To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. -Pablo Neruda
I leaned back against the kitchen counter slowly sipping my tea. Dinner devoured, dishes washed, and dimmed lights all signaled the end of another weekday. My attention was drawn to the two boys sitting side by side, quietly creating a far-away world.
Spread out before my son, Rowan, and his cousin, Cash, was an expanse of pieced together white drawing paper. With one pencil and eraser between them, they took turns adding details to the alternate reality they inhabited for a short while that night. Each boy allowed the other’s input about how and where to add a castle or a dragon.
One summer years ago, my son and I embarked upon a long road trip. I equipped him with his own binder filled with an endless supply of blank paper, pencils, and markers. He spent hours in the backseat, at campsites, and on the carpet of our friends’ and family’s homes drawing characters and scenes. There were empty dusty ghost towns, tall cactuses, swimming pools, fireworks, and portraits of our loved ones. It was clear from the subject matter that our journey was his inspiration.
Back at home, in Portland, Rowan’s passion for drawing continued and I saw his subject matter transition from simple representations of the world around him to castles and dragons to intricately detailed war scenes. In his imagination bombs drop from planes, submarines surface, and yes, soldiers die.
Also at home, our nearest family is my sister and my eight-year-old nephew, Cash. Rowan doesn’t have a sibling near his age and Cash is an only child. The boys are like brothers – they fight like brothers and defend each other like only siblings can.
Rowan longs for Cash’s companionship when he is away and once asked if he could call his cousin on the phone because, “I’m forgetting what his voice sounds like.” One year we couldn’t be with Cash on his birthday and as the day approached Rowan expressed his intense disappointment. Rowan was so heartbroken that to ease his pain we sang “Happy Birthday” to Cash in his absence and created an altar filled with his favorite foods, adorned with photos of him from every age, and littered with Legos.
These sibling-like cousins never tire of one another. Their interests always intersect. Naturally, they began to collaborate in art. So, I found myself buying large art pads and taping pages together to form huge canvases because, of course, battle scenes require enough space to illustrate air raids and submarine dives, deep forest battles and coastal assaults. Drawing together has become one of their favorite pastimes. Collaboration comes easily to them. In the name of art, creativity, and companionship they drop defenses and open their hearts. From this place they create together.
Their hunger for collaboration and trust in the process is inspiring. When one boy is away the other wishes the absent cousin was around to draw with. “Can’t you just draw on your own?” I inquire. “I’m not as good without Cash to help me with ideas and stories,” is my son’s response. During one of their art sessions I overheard my nephew say, “I’m just not good at drawing tanks.” My son replied, “Maybe. But you’re really good at drawing missiles and bombers.”
They assess performance and critique the end result without fear of boasting or judgment. They encourage each other to make alterations and push on. As they survey a finished piece I overhear them claiming what they are good at, accepting what they are not, and always resolving to get better.
As I watched the boys one afternoon it occurred to me that if I felt as much freedom to collaborate with those around me, perhaps I would form a deeper connection to my community, the people who want to support me. Maybe, if I was able to see it as collaboration, the art of creating my life would take on new shape and meaning. I’m certain the boys feel a satisfying camaraderie once their drawings are complete. They are participating in a process that brings to life something that once only existed in their imaginations.
As adults, the fear of truly being seen by others can keep us from collaborating. Somewhere along the way many of us have lost the trust it takes to be vulnerable and share our deepest imaginings with those who care about us. Somehow we can’t believe that our friends and family would support us in the manifestation of our wildest dreams. But for children, living in the spirit of collaboration means more fun! More is possible.
Think about it: children create fantastic realities together daily, realities in which they laugh and sing and paint the world in rainbow colors. Inherently, kids can’t control much about their surroundings, like bedtime or what’s for dinner, but what they can control is imagining a world that reflects exactly what they desire – ice cream for dinner, unicorn rides, trusted allies, and magical powers. They naturally gravitate toward, and attempt to make real, the things that make them happiest.
The fantastic vision I have for my life doesn’t have to be relegated to fantasy. It is important to take steps toward creating a reality I desire. One of those steps is letting the people I love into the beautiful world of my dreams. Life is art, a work in progress. And I cannot create it alone.
I asked the boys why they like to draw together on the same piece of paper. They briefly considered it and, almost in unison, agreed that they are “better together.” I think that’s true – we are all simply better together.