1. Even before I was fully conscious of my own creativity, I was interested in creative people. In particular, I was interested in their processes, the spaces (literal and otherwise) in which they created, and their relationships. And as for those, they were generally really, really fucked up.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Pablo Picasso and multiple women. Pablo Neruda and Matilde Urrutia.
Reading their memoirs, I got the idea that creativity and love–at least a love that was stable and supportive– were completely incompatible.
2. I am sitting in the chair by the window that overlooks a freshly poured concrete patio in the neighbor’s back yard. “The Sally Mann doc,” I tell Francisco when he asks which film I want to watch. We don’t have these nights often now; I don’t say that as a lament, but as a fact. Mariel has the energy of four babies and when she falls asleep, I usually curl up in bed beside her and slip into sleep so quickly that I don’t remember upon waking whether I made a deliberate choice to go to bed. Francisco will sleep too, occasionally, but more often wil put beans to soak or write or watch films about war or punta dancing or gangs.
I remember when I discovered Mann’s work–during a brief job working at a college library one summer. Sent to shelve books, I took my time lingering among literary journals. One day, I came upon the photography section, with books stacked on their sides, too tall to fit upright. That summer, I studied Harry Callahan (the tenderness for his frequent subject and wife, Eleanor, was evident in his simple photos) and Diane Arbus (whose photos I didn’t “like,” but whose fascination with society’s overlooked would later influence me significantly) and Sally Mann, whose photos struck me as… what? Not shocking, but somehow cold and off-putting. Not repulsive, but not compelling either, not in an easy, moving way.
I don’t know when I put the documentary in our queue or why, and I don’t know why I was surprised that it made me as uncomfortable or as ambivalent as her photos.
I tell Francisco what it was like to look at the photos that summer, how things opened up to me in a new way, and so the discomfort of watching the film is more acute because it is shared. It’s like the time we went to see the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, whose work shaped my thinking profoundly and who, when we went to see him, babbled so incoherently that Francisco looked at me after the lecture and said, “And you thought what about him?”
It is only when I get this inside view of Mann’s life, albeit scripted, that I realize she lacks a fundamental ability to express love in a healthy way. The treatment of everyone as a model; the posing of her husband, leg on the bathtub, cutting his toenails; her fascination with cadavers exceeding her ability to engage with her loved ones….
It is impossible to see what happens off camera, if she is capable of love, capable of relating without a lens between her and another. And I think so much of our lives is like that–inaccessible to anyone but ourselves. That’s what I say to Francisco.
Here’s what he says: “So many creative people are selfish.”
3. “What is the secret of your marriage?” a friend who just got engaged asks me.
There is no secret, per se, but I also know that’s not exactly what she’s asking.
She is getting married because she feels like she should. I know that because when she told me she was engaged she didn’t tell me his name or anything about him; she just wrote: “I got a ring!”
I know that she’s asking something that she’s not quite asking because I meet him and they are so different.
I tell her that the secret is letting each other continue to grow. “So many people want their partners to stay exactly as they were when they met them,” I say, using insects stuck in amber as a metaphor. “I think I used to be that way, too,” I continue. “But one of the greatest gifts Francisco has given me, and a lesson he taught me, is the importance of supporting your partner to become the best person they can be, to give them the support they need to explore their interests and pursue their dreams, even if that means they become someone else. All that and to be excited about it.”
She looks at me like she understands, but I’m not sure she does.