A Symbol of Love

Strength and resilience rise to the fore through the first major UK exhibition of artist Robert Indiana, currently on show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park 

Robert Indiana, LOVE (Red Blue Green), 1966–1998, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Arriving at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on a cloudless morning in March, it was strange to think that just days ago one of the worst storms in years had wreaked havoc here. The 500-acre park had lost three of its ancient trees; the grounds were left muddy and the branches bare. But, in a moment of respite, there was a refreshing sense of hope and resilience in the air, as well as the welcomed scent of spring exuded through the dozens daffodils sprouting from the earth.

Celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, the park has been at the epicentre of contemporary sculpture for the past four decades. There are currently more than 80 works from major sculptors peppered amongst its grounds including Phyllida Barlow, Ai Weiwei, Joan Miró, Damien Hirst and Barbara Hepworth, with site-specific works from Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash and James Turrell. It’s a treasure trove for art lovers, nature enthusiasts and dog walkers alike; there’s something for everyone whether it’s a leisurely stroll, a picnic, a gawk at the 18th-century Bretton Hall estate, or to revel in the work of some of the world’s best-known sculptors. 

Robert Indiana, Exploding Numbers, 1964-66, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

There’s much to explore, not least in the park’s ongoing exhibition programme located in six indoor galleries and the outdoors. For 2022, the YSP opens the doors to the first major UK exhibition of American artist Robert Indiana, spanning 60 years of his magnanimous sculpting career with many works previously unseen. Additionally, there’s a selection of drawings by sculptor and land artist David Nash presented in The Weston Gallery and Bothy Gallery, while Yukihiro Akama’s miniature wooden houses are shown in the YSP Centre. A common denominator throughout it all is a profound feeling of love and strength, addressed through the key topics of the major exhibitions – that being politics and sustainability. This is oozed through the works entirely but most prominently at the entrance of the site, Indiana’s iconic Love (Red Blue Green) (1966-1998), stands proudly as if it were watching over us all, reminding us of one of the most universally felt emotions.

Clare Lilley, who’s recently been appointed the new director of YSP, spoke of the “incredible coincidence” of making this exhibition at this point in time. The moment she saw Love being installed at the park, for instance, she sobbed. The invasion of Ukraine had just been announced and – holding back her tears greatly – she remarks how “love is symbolic for the current world”. Love couldn’t be more symbolic or more pertinent, despite the fact that it was crafted decades ago. 

Robert Indiana, LOVE WALL, 1966-2006, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

The tone was set for the remainder of the day as Clare took us on a guided tour of the park, first beginning with Indiana’s outdoor structures allude to his fascination with the graphic, numerical form. “Numbers fill my life,” he stated, penned in the release. “They fill my life even more than love. We are immersed in numbers from the moment we’re born.” Heading indoors, we gazed at the surprisingly mixed-media works; brass pieces constructed to look like wood, earlier collage forms, or phallic columns addressing the impact of the AIDS crisis to name a few. Tracing six decades through 56 sculptures, we saw the artist’s practice in full swing as he depicted his own version of the American Dream – a darker one at that. Forging a connection between politics, society and art, Indiana’s momentous career has poked hard at the world for its discrimination of LGBTQIA+ communities and racism. It’s a hopeful reminder of love and unity. 

The day continued as we strolled through the luscious grounds, inhaling the fresh air and either avoiding or ingesting the Marmite pieces from Hirst in the nearby distance. David Nash was our next stop – a painterly depiction of our relationship with nature perceived through an evolving study of trees – before heading to witness James Turril’s Deer Shelter Skyspace, a moment of calm as we peaked through the cut out roof of an 18th-century Grade II Listed building (an old deer shelter). Swapping the foot for a sturdy Land-rover, the final steps of the day were observed through the window as the helpful guide navigated us through the on-site sculptures and artworks. A personal favourite being the biodegradable pavilion created by Studio Morison, where timber, thatch and compacted earth has been constructed to allow visitors in for a moment of peace and quiet. Eventually, the piece will fall in on itself and decompose. It’s a stark comment on the fragility of nature, echoed by the fallen trees and bent branches from the storm.

YSP is undeniably a tranquil setting, and the final moments of the day were with concluded with calm, wind-hit faces and an unanimous feeling of contentment. Consumed by nature-rich parklands and the evocative artworks on display, I couldn’t think of a more apt location for discussing themes of love, resilience and our relationship with the planet – a greater reflection of what’s happening in the world right now.

 

Robert Indiana: Sculpture 1958-2018 is on show at YSP’s Underground Gallery and Open Air between 12 March 2022-8 January 2023

Robert Indiana, American Dream # 5 (The Golden Five), 1980, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, AMOR (Red Yellow), 1998-2006, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, Ash, 1985, cast 2017, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, Love Is God, 1964, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, Monarchy, 1969, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

The Last Survivor is the First Subject

12 years in the making, Nick Haymes’ new book is a nostalgic trip through the lives of American teenagers

Think back to your school years and a few pivotal memories will likely rise to the surface – the friendships, the mistakes and the lessons learnt. Nick Haymes was always fond of people and, in school, you would have found him bouncing between the cliques – people liked him. He had low-grade Williams syndrome and he enjoyed his younger days, especially his art teacher and, of course, girls. For six years, he would “obsessively” walk to school with one girl in particular. However, their relationship remained platonic and Nick’s confidence crumbled, resulting in him using drugs and dropping out of school. Three years later he found out he was adopted.

After rehab and a period of paranoid psychosis, Nick felt drained and riddled with a new-found shyness – the complete antithesis to his previously extroverted self. Luckily, he picked up a camera as a way of dealing with his own personal trauma. The camera was a catalytic tool that allowed him to engage with people from a distance; he could once again be near people, and he spent four consecutive summers travelling and sofa surfing with a new circle of friends – the “lost boys” – in California. 

After 12 years, these experiences have now been collated into a book entitled The Last Survivor, published by Kodoji Press. Just as the name suggests, the imagery and texts allude to a period of struggle and growth. It’s shot in typical documentary style, sending the viewer on a nostalgic trip through Southern California and Tulsa as it follows a community of young friends; they navigate adolescence, connections, bonds and tragedies, like the death of their friend, Fern. It’s a tale about others, but equally of a teenager growing up through hardship. Because, if it weren’t for Nick finding his voice with the camera, who knows where this story might have ended up. Nick tells me more about the project below. 

Your new book is an extremely reflective project, how does it feel looking back and thinking about your past? Is it a cathartic experience?

The book is both – it’s a celebration of a fleeting moment and reverie, and also the more sobering aspect surrounding death at such a young age. I deliberately held back on making this book until I could view it all as impartially as I possibly could, but overall I reflect on it in a positive light as many of the boys, now grown, I’m still very close to.

Can you tell me more about the moment you became interested in photography? What was the first picture you took; how did your camera specifically help you overcome your shyness? 

I always wanted to do anything else in the arts except photography. My grandfather was a keen amateur photographer, so he was responsible for turning me onto photography. At a very young age, he gave me an old vintage Russian Zorki rangefinder camera and then later on a Zenit E. The earliest images I remember taking were from those around the age of nine or 10. It wasn’t until I was a few years older that I became aware of photography as an access and entry point to places and people that I would otherwise never meet or speak to. I found it a great enabler and still do. 

Talk me through the work involved in the project – what does it tell us about this group of friends? 

I was a very young parent at the time with two sons. I never grew up in the United States as a youth but now I find myself living here indefinitely and raising a family. I wished to try to understand my surroundings through the eyes of youth, to comprehend what it meant to be young and American  – a way of building a future relationship with my own children. It actually took a few trips before I was fully accepted by everyone. One of my closest friends now is one of the boys who was the most apprehensive of me at the time. 

What I did find was a very close knit community of boys, who felt that they had been somewhat let down either from schooling or the cliques that they clearly felt were not for them. Skating was a single unifying force that created a really strong bond with all of the boys I photographed during that time period. No one was judged by their social economic background or race. It was a very diverse group.

How do you hope your audience will respond to the work? 

Its pretty uncomplicated; it’s about time, youth, existence and death. I have a fear of time, there’s so little of it and its so easily wasted.

What’s next for you? 

I’m currently in the darkroom printing for the next book project. It’s a series that I have worked pretty solidly on for the past 12 years. All going well that should be finalised as a book for 2023-ish. I’m also shooting for projects that are still in the early stages of development. It’s often a lot to ask of someone to let me photograph them over such a long period of time.  

Photography courtesy of Nick Haymes

Anaïs Duplan on Music

The poet, curator and artist shares an extract from his essay Music is a Vehicle for Perceiving (Or, a Foundation for Artful Intervention). An interview with the author will be released in the coming weeks

Photography by Ally Caple

Music is a vehicle for perceiving. We demand music. The music of the soul connotes the body, thought, intervention, silence. We can’t be the speakers of our bodies; we’re already spoken for. We instead tune into, smile upon, the parcels of ourselves that are beaten up by historicity. To live, thrive, we don’t demand to not be beaten up. Instead we wield our beaten selves in the arms of the rest of our bodies. Sit up proud, happy. We made it here today. Go on. 

Wow, it’s incredible to be drawn-out, to read ourselves from outside within the art of peace, freedom. If we embrace living in clarity and knowledge, then it behooves us to receive our social landscape more fully. What attributes do we project onto experience? Do we perceive that being alive is embraceable? Do we take refuge in what we know, using this refuge as a free space from which to receive each other? Is there a suggestion, here, that others might not see that we come from what we know? That others might not even see how we come from what we know?

Romantic encounters create a self-reflective sense. Our lovers have a Blackness we ourselves would like to have, actively strive toward. Further lovers embody the Blackness of ours we’ve tried to repress. In either case, our encounters with romance bring us into intimate contact with our joining, susceptibility. Submission and dominance get played out in different arrangements, depending on our relationship with our sexual partners. The reflexive meaning of submission and dominance: what it means to be dominated changes depending on our relationship with our partners: our relationship with their position, who they channel down through the centuries, their position in relation to us. Submitting to our lovers is submission to their Blackness. We reconcile to let those attributes take precedence over our own. We reconcile, to be dominated by our ancestors and, in a consensual sexual relationship, embrace being dominated by them. Or, we dominate our partners, and our own Blackness prevails. 

What materialises when our lover has attributes that shuffle us into vulnerability? Vulnerability is complete and presents us with the momentum needed to receive. We have those defence mechanisms, our angels. We try to save ourselves from insult. Our defence mechanisms are sophisticated, useful. It isn’t wretched to try to recover our bodies from harm—it’s smart! But the mechanisms we use to cover ourselves are often outdated, causing us harm. We’re sabotaging our bodies. We don’t know when we’re doing it. We can’t be honest. 

Our orientation to life is to the detriment of our unvoiced desires. Soul is an appearance, a glimmer, a smile. If we’re patient, we get to its essence. Our souls bring revelations to the surface in order to foreground information they deem primary to our survival. Do we have the nerve to listen? Are we ready to drive with trouble? The negative emotions are there to talk with us. Their negativity is what signals that we should pull inwardly, into slowness. So far as negativity gives positivity meaning, the negative emotions are not wretched, not to be resisted. On the contrary, resisting negativity proliferates it by authorising it to go undealt with. Unprocessed pain manifests through unconscious behaviour. Resisting negativity, refusing to perceive it, means it proliferates. It’s been authorised to go undealt with. It transforms, phase-changes, metamorphoses, joining the ecosystem of our life, though remaining mysterious, even alien, to us. Do we ever think about why we dream of controlling our bodies? Do we think through what we’re afraid of: resurgence, uncontrollable stories passed through, seated in us, or do we think through unrequited love? 

We’ve never understood what myths really are. We know what a story is. We know a story is told across cultures, temporalities (and inside a culture, across its generations). But what moves a myth, generates the scale of its reach? How does it generate meaning for a culture as a whole? The men, the myth, the legends? There’s no style or method of walking around that will not pull out some sort of ancestral translation from our bodies. I walked down to the parking garage and it was cold. I had washed my skin with cold water that morning.

We can get aroused by art. Art as Blackness, as recreation. Is valuing Blackness the parallel of possessing it? We possess Blackness in greater or lesser degrees. To the extent to which we value those Blacknesses, we voice our ancestors. 

Among folks in public, who have nothing to do with each other, somehow, small synchronicities, repetitions, are materialising. They are echoing each other, mirroring, and bonding. We are the joint apparatus of our bodies, labouring in tandem to keep us free, to help us survive. When we’ve built up a reservoir inside our bodies of mutual perceiving, we are able to tolerate the sense of being wrong ourselves. We don’t fight what is materialising in us; we consent to our situation first. We labor to enrich our situation from a place of mutual aspiration. 

Peace proceeds from contentment; trust that the desired result does arise. We’d like to be replete immediately, to get rid of what we hold to be our negative attributes. We can’t get along with being flawed; we can’t bear the view/idea that we can’t fix our flaws right this moment. We’re not who we dreamed to be. We don’t authorise the cycle of undergoing: checking our bodies with judgment, rush, and anger. Can we tolerate the vision of our own failure? Be careful of smoothing over what is the field of failure, meaning, the place of unimaginability, and beyondness. Inside our bodies is the source of our creativity, rooted in the field of failure. 

We serve our bodies with a clear, kind, wet, responsive disposition. If we’re impatient, we should practice not having views. If we’re too startled, we should practice acting on our views. Do we have to be successful when we struggle? The puzzle of it all is when we “get what we dreamed of”; it doesn’t seem satisfying. What we dreamed of is much more complicated. 

Art is the way we proceed across time, the puzzles we read in each other. What does it take to shuffle, to forge a soulful connection? Are situations of conflict driven by personality flaws? By the inner intervention of personality flaws within each? By the resistance of Blackness to a kind of Blackness which it deems nonconsensual? By the drive to cover up what reads as not okay, incomplete—that’s to say, the ideological? Be a reinforcement or re-embodiment of the Blackness we wish to read reified in experience. This is, after all, a Blackness that gathers around itself. 

We continue to feed the myth of our bodies to our bodies in order to survive. Who are we? We can get closer to the answer to this question when we hear out what drives our hurt. 

This text is an extract taken from Music is a Vehicle for Perceiving (Or, a Foundation for Artful Intervention), written by Anaïs Duplan and published on Topical Cream on 1 December 2021

Look at me like you love me

Their most personal project to date, Jess T. Dugan’s new book lenses topics of identity, desire and connection

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Collin at sunset, 2020’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Jess T. Dugan’s new book is their most personal yet. Entitled Look at me like you love me and published by Mack, this new body of work is part of an ongoing, long-term portraiture project that sees the photographer explore themes such as identity, gender and sexuality. An enduring and empowering subject, Jess has carved a career making intimate pictures of topics that they hold closely; they draw from their own experience as a queer, non-binary person and therefore strive to understand and connect with others through their work. Jess has resultantly been exhibited widely across 40 museums in the US, and their previous monographs include To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults, and Every Breath We Drew.

In this new publication, Jess has combed 60 shots of friends, loved ones and self-portraits with their own written texts. “It’s representative of what I’m thinking about right now,” they tell me. Having worked on the project throughout 2021 – a difficult year to say the least – Jess has succeeded in making the “strongest and most of-the-moment book” they could. It’s a record of their own life – stories about themselves and the things that they have experienced. Below, Jess discusses this impactful collection, what desire means to them and the importance of being seen. 

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Shira and Sarah, 2020’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

This book is what you refer to as a “deeper exploration” of your work. What does this mean exactly?

I think a lot of it is where I am in my life: I’m 35, I have a child and I’m thinking about things differently than when I was in my 20s. I’m grappling with some larger questions about living a meaningful life, how to live authentically, how to relate to other people and these questions of desire. I think the book centres around the power of seeing someone and also letting yourself be seen, and how that act of being seen can validate your own internal identity.

There’s definitely a theme of desire throughout the book, and that appears in the photographs as well as the texts. I think about desire in a more expansive way – the desire for someone, the desire to be close to someone, the desire to be in relationship with other people, the desire to be part of a community, the desire to see yourself reflected in someone else, and that complicated interaction that happens between photographer and subject. Both the portraits and the texts are highly personal. 

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Oskar and Zach (bed), 2020’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

I’d love to hear more about your subjects – your friends and your loved ones. 

This body of work as a whole are people that I know really well. Some of them I met because I was interested in them; it allows us to begin a relationship both as a photographer and subject, and also as friends. Sometimes the act of photographing someone allows them to become a friend, and that’s something that I value about what I do. For me, photographing is the way that I connect with other people on a meaningful level. It’s hard for me to separate my work from my personal life, and this book is perhaps the most obvious example of that – how it’s folded together. 

There are some people in the book who I have known and photographed many times over a period of years. There’s someone named Collin, who appears quite regularly in the book, and he and I met in 2017. He’s also a photographer, and I was visiting a class that he was in and just immediately felt drawn to him – I asked if he would let me photograph him. We started this relationship where we worked together many times over a period of several years. Each photoshoot, we were able to go to an even deeper level, emotionally and psychologically.

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Collin (red room), 2020’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

There’s another person named Oskar, who I photographed several times over a period of many years. Oskar and someone else named Zach are the two on the cover of the book. I was interested in his particular identity and gender presentation. One thing I have been very interested in for a long time is a more gentle and nuanced and complex version of masculinity, so I’m often seeking people out who exist in that space. I’m also aware that it’s a space that I myself exist in, and I’ve had to very actively define my own gender, my own masculinity; it’s something that I view as a more gentle version of masculinity than the one in the mainstream culture. I’m often seeking that in other people as well; I’m interested in how we can mirror each other.

The book also includes several images of my partner, Vanessa, and there are five self-portraits in the book. Other people are friends who, in some cases, I’ve known for a really long time. In others, they’re newer friends. A lot of the people in the book – not all of them – are part of my community here in St. Louis, where I live. They’re close friends, people that I spend time with. They’re people that I’ve photographed over a period of several years and gotten to know on a deeper level, both as friends and as as subjects.

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Self-portrait (hotel), 2021’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Your work appears like a form of catharsis, does this book feel like an emotional release for you?

I do think so. I have definitely always used my work to understand myself and make sense of my life and the world around me. That has been true since the very beginning. I made a video piece in 2017 about my estranged relationship with my father and, at that time, I think that was the most cathartic piece I had made and it was also really personal. It was also the first time that I had a text overlay with images. So in a way, I feel like that piece is in dialogue with this book.

The photographs are mostly from the past three or four years, and the texts were all written in 2021, between March and September. I think it feels very much of this moment. I do think the pandemic changed me as both a person and an artist, and made me think more urgently – or I should say even more urgently – about the importance of connection to other people and the need to live authentically and in a way that’s present and alive. I assume this happened for a lot of people, but those things were amplified for me. I think the texts are also coming out of this place where the urgency of relationships and the urgency of living authentically feels at the forefront of my mind, and that certainly influenced this book.

Look at me like you love me (2022) by Jess T. Dugan published by MACK

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Zach and Oskar, 2019’ from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Red tulips, 2020’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Alix at sunset, 2017’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Restraint and Desire

Ken Graves and Eva Lipman’s lifelong creative partnership highlighted in a publication from TBW Books

The first thing to notice in Restraint and Desire, Ken Graves and Eva Lipman’s collaborative publication, is its duality. Not only for the representation of kinship – a partnership between husband and wife – but it also induces a visual mirroring. With black and white imagery often presented on the right hand sided of the book, you’ll see pairings of subjects gestating, touching or moving in the dynamic and heavily contrasted stye of the photography. It would be strange to see a character on their own.

To witness two spouses collaborating together is not an uncommon occurrence in the art world; think Marina Abramović and Ulay, who produced work together for 12 years in total; Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre; Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivero to name just a small handful of examples. But in this specific union, there’s something so effortlessly harmonic in the way they have composed their imagery. In fact, it’s hard to determine who did what; the work appears like a single entity, which is a stark contrast to the distinctive narratives found in synergies like this.

Over the decades and until Ken’s passing, the pair have worked in alliance with one another, defining this merging of two minds – a melting pot of shared goals and ideals. The result of which is a survey of the rituals found in typical American culture, things like the awkward celebration of school dances, the cheer of football games and boxing matches; the archetype of American society. By shining their lens on these topics, the couple were able to douse it with their own sensibility, in turn highlighting the complexities of human nature and how these rites of passage can often go overlooked in the every day. Ken and Eva, however, were never oblivious to the subtle intricacies of humankind and, instead, sought a career in documenting these moments. 

But it wasn’t just the world around them that went on to inspire their work. It was also their relationship, which tended to reveal itself in their work together – the sexual tensions, dynamics and complexities that comes with sharing a life with someone. The resulting work illustrates feelings of tenderness, intimacy, lust, generosity, connection and communication; the elements that define what it is to really love someone. And equally, they also represent the more negative associations of love where boredom, fear and tiredness might rise to the surface.

“These pictures were made in collaboration with my partner in life and work, Ken Graves,” writes Eva in the book. ”I will forever be grateful to him for his love and generosity, his unfailing optimism, and for sharing with me his strange and unique worldview. I miss him everyday.

Restraint and Desire, then, is like an archival memory box of their relationship together. So even though Eva is no longer able to physically touch her husband, nor are they featured in the work themselves, these posing bodies are somewhat of an apt reminder – a visual cue that she can refer back to whenever she needs. As Eva says, “our work reflected back to us, like a mirror, the intensities and power dynamics of our shared life together”. Love, and this partnership in particular, will never fade, and this book is fine example of its enduring presence.

Restraint and Desire is published by TBW Books and available here.

Watching Them Sleep

Author Rick Moody on the subject of young love, whose tenderest moments, though fleeting, give birth to some of our most profound and long-lasting emotions

At 17 I thought I knew all there was to know about love. In part I believed this because I was reading Byron, Shelley and Keats in a literature class in my senior year of high school, and in part because I had a large crate of LPs in my dorm room, and this crate was filled with love songs. I liked love songs about romantic destitution best. In fact, as a 17-year-old, I seemed to favour repelling love in my daily life so that I could feel the destitution of love, which would occasion playing the love songs that best celebrated this acute loss. I thought love was an indescribable violet, I thought it was a certain stretch of empty highway, I thought it was in the craggy outcropping of desolate snowy peaks that you can see in the valleys, I thought it was a hanging plateau of fog, or an elk glimpsed on a bit of empty prairie, or the call of the hawk swooping down on a trembling rodent. I was happy both to declare love and to declare its futility.

We had an obligatory religion class at my high school, and a large part of this class, to the chagrin of my contemporaries, was given over to wrestling with a knotty theologian called Paul Tillich. The 17-year-old dreamer version of Rick Moody applied himself to the class, and could readily spout Tillich’s phrase loving action when asked to describe the meaning of faith. I could tell you, because we’d had an exam on the subject, that this meant that love was not a static condition, but that in the throes of love one was outwardly directed, or ultimately concerned, as Tillich says; one was giving and expecting nothing in return, one was open and selfless, one was the wind off the inscrutable ocean, clearing away the detritus of selfishness, blowing where it listeth.

What little apocalypse was required to make this loving action a thing that one felt and lived rather than something one spouted in exams? Well, there was this girl – who I’ll call Brenda – who was a couple of years younger, meaning that at the time of this story we were almost exactly the age of Romeo and Juliet. Neither of us were allowed to vote, and neither of us could legally drink, and we went to a school where if a boy visited a girl in her room she was supposed to leave the door open, and have three out of their four feet on the floor. Brenda was from Colorado, and she had a really warm and loving family. She was put together like a level-headed person is put together. We didn’t have much in common but we were in love.

One day, Brenda and I were over in this school building called Memorial Hall, an assembly hall, which was empty. Brenda and I were just strolling around, and through some impulse we ended up sitting on the carpet, whereupon, in some glorious fit she, leaning against me, simply fell asleep. Brenda was blonde, oh reader of these lines, and she was tall, had a decidedly joyful smile, a great, earthy sense of humour, and a perfect laugh, and she fell asleep in my arms. Rather than wake her, I just held her, and let her sleep. It was not comfortable for me, not for long. But I had cause to think about all of this – who she was, how she was, how I was with her – and while she slept all the ups and downs, the star-crossed and difficult portions of our entanglement, were in arrest, and all was silence and awaiting.

It came to me, in the half hour that ensued, at least as I recreate it, that I had never known how she felt, not really, not from the inside, but as she slept I felt the beginning of some sentiment that didn’t require romantic destitution, didn’t require loss, but was rather a measure of the labour and service put in to being with someone, and the selflessness that comes from trying to figure out what’s best for the girl in your lap, rather than always thinking about what’s best for you, abuser of all the natural resources in your family and your group of friends. I held her, and watched, and waited, and there was no bounty of tears, there was no brush fire of the heart, there was just the outwardly directed feeling, which in turn, as the Sun in the window moved several inches in its across-the-carpet-ing transit, pointed toward the feeling of being ultimately concerned.

We did, it must be said, break up not long after that. Or we broke up and got back together and broke up again. And then I graduated. And moved several states away. Neither of us ever drank a draught of poison, or set themselves on fire at the ocean’s edge. Protestations of need of the epistolary sort would have been silly. We went on with our lives. But in my case I went on a bit wiser about what’s important. A still moment of being and giving and letting go could, it seemed, reveal where the deepest feelings are hiding out, waiting to be diagrammed over the decades to come. The deepest feelings are to be found in what you give. Brenda taught me in the simplest way possible, by falling asleep.

I’m now in my mid-50s and very happily married, and have a newborn son, as one should probably not have at my age, and a daughter who is almost eight years old, and I frequently have the opportunity to watch them sleep. In fact, nothing makes me happier than watching children sleep. Is it the love, the agape, that C S Lewis ascribes to the divine (him or her or itself ), the love that parents feel for children? Maybe. I know that something really pure takes place in these moments, the child breathing and dreaming in some vulnerable way that is beautiful and trusting. It doesn’t seem to matter much how old the children are. It’s a different model, this adult loving action, from the 17-year- old rental economy kind of love, the love-the-one-you’re-with desperation of the teenage years, and I’m glad for it, I’m glad it’s different, no matter how long it took to get here.

Keats said it best: “Silly youth doth think to make itself/Divine by loving, and so goes on/ Yawning and doting a whole summer long.”

Illustration Tim McDonagh

This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.