Rather than publishing my blog last Friday from my usual nest in the computer corner in my spare bedroom, I found myself perched on a bench in the inner courtyard of the St. Paul Mausole hospital in San Remy de Provence France where Van Gogh took solace from his mental illness the last year of his life. In this magical setting its easy to transport oneself in time to imagine his tortured yet brilliant life. All around are reproductions of his famous works painted there. As I try to capture the essence of it all a tall man, maybe 70, stately with angular limbs, comes strolling down the wide cobblestones and plunks beside me to rest. His slightly younger sweet smiling wife goes on inside. He distracts my composure at first but I get over my annoyance by chatting about his life in Capetown and the reason for his visit. His voice is musical and his speech articulate. A sculptor by trade, he hails originally from England where his work was to restore the cloisters in an ancient cathedral in Gloucester, originally built in 681. He also sang tenor in the choir there. (Ah, his lilting voice.) It is easy to picture him hanging from ancient scaffolds. Unsolicited he gives me a lesson on how to determine which cloisters in the garden are originals and which are restored. I would not have noticed. He also gave me a lesson in love, referring to his attractive wife who married him ten years ago after her husband died. "Beautiful" he said, not referring to her looks but to their relationship.
When I inquire how things are in South Africa now, he nods his pert blue visor and states with pride "Just fine, just fine". Then he pauses and adds "not so in Johanesburg, where things are bad." The last word is slurred as if he feels ashamed.
I move on to the outside gardens where my fellow tour members are sketching and painting. Some are doing the olive grove so famous in Starry Night. As if by plan Jac is wearing new olive colored pants and shirt today, which complement the setting. Sandy shares that olive trees continue to live for centuries. The same olive trees which I run my fingers across may be the ones Van Gogh painted, and may have been alive before the French revolution. Unlike the Monterey pines in my driveway, they feed the residents and are not subject to pine bark beetle, and their life span seems to be 60. Mine just went out in wood chips.
Van Gogh was only 37 when he died. It seems clear to me that his mental illness was genetic. I must reread Lust for Life with my therapist's hat on. I think back to Vincent's anguish as well as to the kindness offered to him here and am grateful.