9 July 2020

Letters to an imaginary friend

Writing has always been a vital part of my life, even though it has presented its challenges. I was born without a right hand and with deformed fingers on my left hand, so even learning how to put pen to paper was not easy.

 

In a quiet suburb of Rotterdam in the sixties, the Catholic primary school I attended taught us how to write with an old-fashioned dip pen. Since I wrote with my left hand, which would have been strictly forbidden if I had had a right one, during the quick pace of dictation, my words always came out smudged. I could not stop and let them dry; Miss Blok briskly continued, enunciating the words in a shrill voice that gave me goose bumps. By the end of dictation both my notebook and hand were smeared with black ink.

 

Even at that young age I sensed that the teacher was unsure of how to deal with me. Did I cause such a mess because of my handicap or was I not making enough of an effort?

 

She never said anything about it and that not-saying left me more uncomfortable. Even if it wasn’t my fault, I would have much preferred for the teacher to scold me like she did my classmates.

 

My mother noticed the ink on my hand and understood that the cause was the dip pen. So she bought me a gleaming red fountain pen that could be filled with cartridges, hoping that would make it easier for me. The following day she accompanied me to school to ask the teacher for permission to use the fountain pen rather than the dip pen. Again an exception was made.

 

There was no more dipping in the ink bottle, which did help somewhat, but I’d still smear the word I had just written when going on to the next. I never told my mother; I didn’t want to disappoint her. Before going home I’d rush to the toilet and wash my hand until the black stain faded.

 

I was around twelve when I started a diary by accident. A girl in my class, Connie, had a poetry album that she would take to family and friends who would write a poem in it and decorate that with colourful stickers and glitters. I asked if I too could write a poem in her album but she told me that poems were only for girls. I thought that was just an excuse and that she didn’t consider me a friend.

 

I went home and told my mother that I wanted a poetry album; she bought me one that very afternoon. When I unwrapped the paper and saw the heart shaped pink album I wondered if Connie had been right that poetry albums were not for boys. But I started to write in the pink album anyway. Not poetry, but letters to an imaginary friend. I would tell that friend about the shadows of the blinds on the wall of my bedroom, the dark red of the tapestry in our hallway, the colors that talked to me.

 

I wrote about the game I played out on the street, where I pretended that I could enter into the heads of passers-by to see what they thought about, to find out how they lived.

I wrote about my desire to go to faraway places where people would walk on wide boulevards with palm trees, as I had seen in the magazines my father read. I wrote about the paintings I had admired at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, which I visited on our free Wednesday afternoons when the other boys would go off to play soccer.

 

And I wrote about how lonely I felt, how desperately I wanted to be with others.

 

Much of what I dreamed of as a child—learning how others see the world, travelling to faraway places—is no longer a fantasy. I can see the world through the eyes of the emerging video artists that my foundation supports world-wide. I travel to art institutions in Seoul, Quito, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, and other cities to see the videos we produce with our artists.

 

When I now go to the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, I can admire art from my own collection that is there on loan as a promised gift.

 

I am no longer lonely. The last forty-two years, I have shared my life with the kindest man on earth, my husband Felipe. We’ve lived in Mexico, the United States, and now Barcelona.

 

I’ve written books and articles, texts for the catalogues of the artists we work with, and more. I’ve kept a journal all my life and always carry a notebook with me. Before the internet, I’d write long letters from wherever I was living, and for many years I’d send vignettes of my life to far-away friends.

 

These initiatives helped me to connect with the outer world. But in hopes of forging new connections, I’ve decided to start this blog.

 

I’d like to take the reader for a stroll as it were, chatting along the way. I hope you’ll enjoy our conversation, even if it is a bit one-sided, and I’d be very pleased if what I have to say sparks a flash of recognition every so often.

 

I’ve learned that when you share, you are not alone, even if you don’t know the person you’re sharing with. Thanks for joining me on the journey.

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