Diving In

Today’s post is by guest author Andrea Kahn, it describes wonderful examples of overcoming adversity and fear of diving into uncharted waters, both literally and by taking the plunge to follow a passion.


By Andrea Kahn

ARTist + Creator of http://Petspeakart.com



Overcome Adversity

“Copyright 2012 Andrea Kahn/PetSPEAK Art”












As a child I never learned to swim.

My father had once been a fine swimmer. I discovered this after he died, via a stash of ancient black and white photographs which depicted him brashly navigating the tumult of the Atlantic Ocean, along the Brooklyn shoreline. My teenaged father’s curls were soaked flat to his skull, his face lit with jubilation.

But when he met my mother this pleasure, along with so many others, was forever lost. Equal parts beauty and narcissism, in photographs my mother posed on the beach clad in glamorous, skirted swimsuits. Her skin was smoothly luminous, hair dry as the sun.

My mother had no interest in learning the machinations of swimming (why bother when you can loll beneath the shade of a beach umbrella, offering your long white limbs to male passersby?) She also had a crushing fear of water and all its implied risks. This led her to forbid my father to continue his relationship with the sea. And so he became landlocked.

The year I turned nine my mother was swept off her feet by brutal waves of dizziness. She lurched stiffly around our apartment, filling it with panic. She fell hard, often, clawing spastically at air on her way down. Never a martyr, she took my father and I with her.

Eventually, the diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis was arrived at. A neurologist handed my mother a slim pamphlet titled “Living With MS.” There was no internet back then to seek out options or community. No treatment. There still remains no cure.

At home I snuck the pamphlet out of the trash where my mother had flung it, amid wails that twisted her face into an unfamiliar abstract. “A debilitating condition,” the brochure intoned, “resulting from the gradual deterioration of the myelin sheath protecting the spinal cord.”

In my mind I visualized our neighbor’s old bicycle, perpetually chained to a fence outside our shared apartment building. Once a shining red Schwinn, years of exposure to the elements had dug deep veins of rust around the chassis, rotting it through.

Following her initial tearful rage, my mother embraced, with an alarming ease, the increasingly infantilizing situations caused by chronic illness.  Reaching for food was a struggle; she demanded I feed her. Walking was precarious; so she leaned weightily upon my shoulders, fingers digging into my skin. Dutifully I ferried her to and from the bathroom, changing her soiled clothes, adjusting the position of her ruined legs.

I was a child. She was a grown woman. With each duty performed in service to her sodden flesh, my mother’s illness inhabited more and more of me.

So I vanished.

At school I spoke only when spoken to. I taught myself to reflect back other people’s facial expressions in social situations, becoming whatever it was they wanted me to be. My father worked in a discount furniture store as a salesman. No one had health insurance back then. He began working extra hours to keep up with the medical bills. Weekends he drove a cab. At home he watched TV and chain-smoked, expressionless.

His first heart attack didn’t kill him. Neither did his second or third. But these events put us on monthly government disability payments and kept him home; immobilized. Like my mother.

Days bled into other days, but none held any particular significance for me. I was a shadow of the children who ran and played and called to one another in bright voices. The only time I felt real was in the presence of animals. I memorized the location of every pet in the neighborhood and carefully planned my route home from school to glimpse a specific dog in a yard or a cat dozing in a window.

My only other solace came from drawing. Since I was small I knew myself as an artist. I drew tirelessly, unaware of time passing. I also loved words, loved writing on my drawings, which were almost always of the animals I knew (or of ones I longed to know).


The trinity of my survival.

As a teenager I fled to Manhattan, attending art school on scholarship. I worked a blur of menial jobs to scratch out money for food and a place to sleep, graduated and became a graphic designer. It wasn’t what I wanted to do but it was what I could do. It was a job.

I got an apartment. Wore fashionable clothes. Strode through the hallways of upscale office buildings in high heels that clicked out a staccato of confidence. I had escaped.

By becoming someone else.

It was in the Cayman Islands that the specter of my past life rose up from the sea. On previous holidays I had avoided locales that featured what most people enjoyed; the glimmering green ocean. But here I was, thankfully with an understanding man who accepted my aversion to water. So when he suggested a scenic boat ride which would culminate in a stop to allow passengers to “pet” the obliging stingrays, I agreed. (Only after he gallantly phoned the company running the excursion to ascertain this took place in waist-high water, so ridiculously shallow even a non-swimmer could safely stand).

As the boat left the dock my body immediately turned leaden, while the other passengers seemed instead lighter, graceful as dancers. The blaring sun was inescapable, the water immense. Grimly I clutched the rail and stared down at my feet.

When finally I forced my eyes up we were somewhere, nowhere, far out on the ocean. The engine had shut down and we lurched helplessly upon the waves. Everyone else had put on snorkeling apparatus and was merrily diving in. The man I was with was talking worriedly with our captain, who stared at me, shrugged his shoulders and leapt into the water. I sat frozen upon the lurching deck, while my companion attempted to comfort and console.

“It’s okay to be afraid,” a voice called up from the water below. “But you can’t let it stop you.” I had earlier noticed he elderly gentleman who was speaking because he was on this trip with such an enormous extended family; grown and partnered sons, daughters, grandchildren; all of whom had swum off to see the stingrays. He had gone with them but upon seeing me stranded on the boat, returned.

His tone was calm and certain. His cottony white hair puffed out ridiculously in the ocean breeze. He reached his hand up to me. I glared at him. He kept it there, unfazed.

“Can’t swim,” I insisted.

“Can’t let it stop you,” he countered. His hand did not move. I knew it wasn’t going to. Tentatively I extended my own, and then I was in the churning water, snorting and panicked. As we began to glide away from the boat, my body seemed unwieldy as brick; paralyzed.

The man I had come with followed silently behind the grandfather and I. He was secure enough in himself to let the older man step in, and suddenly I admired him in an entirely new way that our relationship had never before offered opportunity to reveal.

The stingray was velvety, fluid and alive in my hands. The creature’s heart beat steadily under its skin, unperturbed at being pulled from its watery comfort zone. When we got back to the boat I thanked my rescuer. He waved me off and turned back to his clamoring grandchildren. Eventually I registered for an “Adult Fear of Swim” class at my local Y, where along with a dozen other sheepish grownups I learned to float and do the dog-paddle.

Since then there have been countless situations where I had to decide whether or not to dive into the unknown. As I’ve grown older, my responsibilities and the complications of my life have grown substantially larger, making these choices (and the losses they might incur) all the more frightening. But at every turn I remember the elderly gentleman’s words: “It’s okay to be scared…but you can’t let it stop you.”

Two years ago I took an enormous leap and started my own pet portrait business: PetSPEAK Art.

I chose the name PetSPEAK Art because the portraits feature a combination of art and a significant phrase (which I write) to express the uniquely intimate bond between each client and the animal(s) sharing their lives.

The portraits are modern but rich with detail and color. While many pet portraits are merely copies of photographs (or cartoonish images that anthropomorphize animals into cutesy images), PetSPEAK Art emphasizes the inherent dignity of animals…and the tremendously important place they hold in our lives.

Before starting a portrait, I discuss the history of human and animal with the client. Often, if the portrait is a memorial, I draw upon memories and the life story of the human. The art I make is based on the personal relationship of each pet to human.

I am so glad I chose to dive in. Finally, after years of merely working, my passions and my work are united; and so am I.




Find out with a commissioned portrait from Andrea Kahn at http://Petspeakart.com

PetSPEAK Art animal portraits are uniquely modern pet portraits which combine ART + WORDS. Each portrait is a highly personalized, high-quality fine art print which expresses the personal (and very powerful relationships) between humans and the animals who grace their lives. A PetSPEAK portrait immortalizes not only your pet, but the individual relationship you have with this particular animal. While some people order a PetSPEAK portrait for themselves, these special works of art are also given as holiday gifts and created to memorialize an animal that has passed on, but is never forgotten.

Clients include the great and the small: DOGS, CATS, BIRDS, BUNNIES, HORSES, FISH, FERRETS + REPTILES.

PetSPEAK Art Website: http://Petspeakart.com

Follow on Twitter: @Petspeakart

Telephone: (201) 249-1612

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  9 comments for “Diving In

  1. Roberta
    June 16, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    I am not sure where to begin. The thoughts and words in my brain are scrambled.

    But, Andrea, I will say your story griped me early on and never once lost my interest.

    I shall sleep on this and let it percolate and see if I can put words to the feelings your story evoked inside me. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Andrea Kahn
      June 17, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Many thanks to you Roberta, for your kind words.
      -Andrea Kahn

    June 18, 2013 at 7:58 am

    Ouch…long story! Seems to be a good story. Will read it later on. Bookmarket it! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Victoria Rae
    July 5, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    Andrea Kahn is a wonderful communicator. To be able to share her most intimate feelings in such a way that includes the public mindset is an admirable accomplishment. I would love to know how and when she was able to bring herself to leave her family home to go out on her own, and what was her parents’ reactions?
    I am passing on the old man’s adage “It’s okay to be scared…but DON’T let it stop you!” to my own mother who is in the process of moving to a new facility. We all get scared at what life may throw at us, but Andrea showed that with a strong mind and great will we can move on and make our lives a better place to be in.
    I’m thinking of getting a dog just so I can have one of her PetSpeak drawings :). Seriously though, I am posting Ms. Kahn’s PetSpeak web site to my friends who do have pets.
    Andrea, you are quite a talented lady. I admire your ingenious art and personal pluck.

    • July 8, 2013 at 3:35 pm

      Thank you for your comment Victoria, I agree with your opinion that Andrea is a wonderful communicator. That’s why I am very grateful that she agreed to take time out of her busy life to write the post for this blog. I wish you and your mother the very best.

  4. John McHugh
    July 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Great story, one never knows how our daily interactions with people, places and things impact our life’s journey. The simplest to the most complex things can direct us to where we end up. Really enjoyed it!!

  5. deni k
    July 10, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Your upbringing and life experience brought you to where you are today and I thoroughly was glued to your every word in this blog. Thank you for your writing talent and for posting your story. My heart has a special place for you. Best of luck with PetSpeak, too…will be circulating this on your behalf.

  6. Linda C
    July 11, 2013 at 8:10 am

    Andrea, what an inspiring story you share. Thank you for being so personal with all to see. I’m sure you will are an inspiration to so many and will continue to be so. You’ve inspired me!

  7. fkuznicki
    July 11, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Its inspiring that you overcame so much. The man who took your hand was right. Fear serves a purpose, but as a guide, not an edict. On another note, not only is the drawing of your dog beautiful, I will repeat your/his words to myself everyday.

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