08/31/2010 05:01 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2012

Making Trash Sculptures in Hurricane Season

When I was seven, my family visited a little island off the coast of Puerto Rico during hurricane season. To my younger self, the littered beaches resembled billowing garbage monsters with cans for eyes. I was in heaven. I understood the sorrow of hurricanes when the innkeeper's husband lightly touched her shoulder as she listed what she had lost in the storm, but I didn't understand that garbage couldn't be exquisite -- and I still don't.

I hatched a mad plan to rebuild their island. I didn't have much to work with, so I went down to the ocean's edge and started sifting through the ruins of people's lives. To keep myself entertained, I imagined broken light bulbs to be functional, their light coming down in sprays to illuminate my work; and told myself stories about the things I found. Every broken comb and rotten wooden chair held a tale: "This was Aunt Irma's comb. She vowed that she would never cut her hair until she fell in love. She's dead now, but it's still growing ... " or "this was Uncle Morty's rocking chair -- he liked to rock around the clock." I was a bit of an odd duck.

When I finally got my spoils back to the inn, I started building. I wrapped broken Christmas ornaments in scraps of underwear; braided electrical wires and placed them atop my monument like fancy hairdos; and carved love letters into broken picture frames. I even made a tiny place where I could crawl inside, informing my parents that I wouldn't be returning to New York because the unsightly mass had become my new home. Since they were the only ones who knew their child wasn't kidding, they chuckled and cautiously changed the subject.

The guests filed past with expressions of fear and wonder. Some dismissed my burgeoning sculpture as the antics of a seven-year-old, but some took it very seriously, snapping shots of it with the artist standing proudly in front, wearing a woefully gap-toothed smile.

I certainly hadn't succeeded in rebuilding the island, but I did find my bliss. If other kids wanted toys, I wanted broken doll faces, dirty plastic bags that seemed oddly spiritual, ancient books with the words washed away, and shards of common kitchen appliances that looked like broken fingers. If other kids wanted apples, I wanted the cores.

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