Category Archives: Social


The Headwinds of Change

Sailing is like wizardry, computers, or electricity to me. No matter how many times people have explained how it works, how much I’ve read about it, or how many times I’ve seen its observable reality as a means of movement and transportation, it’s still an utter mystery and I’m stunned it actually works. I acknowledge that the words used to describe the forces at play make a kind of sense, but in the inner part of my mind, let’s be real – it’s an amazing superpower we’ve discovered and pretend is normal (c.f. consciousness, the taste of tomatoes and cheese together, music, and the way we feel when making eye contact with animals).

One of the few things I understand intuitively about sailing is that it is a balancing act of precision and flux. When sailing into the wind, to move forward as efficiently as possible, you often have to find the place to put your sails that is as close to being straight into the wind as you can get, without going too far to the other side and having the wind blow back around behind the sail. It is a process of finding and creating the perfect arc, which depends on all kinds of factors including wind speed, temperature, water conditions, drag, but ultimately, magic. When you find that sweet spot and hold it, the boat snaps into place and literally sings – you can feel it soaring just-there, like humming in exact resonance with a pure pitch in music. It is as exhilarating as if you suddenly took flight because, in a lot of ways, you have.

When learning to sail into the wind, it takes a Sisyphean process of trial and error. You edge closer and closer, then hit a wake in the water or jerk the tiller a little too far and get a gust of wind that makes all your sheets blow around like mad (luffing), so you have to pull back. It is enormously tempting to overcorrect and pull back so far away from the wind that you fall off from it entirely, sometimes even accidentally making a tack and spinning in circles, so you not only lose ground but become convinced that the direction you were headed was impossible anyway. With perseverance, patience, and confidence in the boat and the particular variety of magic in the universe you’ve chosen to recognize, you can not only learn to sail into the wind, but find it is one of the fastest and most exciting ways to move forward.

I use sailing as an analogy all the time for vastly complex experiences of being human that I struggle to discuss in their own terms. Love, and our ability to care for other people (even those we’ve never met) is another form of magic that we often take for granted. I have never been able to fully explain the overwhelming emotional response I feel when I read about terrible things that have happened, cruelties and hurts inflicted on innocents, and injustices in the world. That visceral, raw feeling is a scary and seemingly too-powerful headwind, and I recognize that my inclination (and I suspect most people’s) is still toward self-preservation, to turn away from it and to adjust my course to something easier, if slower-moving or regressive. A nice distraction by switching to an article about fashion or a quiz about what 1980s movie boyfriend I might have had often eases me out of it.

This week we have been at the confluence of some dizzying, terrifying winds. So many times I have literally closed my eyes and said, “It’s just too much,” before retreating away from reality. That is the path of cowardice and selfishness, so I know I need to come back and face it.

I have not been able to wrap my mind around the scale of terror experienced by the residents of Grenfell Tower in London, nor the intense coupling of helplessness and rage that the families of the fire’s victims must feel. It is beyond trying to put myself in their shoes and imagine how I’d feel because they are occupying a headspace that no person should ever have to. To know a loved one’s life might have been spared if the building owners had sprung for the fire-resistant cladding, a sprinkler system, or repairing the faulty refrigerator that seems to have started the whole disaster is a scope of cruelty and dehumanization beyond the conscionable. In the decision between human safety and cost-saving, it was ultimately decided that these lives were not worth enough to justify the extra expenses. How can a person ever reconcile that fact with the unutterable scale of grief?

The targeted shooting of Republican members of Congress at an early morning baseball practice in Alexandria this week was not just a senseless act of violence by a delusional man. He was intentional and calculating in attacking what he believed were the advocates and crafters of inhumane policy. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s A+ NRA rating and open advocacy of unrestricted Second Amendment liberties is not ironic or coincidental, but it is also by no means a reason why any such act of violence should be seen as anything but the horror it is. The shooter was not lashing out against the system, but is rather a product of it, the inevitable extension of increasing tolerances of cruelty, hatred, and dehumanizing violence being perpetrated daily.

Put more directly, I am deeply concerned with the erosion of the social contract of the sanctity of life. In many conversations about escalating police violence and extrajudicial executions, I am flummoxed by those who are able to justify these warped and brutal actions with thinking along the lines of, “The rules of law and order are clear, and if you break them, your life is forfeit.” (That is an actual quote from last summer that made me physically ill with disgust.) I guess on the very surface it seems like sound or defensible logic, and it gives people comfort to believe that the system is fair and those who die at its hands broke the rules, but… that is not actually what our society stands for. The deal is not “Follow all traffic laws or you may be executed.”

Last summer, I was shaken to my core by Philando Castile’s death. Everything I read and saw about the traffic stop – from both sides – had me honestly shocked that a man could do nothing wrong but end up shot seven times in front of his girlfriend and her child then left to bleed out and die. I asked those among my friends and family who are the strongest proponents of Second Amendment rights and responsible gun ownership what he could or should have done differently. We debated it for an uncomfortably long time, and the best rationalization one person came up with was that sometimes police officers just get “jumpy” when they are afraid. I don’t want to alienate everyone I know who disagrees with me, but I was so frustrated that our conversations kept turning toward the loss of police pensions or reduced pay as a reason why less qualified officers are on the force, or how maybe the media is actually to blame for constantly portraying men of color as the bad guys in fiction. And yet, I don’t think I successfully convinced anyone that a police officer killing an innocent man should be as alarming to them as it was to me.

No one enjoys confronting the ugly realities of racism and prejudice in America. We are a nation that was built on the massacre of Native Americans and the mass enslavement of African and Caribbean people. There is no history of America without subjugation, violence, and dehumanizing cruelty. We can’t pretend that’s not what happened, we can’t attempt to justify it by saying, “Yeah, but lots of people had slaves then,” or the most bafflingly racist argument I hear a lot, “You know there was slavery in Africa before white people, right?” The ongoing violation of the sanctity of lives of people of color is undeniably real, and it can be traced in a direct line through reluctant abolition, Jim Crow laws, desegregation, and our current iterations of institutionalized racism.

I realize that the deflection tactics and denial I see around me (and in myself) are driven by fear. It is easier to believe that people who lose their lives because of implicit racial biases had a failing of personal responsibility or behavior than to confront such a massive and terrifying headwind of normalized racism and violence. We want to believe that our system is set up fairly to protect people and respond with justice to crime because it allows us to feel basically safe and sleep at night. If we (white people here) don’t do anything obviously wrong, then we should not expect to be shot dead in our cars or in the street. We tell ourselves that we’re not criminals in the capital-C sense (a little jaywalking, some underage drinking and weed in college, or low-level white collar crimes aside), so when people of color are killed in extrajudicial executions, they must have done something wrong, they must be criminals, and there must be more to the story. Facing full-on that our society treats the bodies and lives of some as lesser, or that the system was established to protect property over lives, or that the militarization of police forces is a cynical scheme to maximize profits for weapons manufacturers that has nothing to do with public safety, or that so many of the forces that are endangering our fellow Americans are in place out of greed, and not humanitarianism – that’s a gale-force terror.

I don’t need to have been in the courtroom to know what went wrong in the miscarriage of justice that acquitted the man who killed Philando Castile. I already know what happened and why, and I am once again outraged and disgusted at a soul-level. It hurts my heart that his is another name to add to the list of lives taken carelessly for no reason, with no justice. But it just plain breaks my heart that people of color are told once again that their lives matter less than others. I will never stop fighting against this reality – but that means facing it first.

I have taken to heart something a friend said when I was texting him tearfully in the middle of the night last November wondering what was wrong with my country. “If you didn’t even talk to your own friends and family about the issues you’re so upset about, who should have? I know you didn’t want to get in fights, but was it someone else’s job to help them see another perspective?” He was not born and raised in America, so maybe he is able to see it more clearly than we can, or maybe he is just way smarter than me, but his words echo for me often. I live in a city where the majority of the people I encounter every day share my values and espouse more progressive, humanitarian ideals. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that this same city is one of the most culturally and racially diverse on the planet, so I have had countless opportunities to know and understand people with different experiences in life than me. New Yorkers are generally solidly good, kind, and fair people, no matter what fearful tourists may feel, and I think it comes from living harmoniously with such a vibrancy of beliefs, backgrounds, and sheer volume of interacting with others that we have to learn patience, tolerance, and compassion. So how do you bring those lessons and that respectful open-mindedness to people who have never met a Muslim or Jewish person in their lives and genuinely believe they are evil? How do you help people who live in economically, racially, and ideologically segregated areas of the US understand the commonalities of experience and humanity that bind us all worldwide? How can empathy be cultivated where it’s lacking?

I similarly do not believe it’s merely coincidence that a greed-driven mass loss of life in London, a terroristic shooting in Virginia, and the acquittal of an innocent man’s killer should all fall in a row in the same week as the two-year anniversary of the Charleston church shooting, one of the more grotesque modern-day hate crimes. The universe is not ironic, but purposeful here, and the winds are gathering force. We are at an inflection point in history, where we can choose to face them head-on, to confront the harsh and unsettling realities of the erosion of the sanctity of life in the face of greed in our society. We can decide to make massive and essential changes in forward progress because we are unified in our common humanity and belief in the sanctity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. Or we could turn away from the wind, retreat into partisan squabbling and the distractions of constant corrupt administration scandals, declare we are exhausted of politics or “divisiveness,” and lose ground.

I am not giving up on America or the sanctity of life. I am not letting the people I love avoid reality or accept unjust inequality rooted in hate and ignorance. We can’t close our eyes or look away, and we must not abandon ship.

All human life is sacred. No human life is inherently better or more valuable than another, especially on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or ability. Human life is more important than profit, property, or power. We need a new social contract that unifies us in the sanctity of life; this change only truly happens in the hearts and minds of our fellow humans when we can see each other as equals. I will never stop facing into this wind and steering as hard as I can toward positive change.


Keep Your Powder Dry

A few weeks ago, one of my high school friends who consistently brightens my day with her thoughts and photos put up a status on Facebook saying ordinarily she’d like to talk about a silly little event in her life, but in this current political climate, it feels terribly shallow or self-absorbed. I was bummed out to read her self-censorship because I know she is a deeply engaged, caring person, and I couldn’t imagine anyone in her life believing she’d gone into ostrich-with-head-in-the-sand mode, yet I understood where she was coming from (and have maybe been doing the same thing). I was relieved to see another of her friends point out that Facebook is a bit like a cocktail party, and if all you ever did at a party was launch into lengthy political diatribes or microanalysis of current events, you would be just as tedious as if you only ever talked about your recent haircut or your cat.

(For the record, I literally never get tired of talking about cats, and if you’ve ever got like fifteen cat photos you’d like to share with someone, I am your girl.)

I’ve been accused of being overly political, usually by people who haven’t seen me in person in a while. I find it somewhat laughable because I censor probably 98% of the political comments, rants, articles, petitions, etc. that I’d like to share, so the remaining 2% is too much for those who aren’t interested in, well, any politics at all. There are two extremes of the current polarization, both of which are actually fairly aggressive stances, and it seems many people are pulled between them in their lives at the moment.

1.) The “La-La-La No, No Politics Please!” Earmuffs Stance

Image via the Ear Plug Superstore blog, which is full of similarly adorable photos of babies protecting their hearing, awww.

This one can seem innocuous, shouting over conversations that they are tired of all the politics, and asking, “Can’t we talk about something else??” or posting about why social media isn’t joyful and fun for them anymore. Sometimes it’s a pointed refusal to engage in anything remotely political, or to even acknowledge that they live in a political world (I’m sure we all have those friends steadfastly posting diet and workout photos or inviting us to leggings “parties” or vaguebooking about relationship drama or whatever their thing is). I don’t mean the people who refrain from discussing politics publicly for professional reasons (which is an accepted form of capitalistic oppression, but that is neither here nor there) – I mean more the stance that politics are inherently unpleasant or rude, or the people who, to be blunt, can’t be bothered.

A guy who had been hitting on me at a club for an hour actually put his hand over my mouth when I made a political joke and said, “Please, you’re too pretty to think so much about these problems!” (That is a whole separate issue, and I know he was drunk and thought he was being clever, but still, ugh). I’ve been editing them out of my life, but I have had friends who brushed aside any mention of current events with, “No, I’m so sick of that stuff,” then steered the conversation to television shows and gossip. Dates who insistently redirected to what they did for leg day (NOPE).

2.) The Everything-Political-All-the-Time Stance

Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787, oil on canvas, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I am grateful for the friends always ready to call me out on my privilege, identify what they perceive as points of culture that reinforce white supremacy or heteronormativity, and help me constantly question society through a political lens. Sincerely – I think they make me a better person, and I’m glad they put up with me. But I have observed a shift toward aggression and anger that can become alienating and just as oppressive as that which they would like to fight. We all have friends and family on both sides who went overboard with political posts during the election and the post-election period, and I will admit I still have a lot of people hidden online and I have been relieved to be really busy lately and able to duck out of some social events with the more exhausting of them.

This is the type I fear I can be to the people in my life, so I may be overcorrecting to seem an earmuffer. I guarantee I am always reading and overthinking something (usually many things), and if something has happened in the world, you can be reasonably sure I HAVE THOUGHTS ABOUT IT. But I am trying to temper how I express myself so it is not all-caps all the time.

I know that the people in both groups care very much, that they are expressing either their passion for harmony and community (which can be mistaken for complacency or acceptance) or their passion for justice, fairness, and engagement (which can be mistaken for militancy). I am trying – and often struggling – to strike a balance between the two. I think I’ve made my bleeding heart liberal politics crystal clear for years now, but I am also passionate about my interests. I don’t see these things as unrelated, especially when the arts or the environment or human rights are under threat, but I do think it’s important to find balance in one’s life, so we are not trapped in fixation.

I’ve questioned if my art was “political enough,” or if I should be more overt and direct (we’ll talk more about this over on the studio blog soon). I’ve gone through days where my entire existence felt pointless in the face of these massive events and threats, and it felt shallow comforting myself with the apocryphal Winston Churchill quote that if we cut funding for the arts to fuel the war effort, there is nothing worth fighting for. I’ve made my peace with what I’m doing and what more I will be doing, but I still have this uneasiness of feeling like I need to justify the audacity of existing and carrying on, with an attenuation I hadn’t experienced prior to last November.

Here I am grateful for the elasticity of the mind and the way it can simultaneously care intensely about protesting an unjust immigration policy and about a new cake recipe. I once spoke with a veteran who, after a harrowing day with an IED, cried at the book he was reading and wasn’t sure if it was because of the story itself or his relief that he would get to read through to its sad but beautiful ending. There is still music, and it still transports the soul. Awful things are happening in the world and humanity, but rather than spend all my time lamenting them, I need to balance them with kindness, action, creativity, and compassion. I think we all do.

My strategy has become, essentially, “Keep your powder dry,” coupled with “Choose your battles.” There are a lot of people in my life whose political views are intransigent, and just as I will never change my beliefs about egalitarianism or humanitarianism, I know they will never change theirs. It doesn’t make it okay, but ranting at them will only isolate them and prevent any further communication and consideration between us. I believe it is also taking a psychic toll on many people in subtly observable ways, as fatigue sets in from the public performance of citizenship and scrutiny turned on ourselves and one another instead of those we should be holding accountable. I am trying to encourage my friends and family to save their strength for the bigger fights, and to not get mired in petty day-to-day nonsense (that is, after all, the hypernormalisation strategy being deployed) so we can catch the signals through the noise.

Often lately it has been super tempting to lie on the floor and listen to “Holocene” on repeat. But to quote my dad, “This is a lot right now. But we can’t let this be all that there is for us.”

(My dad is hella wise.)

We need to continue making life and culture, engaging each other as full human beings, and finding pleasure in life without stripping the joy away through our guilt or fear. We have some control over how we interpret our experiences, and we can tap out when we need to. As Kumail Nanjiani put it:

During jury duty this week, I was involuntarily subjected to several blaring hours of cable news programs, and I watched the energy of the room shift from a general malaise of boredom or annoyance to acute anxiety to utter exhaustion and exasperation. My district in the Bronx is full of people directly affected by discriminatory policies on immigration, repealing healthcare, institutionalized racism, and the other topics that were being discussed. My district is one the president loves to impugn as the “disastrous inner cities,” mischaracterizing life here as a hellscape of misery, desolate poverty, and unending violence, when my actual experience has been one of a vibrant, beautifully harmonious, and loving community that looks out for everyone in it. It is the most civil and human place I’ve ever lived in New York.

I looked around and chatted with a few fellow jurors, always beginning with a shared eye roll about how we wished they’d turn the televisions off. I started to recognize the face of David staring at the Goliath of a political system gearing up to steamroll everything they cared about, but instead of fear, I saw patience and stone cold determination. One woman who had just described her fairly immediate and urgent concerns about losing healthcare said, “But we’ll outlast them, I know that,” then pointed to Michael Davis’s powerful Equilibrium sculpture overhead emblazoned with MLK’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I was stunned at how comforting her words and unshakable faith in humanity were.

When you think of all the hardship and struggle trees go through, clenching everything significant about themselves into a bud and hoping it’s not frozen or nipped off through seemingly endless months of bitter cold and darkness, it is nothing short of a miracle that we have flowers each spring. They don’t do it because they are brave or heroic, but because that is what they were put here to do: they have a biological imperative and a natural drive to persist and thrive. So too, humans were put here together to help each other and be good stewards of the planet, whether everyone does it or not. I believe we are in a winter of humanity, but spring is coming.

I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of what is happening in the world right now – it is truly as big a crisis as it feels – but I think we need to focus, tap into our reserves of strength and integrity, and organize. We need to resist “either/or” false dichotomies and traps of illogical, lazy thinking or tautology. We need to be critical and clear, use precision and purity of thought and language, and always let compassion lead our principles. It is possible to sacrifice truth for dogma no matter which side of a debate one finds oneself on, so we must resist the attempts to divide and alienate our country wherever they are coming from. Expressing anger is cathartic, and it pains me that some people have not felt able or empowered to express their objections before now, but we have to think about the end games and goals. We should not abandon a good mission over imperfect execution. We should not attack our allies, but instead come together and find our common ground.

We’ll get through this, and I have to believe we’ll eventually be stronger and better for it, if we preserve our humanity and follow our hearts. Nothing is more powerful than the love we share for one another.

Some ways to get through this mess

I have been mulling over what to say, if anything, because in a lot of ways I don’t want to remember this week or the way the results of this election made me feel. I took a full day on Wednesday, heartbroken, to just grieve. And then I decided that I will not let anyone take away my hope, joy, or love of this country, so I am moving from heartbroken to the “hell hath no fury” phase.

In days that have felt as uncertain and dark as those in the wake of our greatest national tragedies, some people keep showing their resiliency and compassion because humans can be amazingly strong and inherently beautiful. So I’ve decided to collect some of the things that reminded me of the best of humanity that is shining through and some of the things I’ve done or thought about this week that have helped me feel better, in the hopes that they can help restore some faith or give encouragement to persevere. Remember:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

1. The Subway Therapy Post-It Project in the NYC Subway

© Levee, subwaytherapy on Instagram

In a beautiful project started by the artist Levee in Manhattan and spreading throughout subway stations around the city, thousands of New Yorkers are writing messages of support, love, and inspiration on Post-Its as Subway Therapy. It is a simple and beautiful expression of solidarity and hope, especially for commuters facing uncertainty and threats to their safety and security in the US. I encourage you to look through the photos on Levee’s account and those using #subwaytherapy to see some of the incredibly touching and heartfelt emotions running through my beloved city.

2. Safety Pins to Show Solidarity

Via New York Magazine

After the UK shockingly voted yes on Brexit, Brits started wearing safety pins as a gesture of solidarity to show immigrants, refugees, and vulnerable members of the population that they were safe and had many people who wanted to protect them. I had been thinking about how to convey this sentiment to my neighbors and community members, but I thought wearing a Hillary Clinton campaign pin or some other overtly political slogan (“Still With Her,” “Love Trumps Hate,” “Stronger Together” etc.) can be confrontational or hostile in a different way. The point isn’t about partisanship or us-versus-them, it’s about solidarity with those who are now put at greater risk. I really like the safety pin symbolism and will be wearing one on my jackets and bags in the foreseeable future, along with everything else I already do in public to try to let people know I am their ally and will do everything I can to protect others.

3. Researching NGOs and charitable organizations and deciding to get more actively involved

© Steve Winter, Tigers in Bandhavgarh National Park, India, via National Geographic

One of my deep concerns is the potentially catastrophic and irreversible damage that can be done to the environment if most campaign promises are kept or platform policies are enacted. The fear was especially pronounced because I just watched Before the Flood last weekend, and, yikes, it’s urgent. Through tears, my mother helped me research a number of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and nonprofits doing significant work to protect the environment and combat climate change, and I have been inspired to make some major life changes in the coming months (of which, more soon). Sometimes just seeing the incredible work being done all over the world by organizations unhindered by our government is enough to restore my faith in humanity because I know that no matter what happens here, that work will go on.

If you are in the mood to sign some petitions, let me suggest:

  • Tell Congress to reauthorize funding for the Multinational Species Conservation Fund (MSCF) to help protect tigers.
  • Tell the White House: do not allow Myron Ebell, a famous climate change denier, to lead the EPA transition.

There will be a lot more of this kind of thing regularly on my Facebook and Twitter.

4. Remember all the Nasty Women voters out there and our phenomenal strength

This election struck a raw nerve for every woman who has been sexually assaulted (which is, let’s be real, pretty much every woman you know) or treated as lesser for being a woman. It reopened a lot of old wounds over and over as our friends, family members, colleagues, neighbors, and all kinds of people in our lives brushed aside a candidate bragging about sexually assaulting a woman, excusing or even embracing misogyny, and taking an aggressive and incredibly ugly tone toward Clinton. I have tried to explain to men in my life how it feels to spend 35 years constantly diminished, objectified, and reduced because I am seen as a woman first and a person second, no matter my education, talents, accomplishments, or what’s in my heart and soul. It became crystal clear that some people truly haven’t understood – and maybe never can understand – this experience, so I was not surprised when they also didn’t understand the big deal about having the opportunity to vote for a woman for president.

To be clear, I voted for the best-qualified and most deserving candidate with the platform that most closely reflected my values and concerns. That she was a woman is extraordinary. My mother and I headed to the polls in our respective states at the same time to try to be as “together” as we could in voting, and we texted each other afterwards with irrepressible beaming smiles and tears of elation streaming down our faces. Neither of us were prepared for how incredible it would feel to cast that vote, and we were absolutely exuberant. We had both been scrolling through a secret Facebook group, crying at incredible stories and posts of women voting in pantsuits, symbols of the suffragette movement, wearing their grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ jewelry or their mothers’ Equal Rights Amendment t-shirts, describing what casting that vote meant to them and their families.

And though the election ended in an unforeseen disaster, no one can take away the fact that a woman was not only a viable candidate, but received the majority of the popular vote, and we got to vote for her and share what that meant with all the other badass, emboldened women out there. In the aftermath, we are more determined than ever to keep holding each other up and making the world better for everyone. Whenever I get shaky in my confidence about the future, I remember my friends and the legion of other women out there who have my back. With that strength, we can do anything.

5. Thank our girl, and actually listen to her words

It was surprisingly therapeutic to write a letter to Hillary Clinton thanking her for the honor of voting for her and the inspiration she has given me. At the time of her concession speech, I was in such shock I could barely process what she was saying, let alone wrap my head around how she was so calm and strong when I felt alternately like screaming and curling into a fetal position for four years. I reflected on her class and dignity throughout her campaign and realized it should have been expected that even in defeat, she would be a model of grace and poise.

“I have, as Tim said, spent my entire adult life fighting for what I believe in. I have had successes and I have had setbacks. Sometimes really painful ones. Many of you are at the beginning of your professional public and political careers. You will have successes and setbacks, too. This loss hurts but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”

Watch it again, or read her words. It is truly inspiring. She really has been our champion, and it felt wonderful to tell her so.

6. Celebrate the history-making victories women did have in this election

Kamala Harris, via Yes! Magazine

It is tempting to see the new GOP majorities in both the Senate and House as a portent of doomsday, but we can still celebrate the 6 women who won historic firsts, increasing the diversity of representation in government and badassery everywhere. And if that doesn’t do it for you… how about more legal recreational weed?

7. Tell your friends and family you love and support them

Some of my friends were facing existential fears this week, uncertain about their continued freedom and safety based on their race, sexual orientation or gender identity, religion, immigration status, etc. Looking at the revolting instances of swastika graffiti and white supremacist hate speech, women in hijabs being assaulted in Walmarts, people of color being called unbelievable slurs and having their lives threatened in gas stations, and girls as young as 8 or 10 having their genitals grabbed with the justification that it’s allowed now… these are not unfounded fears. Beyond bullying, there are dire threats to the rights and freedoms of the LGBTQIA+ community, women’s reproductive rights, people with disabilities who may now be denied essential health care if the Affordable Care Act is repealed as promised, Muslims who have been mischaracterized for months as complicit in this “radical Islamic terrorism” nonsense, and immigrants who genuinely don’t know how worried they should be about being detained or deported.

How can you even begin to comfort someone who is facing that kind of danger?? I have been admitting to these friends that I don’t know how to help yet, but reminding them that I will always love and support them and that they are not alone in these fights. I think this week gave a lot of people the feeling that the country had turned its back on them or didn’t care about them, so as much as I can, I’m trying to counteract that. Sometimes just hearing that someone truly cares can give enough strength to get through another hour with insensitive coworkers or loudmouthed relatives gloating. And of course, there are other things we can do too. But don’t forget to reach out and share your heart with those feeling even more vulnerable than before.

8. Remember that life is a lot bigger than the government

It took me a while to grasp the full truth in this quote and even longer to feel comforted by it, but eventually it sunk in. Politicians come and go, and the stuff they deal with is really important, but it’s not everything. Art has the power to change the way you see and experience the world and transform your mind. More than ever, art is essential for healing and understanding each other, and I have important work to do.

9. Put your hands to work making something for someone else

Knitting is one of my favorite stress-relieving hobbies, but I haven’t wanted to go near my knitting basket this week. I didn’t want anything I made to carry the memories of this week and remind me of it every time I looked at my projects. While researching ways to help veterans, I came across the suggestion to write letters to service members and veterans through Operation Gratitude, which I will be spending some time doing this weekend. I poked around their site some more and learned about the Handmade with Love project to send handmade scarves, hats, paracord bracelets, and other items included in care packages. I cast on for a scarf immediately and have been focusing hope, love, and peace into each stitch.

I looked a little more on a charity knitting group on a board I belong to and found another great project, Allied Aid, which sends hats, gloves, socks, and other needed items to refugees being held in Greece. For sure, I will be sending a package of hand-knit items to them too.

I found that thinking about how to comfort, help, and protect other people really did make me feel better about the world, so I will be adding more volunteering to my regular schedule too.

10. Enjoy the cognitive dissonance of the “awww” feeling George W. Bush’s latest project gives you

I cannot believe what I’m going to say, but I actually said, “Awww, that’s really nice!” when I read about George W. Bush’s current project, “Portraits of Courage.” The former president has been painting the portraits and getting to know 98 veterans who were wounded carrying out his post-9/11 orders. These portraits are included in an exhibition and book, the proceeds of which are given to support “veterans and their families [to] make successful transitions to civilian life with a focus on gaining meaningful employment and overcoming the invisible wounds of war.”

I like to believe this project is in some ways his personal penance. I truly appreciate that he is using the arts to support veterans and sharing their stories.

11. Read, learn, think, cultivate empathy even when it’s tempting not to

For a few weeks now I have been reading a book of essays on sustainable forestry and I guess what you could call the philosophy of ecological conservation by Wendell Berry. His words about the life cycles of forests and man’s relationship with them are feeling intensely metaphorical and instructive for a bigger lesson in how to mitigate the harm we may do and consider the long-term implications of our actions. (More on this another time too.)

There is great solace to be found in the literature, history, and philosophy of other times, when mankind seemed at a similar breaking point of hostility or hatred for one another. The lesson I keep seeing, repeated as loudly as all of our mistakes, is that empathy and compassion are absolutely crucial, and they are most necessary at the time when we are least inclined to practice them. While in the stages of grieving this week, I went to some dark, angry places, and I’m not proud of the ugliness that came out of my mind. Some of it was spiteful, anarchistic, destructive, personally hateful, dismissive, judgmental – all the things I was accusing others of being in my more frustrated moments. I’m still processing where I fall on everything, but I know I need to at least try to empathize and understand where others are coming from, even if they would not make the same effort in return. This one will be an uphill battle, so I have been reminding myself over and over that I fight for the side of the planet and humanity… all of it.

12. As necessary, disengage

I unfollowed the friends and family members who were posting taunts, gloating, and sharing an endless stream of mean-spirited memes and articles on Facebook and Twitter, and I will decide eventually if there is a place for them in my life anymore. I happen to have a malingering cold this week, so it’s been a relief to disengage when I need to and focus on healing, physically and spiritually, to step back and reassess through a less emotional lens when I can. However you voted, this election cycle has been exhausting and upsetting, dredging up all kinds of negativity and hurt. It will take time to get past the divisiveness that has become habitual, but I think the only way to do it is to come back together when we are whole again, whenever that may be.

It it tempting and sometimes irresistible to read the flood of “tragedy porn” style disastrous headlines and stories, to get into frustrating circular conversations with people who are thriving on your hurt and fear, and to give too much of yourself to worrying about hypotheticals. This is not to diminish what is going on in any way, but limiting your browsing time when it gets too upsetting, or only going through your regular real news sources can help keep things in check. All that noise will be there when (or if) you’re ready for it again.

Remember that you are under no obligation to listen to postmortems or I-told-you-so sessions. If you focus on proactively opposing and countering the most heinous of the proposed changes, you will feel a lot better than those dwelling on what’s already happened. Or, you can let it be someone else’s problem for a while. Sometimes in my life when I’ve made a terrible decision I felt the need to tell anyone who would listen why I thought it was right, and the best thing for me was to be left alone with the consequences of what I’d done. Your mileage may vary. Garrison Keillor has a particularly humorous take on this approach that, honestly, gave me a snide bit of cold comfort.

13. But speak up where it counts

I can’t count how many petitions I’ve signed and letters I’ve written to my representatives this week. I was doing it last week too, against the Dakota Access Pipeline threatening the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s water supply and sacred sites, and I will keep on doing it until my fingers fall off or I get put on a blocked-callers list. As we have seen, we have a far from perfect system, but the only way we can make our voices heard (short of being a billionaire and lobbying) is en masse, contacting our representatives and speaking our minds. Tell your Senators and representatives in the House how you want them to vote, and tell them your concerns and ask what they are doing about it. Remember that despite all appearances, the government is full of our employees, paid with our tax dollars, and they are responsible to answer to us. Make them.

14. Prioritize self-care

I recommend some quiet, meditation, and reflection without all the noise. A walk around outside does wonders, even if you spend the whole time coughing and wheezing like I did. Eventually I will get around to writing a post I’ve been drafting in my mind of nice things you can do for yourself anytime at home, but here is a shortlist:

  • Take an aromatherapy bath or shower. I especially recommend lavender essential oil in a green tea soak.
  • Make yourself a cup of tea or hot cocoa or your hot beverage of choice, and sit down to drink it with no other distractions.
  • Reorganize a closet or shelf in your home, or refold your sweaters. (This may be just me, but I find this kind of thing incredibly soothing.)
  • Cook a meal entirely from scratch, or using as few processed ingredients as you can. Really experience every ingredient and the way they are transformed together into something that nourishes you.
  • Write down all your thoughts and feelings in a notebook or journal. Putting words around experiences starts to make them understandable and manageable.
  • Listen to music with headphones on and your eyes closed. Refuse to think, and just be with the music.
  • Take a nap, or go to sleep early. Sometimes you just need to shut down and start over.

15. When all else fails, there are always these Joe Biden memes

Via Buzzfeed

Seriously, this list of Joe Biden memes is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Joe Biden will never not be funny.

Why Halloween is the Very Best Holiday

I’m not sure why, but I often feel compelled to have a list of superlatives on hand at all times. We’ve talked about this a little before, so I like to have my answers prepared. I also imagine a scenario where someone darts up to me on the street like, “Vicki, quick, what is your favorite cookie? President Obama needs to know, don’t keep him waiting!” I don’t want to be the person hemming and hawing between chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin while the beloved leader of the free world taps his foot and sighs.

For as long as I can remember, my favorite holiday has been Halloween. There have been years where I sat it out, usually due to bronchitis and once an ugly break-up, but in my heart, it’s the clear winner, and here are 13 (ooh, spooky!) reasons why.

1. It is a celebration of pure imagination.

(From 2010 when I went as Tippi Hedren’s character Melanie Daniels in The Birds. Yes, I am perfectly aware how I could use that hot pink pussy bow blouse this year.)

Every part of Halloween invites creativity and getting carried away with one’s imagination. Choosing a new identity for a costume, working out how that idea will be communicated, and going out into the world as a fantasy self, a scary ghoul, or literally anything you can imagine is wildly exciting and fun for children and adults alike (or it should be). Decorations allude to the supernatural, party games evoke gross-out anatomy or enactment of fantasy superstitions, and you can enjoy all the dark and twisted parts of people’s minds without worrying for their psychological well-being.

2. In the northeast, it falls at the perfect time of year.

Admittedly, many of my feelings about Halloween come from growing up in suburban New Jersey and living in Connecticut and New York my whole adult life, so there is some subjectivity here. But generally, the weather is just cool enough to have a crispness to the air, but not so cold you can’t enjoy being outside for hours at a time. As autumn is my favorite season, Halloween feels like the peak moment of colorful falling leaves, harvest type stuff like apple-picking, and it closes the door on summer to usher in the holiday season of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, etc. It hits at a solid point in the school semester, usually after midterms but before heavy back-half projects start becoming pressing, when there is still plenty of time to catch up before Thanksgiving break. It is practically synonymous in my mind with the feeling of leaves crunching under leather boots and the faint scent of woodsmoke in the air – that time is heavenly.

3. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

Whenever my family discusses holidays (which is with what I suspect to be abnormal frequency, come to think of it) I announce that Halloween is my favorite, and everyone sort of nods and someone says, “Yes, of course, because of the candy.” But it’s not just any candy. Reese’s Peanut Butter cups are magical sensory joy, and around Halloween you can find them absolutely everywhere, even the miniature ones wrapped in autumnal foil at like your gynecologist’s office. Think carefully – is there actually any other time of year you allow yourself to unabashedly eat a full-sized Reese’s peanut butter cup? Their packaging looks like the living embodiment of Halloween, and so many of my neighbors used to give out the single-size cups that I felt like Halloween was an elaborate Reese’s harvest. I know this has probably become far less common with the huge surge in peanut allergies, but it seems like everyone has a specific favorite Halloween candy that they’d never buy for themselves during the rest of the year. I won’t even get started on fun size Snickers.

4. The spirit of inclusivity.

(Image via Buzzfeed)

While yes, Halloween started in a religious context (like every other holiday, let’s be real) it’s one of the only ones that doesn’t intrinsically exclude anyone on the basis of culture, race, religion, ability, or creed in its modern, secular form. Yes, some people still choose not to celebrate it because of their religions (Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Orthodox Jews, etc.) but if they chose to celebrate, they would be welcome to do so. People try very hard to politicize Halloween, especially in election years, but it’s sort of like an anarchist of a holiday in that it refuses to be co-opted by any one group. Everyone can incorporate some sort of costume into their everyday lives, even just an orange sweater and sunglasses as a nod to the day. Halloween is for everyone because it is fundamentally about fun and bringing everyone together to be silly and creative.

5. Every bar and club in the city has something going on.

(Yes, of course I will be bhangra dancing.)

There is a weird myth that Halloween as an adult sucks, and every year some one of my friends reposts this Oatmeal strip as definitive proof that they are right to stay home and scoff at Halloween. Nonsense. I am very lucky because my closest friends through high school were the cast and crew of our musical theater program, so we all loved getting dressed in elaborate costumes and pretending to be other people or creatures (literally, it’s what we did for fun all year). We had great parties that often included cheesy zombie films and a lot of screaming and dancing, and that is exactly how I want to remember being a teenager. The house I joined in college threw various costume parties year-round (this may be part of why I joined) and went all-out for Halloween. In NYC, you have your choice of thousands of dance parties at just about every club, and if you wander into a random bar, you will at least find a good happy hour special and some black cat or pumpkin decorations. The sheer volume of people out in the city (and those who come in from Jersey and Connecticut to join them) reinvigorates every place, and if you keep your act together and focus on having fun, you will.

6. Unbeatable people-watching (dogs too).

You can learn so much about your friends by how they dress for Halloween. Everything from the choice of costume (or choosing not to wear a costume) to the attention to detail and execution tell you about their character in manifold ways. When you meet people in a bar, they communicate so much more about themselves on Halloween than any other night because they’ve let their guard down and let some of their true selves out. If you feel claustrophobic, you can grab a sixer and sit in Union Square to watch thousands of people’s imaginations traipse by. On the weekends leading up to Halloween, you are practically guaranteed to see some painfully adorable kids and dogs in costumes, and if you get really lucky, you can see middle aged men from your neighborhood riding the subway home at 4:30am dressed as M&Ms or Flava Flav, singing dance songs to anyone who will listen.

7. Genuinely silly entertainment.

The novelty songs are ridiculous and dated, but unabashedly fun. The pet costumes are next-level adorable. The television episodes with your favorite characters sporting Rocky Horror Picture Show garb are delightful. The movies are not scary enough to actually be haunting or disturbing (I’m thinking Elvira-level because I’m a chicken about actual horror films), and they don’t try to teach you a lesson or moralize beyond, “Watch out for dudes in hockey masks with machetes!” and, “Thank goodness the zombies are defeated!” It’s spooky in a fun way that can take its mask off at the end of the night and say, “Hey, it was all pretend, now let’s eat some candy.”

8. It’s an occasion to teach children manners or a reminder that most kids are actually really sweet and well-behaved.

My mother has become a Halloween grinch and says she hates Halloween because of all the bratty kids stomping on her porch, not saying “trick or treat,” demanding candy, then pouting when they can only take one piece and not saying “thank you.” It seems like things have changed a bit in her neighborhood, but I was raised to be almost obnoxiously polite, and I treated Halloween as a time to pop in and say hello to all our neighbors. I said “Trick or treat!” then “Hello Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So,” and I reminded them who I was if they didn’t recognize me. We talked about my costume, I complimented their decorations, occasionally they invited me in to take a picture or give me a glass of hot cider (I know, I know, but only the people we knew very well), they asked me how soccer was going or what my favorite subject was in school that year, I thanked them profusely even if they gave me a Dum-Dum or Good ‘N Plenty (ugh), wished them a Happy Halloween, and made sure to walk carefully down their steps and walkways, not stepping on any flowers or landscaping etc. It drove my brother crazy in the years when we still trick-or-treated together because he wanted to hurry up to go to other houses, but I was busy chatting and thinking I was just adorable.

It set a precedent for how to interact with our neighbors and other adults that I remembered throughout the year, and it gave me practice responding graciously to compliments on a pretty dress or answering questions about myself when it would have been easier to be shy and hide behind my brother. I try not to be a total creeper in talking to strangers’ kids, but I am always pleased when I tell a parent, “I love your daughter’s costume, that’s so creative!” and they encourage their child to say “thank you” and tell me all about it. Kids light up when you recognize their costumes (like how do you know Cinderella?!?) and it gives them a chance to safely talk to people about something sort of impersonal, but also personal enough to them that they care about it.

9. Pumpkin carving

(via Halloween Tiger Pumpkins)

It is a ridiculous tradition to scoop the guts out of a gourd, carve a face or something into it, put a candle or LED in it, and leave it outside to rot on your porch. And yet, I absolutely love pumpkin carving. I love seeing the goofy and cartoony faces on pumpkins that kids obviously drew themselves, and I love the intricately shaded, artistic carvings some of my friends do. I feel like there aren’t enough opportunities for sculpture past the Play-Doh years, so pumpkin carving is a necessary creative outlet for the generation that never learned to whittle or woodwork. And I got to use the good kitchen knives, so win-win.

10. It is the day before my birthday, which is All Saints’ Day and the start of Día de los muertos.

(via Huffington Post)

I know, this seems like a trivial point of self-absorption, especially in light of point #4 above, but my birthday is on All Saints’ Day, a beautiful Christian holiday in the western / Catholic tradition that celebrates all the saints, known and unknown. It is part of a cycle of festivals, followed by All Souls’ Day. It is generally a time to reflect on the loved ones we’ve lost and remember them. It’s a cool time of year to balance darkness and light, and to learn about things like Día de los muertos and various rituals around death and remembrance worldwide. If children are interested in learning about spirituality and other cultures, it’s a good time to discuss that, or to learn about the difference between fictional witches and Wiccans. Or to start discussing death and what it fully means, without it being associated with the specific death of a loved one. I know that stuff isn’t strictly fun, but Halloween serves an actual purpose spiritually for some, so it’s interesting to investigate if you are inclined. On a personal level, I always thought of Halloween as a laying-to-rest of the past year, and awakening with a new life on my birthday – that’s why I tend to make birthday resolutions instead of New Year’s. And it doesn’t hurt that all my friends felt obliged to share their Halloween candy with me as a kid.

11. No gifts / feasible at every economic level

(via Village Beer & Fine Wine)

It would be flat-out strange to give someone a Halloween gift or basket or money-filled card (this does not apply to my grandparents, naturally). There is no expectation that you get your boyfriend or friends anything except maybe tossing them a lollipop or showing up to a party with some pumpkin ale. Kids can put together costumes out of clothes and items from home if they don’t want to buy a licensed character costume, and they’re celebrated for their creativity. Party decorations can be as simple as tissue ghosts, a 99-cent package of spiderwebs, or nothing at all and you just say the house is haunted. Don’t want to buy candy for trick-or-treaters? No problem – just pop an empty bowl on your porch with a “Please Take Just One” sign.

12. Wholesome, dorky activities, often with historical underpinnings

Halloween is the time of year where you can go to a farm and run through bales of hay with cardboard skeletons popping out or take a hay-wagon ride and somehow it feels festive, instead of like a bunch of straw poking through your jeans. There are always great Halloween-themed activities and events at the historical preservation village near where I grew up, and they hosted educational visits for our Brownies troop with an added history of witchcraft, Halloween traditions, or spooky local superstition component to make it thematic. If you’re into running, you can find all kinds of Zombie 5Ks and child-friendly costumed walk-run events. They don’t conflict with family time or drinking time the way Turkey Trots or St. Patrick’s Day events do – Halloween is its own thing, and it’s just for fun.

13. David S. Pumpkins

Any questions??

Also, I found this image of a hula dachshund in an image search, and I can’t keep it to myself.

So whatever you do to celebrate the very best holiday, be safe, kind to others, and have fun! Indulge your inner child and go all-out at a costume party, or stay home and Netflix up some silly movies. Keep a vigil for the Great Pumpkin, or just scroll through your social media feeds and gush at everyone’s ridiculously cute kids. Do whatever you want – that is the great gonzo madness of Halloween!

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 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, 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 immediately for help.