What A Cross-Country Flight Taught Me About Painting The World

I spent this past weekend with one of my best friends. We haven’t lived in the same city in eleven years, but we communicate in a multitude of ways and talk on the phone at least once a week.

Through our conversations, I’ve become intimately aware of her new routines, adventures, friends, and work. I’ve heard about her life in broad strokes and detailed marks. Knowing her, and using some general context, I painted a picture of her life in my mind, and applied each new story within its context. When I visited her this weekend, it was my first time visiting her in Philadelphia, where she has lived for the past two years.

Our time together was perfect — from a morning walk along the river to a spontaneous visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum to alone-together exercise time to a tour of her office, favorite grocery store, and go-to bars and restaurants — a testament to our compatibility despite any of our differences.

But this morning, as my friend drove me to the airport (at 4:30 AM!), I felt as if I was sitting next to two people: one who has stood by my side for twenty-six years and one that I had just met forty-eight hours prior. The second person made herself known not because my friend acted out of character, but because I had gotten a glimpse of her life from a perspective I’d never had before.

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Last week, I started watching Abtract: The Art of Design, a Netflix documentary series that spotlights eight people responsible for common objects in our designed world. Episodes highlight people like a New Yorker cover illustrator, the mastermind behind the Air Jordan, and a designer of IKEA furniture. The episodes aren’t just about their designs or how they came to be, but instead about how they approach the world. How and why they think the way they do.

The “behind the scenes” approach wasn’t necessarily new to me. It is much like two of my favorite podcasts: Zach Lowe’s The Lowe Post for off-court basketball things and Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing for unique perspective into the minds of artists, policy makers, and performers.

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Of late, I’ve found myself increasingly interested in what’s invisible to the naked eye — the stories behind the spectacles. Perhaps because what is visible is sometimes so ludicrous that I am unable to take it at face value. This pursuit isn’t an easy one. Not because the information isn’t there, but because I have to travel the distance to find it.

This morning, what I recognized about my friend was only visible to me because I had given myself a new perspective. Much like her and my favorite Monets, the painting looked different up close than it did from afar.

If I am still adding to the story of this wonderful human who I have known since my brain started forming memories, I can only wonder what layers exist behind the rest of my vast world, in social spheres, in design, in entertainment, in government, in other countries—this, just a shortlist.

Hopefully, I am not alone in my wondering. Though it’s unlikely (impossible) for us to ever know it all, it is important now, maybe more than ever, that we approach what’s visible with the curiosity to learn and build rather than with the bias to judge and destruct.

And that we do so in the same loving way that we seek to learn more about a best friend.

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