Correspondence #27, To my Alien Friend, on Creativity

Dear friend,

I hope this letter finds you well, I know in the past this has been quite difficult — them having to travel such long distances. From your last letter, it has become apparent that you wish to learn more about our species. While unfortunately, it is impossible to convey to you every aspect of our complex people, I will lend you an explanation of one of our foremost defining characteristics: creativity. 

Creativity, however, even more so than other human phenomena, is quite difficult to define. Any effort to explain it to you reminds me of a paradox I came across a while ago pertaining to color: if, say, we were in the same room looking at a strawberry, we might both agree that it is red. However, there is no way to be sure that the red you are experiencing is the same as mine. Sure, we can measure the wavelength of light, agree on its reading of approximately 645 nm, but the qualia that manifests from the object itself may as well be what I experience as green for you, and what you experience as blue for me! I for one can not explain color to a blind person well enough to have the sensation lit up inside of them, like with other phenomena and concepts.

Daniel Dennett, one of the many philosophers among us humans, argues that in fact, the reason I can not do so is merely a failure of our current languages, and that, given millions and billions of words arranged in just the right way, one indeed could explain and describe color to someone with no sight as to cause the internal phenomenon within them.

I believe Creativity is similar in scope. Below I have outlined a variety of different angles with which to try to explain to you what it is precisely. There is no one definition, and there is no one shared experience of what it is, but my hope is that using as much breadth and variety as I can muster, you will be able to conceptualize what it is the phenomenon of creativity is, you being blind to the concept.

Creativity, at its core, is creation. It is making alive what was not before. In this way, creativity is a giving birth to, bringing into the world what was not present prior. To be creative, like birth, is to make something from nothing. Creativity is the making of anew, the process of animation.

Many of us refer to creativity in relation to the nature of something, often the mind of a human. In this way, creativity is the birthing of an idea. Obviously, human minds are full of existing ideas swirling about within. Oftentimes fragments of these ideas make their way into new ones the mind generates, many times being altered in the process. To be sure — this is still creativity. The ‘nothing’ from which ‘something’ appears is in reference to the nonexistence of its integrated whole prior to its creation, not the ingredients of its composition. As long as this new idea, even if given birth to outside of a pure vacuum, is distinct and original, it is to be considered creative. And yes, before you ask, the line for this get’s blurry, we have an entire field of Law dedicated to its enforcement…

 In this way, creativity is a spontaneous collision. It is connection, overlap, confluence, a nexus. Creativity is more a matter of ‘and,’ than it is a matter of ‘if,’ ‘or,’ or ‘but.’ Especially, though in no way limited to, ideas, creativity in this way is a quasi-combinatorial phenomenon whereby addition yields something altogether unfamiliar. It is an emergent phenomenon whose integrated whole can not be fully understood through even the most rigorous analysis of its components. Thus, and this is important, creativity does not follow rationality or logic. In fact, creativity is entirely a-logical, and does not follow logical rules — this is a core tenet. To be creative is to create against logical paradigms. 

Thus creativity is entirely a paradoxical phenomenon, and this is key to understanding the depths of its complexity. Creativity can be observed, but can not be explained. Humans may exhibit varying levels of creativity, though it is impossible to measure creativity accurately. There is always a need for creativity among humans, yet the more creativity is collectively exhibited, the more innovations and insight that such a creativity propels, the more it increases the need for more creative creations. Creativity is a paradox, yet it exists, and this is central to creativity as a phenomenon. (This is also central for your understanding, as it is ‘impossible,’ though I am attempting to do so, to explain an a-logical phenomenon logically.) In this way, creativity is magic. Like the magician, creativity makes appear what was not able to be observed prior, with no rational or apparent explanation. 

Creativity is entropy. Is it the interruption of stasis, the tumbling of the stable and sound. Creativity is a disrupting phenomenon, one which necessarily, in its newness, clashes with the current way of things. Generally speaking, the greater this collision is, the greater the ‘clash,’ with the now is, the more creative an act will be. Creativity is uncertainty and discomfort. It is a recognition that any future creation is unknowable in its content. Creativity is destruction, an explosion of the present. Creativity, like entropy in the second law of thermodynamics, is what our system will tend towards, and in fact, these two phenomena are linked.

The universe, tending towards entropy, will pose humanity with problems. Murphy’s law states that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Our planet as it stands is slotted to rise in temperature at unprecedented rates. Our geopolitical paradigm is on the verge of being stressed more than it has been in the past decade. A global pandemic has befallen us. Creativity is survival. It is the only way that we humans may continue to thrive as we have thus far, and is in fact the main reason for our proliferation. Creativity is persistence, a willingness to go further. Creativity is the mechanism by which humanity solves the problems posed by its own existence, in order to keep existing. Thus creativity solves the problem of life by bringing into life.

Creativity is a leap of consciousness. It is a change in perspective, a shift in the viewpoint. Creativity is first a recognition that one’s current existence is bound by the rules and logic in which one finds themselves, and then secondly, the ability to alter or reject them. Creativity is a recognition that one’s field of view is just that — a field of view, able to be turned, shifted, magnified, compressed, and/or re-focused. Creativity is confidence in one’s own strange thinking. Creativity asks the unaskable, looks down at the floor of consciousness — that which holds atop it every other aspect of one’s sense of being — and interrogates its very existence and form.

Paradoxically creativity is also empathy, an openness to others’ shift in viewpoint. Creativity is a willingness to be wrong, to accept an alternate reality, to be convinced. It is a certain plasticity of the mind, able to be dynamically remolded and resolidified over and over again. 

Further, creativity is thought. Creativity is to question, to interpret, to opinionate, to decipher, to be human. The human experience, human perception, is a sort of ongoing birth. To perceive as a human is to be in a constant state of interpretation, of making meaning from the meaninglessness of the world — to create, to give birth to, a constant unfolding. To be human is to be creative. 

Creativity is free will. It is the power to choose, and the process of choice itself. In this way creativity opens up the future before us, allowing for any number of creative pathways and futures to form in its unknowability. Creativity is an infinite possibility, a hope.

And perhaps, friend, in this way, if you might be able to grasp my conception of creativity as I have not so much outlined, but danced around, you too may exhibit it. Creativity is at the very roots of our being, it is birth, it is life, it is destruction, it is death. If you may be able to absorb what I have written, surely you have a better understanding of what it means to be human than do any other of your people.

Sincerely, and until next time,

-Armaan A.

A Trip To, and At, the MET

“Surrealism Beyond Borders” the exhibit read. White text against sky blue. Entering the space, a galaxy revealed itself, each painting its own world against the space-black walls. A wardrobe whose wooden doors, just ajar enough to peer past them, fail to conceal the impossibly vast landscape contained within it. A fireplace, whose smoke is generated by a miniature train charging out of it through the air. A phone whose handle is a lobster. A murder scene in a hotel hallway, the victim a human-sized sunflower. Each world with its own unique physics and logic. This fact, a key. Unlocking the entrance to plunge into each’s world.

It was, we decided, time to enter into just one, and live in it. Walking further, evaluating entrances, we were stopped — arrested, actually. Standing 5ft 6in tall, spanning 8ft across, Coups de bâtons, signed “Mayo,” held us in place. At 6 full steps from the canvas’s surface, the painting was greedy, taking for itself most of our field of view.

A tie. A shoe. Cigarettes. A chair. These came first, objects whose form had evaded the unique physics and logic the rest of the painting prescribed. Objects whose physics and logic adhered to the world of the observer looking in. They were the handrails leading us down into the pool. A semblance of grounding on unstable footing.

10 minutes and 51 seconds since being arrested. One step closer. Next came the forms themselves. These, surely of this new world. Exploding constantly, unfolding out of themselves, they grabbed one another — or were they all one?. A tangled pastel mess. Sophia, equally as determined to step into the painting, said one word to bring the forms into focus: “Bones.” Immediately the painting changed. The explosion, now frozen, became able to be absorbed. The forms, once yellow, pink, blue, and purple mear moments prior became white. Further absorbed in Mayo’s physics, color became the impossible quality of light that hit the white bone. Blue became pink’s shadow, and purple yellow’s, as though the light-dark binary of our world became saturated. Did we, in this flat physics on our world, ever make it past black and white?

22 minutes and 23 seconds since being arrested. One step closer. Next came the sky, and in it two floating rocks. One bigger, one smaller. A thought emerged: that perhaps they were in fact the same size, and that in that area between them, the space was receding. From this, layers broke loose. Far from flat now, the canvas revealed its closeness and its farness. The rocks as markers.

58 minutes 36 seconds since being arrested. One step closer. Next came the bicycle. Just barely there, but no doubt so. If not looking hard, which we certainly were, you’d miss it. “Why a bicycle?” “Why not?” Now only two arm lengths away from the canvas surface, wholly immersed in it, there was no need to question the new logic we were a part of, but rather only to live in it.

One hour, 18 minutes, and 21 seconds since being arrested. Finally, some validation for our efforts. A woman, having observed our observing an hour prior, seeing us now an hour later, asked how in the world we were still looking at the same painting. The answer, simple: “there is a lot to see!” The table, the shadows, the fence, the tie, the sticks, the trees — The more we found, the more that appeared.

One hour, 42 minutes, and 32 seconds since being arrested. One step closer, our shins now touching the demarcating wire. Our eyes just inches from the canvas surface, the painting became mear atoms of itself. The texture of the brush strokes, a winding maze to follow. The forms, now too large to be seen in their entirety, were angles, shadows, highlights, and colors. The pigmentation cracks, all 84 years of them, filled the beige dessert with authentic texture.

2 hours, 1 minute, and 4 seconds since being arrested. Slowly, we stepped back out into our world. Like an astronaut returning from space, the ground felt familiar yet strange. Needing depressurization to function, the three of us stood quiet, our backs turned to the painting. 14,386 words we had spoken over the course of our observation according to the audio transcription. How incredibly far from greedy, and how incredibly generous.

We looked at Coups de bâtons (Baton Blows) by Mayo, painted in 1937, for two hours, and never once read the contextual text affixed on its right. As I thought it necessary to do so given our lengthy analysis, I did eventually investigate the paintings ‘art history:’ Mayo was an Egyptian artist part of the surrealist Art et Liberté (Art and Liberty) group working in Cairo. At the time he painted the work, Egypt, while not formally a British colony, was still under British influence. Labor and student unions would frequently protest the British diversion of Egyptian resources. The painting, as the title suggests, depicts the unfortunate yet common scene of the cruel dispersal of a crowd at a cafe by police. Ultimately, however, I am not interested in any of this context. The canvas contained within it, from the start, a whole other world, and certainly not 1930’s Cairo. 

“One must be receptive, receptive to the image at the moment it appears” (Bachelard, 1). Walking through the exhibit, glancing to the left, we were stopped. Importantly, what struck us was not raw beauty, contextual connections, or intellectual intrigue, but rather an entrance made accessible to us despite no prior knowledge of the painting. In fact context, when meditated on for any length of time, can quickly turn such illusive entrances opaque. The three of us, on December 4th, 2021, from 5:10 pm to 7:08 pm, were indeed submerged in a new reality. We all agreed: the experience was endlessly interesting, full of life, and overwhelmingly positive. However such experiences are elusive. In this essay, I will attempt to explicate the mechanisms behind the experience we had and ones like it. I have come to believe that Coups de bâtons, along with a number of other surrealist works, transport viewers into their own unique universe by operating in the space between ours and theirs. I will develop this idea using Bachelard’s conception of the “poetic image,” through the framework of “phenomenological and affective hesitation” afforded to us by Al-Saji. I will leverage the theory of affect largely in line with that of Silven Tompkins, which I will quickly explain as to lay some groundwork for the more complex theoretical structures being built atop it.

Feelings are predefined and demarcated. Happiness —a feeling— is happened, an ends. Affects, then, are the forces that precede feeling. They are the instantaneous reaction to stimuli that are prior to consciousness and emotion. They are presubjective. There are no ‘types’ of affect, because no boundaries can be drawn around them-they exist outside of categorization. Furthermore, an affective experience is an unconscious (and preconscious) one. Affect is automatic. It is a bodily reaction rather than one of the mind. It is not processed but had. Affect In essence, is the gut reaction one gets when they hear a particularly beautiful melody before they even know they were having a gut feeling. It is the ‘feeling’ before the feeling.

The affective realm serves as the seeds and soil from which the logical and rational grow. Thus, in all of its primacy, it has the power to deeply inform experience and perception — both positively and negatively. As Al-Saji argues, in the case of widespread implicit racism, for example, it is the affective realm that specifically requires reform, as its primacy is precisely that which makes it so ingrained, and dangerously invisible. However, the affective realm is also responsible for any number of indescribably positive experiences. Being in love, being among nature, and seeing particularly moving art are all easy candidates to point at. It is here where we may leverage Bachelard’s “poetic image” to more fully understand the affective realm’s involvement in Coups de bâtons, and in so doing art generally. 

Bachelard sees poetics as uniquely existing within the affective realm. “Forces are manifested in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge” (Bachelard, 6). For Bachelard, poetry is a unique opportunity to live in the affective state. Upon reading a poem, one does not, like a novel, derive meaning, grab hold of a narrative, or understand it. Rather, a poetic image is derived: 

“The image, in its simplicity, has no need of scholarship. It is the property of a naive consciousness; in its expression, it is youthful language… To specify exactly what a phenomenology of the image can be, to specify that the image comes before thought, we should have to say that poetry rather than being a phenomenology of the mind is a phenomenology of the Soul” (Bachelard, 4).

The soul, in this case, being yet another word to describe the indescribable affective. The non-poetic word of most literature ‘points’ to meaning. Akin to Husserl’s natural attitude, the non-poetic word is passive, giving the reader a prescribed definition. It is cold, dead, and had. The poetic image, for Bachelard, is a distinct opening up of newness. It leverages the imagination to create, become, and live. Outside of previously prescribed definitions, the poetic image makes new realities. Indeed, “such poetry is rare!” (Bachelard, 15). 

Though Bachelard believed it was poetics alone that had such active potential, applications to Coups de bâtons and other visual art generally appear to me to be a natural progression. Bachelard held the poetic word as sacred because of the new imagined realities which it opened. Representational art, by which I mean art that portrays something an artist saw in our word, visualized, through the means of any number of artistic mediums, what they saw to the extent that it can be deciphered by a new viewer given no context, would be in some ways analogous to the non-poetic image. Though perhaps stylized through any number of movements — impressionism, cubism, romanticism, ect. — the content of the image is defined, an ends. André Breton, in his Manifesto of Surrealism, notes of non-surrealist art that “[Our] imagination which knows no bounds is henceforth allowed to be exercised only in strict accordance with the laws of an arbitrary utility” (Breton, 4). This is not to say that other artistic movements are not artistic, valuable, or worthwhile, but rather that they are not emblematic of the poetic image. However, it is precisely that which surrealism offers. 

Viewing Coups de bâtons, our imaginations ran to the forefront of our minds. There was no understanding of ‘what’ we were looking at, the words were stripped of their definitions. Given only a point to jump from — a bottle, cigarettes, a table — (the comparison here being the actual words of the poetic poem themselves) to look hard at the painting was to look through the lens of our imagination, one not fogged by “arbitrary utility.” The strange forms, unique colors, and confusing chaotic scene served to charge our imagination forth, but it was the unique physics, logic, and very fundamental rules which governed that new universe that fully opened up the poetic image. “The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams” (Bachelard, 37). The successful surrealist work refutes the rules of our reality to such an extent as to make the poetic image inevitable. In engaging with it, our minds, unable to make meaning, are held in the affective — an imaginative overflowing. 

However, the anomaly of Coups de bâtons goes one step further. Affective experiences generally end as soon as they begin. Affect precedes meaning and emotion, though turns into them almost instantly. In an attempt to understand itself, the mind analyzes the state of the body after an affective experience to determine which emotion it should trigger. The poetic image, though indeed a markedly pre-conscious, affective, experience, is incredibly fragile. If one looks too close, it vanishes. “To verify images kills them,” (Bachelard, 108) for “images that are too clear become generalities, and for that reason block the imagination. We’ve seen, we’ve understood, we’ve spoken. Everything is settled”(Bachelard, 140). Like a snowflake, the poetic image is both incredibly beautiful yet ephemeral. When one inevitably reflects, attempts to preserve, and especially analyze the poetic image, it ceases to exist. The contextual text affixed on Coups de bâton’s right — a crime!

Our experience — 2 hours —  is evidence of some elusive poetic durability. To be sure, one can indeed preserve the poetic image to an extent by means of discipline and will. “[The psychoanalyst] explains the flower by the fertilizer,” (Bachelard, 14) “the phenomenologist does not go that far. For him, the image is there, the world speaks, the world of the poet speaks to him” (Bachelard, 14). It could be seen that in the case of myself, having taken 15 weeks of phenomenologically intensive coursework, that my analytical and phenomenological dials had been tuned. However, Riya, studying business, having no background in the phenomenological method whatsoever, being, as she describes herself, analytically minded, had her poetic image preserved as well. How?

Stepping into Coups de bâton was stepping in between our world and its. A tie. A shoe. Cigarettes. A chair. The painting, with its own distinct logic, gave us a jumping-off point for its poetics to unfurl. Then, having been realized, the poetic image froze-as even any attempt at rationalizing further proves fruitless. There is simply no more that can be understood. Mayo entices us in, shows us an entrance, and beyond it, we are held, at no “risk [of] relapsing into literal meaning” (Bachelard, 243). Surrealism, as I conceive of it, asserts our complete nonconformism clearly enough so that there can be no question of translating it, at the trial of the real world, as evidence for the defense” (Bachelard, 47) (my emphasis). It is the absurd, made ingestible — in-between worlds — where the poetic image is born, and able to propagate. From this, there emerges two ends of a spectrum, one which Coups de bâton stands at the intersection between. The aforementioned representational art is dead before it has any chance of opening. In contrast, we may take other surrealist works, who so embody their unique physics and logic as to provide no apparent entrance. In this way Coups de bâton is a sort of Goldilocks, able to hold our poetics in hesitation, frozen, for us to explore fully without any analytical fogging. The poetic image itself is given a house to dream in.

To help further explicate this unique circumstance of the poetic image further, we may find clarity in Al-Saji’s Phenomenology of Hesitation. In it, Al-Saji argues that the racializing vision, which, in spite of any apparent reason, prescribes racist characteristics to one’s existence on the basis of their skin color, has its roots in the affective realm.

“Though affect is pre-intentional, on the phenomenological account, it can provide the motivating and material support for the projective intentionality of  racializing percep-tion, and, hence, is implicated in naturalizing its reactive directionality. Affect and perception form two sides of the same phenomenon, linking that which is seen as racialized to its immediately felt effects on the racializing body” (Al-Saji, 140).

Building on this, Al-Saji proposes a unique solution: a phenomenological hesitation. The affective realm held open, in hesitation, is destabilized, able to self correct, allowing for more to come. Though taken far outside of its intended use case, we may leverage this framework to explain the poetic durability of Coups de bâton. 

“Newness, in other words, arises not only from the openness to the future but from the way the past is remembered in hesitation; memory and invention are here intertwined” (Al-Saji, 143) (my emphasis). Coups de bâton precisely embodies this in-between space. Its newness coming forth at the intersection between the new world it creates, and the held memories and familiarities of ours. Phenomenological hesitation for Al-Saji is something to be practiced, a strategy for repair. The poetic surrealist work holds us in hesitation, it is not so much of a thing to do as it is a thing being done to us. The framework though, still holds. “Phenomenologically speaking, it can be said that hesitation puts the immediacy of  affect in brackets, while allowing affective experience to continue” (Al-Saji, 147). This is precisely how we were able to not only enter through the door of Coups de bâton, but moreso sit down, observe our surroundings, and be. The poetic image, freed from its built-in timer, is thus allowed to flourish. 58 minutes 36 seconds since being arrested. One step closer. Next came the bicycle. “Why a bicycle?” “Why not?” wholly immersed in it, there was no need to question the new logic we were a part of, but rather only to live in it. An immersion takes time. One can not, in the case of the painted poetic image, have “the sudden image, the flare-up of being in the imagination” (Bachelard, 2) that Bachelard experiences with the written one. Equipt with more time, we are able to explore exponentially more, as “affect is not a completed reality or atomistic thing, but a process always open to further elaboration, forking, and becoming” (Al-Saji, 143). The longer we are able to affectively hesitate, the longer we are able to delay the brain’s “incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known”(Breton, 9), and the more we may be rewarded in otherworldly experiences.

I would argue, along with André Breton, that these are the experiences we must strive towards. Our world is limited, yet there exists infinite poetic possibilities through such art. Why limit ourselves? Let us explore, as to be sure, “Existence is elsewhere” (Breton, 47).

I Don’t Cry, I Cried

I don’t cry, save onions. Be it what it may -vaccines at the doctor, James Cameron’s Titanic, beautiful music, a lost pet, joy, anger, hope, hopelessness- my eyes remain dry. Aside from their physiological function -to lubricate the eye- my body seems incapable of producing the saline laced dew.

In my eyes, the inability to cry out of emotion is not a marker of masculinity or even any form of fortitude. In fact, I have always thought the opposite. This is why though perhaps odd, I have always expressed insecurity in relation to my not crying. It has to lead to me feeling robotic, a suppression of my humanity. This had lead to the incredibly ironic phenomenon of me feeling the tiniest bit jealous when comforting a crying friend.

Some have offered me the consolation that to not cry is simply a genetic trait like any other physiological phenomenon. Some don’t sweat, others have runny noses. But emotional tears are an altogether different sort of bodily fluid. They are the physical manifestation of our emotions, our consciousness, and our humanity. There are no other species that shed emotional tears. The conundrum has produced a multitude of explanations. They are plentiful, wildly varied, and as old as Judaism.

The Old Testament describes tears as the by-product of when the heart’s material weakens and turns into water. In the 1600s, a prevailing theory held that emotions heated the heart, in turn, generating water vapor in order to cool itself down. This ‘heart vapor’ would then rise to the head, condense near the eyes and escape as tears. In 1985 biochemist William Frey popularized the idea that crying removes toxic substances from the blood that build up during times of stress. Charles Darwin declared emotional tears “purposeless.” Even today, the biological-evolutionary function of emotional tears remains unclear. What is apparent, however, are emotional tears’ importance in the human experience.

What bothered me about my inability to cry was not so much the nonexistence of the act itself but moreso an indication of a flat emotional experience. Crying is the result of emotions becoming too great to keep inside. Tears are the texture of our emotional curve. Thus not crying did not feel like a character trait. Rather, it suggested the scary thought that my life had not yet had a visceral enough experience as to bring me to tears. Not crying was not living.

My strange victory came on the evening of March 12th, 2020. A little over a month ago on January 28th, I had arrived in Paris for a semester abroad. Though I had the privilege of being relatively well-traveled -even having been to Paris-, I had always wanted to live somewhere abroad rather than simply passing through. I wanted an experience with no temporal end date in mind. An experience long enough to become numb to a place’s landmarks and sensitive to its detail. 

By the end of the first week, I was curiously comfortable in my new environment. Through awkward obligatory first-week icebreakers and monotonous multitudinous welcome-presentations, I had managed to accumulate a handful of familiar faces. By the second day, walking down Rue De Rivoli, one had noticed me and a moment later invited me to walk with them to dinner. Niceties turned into conversation, and the beginnings of friendship formed.

Moreover, coincidence gifted me a second favor. In almost comical levels of stereotypical romance, my girlfriend had also chosen to study abroad in Paris that semester. Thus we found ourselves in love, in Paris, sarcastically mocking the whole situation all the while. As it turned out and unbeknownst to me, the group of people whom the familiar-face-turned-future-friend was taking me too included none other than my Elizabeth! 

Meaningful friendships were made, iconic sights seen, cobblestone roads wandered, caloric food eaten, and unimaginable wine drunk. The classes I was enrolled in piqued my curiosity, some even involving venturing into the city to study it’s very architecture. The stage was set, these 4 months would no doubt be the most memorable days of my college experience.

The same day I landed in Paris, Director-General of the World Health Organization Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus landed in Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China. He was there offering assistance for a new virus outbreak known as COVID19. At the time the virus was a relatively local phenomenon, something that the average global citizen may have heard one morning on the news on their way to work. As is obvious, this quickly changed. 

COVID19 spread, and spread fast. By February 27th, a few short weeks after the beginning of the semester, NYU Florence had sent all students home due to Coronavirus scares. France’s first few confirmed cases a few days later quickly became hotspots, and checking the number of confirmed cases every morning became a sick ritual.

Almost as fast as the virus spread, our confidence in a full semester abroad shattered. By March 4th, NYU gave us the option to go home. The possibility of being forced to leave Paris was sprinkled into every other conversation. Concerned undertones now perpetuated tri-weekly calls with parents. A consensus was reached: It was only a matter of time. 

March 10th was the last day I saw my professors in person. NYU had chosen to hold classes remotely while allowing, for the time being, students to stay in Paris. This meant students now took their classes on zoom, either live or via recordings on their own time. Students saw an opportunity: travel to neighboring countries during the weekday for a cheap trip, and take classes in Lisbon remotely, egg tart in hand. 

On the night of March 11th, I had called my parents persuading them to let me stay in Paris for as long as NYU would allow, despite a compelling argument on the contrary bolstered by advice from my CDC epidemiologist aunt. I slept soundly with the knowledge I might have a few weeks left in the city of light, though it only took only those 10 hours for that hope to evaporate.

3,828 miles away, the sun was setting over DC. President Trump, in an unexpected address, declared a “complete shutdown” of flights from Europe. The next morning I woke up with a text from my parents with a one-way boarding pass attached for a flight scheduled to take off in 32 hours.

Humans: irrational, hopelessly hopeful, and idealistic to the point of their own destruction. The distance between our objective and subjective realities is perhaps greater than any other species. That morning of March 12th, ‘leaving Paris’ did not cross my mind. Rather, it was a clustered amalgamation of hurried logistics, bucket list items, and some semblance of a last day plan with Elizabeth. Though the predicted prophecy had prematurely manifested, I psychologically pushed it back, preserving a few more precious hours of sanity.

Two months compressed into a day. Breakfast at La Cafeotheque, Van Gough at Musée d’Orsay, views from the Arc De Triomphe and later from the Eiffel Tour of it, dizzying Monet panoramas, the Grand Palais’ enormous glass ceiling, nostalgic conversation over French 75’s and jazz at Harry’s New York Bar became a rapidly written flipbook. The day was a crystal clear blur, a perpetual instant. The illusion, however, soon came to an end. My time was up, it was time to say goodbye. 

But there were no goodbyes. All of my familiar-faces-now-turned-close-friends were understandably absorbed in their travel plans, some even already gone from Paris. Like a novel with the last chapter torn from it, there was no closure. The status of our ability to remain in Paris had changed so abruptly that last time I saw these friends, two days ago, we were blissfully discussing possible cities throughout Europe to visit.

I bring with me a growing collection of polaroid photos of people important to me to hang on my wall wherever I live. It had come time to take all 63 down. One by one I peeled the double-sided tape from the wall, a face falling to the floor with each. The air turned stiff, my throat became dense, and tears with an altogether different chemical composition then those shed when chopping onions ran down my face. One hypothesis holds that higher protein content makes emotional tears more viscous making them stick to the skin more strongly and run down the face more slowly, making them more likely to be seen by others. However, there was no one whom I was shedding these tears for.

If perhaps a decade from now I found myself nostalgically reminiscing with a friend and was asked to recall some of the best stretches in time I had ever experienced, I would have no trouble imagining my answer beginning with “well during my sophomore year when I studied abroad in Paris…” Time not yet had and never to be recreated felt ripped from me. The Paris I had was gone. The ‘with my friends in my 20’s, learning about gothic cathedrals by day and exploring them by night, responsibilities small enough as to plan trips the night before leaving, sipping red wine in a café on a Wednesday night to prepare for tomorrow’s test,’ Paris. There was no gradual drift in trajectory, not even a quick turn, but rather a pointed right angle. These were tears of loss, tears of sudden change, and tears of distress. 

Yet these were complicated tears. Yes, they were tears of selfish sadness, but they were also tears of relief. I don’t cry, I cried. The texture of my emotional fabric had at long last turned three-dimensional. Automatic, indifferent, merciless, tears. Try as one might, true emotional tears can never be produced on command. Thus what followed was potentially the strangest weep in the history of human crying: tears triggered by sadness, and sustained by comfort. There was understanding in the tears. They made clear a sensation previously perceptible yet indefinite in form: being at the mercy of one’s own body. 

As it turns out crying, at least the operation itself, isn’t particularly anything to be jealous about. However, its meaning lies far outside the simple act. For thousands of years, humans have tried and tried again to conjure some specification to separate ‘us’ from all other species, the soul and consciousness being the leading candidates. However after numerous 19th-century experiments failed to observe anything escape the body seconds after death, and an increasing amount of data to suggest that we are not as unlike other animals as we may have once thought, these claims have thus far proved irrelevant. Perhaps I will add to the impasse by offering another logic into the mass mix: to cry is to be human, and to be human is to cry

I have come to the conclusion that life is like a sheet of newspaper used during a toilet paper shortage: it is much, much better crumpled then stiff. Whether positive or negative, excitement or grief, confidence or fear, understanding or confusion, life’s emotional fabric is better textured. Visceral experiences are the grooves-and we had better want them, for it is in those deep areas within our sensations from which emotions grow from. 

So me, the eternal optimist, has come to believe that instead of seventy-one days lost to fate, it is in fact the hundred tears -each a drop of my humanity found- that should be counted in my mental memory bank, and maybe I’m better for it. 

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