Paul Gauguin is buried on the island of Hiva Oa (one in a cluster of islands known as the Marquesas, residing in the South Pacific).
I’ve been there. I sat by his grave, overlooking the bay, eating a banana turnover, as my father explained the importance of this man; his talent undervalued and under-appreciated while he was alive.
Paul Gauguin has returned to my consciousness this week: the other day, I made a joke about Van Gogh and his ear. I was searching for an image to accompany my humor, when I discovered that his ear was severed 128 years ago to the day (December 23, 1888). I clicked on an article reviewing a book written by two historians, who challenge the story that Van Gogh cut off his ear in a bout of lunacy. Rather, they hypothesize that Van Gogh attacked Gauguin during a heated argument. In defense, Gauguin accidentally severed part of Van Gogh’s ear. According to the historians, the two tortured artists made a pact to remain silent, and swore they would never disclose the truth of the incident to anyone. (Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lived together for a couple of months and were known to have a contentious relationship.)
If these historians are accurate, then Van Gogh and Gauguin died misunderstood: the haunting legacy that piggybacks the artistic brilliance of most creatives.
2016 (and the five years of my life prior to this one) are reminiscent of the passage my family and I made to French Polynesia. We spent three weeks in the accompanied solitude of the ocean, the weather and the occasional pod of fins punctuating the swells.
Sailors become masters of surrender, of understanding that everything within eye’s sight will evaporate on the horizon within moments.
Everything is temporary. Everything.
Somewhere over the years, with dirt beneath my feet, I’ve displaced that knowing, from which my yearning bellows: there isn’t a day that I don’t close my eyes and feel my bare feet on the fiberglass deck, as I tuck my salt caked hair behind my ears, patiently bobbing with the doldrums and cowering to the storms. I communicate through the crank of the winch and the pregnant sail, my voice rusty, of no use and my eyes more precise than a sextant.
I miss it. I ache for it every day.
Right now, my body is aching. I’ve been sleeping a lot this week. I don’t usually sleep past the darkness; I go to bed early, rise early. But, for the last five days, I’ve had to pry myself out of bed.
I’ve considered: am I depressed? Situationally perhaps, who doesn’t feel lonely and out of place this time of year? But this feeling! This feeling is familiar yet distant, like a wafting childhood memory that lingers just long enough for nostalgia to dim one’s sense of contentment.
I cancelled life this week, to hibernate and care for my daughters who are sick. I cook warm, nourishing meals, gather their crispy tissues, kiss their overheated foreheads, order quasi-appropriately rated movies for them to watch, and then I shuffle back to bed to ache some more.
This feeling, I’ve finally placed it: when we saw land for the first time after three weeks. The lavender greyish mound of Hiva Oa perched on the ledge of the horizon. I sensed its auspicious anticipation, like a groom, awaiting his bride as she walks down the aisle, taking the last few desperate steps until the hand of sheltered safety rescues her from the journey. Yes, it was like that.
Even if someone told us there was a more suitable cove two hours away, it didn’t matter, we were staying, because, we were finally somewhere. It was time to rest and be.
It had been a long few weeks and the greatest few weeks of our sabbatical. I loved being at sea, but I wonder how I would have fared had it been an aimless navigation. We had a path, which allowed us to enjoy the journey.
The treacherous part of the past six years is that I left the port of marriage without a destination, without consulting a map, checking the weather and planning where to go next. I was foolish and departed without preparation.
I should have known better: preparation builds confidence, albeit a false sense. A sailor prepares the best he can for the unknown, even though he knows, the only preparation that’s viable is experience. Yet, without some semblance of ‘preparation,’ most wouldn’t be willing to unleash from the dock.
Well, I’m unlike most; I left the dock, completely unprepared.
My life after marriage has been no different than my time at sea. I’ve waltzed with Mother Nature and accidentally stepped on her toes many times. I’ve learned to tolerate and appreciate my fellow crew members. I stare for hours off the bow, wondering what’s next, and then become distracted by the wrinkle in the sail, the shift in the winds, accepting that wonderment is my reality; uncertainty is my compass.
2016 was the last leg of my passage. This ache I feel is not depression, or sickness, it’s the end of the journey, the arrival, the entry into harbor. I remember it well. I haven’t felt it in decades. But, I’m here and I can finally rest and be.
It’s taken six long years to traverse the seas between my old life and my new one. It took a lot of courage, to trust the constantly evaporating edge and have faith I’d end up on dry land once again.
I’ve made it, grounded and safe. The sails are down. The anchor is secure. I’m resting against the footstone of my past peering out over the cliff, back from where I came.
I’m alone, as I was meant.
I trust I’ll know when it’s time to pull up the anchor, hoist the sails and continue on my voyage, but for now, my misunderstood self is going to stay here for awhile. Luckily, unlike Gauguin and Van Gogh, I’m alive; there’s still time to explain…
Happy New Year.