Sweet Things Among the Dead

At my father’s grave, I dig a thin trench into the hard ground that surrounds the stone marker with his name on it. Etched into the granite is a peaceful scene of a lake, a tree, loons, the sun, and an oft heard declarative statement of his: “Another beautiful sunset.” I don’t know if it’s permitted, but I sprinkle sunflower seeds into the trench and with my bare hand swipe the dusty dirt over the seeds and replace some of the scraggly ground cover around the stone’s perimeter. So no one will know.

In Maine, by the lake, there were, there are, many beautiful sunsets. Summer nights, Father and Mother went out to the shore to watch the evening glow, the gentle transformation of the sky—waves of saturated blues, golds, pinks, reds, lavender—until the prismatic curtain curled inward and closed at the horizon.

The horizon. The outer limit. A cemetery—the boundary where compact dirt separates the dead from the living. The dead, beyond all limitation, reside here in this sea of tombs. And the living, the very limited, come to meet them, say prayers, trace letters stamped in stone, remember sunsets, and place sweet things among the graves. An angel, a toy tractor, a cross, a bunny, a cowboy, golf balls, plastic birds, flowers, plaques, cards.

I walk the grounds and find the inscribed names of old friends and classmates—Cindy, George, Denis—who transport me back to high school, to Father’s classroom, to days we thought would never end (or, at times, endless). Sweet things are everywhere. Even here, at this terminus, far from school days, from the lake in Maine, from horseback riding, late night swims and campfires. Here, in all this passed-on sweetness, is where the eternal kaleidoscope sunset meets the horizon. At Father’s grave, again, I dig into the soil and set a purple petunia below his peppery headstone.


Things Which Will Last


Gauguin was telling me the other day that he had seen a painting by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a large Japanese vase, very fine, but – he likes mine better. I don’t agree – only don’t think that I am weakening…I shall go on working and here and there among my work there will be things which will last, but who will be in figure painting what Claude Monet is in landscape? You must feel as I do that such a one will come…. The painter of the future will be a colorist such as has never yet existed. 

~Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo. December, 1888.


Monet painted his sunflowers (which I saw last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City) as part of a series of floral still lifes that included a total of  seven bouquets, all with different flowers, including asters, chrysanthemums, dahlias, Jerusalem artichokes, mallows, and red chrysanthemums. Van Gogh had not known of Monet’s sunflower bouquet until his painterly friend saw the piece and informed him of it.

Van Gogh’s humility is what  kept him from becoming as pompous as Gauguin; and, his foresight was remarkable in terms of the changing art world. I wonder if he had known that he was the artist of the future, the colorist we’d never before seen? It is more likely that Gauguin would have thought himself the color master of the future.

But Monet: when I look at his bouquet stuffed into a glossy Japanese pot, ostensibly set on an indoor table, my eyes shake from all the movement, the scene is out of focus, and I feel dizzy. It seems as though a window has been left open and the flowers are shuddering from the cool breeze. But this painting is a still life—presumably indoors and absent disturbances. Of course, it is an impressionistic piece and I do love Impressionism, yet this still life doesn’t work for me. It feels distant, aloof, and so unlike van Gogh’s warm and inviting sunflower canvases. Perhaps it is, for me, that no sunflower still life would live up to those painted by the Dutch master colorist himself. A master who received little attention in his time.

I’ll tell you, though, despite the lack of recognition, many artists from van Gogh’s period, and others after van Gogh, were inspired by his work. Lucien Pisarro’s Vincent in Conversation with Félix Fénéon, both Emile Bernard’s and Toulouse Lautrec’s Vincent van Gogh, and Gauguin’s The Painter of Sunflowers were all done in a style similar to van Gogh’s.

The young Egon Schiele, born the year van Gogh died, used van Gogh’s motif to paint elegant, if somewhat tragic looking, sunflowers. Like many of van Gogh’s still lifes, he depicted the flower in its waning glory. Klimt, too, took the sunflower as a motif, set it growing wild in the garden against bright and dazzling backgrounds. He seems to have treated his sunflowers much like van Gogh did in that we see  humanity in his work, as if the canvases reflect the artist more than the flower itself.

Van Gogh is the artist who moved us into the future of Postimpressionism. He conceived of the bold strokes and bright hues of the artwork of the late 19th century. Yes, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat helped usher in the art movement, but it was van Gogh—van Gogh of light and swirls, saturated and heavy pigment—who led the charge, and inspired so many others to look at the sunflower, and everything else, in a different way. Here and there, sketching and painting his world into the everlasting.

Less Guns. More Sunflowers.

How to respond. Considering the escalating violence over these past several months (hell, years), the abundance of easily accessible guns, the obscene and unimaginable amount of single and mass shootings around the world by lunatics in low and high places, the consequent loss of innocent men, women and children, and the subsequent knee-jerk, fear-based, nonsensical reactions of men—mainly men—in positions of power, but most definitely not leadership, I am convinced, more than ever, that the answer (well, at least one answer) is sunflowers.

Yes, this is a call to sunflowers. Arm yourselves, friends, with sunflowers. Sunflowers because they are stunning beauties, deeply rooted in American soil, spread around the world in various iterations, modified over millions and millions of years, and made more complex and vastly stronger because of their diversity. The sunflower’s origin is here, in the Americas, having settled and blossomed long before man set his dirty foot on the untilled soil of this country’s grainy plains and harvested the sunflower for sustenance. Long, long, long before anyone had ever imagined a pistol, a rifle, an uzi, a Sig Sauer, a Glock, an AR-15, and all the rage and destructive actions of those pulling the triggers.

Sunflowers because they symbolize the opposite: they are emblems of joy, gratitude and light. Because they face the sun. Because they radiate heat. Because they make us smile and make us cry when we can’t think of anything else that would comfort us. Because they are yellow. Yellow, yellow, yellow!

I remember the sunflowers of southern France (France, the ancestral home of my people), climbing the hills, their great big heads listing toward the sun, their long, lemony rays waving in the wind, and green leaves stretching out to the pink valley below. It is no surprise that Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers of Arles, in the south of France, have become famous and priceless works of art. They are glossy and layered canvasses, visually stunning and uncommonly inviting. Van Gogh, however, also painted the sunflowers of Paris. Setting his easel up along the top of Montmartre’s butte, overlooking the city of lights, he dotted his pastoral path with a muted, mustardy flower enveloped by a flurry of green leaves, set against a violet sky. A path of sunflowers. A path. Against a violet (or is it violent?) sky. As if to say, This is the way, dot your passage, your course, with things that reflect the sun and contrast a shady backdrop, living things, things that alight, things that offer sustenance and beauty, things that counter all the things that are wrong with us, things that do not remind us of hate and divisiveness and rage and violence, things that, no matter how dark the storm, make us feel grateful to be on this glorious earth, because it is glorious, it is wondrous and filled—FILLED—with love.

What more do we need?

The sunflower, friends, does not only reflect the sun; it reflects us, at our shining best, aiding and encouraging others, taking care of those around us, spreading further what we can. Start at home, in your immediate circle, in your backyard, or out by the front gate. Obtain, first, the sunflower seeds (like Pom-Pom, Mammoth Russian, Red, Peach, Vincent Fresh, Munchkin, Stella Gold, Buttercream, Chocolate, Cherry Rose) from your local, independent garden shop (because you want to support your neighbors, you want a vital community). In the spring, plant them in your yard, plant them in a nearby field, and in a park, by a ball field, or along the grounds (you may want to ask permission) of a church or temple or mosque, where they can be seen and appreciated by many. Watch the birds and the bees fill themselves with the golden spiral’s goodness. When your sunflowers come to seed, begin to droop, and it is time to reap, leave some in the yard for the birds to feed on, cut others and pull the seeds from their receptacles. Give as many away as you please. Please. Share. Get the word out, and spread the seeds of comfort and love. That is a beginning, a  new beginning, and new beginnings we also need, we need them badly.