Almost as soon as we caught wind that we would be staying in our homes for the foreseeable future, we started wondering what masterpieces might become possible. The story quickly spread around the Internet that, while quarantined, Shakespeare wrote King Lear. Newton was working out the early seeds of calculus, which, thanks, I guess? The point being, people saw a dire situation and started looking on the brightside, encouraging one another to take advantage of time at home as the potential ground where our own brilliance might manifest itself.
Certainly, we should all be looking for life-giving ways to make meaning during this time. In my apartment, during our downtime, Meg and I have been learning domino games for two, watching movies, reading books, building puzzles, listening to music, cooking, FaceTiming friends and family, putting on Instagram shows for our friends, and letting our dog Rowlf enjoy what have surely been the best two weeks of his life with us so far.
Of course, none of these activities are masterpieces worthy of King Lear. Honestly, when I learned that I would have extra time at home, I had a small glimmer of hope, wondering if this new normal might lead me to become more productive as a writer. Two weeks into the quarantine, I can safely answer: no. One part of that is because I still have responsibilities as a teacher, working out how best to deliver content to my students while understanding that each of their situations is different. All of our jobs might have changed drastically in the last two weeks, but for those of us fortunate to have work right now, the expectation to perform has not.
On another level, though, I started thinking back to what I read in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing in January. She writes, “Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.” Because we have conditioned ourselves to make the most of each day, many of us saw “more time at home” and translated that to “be more productive.”
In truth, we’re no more likely to produce a masterpiece now than we were before the quarantine began. It also might not be the point when a crisis is devastating the world. For most of us, taking care of our bodies, minds, and hearts may be the most we can make of each day. We should not feel guilty about focusing on our health and wellbeing, and we should not feel the need to take advantage of a moment that is not calling for our optimization.
Instead, I’ve been gaining an appreciation for the observable world around me in the last two weeks. Coincidentally, my friend Sal and I decided to read the 2019 novel The Overstory by Richard Powers, a 500-page ode to trees. It’s made me stare at the tree outside of my window for long periods of time, trying to Google what it might be. Throughout his exploration of the lives of different people whose stories intersect with one another and trees in transformative ways, Powers writes about our lack of observation and the havoc it has wreaked on nature. A character posits, “We have to learn to love this place. We need to become natives.” Perhaps the best thing we could do as people in this moment is to reconsider our relationship to the world and its people, to reconceive our responsibility to the preservation of the living world.
I’m an amateur art enthusiast, someone who makes time in every city I visit to go to local museums, appreciating a craft I don’t fully understand but am awed by. Last summer, Meg and I were traveling in Europe when a chef told us to see the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. They house Las Meninas, a series of 58 paintings that reinterpret the painting of the same name by Diego Velázquez.
While walking through the exhibit, I was amazed by Picasso’s obsessive reinterpretation of Velázquez’s work. Truthfully, though, there was one particular room that struck me as the single most important lesson I could learn from the artist. While painting the series in 1957, Picasso would often take a break from reimagining Velázquez’s work to look out his window and paint pigeons that sat at his window. The nine paintings that resulted, though detached from Velázquez’s piece, were included in the 58 that make up Las Meninas.
From my rudimentary understanding of art, all I can say of the quality of the pigeon paintings is that I like them a lot. I mean, I really like looking at them, and that is the height of my ability to make artistic commentary. I purchased the pack of nine postcards depicting the pigeon paintings from the gift shop, and sometimes (like now) I just set them out on my desk and appreciate them. Some of the pigeons appear as mere triangular shapes plopped on the ground; others have circles for heads with a single black dot representing an eye. The windows themselves are included, part of what Picasso noticed and chose to recognize. (Art scholars: do not come for me, I am fully invested in these pigeons, however little I know.)
What I appreciate even more than the pigeons themselves is the idea that Picasso was diligently studying Velázquez’s masterpiece, and working on one of his own, but sometimes, the pigeons were a nice reprieve from all of the serious art-making. Sometimes—the paintings seem to say—the real observation is looking out of one’s window and appreciating what’s already there (like the tree outside of mine). The pigeon paintings are great works of art, to be sure, but they also just feel like Picasso’s own version of working on a puzzle at the end of a long day in the studio, his own version of playing Dua Lipa’s new album to inspire a much-needed dance break.
Odell writes, “We still recognize that much of what gives one’s life meaning stems from accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous encounters: the ‘off time’ that a mechanistic view of experience seeks to eliminate.” I like to think of Picasso’s pigeons as welcome interruptions to his day, and I like to look for examples of the same in my own life. Taking walks outside has helped with this. Learning to talk on the phone, too. We bought an unruly plant that brings me a lot of joy.
Odell loves to birdwatch, and she talks about how the longer she listens to birds, the more nuance she hears, the more observant she becomes of their subtle differences. While writing this, I learned that Picasso’s pigeons are also referred to as doves because there is no scientific difference in their nomenclature, yet people love doves in mythology a lot more than they love pigeons in real life. (One of my favorite essays praises pigeons: Michelle Tea’s “The Pigeon Manifesto.”)
My hope for you is that you don’t feel pressured to create a masterpiece during an epidemic, or guilty that you aren’t being as productive as you could be. My hope instead is that you look for the pigeons in your own life, and recognize their potential as the single most important thing you could notice in a day.
It feels natural to end here, but I like to think of a blogpost as something that does not need to follow what’s natural or optimal to be significant. Although I have loved Picasso throughout my time as an amateur art enthusiast, I was challenged when I watched the comedian Hannah Gadsby’s special Nanette on Netflix earlier this year. I had not known before that Picasso, at the age of 45 and married to his first wife, entered into a relationship with a 17-year-old and noted how perfect it was that they were both “in the prime” of their lives. Gadsby criticizes Picasso, noting how toxic and misogynistic it is to say that women are in the prime of their lives when they are teenagers but that men can have their prime whenever they feel like it.
At the end of her gutting, powerful special (I cried a lot), Gadsby argues against the notion that we need geniuses who are not good people in their daily lives. She contrasts Picasso with Vincent Van Gogh, who was unappreciated in his life and died in poverty. People avoided him on the street and he spent much of his life tortured and alone. A man once complained to Gadsby after a show that if it weren’t for Van Gogh being “crazy,” we wouldn’t have the paintings of his lilies. But Gadsby, who earned a degree in art, argues that we have Van Gogh’s lilies not because of his mental illness, but because he had a brother who loved him and looked out for him. Without his brother, Gadsby says, Van Gogh might never have lived long enough to leave something that we finally appreciate today.
I guess what I’m getting at is that I learned a lot from Picasso’s pigeons last year, but this year I’m learning even more from Van Gogh’s lilies. That is to say, I’m learning a lot about how great art is sometimes only possible when we look out for the people who need us most. Maybe we shouldn’t worry about creating our own great art, but instead ensure that the people around us have room to make their own. We need each other more than ever, and we need to relearn how to love the people in the places we find ourselves.
Forget the masterpiece: look for the pigeons, but make way for the lilies, whether they come from you or someone you love dearly. My prayer today is that you are learning how to better care for yourself and others. I’ll be looking out my window and thinking of you, wherever you are.
(If you read this far, I have nine postcards of pigeons and would love to release them into the world. Email me your address and I’ll try to help you make way for the lilies.)