seventh new york-iversary

this past sunday marked seven years since i arrived in brooklyn. a love supreme was playing as my dad and i drove over the george washington bridge. the empire state building was lit green for st. patrick’s day. i was already missing minnesota and the comforts of home, and i was broken-hearted after an amicable and expected but nonetheless sad breakup. i wept and listened to sufjan stevens’ chicago:

i drove to new york
in the van, with my friend
we slept in parking lots
i don’t mind, i don’t mind

i was in love with the place
in my mind, in my mind
i made a lot of mistakes
in my mind, in my mind

march, contrary to poetic postulations, is truly the cruelest month, with biting wind rustling budding trees and wintry santorum spitting on pale sad-eyed bundles that once were happy people; even in march, when i miss california tremendously, the most, when the blooming tropical trees and the eucalyptus and bay leaves call to me: i’m still glad to be here.

a year into my time here, i was living the dream. i moved to new york hoping to work at the intersection of music, health care and african development – emphasis on hoping, because let’s face it, that’s an awfully narrow field. and somehow within weeks i went for what i thought would be an informational interview at the red hot organization and was offered a part-time position on the spot, working for a music label that produces compilations (amazing ones at that, e.g.) to raise funds for AIDS support organizations worldwide. um, what? obviously i was meant to be here, at that particular moment to do that particular work. and on the side, i put in my time between the sticks.

i was a wealthy drunk. bartending at magnetic field, a small rock n roll bar, was lucrative. a staff of one = no payouts. the pitcher full of dollar bills was my lifeblood. that, and scotch. but the true value of my time at magnetic field was the powerful and long-lasting connections to a deeply dedicated and supportive community. new york can be a tough town, and though i moved here knowing a handful of friends, i can’t imagine, i literally cannot imagine the course of my life without magnetic field and its denizens. along with seriously close friends and a seriously damaged liver, the bar brought kathryn into my life, which is (other than the gift of life, word to my moms & pops) is the greatest gift i’ve ever received.

a year in, and i was settled into my routine, working a couple days a week in my uber-fancy soho office, dining and drinking and sleeping my way around the city.

so it’s march 17th, 2007. a few days previous, i’d written on my old and sadly neglected blog:

do we take care of the people in our lives? do we care of ourselves? do you feel like you’ve done all you can to create positive forces in your life and in the lives of others? well, i’ve tended not to over the past couple years and it’s time for that to change.

let’s imagine, hypothetically, that we met that day, let’s say we went out to brunch, and you looked into my tea leaves and cast your i-ching sticks and threw a mean tarot and you predicted my future.

if you’d sat me down six years ago and said, in a few short years you’ll stop bartending and give up drinking, i would have laughed. i would have laughed heartily and ordered another bloody mary.

if you’d sat me down six years ago and said, in a few short years you’ll be married to the woman of your dreams, i would have been skeptical and amused.

if you’d sat me down six years ago, stared at the tarot cards in horror, saw the black dog in my tea, looked up from casting your sticks with a heavy sigh and said:

prepare yourself, because soon
you’ll be asked to endure years of agonizing surgeries
round after round after round of toxic treatment
side effects may include but are by no means limited to
loss of hairappetitesexdrivestabilityemploymentbodypartshappiness
also loss of life

you will lose count of the doctors and nurses and specialists for your braineyesshoulderhandsliverstomachkneefeet
not to mention the infectious diseases doc, you’ll need one of those
you will know nurses by name in the emergency room
and in the outpatient unit
and in the post-aenesthetic care unit
and on the oncology floor
you will have doctors, plural, on speed dial
you will lose count of the hours spent on hold
with insurance companies, hospitals, billing reps and collection agencies
there will be mountains of paperwork and towering spires of bills

you will make friends, friends who know your path
friends who share your pain and fear
and you will watch them die
withering away like a whittled stick, cut down to nothing

you will lose count of the thousands of needles that pierce your skin
colonoscopies will be old hat
same for highly radioactive scans
same for swallowing pills
same for swallowing pills that are cameras

listen, soon you will find yourself at 28 years old
you will be 28 and you will have cancer
and it’s serious, it’s bad
it’s in your lymph nodes (and you will learn what a lymph node is)
some people last weeks, months if they’re lucky
that the five-year survival rate for your diagnosis is eight percent

if you’d sat me down six years ago and said all this:

i would have been terrified. quite reasonably, i think.

but –

if you’d sat me down six years ago and said:

the path you will walk won’t be easy
no, it will in fact be incredibly hard
the most difficult thing you’ve ever done

but down that path, though it is quite far, and treacherous,
there is a new you
a better friendhusbandloverbrotherson
with more compassion and empathy
with a deeper sense of purpose
with a greater respect for life
you will love more strongly
you will listen more carefully

you will take care of the people in your life
you will take care of yourself
you will do all you can to create positive forces in your life and the lives of others.

if you’d sat me down six years ago and said, in order to become the person you were meant to be, you’ll have to go through hell. there will be blood, and pain, and sacrifice, and loss, but you will be alive, and you will be in love, and you will be loved:

would i have chosen to walk the path?
would i hesitate?
if i knew in no uncertain terms that the cancer would kill me, and soon, would i force the issue? would i ask modern medicine to prolong my life, and possibly prolong my suffering, and the attendant suffering of those i love and those who love me?

i would – though i understand and respect those who make the choice to live treatment-free for as long as they’re able.

if you’d sat me down six years ago and said, in 2013 you will be a budding abstract painter, i would answered your survey by filling bubble number five, for strongly disagree.

but here i am, and here we are, and, to finish off this obnoxiously long and winding post, here is this:

you might remember that i entered a cancer art contest last year – though my submission (“hand in hand” – click to jog your memory) didn’t win (a travesty!), it was still a valuable exercise, and i’ve had two requests so far to recreate it. today i delivered “hand in hand III,” a gift to my excellent pain management doctor. i’d never worked on such a large scale before – the canvas is 48″ x 60″, 4 feet by 5 feet. i made sure to take some pictures before i brought it to the office (in a hired van, as it wouldn’t come close to fitting through the subway turnstiles). see below and click to embiggen. i have another eight (!!) outstanding commissions.

i’m glad i chose new york.

hand in hand III

7 Responses to “seventh new york-iversary”

  1. ginger kossow says:

    Thanks for this post Jonah – a great and significant summing up

    We love you,

    Ginger and Richard

  2. a says:

    chills. throughout.

  3. Katharine says:


  4. Laurel L says:

    Wow, Jonah.

  5. Juliana says:

    Thanks Jonah. So beautiful.

  6. That was very inspiring seeing how strong your will when it comes to dealing with cancer. I agreed that not all people were not as brave as you were. Not so many people wanted to fight for their life instead they decided to give up. Thanks for sharing!