I’m staring at a painting by Paul Klee. Sweeping brushstrokes on the canvas, eye-popping oranges and reds, flame-shapes, one large blue eye so wise it looks into your soul, and a sense that something is imminent, just trembling there, about to explode.
This is how it feels to live with a bipolar father.
Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “There’s a fire in you alone, made of soft, satin embers.”
Being an artist is like being an addict. You’re hooked on the process of creating. You have visions. You crawl inside your own head and get stuck in the tunnels of your mind, until you find your way out, rest and recuperate, and begin again.
Klee said, “I cannot be understood at all on this Earth.” That’s the fear. The fear of loneliness. Of silence. Of isolation.
My father could not be understood at all on this Earth. We all tried to understand him. Until, in the end, we could not understand.
Dad was a painter and sculptor, a sensitive, vulnerable man. He had ups and downs. His highs were Mount Everest highs, and his lows could be hellish. His upswings were magical, especially for me as a child—he’d tell us his grandiose schemes. He’d paint obsessively for hours. His eyes grew wide with visions swirling in the chemical miasma of his brain. His canvases reminded me of Klee’s—the bold colors and broad strokes. He painted pueblos of New Mexico, brooding New England barns, and foreboding moonlit skies over our house on the edge of the woods.
He taught me how to walk through the forest without making a sound, like the Native Americans he deeply admired—heel-to-toe. That way you could view the woods without scaring the creatures away. You could experience life as it really was. He taught me how to observe. How to see the world.
When my dad took his own life, recovering from it was like crawling out of emotional quicksand. For the longest time, I struggled with my writing. I ran away. As fast as I could. I ran and hid. But eventually, I had to turn and face it.
Long after his death, my father came to me in a dream. He was smiling. He seemed happy. I asked him my most burning question—“Where are you?” He told me he was in northern Idaho. “Oh,” I said. The dream was over.
The next day, I looked the place up on a map. I had no idea what it was supposed to mean. But I think he was telling me to move on. Explore. Go. Don’t stop now. He certainly wasn’t.