What Matters: Grace Bonney on the Beauty of Birds, and New Passions Taking Flight

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Debbie Millman has started a new project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an ongoing effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer 10 identical questions, and submit a decidedly nonprofessional photograph.

Up next: Grace Bonney, a writer and graduate student based in the Hudson Valley. Her previous work includes Design*Sponge.com, Good Company magazine, In the Company of Women and Design*Sponge at Home. Her newest book, Collective Wisdom, will be published in October 2021.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Taking care of animals. I find great comfort in routines, but especially those tied to our pets. My day is punctuated with moments of caring for both of our dogs (we sadly had to say goodbye to our 18-year-old cat during the pandemic), as well as a yard full of around 50 wild birds at any given time. Like so many others, I became deeply obsessed with birds during the pandemic and have turned our yard into a 24-hour buffet. Which means I’ve also inadvertently turned it into a buffet of songbirds for local birds of prey. But learning about their calls and behaviors has been one of the only things keeping me together during this past year. After 15 years of running a business that required me to be accountable to a large number of people on the internet at all hours of the day, I’m finding great joy in being accountable primarily to feathered things instead.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

I’m an only child, so my parents always encouraged me to develop a strong sense of imagination. They let me read and check out as many library books as I wanted at any time and would give me old magazines (and my dad’s old advertising industry magazines) so I could play with them. Sometime in elementary school, I decided to put my dolls (primarily my mom’s 1950s-edition Barbie and Midge dolls) to work on different levels of our townhouse’s steps. I pretended to run a magazine and would type up pages on my typewriter and then hand them down to the dolls to process and turn into the magazine. It was a bustling magazine office spread across 15 carpeted stairs and it was always my favorite creative game to play.

What is your biggest regret?

I have a lot. Some too private to share, some perfectly comfortable to share. I think the regret I feel most comfortable sharing is the way I ran my business in the first eight years. It wasn’t until I came out in 2013 that I realized how important it was to actively create and support a more inclusive environment on both sides of my website. I had been incredibly defensive about the lack of inclusivity shown on the site as well as the lack of inclusivity on the writing team. It took a heart-to-heart conversation with a friend to make me see how I was actively contributing to the issues of racism, ableism and classism (among others) in the design/media community and it took me a while to get a better handle on how to enact those changes at the site in a way that was at all levels of Design*Sponge and not just the posts we published. I’m so happy to see former teammates of mine speaking up about those types of changes at the publications where they work now. I made a lot of mistakes (and still do), but I hope that anyone still working in the design world can learn from my mistakes and keep pushing the needle toward equity and transparency.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

There are so many different types of heartbreak. Some require a little downtime and some require baked goods, but the most significant heartbreaks I’ve experienced have required a very real investment in therapy. I struggled with a lot of depression and suicidal ideation when I first came out, and that difficult time led me to an amazing therapist who I still see to this day. She has seen me through some incredibly difficult times that have changed the way I see myself and my place in the world. That relationship holds me accountable in a way I didn’t have in my life previously, and it’s that safe space she and I created together that inspired me to pursue a graduate degree in marriage and family therapy this year.

What makes you cry?

I tend to cry about things either before or well after they’re actually happening. And I think I’m most moved to tears when I experience moments that feel both happy and sad at the same time. Something about that bittersweet combination of gratitude or awe juxtaposed to loss or sadness cuts deep for me. I felt it when we lost our friend Georgine at the age of 91, and when we lost our cat, Turk, at the age of 18. They both lived long full lives, but I felt myself grieving them most deeply while they were still alive. And then when they passed, that actual moment wasn’t a time of tears. It was a lot of silence and dealing with the motions you go through when handling a death. I didn’t really start crying more regularly about both of them until months after their deaths.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

It used to be fleeting. I felt I was only as good as my next achievement and every achievement set the bar higher for the next. Thankfully I’ve been able to unpack and unravel a lot of that in therapy. But it’s taken years. Now it really depends on what that achievement is and whether it’s tied to my inner camera (how I see myself) or my outer camera (how I think others see me). If it’s tied to the former, that feeling of pride stays around a lot longer.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I would like to. But I’ve always been a realist, so I find myself most tied to contemporary death positivity movements that consider death and mortality more openly and plainly. I really admire the work people like Katrina Spade and Alua Arthur are doing to make conversations about death, dying and how we prepare for that stage of life more approachable and transparent. One of the things I’m most curious to explore in my graduate work in therapy is grief work, death doula practices and work that specializes in helping individuals and families talk more openly about death and grief. I grew up in a family that discussed neither, so I find it healing in a way to actually talk about it openly.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I have hated a lot of things about myself in the past. But I try not to hate myself anymore. It doesn’t actually help me change things. But there are parts of my personality and my patterns of behavior that I would like to change. Namely—my desire to correct. It’s insufferable. I’m trying to get better about it, but as I’m sure [my wife], Julia [Turshen], can attest, I have a hard time. But I know it’s a problem and it’s one I’m working on.

What do you love most about yo
urself?

My curiosity and desire to learn. I’m turning 40 this year, and in some ways, I feel my age. But in a lot of ways, I still feel like a little kid. Most little kids learn without judgment—they’re not expecting to get things right right away. And that’s the type of learning I want to keep doing. Because I know that the more I learn (about anything: how people think and behave, how to be a better communicator, how birds’ beaks have evolved to suit food sources), the more I’ll realize I need to learn or change about the way I currently do or see something. But it’s that sense of evolution that makes me feel excited about this next chapter of life.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

Well, it’s not one that’s easy for me to eat anymore, but a massive bowl of spaghetti Bolognese. I have Type 1 diabetes, so figuring out insulin dosages and timing for a (delicious) carb bonanza like that just isn’t worth it for me anymore. I also have had too many stomach and ulcer issues to be able to do tomato sauce anymore. But if I could, I would eat a huge plate of spaghetti Bolognese with chocolate cake for dessert (box cake mix, preferably).