White bones of a constellation.
I make up all kinds of excuses to not get creative.
I get all kinds of productive, actually. I go on cleaning purges to rid my room of bad energy. I cook three meals per day. I have long phone conversations with friends and family. I discover new realms of music. I read, advance my career, and run 5Ks--even 10Ks. I have lots of orgasms. I go on Reddit.
My relationship to creativity is shy and intense, like my romantic relationships. One thing I don’t do when I’m on a productivity binge, actively seeking the creativity that wanders away and returns at will, is go on dating apps. I like to make my matches and bad decisions by chance, not discipline. Both romance and creation, I think, should be a spontaneous interaction with the scene serendipity has set around you.
Television and video games bored me when I was a kid (except for Saturday morning consumption of the entire Lord of the Rings or Star Wars series along with a pint of ice cream). But I could disappear into the woods, into a book, drawing, or conversation like honey into tea. There was always a sense that life is an adventure conspired in whispers with the invisible forces crafting the visible world. This has never left me. It is no less than a matter of spiritual life and death to hold on to a streak of naive wonder.
I loved a sculpture at Burning Man 2015 by Odessa artist Aleksandr Milov (unfortunately, I did not get to see it in person). It’s a silhouette of two children reaching out to each other, trapped by the mesh metal cages of adult bodies that are sitting turned away from one other, heads hung low and grasped sadly in their hands. During the day, in the blinding dust storms, the cages are visible, tears in the heart of the playa. But at night, as the sun sets into an evening of exploration, the children light up and reach out to each other freely as their cages melt into darkness. One writer said about the sculpture, “Age has so many beautiful gifts, but one that I could live without is the pride and resentment we hold on to when we are in conflict with others. The forgiving, open, and free spirit of children is our true nature.”
The myth that only artists have an inner child to nurture is broken every day. We are all created, so we are all creative, and our spirits are both the paintbrush and its master. The adult part, the “knowing” part, is a shell of logic and muscle memory built around unreasonable beings who do unreasonable things to express their feelings. Bravely holding your heart out to people, kindled and unashamed, is a skill that takes un-learning.
We assume relationships--to others and to ourselves--become less intense as we age, and we wait for a day when we can smoothly sail in our boat of wisdom. Age has many beautiful gifts, but perfection may not be one of them. Learning to be spontaneous and open may be.
The threads of art, age, logic, love, and immediate experience were realized in an encounter I had at the new Whitney Museum this first autumn weekend. (Do you think in the future people will call it the "New-Whitney"?)
Throughout that week, I had been texting back and forth with someone I met in Haiti in 2014 (we were both volunteering with a Haitian friend’s nonprofit, Helping Hands and Beyond). We developed an intense summer romance, like a Polaroid photo washed out by summer sunlight, the true and real kind when you’re in an unfamiliar place and have a short time to get to know someone. We were the same age and he was very handsome, an adventurous army boy with a big heart and dimples.
We drank a lot of rum and Prestige beer together. Like tourists, we went running in the early morning before the wet heat rolled down the mountains. We watched sunsets, took cooling evening swims in the ocean, got heat sickness. We assisted a doctor in performing an emergency surgery in a field hospital (long story), wordlessly gliding around each other through the absurd seriousness of the situation.
Once in a tropical storm, we grasped hands in the back row of a van and listened to the driver, who was concentrating on not flying off the road into the sawtoothed blackness of the forest, swear bullets and tilt the steering wheel with deadly precision. When we got to our destination safely, our fellow passengers yelled, “Praise Jesus!”
“Praise the driver,” the boy and I said in tandem.
We kissed, finally, on a hot beach, hidden inside a salty, washed-up boat filled with shards of sunlight. We contemplated how we could be together. When we parted ways, I considered joining him on a flight that he took in a tiny airplane to the country’s north, where he planned to meet some friends to watch a soccer game. It didn’t work out.
The last day that we spent together, I floated in the warm Caribbean, his arms under my back, guiding my weightlessness over the lapping waves. I was in a delirium of peace. Gazing at the white bone of the moon in the blazing sky, I asked him if he thought its ghostly inhabitants were looking back at us, wasting the Earth’s bounty on doubts, fears, and thoughts of the future. Shouldn’t we be in a constant state of celebrating? "You're so weird," he replied, his head above me the size of the moon, and also a planet away.
When I received a text from him just before my first visit to the Whitney, we hadn’t spoken to each other in nearly a year. He had gone back to his military gig in Georgia, where he lived, and I’d gone on to my million other things in New York. Around the end of the summer, I began getting a trickle of messages from him. He was thinking of coming to New York for a few days around Thanksgiving, and could he see me?
“Of course,” I said, “come on down.” But it would be as friends, I added finally.
He was silent for a few days, which began to concern me. But there in the museum, as I was looking at Archibald Motley’s paintings of jazz age Chicago nights, wishing I could transport myself into that hot place, he responded.
"Honestly, I wanted to come to New York to be with you,” he said in a text laced with a gentleman's good grammar. "You are the only good memory I have had since that summer.”
My stomach filled with butterflies. This was beautiful, but it was too much to bear. We shared a cherished memory, but I had also made many happy memories since then, all reflecting who I am today. If and when we met, I wouldn’t even show up as the same person from our trip. The proper response wasn’t immediately clear, but a museum was the place to find it.
Earlier at the new Whitney, a friend and I had wandered and around a sculpture, a vivid world of a circus created from wire by Alexander Calder, known as “the father of the mobile,” a mechanical engineer and self-taught artist. We were captivated by its cheery child-like details, disregard for realism, and the dedicated grace that took to create it.
Across from us, a white-haired woman was fascinated by the sculpture's energy. We grinned at each other. She had laugh lines around her eyes and wasn’t afraid to use them. When I walked past her again on an upper floor, we smiled, friends without need for context.
“Excuse me,” I said, not knowing how else to broach the topic. “We kept running into each other. Could you give me some advice?”
She was a little dumbfounded, although she seemed like a person who was approached for advice all the time. The lady agreed to listen. I told her about the boy, our island romance, our long gap in communication, and the circumstances of his plans to visit.
“Don’t do it,” she said, shaking her head. “Especially if neither of you are planning to move to be closer together. Expectations of this kind are too much responsibility.”
This was my instinct, too, although I wilted at my pragmatism. How could this boy and I, close friends in memory but really strangers, recreate a magical moment while stuck in the grimy details of our lives? Better the memory be the light.
“You really shouldn’t listen to me, though,” the woman said after we hugged. “I’ve never had a successful romantic relationship.”
She introduced me to the young woman she was with - her granddaughter - and her granddaughter’s boyfriend, both college students.
“Thanks for letting me borrow your grandma,” I said. “She gives good advice.”
“She really does.” This was assurance enough.
My friend was understanding when I told him I thought his visit may leave us both crushed. And he said something I will never forget.
“It sounds cheesy, but you got through my armor - a soldier - and gave me light. You have that power of heart.” His words gave me invisible armor, forever.
That night when I got home late, holding a mug of tea with one hand and petting the apartment cat with the other, I felt like I had taken part in a piece of performance art. As if some laughing artist was guiding the emotions of these three people in a museum, urging us to feel and reveal our passions. As if our spontaneous connection was written in the white bone of the moon when we were unrelated comets, suns, or stars without a map, giving each other light.