Category Archives: College

Dear Alice Walker

I am not sure if you know that you saved my life.

As a middle schooler, I watched the movie of The Color Purple with my mom when it aired on television for the first time, and we sat and cried together when Nettie came home. I am sure we cried at other points of the story, too, just like we did when at a young age I watched Roots with my parents, because they didn’t want me to be racist like many of the people in my hometown were racist. I know I cried when I figured out that Celie and Shug were so in love, so filled with grace for one another.

When I was in high school, I was really unsure of a lot of things, but I was sure of the fact that I loved to read, and I loved the movie I’d watched with my mom. I was overjoyed when I found out that the movie I’d watched was based (later I found out, very loosely) on your epistolary novel The Color Purple. I borrowed a copy from the Carnegie Public Library, and I never returned it. Your book is the only book I’ve ever stolen from the library, Alice, and I wouldn’t have stolen it, but when I went to the bookstore in the mall with my gift certificate, they didn’t have, and wouldn’t order, your book. So I kept the one from the library with all of my markings and my dog-eared pages, until in the middle of a fight a now ex-girlfriend tore the pages out and threw them out the window like hellish snow.

When I stole the book, I just knew I needed it, because the love between Shug and Celie was the most real love between two people I’d ever read in a book, seen in a movie, or experienced in my own life. I wanted a love like theirs. I wanted someone to make me feel special, where I didn’t feel so special. I wanted someone to make me feel beautiful, where I didn’t feel so beautiful. I wanted someone to love me, even if they loved some other people too. I wanted what they had. I wanted to grow old on a front porch in a rocking chair. I wanted grace, instead of shame.

I think I have read your book close to fifty times, maybe more. Every time there is something new to me, something that speaks deeper to me, something that makes me think life is more beautiful than when I began your book again. There are other books that do this for me, Paradise by Toni Morrison and Mama Day by Gloria Naylor to name two of them. But there’s something about Celie and Shug that pulls me back and pushes me forward and just makes me know everything is going to be alright.

When I was in college, and I was thinking about coming out to my family, I was at a really low point, Alice. I mean a lowest of the low, low point. I thought that telling my family about my sexuality was probably one of the most overwhelming things I’d ever do. I had no idea how they’d react. In my very lowest moment, I decided to reread The Color Purple. When I made it to the scene around the dinner table where Celie announces that she’s leaving with Shug, I just sobbed. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my life could always be so much worse than it felt to me, or what I made it out to be in my head.

Basically, Alice, what I am trying to say, is that your words have saved me so many times over, I have no idea how to repay you for your grace. Through words on a page, you taught me how to move from shame to grace. You showed me the way. And I thank you.

Dear High School Students

You don’t have to go to college the year after your graduate. You really don’t. In fact, you’d be much better off figuring out who you are, what you want in life, and how you can go about getting that. Right now most of you are probably whoever your parents want you to be, you are probably pursuing whatever your parents want you to pursue, and you are probably following the path they’ve laid out for you since you were a small, small child. Likely you have no idea who you really are at the core, because you’ve spent the last 17-18 years trying to please your parents, your teachers, your religious leaders, your friends, your siblings, or countless other people who love you and think they are doing the best for you by pushing into college.

News flash: those people who love you will still love you, even if you tell them to piss off and get a minimum-wage job on the opposite side of the country or in another country for a few years until you figure out who YOU are, separate from them, separate from everyone’s preconceived ideas about who you should be.

News flash: college is expensive. If you are not 100% certain about what you want to pursue for a career, you might as well take your parents $100,000 or your $100,000 in scholarship or loan money, stack it next to the toilet, use it to wipe with, then flush it down the toilet.

Maybe I am a bit bitter about all this, because I am 40 years old now and wishing I didn’t have to pay nearly $750 a month toward student loans and credit card bills to pay for one graduate degree I quit and other graduate degrees that will get me nowhere. I don’t regret my education; I simply regret not waiting until I was ready to go to school. I regret not working at a job for a while. I regret not moving away from home sooner than I did. And I regret doing what I thought would give me security, instead of doing what I loved.

Maybe this is all to say, do what you love. What YOU love. Not what you think will pay the bills, not what you think will satisfy someone else. DO WHAT YOU LOVE. In the words of Bukowski: “My dear, Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down in eventual nothingness. Let it kill you and let it devour your remains. For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover. ~Falsely yours.”

One thing I will promise you, as Bukowski promises you, all things will kill you, but I’d certainly rather be penniless and making art or writing than smothering to death under a mountain of plastic debt, false hopes, and eviscerated career “opportunities.”

Give yourself time to find what you love, and let it kill you.

Dear Claude Monet

If I could actually talk with you, I am not sure what I would say. I might just stand in your presence and weep. And then, hopefully without making you feel awkward, I’d reach over and hold your hands and look into your eyes, because I want to see and feel exactly from where those beautiful paintings came.

From a young age, when I saw your paintings in an art history book I checked out from the library, I was mesmerized. I knew I was in love with those colors, those subtle changes in light, those lilies, the Japanese bridge, the steam from the trains, even the boats floating in the harbor. I couldn’t keep myself from running my fingers across the pages of the book trying to feel you and your spirit through a print of a print of a painting that was done a hundred years before I was even born. I could sit for hours looking at one painting in particular. It drew me in. It made me queasy with familiarity and love.

As I grew older and continued taking art classes, I learned to appreciate other Impressionists, but I kept coming back to you and Mary Cassatt, as my two greatest loves in the art world. Don’t get me wrong, Claude, there are other artists I love, some that you, no doubt, would despise, but you are the one who most frequently steals my heart. You see, every time I think I know everything there is to know about you, or every time I think I’ve seen all of your paintings, I’m surprised by another variation, another subtle difference, another interesting fact about your life. I’d venture to say I’m slightly obsessed with you.

In 1995 the Chicago Art Institute exhibited a collection of your paintings called “Claude Monet: 1840-1926.” I was 21. I made sure I was there to see this collection, and here is where my first surprise about you came to fruition. I’d seen several of your paintings before at the Art Institute, but I was totally unprepared for what I was about see. I’d always read about how large-scale you worked, but it wasn’t until I was in a room, in a familiar art gallery, with several of your painting looming over me, that I realized just how large your paintings really are. They are huge, Claude, HUGE! I was overwhelmed and began to cry right there with all of touristy, artsy companions. I knew this was the largest collection of your works ever assembled in the United States, and I was absolutely overwhelmed.

I had seen everything in the exhibit, and was getting ready to leave it when I decided that I’d just walk back through one more time. As I salmoned my way back through the crowd, sort of nonchalantly, so I wouldn’t appear conspicuous to one of the many, many guards who had been employed for this occasion, I realized I hadn’t seen anything even resembling my favorite painting, the one I’d run my fingers across so many times in a book I’d checked out so frequently for so many years. I began to feel a bit sad for myself, even in the midst of all your great works. My painting, the one that touched the very core of me, wasn’t there.

I kept walking back against the flow of traffic until I was near the beginning of the exhibit again. I even walked back through what seemed like a million haystacks. (Can I pause here and ask you a question, Claude, what was the deal with the haystacks anyway?) So, as I make my way a second time through the exhibit, more leisurely, more carefully, focusing on those paintings I’d really loved the first time around, I realized that I’d not walked all the way through the Waterlilies display. I’d been taken by a painting I hadn’t seen before and then exited out of the waterlilies prematurely. I decided to take a slow walk all the way to the end of continuum, which is what it felt like. I could watch you move from a young vibrant man, painting with attention to every detail, to an older more gentle man, painting with attention to an entirely different set of details that were found in the bigger picture. I was lost in this progression of your life, of your loss of vision, of your further experimentation. I was daydreaming and just floating along in waterlilies, when I turned the corner and saw this:

the-japanese-bridge-at-giverny-1926Your work brought me to my knees right there in the middle of hundreds of people in the middle of the busiest exhibition to run at the Institute. I fell to the floor in awe and just wept, or more ugly cried, breaking into sobs. I’m can’t control my visceral reactions, which is embarrassing sometimes. I was moved beyond moved. When I finally stood up, my knees were weak, and I looked a mess. I had to resist walking up the painting and reaching out to try to touch you through it. I wanted to feel the textures, smell the paint. I wanted to reach back in time and feel what you felt when you were painting this beautiful work that had been speaking to me for years.

So, Claude, there you have it. I’m in love with you through this one painting. Thanks for making my life more beautiful with your art.