Gentle Sky

The Uncle Dave Instinct

I would say it feels like a tornado has been whipping through my family, except it was a literal hurricane first, and I am afraid every day that it may not have abated yet. In the past few weeks we lost my Great Uncle Dan, my Great Aunt Pat, and this past Friday my Great Aunt Shirley, among other terrible losses and sadnesses. I am not even remotely ready to process all the emotions that are tearing through my mind, but I want to remember something specific about my family because I think somewhere in it may be the secret of life.



My Uncle Dave was married to Aunt Shirley for 61 years and loved her with a depth and sincerity one rarely sees in this world. When he gave her a glass of wine at Wine Time, he always accompanied it with a kiss on the cheek, saying, “Here you go, doll.” He built fires in the wood stove on cold winter days because he thought she’d like a cozy place to sit and sometimes tossed extra fragrant wood in so she could enjoy the smell. When she was reading and the light grew dim, he’d turn a lamp on behind her to spare her eyes, and when she dozed off, he’d cover her with a blanket, kissing her head as she slept. I am so glad that two such truly kind people found one another and shared that love and generosity of spirit with their family.

Earlier this year when I was visiting my parents, I told them how I’d come to think of these small gestures of love as the “Uncle Dave Instinct,” as if he spent his days walking around trying to think of nice things to do for everyone. He didn’t do it for show or make a spectacle of the little moments when he’d hum a waltz and spin my Aunt Shirley around the kitchen island (thinking they were alone while I was playing under the table). When my Grandma Wanda and I were chatting in their kitchen the day after Thanksgiving, he didn’t interrupt or ask if we wanted lunch, but simply placed grilled cheese and homemade tomato soup on the table, to which Gram squealed, “Oh that is just what I wanted! How did you know??” He squeezed her arm and said, “That’s what little brothers do.” It was clear that to him, it really was just the natural thing to do for the people he loved.



My father also has a strong Uncle Dave Instinct, probably nurtured from spending so much time with such a gentle, kind man, or maybe something genetic that my Grandma Wanda also shared. He brings my mother tea in bed every morning and has done so for 40 years, sometimes accompanied with a particularly fragrant rose or sprig of lilacs in a bud vase. Most of my father’s family is kind in those sensitive, beautiful ways, and it’s hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it because it seems too good to be true, that anyone in the world can be so sweetly thoughtful and caring, let alone a whole family like that.

As the grateful recipient of countless nap blankets, wordlessly refilled drinks, my favorite flowers brought in from the garden to welcome me when I visit, warm pats and hugs whenever we pass each other, and small kindnesses throughout my life, I want to be this type of person and to cultivate that kindness and love in myself. I want to love someone with that purity of affection, and I want to let everyone in my life feel the way a warm hug and a genuine smile from my Uncle Dave or my dad always makes me feel.



I also saw that despite the effects of time, grief, and life’s challenges, the Uncle Dave Instinct lasts a lifetime. When we visited my Aunt Shirley in hospice, we noticed the sheets and blankets were pulled up to her chin. My Uncle Dave was worried she would be cold from the air conditioning, so he made sure to open the blinds to let some sunlight in and tucked her in tightly, repeatedly asking the nurses if they thought we should get her another blanket.

It is easy to get distracted in this world by all the things we have to do, by global politics and unrest over current events, by over-philosophizing and abstracting all our experiences in search of meaning and understanding… and it may really be as simple as loving people with that singleness of focus and clarity. To know it’s chilly and they may want a blanket. Maybe that is ultimately the most important thing we can do as humans on this planet: to love and cherish each other and to show gentle kindness every time we can.

Exhaling

IMAGE: John Giorno, It’s Not What Happens It’s How You Handle It, 2016, rainbow silkscreen print; seen recently at the Rubin Museum of Art

I may be problematically superstitious. I don’t trust when things go too well for too long. I start to look around suspiciously, holding my breath and waiting for something to go wrong. I used to think it was a kind of distorted karmic balance, that I could not have something exciting and positive happen (completing my master’s degrees) without something catastrophic and painful too (losing my grandmother). As the years have gone by, I have embraced a different reality, that life comes at you as it does, good, bad, and sometimes both at once. But I still find myself on edge at times.

For the past few months (I can date it pretty precisely back to a time in 2016) I have felt trapped in an onslaught of fear, bad news, cataclysm, worse news, and this cycle of uneasiness that has made me afraid to exhale completely. The good times have felt like stepping out into the sun after torrential rains, not knowing if the day is getting brighter, or if I’ve moved into the eye of a hurricane. The bad times have felt like just another step in the march toward disaster that seems increasingly irreversible and inevitable. Depending on how closely you read the news and where your family lives, I reckon you have probably felt similarly at times.




Falling Water – Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, southern Iceland. (Prints available)

I set a challenge for myself this year to dig deep and mine my strategic reserves of positivity and optimism, to be strong enough to maintain hope and believe in the fundamental benevolence of nature and humanity. I have made a conscious shift in my art to move away from simply reflecting the present moment of uncertainty or trepidation to instead present a long-view vision of hope, healing, and beauty wrought from the complexity of experience and time. I still believe it is the only way to move forward: we cannot create a better future if we can’t imagine it. But lately, whew, the universe has been piling it on, hasn’t it?

I used to think it was a curse that my body would betray me at the times I needed to be my strongest. Odds are way too high that if I am on a work trip or have some massive opportunity, I will suddenly come down with bronchitis or pneumonia. To my great astonishment, I got all the way through my exhibit and almost through the end of the second show I was in this summer before I was sidelined with intense, piercing chest pain that was so severe I couldn’t draw a complete breath or lie down on my side. At first I thought it was from a pulled muscle from being clumsy with luggage or moving paintings around, but as it intensified, it seemed most likely to be pericarditis, an old scourge I’ve battled a few times since high school. The main treatments are rest and an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, and I was reminded how crucial it is to actually mind the rest part.

At one point a few weeks ago while not resting, I found myself in another uncomfortably familiar situation: over an hour and several transfers away from my apartment with my hands full of too much stuff, rushing around trying to do too many things, stricken by pain and wondering how I was going to make it home. I took a (shallow) breather on a park bench and texted my mother to whine. After declining her offer to pay for a car back to my apartment (I didn’t want to add motion sickness to the cocktail of blech), I promised that I would not overdo it, reading and rereading her sweet closing line on the way home, “Please take care of yourself baby. We only have one Vicki.”


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Lavender Clouds – Soft pink and light purple cumulous clouds at sunset over New York Harbor.
(Prints available)

I started to realize that it didn’t particularly matter if I was sitting on a hot subway platform trying not to smell people or lying uncomfortably in my bed trying not to roll over the bulwark of pillows onto my left side. My chest was going to hurt for as long as it would, until I gave my heart the time and stillness it needed to heal. That sounds so much more poetic and metaphorical than the literal reality at the time, but it felt instructive in a larger sense that is applicable now that I am better. Whenever my body forces me to take a pause, it lets my mind catch up, and when I let myself heal I come back stronger and more collected than I was before.

I struggle because I keep taking on the emotional weight of all the things I can’t control. No one can stop the forces of nature that are ravaging the world right now with hurricanes, wildfires, and floods. Yes, we all know that they were exacerbated by global warming, but it’s already done. I personally don’t have the power to stop the full-on genocide being perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar any more than I can compel Saudi Arabia to stop their campaign of annihilation against Yemen or depose Bashar al Assad myself and set up infrastructure repairs and irrigation to start healing Syria. The frustration and pain of this helplessness, coupled with the rage brought on by violations against the sanctity of life, can be white hot and blinding. But I can’t help anyone from a place of anger or without a clarity of thinking. I am not adding anything to the world when I am holding my breath or overwhelmed with sadness. I need to let the feelings run through me, then dig deeper and be creative if I will find ways to inspire change.



I need to remember my mother’s urging: we only have one Vicki. I can’t fix racism and white supremacy and all the ugly things that hate drives people to do. I can raise awareness and try to change people’s minds when I see it though. I can’t fix the mess we have made of our environment by myself, but I can lift my own standards and encourage concern for nature in others. I can’t heal my friends’ and family’s illnesses or take away their pain, but I can be there with them and make sure they know how much I love them. I don’t have the kind of money that can buy a senator or influence policy change, but I can give whatever I can to the causes I believe in and encourage others to donate. I don’t have a loud voice, but I can take care that I use it as effectively and mindfully as I can, in writing, in actions, and in my thoughts. I am just one person, but so is everyone else.

I don’t want to walk around holding my breath anymore, waiting for the other shoe to drop, answering cheerful greetings from friends with heavy sighs and “all things considered” caveats. There was suffering and inequality in the world before, and unfortunately, there will continue to be; it seems hard-wired into humanity still. I can’t fix it all, and I’m not sure I can really make a difference at anything. But I can be fully present with the people in my life and give my whole heart (occasionally impaired though it may be). I can write and make art and do everything I can to inspire compassion and kindness in the world. Many hands make light work, so I can join my hands with others for what matters.

And I can remember to breathe. I can’t take the next breath until I exhale.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Come True

Back in the Pleistocene Era, when I first started blogging, there was a cute convention used to explain extended absences. The structure was a vague apology acknowledging the unusual reticence, then reassuring readers the author was back and had a good reason for being otherwise occupied, followed by an image of an ultrasound, a brand new baby, a new pet, a surprise wedding photo, or in less optimistic cases, a broken appendage / natural disaster.

So let’s see if I remember how it’s done.

Hello, lovely blog readers. I’m sorry I’ve been away so long, but I am back! You see, I had a pretty good reason for my absence…



I was just having one of my all-time greatest dreams come true.

Last month my first solo exhibition of paintings opened in Manhattan, The Nature of Being, presented by chashama in a pop-up gallery on Madison Avenue. Despite being in the gallery every day for the run of the show, I still can’t believe this is an actual reality and not just some elaborate, exquisitely beautiful dream.



Chashama is an amazing non-profit organization that partners with the building owners of unused or under-used spaces to give artists places to create and present new work. I am the second artist to show in the storefront gallery on Madison Avenue, which I believe used to be a men’s suit store that moved across town. I love the initiative of inserting art into publicly-accessible places, bringing art to the community, and giving artists the freedom to present their work however they’d like. It has been incredible to work with such a nurturing, supportive organization, and I am simply thrilled to have had this opportunity.



I will be writing more here or on my studio blog about the overall process, conceiving and proposing the exhibit, what I learned about myself as an artist and a person through this experience, and what an encouraging and wonderful time it has been meeting people, getting feedback on my work, and letting my paintings finally communicate with the public the way I want them to. Spoiler alert: pretty much dream come true across the board.



One of the biggest things I want to keep in my heart is what it has meant to have such astronomically supportive friends and family throughout this process. I literally never could have made the paintings, trusted myself enough as an artist to even apply, gotten through the exhibit planning, organized the opening reception, or honestly, even tried to share my art with the world without such extraordinary people believing in me and doing everything they could to help me, push me along, and come by to see the exhibit and say hello. I have a tendency to retreat from the world and into my own mind, where it’s easy to feel alone and isolated from other people, and the past few months have shown me with abundant clarity how important it is to reach out, trust people, and share experiences with an open heart.



This whole experience has made me so optimistic about the future and so confident in the path I am setting on it’s a little overwhelming. I keep tearing up with gratitude.

We’ll talk much more about all these things soon, but in the meantime there are still three more days of the exhibit if you’d like to come by to see what I’m talking about in person. And I have the drafts of about a hundred other posts going in my mind, so we’ll get to sorting out the rest of the world too.

(View more opening and exhibition photos here on Flickr).

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The Headwinds of Change

Sailing is like wizardry, computers, or electricity to me. No matter how many times people have explained how it works, how much I’ve read about it, or how many times I’ve seen its observable reality as a means of movement and transportation, it’s still an utter mystery and I’m stunned it actually works. I acknowledge that the words used to describe the forces at play make a kind of sense, but in the inner part of my mind, let’s be real – it’s an amazing superpower we’ve discovered and pretend is normal (c.f. consciousness, the taste of tomatoes and cheese together, music, and the way we feel when making eye contact with animals).

One of the few things I understand intuitively about sailing is that it is a balancing act of precision and flux. When sailing into the wind, to move forward as efficiently as possible, you often have to find the place to put your sails that is as close to being straight into the wind as you can get, without going too far to the other side and having the wind blow back around behind the sail. It is a process of finding and creating the perfect arc, which depends on all kinds of factors including wind speed, temperature, water conditions, drag, but ultimately, magic. When you find that sweet spot and hold it, the boat snaps into place and literally sings – you can feel it soaring just-there, like humming in exact resonance with a pure pitch in music. It is as exhilarating as if you suddenly took flight because, in a lot of ways, you have.

When learning to sail into the wind, it takes a Sisyphean process of trial and error. You edge closer and closer, then hit a wake in the water or jerk the tiller a little too far and get a gust of wind that makes all your sheets blow around like mad (luffing), so you have to pull back. It is enormously tempting to overcorrect and pull back so far away from the wind that you fall off from it entirely, sometimes even accidentally making a tack and spinning in circles, so you not only lose ground but become convinced that the direction you were headed was impossible anyway. With perseverance, patience, and confidence in the boat and the particular variety of magic in the universe you’ve chosen to recognize, you can not only learn to sail into the wind, but find it is one of the fastest and most exciting ways to move forward.

I use sailing as an analogy all the time for vastly complex experiences of being human that I struggle to discuss in their own terms. Love, and our ability to care for other people (even those we’ve never met) is another form of magic that we often take for granted. I have never been able to fully explain the overwhelming emotional response I feel when I read about terrible things that have happened, cruelties and hurts inflicted on innocents, and injustices in the world. That visceral, raw feeling is a scary and seemingly too-powerful headwind, and I recognize that my inclination (and I suspect most people’s) is still toward self-preservation, to turn away from it and to adjust my course to something easier, if slower-moving or regressive. A nice distraction by switching to an article about fashion or a quiz about what 1980s movie boyfriend I might have had often eases me out of it.

This week we have been at the confluence of some dizzying, terrifying winds. So many times I have literally closed my eyes and said, “It’s just too much,” before retreating away from reality. That is the path of cowardice and selfishness, so I know I need to come back and face it.

I have not been able to wrap my mind around the scale of terror experienced by the residents of Grenfell Tower in London, nor the intense coupling of helplessness and rage that the families of the fire’s victims must feel. It is beyond trying to put myself in their shoes and imagine how I’d feel because they are occupying a headspace that no person should ever have to. To know a loved one’s life might have been spared if the building owners had sprung for the fire-resistant cladding, a sprinkler system, or repairing the faulty refrigerator that seems to have started the whole disaster is a scope of cruelty and dehumanization beyond the conscionable. In the decision between human safety and cost-saving, it was ultimately decided that these lives were not worth enough to justify the extra expenses. How can a person ever reconcile that fact with the unutterable scale of grief?

The targeted shooting of Republican members of Congress at an early morning baseball practice in Alexandria this week was not just a senseless act of violence by a delusional man. He was intentional and calculating in attacking what he believed were the advocates and crafters of inhumane policy. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s A+ NRA rating and open advocacy of unrestricted Second Amendment liberties is not ironic or coincidental, but it is also by no means a reason why any such act of violence should be seen as anything but the horror it is. The shooter was not lashing out against the system, but is rather a product of it, the inevitable extension of increasing tolerances of cruelty, hatred, and dehumanizing violence being perpetrated daily.

Put more directly, I am deeply concerned with the erosion of the social contract of the sanctity of life. In many conversations about escalating police violence and extrajudicial executions, I am flummoxed by those who are able to justify these warped and brutal actions with thinking along the lines of, “The rules of law and order are clear, and if you break them, your life is forfeit.” (That is an actual quote from last summer that made me physically ill with disgust.) I guess on the very surface it seems like sound or defensible logic, and it gives people comfort to believe that the system is fair and those who die at its hands broke the rules, but… that is not actually what our society stands for. The deal is not “Follow all traffic laws or you may be executed.”

Last summer, I was shaken to my core by Philando Castile’s death. Everything I read and saw about the traffic stop – from both sides – had me honestly shocked that a man could do nothing wrong but end up shot seven times in front of his girlfriend and her child then left to bleed out and die. I asked those among my friends and family who are the strongest proponents of Second Amendment rights and responsible gun ownership what he could or should have done differently. We debated it for an uncomfortably long time, and the best rationalization one person came up with was that sometimes police officers just get “jumpy” when they are afraid. I don’t want to alienate everyone I know who disagrees with me, but I was so frustrated that our conversations kept turning toward the loss of police pensions or reduced pay as a reason why less qualified officers are on the force, or how maybe the media is actually to blame for constantly portraying men of color as the bad guys in fiction. And yet, I don’t think I successfully convinced anyone that a police officer killing an innocent man should be as alarming to them as it was to me.

No one enjoys confronting the ugly realities of racism and prejudice in America. We are a nation that was built on the massacre of Native Americans and the mass enslavement of African and Caribbean people. There is no history of America without subjugation, violence, and dehumanizing cruelty. We can’t pretend that’s not what happened, we can’t attempt to justify it by saying, “Yeah, but lots of people had slaves then,” or the most bafflingly racist argument I hear a lot, “You know there was slavery in Africa before white people, right?” The ongoing violation of the sanctity of lives of people of color is undeniably real, and it can be traced in a direct line through reluctant abolition, Jim Crow laws, desegregation, and our current iterations of institutionalized racism.

I realize that the deflection tactics and denial I see around me (and in myself) are driven by fear. It is easier to believe that people who lose their lives because of implicit racial biases had a failing of personal responsibility or behavior than to confront such a massive and terrifying headwind of normalized racism and violence. We want to believe that our system is set up fairly to protect people and respond with justice to crime because it allows us to feel basically safe and sleep at night. If we (white people here) don’t do anything obviously wrong, then we should not expect to be shot dead in our cars or in the street. We tell ourselves that we’re not criminals in the capital-C sense (a little jaywalking, some underage drinking and weed in college, or low-level white collar crimes aside), so when people of color are killed in extrajudicial executions, they must have done something wrong, they must be criminals, and there must be more to the story. Facing full-on that our society treats the bodies and lives of some as lesser, or that the system was established to protect property over lives, or that the militarization of police forces is a cynical scheme to maximize profits for weapons manufacturers that has nothing to do with public safety, or that so many of the forces that are endangering our fellow Americans are in place out of greed, and not humanitarianism – that’s a gale-force terror.

I don’t need to have been in the courtroom to know what went wrong in the miscarriage of justice that acquitted the man who killed Philando Castile. I already know what happened and why, and I am once again outraged and disgusted at a soul-level. It hurts my heart that his is another name to add to the list of lives taken carelessly for no reason, with no justice. But it just plain breaks my heart that people of color are told once again that their lives matter less than others. I will never stop fighting against this reality – but that means facing it first.

I have taken to heart something a friend said when I was texting him tearfully in the middle of the night last November wondering what was wrong with my country. “If you didn’t even talk to your own friends and family about the issues you’re so upset about, who should have? I know you didn’t want to get in fights, but was it someone else’s job to help them see another perspective?” He was not born and raised in America, so maybe he is able to see it more clearly than we can, or maybe he is just way smarter than me, but his words echo for me often. I live in a city where the majority of the people I encounter every day share my values and espouse more progressive, humanitarian ideals. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that this same city is one of the most culturally and racially diverse on the planet, so I have had countless opportunities to know and understand people with different experiences in life than me. New Yorkers are generally solidly good, kind, and fair people, no matter what fearful tourists may feel, and I think it comes from living harmoniously with such a vibrancy of beliefs, backgrounds, and sheer volume of interacting with others that we have to learn patience, tolerance, and compassion. So how do you bring those lessons and that respectful open-mindedness to people who have never met a Muslim or Jewish person in their lives and genuinely believe they are evil? How do you help people who live in economically, racially, and ideologically segregated areas of the US understand the commonalities of experience and humanity that bind us all worldwide? How can empathy be cultivated where it’s lacking?

I similarly do not believe it’s merely coincidence that a greed-driven mass loss of life in London, a terroristic shooting in Virginia, and the acquittal of an innocent man’s killer should all fall in a row in the same week as the two-year anniversary of the Charleston church shooting, one of the more grotesque modern-day hate crimes. The universe is not ironic, but purposeful here, and the winds are gathering force. We are at an inflection point in history, where we can choose to face them head-on, to confront the harsh and unsettling realities of the erosion of the sanctity of life in the face of greed in our society. We can decide to make massive and essential changes in forward progress because we are unified in our common humanity and belief in the sanctity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. Or we could turn away from the wind, retreat into partisan squabbling and the distractions of constant corrupt administration scandals, declare we are exhausted of politics or “divisiveness,” and lose ground.

I am not giving up on America or the sanctity of life. I am not letting the people I love avoid reality or accept unjust inequality rooted in hate and ignorance. We can’t close our eyes or look away, and we must not abandon ship.

All human life is sacred. No human life is inherently better or more valuable than another, especially on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or ability. Human life is more important than profit, property, or power. We need a new social contract that unifies us in the sanctity of life; this change only truly happens in the hearts and minds of our fellow humans when we can see each other as equals. I will never stop facing into this wind and steering as hard as I can toward positive change.

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It’s okay to change

IMAGE: Water Lily in Summer Light, Pisa, Italy (Prints available)

For Mother’s Day this year, I took my mother to our second sound bath meditation session, this time at the Rubin Museum of Art, one of my favorite sanctuaries in the city. (I also must strongly encourage you to check out the stunning Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit India In Full Frame on view through September 4 if you are even remotely interested in photography, India, or humanity in general.)

During the introduction one of the hosts, David Ellenbogen of the Acoustic Mandala Project, explained that over the course of the session while lying still on a yoga mat with your eyes covered, you may start to feel a little stiff or uncomfortable. “It’s okay to move,” he said reassuringly, “to change position if you need to, to make yourself more comfortable.”

He continued, as if musing out loud, “I think that probably applies to all of life. When things aren’t working or you feel uncomfortable, just remember it’s okay to change.”

Of all the things I experienced and places my mind went during that meditation session, the simple profundity of his gentle remark has probably stuck with me the most.

As I think about the most common sources of frustration or sadness in my life, they are almost all rooted in the sense of being unable to control or change the way things are. When I stop resisting change, I’ve always grown and found something better on the other side through transformation. And yet every time I am on the precipice of some daunting and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, I forget my own capacity to change. I feel like a tiny stream trying to move a massive boulder until I remember: the stream doesn’t need to move the boulder if it can move itself.

Most of the people I speak with lately feel trapped and powerless to effect change. I think we need to refresh our perspectives and regroup. I have another big set of personal changes coming up (we’ll talk about that another time) and I keep fretting about every little detail; despite my whole life so far teaching me that change is both necessary and good, I still instinctively fear and mistrust it.

So I am challenging myself to embrace uncertainty and flux for once, and to even enjoy it.

It’s okay to change.