There’s a little boy wearing a Spiderman mask painting a very messy and very big blue shark on his corner of the wooden mural resting flat on the ground. He’s giving the final touches to the shark’s wide mouth, painting rows of white teeth — and he’s very, very excited about his shark. In fact, he’s very, very excited about all of his sharks: just a few hours before, in our artist trading card exercise, he painted a series of them. A bright pink megalodon unlatching its jaw, a blue big white chomping in our direction, a profile of a slim little bull shark, a green tiger shark rowing itself merrily through the deeps. “Who wants my megalodon?” he yells loudly, standing up off his chair, brandishing it in the air. Immediately a response resounds, “I want your megalodon! I’ll trade you my cherry tree!”
The boy’s Zentangle-corner of the wooden mural is complete with a thick blue background of paint. When I ask him why he likes sharks, the answer is so obvious that he has to pause and look at me to see if I’m joking. “Because sharks are neat.”
“Do you know that they make thousands of teeth? They can replace almost their entire mouth,” I say, prompting him. I’m curious about this kid’s curiosity. Over the last five days of CRS Art Camp, the summer art camp that my friends and I are working at, he’s come to camp wearing a different shark shirt — and on top of that, his apron, which he’s decorated with a big aqua-blue shark in Sharpie.
“Oh, of course,” he says, standing up. He’s dropped his paints now; he’s done, smearing his blue-stained fingers on his apron. “They make hundreds and thousands of teeth. Scientists go to the bottom of the sea and pick up all the dropped teeth, and there’s so many of them. You know the megalodon? Once, they figured out how big the shark was by how big its teeth were. They were so big they couldn’t have been from any other shark.” He talks for at least three or four minutes straight, leisurely, contemplatively.
When I was ten, I would hold my stuffed animal, a fluffy little guinea pig Webkinz I’d nicknamed Cho Cho, in my arms and write pages and pages of crookedly-handwritten short stories. Once, my family had returned from a ski trip late at night. A flat metal clock sat in the corner, its dull green eyes flashing, the turquoise digits of the numbers unempathetic. I felt wound up, the air vacuumed as tight as a bell jar. My mother was standing in the doorway, frustrated with me to no end as I cried, “I’m going to grow up and Cho Cho will never be the same to me. I’m going to grow up and I won’t like Cho Cho the same way anymore. I’m going to grow up and … ” My mother snapped at me to go to sleep, and I bit my quivering lip and tried not to cry. In that way small things feel emotionally devastating for a toddler, I clutched Cho Cho to my chest almost jealously when we went on vacation, tucked her into bed every night beside me, shed real tears when stuffing came loose on her foot and sewed her up again and again until her fur turned kinked and overstitched.
Staring Cho Cho in her dark, beaded eyes, my 10-year-old self remembered, with a spasm of fear, a television show I’d seen my parents watching a week ago, in which a woman in a wheelchair attempted to drown herself after she’d wrongly thought that her love was unrequited. It was as if the character’s vocabulary of emotions had been entirely replaced, these darkly dramaticized dialogues full of tumultuous envy and scorn and love, the magnitude and gravitas of which nebulously hovered in the cracks of my imagination. It was as if all of the wonder and love for animals like Cho Cho would evaporate into numbness, as if Cho Cho would disappear and take with her the notion of everything magical and natural, and worst of all, I wouldn’t even care or remember.
When we are older, where do we go when we dream? Our dreamscapes might no longer defy gravity and reason — we find ourselves rooted to the banalities and complexities of human relationships, like ambition, greed and pain. Eight years ago, as my mother left the room, the door clanging shut with her exasperation, I fixed my gaze on the acidic green digits of the clock, squinting through my tears. Cho Cho meant making up stories about gerbil families in my notebooks; she meant dashing to the library with my friends after school to stitch together outfits for her on the computer screen. I loved her for no reason other than the fact that I wanted to love something. I feared growing up, I feared losing the mystery of animal companionship, I feared that the magic would be lost. I feared what had happened in the winter months of my gap year.
“And you know the sharks have a lateral line, right?” I prompt again, now extremely curious about how much this kid knows about sharks. With my clasped hands, I mimic the shape of the lateral line slicing through the water and the sharks with their normal horizontal movement, their studded, bristled skin abrasive and muscular but their motion smooth through the water. “How they use electricity to sense their surroundings?”
His paint is drying now, the massive shark grinning on the wood, and he stares with concentration into the distance. When I say this, he nods instantly. He doesn’t smile because he’s very serious about these topics. They’re natural to him — second nature, simple and pure. “Oh, yeah. The lateral lines. It’s really neat. They can sense the pressure around them and get the prey. They run all through the sides of the body and they use electricity. It’s very smart. These sharks are so fast, so good at getting around. But it’s crazy because we don’t know anything about sharks. We don’t really know anything.”
We don’t know much about sharks, but we do know about these lateral lines. Sharks, like many other cartilaginous fish, have ampullae of Lorenzini, which are a series of electroreceptors that line their bodies in a spattering of tiny specks across the smooth grey flaps of their skin, forming tube-like structures just underneath and parallel to the skin. These electroreceptors are sensitive to electric fields generated by activity all around them in the ocean. Think of a shark deep in the ocean, the cartilage of its body clicking to form a lethal sinusoid, speed whipping through it like a blade of wind. The electricity around it is something of a series of curtains just whooshing by. Imagine those signals clicking between the water and the ampullae and the shark’s brain, brilliant filaments cascading back and forth, spineless tinkles of wind chimes. Like humans, there is such a fine line between the hard machinery of our bodies and the thoughts we produce. Like humans, they sense the environment around them in ways that are beyond verbal.
The month before I counseled this summer art camp, one of my co-counselors and I were living in New York City, where we visited the Brooklyn Aquarium. There was one hallway in which you stride beneath a great glass tunnel so that you feel immersed in the water. There was one shark that took my breath away — the whitetip reef shark, soft and gelatinous, its edges shrubby with chromatic light, sort of like someone had layered a gauze over an old film and all the grain came out. He was a vintage shark, dapper and whiskered with age, and the soft underbelly was as white as cream. In the massive, wall-sized tanks, there are at least 10 or 20 sharks all moving about, some resting sleepily on the floor in a row of chrome-grey bodies, others floating about with beady, testy eyes, ready to live vicariously through us, others self-aware of their lethality and proud in their aloofness, swirling about just shy of our cameras. The wall tanks are the ones meant to mimic depth, with the back of the tank concealed with darkness so you feel as if you are staring straight into a cross section of the Atlantic Ocean. Like the student said — fast as whips, able to pounce on their prey and so fine-tuned to their environments with their electroreceptors, bodies like bullets, as muscled as dancers.
People are like sharks. We’re always sort of blind to our environments. We often live our lives half-consciously, under the influence of our emotions, like pointillist figures floating past a lake, and yet our bodies, our faces, are lined with hundreds of thousands of ampullae of Lorenzini, receptors opening and closing to the dark. What allows us to lift meaning from our “ocean” is what those receptors pick up: how we read people’s faces, and how we allow ourselves to react, that beautiful and inexplicable chemical equilibrium constantly in flux back and forth as we interact and engage with one another and find ourselves changing others, and being changed by others.
That is to say: sharks are neat. The kid said it better.
A few years after Cho Cho became less of a prominent figure in my life and I focused my attention on more fruitful things like Club Penguin, I was lying on a grey cabinet in my aunt’s office and listening to a song. She had bought us dragonfruit and she was playing a farming game on her Microsoft computer. The air conditioning was gentle and lovely. It was August in Shenzhen, the humidity thick, and later that week we would go to the neighborhood pool. The song I was listening to was called 红蜻蜓 by a Chinese trio called the Tiger Brothers, and the lyrics go something like this:
A red dragonfly spinning through the air as neon blue as water. Laughs emanating upwards on a summer day. Spinning upwards, continuously striving towards the glow of the sun, the dragonfly explores the sky, its domain, its realm, its home. The horizon is a limit it eagerly aims to approach, then surpass. Flying is its life.
When the chorus approached, I had to stop the song. A white-hot existential panic overcame me as I swung my legs over the locker. In the chorus, we learn that the red dragonflies fly less and less as the narrator grows older. As the narrator sees more of reality, the red dragonflies drop, one by one, and disappear from our sight. The chorus chilled me with its nonchalance about dreams that faded, and that chill would harden and expand into a desperation to cling onto my current self and a panicked fear for the flatline of the future, the empty stretch of nothingness awaiting me. I broke out into inconsolable tears as this chorus approached. I kept imagining the grey, dreadful stretch of growing up that lay before us, in which I would lose all what was precious to me: the love of belting parody songs and mixing brownies into milk at lunch and stealing flags to play capture-the-flag with my closest friends, of the sunshine that rained over our games and the feelings of being carefree.
I wasn’t scared of losing these actions themselves. I was scared that my friends would grow older and forget about me, and I’d still be young and hopeful and standing in that field, waiting for someone to come tug the flag off of my shirt or talk to me about Annabeth Chase. I was scared that my parents would grow old and wizened and I would still be waiting for them to take mile-long walks with me around the neighborhood to get steaming hot buns. I was scared that the world was full of mundanities and badness and selfishness that would indelibly chip away at you until you lost everything. I was scared that everybody would move on. Most of all, I was scared that I would move on — that my 14-year-old self, or my 18-year-old self, would wander off, dissociate from my younger self so full of hope and excitement and idealism. On that metal cabinet, I cried until my body turned feverish with chills. My aunt asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t explain. Lost youth felt too fragile for me to bring up with words.
Other students have begun their corners of the mural — pink trees, unicorns, all spaced out in various orientations, some refined and intricate with flowers, others just swabs of abstract paint. Sometimes the kids paint in silence, bent quietly over their canvases, sketching and dabbing and flecking stars over their sky or feathering their flamingoes. Other times they are loud, thrilled, tossing babbled remarks back and forth about their combined paintings, giggling loudly as they mix paints on their transparent plates together, smashing pieces of play dough together into fruit plates and rainbows, artfully drawing watercolor flowers and commenting on their future series of dragon portraits.
There’s one student who’s polite, brisk and sharp, always on her toes; her friend, who languishes more, is a bit confused, but has the right spirit; his little sister, who is so tiny she seems like she could be a Thumbelina but has a loud, chirpy voice; two siblings who are quiet but excel in lesson time; and two twins who talk with solemn, brilliant energy, wise beyond their years. They paint go-karts and silhouettes of foxes on beaches, and they are so, so proud of what they have created, and they mix their paints carefully, but not with the practiced, tired carefulness of anyone trying to make anything look good. They squint at their blobbed piles of vermillion and black and douse them together on the plate until they grin, satisfied with themselves. They dab their hands in puffy paint and trade cards back and forth. They think the world of the world, if that makes sense.
Novelist and poet Margaret Atwood once said in an interview, “Ghosts are real to those who see them.” The same is true for these children, but in the opposite direction. Their purity wraps around me and reminds me how much of a child I am, and how little I know, reminds me to regard the people around me with more innocence and forgiveness.
For those children at camp, the reason they decide to paint some images, and pass on others is a mark of that unique equilibrium between an individual and their surroundings. Art is a chemistry between what we know and what we believe. The younger you are, the more that line disappears.
What are the feelings that I remember made me feel so boundless as a child that feel so normal now, so humanly understandable? Lying on that locker in China, scooping iced passion fruit from the spoon with my aunt; skipping through the streets of Shenzhen and somersaulting into the public pools with little kids who I didn’t know but was puffed up with courage to befriend. I had forgotten about Cho Cho but was newly consumed with the fear of school and of expectations. Now, the buildings flanking the tight streets of Shenzhen loom less enormous and god-like to me; the glittering signs on the doors are at the level of my eye, but the people hurrying past in their thin tank tops in the summer or rain-sugared ponchos in the winter — it’s easier to recognize the patterns of stress and grief and joy that carve their beautiful, stranger faces. The Romantic poets have a word for the wonder felt by children — the sublime. It’s being young again and being awed by the vastness of nature and the endlessness of the world.
When I sit by that student painting a massive shark, both of us wearing aprons splotched with Sharpie and paint and musing very seriously about which adaptations of sharks we like the best, here’s the thing I realize: it is not the quality of being young that makes you feel wondrous; it’s the quality of feeling wondrous that makes you feel young. I’m less than one-fifth through life — and even by the end of life, so much of the world remains an unexplored deep ocean. To be young is to approach the next day as if you are growing up still, to search for that wonder, to find its existence.
Wonder morphs and crystallizes into its different forms that will expand upon themselves. Without realizing it, I’ve gravitated towards the same topics year after year: water, change, love. When I was eleven, I was obsessed with the mysticality of underwater worlds and mermaids. In my senior year, my marine biology class reawakened my imagination. Once again I was fascinated with the deeps, imagining light splitting the waves into a kaleidoscope and breaking into a thousand pearls around me, understanding the science behind the ecosystems. During my gap year, reading and writing science fiction became a fixation. Thinking about the architecture of a hypothetical underwater world post-climate apocalypse, I felt overwhelmed by the possibilities. Since I was young, I’ve loved whales and sharks. Learning about the intricacies of how they live, prey and sense in my senior year gave me permission to reinhabit the lifestyle of a little kid scribbling in her nature sketchbook and feverishly taping leaves to pages.
The funny thing is, I haven’t lost my curiosities at all. Sometimes they lie asleep for weeks, even years, but when they reawaken, it is with even more depth and complexity than I could have imagined before.
At the final gallery, paintings, cards, projects and lessons decorate the walls in canvases and papers of all shapes and sizes. Music plays softly from the speakers as students tug their parents around. They show off their acrylic deer they learned in lessons and their charcoal still-lives which they produced with such steady concentration and detailed blending; they stream outside to see their artist trading cards pinned up on the shuttered window and their final projects propped up with name cards on the tables. It’s a day of chaos and sunlight.
Last year, when I asked my mom what I should do I when I was older, she looked at me and said, 你已经长大了。You’ve already grown up. I didn’t know what to do with that, although it certainly didn’t strike me with the existential fear that my younger self thought it would.
She’s right. The red dragonflies are still flying. I’m closing my eyes and letting wonder lead me wherever it likes.