Category Archives: Thinky

Tiny-Bouquet

The Habit of Kindness

IMAGE: Tiny Bouquet, a miniature bouquet of wildflowers a dear friend gave me in Italy. (Prints available)

One of the initial challenges for starting a practice of meditation and mindfulness is, paradoxically, it seems too easy. At first pass, sitting still and not thinking about anything while focusing on breathing sounds like something anyone can do: simply exist quietly for a while. I quickly learned that it is actually the opposite of zoning out or contemplation. Being able to sit with both a full and clear mind is the culmination of everything else done in life to get to that place, and it is a lifelong challenge that changes you as a person.

In his revelatory “An Essay on Landscape Painting,” the 11th century Northern Song Dynasty painter and scholar Kuo Hsi described his father readying himself to paint:

On a day when he was to paint, he would seat himself by a bright window, put his desk in order, burn incense to his right and left, and place good brushes and excellent ink beside him; then he would wash his hands and raise his ink-well, as if to receive an important guest, thereby calming his spirit and composing his thoughts. Not until then did he begin to paint. Does this not illustrate what he meant by not daring to face one’s work thoughtlessly?

Approaching life with balance and mindfulness is the essential preparatory work to sit with a clear conscience, to find joy and peace in meaningful meditation rather than feeling trapped with anxiety, daily frustrations or confusions, regrets, or the mental and spiritual equivalents of a cluttered desk or dirty hands. Instead of receiving an important guest, we are meeting ourselves, in a wordless conversation about existence between the world and our spirits. To be in a moment, to fully inhabit it, we have to be a full self. That starts with being honest, being aware, and being kind.



New Forest – Lichen and moss provide the foundation for new plant growth on a fallen tree, continuing the cycle of renewal and regrowth in a forest. (Prints available)

Cultivating an instinct of kindness every day makes a habit of compassion. It is too easy to ignore or compromise the internal voice that suggests, “This is wrong,” or, “I should help,” instead telling ourselves we can’t be late, we need the money, other people treated me the same way, or the most discouraging, “I can’t do anything to change that.” I have always believed it takes extraordinary courage and intelligence to be truly kind as an adult, but it’s an instinct every person has once the conscience develops. It is crucial to keep society from suppressing it and to cling to hope and the belief that our conscience is telling the truth, to know that old Jiminy Cricket feeling of uneasiness should be heeded.

Perhaps the most powerful tool in kindness is empathy, or feeling with another’s heart. It is not enough to ponder how we might feel if something we see happening to someone else were to happen to us – we need to understand how that person feels in the actual situation we see. It starts with observation without judgment, objectively listening and gathering information before we start trying to solve other people’s problems or tell them why their feelings are wrong. It seems common to tackle large issues like racism or poverty with a sketchy and vague sense of the issues, but I don’t often see people stop to ask, “How does that feel?” I think we can be too quick to dismiss the validity of political, spiritual, or personal beliefs because they don’t make sense with how we approach the world. We brush them off instead of trying to wrap our heads around them, which is ultimately an unkind thing to do. Expanding our sense of willingness to inhabit another person’s experience is an act of profound kindness, and if we make it a habit, we gain different lenses with which to understand our own experiences.



Seaside Goldenrod – (Solidago sempervirens) is uniquely saltwater tolerant, a cheerful display of bright yellow flowers at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Jersey. (Prints available)

A second key to kindness is integrity. We should not offer kindness because it makes us look good to other people or gains an advantage of indebtedness. Like anything worth doing, being kind is its own reward. It is important to be consistently kind if it is to become a habit, and to be kind to everyone, not just those people we think are currently most “deserving.” I regularly examine my thoughts for often-unconscious stabs of unkindness: wishing for someone to fail, enjoying hearing about the misfortune of someone I don’t like, feeling relief that I am in a better situation than another person, or dismissing people I don’t understand with disdain or pettiness. It can be hard to break the habit of cruelty that we learn from a young age because it is rooted in competitiveness and the American notion of “winning” or success. Redefining success away from money, material possessions, titles, accolades, appearance, or esteem goes against everything we’re socialized into believing, but it opens the door to far greater rewards.

My goal in life is to be kind to every person I meet, to make life easier or more pleasant for others when I can, to open people’s eyes to thoughts or moments of beauty they may not have seen, and to leave everyone a little more loved than I found them. I know that the only way I can do that is with an uncompromised habit of kindness and compassion, but I’m only human. It is a lifelong project.



Weathered Hydrangea, slightly faded by summer rains, perhaps all the lovelier for it. (Prints available)

That brings me to the third critical tool of kindness: forgiveness. We cannot grow or help others if we cannot forgive. I include forgiving oneself, having a sense of compassion as deep for one’s own missteps as those of others when forgiveness is earned. When I want to comfort people, I usually say some variation of, “It’s okay,” or, “Hey, that happens to us all.” I don’t typically hold grudges when a friend says something unkind in a bad mood, so I am trying to forgive myself the same way, rather than cringing every time I relive a moment when I blurted out something rude instead of a compliment or when I wished someone ill because my feelings were hurt.

People sometimes do unkind things, but most aren’t fundamentally unkind. Often they are not paying attention, they are preoccupied with worry, they are afraid, or they are proud. I am learning that understanding what people are going through makes it much easier to forgive these shortcomings, and instead see them as opportunities to help. My own lapses and times of unhappiness are helping me grow, but only if I let myself. That starts by forgiving mistakes and acknowledging that everyone always needs to grow. None of us were born perfect, and none of us stays kind without effort.



Spray of Pink, flowers in front of a peach-colored wall in the Cinque Terre, Italy. (Prints available)

As I continue on this path of mindfulness and nurturing compassion, I am keeping notes on experiences and moments that bring me clarity or deeper understanding. It is kind to be generous with what we learn. The most important tool in kindness that I’ve found so far is awareness: of the self, of the world, and of others. We cannot grow or change, nor help others, if we don’t start by making ourselves aware of where there is hurt or suffering, or where we have a chance to do better. It can be truly painful to be aware, especially in recognizing how we impact others, but it’s imperative.

Once our eyes are open, we see these challenges everywhere. It can be overwhelming, but it’s okay. It happens to us all, and we have each other to help.

IMG_0922-001

Fail Better

IMAGE: In the Face of Loss. Spent hydrangeas poking through drifts of snow after a blizzard, a metaphor for unexpected beauty in the face of loss. (Prints available)

At any given time, I can give a lengthy list of things I’ve failed at. Relationships, jobs, ill-conceived Halloween costumes, diets, securing funding for the last 3 semesters of my chemistry degree… you name it. Depending on my mood, I can also list many reasons why I’ve failed, but until recently I haven’t recognized what an asset fully-appreciated failing can be.

It’s generally understood that failure is crucial to learning and growth, and I can’t imagine how dull life might be to constantly succeed or win all the time (DJ Khaled’s anthemic proclamation notwithstanding). The way we rise to challenges and hardships makes us who we are.



Last spring my parents and I went on a walking tour through a restricted section of Sandy Hook’s Gateway National Recreational Area, where we visited one of the oldest holly forests in the US. One of my favorite details in looking at these massive, sprawling trees was seeing the ways they’ve failed and overcome obstacles. Studying the knots and eyes from lost branches, the patterns of growth where the tree compensated its balance with new branches, scars in the bark, and how they’ve twisted and turned to reach better light, you can see a tree’s full gnarled history and learn so much about where and how it’s growing.

The same is true for people, in examining their attitudes, beliefs, and how they approach new challenges in life. We wear our history in our faces, posture, language, and even voice, and however much we may think we can hide it, we are constantly communicating past pain, loss, joy, victory, sorrow, hope, failure, and how we grew through it – or didn’t. Humans can have a strange tendency not often seen in nature to regress in the face of failure, overriding biological instincts to thrive in favor of social ones, like the fear of appearing foolish if we try something new and fail or if we open our heart and get rejected. Self-consciousness is a peculiar quality, as is the protection of emotions or reputation over our instincts, but it is also at the base of some forms of compassion; that is a double-edged sword of civilization and the conscious mind. Some people have a withdrawal instinct like a spiritual withering, a leaf curling up and browning despite ideal conditions of water, nutrients, and light, while other seemingly indomitable people better resemble wildflowers growing relentlessly out of sheer rock beside of a waterfall out of virtually nothing.



Tenacity – a tiny yellow wildflower growing in the mists of Goðafoss, a spectacular waterfall in the Bárðardalur region of Iceland. (Prints available)

(I have a lot of photos of the life of plants because I think about this stuff all the time.)

Sometimes we fail because we’re not ready to succeed or we know deep-down we don’t want to succeed in that particular way. Anyone who has sabotaged a job that came easily but felt hollow, or a relationship with a person who was great on paper but didn’t make their heart sing, knows the peculiar feeling when success feels like a let-down. Sometimes we get what we think we wanted, and it feels so empty and unsatisfying that we realize we enjoyed it more when we were just imagining and wishing for it. When I really think about the things I’ve failed at, I can’t name a single one where I would have been happier to have succeeded; that path wouldn’t have brought me to where I am now. Even the disappointments that sting the most take on a “wasn’t meant to be” feeling in retrospect, and however I may regret them in the moment, I wouldn’t change much of anything now.

Other times we fail because of dumb luck or lousy timing. We meet someone amazing, but it’s at the worst possible time career-wise, so we can’t get a relationship going. We come down with bronchitis when we needed to be at 100% and let our bosses down, or tank a critical exam because we were feverish and wheezing with pneumonia (I am an absolute expert at poorly-timed illness). We total the car we need to get to work, a hurricane sweeps our home away, we join a company just before they begin downsizing, we pass up an amazing opportunity because we’re short on cash, we decline an invitation to a networking event that could have been life-changing because we just need to catch up on sleep. There is a prevailing motivational myth that if something matters enough, we can just find a way, but that doesn’t usually work in reality. “Excuses” are sometimes just what happened.

I have had uncanny bad luck at reconnecting with an artist I admire because I’ve had exams, been required to stay late at work, or been grotesquely sick at every opportunity. Thus far, I haven’t been financially independent enough to declare, “I don’t care if you fire me, I’m going to this gallery opening!” just as parents can’t actually abandon the child who needs care when they get sick at the worst possible time. To characterize unavoidable set-backs as “not wanting it enough” is a disservice to everyone, and it prevents us from nurturing and helping one another when we can.



Seedlings stretching for the pale afternoon light on a windowsill in Brooklyn (Prints available)

As a society, we tend not to acknowledge the role luck and timing (and yes, privilege) play in success either. Just as the “find a way” myth overvalues tenacity or perseverance, there is an ego-driven myth that people succeed because of raw talent, perfectly-developed innovation, or some strength of character that makes them somehow destined for victory. For every one of the limitless tiny things that fell into place just so for one person to succeed, any one of those things could have knocked someone else off track, no matter how brilliant their ideas, good their heart, sound their business plan, or determined their character.

It is not necessarily as cut and dry as, “If you wanted to succeed, you should have had the sense to inherit a profitable business from your billionaire father,” but it can be as simple as missing the subway car with your would-be soulmate on it because you didn’t want to rush by the lady with a cane walking slowly down the stairs in front of you. Getting turned down for your start-up loan because the bank rep you happened to meet with is racist or sexist. Missing the cut for grad school admissions because the person reading your application assumed anyone using the word “juxtapose” was a pretentious pseudointellectual. Being upset about a mass shooting and your date thinking you just weren’t clicking. Life happens, and it’s fundamentally unfair, and a lot of really good and deserving people fail all the time. Because we treat failure with shame instead of openness, we may never even know what they were trying or why they failed, burying cures for cancer, new inventions, inspiring art and music, the next great American novel, or the solution for the global economic crisis and a plan for world peace along with their aspirations.



Monsoon Clouds, darkening the sky before the first major rainfall in Orchha, India. (Prints available)

When I fail, my first response is to look for all the reasons why it was my fault, including ridiculous things like why I shouldn’t have trusted my team members to do their jobs competently. In addition to being terrible for my self-esteem, it extends way beyond things I can control, and beating myself up about failure is often completely useless. As a holdover from an education where I considered a B as much a failure as an F, I tend to way over-do assignments, and even when clients or bosses are thrilled, I focus on the imperfections and my regrets about the way the project was run.

I’m working on being a lot chiller, though my skin still crawls at people who say, “Done is better than perfect” or some other variation of “Good enough” when they know they can do better. But because I am always micro-analyzing my failures – real or imagined – I’ve become agile at thinking on my feet, improvising for creative problem-solving, improving efficiency and procedures, and constantly assessing situations to see how things might be done more efficiently, more economically, or more beautifully. A lot of the growth in my artistic process has come from failing miserably at what I was trying to do, then innovating in the way I steer out of the disaster I’ve made. And I’ve learned a lot about how to treat people from the ways I’ve failed in friendships and romance.



The more I fail, the better I am getting at it. I frequently use the metaphor of sailing (which I fail at somewhat regularly). When you first learn to sail, it is with the assumption that the conditions will be steady and ideal, but in reality sailing is a never-ending series of irregular gusts of wind and sudden current changes that make it impossible to simply set a course and stick with it. Good sailors meet each new obstacle with flexibility and learn from them, maybe capsizing the boat a dozen or so times before they learn to recognize a pratfall and head it off. When sailing, you have to pay constant attention and regularly make adjustments, yet even if you do everything as planned, a power boat might buzz by and throw a wake that forces you to tack rapidly, a gust might blow across the stern and cause you to unexpectedly jibe, or you just plain miscalculate how much water you have left and run aground.

Life is, in so many ways, what happens between when you set your course and what you actually encounter on the water, and no two sailors have the same run of it. The only part that truly matters is to keep sailing and to resist the (sometimes constant) urge to pull in all your sheets and give up. And of course, you have to learn to trust your equipment, just as it is crucial to trust your judgment, your sense of what you want and don’t want in life, and to follow your moral compass even when it feels precarious.



Wet Rhododendron (prints available)

I am working at embracing failure as an opportunity, learning and improving each time, and looking carefully at what I’ve done and what I haven’t done to end up where I am. Instead of wearing my past failures as constraints on the future, I am owning them and taking pride in how I’ve developed because of them, like a fantastically-branching holly tree. In addition to the big material areas like my career and finances, I am looking at the smaller failures too – times I didn’t communicate as carefully as I should have, when I didn’t give as much of myself as I wanted, when I was pointlessly selfish, when I didn’t speak up or help as much as I meant to, or when I wasn’t as fully open and honest as I strive to be. As we sail along, we should constantly refine our craft at being human and treating others well. When I look at those failings or feel consumed with regret for how I’ve treated someone, I see extraordinary potential for growth and development: I know in my heart I can do better. My sense of failure is a recognition that I have it in me, which is empowering beyond belief.

If we fail better, which is to say fail more mindfully and openly, with a forgiving spirit, the amorphous shape of regret takes on specifics. If we look at them closely instead of distracting or excusing ourselves, I believe we can learn how to be kinder, more compassionate, and ultimately stronger, more honest, open, and beautiful people. That’s the course I plan to sail anyway.

chakras1

Healing Vibes: My First Sound Bath

Many of the coolest things I’ve done in my life have been spontaneous, last-minute “that sounds interesting” kinds of decisions. The night before the Women’s March, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post about a sound bath hosted by the Acoustic Mandala Project, whom I knew about through Brooklyn Raga Massive. As I happen to be working on a series of art pieces based on sacred geometry and mandalas, their name jumped out at me, and I asked my mother if she’d like to go directly after the march. We agreed it would be a stark contrast and hoped we wouldn’t be too tired to fully experience it, but we were both so intrigued we couldn’t resist. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be one of the better decisions we’ve ever made.

A sound bath is a meditative experience using specific frequencies of sound (kind of like notes or tones) that – forgive the pun – strike a chord in people. The mathematical relationship among the frequencies touches something visceral and fundamental in the body and mind, and people generally experience incredible healing and a profound meditative experience. These guys carefully explained the concepts, how they derived the tones and discovered the ways different sounds resonate with one another to form chord-like harmonies. They blended electronically purified tones with raga-inflected rhythms, instrumentation, chimes, flutes, and singing bowls struck in person to make an unbelievably rich tapestry of sound and vibrations. I don’t mean vibration in the sort of airy-fairy sense, but actual physical vibrations that coursed through the body head-to-toe for several minutes at a time. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

After the introduction, everyone in the group laid down on yoga mats in a wobbly semi-circle, covered with woven blankets and wearing eye masks. After our day of marching and feeling so connected with women and humanity on a universal level, it was a vertiginous dive into the mind and the self. The first few minutes felt like a psychedelic clearing-out of everything my mind had been processing, just loads of colors and shapes, invented cartoon characters, and as close as what I imagine LSD hallucinations might look like. I typically experience mild synesthesia in response to sound (which is part of why I am so obsessed with music), so any time I close my eyes and listen, it’s a bit like watching abstract paintings swim around. The purity of these tones evoked something much more intense and emotional than usual, which I felt to be the core of myself. The sound bath lasted a bit more than an hour, I think, with various instruments and tones being introduced, moved around the room, and bringing our bodies and minds on an extraordinary journey with them.



I have spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head around the idea of resonance, as it was the basis for the NMR research we did at Pratt and generally a very cool concept (I highly suggest reading more about acoustic resonance and then helping me explain it better). If you imagine two frequencies of energy like waves in the ocean that run into one another, they first go higher (amplification) then move together thereafter (sympathetic vibrations) at a sweet spot that causes more waves around them. It’s a bit more complex, but certain frequencies resonate in relationships that form chords that just feel right, like the brightness of the I-III-V relationship of major triads in music.

They had a pair of singing bowls that not only resonated with one another, but did so in a I-V relationship (I think – it might have been I-IV), so that when one was struck by the feet and the other by the head, the body joined in the brightness of that sound, and you could literally feel every molecule of yourself vibrating like an open chord. Maybe it is helpful to picture a bunch of particles spinning in random directions. When the tones were struck, imagine every one aligning like a crystalline grid and briefly spinning in the same direction, in a way that made the mind experience pure joy and luminous energy. There is more neuroscience and physics to it, but the sensation was like having goosebumps all over, shivering with pleasure, and feeling every part of oneself melt into another state.



Prayer wheels at Sarnath, the site of the bodhi tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
(Prints available)

I thought that might be the height of the experience, but it continued through a whole bunch of other similar body and mind sensations, choreographed in waves and beautiful complexity. It felt like my soul was dancing, simultaneously a particle and a wave in some quantum state of existence and non-existence. I felt utterly, completely free, like metaphysical flying, but also intensely grounded and connected with the raw physicality of being human.

The “finale” of the sound bath is one of those sensations I will keep with me the rest of my life. They went around to each person and struck tuning forks to a pitch that once again resonated perfectly with the softer tones washing over the room, then placed the forks on everyone’s foreheads. I am struggling to think of any way to describe it except as a soul-level orgasm. The frequencies are known to be healing, for reasons not yet fully understood, unlocking blocked emotions and energies within the body and kind of making them sing. Having this pure vibration reverberate from the head through the entire body for several minutes of exquisite being-in-this-moment presence is like nothing I’ve ever known before. I’ve never felt more awake, yet at peace, aware of everything in my mind, yet open. It was like stretching, seeing stars, and slipping through a crack into some surreality of pleasure and beauty.

I was afraid of the come-down from such a great high, that as the vibrations ceased all the muddy and dark stuff in my brain would gunk it up again. I was astonished to find that never happened. I wasn’t able to pinpoint when the vibrations ceased – I just kind of rode the wave back into myself. I preserved the clarity and purity of that moment for the rest of the session – and since then – as if all the little subatomic particles in my mind and body got right and just stayed that way.



When we took our eye masks off, I saw everyone else’s eyes were wide and shining like mine, as they described things they felt and “saw” and experienced throughout. It was the spiritual equivalent of the sun coming out from behind clouds after rain and lighting up the mind like the sky. My mother described dramatic visuals in shades of purple, which are supposed to be associated with the crown chakra in meditation. I joked with her that purple is the color I’ve always associated with her, so of course her soul would be purple too.

I am still mesmerized by what an extraordinary experience it was, and I doubt I can ever adequately convey to someone what it felt like in that moment. When I think back, it reminds me of the time I jumped off a cliff into a glacial river in Iceland – saying the words and telling the story kept horrifying me every time I repeated it, like I still couldn’t believe I’d actually done that. This sound bath was a similar sort of jumping-off-a-cliff into something exhilaratingly beautiful and unknown, and yet at the same time, diving within, to the parts of my mind and existence I know best because they’ve been with me all along. I will cherish it forever.

Be with this moment

As I have mentioned previously, I quote romantic comedies with a somewhat comical frequency in my everyday life. One of the more unexpectedly profound moments in Sweet Home Alabama (spoiler alert) is when Melanie (Reese Witherspoon) tells her fiancé Andrew (Patrick Dempsey) that she can’t marry him:

MELANIE
Andrew, you don’t want to marry me.

ANDREW
I don’t?

MELANIE
No. No, you don’t, not really. You see, the truth is I gave my heart away a long time ago. My whole heart, and I never really got it back. And I don’t even know what else to say, but I’m sorry. I can’t marry you. And you shouldn’t want to marry me.

ANDREW
So this is what this feels like.

The simplicity of his statement, paired with his shocked expression as he struggles to process everything she’s said and what it means for his life, is a touchstone of cinematic empathy for me (it’s okay to make fun of me for that). I picture Patrick Dempsey’s stupefied face every time I hurt someone or watch someone struggle with disappointment, and I can’t count the amount of times I’ve stood stunned myself in the face of heartbreak, identifying with him completely. His response is most typically how I process let-downs now, usually echoing his exact words to myself. So this is what this feels like.

The scene continues as his overbearing mother, played brilliantly by Candice Bergen, shouts, “That’s it?! You’re just gonna let her humiliate you with some bullshit about an old husband?” Dazed, he replies in the same calm, detached manner, “Yeah, I think I am. Excuse me.”

(I really love this movie.)



For as long as I can remember, I have adopted a style of depersonalization to cope with fear, hurt, upset, anger, disappointment, and so on, detaching and looking at the situation from the outside as an abstraction. I frequently cite a point of trivia from neuroscience that seemingly conflicting emotions, such as dread and excited anticipation, are identical signals in the brain – it’s simply a matter of interpretation whether they are experienced as positive or negative. Stepping outside oneself, upsetting events are still novel, and in a certain light, our capacity to hurt or fear or experience anything intensely can be kind of abstractly beautiful. I guess that’s why depersonalization works. We can step back and say, “Wow, I can actually feel my heart sinking, how about that.”

I have felt myself resisting conscious experiences since the election, either sinking into altered consciousness / escapism, or sublimating and floating somewhere outside of myself. I am either deep under the sea or up in the clouds, with no desire to deal with the sinking ship of emotions in the present tense. Not surprisingly, that has its own problems, especially when so much of my mental health strategy involves being as Present as possible. I am on familiar ground here, and I have caught myself hiding inside my mind, but I don’t want to be emotionally sequestered anymore and especially not for the next four years.



I’ve been reading books on meditation and philosophy lately, especially Thích Nhất Hạnh. They have been incredible and perfectly-timed reminders that we have a seemingly infinite capacity to bear pain or hurt from others and that the resilience of the human spirit comes, always, in compassion and being fully present. Quite literally getting on the ground (through sitting meditation) and being with this moment.

In Pema Chödrön‘s excellent book Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change, she outlines the importance of groundlessness and why we should not resist situations that cause trepidation or an unsettled sense of confusion in the universe. Citing the concept of samsara, which she defines as going around and around, recycling the same patterns, she identifies kleshas as the force behind the samsara turbine of pain. Kleshas, she explains, are the “conflicting emotions that cloud the mind,” such as anger, pride, jealousy, and despair, which are the mind’s attempt to escape groundlessness. When we give in to them, our preexisting habits are reinforced, and the wheel continues to spin, paradoxically keeping us even more inescapably trapped in the feeling of groundlessness.

Instead, Chödrön and everyone who’s gotten further in Buddhism 101 than me recommends trying to be even more present, feeling every feeling, reflecting on ourselves having these feelings, and while not obsessively dwelling on the kleshas or just going numb, living through these moments. By being with them, instead of trying to get away from them, and facing reality head on, we can find meaning and inspiration to make changes. In short, take the Patrick Dempsey approach, “So this is what this feels like.”



I have found myself stepping back a lot, limiting the amount of attention I can give to news items (I suspect there will be no shortage of think-pieces and disheartening headlines on our ensuing chaos), trying to keep political conversations focused and specific, seeking positive action instead of anger or despair, choosing my battles or when to walk away, and trying to get into the present tense with this surreality, which includes a lot of world and existence outside of our government and the unconscionable behavior of some of my fellow Americans. Slowly, I am starting to find a path – not out, but through – that gives me a tiny bit of hope and reassurance. It’s not terribly pleasant, but hey, at least I’m feeling again.

I already resent the amount of mental energy and emotion I have spent on this election and the current state of politics in the world, but I am resolved to not let it be in vain. I’m going to transform it into more beautiful thoughts, ideas to help people and the environment, substantive art, acts of compassion, and energy toward progress.

I am reclaiming my present. So this is what this feels like.

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.