March 30th, Birthdays, and Van Gogh

Gary in AmsterdamIn October of 2010, I had the joy of speaking in Amsterdam at an event known as Sibos. Sibos is the annual global event hosted by SWIFT – a global banking consortium of over 8000 banks. The event ended on Thursday, and I did not fly home until Saturday, which gave me Friday to explore Amsterdam, its museums, its concert halls, its beautiful canals. It was an amazing day. I’ve always known that I shared a birthday, today, March 30th, with Van Gogh. However, that Friday in October almost 6 years ago was completely transformative. I felt as if I were floating through the city as I moved between these spaces.

As I celebrate my 51st birthday, today feels like the right day to share this very personal experience in a more public way. As I celebrate my 2nd birthday without my beloved Maureen here by my side, I am becoming more and more comfortable shedding my mask and revealing my core. We only have so many days on this earth. So many days to live. So many days to love. So many days to make a difference. This is who I am. This is my core. This is what drives me. Unlike Van Gogh, my canvas does not include paint. My canvas is people. My art is love. This is who I am. This is my voice.

October 2010
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Well, this week in Amsterdam has been quite the journey.  It started last Sunday as I rode the train up from Brussels.  During the train ride, I still had all of the nervous energy of a schoolchild heading into a test, but I also had the blessing of the story of CLOUD flowing over me as the landscape flowed by us. I can remember vividly riding through Antwerp on the train and feeling my pulse quicken just knowing that my beautiful bride, Maureen, was born in that town.  I also felt the rush of memories of my own time in this town, memories that had Maureen and I together, as well as our children.

Bikes in AmsterdamYeterday was an unbelievable day.  After a truly splendid nights sleep, I was fresh with energy and bounded off to see Amsterdam.  The NH Museum Quarter hotel is in close proximity to the Van Gogh, Rijks and Concertgebouw.  I started the day listening to the voice of Van Gogh reach out from beyond the grave through his oeuvres, works and stories.  It is hard to think of this space as a museum, because as I listened to Yes’ “The Ladder” on my iPhone through my earbuds, I literally felt as if I was levitated and flowing through his life, through his eyes.  Calling it a shrine would be wrong, too.  It was more of a fusion; it was a sense of opening my eyes, through his, to see the landscapes, objects and feelings that he sculpted on to canvas through brush and sketch.  I was literally shaking and bounding from room to room.  The following lines from the last song on Yes’ Ladder flowed through my ears, as I sat on the top floor looking at two Monets, inspired by Van Gogh’s technique:

Nine voices.  This dialogue.  Nine voices. Singing as one.  Nine voices.  This dialogue.  Nine voices.  When the sun came up this morning, each had the power of people.  Speaking new languages.  They give forgiveness meaning.  New ways of letting go.  Each child is born for greatness, with forces that surround them.  This voice.  This dialogue.  This voice. Singing as one.  Nine vocies. This dialogue.  Nine voices.  Singing as one.  His voice.  This dialogue.  This voice. Singing as one.  Nine voices.  Nine voices.  Nine voices.  Nine voices.

Tears flowed freely, because I was feeling the emotions of these painters speak across the generations.  Sitting there on the bench at the Van Gogh, I didn’t just see paintings on the wall. I saw Hardelot, France, where we had visited after the Diercxsens family reunion in Belgium,  and remembered the sunset there on the beach in northern France.  I saw the beaches of Duinberken with my Maureen in April on our anniversary trip this past spring.  As I said in my note to my “brother” and life-long friend from Apple, Tony in an email, all of that emotion was heightened by the sharing of a birthdate with Van Gogh and his ability to paint his canvases through the support of his brother, Theo.

Van Gogh MuseumThe richness of my day in Amsterdam never slowed down.  From Van Gogh to the Rijks Museum, it was stunning to experience yet more works of the great masters and then enjoy a lively walk through the streets and by the canals of the city.  My pace never slowed, and I enjoyed a refreshing Pellegrino and espresso in a little “Australian” shoppe by one corner, tapping out some work on eHealth topics and watching the passerbys enjoying their Friday afternoon and the start of their weekends.

The concert hall was truly beautiful, sitting at the end of a grand park that had the Rijks Museum at one end, the Van Gogh on the far side, and the Concertbegouw on the other end.  It was a quick walk to the Concertbegouw from my hotel on a wonderful brisk evening.  The two operas from Wagner and Brotak were splendid.  The voices of the male and female singers were incredible in both pieces.  Their ability to bellow such sonorous tones did for my ears what the paintings throughout the day had done for my eyes.

With the journey of CLOUD always close to my heart and mind, I could not help but think in the grand terms of this new fabric as I experienced this day. It is remarkable to think about the number of eyes that have gazed on Van Gogh’s works over the years from the days they were first painted to now.  Here is a man born in 1853 that had a flurry of creative force in a decade in the late 1800s, bringing his own life to an end early because sickness was sapping him of his ability to express his creative energy. A couple of quotes on the walls brought this to life for me:

Translating the black and white impressions into another language – that of color.  His originality lay in his ability to improvise with color. Just as a musician interprets the works of a composer, he sought ‘recollections of their paintings; but the recollection, the vague consonance of colors that harmonize in spirt but not in actual fact – that is my interpretation.’

Instead I find it ready-made in nature, though, I still have to extract it.

Van Gogh - Art & PeopleAs I think about how Van Gogh brought together his tools of art, and then allowed himself to experience his contemporaries and not fight the ability to change, I feel his life force.  After a few years of his first experiments with art, after his evangelism, he still did not know that great gifts were within him, that he would be a great master.  But, I know he felt compelled.  He felt drawn. Every component of his soul wanted to paint; it was his love.  The months in the hospital must have depressed him greatly, because he was pulled away from the very nature he wanted to express. You can see it in the paintings he made there.  The trees he painted weren’t just another style, with the starker lines and edges, they were trees seen through the eyes of a sad man. He knew that the physical gifts he needed to keep painting were waning, and that his ability to extract life out of his love for painting would be coming to an end sooner than he desired. He just couldn’t imagine living not doing what he loved.

As I look back on these words now, almost 6 years later, this last line really resonates. “He just couldn’t imagine living not doing what he loved.” As I begin my 52nd year on this beautiful earth, I can not imagine a day not doing what I love. None of us should. Find your love. Find your voice. In the words of the song by Yes, “Nine voices.  This dialogue.  Nine voices.  When the sun came up this morning, each had the power of people.  Speaking new languages.  They give forgiveness meaning.  New ways of letting go.  Each child is born for greatness, with forces that surround them.” Greatness is indeed our birthright, and I am truly blessed by this life and all those with whom I share it.