Back in the 90’s I saw a film called “Little Man Tate.” Maybe you saw it too. In the film Jodie Foster is a working class mother with a brilliant young son, Fred. At one point he comes under the instruction of a doctor, Jane Grierson, played by Dianne Weist. As they look through a series of Van Gogh’s works, mostly flowers, they talk about one in particular. Grierson muses aloud as they look at a painting showing a single white iris in a field of purple, “I wonder why he only painted one white.” Fred replies, “Because he was lonely.”
I have forgotten much of that film even though I liked it quite a lot but I have never forgotten that moment in the film, that line, that painting. Something in me knows Fred was right about Van Gogh, probably the lonely part of my own self.
When I ran across this beautiful photo a couple of weeks ago taken by lovely poet Luci Shaw I was struck, once again, by the contrast. One yellow tulip in a sea of brilliant color- and I was reminded of Van Gogh, of being lonely but not being alone. The idea that Van Gogh painted a white iris in a sea of purple was not simply that he was lonely but that he was also not alone, he was surrounded, but different. This tulip, too, while beautiful and healthy is different and also not alone.
And then I was the iris…and the tulip…in a field of color, clothing the meadow the so much beauty…and I considered the lilies, erm, irises. I think there is something vastly comforting to me about being different, sitting among the brilliance around me even while having these really profound moments in which I am certain something is lacking in me. It’s the forever push and pull in each of us, at least I think it’s in all of us- that we are our own unique selves and that we are not alone.
It’s tempting for me to launch into how different I feel from the world, the mall, the workplace or the soccer field but I recognize even as I type it how arrogant that sounds. I could even detail the lonely, the deep sad that comes of feeling different but that wouldn’t take the edge off the hubris as far as I can tell. The real truth is that we’re all the white iris in a field of purple, we’re all that yellow tulip in a sea of color, at one time or another. We can’t stop there though, we can’t stop at knowing that we’re different at times, that what accents our loneliness IS that we are not alone. Every bit of color around us has the potential to either heal or harm us in that loneliness. Van Gogh was a man of deep sad, probably mental illness. I wonder if the tragedy is less that he felt he was the white iris in a field of purple but rather that he may have missed that he was also at times, a purple iris surrounding the single white flower.
This is the discovery I’m finally making in my own life, that to always see myself as different, set apart, outside the “normal” life really only serves me and possibly in the worst possible ways. For as long as I revel in my “difference” I am removed from the connection I need to really embrace that “difference” as a member of the human family. I make my loneliness supreme, more important than community, I make art more important than relationship and then I’m not just lonely, I’m also alone…and that’s not who I want to be in the world. Am I willing to be a member of the sea of color? Am I willing to step back and recognize the lone yellow tulip in my midst, to embrace him? to love him? to let him know he is not alone even in his loneliness?
I have this thought that Van Gogh was not merely a great technical painter, did not merely have great moments of inspiration but that he was in fact channeling some great deep truth we all share…we are all together and all alone, that we are at times the white iris, we are all at times the field of purple. It may be the reason that painting speaks so strongly, has spoken out loud to so many and for so long. And it may be the reason a photo such as this by a lovely poet I like an awful lot would stand out, perhaps it what made Luci snap this photo…because it spoke some great truth, some great real thing we all need to see and hear and imbibe…we are, all of us, lonely and yet we are not alone.
Originally posted June 2011. This piece is another in a series of essays which will appear in the Mrs Metaphor: Reflections from the Glass Factory project. We need your help to bring this project to fruition! Please show your support by donating to our Kickstarter Project before April 1st, 2012. If you like the works you read here, spread the word!