Category Archives: Love

Gentle Sky

The Uncle Dave Instinct

I would say it feels like a tornado has been whipping through my family, except it was a literal hurricane first, and I am afraid every day that it may not have abated yet. In the past few weeks we lost my Great Uncle Dan, my Great Aunt Pat, and this past Friday my Great Aunt Shirley, among other terrible losses and sadnesses. I am not even remotely ready to process all the emotions that are tearing through my mind, but I want to remember something specific about my family because I think somewhere in it may be the secret of life.

My Uncle Dave was married to Aunt Shirley for 61 years and loved her with a depth and sincerity one rarely sees in this world. When he gave her a glass of wine at Wine Time, he always accompanied it with a kiss on the cheek, saying, “Here you go, doll.” He built fires in the wood stove on cold winter days because he thought she’d like a cozy place to sit and sometimes tossed extra fragrant wood in so she could enjoy the smell. When she was reading and the light grew dim, he’d turn a lamp on behind her to spare her eyes, and when she dozed off, he’d cover her with a blanket, kissing her head as she slept. I am so glad that two such truly kind people found one another and shared that love and generosity of spirit with their family.

Earlier this year when I was visiting my parents, I told them how I’d come to think of these small gestures of love as the “Uncle Dave Instinct,” as if he spent his days walking around trying to think of nice things to do for everyone. He didn’t do it for show or make a spectacle of the little moments when he’d hum a waltz and spin my Aunt Shirley around the kitchen island (thinking they were alone while I was playing under the table). When my Grandma Wanda and I were chatting in their kitchen the day after Thanksgiving, he didn’t interrupt or ask if we wanted lunch, but simply placed grilled cheese and homemade tomato soup on the table, to which Gram squealed, “Oh that is just what I wanted! How did you know??” He squeezed her arm and said, “That’s what little brothers do.” It was clear that to him, it really was just the natural thing to do for the people he loved.

My father also has a strong Uncle Dave Instinct, probably nurtured from spending so much time with such a gentle, kind man, or maybe something genetic that my Grandma Wanda also shared. He brings my mother tea in bed every morning and has done so for 40 years, sometimes accompanied with a particularly fragrant rose or sprig of lilacs in a bud vase. Most of my father’s family is kind in those sensitive, beautiful ways, and it’s hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it because it seems too good to be true, that anyone in the world can be so sweetly thoughtful and caring, let alone a whole family like that.

As the grateful recipient of countless nap blankets, wordlessly refilled drinks, my favorite flowers brought in from the garden to welcome me when I visit, warm pats and hugs whenever we pass each other, and small kindnesses throughout my life, I want to be this type of person and to cultivate that kindness and love in myself. I want to love someone with that purity of affection, and I want to let everyone in my life feel the way a warm hug and a genuine smile from my Uncle Dave or my dad always makes me feel.

I also saw that despite the effects of time, grief, and life’s challenges, the Uncle Dave Instinct lasts a lifetime. When we visited my Aunt Shirley in hospice, we noticed the sheets and blankets were pulled up to her chin. My Uncle Dave was worried she would be cold from the air conditioning, so he made sure to open the blinds to let some sunlight in and tucked her in tightly, repeatedly asking the nurses if they thought we should get her another blanket.

It is easy to get distracted in this world by all the things we have to do, by global politics and unrest over current events, by over-philosophizing and abstracting all our experiences in search of meaning and understanding… and it may really be as simple as loving people with that singleness of focus and clarity. To know it’s chilly and they may want a blanket. Maybe that is ultimately the most important thing we can do as humans on this planet: to love and cherish each other and to show gentle kindness every time we can.

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.

So Be It

An invocation at the Greek society where I belonged in college (is that mysterious enough?) includes the phrase, “So be it,” purportedly in the Jean-Luc Picard sense of “Make it so.” As I’ve never been able to take simple phrases at face value (c.f. my double-reading of Jenny Holzer) nor, I suspect, was this one intended as a single-entendre, I always interpreted it as, “Go and be what you mean to be.”

I keep thinking about how remarkably simple an idea it is, to respond to desire with action, and yet that seems to be one of the biggest challenges many people face. I’m fond of overusing a saying that my friend Kevin had as his senior yearbook quote, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” (I only just learned the source is Charles Kettering when I checked to make sure that Kevin was accurate and that I haven’t been vicariously quoting David Duke or Hitler or something all these years.) This idea is beautifully straightforward, in that most of the time when we express desires they contain intents, or at least the kernel of the solution in the initial expression.

Here is a fun (maybe?) game – see if you can state the immediate and obvious solution to the following wishes:

I wish I were better at communicating with my friends and family.
I wish I exercised more often.
I wish I spent more time in nature.
I wish I could speak French.
I wish I made time to meditate more regularly.
I wish I took more photos of my neighborhood.

Easy, right? It’s just, “So go…[blank].” Aren’t other people’s wishes simple?

Over time, and with the help of several art and chemistry professors who taught me to ask better questions, I’ve gotten pretty good at phrasing my problems so I can jump straight to the, “So go…” phase of taking action. Instead of making lists of wishes, I now have the habit of making prescriptive to-do lists. And as long as my wishes are reasonable, it’s just a question of focusing time and energy on the changes I want to make or the new habits I want to develop.

Where it is slightly more complex are those amorphous wishes like, “I wish I supported myself fully as an artist” (in progress, more on that soon) or the particularly troubling, “I wish I could meet my soulmate and start a family.”

The HR consultant at my last job was a big proponent of “Strategic Attraction,” sometimes phrased as “The Science of Positive Attraction,” and which I think is related to Law of Attraction meditation. The idea is that by focusing your energy and visualizing the specifics of who or what you’d like to attract, the Universe draws you toward it. I’m paraphrasing, but the example she gave me was when I was looking for a new apartment. She suggested I write out all the specifics of what I wanted in terms of location, size, light, noise level, neighborhood, and so on, and then move beyond the basics and non-negotiables to how I wanted my life to be in this new apartment, “I am looking for a home where I sleep peacefully,” or “I’d like a home where I enjoy being creative in my free time.” The more detailed my description, the better prepared I would be in apartment-hunting and the more clearly I could find exactly the right apartment to match what I’d envisioned. Not surprisingly, she was totally right, and I found the absolutely ideal home in the Bronx, which only continues to get better now that I’m making my life closer to how I want it.

When I think about the soulmate thing, it’s not as easy as making a list of “must enjoy hiking,” “preferably likes Italian food,” or “ideally willing to go sailing and loves it.” I may be muddling the sentiment with too many drinks, but at dinner with my beloved cousin, she shared her husband’s belief that love is about three factors coming together just so: the right person, the right place, and the right time. You can compromise on it a little, but there is a sweet spot of those three for both people that makes for a lifetime of happiness together.

At times I think I may have found the right person at the wrong time, or been in the right place with the wrong person, but if only through tautology, it can’t have been the love of my life if we didn’t, in fact, fall in love for life. Another double reading, which may be part of the “time” factor, is that you have to be the right person yourself, in a place in your life when you are open and ready for your love as you are. I don’t know how many genuinely good-hearted, awesome people I’ve met over the years when I was so across-the-board miserable that I didn’t truly consider happiness an option. I wouldn’t even want my soulmate to have been attracted to the person I’ve been, and in some ways I’m relieved I didn’t have someone to cheer me up most of the time because it allowed me to be honest about the big things in my life I needed to change. So I am focusing on becoming the person I mean to be, making my life the way I want it, and I’ll leave it to the Universe to blindside me with the right person when I’m ready, if that’s in the cards. Of course if someone kind and outdoorsy with soulful eyes wants to fall in love with me now, I suppose that’s okay too.

The biggest of the things I’ve been focused on is switching from working for other people to working for myself. I promise I will have a lot more to say about all that soon, but I had been treating it as a mysterious, secret process, like the Underpants Gnomes from South Park:

(By the way, I think I have sung the Underpants Gnomes song in my head pretty much every day I’ve ever left my home to go to work, and I sing it out loud now whenever I walk into my studio. This is but one of my many attractive qualities.)

So the project is:

  1. Be an artist. Make art and make it available for sale.
  2. ???
  3. Profit / happy life

I suspect the secret is that there is no secret. You state the thing you want to do, and then you keep doing it. You treat yourself kindly, with a generosity of spirit and gratitude, but also with perseverance. You don’t give up or stop trying until you’ve achieved the first thing you mean to, but you don’t beat yourself up if it takes a long time or makes you stretch beyond what you thought you were capable of doing. You take Anaïs Nin’s line to heart, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom,” and you unfurl your petals.

Or more succinctly, you know what you want to be, “so be it.”

Love is understanding

The other day (two weeks ago now) my father was picking me up at the train station the night before our family’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party. As we were chatting and catching up, he excitedly said, “Oh! I was thinking of you yesterday morning!”

(I will always be my daddy’s little girl)

He started to describe what he saw looking off a small bridge as he was driving to work just before sunrise in a light fog. A silver light glowed behind a single cloud perfectly reflected in the river, which was as still and smooth as a mirror. The horizon disappeared into a shining, seamless vision of twin clouds framed by the faint shape of the shores.

His description was so beautiful and vivid that I could see exactly what he saw, and I told him how touched I was that such a lovely little moment made him think of me.

“I think of you every time I see something like that,” he said warmly, “because I know that’s what you love most.”

I felt so profoundly understood, and in turn, truly loved.

When I shared that story with a friend at the party the next day, he laughed and said the same incredulous thing I’d been thinking, “How come guys your age don’t know how to say that kind of thing to you?” We agreed that guys just don’t seem to be made like my dad anymore (but I’ll keep looking).

I’ve been taking photographs of the sky and little moments in nature since I first got my hands on a Fisher-Price 120 film camera as a little girl, and Tumblr informs me I’ve been posting some of them to The Sky Where I Am for three years now. My dad isn’t big into blogs or social media, so usually when I visit I show him all the photos I’ve taken since the last time I saw him, and he tells me about all the things he’s seen. I cherish his descriptions full of wonder at a kestrel landing in his lap or the prompt reappearance of ospreys on March 15th (“Fish Hawk Day”) like nothing else.

I owe so much of my love of nature and the outdoors to my dad and the generosity with which he’s shared his passion for life with me. I am delighted that I got to visit my family two weekends in a row, which included hiking, neighborhood walks, and two long bicycle rides. We checked up on the birds, ducks, geese, and deer around town on a route very similar to the one we used to take on rides together my whole childhood, and we both giggled when we saw dabbling ducks on the Navesink.

I got all mushy and thanked him yet again for always including me on those afternoons. He smiled that understanding dad smile as he said, “I’m so glad it means as much to you as it does to me.”

Psychological Housekeeping

I recently read a book on my cousin’s recommendation and found it just as profoundly impactful and life-changing as she did, but possibly for different reasons than the author explicitly intended.

I got quite a ways into The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up before I realized that I was reading the same book I’d seen referenced in dozens of Facebook posts, blog entries, and articles, outlining the KonMari method. Just as I wondered, “Is this the book that tells you to get rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy?” I turned the page and the question was posed.

It is a great book and a solid method, written in a charming, conversational tone that makes it a pleasure. For better or worse, I didn’t necessarily need the advice about literally tidying up because I had my come-to-Jesus moment when I purged and donated so much of what I owned before moving out of Staten Island. I was very careful in setting up my new apartment, and basically I walk around sparking joy whenever I’m in my home.

What surprised me so much, though, was how directly applicable the tidying-up method was toward my interior life and psychological wellbeing. Marie Kondo discusses our relationship to possessions as a reflection of our relationship to ourselves: we project guilt, conflict, regret, dread, and all kinds of negative, counterproductive emotions onto objects that remind us of our relationships with our past or future self. As someone who has given away more than a few barely-used yoga mats, this idea of disappointing one’s past intentions resonated deeply with me. The items that caused me the most pain to give away were definitely the aspirational ones, but only on hindsight can I see how hanging onto them was making me feel worse every day.

The method urges the reader to be grateful for the purpose things serve in life, even if it was just to give a person joy while buying them and imagining using them. Then once the purpose is served, thank the objects, and release them. It’s a sweet, lovely, if ever-so-slightly cutesy anthropomorphization of clothing, books, kitchen utensils, and all the objects that comprise the domestic sphere. Tucked within the simple messages of gratitude and living in the present is a beautiful philosophy of accepting and being gentle to oneself, using joy as a guide.

I looked in my heart and started to see the way I have been positively hoarding negative memories, past hurts and disappointments, and all kinds of relationships and situations that made me constantly angry or frustrated when I think of them. As much as I thought I had moved past all of them, I realized I was still carrying them around, like a pile of clutter I had to step over every time I wanted to walk into my bedroom.

One boyfriend (who did end up breaking my heart spectacularly) said that sometimes I’d look at him and even when I was smiling, he saw flickers of darkness in my eyes, years of pain and hurt. “You make me feel like I broke your heart already,” he said, “and I thought I was being pretty good to it.” It’s ironic because my official policy is to not bad-mouth my exes or wish them anything but the best in life. Once I decide to end a friendship or romance, I try to look at it with gratitude for the ways it helped me grow and change and move along my path. But I haven’t been letting go of all the psychological clutter, and I see, abundantly and clearly, that I seriously need to.

I thought it would take months or years, and I know I’m nowhere near done, but over a few weeks with the kind of surreally beautiful spring weather that makes anything but singsong optimism seem perverse, I got rid of all kinds of mental stuff. I compartmentalized it by writing down every thought or experience that was making me furious or upset for a while (and for once, not venting it to friends or family), then choosing, actively, to stop dwelling on all of those things. Emotional deaccessioning. And it really was that easy and that straightforward to identify the toxic feelings and decide I didn’t want them to have meaning for me anymore.

I’m still working on it, but I’m delighted at how much lighter and freer I feel when instead of being upset or angry somewhat regularly when I see people I can’t avoid, I am taking a Don Draper approach, “I don’t think about you at all,” and actually meaning it. Taking the clutter off my radar and sweeping it right out the door, it is getting out of my way, and I am finding more and more joy.

That is the true life-changing magic in this pretty book about housekeeping:

“As for you, pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life. I am convinced that putting your house in order will help you find the mission that speaks to your heart. Life truly begins after you have put your house in order.”

Swap out “house” for “mind,” and here we are. I am being nice to myself, and I am only looking forward. I’m reminding myself daily that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, and it’s up to me to find joy every day.

It feels truly amazing.