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Neutral Colors Got Me Through 2020

As a Black woman with mental illness, I dealt with *everything that’s been going on* by painting everything white

White wall with white shelves, mirror, radiator, and a cat.
That’s my cat, Lily.

Here in Istanbul, the first coronavirus case was announced just over one year ago. It feels like it happened yesterday in another lifetime, like some sort of spacetime dolly zoom.

The dolly zoom effect is creating my zooming the camera in while physically moving it backwards. Now you know. Gif by LetsGlitchIt via Giphy.

In those early pandemic days, the “coronabrain” I basically already live with thanks to ADHD kicked into overdrive. My cluttered mental landscape mirrored the seemingly rhizomatic expansion of crap littering our shoebox apartment. During lockdown, which included a 14-day quarantine due to possible exposure to virus, the auditory onslaught from our argumentative downstairs neighbors made our 400 square feet feel even smaller. So we moved.

Our new apartment is much larger and semi-detached, so it feels like a small house. I now have an office with a door and IKEA Billy bookcases to display my yarn stash. There’s a nifty skylight that you open with a chain. We have a kitchen so big that my partner and I can both use it at the same damn time. And, for the first fucking time in my adult life, my apartment has a dishwasher.

The original decorating plan was sort of a Scandinavian-bohemian-meets mid-century-west-coast-style kinda thing. I wanted gallery-white walls disrupted by saturated, sophisticated hues. Dark moody teal color-blocking in the entryway. British racing green swiped onto an arch. And for the balcony terrace visible through the French doors: Santorini cobalt with millennial pink accents.

But by the time we moved in July, the ongoing pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, and then the global protests, all backgrounded by Trump’s racist antics had triggered my anxiety. Anxiety mellowed to depression and marrow-deep exhaustion. I simply couldn’t handle such intensely vibrant colors when I felt like a zombie and all I wanted to do was sleep. New plan: no color.

Plan B

Of course, this required finding the perfect white paint. Tuning into the subtle differences between the shades in a palette of whites became meditation, an exercise in productive mindfulness.

My perennial favorite is Benjamin Moore’s “Decorator’s White.” According to Google, in addition to searching for “Decorator’s White” people also ask, “Is decorators white too white?” Well. I’m here to tell you it most certainly is not, IMHO. It is ever so slightly chilly, assertive, yes, but never aggressively white.

As much as I love the whiteness embodied by this possibly-perfect shade loved by gallerists and, presumably, decorators, my new apartment required something different. To avoid conflict between cool undertones and the golden wall-to-wall seagrass carpeting installed by a previous tenant—I am nothing if not conflict avoidant—I needed to go with something warmer. With everything that was going on in the world—and in my head—the last thing I needed was an endless war where my walls met the floor.

Benjamin Moore is expensive in Istanbul, so we went with a local brand, with nameless paint colors identified by alpha-numeric codes. (I covet Farrow & Ball, which is wildly expensive everywhere, but whose history-inspired colors have names like “Dead Salmon,” “Arsenic,” and “Lichen” that resonate with my writerly soul.)

View of the Bosphorus Strait.
That view, though.

Unlike the shoebox, which had a magnificent Bosphorus view, this new apartment doesn’t get a ton of natural light. But what light does filter in from the nifty skylight, or wend its way around the tall trees that border our balcony into our living room, white paint #FU-2020 bounces from wall to wall, from room to room, making everywhere seem airy and bright.

I know that what I find “airy,” my partner finds spartan—especially because we don’t have that much furniture or art hanging up and the high walls of the nifty skylight mean there’s an echo in our dining room. I meditate on the ever-changing patterns of light and shadows playing on stark walls. The absence of color invites me to contemplate the subtleties of texture and the (neutral) colors of our furnishings, like the rough wool of sheepskin rugs or the weathered brown leather of our couch or even the white smooth surface of new IKEA flatpack.

Yesterday, I randomly started singing and discovered our dining wasn’t an empty echo chamber but a vessel waiting to be filled with reverberating song! I envision intimate post-pandemic concerts and offering our home as gallery space for local artist exhibitions. How’s that for bohemian west coast style?

How to please your man

Still, I have made a few concessions to please my jewel-tone-loving partner. I painted one stool emerald green — a veritable assault on my eyes. Another stool is that dark teal like the Bosphorus on an overcast day. I am slipcovering our chairs with the splotchy drop cloth I painted the stool on.

The kitchen is a confetti riot of color. Open shelving displays a proud collection of brightly-labeled Chines condiments, marmite (bought on a whim), and assorted whole spices of various hues. Travel magnets from all over the world adorn our refrigerator, and Cameroonian glass paintings—one even has glitter, which I love—and a beaded ceremonial skirt hang from the walls. The kitchen makes me smile but I can only be in there for short periods of time.

Earlier this year, we watched the Capitol insurrection from the neutral sanctuary of our cloudy-colored bedroom, where cement gray is the strongest shade. I painted half the wall behind my bed in a color we had mixed to match Sherwin Williams’ “Knitting Needles.” Because anxiety, I often wake up with adrenaline thrumming and my chest tight, and I fixate on the place where the white meets the gray until I calm down.

Sometimes I wonder if, heaven forbid, we’re actually still at the beginning stages of the pandemic or a series of pandemics. Rumor has it that the British variant is starting to race through Turkey’s population and Istanbul is a red, high-risk province. In my home country, Biden may be in the White House now but there is still so much that could go wrong—that is already going wrong—for communities of color. And what happens in 2022?

Fortunately, my home offers expansive blankness, a background imbued with all the optimism of an unpainted canvas, a respite from frenetic headspace. Until there’s less noise in the news, in the world, in my head, I’m sticking with neutrals.

American freelancer in Istanbul writing about culture, mental health, race & travel. Bylines everywhere from Al Jazeera to Zora. Tw: @Ruth_Terry | IG: @ruth.ist

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