Dear God. Where am I?
“Papier hier!” a strange, obese, ceramic face shouted at me.
The fat boy’s mouth gaped, waiting eternally for some sweet, sweet papier hier. What in the world is-
“Papier hier!” repeated the disfigured child, who was apparently stuck inside a dog house of some kind.
Can… can it see me?
“Papierrrr hierrrr!” it rolled its Rs salaciously.
Nearby Dutch children giggled. Oh man. I hope this isn’t one of those times where not speaking the local language gets me killed.
The giggling children ran up to the yodeling monster and brazenly stuffed some trash into its mouth. That’ll teach that freaky-
“HALLO!” the thing replied, loudly.
The children giggled and ran off to be Dutch somewhere else. I stared hard at my hands to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Usually in a dream you have way too many fingers. I don’t know why, dreams are just bad at hands I guess. Een, twee, drie- oh goddammit now I’m counting in Dutch.
Initial reports confirmed that I was awake. But I wasn’t going to take anything for granted. I walked off cautiously, keeping one eye on the Thing.
I’d taken the train and bus and my own two feet from Germany to the improbable location of Loon op Zand, a small village in southern Netherlands. The name means… Pay on Sand? Sure, Netherlands, you do that. Ah, wait: “Village Built on Sand.” Okay then! I checked into my hotel, something called Natuurpoort van Loon, which means “Nature Gate Near the Woods.” which sounds nice, and picked up my rental bike. A rental bike is something you need in the Netherlands if you don’t want people to make fun of you all the time for being some kind of bikeless hobo.
The next morning I was off like a shot, completely in the wrong direction, which I didn’t realize until I’d been riding along the highway for a solid 30 minutes. It was a nice morning out though, the sun shining down on the green and pancake flat Dutch countryside. I stopped and checked my phone. Oh dammit, it’s the other way. I rode back, arms tense as my front wheel wiggled and cars whizzed by just to my left. Occasionally I would pass a traffic sign that either said that cars and bikes are both totally cool on this road or that this combination is completely verboten and punishable by death. Hmmm.
My phone told me to turn onto a small dirt trail that snaked off the highway, which quickly turned into deepening sand. I would later learn that Loon op Zand, if it’s famous for anything, is famous for being built on a whole shitload of sand that just shifts around all over the place unpredictably. My wheels spun in the deep sand as I gradually lost momentum and then tipped over. Dammit Netherlands.
I checked my phone again and this was indeed the shortest route, but probably not the fastest if you’re carrying a bike on your shoulders. I turned back to go the long way around on the paved road, tottering as I tried to pick up speed like an idiot riding a road bike on the beach.
Eventually I found my way across the county on for-real roads and there it was: Efteling!
Efteling is the Netherlands’ largest theme park, and the third-largest in Europe. Longstanding though poorly-sourced legends claim that this park was Walt Disney’s inspiration in building the original Disneyland. More verifiable legends state that it is super-freaking weird.
My original travel plans for 2020 had involved a worldwide theme park tour, visiting the best parks in Europe before continuing on to Dubai, Japan and Singapore. Covid had 2020ed all over that plan, but now that I was in Europe at last I planned on at least salvaging the Paris Disneyland, Europa Park in Germany and Efteling part of that plan.
Because of covid I’d had to book a time to arrive at the park in advance, and I’d completely dicked that up with my bike adventure. I cruised up to the front gate, stepping through the bike frame suavely like a badass riding a girl’s bike and locked my rental up at the parking-lot-sized bike racks. Some practiced bluster got me through the ticket check in spite of being an hour late, and there I was, deep in the realm of Dutch fantasy.
The very first thing I noticed is that everyone was wearing backpacks. Man, Dutch people must like to be prepared for anything. Later I realized these were backpacks full of food, because Dutch people are way too cheap to pay for food at a theme park. I’m sure I stood out for my shockingly profligate, wasteful veggie wiener buying.
I also stood out for being Canadian. If you’ll recall the state of the world in July of 2020, Europe and Asia had beat back the spring coronavirus surge and stood as proud examples of how to successfully- Jesus Christ United States, what are you even doing!? Covid was running rampant through the US, setting records daily, with little evidence that we were doing anything at all to turn this around, or that we even wanted to. The general perception internationally was that the US was a massive dumpster fire and that everyone in the entire country had covid.
This was an inconvenient perception for an American traveling in Europe at that time. I had gone through the full quarantine in the UK and then entered the EU through France, which was completely legal but did take some smooth talking on my part at the French border because of that perception thing and the general confusion all around about what the rules actually were. Now that I was in, it quickly became clear that I would be denied entry to places and possibly chased off by a mob if they found out I was American.
So for the first time in all of my many travels, I played the classic bashful American card of saying I was Canadian. From Vancouver, since their accents aren’t far different from my native California. I even had a neighborhood in Vancouver picked out to be from, if it came to that. This was, in retrospect, a terrible idea.
I was waiting in line for food at one of Efteling’s restaurants when a friendly park employee approached me.
“Hello, are you enjoying your time here?”
Yes, yes, it’s great.
“I’m surprised to see an American here.”
AAAAAAAAH. What do you mean? I’m obviously Canadian.
“Oh I’m so sorry. The accents are similar,” he said, doubtfully.
He asked me what I thought of America and I had to think of something politely derisive that a Canadian would say.
“Canadians are nicer but there’s more going on in the US cities.” Ay?
Then he started asking me about Canadian theme parks. Like, A LOT about Canadian theme parks. He was clearly thrilled to find another amusement park aficionado with whom to discuss such things.
I had already deflected his “What is a 43 year old single man doing alone at a children’s theme park?” pedophile test, proving my theme-park enthusiast gravitas by discussing how this park compared to the Disney operations in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which had clearly employed some of the same ride designers. So now I was screwed, because after that I couldn’t say I’d never been to these popular theme parks IN MY HOME COUNTRY OF CANADA that I’d definitely never ever been to.
“Oh yeah, Canada’s Wonderland, it’s not bad. Could be better.” Would a Canadian say that? Maybe I should just punch him and run.
The next person who asked me where I was from turned out to have their entire family living in Canada. This is a disaster.
After this happened a few more times over the course of the trip I pivoted to just saying “I’m living in the UK” which was sort of true because I’d left a bag at my brother’s house in Wales, and this answer was never met with the slightest interest or any follow-up questions whatsoever, so it was perfect. Live and learn.
So what exactly did this Efteling place have going on that I’d risk getting run out of Europe on a rail for? Well for one, the setting was damned lovely.
Efteling was clearly a park that Dutch people had grown up with, and loved returning to in hopes of reliving the magic of childhood. It was even more fairy tale centered than our somewhat-similar Disney parks, and even more strange for being based on Dutch fairy tales I would have no hope of ever understanding. The two attractions that best encapsulated the enchanted magic of Efteling were the Fairytale Forest and Droomvlecht.
The Fairytale Forest is an huge, animatronic-heavy section of the park with all kinds of bizarre elf houses and various fairy tales acted out for your viewing bewilderment...
Droomvlecht (“Dream Flight”) is a dark ride that involves… okay I’m not going to lie, I had no idea what was going on during this thing but it was pretty damn great all the same.
Once inside and seated in your little cart, you’re whisked through a lovingly detailed panorama of fairy castles in a mystical landscape...
Which transitions you into a large forest scene full of animatronic fairies flying through the air and forest animals chillin' by the pond. My photos of this unearthly splendor were taken while moving in the dark, and therefore are terrible.
From here there’s a brief jaunt through outer space, where the cities have really grown far too large for the planets they’re on.
Then you pick up speed, rollercoaster style, as you circle around and around a wooded scene of gnomes frolicking in the rain. You spiral down, down, down, while the gnomes dance and do their thing.
On the way out there’s some stoned gnome guy playing a lute for you before you’re rudely ejected back into the cold light of day.
This ride is far longer and more detailed than implied by the only six pictures I took that don't just look like an orange blur in the dark. It was pretty sweet and well worth two rides to try and take in all the detail and weird creatures within.
My favorite ride in Efteling was Baron 1898, a rollercoaster themed to a story about a rich Baron pressing the poor locals to work in his haunted gold mine. The gold in the mine is protected by the Witte Wieven, the “White Ladies,” ghostly spirits who curse anyone daring enough to try and extract the gold.
Inside the ride queue, after being briefed by the Baron to ignore the disasters that have befallen all who came before you, you board the upright carriages with your feet dangling free. As the restraints lock into place, the lights go dim and the walls begin to shake, ports and latches swinging open as the White Women appear eerily, drifting across the smoking walls, and say a bunch of scary warning shit in Dutch. But this works even across the language barrier because the “you are so screwed” threats are sung in the form of a beautiful and chilling opera that fills the room around you. Calling this the best music on a ride anywhere is damning it with faint praise, it really was awesome and moving.
Now that you’ve been thoroughly warned and are still somehow going to do this anyway, the floor drops away in sections with robotic precision, like Iron Man’s helper robot arms taking his suit of armor off, and the huge doors in front of you swing open. You track forward and tilt back as you’re dragged up, up, up into the sky. At the very peak of the tower, you tilt down over the edge, and suddenly stop, hanging forward against your restraints.
Your heart is in your throat. Primed to go down into the mine, you stare down into a dark pit. But not just a dark pit. A dark pit with smoke pouring out of it, so you can’t see how deep it is or where it leads. And not only that, the beautiful, eerie and deeply unnerving operatic singing of the white women is BLASTING up out of the pit, rattling your nerves as you-AHHHH they let you go!
You drop STRAIGHT down, face-first, through the open air and down into the smoke. This is probably my favorite moment on any ride I’ve ever experienced. The combination of the theming, story, the build up, the music and the visceral straight down plummet into the unknown was completely absorbing and thrilling. As we dropped, I heard a “tink-tink-tinktinktinktink” near my ear that I mused was a strange sound for this ride to be making, before I realized the necklace I was wearing had come up completely out of my shirt and was hanging around my chin, the crystal pendant fluttering back above my head rat-rat-rat-rat-rattling against the metal of the ride carriage. I grasped it suddenly as we plummeted into the dark smoke and all went black.
When we shot back out into the sunlight and did a spiral or a loop or whatever confusing shit happened then, it was all in the light, floating glee of having survived the drop.
I returned at the end of the day to ride Baron again, getting in line just before park closing time to extend my day by another hour or so. The ride was even better at night, the darkness adding to the atmosphere and the chilling singing echoing out across the otherwise empty park.
At the top of the lift, I looked out across the dark, empty park and to the massive orange harvest moon sitting eerily on the horizon, right before we plunged screaming into the smoke.
After I got off the ride, I walked over to the pit the coaster drops into, where you could watch riders plummet down into the unknown mere feet in front of you. Fog was billowing out of the hole profusely and sliding across the surrounding sidewalks beautifully, as if it was Halloween. I walked into the mist and peered down into the pit, as the otherworldly singing of the mine ghosts vibrated my entire body. The singing was almost deafening here, transportive, and the dry ice smoke was billowing out so abundantly that it was snaking across the sidewalk behind me and curling around lamp posts and down the branching pathways. Wow, what a note to end the day on!
Efteling had much more on offer to fill your day with, from a Flying Dutchman ride that was somehow a really cool dark ride, and a rollercoaster, AND a water ride all at the same time.
To a very expensive-looking trackless dark ride called Symbolica, that was both impressive and completely impossible to follow in Dutch. I was most interested in the fact that it was clearly made by the same people who made Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland, so it was very interesting to see a different story built onto the same ride architecture.
To Fata Morgana, Efteling’s fulfillment of the requirement that every European theme park must have a Pirates of the Caribbean knockoff. To Efteling’s credit, this was one of the best of them, and at least had the decency to be based on 1001 Arabian Nights instead of generic pirate lore.
To your classic wooden dragon roller coasters...
To giant bird rollercoasters with amazing queues and a really long wait for a shockingly short jaunt through the dark...
To Spook Slot, a haunted house thing where a graveyard and house come to life and you kind of sit around and make sure you haven't missed out on noticing every last one of the tombstones that are bopping to the music or whatever.
But cute as it was, Spook Slot was far from the scariest ride at Efteling. That was, without any question or debate, Carnival Festival. The theme of this ride was clearly that Efteling had decided to make a version of it’s a small world but to make absolutely sure their version would ruin your entire life.
When they weren't coming up with the ride's hideous looping sing-song theme music, the Netherlands had decided to celebrate the diversity of our vast world through racist caricatures and clowns. It was a bold move.
Of course it's not up to me to decide what's racist against another group, but I can't imagine any division of humans being happy with how they were represented on this ride. I was separately offended as a person of Irish descent, an American, and a great ape. The best thing about all of this was that in 2019, the park spent millions of dollars to redo this ride, TO MAKE IT LESS RACIST. This is the fixed version!
It was interesting to ponder how this could be so similar to it’s a small world and yet so much more offensive, and I think the key is making all of the nationalities flatteringly cute rather than disgusting. That’s the little Spinal Tap Smell the Glove clever twist that the Netherlands missed on this one.
The sheer degree to which this ride was ill-advised and tragically ill-conceived was vasty entertaining. Perhaps there was a radical feel-good message at work underneath it all, suggesting that beneath the imaginary construct of race, we are all hideously ugly. Uhm... thanks?
I was simultaneously disturbed by and in love with this magically awful ride.
When the park wasn't busy making you question if the Dutch have ever actually met any other races, it revealed endless bizarre and fun little details. Like the ATM being embedded in this huge treasure chest that cracked open, smoked and yelled at you when kids turned the huge key.
Oh, and that nightmarish ogre crying out “Papier Hier!”? He was saying “Paper here!” He was a trash can. An acid flashback trash can.
Walking away from Baron 1898 in the magical mist, I made my way to the exit, one of the last people still in the park. My rented bike was thankfully still there too.
Those of you who have read about my adventures mountain biking down the Bolivian Death Road know that I am God’s gift to bicycles, lord of the two wheels, all skiller, no filler. Anyone who hasn’t read that story, just know that yeah, I’m not real steady on a bike.
Leaving the park in the dark on my rented bicycle, I quickly realized the attached headlight didn’t work at all. Shit. Was I responsible for charging this thing? Little late now. A happy Dutch couple on the road ahead of me rode off blissfully, side by side, their headlights casting a swath of daylight before them and the fancy LED reflectors hanging below their seats pulsing on and off in red unison, letting the whole world know they were there and had their shit together, and making sure they could never be run over in the night by all the cars in the town and a tractor, as I was about to be.
Well then. My bike had none of that. I flipped the light’s switch again in case it had just needed time to get used to the idea of lighting my way. Nothing. I fumbled with the reflector on my rear seat, searching for a tiny switch that might cause it to magically leap to life and announce my presence to the night-driving world. It looked back at me, stupidly, and remained an inert reflector. Damn.
Well, this car crash ain’t gonna cause itself. I wheeled off into the night. I mean, what the hell else was I going to do? Walk the bike back to the hotel for two hours? Maybe that’s the Dutch way, they do seem like a careful people. But having a bike and not riding it definitely doesn’t seem like the Dutch way to me, either. That sounds like a good way to get shot.
While my bike may not have had any working illumination features whatsoever, it mostly made up for this by playing the Wicked Witch of the West theme (“Da-nuh da-nuh da-nuh-nuh!”) as you cranked the pedals. Which in some schools of thought is even better.
It took some time to get my pedalin’ legs beneath me, but once I had and once I got to the main road that had its own bicycle sub-road, I was starting to feel pretty good about my chances for survival. The Netherlands are fascinatingly well set-up for bicycling, as if the government actually wanted people to be able to get around by bike without dying. I kept having to adjust to this reality, realizing there was no need at all to interact with the roads the cars were on. Bicycles had their own overpasses and underpasses, a whole separate infrastructure. The curbs were even low and gentle, making for an easy biking transition from street to sidewalk.
When I got back into the town, the ride changed from “Hey, okay, this isn’t so bad” to holy shit magical. As I zipped along the empty cobblestone streets of the dark and silent old village, catching my reflection in the windows of the closed shops, the huge moon dominated the sky just above the roofs of the houses, looking absolutely immense like it only is in your dreams. I felt like I was in an old European painting, riding toward the moon through a picturesque sleeping village. My God. This is the best thing ever. I want to go buy a bike right now.
I had countless experiences over these months that I never would have had if I hadn’t taken this trip. But this was one of the most magical, and one that I wished I could stay in forever.
Every trip worth its salt to me has a spiritual component. And on my long six-month jaunt around the world, the life-changing part came for me in the Netherlands, of all places. Folks who are just here for the fart jokes, feel free to skip ahead, I won’t tell your pastor. For the rest of you who are up for it, buckle up, shit’s about to get real weird.
Probably the best thing that’s come out of writing this blog for me is that it’s helped me get over worrying about what people are going to think. We all pay lip service to this idea on the surface, like of course, you can’t live your life worrying about being judged or trying to fit in. But in reality, most people aren’t really tested on this very often. They don’t have their family, friends, coworkers and strangers reading a blog where they talk to Jesus, leave their body in a pyramid or are told they’re an incarnating Buddha. You don’t really know how much you care about what other people think until you’re telling people you care about things that may inspire them to reject you entirely.
That was something I had a really hard time with, but ultimately the thing that bothered me more was the idea of getting to the end of this life, high fiving the angel bouncer at the pearly gates, and then having them look at my life and say “Wait wait wait, WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ANYBODY??” I’m kidding about the visual, but I could very well imagine looking back and realizing I came into this life with some writing ability so I could share with honesty the vivid experiences I was lucky enough to have, for whatever others might benefit from hearing about them. And then I didn’t do it because I was afraid. That would be real sad.
So here we go.
I spent the better part of a week in Amsterdam, and almost on a whim I decided to go to the Van Gogh Museum, which was started by Vincent Van Gogh’s nephew and houses the world’s largest collection of Vincent’s paintings. This wasn’t a huge priority for me, but I thought it might be fun. I was an art major in college and always liked Van Gogh, and I went through a phase as a teenager when I was fascinated by his relationship with his brother Theo, even more so than I was by his paintings. And that Don McLean song is pretty great too. But it wasn’t like I had come to Amsterdam to see this museum.
And I almost didn’t. Due to covid you had to buy a ticket and book a visit time online, and the museum was booked solid for the next month. Dang. Then on the third day I checked, one slot had opened up on a day when I was going to be in Amsterdam. I went to book the ticket but- No dice. My card was rejected. And my other card. And my other card. I gradually figured out they must be blocking American cards, because Americans aren’t even supposed to be in Europe right now. Damn.
I gave up for a while, then had the bright idea to ask my brother Aster to buy a ticket for me using one of his British credit cards. Success! I was in.
The museum itself was quite nice, with a wide selection of Vincent’s paintings. Most of his most famous paintings are in other museums, but they made up for that in volume here.
I was standing in front of one of Vincent’s self-portraits when something deeply strange happened. As my eyes were following the swirling brushmarks that made up Vincent’s face and the background behind him, the room around me began to get hazy.
And then it disappeared.
It was just me and this painting in a huge void. I wasn’t in the room any more, I was floating out in space somewhere with this painting, as the brushstrokes of color extended out beyond the picture frame and out into the empty space around me.
Good god. Am I even still in my body? I couldn’t tell if I had left my body and traveled to some other plane in spirit form, or if I was still standing there and just seeing through the physical reality around me. Vincent’s intense eyes stared back at me from his portrait as we floated in the void together.
After a few minutes of this, I came back and was standing in the room again.
What in the hell was that? I’ve had a lot of crazy experiences, but none quite like that. Huh.
I stepped a few feet over to the next self-portrait on the same wall. And the same thing happened again. Me and Vincent, in the void.
After I came back again, I walked around for a minute trying to understand what had just happened and what it meant. I knew I had been in a state of expanded consciousness, but why? And why here?
I walked down the hallway to a wall that was lined with portraits of Vincent’s family. I had never seen any of them before. I looked at the photos and… wait a minute, I know these people! Without looking at the Dutch captions below the photos, I knew this was his mother and this was his father, these were his siblings, except this one is his brother’s wife. But more than that, I remembered them. I knew them. It was as if I was seeing through the photo into each family member and was experiencing my relationship with them, as if they were standing right in front of me. I could see little snippets of them as they were in life in my mind’s eye, feeling both their personality and how I felt about them. How I felt about them? How could I feel anything about people I’ve never met?
I looked at the mother and father and felt their disapproval. I looked at the long row of brothers and sisters and picked out the two I really loved, and the third, the sister-in-law, I cared about her too. The rest I wasn’t so close to.
Huh. I leaned in and squinted at the captions below the photos. The three I’d picked out were Vincent’s brother Theo, his wife Jo, and Vincent’s sister Wilhelmina. Looking at them, an eerie tingling ran through my entire body and I could feel my hands vibrating.
Weird. Okay. What does this mean? I had no idea.
As my time in Amsterdam went on, my mind would occasionally return to this experience. What did it mean? Earlier in the trip I had followed a series of promptings and intuitions to Rouen in France, to visit the place where Joan of Arc had been burnt at the stake. I’d made sense of my experiences there with the idea that there was so much history and legend built up around Joan of Arc’s life and death that I was being called there to help dispel some of that energy, like it was a drag on that soul to still be connected to those dark events on Earth, which people were keeping alive with their attention and thoughts. Was this Van Gogh thing something similar? Maybe I’m here to help Vincent in some way.
The more I reflected on that, the more it felt like if that’s what I was here to do, it would be a good idea to visit some of the places from his life while I was in the Netherlands. I did a little research and found out that he was from a town called Zundert in the south of the Netherlands, and the place where he’d grown up was a museum now. I booked a train to Zundert.
The train dropped me off in Breda, where I needed to hop on a bus to get to the small village of Zundert. This proved more difficult than one might expect since due to Coronavirus restrictions, you couldn’t pay the bus drivers directly, or even approach them at all. So how do I pay for a bus? On my way to Efteling I’d already dealt with this, realizing all of the locals had special transport cards tied to their bank accounts, and instead I had to go to a Dutch website on my phone and pay for a ticket with a credit card, figuring this all out in a panic, in Dutch, while the bus was driving up the street toward me. I’d screwed this up a few times and had been lectured by Dutch bus drivers who had no idea how difficult their system made it for anyone who was visiting the Netherlands.
Now I was in a different region of the Netherlands, near the Belgian border, and it was an entirely different bus company here that didn’t use that website. I distantly apologized to the bus driver when I got on and he yelled back the name of the website I needed to use to buy a ticket on my phone. I got to the site but it didn’t accept credit cards, only bank transfers, and only from European banks. I tried to explain this as the bus driver and I yelled back and forth, while rambling up the road. At the next stop he pulled over and asked me to come to the front of the bus, past the covid barrier.
The bus driver ended up being very cool and understanding, taking my phone so he could try to navigate the website for me. He typed something into my phone and an explicit adult website came up instead. OMG. He chuckled and typed something else, and another raunchy website came up. OH MY GOD PHONE WHAT ARE YOU DOING. In retrospect I realize there are probably adult sites that have bought up the addresses that are the most common typos of the bus company site’s address, but at the time I just felt bad about the impression I was leaving of Canadians everywhere.
After several minutes of futzing he realized the bus site really didn’t work for foreigners and I was indeed in an impossible bind.
“OK, your ride’s free. Try to buy a reloadable chipkaart at the post office after I drop you off.”
He dropped me off in front of the Van Gogh house and I realized as he motored away that I’d better be able to find either another really nice driver or whatever the hell a chipkaart was or I’d have no way of getting back to civilization.
I quickly pounded the Magnum vegan ice cream bar that had been melting in my bag since the train station. They have these things everywhere in The Netherlands for some reason and I wasn’t sick of them yet. Across the street there was a church, the church where Vincent’s father was the minister when Vincent was born.
I walked through the gates and through the graveyard. Near the church I looked down and saw this tombstone.
Vincent had an older brother who was stillborn a year before Vincent was born, who was also named Vincent Van Gogh. When Vincent was a child he would play in this cemetery and often contemplate the gravestone there with his own name on it.
Down the road there was the spot where the Van Gogh’s home had been. The actual house had been torn down in 1903 to make way for a new parsonage, which was now a museum dedicated to Van Gogh’s time in Zundert.
The ticket agent at the museum was very kind and gave me a little book detailing the places Van Gogh had spent time across Europe, impressed as he was that I had come all the way from Canada. Inside, the rooms had been made up as a recreation of what the Van Gogh’s house would have looked like in the 1800s. A recording played of an actor reading Zundert-specific excerpts from Vincent’s letters to Theo, and various glass cases displayed letters and Van Gogh family photos.
Listening to Vincent speak of returning to Zundert from abroad was transporting, I could see the voyage in my mind’s eye and feel the sweep of his emotion. He spoke of arriving on the train and walking through the middle of the night all the way to Zundert, being overwhelmed by the feeling of being home. This felt very familiar and evocative to me, and I suddenly realized that he was talking about the train station I had just come from, and that many of the old train stations I was traveling through in Europe were the same ones that Vincent passed through in his travels.
A screen showed pictures of Vincent’s family and excerpts from his letters illustrating how he felt about each person. As the images and words scrolled by I realized, wow, I was right. He was very close to Theo and Wil, but not the rest of their siblings. His parents had been completely ashamed of him. I looked at the photos of his sister Wil. Damn she looks familiar. Weird.
The family had tragedy on lockdown. After Vincent’s suicide at the age of 37, his brother Theo, distraught over Vincent's death and spiraling downward both physically and mentally in his grief, was committed to an asylum and was dead from complications of syphilis within six months. Wil spent the last 40 years of her life in an asylum, too. Damn, was there something in the water back then? Lead? Or perhaps just genetics at play, as the family had a history of depression on one side and epilepsy on the other. Vincent’s other brother Cor ended up working as a soldier of fortune during the Boer War and committed suicide in jail after being captured by the British. Anna and Lies were the relative success stories of the family, though both had children out of wedlock, which was considered a big tragedy in those days.
My mind spinning, I walked out of the house and down the street into the town, passing the meticulously landscaped neat little homes. Elderly people bicycled by in the street.
Yeah, this place does feel familiar. Like home, even. I feel like I could stay here for a long while. I sat on a park bench for a long time and watched life go on all around me.
Oh yeah! I need to figure out how to get out of here. I asked some locals where the post office was, which turned out to just be a counter in some kind of Hallmark-style store on the main street. I was able to buy a chipkaart there, but it wasn’t loaded with any money. How do I load it? The Hallmark guys suggested the grocery store down the street.
Inside, I found a small yellow terminal for loading chipkaarts. Yay! BZZZRT it refused my credit cards. Booo. After several attempts I made my way over to the customer service counter and explained my plight. The girl there took my card and marched confidently over to the terminal to show me how they do things in the Netherlands. BZZZRT. Another card. BZZZZRT. Hmmm.
“You don’t have a Dutch bank account?”
“Why in the world would I have that?”
Hmmm. She thought for a second, then smiled.
“Do you have cash?”
I handed her a 20 euro bill and she swiped her own bank card to load the money onto my chipkaart. Easy peasy. God bless you, friendly Dutch folks!
Sitting on the steps front of the train station waiting for the next train, I took my mask off and took a deep, refreshing breath.
“Wak wak wak, wak wak wak?” a woman was standing in front of me, Dutching it up.
“Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch.”
“Oh, sorry. Did you eat something white?”
“No?” I haven’t eaten anything in hours.
“Well, you have white stuff all over your face. I’d want to know if it were me.”
What in the- I touched my face and realized I had dried ice cream all over it, from hurriedly eating that melting Magnum bar as I got off the bus and ran across the street. Oh Christ, have I had ice cream on my face for six hours? How many people have I talked to in that time- Ohhhhh the mask. It was all hidden behind the mask! Bless you, coronavirus.
I took the train to Etten-Leur, where Van Gogh had returned to live with his parents at the age of 27, after being fired as an art dealer in The Hague for being impossible to get along with, as a teacher in England for being impossible to get along with, and then as a pastor in Belgium for having an overly intense concern for the poor. It was in Etten-Leur that he began to paint.
I felt myself being pulled almost magnetically up the street as I walked through Etten-Leur.
The church where his father had been a minister was still there.
Along the side of the church there was a lovely row of sunflowers planted.
Behind it, the spot where the Van Gogh family house had been was now a sunflower garden with a statue of Vincent in the center.
Hmm. This is nice. More feelings of familiarity. Hmm.
What in the hell is going on? Was I Vincent Van Gogh?
This idea was not appealing to me at all. For one, I already felt like a bit of an asshole for having found strong past life connections to Chopin and George Gershwin both. Jeez Sean, is there anybody famous who you don’t think you were? And then there was the fact that, famous painter or no, Vincent the man wasn’t exactly a beloved figure. He was mostly seen as a crazy weirdo who happened to create some neat paintings, maybe by accident. A tragic loser who cut off his ear and killed himself after only selling one painting in his lifetime. No thanks.
But what in the world am I experiencing, then? If I’m just here to help clear energy from Vincent’s lifetime, why do I remember his family so clearly? If this is just my psychic abilities opening up more fully, allowing me to tune into the energies and memories from his life, why Van Gogh? I’ve visited a lot of famous places on this trip and followed the paths of several other people’s lives. Why nothing remotely like this for Joan of Arc, Botticelli, Anne Frank, or anyone else?
These questions bounced around in my head as I traveled around Europe.
I walked through an airport in Austria and there was a huge Van Gogh poster. Ha, good one, life.
I was walking down the street on the outskirts of Lisbon, Portugal, on my way to check out a castle on the waterfront. I turned down a side street, and there in front of me was a huge yellow tent set up in an empty lot.
MEET VINCENT VAN GOGH, the tent implored.
Oh Jesus Christ. I definitely wasn’t looking for Van Gogh stuff in Portugal! He never even traveled here.
I paused in the street for a long minute. Well, this seems like more than a coincidence. Better go in and see what’s going on. I paid the admission and entered the tent.
Inside, the exhibition led you through a maze of huge screens that had Van Gogh paintings projected on them. You like the yellow house? Here’s Van Gogh’s painting of the yellow house, only it’s the size of an actual house.
It was pretty trippy.
Excerpts from Vincent’s letters and letters by people who knew him played over the sound system, telling the story of Vincent’s life and illustrating who he was as a man.
One screen showed how Vincent had drawn his hands over and over again, almost obsessively trying to get them right as he taught himself to be an artist.
I chuckled since I used to do this too when I was growing up, drawing my hands over and over. Drawing was the one thing I was naturally good at as a kid, and I did it all the time. I started with recreating the comic strips in the Sunday paper when I was little and over time graduated to drawing whatever was around me. Like my hands.
Huh. I'm probably not the only person who did that, but it's interesting.
One room delved into Vincent’s relationship with his brother Theo and Theo’s wife Jo. Vincent had lived with them in Paris on more than one occasion, as Vincent spent the last decade of his life as a painter who didn’t sell any paintings. He was completely dependent on the allowance his deeply devoted art dealer brother Theo sent him every month in exchange for his paintings, which Theo, perhaps the only true believer in Vincent’s talent, then tried unsuccessfully to sell. Since Theo was not a rich man and couldn’t send Vincent much, it made sense for Vincent to live with them when he was in Paris.
This never worked. Vincent was wildly inconsiderate and impossible to live with. A cycle established where Vincent would be destitute, Theo would invite him to live with them, then after a time Vincent would drive everyone so crazy they’d regretfully ask him to leave. Again.
I laughed out loud as I watched this unfold on the screens around me. The trip I was on at that very moment had begun with me spending three weeks staying with my brother and his wife in Wales. My brother’s wife Libby had invited me, but I had mixed feelings. I felt very, very concerned that I was going to put them out, overstay my welcome, or make them unhappy in some way. This made no logical sense, since I am, I think, a very considerate houseguest and easy to get along with. I stay with people all the time and it’s always fine. But nevertheless, I felt very nervous about this.
“Are you sure Libby’s really okay with it? She’s not just saying that?”
My brother thought all of this was hilarious since there were no concerns at all on their side. He thought it was funny that I could even be worried about this.
Why am I worried about this? It makes no sense.
Watching the story of Vincent staying with his younger brother and sister in law and making them miserable, which I hadn’t known a thing about before that moment standing in the museum, more pieces fell into place. In Wales I’d marveled at how nice and successfully established my younger brother’s home and life were, and here I was, the older brother, staying with them as I rambled around the world. Exactly how Vincent had. Jesus. Was I Vincent Van Gogh? Was Aster my brother then, too?
Dots connected in my mind as I began to realize my own life was much more like Van Gogh’s than I had previously realized, and more like his life than it was like the lives of Chopin or Gershwin. They’d had wild success at an early age and never really struggled at all. I’d rambled around like Van Gogh, working shit jobs, shifting my intense focus and search for meaning from art, to writing, to music, to spiritual pursuits and now to travel itself. Even though I had always very much believed in the work I was creating artistically and was unshakably confident in my abilities, I was at the same time utterly convinced on a visceral level that others would never see the value in the work that I did, to the extreme of never really giving people a chance to reject my work in the first place. Why did I feel like that? Chopin and Gershwin knew nothing but praise and success. Had I had a lifetime of rejection and struggle that was still sitting in my unconscious memory, a life like Van Gogh’s?
If I’d somehow been all three of these guys, that would mean that in my last three lives I had died at 37, 38 and 39. That would explain why I never expected to live long in this one. And why my life since my late 30s has felt like I was playing with house money.
As an interesting side note, I was in the middle of a huge car crash when I was 40, one where if I hadn’t happened to look up the street at the exact second I did to see the drunk driver coming, I would have surely been killed. Was that when this life was supposed to end, if I hadn’t opted on some higher level to stay? 37, 38, 39, 40?
But why would this be coming up for me now, after forty plus years of having no clue about it? It’s said that when you’re nearing the end of your cycle of reincarnation on Earth, only then does your most difficult karma come up to be resolved, when you have the tools and wisdom to transmute those difficult energies and the areas where your soul has struggled the most deeply. Was that what was happening here? It's also said that you won't remember your past lives until the knowledge wouldn't throw you off your intended path in this life, like knowledge of a famous lifetime might. Hmmm.
No, this is crazy. I don’t want to have been this guy. And I really don’t want to have to tell people about this if it is true, I’ll lose all credibility. Nuts to this.
I was sitting outside a restaurant in Portugal when a memory suddenly came back to me out of the blue. When I was 17 and in college in Alaska, I had just finished watching the movie Easy Rider for the first time with my friend Scott. The shocking finale of the movie, when Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s characters are shotgunned to death like the dirty hippies they are by the upstanding redneck guardians of all things decent, was still echoing in my head as I retired to my dorm room.
Walking into my room, images began to flash before my eyes. Things got jittery and suddenly I was inside some kind of extremely vivid vision. I’d never experienced anything like this before. I was walking down the street in some city somewhere. A man who looked just like Vincent Van Gogh walked up to me on the sidewalk. I noticed he was holding an old six-shooter pistol. He raised it and shot me in the chest, and I fell to the sidewalk. Laying on my back and looking up at the sky, I felt the life slipping out of me and I died right there. And just as suddenly I was back in my dorm room.
The experience was so vivid and intense, and unlike anything I’d experienced before. I interpreted it very literally as I had just experienced a premonition of my own death. Huh. So that’s how this life will end one day, okay. I was shaken by the emotion and visceral physical pain of the experience, but beyond that I was at peace with this news. I was in the middle of several years of very deep depression at that time, and the prospect of living a long life wasn’t very appealing to me then. So if things were going to be cut short by this mysterious assassin one day, so be it.
Over the years I gradually stopped thinking about this experience. I never decided the vision was wrong or that this wasn’t going to happen one day, I had just made peace with the possibility and moved on. I hadn’t thought about it in years. But now it suddenly popped into my memory, with the transcendent feeling of an important truth being revealed from a higher source.
Wait, wait, wait. I had always assumed the guy in the vision just coincidentally looked like Vincent Van Gogh. But… what if it actually was Vincent Van Gogh?
Oh shit. The pieces lined up and the picture suddenly became clear. What if the vision wasn’t a premonition of my own death, but a warning? What if this was some higher source showing me that I was carrying Vincent Van Gogh’s depression inside of me, and if I didn’t do something about it, it would eventually kill me? The same way Vincent had taken his own life? At that time in my life I was dealing with an intense daily suicidality that I’m still to this day impressed that I survived, so this was a very real and present danger.
Shit, this makes way more sense than how I interpreted it back then. I believe that when you commit suicide, there’s no spiritual condemnation, but you do have to come back into another life and deal with that same issue again until you transcend it. You don’t get to skip that lesson. And here I was. I’d never understood where my own depression had come from. Was I carrying it from a past life?
All of this coming together really shook me, more than anything I’d seen up to that point. That vision had been one of the most vivid spiritual experiences of my life, and all of this no longer felt like something I might be misinterpreting or maybe piecing together out of coincidences. Shit.
Later in the trip, when I was back in France, I decided to visit the last two places Vincent had lived, Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise.
In Arles I walked around the town and spotted multiple locations from famous Van Gogh paintings, stopping at where the yellow house had been before it was destroyed during World War II.
The next morning I embarked on a journey to Saint-Rémy, where Vincent had been committed to the asylum for a year. This had come about after Vincent’s lonely attempts at setting up an artists’ commune at the yellow house in Arles had come to an end when the only artist who had joined him there, Paul Gaugin, announced that he needed to return to Paris to tend to his career, which was beginning to take off. Vincent was so distraught he had a mental breakdown, and after spells of hearing voices, he cut his own ear off and gave it to a maid at the brothel Gauguin frequented, folded inside a note that read “Remember Me.” Vincent told her to give it to Gauguin.
This has morphed in the public consciousness into “Van Gogh cut his ear off for no reason and gave it to a prostitute” which is a bit misleading. It was obviously a very weird thing to do, but it at least makes a little more sense in the context of what was happening at the time. Was he trying to excise a part of himself that he feared was driving him mad? We’ll never know. The townspeople had had enough and voted to commit Vincent to the asylum.
Getting to the asylum was a complicated affair because Saint-Rémy is out in the middle of nowhere, only half of the buses in France were running due to covid, and half of the rest had stopped running the day before, because it was the last day of summer. I’d had to reformat my phone to the European region so I could download the French regional bus app to pay for my fare. And I still wasn’t sure if the bus was even coming, after pouring through countless bus schedules in French.
It did end up coming, but there was only one daily bus going out to Saint-Rémy, in the early morning, and only one coming back, in the late afternoon. I’d only wanted to go out for a few hours to see the asylum, so I was a bit annoyed that this was going to eat up a whole day.
When the bus dropped me off in the town, I had over three hours until the asylum was even going to be open to visitors, so I took my time on the long walk out of the town to the monastery grounds where the asylum was located. In the town, there were metal dots embedded in the sidewalk commemorating spots where Vincent had painted his paintings.
That’s cool. Gradually the town thinned out and I was walking through the open countryside in the early morning sun, paved roads dwindling down to dirt trails.
I looked around at the cypress and olive trees spanning out across the fields. Wow, this is really beautiful. And feels really familiar. I mean, really familiar. Time began to slow down and I felt more and more like I was in a dream. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the sunlight playing off the trees, I slowed to a very deliberate pace and became lost in the splendor all around me.
Man, this place really reminds me of my hometown of Thousand Oaks, in California. I first experienced that intense feeling on Easter Island, and over the course of my travels I’ve gradually realized that when a place reminds me of Thousand Oaks, it’s usually because it’s somewhere I’ve lived in a past life. Some places haven’t even been visually similar at all, rather it’s that feeling of deep familiarity and recognition that I’m picking up on, because in this life that’s what Thousand Oaks feels like to me. And now I was feeling that incredibly strongly walking through the French countryside.
I looked up at the beautiful cypress trees that Van Gogh loved so much. I love them too. My childhood home had a line of very tall cypruses along the driveway and it was always my favorite thing about that house. I used to stand out in the front yard and just look up at them swaying in the breeze, like tall flames shooting up out of the earth. I especially liked standing out there at night and watching the cyprus trees swaying in front of a backdrop of stars.
I was in this reverie of memory when a stray thought popped into my head, almost as if it had been beamed in from outer space.
“What if before you were born, you influenced your grandparents to buy that house in Thousand Oaks, because you wanted to grow up there? What if you knew it would remind you of when you lived here in France, and give you the necessary deep feeling of comfort and safety growing up?”
In a bizarre way it was like I was thinking this thought, but at the same time it was more than me, it was like I was channelling something higher.
And in that instant when the thought settled into my brain and registered, I suddenly burst out in tears as an intense tsunami of emotion poured out of me.
Whoa! I guess that's what they call a confirmation of truth. Sometimes when your mind is holding you back, stuck in rigid thoughts or beliefs, emotion will take over to show you what is true. Everything I’d been doubting with my mind was washed away in a torrent of emotion that I couldn’t hold back.
My whole body was buzzing. I looked around at the sunlight and the trees and felt swept up in an intense feeling of gratitude. I was so happy that I was there. I marveled at the thought that I could have just decided not to come here. That would have been a terrible mistake. I walked around for hours in a beautiful daze, the energy of the place flowing through me and sinking into my bones.
As I wandered, I found myself instinctively walking to places where Vincent painted his paintings. They were everywhere. At each one, I knew it was the spot, without knowing how I knew. Some of them you could tell just by looking, the trees had grown and changed but the mountains in the distance were exactly the same.
I was shocked by how close together and close to the asylum these painting locations were. Vincent really didn’t have to walk far. Maybe they didn’t let him.
Some of the trees looked like Van Gogh paintings come to life all by themselves.
Wow. I’m so glad I have the whole day here. God bless you, weird French bus schedule.
I looked at my phone and it was time for the asylum to open. I made my way back to the front gate and walked in.
Standing in front of the building, I was filled with an intense feeling of dread. I did NOT want to go inside. I stood there for a long time, fighting with that feeling of dread, the feeling of being trapped. Of course I didn’t want to come all this way and not go inside, but at the same time, something deep inside of me wanted no part of going into that building. Eventually, I made myself take the steps through the front door.
Inside there was an open central garden surrounded by pillars, and to the left a stairwell that went up to the patients’ rooms.
I slowly climbed the stairs, passed through a small room, and turned left into Vincent’s own room.
It had been preserved like it had been when he was committed here. A metal bed from the 1800s took up one side of the room, and the other featured a small desk and an easel set up with reproductions of Van Gogh paintings. As I stood in the little room, my mind swam.
An intense range of emotions flooded through me. I felt trapped and desperately wanted to get out of that room and be out in the sun. But, at the same time I felt afraid to leave. I felt safe there, and like I didn’t trust myself or what would happen to me if I left. This push and tug of emotions swung back and forth inside of me as I took in every inch of the room, every crack in the ceiling and line on the wall.
The window above the little desk looked out over a small wheat field and garden, which Vincent had painted many times.
Beyond that, the cypress and other trees carried on to a church in the distance. You had to squint to see it now, but this was Starry Night. This was the view he painted in his most famous painting.
I was the first visitor to the asylum that day, so I had it to myself for an hour or so. Gradually other people showed up, and when they did, I would step out of Vincent’s room while they went in to take a selfie and check it out for ten seconds before leaving again. I’d step into the room across the hall, where patients were dunked in hot and cold water in a row of bathtubs as a primitive psychiatric treatment.
Once the new visitor left, I would step back into Vincent’s room and feel whatever there was to feel in there. This went on for hours, the emotions swirling through me, until eventually it felt like I was done.
I walked out the back door and strolled through the dry gardens, looking up at Vincent’s tiny window in the cold facade of the building.
After walking the full grounds I walked back through the building and out the front door.
As I got outside, my vision was becoming very blurry, like I was venturing through a dense fog, even though it was clear and sunny outside. This effect thickened until I could barely see where I was going. Lights sparkled in the fog and little snippets of images flashed before my eyes. Oh Christ, what’s happening now?
I was so overwhelmed by all the emotions that had come up in that room that I felt entirely spent and incapable of dealing with whatever was happening to me now. There was no way I could walk back to town like this, so instead I turned the opposite way up the narrow dirt road and followed it up the mountain, taking a trail up into the trees that I could barely see as I staggered along.
Up the mountain and in the woods, I found a quiet spot and sat down in the shade underneath a tree. I laid down and very quickly fell into a deep, deep sleep.
I’m not sure how long I slept... but when I woke up I could see again. But things were weird. I could see everything around me with a vividness I had never experienced before. Nature was so intensely alive, it was like the life force was visible and was bursting out of every living thing around me. It was beautiful. The wind coming through the trees with a hushed roar was remarkably refreshing.
I looked at the weeds and random plants growing out of the forest floor around me and, strangely, I could see how I would paint them. I could see them broken down into brushstrokes and patches of color, and I knew how I would capture the light hitting them. This isn’t normally something I see or think about, but now it was completely second nature. It was almost as if I was seeing the landscape around me as a painting.
Wow. I don’t know what’s going on but I’m clearly experiencing some higher state of consciousness. I reveled in this for quite some time, taking in the beauty of everything around me. At some point I realized it was time to walk back to town to catch that only bus back to Arles.
On the walk back, I passed several plaques commemorating spots where Vincent had painted his famous paintings. Some of the landscapes were unrecognizable now, since so much had changed in 130 years, but others looked like they’d stepped right out of the painting.
Walking along the roadside, about halfway back to town I looked back toward the asylum and was suddenly filled with an overwhelming and vast feeling of accomplishment. I had no idea what it meant, but I suddenly felt this immense sense of “Yes, I did it!” Did what? The feeling was coming up from somewhere underneath my conscious awareness, but it was powerful. An awareness opened up and in flooded a feeling that I had just accomplished the most important thing I had ever done in this life. The thing I had come into this life to do. A light and airy feeling filled me, like an invisible burden had been lifted.
Wow. I didn’t know what that meant but I sure felt it, and I believed that feeling.
As I walked along, I reflected on what that meant. If I was Van Gogh, then at least part of the purpose for this life would have to be to overcome the depression that haunted him. I’d successfully overcome my own depression years ago. In coming here, making myself go inside the building, and then facing and processing all the emotions in that room, had I cleared what remained of his depression and suffering? Had I just freed my soul of something I’d been dealing with for 150 years? It felt like it. Wow.
In the days that followed, I experienced the bizarre and eerie sensation that the life I’d known thus far had only been the second half of a longer story. That is truly a strange feeling, to have your sense of identity expand like that. And to have your sense of your own life telescope out to encompass over a century.
This honestly threw me for a bit of a loop, and it took me months to get used to feeling this way. Am I responsible for the things he did, now? Was I always? I felt for the people who got the wrong side of his anger and how oblivious he could be to others. I struggled to wrap my mind around how I could be like that in one life, but so different in this one.
But even that began to make sense to me. We tend to think of our personality as a fixed and integral part of ourselves, something that stays more or less the same from lifetime to lifetime. That we’ve always been who we are now, just wearing different clothes in a different era. But I’ve generally found that not to be exactly true. I’ve long understood that our personality is largely a response to the events of this lifetime, and especially the events and circumstances of our childhood. We develop coping mechanisms to deal with what’s happening to us when we’re small, as well as strategies to get love and approval from others. All of those things together make up our personality as we know it. Surely some element of the soul’s eternal nature shines through too, but it’s like water that’s poured into pitchers and vases of many different shapes from life to life. Those different shapes encompass various aspects of personality as well as different bodies.
The more I reflected on this, the more it made sense that if elements of your personality caused you hardship in one life, you might pick a time to be born in the next life where your astrology would bring out different qualities and strengths from the reservoir of your soul. Astrologically, do I have so many planets in Libra, giving me the ability to understand and get along with others, because Van Gogh the Aries was driven to terrible loneliness by his inability to relate to others? Do I have the Virgo focus on taking care of myself physically, eating healthy, exercising, etc, because Van Gogh was driven to mental instability by his lack of the same?
I could understand the magical quality of how Van Gogh saw the world when he painted it, because I have the same ability to see into the inner planes of things in an almost psychedelic way. And I could relate to the manic spells that drove him into delusion as well. I quit drinking and drug experimentation in my mid-20s because I realized I needed a stable foundation to prevent the openness I was born with from going off the rails. Van Gogh’s mental breakdown is thought to be largely connected to his excessive drinking and poor diet. It would make sense for the soul to course-correct if a previous life didn’t go as planned.
The thing I couldn’t make peace with though, was his suicide. This was very personal to me, because I went through such deep depression in my teens and early twenties, and went through years of being intensely suicidal, just trying to hold on to make it through every day. The fact that I survived that and overcame it through the force of my own will, utilizing meditation, energy work, deep and difficult emotional work and self-reflection, is the thing I’m most proud of from this life. So to suddenly realize that you actually failed at this exact thing in a previous life, and that your success in this life was less pure triumph than it was making up for a past failure, paying a debt really, was a very bitter pill for me to swallow. And I didn’t feel right about it, it just felt weird to me.
As the trip went on I visited the National Gallery in London and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris to see their Van Gogh collections. Now when I looked at his paintings, I had an eerie experience where it was like I was seeing them being painted. I could see into them and see how they were constructed, how all the brushstrokes went together, how the fine details were achieved.
From Paris I traveled north to Auvers-sur-Oise. Getting off the train, I walked through the town and quickly passed the town’s church, famous from Van Gogh’s painting.
From there I turned north, toward the cemetery. I wanted to see where Vincent and Theo were buried. Immediately after leaving the town center, I found myself crossing wheat fields. Crows hopped through the harvested wheat.
Oh my God. I suddenly realized, deep within me, that these were THE wheat fields. From Vincent’s paintings, and the fields where he is said to have shot himself. The eeriness of this was incredibly powerful, as if I had stepped back in time. I’m right here.
Entering the cemetery, Vincent and Theo’s graves sat side by side, together forever as if they were still in the bed they'd shared as inseparable brothers growing up. Theo’s wife Jo had actually had Theo’s grave moved to Auvers to be next to his brother, a fact that I was deeply touched by.
Walking back through the ghostly wheat fields, I was stunned by how close everything was. Just like in Saint-Rémy, everything was just down the block from everything else. The world was just smaller back then.
On the town’s main street I found the Auberge Ravoux, the hotel where Vincent was staying in Auvers, and the place where he staggered into his room, shot in the abdomen, and died two days later.
The hotel was closed due to covid, so instead of going upstairs to see his room, I had to settle for peering in the dusty windows at the chairs on top of tables in the cafe on the ground floor.
A nearby plaque described Vincent's life of restless travels. Hmm. This sounds familiar.
I carried on with my own travels, and eventually ended up back to the US. While I was in southern Florida, I found out there was a traveling Van Gogh exhibit at the Dali museum in St Petersburg, but it was sold out. After checking for a few days in a row, a slot opened up and I was able to nab a ticket.
Inside, huge screens were set up like the Portugal exhibit, but this one was telling the story of Vincent’s life in a more abstract way, his paintings coming to life with some help from CGI while well-paired classical music played. It was beautifully put together.
The 20 minute presentation ended with Vincent’s Wheatfield with Crows painting, brought to life with CGI, the wheat blowing in the wind and crows flapping above, when suddenly a gunshot rang out. The crowd in the room burst out laughing.
I realized they were laughing because they were startled by the gunshot, but Jesus, don’t they realize what the sound represents? That he just shot himself? I suddenly felt very alone. I stayed in the room for another loop of the presentation and the next crowd burst out laughing at the gunshot too.
I felt very disturbed by the popular image of Van Gogh. His works are beloved and he’s probably the most famous painter in history at this point in time. But as a person he’s pretty much viewed as some alien from outer space, there’s not a lot of understanding or empathy about who he was, or respect for his intelligence and dedication to his craft. He was a voracious reader who spoke four languages, who became a great painter through sheer force of will in a relatively short period of time, but all we have now is a cartoon of this sort of pathetic crazy dude. I felt pretty sad about this for a few days.
I’d been talking to a few people about my experiences as the trip went on, to varying reactions. People were split about 50/50 between those who believed I had been Van Gogh, and those who felt like I was just very vividly tuning into his life on a psychic level. I was okay with people believing whatever they were going to, I’ve come to see this as saying more about the person than it says about me. I’d made peace with the reality and importance of my own experiences, and the conclusions these seemed to point very strongly to. I could be wrong about that of course, and in some ways would be happy to be, as this has been a very complex thing to reckon with. But more than anything, I had to honor what life was showing me. Every time I doubted it and rejected all of this, something else would cross my path to confirm it further, and more loudly. Whatever the final truth is, I’m clearly meant to be engaging with these energies and this story right now.
For Christmas my mom got me two movies about Van Gogh, and we watched them together while I was visiting California for the holidays. The first, Loving Vincent, was CGI animated to look like his paintings come to life, much like the St Petersburg exhibit. But this was feature length and told a story about the son of Vincent’s postman trying to deliver Vincent’s last letter to Theo after his death. All the while trying to make sense of Vincent’s passing as he went. The film delved into the various inconsistencies and incongruities in the official story of Vincent’s death.
If he’d meant to kill himself, why had he placed a large order for new paints the previous day? Why kill himself now, when he’d just had the first glowing review of his work in Paris, was finally starting to be recognized and respected, and was on the verge of becoming a famous painter? And where did he get the gun? He didn’t own one, and the person he supposedly got it from swore that he never gave it to Vincent, and in fact still had that gun. And why wasn’t the gun Vincent used ever found? If he was trying to kill himself, why shoot himself in the stomach? No one does that. And then, when the first shot failed, why not finish the job with another, instead of staggering back to town?
The movie then shocked me by presenting the alternate idea that Vincent was shot accidentally by a French teenager named René Secrétan who had been bullying him all summer, putting snakes in with his painting supplies and chili pepper on his brushes. René was obsessed with Buffalo Bill and dressed like the cowboy after seeing his traveling show in Paris, carrying around an old revolver that he would brandish at every opportunity. A malfunctioning gun that was well known locally for going off accidentally on more than one occasion. The theory was that René accidentally shot Van Gogh, and Vincent martyred himself by not telling anyone what had happened, to prevent the teen from going to jail.
This idea is well supported by the evidence: the angle the bullet entered Vincent's body and the lack of powder-burns around the wound were both very inconsistent with a suicide, and a local doctor was convinced he’d been shot by someone else. The only eyewitness who saw Vincent walking back to town after he was shot said Vincent was on the road leading from René’s house, and not coming from the direction of the famous wheat fields.
When reporters came to Auvers in the early 1900s, wanting to learn more about Vincent as his posthumous fame grew, the locals answered with “Oh you mean that weird painter who was shot by the teenager?” certainly implying that this was the story as it was known locally at the time.
In 1956, when the Kirk Douglas movie Lust for Life came out, portraying Vincent as a misunderstood genius, an elderly Secrétan angrily contacted the newspaper and loudly decried the movie, claiming that Van Gogh was just some weird bum. He admitted to tormenting Van Gogh, and his reaction beyond that reads to me very much like deep guilt. If Van Gogh was just some weird guy that Secrétan teased, why would he care so much how he was portrayed in a movie? On the other hand, if he realized he’d killed one of the greatest artists of his time, he’d have a pretty good reason to be in conflicted denial about the importance of the person he’d actually shot.
Over the course of researching this and thinking about it, I became fairly well convinced that Vincent didn’t kill himself. He no doubt suffered greatly from depression and was likely suicidal at times, but he was also deeply religious and believed suicide to be a mortal sin. And I don’t believe he would have suddenly given up on his dogged pursuit of painting one random afternoon, after persevering for a decade with no encouragement or success at all. I think he was too determined and stubborn for that. Once he was shot, I think he was likely a little relieved that his struggle was over, and accepted it as being out of his hands at that point. There was no reason to ruin the kid’s life over an accident.
The next night we watched At Eternity’s Gate, a recent film starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent. This was a beautiful movie that humanized Vincent in a way I’d never seen on screen before, capturing his intelligence and joy, as well as his struggles in a way that was organic and convincing. And it captured Theo’s love for Vincent so beautifully, which I found very moving. Throughout the entire movie I kept thinking “This is amazing, they finally got Vincent right! It’s such a shame it’s going to be stuck with the false ending, of Vincent shooting himself.”
But then the movie shocked me by portraying Vincent being shot by René at the end! I couldn’t believe it. I’d never heard of this theory before seeing the first movie the previous day, in spite of everything I’d explored about Van Gogh, and now here it was, two movies in a row presenting the same idea.
It turned out there was a new biography of Vincent published in 2011 that presented this idea and the very convincing research and evidence behind it, which had clearly influenced both filmmakers. And I’m glad for it, because I feel like At Eternity’s Gate is going to be the Van Gogh movie that future generations see, for a variety of reasons. It made me really happy to think they’ll see a much more accurate picture of who Vincent was, compared to the cartoon I grew up with.
I reflected on my mom being prompted to get me these two precise movies for Christmas. Out of the dozen movies about Van Gogh she could have chosen, she unknowingly picked the only two where Vincent's death is depicted this way. The one thing that had been hanging over my head, undigested, about this whole thing, was Vincent’s suicide. Maybe it hadn’t felt right to me because it never happened. And maybe I was meant to see these two movies now, to finally understand that aspect and be at peace with accepting that lifetime, something I had been working on for months.
Whatever the truth is of what I experienced and what it means, it makes me happy to think of Vincent seeing the success he became and how beloved his work has become in the years since his death. Be that through the connection of our shared soul, or even just through the energy I cleared for him by traveling where I did and seeing what I saw.. . .