On being single and turning 35

When I was young, I took certain biological conditions of my existence for granted. I assumed I would find the love of my life in college or shortly thereafter, that we’d get married, and that I’d have children in my early to mid 20s. My mother was 25 when she had me, and her mother was 25 when she had her. I realized as I approached my 25th birthday that I would not be following that tradition, but surely, I thought, it was right around the corner. I believed I’d met the right person and that our life was leading in that direction. I was laughably wrong.

This November I turn 35, which I have customarily treated as the expiration date on my childbearing years. I’m not sure where I got that number, although since Facebook thinks all I’m interested in is menstruation and reproduction, articles on fertility pop up all the time. In one from The Atlantic originally published in 2013 called “How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?” which came up again this weekend, I re-read how a lot of our culturally-accepted understanding that 35 is the start of fertility decline is based on French birth records from 1670 to 1830. And today I read how the one thing I believed to be true, that all a woman’s eggs are present at her birth, may not be true.

Frida Kahlo, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me, and Señor Xolotl, 1949, oil on Masonite.

In truth, I rather enjoyed the poetry and Keanu “whoa” moment of a meme I saw once (and of course can’t find now), declaring, “The egg that became you formed in your mother’s body when she was in your grandmother’s womb.” That’s a pretty profound expansion of one’s physical existence beyond the borders of known consciousness. But it’s also okay with me if that’s not accurate. I know of many examples in my family and others where women continued having healthy babies well past 35 and 40, and my doctor, like everyone else in my life, says I worry too much and my age shouldn’t be an issue. But I think she’s assuming I’m not going to hit pause for another 5 or 10 years while I get the rest of my life together and find a suitable partner.

Beyond feasibility, there are other factors to consider in having a baby, like the increased odds of some chromosomal mutations and genetic aberrations with age, or whether I personally should be passing down my DNA at all. Maybe the love of my life turns out to be someone who’s unable to have children in the traditional way, or maybe it turns out I’m unable to carry a child to term (you don’t really know until you get pregnant, right?). I always thought I’d have plenty of time to work those questions out, but I’ve wasted a really lot of it. And I would like some time to get to know the person with whom I’d be creating another life and be reasonably confident the world would benefit from a combination of us.

Self Portrait as the Sea, 2016, digital collage

So turning 35 is a bit sad for me. Even if it’s not the actual end of my chances to have biological children, it’s a lot closer to the end than 25 was, and I haven’t made any better progress in dating men who want to marry me and start a family. If anything I’m back-sliding on that front. Men my age like to freak out when I say upfront that yes, I want a real relationship and yes, I’d like to get married and have children sooner than later. Maybe I’m supposed to pretend I don’t care or that I’m so chill all I’m thinking about is brunch tomorrow, but that would be a lie. I’m not trying to waste more time, but I’m also not going to settle for the wrong person just because he might be my last chance. I’d rather be alone forever than unhappy with the wrong person again. I’ve always been okay with adoption, an option that would give me more time, but that’s by far the more difficult and expensive path, and from what I understand, preference is still given to married couples with healthy bank accounts. I don’t imagine saying, “I don’t know, I’ll trust the universe and figure it out” is the best approach to getting approved to adopt as a single parent if it goes that way.

Occasionally in quiet moments preceding mortality-based “What the hell am I doing with my time on this planet?” type panic attacks, I like to ask myself, “Do I even want children?” I think about the ways my life would change, how expensive and exhausting and challenging kids are, and I can’t honestly say I know for sure I’d be a good mother. I’m nurturing, I try to do right by people, I have a pretty strong sense of responsibility when it comes to caring for pets or other people’s children, so I assume I could get my act together for my own, but I don’t actually know if that’s true. Would I be able to put on a good face in the depths of depression and act like everything’s okay so my kid has a normal childhood, or would I make them miserable and unhappy because I still can’t manage my brain chemistry and need a lot of quiet time? Children can’t process that stuff easily, and I don’t want to damage someone I’m supposed to be encouraging to dream and hope and love.

I’ve always believed I wanted a family because I had a pretty great childhood and family means so much to me. Some bad things happened, I had some struggles, but my parents were always there for me and helped me through it. We had a lot of fun, and I am so grateful that my parents made our family such a priority – we ate dinner together every night, no matter what, and we all talked about our day, discussed current events, and truly knew each other as people. I dream of having that, instead of eating by myself at midnight if I get around to cooking. I’m very close with both of my parents and my brother as adults, and so in addition to the years of cute little people cruising around and energetic family life, I’d like substantive relationships with my children as adults too. My mother recently told me she and my father had a “No Assholes” policy when we were kids, which is to say they would not tolerate brattiness, unkindness, temper tantrums, selfishness, materialism, passive consumption of media, lying, or any of the things that would enable us to grow up into boring, asshole adults. They were quite young when they had kids, so their intent was to raise people they enjoyed being around. And then they spent a lot of time with us and did their best to help us be good people (they still do). I think that’s what I want.

But… I don’t want it with the wrong person. I have dated some great guys, but also some appallingly terrible ones, and I worry about my judgement and ability to pick the right person for me. I have deals with a few friends and family members that if they ever see me dating someone who seems like another jerk, they need to tell me immediately and not let me waste time trying to spare my feelings. I tend to only see the best in people and latch onto it, so I need to start being slightly more objective and honest with myself about misgivings, if the plan is to have a child with a man whom I hope to be the love of my life.

I know a lot of people who have chosen not to have children, and it seems like they have very happy, full lives. I also know a lot of single parents who are happier than they ever were in a relationship with their children’s parent. Maybe the universe has something different in mind for me than I’d always planned for myself. I know I will do my best to find the meaning and beauty in whatever iteration of family life or solitude I end up in, but I’d like it to be by choice and not by default. I have been saying for a while now that if I were still single when I turned 35 I’d adopt a cat, and I’m having commitment issues even with that. How will I know when it’s the right time to move on from plan A to something else? When do I stop looking for a life partner and just enjoy men’s company for what it is? Or does it just happen quietly one day, when some more time has passed, and I ask myself why I kept sabotaging relationships and clinging to my solitude, then decide I must not have wanted a family after all?

Fujikasa Satoko, Plant Growth, 2013, stoneware with matte translucent glaze, at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts

I have spent most of my adult life trying to fix the things I think are wrong with me and trying to make my life better (it’s been one of the themes of this blog since 2014 at least). All of my goals for personal growth, improved health, financial stability, positive life experiences, cultivating relationships with truly good people, and aligning my existence with my values are directly compatible with meeting a soulmate and raising a family, so it’s not like I necessarily need to shift focus or do anything differently. If anything, I should probably focus more on them while I can, since I’m not sure I would be able to get a lot of exercise and meditation in with a newborn around.

I recently read the infinitely-quotable book How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh, who always makes life seem so simple and gentle. He uses an extended metaphor of gardening for how to bring love from oneself out into the world to share with others. I was especially taken with a line on aspirations:

If you have a deep aspiration, a goal for your life, then your loving of others is part of this aspiration and not a distraction from it.

I’ve been thinking about this over and over, as I think about what goals I want to set for my 35th birthday. I need to adjust my mindset to one where love, and nurturing my relationships with love, are back at the center. If I want to bring love and family into my life, I need to make myself a garden where love can grow (both metaphorically and yuck, yes, physically). Whatever form that takes, I need to welcome it with gratitude, and I know I won’t get there any sooner by being impatient about it.

So this year I am going to try to actually celebrate, instead of grieve, and be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, instead of resentful that time passed with no more progress toward a family. I will try to enjoy the unanswered questions and unsettled conditions as mysteries of possibility yet to unfold. I’m going to keep trying to be more open and honest and present day to day, to be more of myself even when it would be easier to give up, curl into a ball, and make decisions I’ll regret years from now. I always tell other friends who are upset about being single that you can’t meet the love of your life until you’re both who and where you need to be, to be right for each other. So maybe it’s time to start taking my own advice and make the best of things as they are, instead of how I might wish them to be.

And maybe it’s time to look into adopting that cat.

Complacent is complicit

A few years ago, I wrote about what I believed to be a racist incident on the bus in Staten Island. When I got home, I made a formal complaint with the MTA, I wrote that blog post, I posted some things on Twitter, and I gave further details through several follow-up phone calls with the MTA. But I was deeply ashamed of myself when someone asked me if I said something while it was happening, and I had to admit no, not really, I sort of made an upset face and grumbled a little along with everyone else. My objection was obviously so opaque that a fellow rider mistook me for being complicit in supporting the bus driver’s almost certainly racially-motivated mistreatment. I haven’t forgotten the shame of knowing I should have done more.

Later that summer, Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, and Eric Garner was killed by police a few blocks from where I lived. I saw my neighborhood erupt in protests, and it was the first time I heard “Black Lives Matter” being chanted. I happened to be moving out of Staten Island the weekend of the biggest demonstration, and I had to keep begging my way through barricaded streets with a truck to get between my building and a storage locker I’d rented. I supported the protestors, both in their message and their right to peacefully protest, but I didn’t stop to join them in solidarity because I had too much stuff going on at the time. And back then, I foolishly wasn’t sure if it was “safe,” if I’d be seen as an ally or as part of the problem.

As the number of black Americans who died through extrajudicial executions and lethal force by police escalated, I didn’t know what to say or do. I felt like maybe it was pandering or lip service if I posted hashtags or articles, I worried it would appear to be some kind of self-promotion (on Twitter especially), and I thought I didn’t have anything to say that wouldn’t be insultingly banal and potentially damaging to the message being spread by friends who were better educated on the issues and more directly affected by the systemic racism threatening black lives. It was a feeling of paralysis, where I didn’t know if I should apologize on behalf of white people, start calling out friends who went the #alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter route, write letters to my representatives, or just cover my head with a pillow and cry.

I think a lot of people didn’t know how to respond, and the tone was guarded, if not outright defensive in the early days, when it was still possible to believe these were isolated incidents. I understood that response because I was raised to believe with all my heart in egalitarianism and to stand against racism and other forms of bigotry. I didn’t want to believe it was really happening so brutally. And in my mind, if I wasn’t racist, how could I be part of the problem?

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me after I got back from India the next summer, when my personal life was imploding, and it became viscerally, painfully real to me. The threats to black lives were not just abstractions of systemic racism, and the violence done against black Americans and other people of color didn’t just start in 2012 when Trayvon Martin was murdered. Coates argued – and I agreed – that the violence is built into the system, and some people are so stuck in the system that they can’t even see the everyday, depersonalizing violence anymore. To continue in the system with complacency is to be complicit in perpetuating the violence.

I realized that not speaking up and not joining in the protest against extrajudicial executions, cover-ups, falsified evidence and reports, and systemic racism while it’s happening is not okay. For as talkative as I am with my friends, I can be shy and tend to clam up in public. I would cling to the WASP prerogative of minding my own business, but I realized that letting people say racist things in front of me on the subway or in my neighborhood gave the message to my neighbors and fellow riders that I agreed and was complicit in the racism. It has not been easy, but I’ve been making myself speak up in the moment instead of just posting the ugly things that were said on Twitter or Facebook (or, let’s be real, tearfully texting them to my mom). I recognize that as a white woman I have undeserved privileges, and I’ve been trying to use them to intervene or deescalate situations in person, or at the very least reintroduce humanity into interactions where someone is being mistreated because of race or perceived religion. I know that’s not anywhere near enough, but I do think it’s important to show people they have an ally and an advocate in me, that I will try my best to help them if they need it, and I will be an honest witness if anything bad happens.

A well-meaning friend suggested to me, when I was particularly upset about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, that dwelling on it wouldn’t change anything, and I should focus on my art and my own life. I have asked myself often, as I imagine a lot of people have in this election cycle, how I might have responded to Hitler’s rise to power and the beginning of the Holocaust. Would I have gone about running my business as usual, meekly trying to stay out of the Nazis’ way and hoping it all blew over? Would I have rebelled, protecting the Jewish members of my community and other persecuted groups and helping them escape, or would I have focused on keeping my own family safe and been afraid to speak out or take risks? If I were alive in 1968, would I have marched for civil rights and equality, or would I have quietly enjoyed a white suburban existence and hoped for the best?

It haunts me to think of the consequences of complacency, so when I was once again reeling from the shootings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, I asked myself these questions again. I came across a quote from Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I couldn’t get that idea out of my head, and I couldn’t stand sitting at home passively wishing things were different. I decided to go to a Black Lives Matter rally and march in Manhattan last week, and as unfoundedly nervous as I was, I reassured myself that my role was to listen, and to show solidarity and support. I abhor the idea of anyone feeling like they are seen as lesser or even hated in our society because of their race, so it was important to me to take a stand for what I believe in.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that the very first sign I saw as I approached the group in Union Square read, “White silence is complicity.”

When I got home that evening I read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham Jail, which I strongly recommend as a relevant and worthwhile read on injustice and the spirit of the Civil Rights movement. In a passage that feels like it could have been written yesterday (save for the anachronistic term “Negro”) Dr. King expressed surprise and disappointment that the group who most let him down were the white moderates:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

He continued to challenge the idea that “law and order” means anything if it is used to reinforce or deny injustice and inequality:

“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

(Seriously, give it a read.)

In recent weeks, I’ve noticed an increasingly ugly backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, and the inherent bias at work is so glaringly obvious it’s nearly blinding. People exculpate their ignorance by saying the media is biased (for example only showing looters in Charlotte, but not the hours of peaceful prayer ceremonies and nonviolent protest before), they cling to absurd alt-right theories that Black Lives Matter is some kind of terrorist organization trying to incite violence (literally the opposite), they lash out at football players and fans who protest by kneeling during the national anthem and claim it is an insult to veterans and the military (ugh – that will be probably become its own post), and they twist and turn through every conversation to reframe the narrative as one where the issue is exaggerated or imagined, and no matter what, it’s certainly not their fault. I’ve been losing a lot of respect for friends and family lately, I’ve been unfriended, I’ve worn my thumbs down texting, and I’m starting to feel exhausted and like there is little hope for substantive change in my lifetime. I am still trying to argue with people that an historically oppressed group of Americans has the right to feel oppressed when just about every week they see a black man extrajudicially executed by police, and they are still trying to justify why it was that man’s fault. Or to be woefully ignorant and interpret critiques of the use of excessive force as condemnation of the police at large, or any of a host of other deflection tactics.

But I keep wanting to ask: What do you have to lose by listening and considering an experience other than your own?

I refuse to live quietly and complacently anymore in a country that would rather let innocent people die or people of color question the value of their lives, than to examine and try to change their inherent biases. I refuse to let fear or self-centeredness rule my decisions, and I will not let injustices go by without comment anymore. Like many white people, I could have the luxury to be passive and pretend these issues don’t affect me, claim I just want to stay out of the fray and mind my own business, but that will never sit right with my conscience because, to quote Dr. King again, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The climb is steeper and more uphill than I thought. So my goals in engaging my friends, family, and self will now start a little simpler.

  1. Listen with empathy and compassion.
  2. Think critically, do research, question the media, and examine your biases and those you see in others.
  3. Acknowledge there is a real problem, and that it’s your problem too.
  4. Recognize that complacency is complicity, and that if you don’t stand up for what’s right, you are standing on the side of oppression.
  5. Ask: what can I do to help raise awareness, fight injustice, and make life better?
  6. Do the work with joy and pride, in a spirit of love and compassion.

I need to believe humanity is capable of improving, and that eventually we’ll all get on the right side of history. But I see it starts one person at a time.

Nothing more final

This post discusses suicide and mental health. If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact the national suicide hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE or visit suicide.org immediately for help.

I try not to talk about suicide very much. People seem sharply divided into two camps: those for whom suicide is an abstract concept and those for whom it is all too real. I can barely get through a conversation about death without getting propelled into an existential panic attack, so as much as possible I try to avoid conversations about suicide with anyone who glamorizes it or, conversely, condemns it out of hand as selfish, stupid, and so on.

At age 34, I already know way too many people who have seriously considered or attempted suicide, several who died from drug overdoses while in a suicidal state of mind, and in 2009 my aunt died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. I still can’t wrap my head around the gruesomeness and finality of her death, but it is her suicide I will talk most about below because it is the one I experienced with the most clarity.

I don’t usually participate in things like World Suicide Prevention Day (this past September 10) because it’s all still too raw seven years later, but in the interest of raising awareness, I think it’s important to stop keeping quiet.

Yesterday I relived some of the emotions around my aunt’s suicide when a purportedly suicidal man stood on top of the Macombs Dam Bridge in my neighborhood for about two hours. I was painting in my studio and heard so many sirens and such loud low-flying helicopters I thought I was in a scene from Boyz n the Hood. I didn’t find any news coverage or police alerts, so I took to Twitter to find out what was going on, where I watched a chilling video of the man, shirtless, on top of the bridge, as police officers approached him.

I responded to a few Tweets that were asking why Metro North had been suspended for so long due to “police activity near Yankee Stadium” to let them know the cause, and like me, most people wished or prayed for his safety and expressed concern. One editor for the NY Times made a tasteless joke, but that’s a story for another day. After a few hours, I saw a transportation alert that bus service had been restored after “an earlier incident on the Macombs Dam Bridge,” and I was cautiously relieved. It wasn’t until nearly 12 hours later that any news coverage showed up, with this local story from CBS including even more terrifying footage of the man climbing up the bridge, removing his shirt, and standing on the edge.

I read a bit about media guidelines for stories about suicide, and I understand and appreciate the minimum of information given and presumably waiting for confirmation from police before releasing any details, as every story that was posted came out within a few minutes of 9pm. I see how it would have been easy to sensationalize such a dramatic stand-off for breaking news ratings. Either a suicide attempt doesn’t count as newsworthy in New York City anymore, or I can be relieved that our local news outlets were responsible and showed restraint in their coverage, focusing on the steps taken by the NYPD to protect and save this man.

In college, I remember several friends repeating an expression we’d all picked up, “Suicide is never about just one person,” implying that it was about the victim and whoever the victim was trying to spite, or perhaps more optimistically, release. This mythology is, of course, a foolish and dangerous misunderstanding of the romanticized suicides of melodramatic love stories and pseudo-heroic fictions. I remember scrambling to change the subject whenever suicide came up in conversation in front of a dear friend whose father had died by suicide, and I will never be able to forget the look in his eyes when he quietly said, “I think he just wanted it all to be over.”

My aunt was not well. It’s not my place to air out all her personal business, but she struggled with mental health issues and an eating disorder for most of her life, and from what I understand, things were getting much worse toward the end. I hadn’t seen her in years after she moved from Hawaii to Nevada, and we were never very close, through a combination of violent episodes that kept us from meeting for most of my childhood and the unshakeable feeling that she basically despised me from about age 10 onwards, once we did meet. The few times I saw her when we visited family, I primarily felt pity and sadness that I struggled to articulate. She seemed so profoundly unhappy, in a way I’d never seen before, but also vaguely understood.

Arthur Dove, Silver Sun, 1929, oil and metallic paint on canvas

I don’t have any photos of my aunt on my computer, and I was never able to find an obituary or more information about her death than what was conveyed through hushed phone calls and sober family discussions. I remember the few conversations I had with her almost word for word because I spent so much time replaying them as a teenager and trying to get a feel for how she became the way she was. I feared the familiarity of some of her thoughts and saw her as a warning for what I might become if I didn’t get my mental health together.

Two nights before we found out she had killed herself, I had an incredibly vivid dream about her, which was so unusual I mentioned it to my mother the next day and we had a long talk about my aunt. My mother told me about some of the threats and attempts my aunt had made at suicide in the past, before I was born, about some of the erratic behaviors that were exacerbated by drug use, and we talked in great detail about the impact of her illness and actions on the rest of the family. I said, in almost a whisper, that in her case if she knew she truly wouldn’t get better and didn’t have any joy in her life and felt like she was just burdening everyone who cared about her, maybe I could understand suicide – but I quickly rushed to take that statement back and said I would pray for her to find some peace.

The next morning I was procrastinating heading into the city for thesis research, when my mother got one of those phone calls I immediately knew to be serious. She came into my room with a stricken face and said, “I don’t know what kind of creepy prophet you are, but I need to tell you something.” She told me all the information she had, keeping her composure, then her face crumbled as she said, “I just don’t know how to tell your father.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929, oil on canvas

We only knew my aunt as someone unwell, who was cruel when she lashed out, and seemed irreparably unhappy in life. My father knew her as a joyful little girl with a fantastic wit and fiendish sense of humor. He knew her as a fearless, tough, bold child who stared down the world and grew up into a free-spirited, tenacious adult. But most of all, he knew his baby sister, and knowing that she’d really gone through with it this time absolutely devastated him. I think we all hoped that her death had been an accident with medication, or maybe a cardiac episode, but once we learned that she had shot herself in the chest, there was no doubt that she intended to die. No one knows how long she lay bleeding on her floor or dead – the neighbors called the police when they noticed her dogs had been outside barking for hours, but they couldn’t remember if they’d seen them out the night before. It’s entirely possible that as I was dreaming about her, she was facing the reality of dying, and I don’t want to know what that means.

At the time, my grandmother was experiencing Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Earlier that year, I remember how upsetting it was for my aunt Elise to have to recount another death in the family to her repeatedly, but my grandmother’s mind held fast to the reality of her daughter killing herself. I don’t think the incredulity ever left her voice when she said, “I can’t believe she actually did it,” and I know it broke her heart over and over again for the rest of her life. My father and his sisters were similarly wrecked, and everyone kept going back over it, blaming themselves or wondering what could have been done differently to help her.

When my father came home from the memorial service, he seemed comforted by celebrating her life and remembering who she had been when she was younger, even remarking on her famous tenacity, “Well we always said once she got her mind on something, nothing was going to stop her.” But I watched their family ache, how deeply and sometimes resentfully they hurt, wondering why she had to do it instead of getting help, wondering if maybe she really was trying to spite one of them, and then asking which one. Things were never right with that side of the family since her suicide, and I can see the hurt in my father’s eyes when his childhood comes up because she took that joyful part of his memories away. No one can mention her without saying, “And then she killed herself,” negating every other part of her existence with the finality of her death, as she did with her suicide.

Salvador Dalí, Inventions of the Monsters, detail view, 1937, oil on canvas

I have heard many variants of the argument that in certain conditions of terminal illness, suicide is a noble or gentle way to escape suffering or relieve others of the burden of care. I have never known someone who lost a loved one to suicide who would agree with this statement. According to suicide.org, the leading cause of suicide is untreated depression or mental illness. Without getting too detailed, I understand what happens in the depths of depression when the mind is able to convince you that suicide is the best course of action. Facing a lifetime of struggling with mental health issues can feel very much like receiving a terminal diagnosis. I can’t speak for everyone, but the idea of “no one would even miss me” is really the opposite of the thinking – it’s more the sense that you will only ever cause pain and hurt to the people you love, and while your death would upset them, it’s ultimately kinder to them to get it over with and stop dragging them through things. Obviously this is distorted and unhealthy thinking, and it’s absolutely not true. I swore to my family that I would never go the route my aunt did, but I know how that voice sounds and how dark that place is, so I am deeply sympathetic to others who struggle with depression, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts.

I think it is essential to work together to remove the stigma around mental illness, to stop using it as a punchline or a gratuitous plot device, and instead encourage people to get help and treatment way before it comes to standing on a bridge staring down a void. It is especially damaging to children and young people who are increasingly dying by suicide after extended bullying or social media tormenting; in addition to not knowing how to battle the distorted thinking in their own minds, often their brains and ego-permanence literally haven’t developed enough to understand the finality and reality of death yet. We need to help people recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and make it okay to speak up and get help. We need to stop telling new mothers it’s just the blues – adult women know when their mind is not working like usual and they should feel supported and encouraged to get help for postpartum depression. We need to stop telling veterans with earth-shattering PTSD or those who are struggling to reacclimate that they need to toughen up and focus on being productive. We need to stop telling teenagers and young adults they are being melodramatic or ungrateful or attention-seeking, or assume they’re just upset about “school drama” and instead listen and learn to recognize behaviors like cutting, eating disorders, social withdrawal, drug abuse, and other red flags.

Most of all, we need to stop treating mental health issues as a sign of weakness or inferiority or treat people as “damaged” when they are struggling. We need to be better support systems, to listen to each other and take it seriously when someone expresses feelings of hopelessness or despair, not just wait to vent our own day-to-day frustrations. The mind is both the most powerful and the most delicate system we possess, and it needs to be treated respectfully and compassionately. Because once a mind becomes set on its own obliteration, it can be impossible to save people from themselves.

To reiterate, if you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, please contact the national suicide hotline 1-800-SUICIDE or visit suicide.org immediately for help.

Choose your hustle

I recently read a gorgeous book of Hermann Hesse’s poetry, The Seasons of the Soul, and here I’m going to interrupt myself to say seriously, go read this right now. It felt like the first time I read Rumi and wanted to quote every line to everyone I know. Treat yourself to an afternoon with one of the most beautiful minds that’s ever wrapped itself around life on earth, and I promise you will enjoy it.

In this wonderful book, the poems are grouped by themes, with short introductory essays by the translator and Hesse scholar, Ludwig Max Fischer, that include biographical details and passages from Hesse’s other writing to help elucidate the poems. These brilliant little insights were profound and sometimes as striking to me as the poems themselves. After World War I and the publication of Hesse’s novel Demian, he moved to a small, unheated apartment in the Casa Camuzzi in Switzerland, and it turned out he had no money because, “the royalties from Germany were worthless pieces of paper due to the extreme inflation and miserable economic conditions in 1919.” The next line actually took my breath away:

The starving poet foraged for food in the forest: walnuts, chestnuts, and berries helped him survive and, of course, he wrote.

I reread that line so many times, trying to wrap my head around the philosopher and writer who had just successfully published a brilliant Bildungsroman, rendered financially worthless by politics and the economy, choosing to rent an apartment in a palace in Switzerland and staying there, foraging for food in the woods, so that he could have the freedom and safety to write. He later described this time as, “the fullest, most prolific, most industrious and most passionate time of my life.” I stopped reading and looked at my reflection in the train window, aghast. Have I ever worked that hard for anything, let alone the ability to make my art? Is it even possible to forage in the Bronx??

As I mentioned in my last post, September is typically a time of transition for me, the season of my soul where everything goes topsy-turvy. One year ago (give or take a few days) I left the job I’d been at for 3.5 years and had to scramble to figure out how I would put my life back together. In 2014, I was hyperventilating on the balcony of an apartment on La rue de Ponthieu in Paris looking at the Eiffel Tower, that great symbol of industry and optimism, equally exhilarated and terrified at everything I had to do for work and overwhelmed with the possibilities in life. In 2013, I was trying to reconcile my heart with the reality that my beautiful Smokey would probably not make it through the year (he did not), and in 2012, I was trying to accept that I’d had to give up on my chemistry degree and properly make a go of it at my new job, while simultaneously realizing the kind-hearted man I was seriously considering marrying and starting a family with was not truly right for me. And so on. It’s the month of sea change and wake-up calls, of facing harsh realities that necessitate those scary late night real-talk moments with myself, and an existential panic that time is not limitless and whatever I decide, for better or worse, is how my life is passing.

This year is no different, but I’ve managed to slip out of the constraints of time a bit. Talking with a friend the other day, I realized I’d forgotten that it was Labor Day weekend, and he asked if I forgot a lot of holidays now that I am self-employed. I admitted that not only do I forget holidays, but weekends are practically meaningless, as too are the limits of 24-hour days. The lines between things I do for leisure and those I do for inspiration or my career have been blurred past recognition, so it is all a continuum of just living and experiencing and being in each moment as fully as I can. I paint, draw, write, research, and (occasionally) work on the marketing and back-end stuff (least favorite part by far) in long, sometimes multi-day stretches, taking oddly-timed breaks for meals and showers, only wondering once in a while if I should be concerned about my sanity.

That part is glorious, like a fugue where the only thing that matters is exactly what’s in front of me and my time is entirely my own. It fits my natural sleep and energy cycles, and it feels like precisely how I’ve always wanted my life to be, if I weren’t pinned down by a traditional job, relationships that required my semi-regular appearance, or maintaining some illusion of normalcy. But I also fear this time is fleeting, that I will run out of money and be staring down some tough choices. How willing am I to trade my time and energy for money now? What is my equivalent of foraging for nuts and berries in a Swiss forest, and am I willing to do it, or will I panic and give up?

I have always found the contemporary style of labor fairly distasteful and unnatural. I have had some really amazing part-time and contract jobs, but my experience of traditional 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday corporate, retail, and office jobs has mostly been one of frustration, feeling that I was wasting my life, knowing that I could get everything significant I had to do accomplished in the first hour or two of the day and wishing I could clock out and get on with something more important and fulfilling. I was constantly willing my mind to shut off, but then finding myself too tired and worn out at the end of the day to pursue the things I actually cared about when I got home. I may have been financially comfortable (or at least not destitute) but I was miserable and felt hopeless at a soul level.

I know some people genuinely like their jobs, and even when I thought I was one of them, I see now how inaccurate that was. I have never seen a reason why I was required to be present somewhere for 8-9 hours a day or more, no matter how nice the weather was outside, if it took me substantially less time to get my work done and I had all the meetings I needed to have done. I hate the way some people are treated as fundamentally replaceable and insignificant, and I am disgusted by the power imbalances where it’s somehow acceptable to treat someone as lesser because they are at a different point in their lives or careers, or to put money above absolutely everything else, even ethics and morals. And I’ve mostly had pretty cushy jobs and great employers – the dehumanization is just a by-product of bottom lines and corporate structures. I get that that’s how American capitalism works, but I don’t believe that’s how it should be, and I defy anyone to make a real case for why technology can’t help shorten the workday or why a more enlightened, human approach to management couldn’t improve people’s lives every single day.

I used to fantasize about quitting my jobs somewhat regularly, as I suppose many office workers do, but I would abandon those daydreams when I started to ask myself, “Well then what would you do?” It wasn’t a choice of dropping out and being free, as I was still trapped by having to pay rent and utilities on my apartment, I still had student loan payments the size of some friends’ mortgages, and however much I may wish it to be otherwise, I am still stuck in a capitalist society that wouldn’t even let me forage if I tried. It isn’t just a question of trading comfort for freedom, but exchanging one hamster wheel for another, much more difficult one, with no cushioning if I faltered. I spent more than a decade afraid to even try. I still bought into the misguided notion that because someone paid me, my job gave me worth, instead of recognizing that the only real value I have in the world is what I do creatively, how I treat others, and who I am as a person. It’s been a massive existential project to redefine my worldview to one where art is actually important – essential really – and where my existence is more than a ledger of debts and repayment. Despite all the philosophy and Marxist manifestoes I read in college, it was surprisingly difficult to reverse the materialistic brainwashing that I’d considered “becoming an adult.”

So I have extricated myself from the money-based grind and would like to stay free for as long as I can, if not indefinitely. In exchange, I have to hustle and sacrifice. I am working a lot harder than I ever have before, but it is vastly more rewarding to work for myself and know that my energy and time is adding up to something I believe in and care about. I know that my company and my work reflects my values, that I’m taking care not to harm anyone or the environment in my practices, and that the way I spend my time has meaning to me and, I hope, adds something positive to the world. That means so much more than my paychecks and 401k did, though I still have to ask somewhat regularly and with great trepidation, exactly how sustainable this life is. Because now it would irreparably shatter my heart to give it up.

Hermann Hesse found his way. He may have foraged in Switzerland, but he eventually wrote Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, he took work when he needed money, and he figured out how to spend as much time in nature as possible. He demonstrated such a braveness and boldness of spirit it’s staggering, as every real artist and writer has done. I know that my distaste for 9-to-5s wasn’t just generational malaise or an entitlement complex (despite what some fairly critical friends suggested) but because I knew I could be doing more, better things in the world. If Hermann Hesse had chickened out and taken a low-paying job as a clerk in an accounting firm, the world would not have his extraordinarily inspiring, life-changing writing, and who can say what a lesser place it would be for that? As Hesse reminds me:

Even the hottest, toughest days
end in the evening cool and calm
and quiet, gentle mother night
embraces every one of them.

It feels a bit like seeing through the Matrix and realizing I have been free all this time, no matter how trapped I’ve felt. No one was ever going to give me permission to be free, but now that I see I am, I need to fight my hardest to stay that way. Just like when I was looking out the window in Paris, my life right now is equally exhilarating and terrifying with what feels like infinite possibilities. But unlike any time before, I am facing it with open eyes because I’ve chosen this, I’ve made it real, and I am free.

Midsummer catch-up

As adverse as I am to routines / wholly unable to manage any kind of consistency in daily life, I find my months and years flow in a personal, seasonal kind of rhythm, as I suspect most people’s do. Maybe it’s a holdover from summer vacations during the school year, or I’m keenly aware of my circadian cycles, or I’m secretly a migratory bird who’s gotten stuck in the northeast after being distracted by an abundance of food one summer. Either way, every July I get restless and spend more time traveling than at home, becoming the proverbial grasshopper fiddling the summer away and flitting from pleasure to pleasure.

And by August, it usually catches up with me and I find myself worn down and sick right when I’d most like to shift into full-time hedonism (fish are jumping, cotton is high etc). Last year I brought some weird food poisoning-typhoid hybrid back from India and spent a few weeks panicking about barfing at work every day. Then I decided it was time to screw up my whole system by adjusting medications, which was necessary, but basically took me out of commission the rest of the summer. The year before that I dragged a summer cold out from June forward, in and out of bronchitis and eventually pneumonia (with extra fun coughing-up-blood-at-work) for a month in Paris in September. So this year I was resolute that, now that I am in control of my schedule and living a much more balanced, healthy life, there was no reason to spend my midsummer miserable and sick.

Of course, hubris got the better of me, and on the very same day I actually bragged to friends about how “I just don’t get sick anymore,” I very foolishly and disgustingly smoked half a cigar, inhaling it deeply enough to burn the hell out of my throat and airway. I’m allergic to tobacco smoke, and as drunk as I was at the time, I knew as I got on the subway and could feel my throat swelling shut that I’d made a huge mistake. I woke up the next day with a terrible case of self-inflicted bronchitis and all the self-loathing I could stand, and as I spent the next week and a half in bed with a fever, a chest full of sludge, wheezing and coughing up every grievance my body has ever had to air, it gave me way, way too much time to think about where I’m at in my life and how I’ve gotten here. I think it’s safe to say that this September’s back-to-school resurgence of energy will include a hefty dose of discipline and self-improvement.

But! Before I felled myself in maybe the grossest way I could think of, I was having a great summer!

On a whim, my mother and I went to the Ananda Ashram in upstate NY for an incredible Homa ceremony performed by Amma Sri Karunamayi, which was truly both spiritually and sensuously beautiful in every way. There is something genuinely magical about breathing the smoke of offering fires while chanting in Sanskrit, catching a glimpse of the wind blowing through the trees, and feeling viscerally connected to the earth and alive. I will have a lot more to say about that experience in another post, but it put me in a tremendously open, say-yes-to-everything sort of mindset.

We reconnected with some of my grandmother’s newly rediscovered first cousins (also will have much more to say about this in another post) and I was utterly delighted to find that not only are they instantly recognizable as family, with some of our same idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, but they are just incredibly lovely people. I stayed for a nice long visit in New Jersey over the Fourth of July, transporting another big pile of paintings and works on paper up to my studio, and trying to get the first round of Boardman Summer Camp in (sailing, beach, time on the deck, cookouts, bicycling, hiking, etc.)

I went to my lovely cousin Michelle’s engagement party (more photos here) and visited with lots more family. I’ve become that weird older cousin who vividly remembers when my younger cousins were born and gets all mushy and sentimental, so I promised Michelle I’d get it all out of the way now and try to be cool at her wedding. (We all know I won’t be cool.)

My brother came into the city to see Radiohead with me at Madison Square Garden, and I’ll pause for a second so you also can wrap your mind around the fact that I somehow won whatever cosmic lottery one has to win to get impossible-to-get Radiohead tickets AND that I got to see my favorite band in the world live AND they played “Karma Police” and everyone sang along and it was honestly everything I’ve always dreamed of in a concert.

It was a phenomenal show, as you can probably surmise from the setlist, but I would also be happy to ramble on at length in person because, holy hell, Thom Yorke.

I then spent the next two days cooking food for the 60th birthday party we threw for my brilliant, beautiful Mom. For once in my life, I cooked a huge spread of vaguely Tuscan food actually worth photographing, but I was so exhausted and frazzled trying to keep the party running so she could visit with her guests that I took exactly four photos at the party and none of the food. I know, I’ve let us all down.

So please try to imagine the following menu, all cooked from scratch with lots of love, using as much local, organic produce as possible:

Hors d’Oeuvres

  • Caprese skewers (fresh mozzarella, basil leaf, half a grape tomato, drizzled with olive oil, sea salt, and fresh cracked pepper)
  • Prosciutto wrapped around cantaloupe
  • Spinach-artichoke dip with pita chips
  • Crab dip (my mom made both dips)
  • Fresh guacamole and pico de gallo with tortilla chips (Mom also made these)
  • Roasted nuts


  • Italian sausage and peppers
  • Chicken piccata
  • Four-cheese ravioli in a summer squash and sweet corn cream with marjoram and blistered heirloom tomatoes (this is maybe my favorite dish I’ve ever made up)
  • Grilled shrimp skewers (my dad made these)
  • Grilled London broil (my dad also made this, and the less said of it the better)


  • Herbed orzo
  • Organic herb salad with Bosc pears, bleu cheese, English cucumbers, and toasted walnuts with a lemon vinaigrette
  • Garlic green beans
  • Rosemary focaccia


  • Galician almond cake with spiced pears and vanilla cream cheese frosting (I arranged pear slices on top into a dahlia, and I still didn’t take a damn photo!)
  • Coconut tres leches cake
  • Sliced kiwis and strawberries with dried cranberries
  • Cranberry-orange dark chocolate chip cookies
  • Chocolate-covered strawberries
  • Lime bars

A great group of my mom’s friends and family were able to come, including our new/old family that we’d just met, and it seemed like everyone had a good time talking, visiting, and celebrating my lovely mom. When I asked her the next day if she’d had a nice party, she seemed warmly touched when she said absolutely yes.

My mom’s actual birthday came a few days later, so I stayed in NJ getting in more beach time, hiking, sailing, garden and deck time with the dogs, and general relaxed visiting with my family. My nice brother took us all out to barbecue on my mother’s birthday, I briefly reconsidered switching from mostly-vegetarian to fully-carnivore, and I returned to NY with an irrepressible smile and restored sense of who I am, where I came from, and where I want to go.

I even got over my fear of the ocean and swam, gleefully and peacefully, which I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t done in years. And I know I haven’t enjoyed it so much since I was a kid.

This summer I also discovered, to no great surprise, that I am fanatically in love with Bhangra music and dancing, and although I am hopelessly uncoordinated when it comes to the more traditional moves, I’m kind of in the zone when it comes to bhangra-90s hip hop fusion. As soon as my lungs can bear it, I will be back out on the dance floor.

There is a whole lot else going on, some great, some less so, and I will have a lot more to say in the coming weeks as I try to get over the remains of this gross cough, get caught up with work / business stuff, and get going on new and exciting things. I still have a ton of other stuff I want to fit into this summer, and I know it will be way too soon that I start catching the first nips of chill in the evenings and the scent of autumn on the way.