his disheveled pants. “I have a studio and a room in Saint-Paul. Just taking in the sights,” he finally said.

“You mean the asylum?” Chloé glanced at the path behind her and took a small step back. “So... What are you doing out here?”

At what seemed to be an attempt to show her he was not crazy, Vincent replied that he is there out of his own free will, but that there is a guardian with him. Chloé spotted the man in the distance who rushed over after having spotted her.

“Why would you go to an asylum out of your own free will?” Chloé frowned and shook her head, visibly disapproving of her bad manners.

Vincent kept his eyes on his work. His brushwork turned more calculated and cautious compared to the rapid strokes from before, as if he was trying to capture a gentle spirit. Or a kind face with the most delicate features. When he spoke, his voice was silent, almost like a whisper, as if he was speaking to himself. “I find that in rejecting one society and joining another has given me some much-needed focus and inspiration. It is possible for even the most macabre prison could hold your body but free your mind. Especially if your body doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.” He chuckled as he looked back up at the guest whose presence seemed to have slipped his mind.

Chloé took some steps closer again and smiled softly. The supervisor had now arrived, out of breath and looking slightly worried at her presence. Vincent said it was okay. They were just having a chat. The man looked uncomfortable but also not sure what to do. He decided to sit down and keep an eye on them.

“May I?” Chloé asked, gesturing at the canvas.

Vincent nodded.

A painting of the olive trees ahead. Still in progress. The brush strokes were rough but deliberate. The color explosive. “My father was an artist, but he liked nature to walk in. Not to paint.”

Vincent looked up at Chloé, holding a question he was probably too polite to ask.

“He died a while ago.”

“I am sorry,” he said softly, returning to the job at hand.

Chloé sat down in the grass. She had developed a certain level of comfort with this odd and hesitant man, and so she decided to share some more. She explained the block she had been having and how her father had driven her to pursue painting. She told him how much she loves to write. And that perhaps it is all she wants to do.

Vincent listened patiently. All tension had gone from his face and instead, there was a kindness. “Parents often want us to follow in their footsteps. My own father was a priest and while I had tried to follow that path at one point, art is where I belong. There is never any bad intention behind it, I suspect. Perhaps it is a passion they can’t help but share. It can take them a while to realize we have our own passions.”

Chloé was quiet for a moment. She took Alice out of her bag and put the papers back inside. “I know what you mean.”

The day was growing older, and the sun traveled to the top of the sky. Its rays were hot, almost liquid, but neither Chloé nor Vincent were showing any signs of being bothered by it. Vincent was now working on his fifth canvas of the same trees, and Chloé was taking notes in her book. Looking up at Vincent’s work now and then.

“Why are you painting the olive trees so many times?” Chloé asked.

“For the same reason I painted a lot of cypress trees. They are the soul of this place, just like willows are the soul back home.”

“Where is home?”

“The Netherlands. I traveled to France to be where the action is, and I am glad I did. Paris and Arles have brought me closer to my artistic voice in a couple of years than the Netherlands could have in a lifetime. Where is your home?”

Chloé threw herself back in the grass and for the first time, the sun seemed like an unwelcome invader blocking her view of a deep blue sky. “I am not sure where my home is anymore. Home used to be wherever Dad was. Maybe all this traveling has robbed me of the notion of a home.”

Vincent turned to see a squinting Chloé trying to look more closely at a flock of birds soaring above them. “Let me give you some advice,” he started. “If you are really serious about becoming a writer, or even if you’d one day pick up a paintbrush again, an artist’s home is first and foremost with themselves. I have lost that home. Tried to fill it up with all kinds of places. Ended up here.”

“How do you mean?”

“Your work can and should take you anywhere because in order to create, you have to live. You have to experience life in all its shapes and forms. That is what your dad wanted to do, I imagine. It is probably why he took you to so many places. It is true that many great painters and writers have turned their own city into their greatest work of art. Just look at Emile Zola who is forcing us all to look at Paris’ true face. But you, I feel, are like me. You want to show life’s true face. Nature’s true face. Am I right?”

Chloé nodded slowly.

Vincent turned back to his canvas. “Then living is what you must do.”

Silence. Chloé was chewing on a blade of dried grass as if it somehow helped her process Vincent’s words.

“What’s that little book you’ve got in your bag?”

“Oh,” Chloé said, jerking as if being pulled out of a dream. “It’s my favorite little book actually.” She pulled out a worn, stained copy of Alice in Wonderland. “Have you read it?”

“Can’t say I have. I know only a little about it too. Why is it your favorite?”

“Well,” Chloé started, chuckling shyly as if she was about to reveal an embarrassing secret. “Lewis Carol has written what seems like a fantasy. A place where a girl in her normal, logical self, clashes with a world where logic doesn’t exist. And she changes her size twelve times. She changes because of things she needs to do to fit into this world. She doubts her own identity because she gets mistaken for being a servant. For being a flower. She talks to caterpillars. Evaporating cats. Crazy queens. She loses who she is and yet, she becomes more herself. She feels happy and energized when she wakes up. All because of a dream she had. I never dream. Or if I do, I don’t remember. And I sometimes wonder if I would be more myself if I did.”

“But reading this book puts you in a dreamlike world?”

“It does. Although, my dad saw this book differently. He thought Alice in Wonderland wasn’t about fantasy, but about reality. That Alice arrived in a real world and that reality is stranger than what we can conjure up in our dreams, especially when we’re growing up.”

“Reality can be many things. For example, these particular olive trees are hard to get right. The color is very changeable. See, look at how the sun is turning them into an eternal dance of colors devised to set my teeth on edge. Have a look. What do you think? What do you think the reality is here?”

“I am not sure,” Chloé stammered as she approached the canvas. “I see light.”

“Light is very important,” Vincent replied. “And the light here in the Provence is deeper and more soulful than anywhere else I have been.”

“Soulful light...” She muttered. “Can light be soulful?”

“And mournful.”

“Well, your light is certainly not in mourning. In fact, the sun looks like more than just a golden sphere. Yellow lines are circling around it, only halted by the mountains in the distance. The canvas feels even hotter than the actual sun! Yes, the sun is fully awake now. In your earlier paintings it was still wiping sleep from its eyes.”

“The Province in Spring is like this,” Vincent chuckled. “The still drowsy rays of Spring making way for the showy intensity of Summer.”

“Motion!” Chloé almost screamed. “Movement. I can see all of life’s small movements on your canvas. The shadows look like veils. The rays like water. It’s moving!”

Vincent laughed. He looked delighted. “Reality can be observed from more than one angle. And the art lies in expressing what you see from yours.”

“Writing is the same” Chloé remarked. “When I write in my diary, I feel my eyes are more open.”

“Books can create a reality more real than the one we walk into every day. And who knows how much more you’ll see when you write about this day,” Vincent said with a smile. “Already a little better.” He muttered as he turned to observe his work skeptically.

Silence resumed. A comfortable silence.

“How was your first day out in the countryside?”

” I enjoyed painting the olive trees. I was just preparing to send them to Theo.”

Father David looked at the canvases and frowned, taking off his glasses. He started to clean them.

“I met someone yesterday, Father. A girl. She can’t have been much older than sixteen.”

Father David said nothing and continued to clean his glasses. It was clear that Vincent’s meddlesome guardian had mentioned this to Father David already.

“She was wandering the paths where I was painting my olive trees.”

Father David had put his glasses back on and looked at the painting properly. “Was she anything like the kids you encountered in Arles?”

“Far from it. She seemed to be a soul searcher. Not unlike me. And interesting story...” Vincent started, but he didn’t continue. As if he knew this story would be wasted on Father David.

“Still. I think it is best you don’t speak with her again. In the interest of your recovery and all. I will tell your supervisor the same.”

Vincent didn’t reply. He picked up a piece of paper and started to write.

Dear brother,

I met a girl today. She was passing by as I ventured outside for the first time, and we got to talking. She had a lot to say about her recently deceased father, a painter, and how she would love to be a writer. Father David disapproved, of course. I will probably not be speaking with her again, but that is okay.

I somehow feel that this encounter has helped me more than one month of seclusion. The chance to talk to a type of person I had never spoken to before. To actually vocalize views that were not misunderstood. To have open, eager eyes observing my canvas. Eyes that have not learned to judge based on any inner darkness or jaded misgivings. Searching eyes.

I am beginning to understand that my biggest problem has been a fear of myself. I used to feel an aversion towards the kind of person who would end up here, perhaps because I refused to accept that I could ever be one of them. But this small community of so-called “crazy people” has made me understand what “crazy” really means. It is a disease, like any other. And so, it can be treated.

We are a community built on different values. I am happy such a community can exist. But will I have a conversation again that feels as fresh and new as the one I had yesterday? Maybe not. Will I find a home again with myself? Maybe not. Will darkness find me again? Most likely. But for the first time, I feel like I really have a chance to conquer it. Time will tell if I will.

Your Vincent.

June 6th, 1889

Dear Alice,

I found my way to the ruins again. My nature walks have brought me peace, but I know I have to be able to find that peace in other places as well, just like Beatrice told me. I brought some paper but pretended it wasn’t even there. I sat here for a good while. Just thinking. As the sun was rising, an amber hue crept over the soulless houses of a soulless town. I decided to head back to the dotted plains anyway. No need to keep punishing myself, I thought.

I was approaching the place where I had once fallen asleep when I saw a man sitting behind an easel. The first artist I had seen here! I was a little intimidated at first, Alice, because he lived at the asylum just out of town! But I remembered Dad’s lessons. Be kind.

His name is Vincent, and he loves the countryside perhaps even more than I do. He talks about nature in a way that the authors I read talk about passion and love.

Vincent sees majestic, golden fields that transform with every passing cloud. In Paris, such fields were not so much an escape as they were a part of city life. Autumn and spring would bring blossom, bloom and its fruits could feed the entire city. The harsh winters were fought off with hot, horse manure and glass frameworks covering the vegetables that would otherwise only grow in warmer seasons. All within the city borders. But these small towns feel borderless. They feel like they go on forever.

I wouldn’t say I miss Paris. What I do sometimes miss is being busy. Occupying myself in a way that keeps me moving forward. Studying, art, traveling, even if those travels rarely involved a moment of relaxation. For the first time in my life, I am standing completely still.

It’s ironic when you think about it. Here I am, lingering in this tiny town, while Dad and I spent years chasing big cities. Even now, I feel this small town is wanting me to slow down. It’s tempting me to walk and to ponder, to enjoy a provincial beauty that has captivated me.

Meeting Vincent has made me realize something. My dad had never really found his artistic identity. When I looked at his painting of the olive trees, I could see a style Dad was working to achieve. That of an effortless beauty.

Dad and Vincent both love literature, though. As much as I do. Dad was excited to read literary greats like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte Sisters together. And my absolute favorite, Alice in Wonderland.

We would read passages to each other and ask each other questions about things that stood out. I would point out words I didn’t understand, and Dad would explain them to me while I wrote it down in my notebook, but only after first letting me try to derive it from the context. There is one conversation I still think about a lot. It was years ago, but I can still remember it, word for word. Like a scene playing in my head...

“I feel like I am in Wonderland, Dad!”

“It is the best place to be for a child your age.”

“I feel this way every time I finish this book. I wish I could dream like Alice.”

“Do you remember when we visited my friend Barnard’s home in the forests not far from Paris?”

“Yes, he loved to paint trees.”

“He did. One afternoon, you fell asleep on the porch. When you woke up again, you said that the light had changed. Rain clouds were gathering slowly, and only small patches of light came through. You imagined you were under water. The grass was dark and swayed slowly. The trees and shrubs were part of a sinister seascape and the big birds in the sky were sea creatures shooting up for air and diving down again to catch fish hiding in the trees. It made you laugh.”

“I remember. What does it mean?”

“It means you don’t need to be asleep to dream, my sweet.”

I guess I only now realize what those words truly mean. It is like Vincent said, we need to live to create. And my dad already saw that I enjoy living inside of my mind as much as outside of it.

From the moment I could talk, Dad answered all my questions with a conversation. He has given me so much. And while he wanted to turn me into a great painter, far greater than himself, he gave me all the tools I need to be a writer instead.

And that is what I truly want, Alice. I want everything I can catch with my pen. Within my mind, and outside of it. With Dad and on my own. Between this reality and all others.

About the Author

Mieke Leenders

Mieke Leenders is a freelance writer and published author with a masters degree in Art History and certificates in Teaching and Editing. Her short fiction has been published in The Abstract Elephant, a magazine that explores the human condition. Originally from Belgium, she set out on a solo backpacking trip in 2017, which led her to put down temporary roots in Costa Rica. Mieke is passionate about travel, literature, photography, social justice, animal welfare, and art.

Read more work by Mieke Leenders.