Chapter 14: Sunflower (For Daniel, For Ukraine)
Miradouro Panorâmico de Monsanto
** Note: On February 24, Russia began its aggressive invasion of Ukraine, sounding an alarm that sparked a global consciousness the likes of which I haven’t seen since 9/11. Russia’s mounting war crimes prove to be yet another imminent consequence of power’s firm grip on humankind, greed’s grasp on society, fear’s gridlock on the planet. Despite there being countless other war-torn regions of terror scattered across our percolating planet, this particular war caught the mass media’s attention for many reasons, including:
🇺🇦 Putin is a fucking psychopath;
🇺🇦 Tragedy fuels consumerism;
🇺🇦 White supremacy begets white supremacy;
🇺🇦 The world needs to know;
🇺🇦 Evil should be dealt with, swiftly, at all costs.
Last week, I stood at the top of an abandoned restaurant, Miradouro Panorâmico de Monsanto, in Parque Florestal de Monsanto, overlooking the vibrant city of Lisbon, Portugal. I thought about Ukraine, standing knee-deep in the privilege of my freedom to travel, hardly able to breathe at the thought of how much I wanted to do something to help, but too afraid to admit that I couldn’t — and likely wouldn’t — fight in a war if I had to. (At least I think so.)
I thought about America, steeping quickly in the privilege of our dog-eat-dog economy; our access to (and rejection of) cutting edge medicine; our repellent feelings to education and critical thinking; our monolith of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and every other kind of fear-driven hatred documented by humans, built on the backs of the 99%, dating back hundreds of years. Most of us were tricked into believing that the system could work for all of us if we just put the work in, the true root of our own impending civil war that started on July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, one of the biggest and deadliest marketing schemes of all-time — and brought us to January 6, 2021, the genesis of said civil war, awakened again from its restless slumber, incubating in whitewashed history and inoculating in a body void of immunity to countless tall tales of success, fame, fortune, equity, and equality.
And I thought about Daniel Skripnik, an underground, queer creative who found himself having gone viral after Britney Spears blasted a piece he’d created of her on her Instagram (second photo), an immaculate response to the #FreeBritney movement.
Daniel is Ukrainian, a patriot, and an artist. His work is soft and provocative and invites serious questions about community, justice, and freedom. It breathes, fluid and kind, like a warm pillow against a sweat-stained face after a long night at the discotheque. I found myself lost in his feed, devouring every post in one lengthy-sitting, digesting every piece with precision and curiosity. I respected him from afar, a stranger to his person but a friend to his work. He became a figure of hope to me, a symbol of beauty, another hero joining the ranks of the vast collection of heroes in my head, most of whom I don’t know but all of whom I deeply respect.
The moment the threat of Russian invasion began to fester, I immediately rushed to Daniel’s Instagram page to see if he was posting information from inside. He was. In fact, he was reporting everything, in real-time, blasting it to his 22K+ followers, amassing virtual love from around the world, fueling a digital demonstration of support amplifying his experience of the war. I stared at his feed and the “Message” button at the top of his page, and in a moment of logical panic, I wrote to him. I asked if he would be free for an interview on my show on Radio Kingston/WKNY — not just because of the invasion, but because his art has served as a place of comfort to me, and I wanted him to know. But more importantly, I wanted him to have a face to a name, to know that his global queer family was here for him. If he needed help, I could try to help. I could do that. I just didn’t know how.
“Tell me what I can do.”
As I shot the flare into the electronic ether, I told myself a response couldn’t possibly happen. Daniel was caught in the thick of a war.
What the fuck were you even thinking by reaching out?
And then, a notification appeared. It was Daniel. We began a back-and-forth. I told him I thought we, the world, needed more information, from the core of the volcano. Not filtered through the smoke and mirrors of CNN or the Wall Street Journal but from the actual mouths of people inside. He agreed.
“The more people know, the better. That’s how you can help.”
During our Zoom conversation, he opened up and showed me a part of the story I never would’ve seen through a laptop or an iPhone. I saw Daniel. He spoke directly to me. As he said that he believed Ukraine will win, I looked into his eyes behind my computer screen. And as I agreed with him that indeed, Ukraine will win, he looked into my eyes behind his computer screen. We both smiled. My new friend Daniel and I, separated by hundreds and hundreds of miles, found each other, even if only for that 45 minute Zoom exchange.
24 hours before I “met” him, I stood on top of Miradouro Panorâmico de Monsanto, overlooking the city of Lisbon, and I thought about imagination. I reflected on my two-year journey with All-American Ruins and how it has saved my spirit time and time again, each and every exploration into the wiles of abandoned spaces across the country an escape from reality, into the past where ghosts have given me their wisdom in exchange for my imagination that conjures their spirits each time I visit a new location. As my thoughts turned to Daniel and the conversation we were going to have the next morning, I realized that imagination wasn’t just a tool for healing the past; it could also be a tool for healing the future. I closed my eyes and leaned onto the concrete behind me, resting my spine on the cool wall of the abandoned restaurant. I imagined Daniel’s back leaning up against mine, holding each other up, and I whispered.
Daniel, I don’t know if you can hear me, but I’m thinking about you.
And in my head, he responded, as our souls greeted each other, somewhere only the imagination could deliver us.
When we spoke “face-to-face” the following afternoon, I asked him what he was doing to protect his heartspace. And wouldn’t you know it: he told me that his imagination had been holding his hand through this entire catastrophe. My lungs stopped: truly, this man I’d connected with was (and is) my brother. He knew about what I’d learned over the past two years, adventuring out across the country to explore American ruins — and about the unmitigated healing power of imagination. We shared more than just a love of art, a dream of peace, a bond of queerness: we shared a sanctuary of imagination.
Daniel is Ukrainian, a patriot, an artist, and though I’ve had the absolute pleasure of speaking with him once, to me, he’s one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met. Thank you for sharing your spirit with me, Daniel. I look forward to the day we meet in person.
Until then, I’ll see you in our imagination.
The following chapter of All-American Ruins is called “Sunflower,” a poem written for and dedicated to Daniel Skripnik and the people of Ukraine, in solidarity, with allegiance. It features photographs from my time wandering the wreckage of Miradouro Panorâmico de Monsanto, thinking of Daniel.
Each time I look at them, I swear I can see him, hiding in the background.
Sunflower (For Daniel, For Ukraine)
As the world turns upside-down in the frantic quiet of February
He dreams of sunflowers
His eyes wide shut, in the solitude of 4:22 am
He watches their sunburst petals
Proudly guarding a cloud-kissed hill
Catching fragments of whispers on the wind,
Messages of warning signs carried from across the Eastern Bloc,
Your sanctuary is in danger
Your home is in danger
He watches their delicate stalks sway
As their golden mouths pry open to reveal blaring sirens
Hovering over the City of Silence
It wakes him
He screams into the dark,
Into the shadows dancing across the concrete sky
His battle cry echoes into dawn’s stratosphere
The morning light responds
And unearths a canvas
Buoyant and unrelenting and safe
Leaning up against the limestone
Leaning up against the ghosts of builders and patrons and travelers past
I feel his back press softly into mine
A brief moment of pressure that assaults the skin of my spine
Then warmly embraces and fills every pore on my body
He travels through me as our electrons dance together
As I stare out over the City of Color
Inside the decaying wreckage of things long-gone
My fingerless gloves clutching my side of the concrete wall
Hundreds and hundreds of miles from his paintbrush and his eyes,
I say out loud to the graffiti-soaked cavern
I love you, my Brother
I will fight for you, my Brother
For he knows what I know
Even though, not yet, have we spoken
Of the graceful lilies caught in the grieving crossfire
Backed by the raging thunder that bellows inside each and every one of us
I turn my face to the stained glass heavens that dangle in front of me
And I imagine his paintbrush
Drenched in the golden drops
Of his sunflower dreams
Prepared to fling magic across the room and stir the morning light
And when I close my eyes
I can hear his smile
Laughing with his paintbrush
As they, together, along with his gentle skin
And his distant battle cry
And the phantoms keeping watch over the City of Silence
Transform a canvas sent from god
Into a weapon of mass creation
Which he and I both know
Shoulders more weight than all the silver and satin and silk the world has to offer
Speaks louder than all of the symphonies and sideshows and salaries the world has to covet
Stands taller than all of the skyscrapers and structures and steel the world has to destroy
A golden sunflower
High up on a cloud-kissed hill
Keeping watch over the City of Silence