Mar 23, 2010 | Abiquiu, NM
Mar 23, 2010

This morning I was listening to the radio and a composer was on, talking about his music. He was in his 50s, and had worked like crazy all through his 20s and 30s, because he never thought he'd live very long. When he made it to 40, he started to take weekends off, and began to take walks along the Hudson River at noon.

"It seems like a lot of young composers have a wild, frantic style," said the interviewer. "But your style has become quite tranquil. Why do you think that is?"

"Well," said the composer, "I think that when you're young, what you desperately want more than anything is to fit into the world — to be noticed and accepted, and it takes a lot of energy to do that. But then when you're older, what you start to want is to escape from the world, to make your own private space and have it be beautiful. You don't care so much if other people see it, because it's enough to be there yourself."

I pulled into an overlook at Lake Abiquiu, and there were many posters warning of the dangers of drowning. I remembered a painting I saw when I was 14 and just beginning to think about how a person gets noticed.

I was spending the summer in Paris with my older artist cousin who lived there. She had a small place, and she put me up in her studio, sleeping on the floor with a bare light bulb overhead and oil paintings all around me. I later learned that a little while before I got there, she'd overdosed on heroin. Someone found her lying in the street and brought her to the hospital, so she could keep on living and painting. But they didn't tell me that then. She was just my cousin, with the long hair and the black boots.

When the house got quiet and we were all supposed to be sleeping, I would get up and look at her paintings. They were leaning up against the walls in thick stacks, and I flipped through them quietly, like records in a music store.

There was one that really shocked me. It was big and painted simply, with a few violent strokes in black and white and brown and red. There was the outline of a cliff, and a stick figure looking over it. Scrawled along the top of the painting it said, "Did he jump or did he fall?"

As I looked at Lake Abiquiu and thought about Hispanic teenagers who can't swim, young composers who can't relax, and stick figures who can't decide, I thought how they all share something — how the real tragedy of each of them is the way the world doesn't understand what the waving or the flailing or the falling is really all about.