I don’t know how to write this. I’m hoping that if I just keep typing, the words will come. Because the truth is, though I became painfully familiar with the grief of losing close family at the age of 9, rarely has my heart felt so thoroughly ripped from my body. Never has the world felt so wrong, as if the very magnetic forces that keep it together have simply ceased to be. I’ve been told that the degree to which we love someone is precisely the degree of pain we will feel at losing them. And in my 32 years on this earth, never have I encountered anyone or anything that can compare to the light, the joy, the beauty and the timeless celebration of life that was my cousin Natasha.
When I was a child, Natasha was this ethereal, magical creature who defied (and greatly enhanced) my perception of what it meant to be an adult. This fiery rebel with bright purple hair, this unshakeable force of nature who positively defined the words “joie de vivre.” By day, Natasha worked as a prominent leader in multiple government organizations dedicated to mental health advocacy and awareness, for which she was awarded the Secretary’s Award for Distinguished Services in 1996, presented by the HHS Secretary herself. (For more on this and so many of Natasha’s accomplishments, I hope you might read Natasha’s obituary, written by her brother Bill Bates).
In other words, by day Natasha was already a superhero; so you can only imagine the heights of her role as Superhero by Night. Natasha was on the front lines of the punk scene from its very inception, fought hard for causes ranging from civil rights to anti-war protests, was the very embodiment of the Women’s Liberation Movement, founded the Rosebud Film Festival, and hosted weekly salons where she brought together every breed of artist, misfit, and visionary that you could possibly imagine. So when it comes to Natasha, we aren’t just talking about a life well-lived: we are talking about ten lives somehow packed into one – each as exquisitely-lived as the next. I hope you will watch the video below, a 1997 interview for the American Artist Series which Natasha and I edited together a couple years ago from a more extended version. This video contains nearly all of the highlights of the many lessons she had to teach. Please watch this video… You will see immediately why this woman was so powerful, unique, joyful and inspiring, and I guarantee your life will be the better for it.
As a teenager, I quickly discovered that being at Natasha’s house, and basking in her presence, filled me with a positive hyperdrive of artistic energy and inspiration. I recently calculated that I have spent a total of one year at her beautiful house in Bethany Beach, Delaware, and that a full quarter of everything I have ever written was created in her house, as she beamed from her loft above, reveling in her greatest joy: to foster art and creativity. We would come together for meals and other adventures, to discuss art, life, love, history, mythology, philosophy, and so much more. Natasha deemed every subject under the moon to be “fascinating” and “fabulous,” and I have always striven to follow her example, and to consider no subject whatsoever to be either beneath my notice or beyond my grasp.
Over the years, I brought three dear friends with me to stay at the magical house at the beach, to bask with me in the glow that was Natasha. One of these individuals was my best friend Julia. I knew that Natasha would provide a beacon of wisdom that would remain with my friend forever – and Natasha did not disappoint.
Over a shared journey in Natasha’s favorite game, “Mix-and-Match Substances,” Natasha told us the story of how she overcame what she once considered to be her greatest weakness, which was an overeager tendency to lose herself in another person, and the realization that if she ever wanted to truly be at peace, she would need to fall in love with herself. As Julia wrote that night on Facebook from Natasha ‘s inspiration, “Stop searching for the person you want to spend the rest of your life with; BECOME the person you want to spend the rest of your life with.” Natasha did that. She fell in love with herself. And for us on the outside, to watch someone that confident, that joyful, that alive – we couldn’t help but fall in love with her, too. And to love ourselves more in the process, to know that we were deemed worthy to be in the presence of such greatness.
To fall in love with oneself may seem on the surface like an incredibly selfish action – so how then did we end up with Natasha, who is easily the most generous, the most gracious person I have ever known, the kind of person who dedicates so much of her life advocating for the needs and rights of others, and to supporting and inspiring artists of every form? I think it’s because by fully loving and embracing herself, Natasha gave herself the riskless freedom to love each and every one of us. Deeply.
It is impossible to encapsulate all of the wisdom and goodness of Natasha into a single set of lessons. But I were to try, it would be this:
• Love yourself so that you may freely love others.
• Welcome everyone you can into your heart and home, no matter their age, their sex, their gender, their race, their orientation, and their politics. Only then can we enrich each other’s lives in ways that we will otherwise never know. Natasha welcomed all, and there is not a person who accepted that invitation who is not better because of it. And she was better because of us. She knew that, and she told us often.
• Treat every single day as a celebration. A night at Natasha’s was not complete without a toast to family and friends to the gentle soundtrack of 50’s jazz. Or David Bowie, depending on the night. Or gothic rock. This woman had the most prolific taste I’ve ever seen, and would have been equally at home at a 20’s Speakeasy as she would at a punk rock concert.
Which brings me to Natasha’s final lesson, and the one that not only touched so many who loved her, but for many of us was the most formative lesson of all:
• Love, cherish, share, and celebrate Art.
I’d like to end with one more anecdote, taken from my journal on May 6, 2013:
“As Natasha and I drove home from Rehoboth this evening, there was so much fog that you couldn’t see more than 100 feet in any direction. It felt like the world was being created bit by bit as we traveled through it, created just for us, and fading from existence after we passed through. It was beautiful, and amazingly, Natasha had never seen it before. Her excitement was beyond belief. She cranked the ethereal classical music way up, laughed with delight, and marveled like a child at the beauty of the world around her. 72 years old, and still she can barely contain her excitement for life and this beautiful universe. I wish we could all see the world as she does.”
It’s very foggy right now. The way back is gone forever. The way ahead is unclear. But as Natasha’s favorite quote by Vivian Greene says, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to end, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
And so, in the midst of some of the most painful grief I have ever known, I nevertheless raise my glass (as she would want me to) to celebrate the greatest, boldest, and most gracious dancer of all. Thank you, Natasha – my cousin – my joy – my muse – my mentor – and my dear, dear friend. Your dance lives on in us, the people you loved who only learned the steps because you were there to teach us. I will miss you forever. I will love you forever. And I will never, ever let you go.