You may have already seen this on my Facebook page, but if not, here, have an excellent feel-good holiday cry on me:
Right??? I’ve seen it dozens of times, and I still burst into tears every time it comes on. I may or may not have kept it open in a tab on my browser for a week or so for when I needed a big “awww” moment and a smile. You can too, I won’t judge.
The other day my mother mentioned that my father excitedly asked her to record the recent remake of Pollyanna on PBS. She was surprised to learn it was one of his favorite movies as a boy, after his whole family (he had five sisters) piled in at the drive-thru in 1960 and he fell head over heels in love with Hayley Mills. They kept it on their DVR so I could watch it from my apartment, and it was so utterly charming and uplifting that I completely understand why they felt “a little emotional” and / or cried their faces off watching it.
One of the central motifs of the film – and part of why the term “Pollyanna” caught on to describe irrepressibly optimistic people – is the Glad Game, invented by Pollyanna’s deceased father. In any unpleasant situation, the challenge is to find something to be glad about, however small or seemingly insignificant, and to hold onto that positivity.
In the past few weeks, I have not particularly wanted to feel glad about anything. It has been tempting to be overwhelmed with discouragement and sink under the crushing waves of despair, to dismiss any attempt at positivity as naïve, magical thinking, or to snap at people who pointed out rays of hope and tear them down for their privilege or lack of concern. It was like an across the board dirge of “Let’s call the whole thing off.”
But damn if Pollyanna didn’t get me right in the feels and remind me that the times when you feel low are the most important ones to play the Glad Game and to try to find the silver linings. I saw that the key to Pollyanna’s sunny disposition and perpetual good humor is that she was always thinking about other people and trying to make life better for them. She resisted cynicism, negativity, and self-interest, and so she was able to help people and bring about change.
I’m trying not to talk too overtly about politics in every post, but a stated part of the GOP campaign strategy this year was to stoke such intense feelings of cynicism and fear that people were too despondent to get out and vote. They wanted people to believe the system was rigged or that every politician was just as corrupt as any other, and that the government was too inefficient to help anyone anyway. I have thought a lot about who benefits when cynicism prevails. When people feel too hopeless to insist on change, the hegemony succeeds in maintaining the status quo. When we feel overwhelmed by the forces of evil in the world, we start to believe good never existed and was all an illusion anyway. But I believe in my heart of hearts that most people are inherently good and want to do right by one another – it just takes overcoming fear, precarity, and self-interest enough to stand up to those motivated by greed and power. It is therefore more essential now than ever before to embrace radical, subversive optimism and to refuse to become complacent in the face of constant attempts to drown us in cynicism.
I’ve started to channel my feelings of frustration, worry, and fear into working to help other people and the environment. I want to stop wallowing in the things that upset me in my personal life and focus on spending my time more constructively, making art, raising awareness, helping promote education and compassion, listening, and working harder to understand. The more I can escape my own ego / consciousness and focus on others, the easier it is to find ways to be glad and grateful.
So that is my wish for you this holiday season and in the coming months. May you always find something to be glad about, and may your life be full of gratitude and compassion.
As I have mentioned previously, I quote romantic comedies with a somewhat comical frequency in my everyday life. One of the more unexpectedly profound moments in Sweet Home Alabama (spoiler alert) is when Melanie (Reese Witherspoon) tells her fiancé Andrew (Patrick Dempsey) that she can’t marry him:
Andrew, you don’t want to marry me.
No. No, you don’t, not really. You see, the truth is I gave my heart away a long time ago. My whole heart, and I never really got it back. And I don’t even know what else to say, but I’m sorry. I can’t marry you. And you shouldn’t want to marry me.
ANDREW So this is what this feels like.
The simplicity of his statement, paired with his shocked expression as he struggles to process everything she’s said and what it means for his life, is a touchstone of cinematic empathy for me (it’s okay to make fun of me for that). I picture Patrick Dempsey’s stupefied face every time I hurt someone or watch someone struggle with disappointment, and I can’t count the amount of times I’ve stood stunned myself in the face of heartbreak, identifying with him completely. His response is most typically how I process let-downs now, usually echoing his exact words to myself. So this is what this feels like.
The scene continues as his overbearing mother, played brilliantly by Candice Bergen, shouts, “That’s it?! You’re just gonna let her humiliate you with some bullshit about an old husband?” Dazed, he replies in the same calm, detached manner, “Yeah, I think I am. Excuse me.”
(I really love this movie.)
For as long as I can remember, I have adopted a style of depersonalization to cope with fear, hurt, upset, anger, disappointment, and so on, detaching and looking at the situation from the outside as an abstraction. I frequently cite a point of trivia from neuroscience that seemingly conflicting emotions, such as dread and excited anticipation, are identical signals in the brain – it’s simply a matter of interpretation whether they are experienced as positive or negative. Stepping outside oneself, upsetting events are still novel, and in a certain light, our capacity to hurt or fear or experience anything intensely can be kind of abstractly beautiful. I guess that’s why depersonalization works. We can step back and say, “Wow, I can actually feel my heart sinking, how about that.”
I have felt myself resisting conscious experiences since the election, either sinking into altered consciousness / escapism, or sublimating and floating somewhere outside of myself. I am either deep under the sea or up in the clouds, with no desire to deal with the sinking ship of emotions in the present tense. Not surprisingly, that has its own problems, especially when so much of my mental health strategy involves being as Present as possible. I am on familiar ground here, and I have caught myself hiding inside my mind, but I don’t want to be emotionally sequestered anymore and especially not for the next four years.
I’ve been reading books on meditation and philosophy lately, especially Thích Nhất Hạnh. They have been incredible and perfectly-timed reminders that we have a seemingly infinite capacity to bear pain or hurt from others and that the resilience of the human spirit comes, always, in compassion and being fully present. Quite literally getting on the ground (through sitting meditation) and being with this moment.
In Pema Chödrön‘s excellent book Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change, she outlines the importance of groundlessness and why we should not resist situations that cause trepidation or an unsettled sense of confusion in the universe. Citing the concept of samsara, which she defines as going around and around, recycling the same patterns, she identifies kleshas as the force behind the samsara turbine of pain. Kleshas, she explains, are the “conflicting emotions that cloud the mind,” such as anger, pride, jealousy, and despair, which are the mind’s attempt to escape groundlessness. When we give in to them, our preexisting habits are reinforced, and the wheel continues to spin, paradoxically keeping us even more inescapably trapped in the feeling of groundlessness.
Instead, Chödrön and everyone who’s gotten further in Buddhism 101 than me recommends trying to be even more present, feeling every feeling, reflecting on ourselves having these feelings, and while not obsessively dwelling on the kleshas or just going numb, living through these moments. By being with them, instead of trying to get away from them, and facing reality head on, we can find meaning and inspiration to make changes. In short, take the Patrick Dempsey approach, “So this is what this feels like.”
I have found myself stepping back a lot, limiting the amount of attention I can give to news items (I suspect there will be no shortage of think-pieces and disheartening headlines on our ensuing chaos), trying to keep political conversations focused and specific, seeking positive action instead of anger or despair, choosing my battles or when to walk away, and trying to get into the present tense with this surreality, which includes a lot of world and existence outside of our government and the unconscionable behavior of some of my fellow Americans. Slowly, I am starting to find a path – not out, but through – that gives me a tiny bit of hope and reassurance. It’s not terribly pleasant, but hey, at least I’m feeling again.
I already resent the amount of mental energy and emotion I have spent on this election and the current state of politics in the world, but I am resolved to not let it be in vain. I’m going to transform it into more beautiful thoughts, ideas to help people and the environment, substantive art, acts of compassion, and energy toward progress.
I am reclaiming my present. So this is what this feels like.
I’m not sure why, but I often feel compelled to have a list of superlatives on hand at all times. We’ve talked about this a little before, so I like to have my answers prepared. I also imagine a scenario where someone darts up to me on the street like, “Vicki, quick, what is your favorite cookie? President Obama needs to know, don’t keep him waiting!” I don’t want to be the person hemming and hawing between chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin while the beloved leader of the free world taps his foot and sighs.
For as long as I can remember, my favorite holiday has been Halloween. There have been years where I sat it out, usually due to bronchitis and once an ugly break-up, but in my heart, it’s the clear winner, and here are 13 (ooh, spooky!) reasons why.
1. It is a celebration of pure imagination.
(From 2010 when I went as Tippi Hedren’s character Melanie Daniels in The Birds. Yes, I am perfectly aware how I could use that hot pink pussy bow blouse this year.)
Every part of Halloween invites creativity and getting carried away with one’s imagination. Choosing a new identity for a costume, working out how that idea will be communicated, and going out into the world as a fantasy self, a scary ghoul, or literally anything you can imagine is wildly exciting and fun for children and adults alike (or it should be). Decorations allude to the supernatural, party games evoke gross-out anatomy or enactment of fantasy superstitions, and you can enjoy all the dark and twisted parts of people’s minds without worrying for their psychological well-being.
2. In the northeast, it falls at the perfect time of year.
Admittedly, many of my feelings about Halloween come from growing up in suburban New Jersey and living in Connecticut and New York my whole adult life, so there is some subjectivity here. But generally, the weather is just cool enough to have a crispness to the air, but not so cold you can’t enjoy being outside for hours at a time. As autumn is my favorite season, Halloween feels like the peak moment of colorful falling leaves, harvest type stuff like apple-picking, and it closes the door on summer to usher in the holiday season of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, etc. It hits at a solid point in the school semester, usually after midterms but before heavy back-half projects start becoming pressing, when there is still plenty of time to catch up before Thanksgiving break. It is practically synonymous in my mind with the feeling of leaves crunching under leather boots and the faint scent of woodsmoke in the air – that time is heavenly.
3. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
Whenever my family discusses holidays (which is with what I suspect to be abnormal frequency, come to think of it) I announce that Halloween is my favorite, and everyone sort of nods and someone says, “Yes, of course, because of the candy.” But it’s not just any candy. Reese’s Peanut Butter cups are magical sensory joy, and around Halloween you can find them absolutely everywhere, even the miniature ones wrapped in autumnal foil at like your gynecologist’s office. Think carefully – is there actually any other time of year you allow yourself to unabashedly eat a full-sized Reese’s peanut butter cup? Their packaging looks like the living embodiment of Halloween, and so many of my neighbors used to give out the single-size cups that I felt like Halloween was an elaborate Reese’s harvest. I know this has probably become far less common with the huge surge in peanut allergies, but it seems like everyone has a specific favorite Halloween candy that they’d never buy for themselves during the rest of the year. I won’t even get started on fun size Snickers.
While yes, Halloween started in a religious context (like every other holiday, let’s be real) it’s one of the only ones that doesn’t intrinsically exclude anyone on the basis of culture, race, religion, ability, or creed in its modern, secular form. Yes, some people still choose not to celebrate it because of their religions (Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Orthodox Jews, etc.) but if they chose to celebrate, they would be welcome to do so. People try very hard to politicize Halloween, especially in election years, but it’s sort of like an anarchist of a holiday in that it refuses to be co-opted by any one group. Everyone can incorporate some sort of costume into their everyday lives, even just an orange sweater and sunglasses as a nod to the day. Halloween is for everyone because it is fundamentally about fun and bringing everyone together to be silly and creative.
5. Every bar and club in the city has something going on.
There is a weird myth that Halloween as an adult sucks, and every year some one of my friends reposts this Oatmeal strip as definitive proof that they are right to stay home and scoff at Halloween. Nonsense. I am very lucky because my closest friends through high school were the cast and crew of our musical theater program, so we all loved getting dressed in elaborate costumes and pretending to be other people or creatures (literally, it’s what we did for fun all year). We had great parties that often included cheesy zombie films and a lot of screaming and dancing, and that is exactly how I want to remember being a teenager. The house I joined in college threw various costume parties year-round (this may be part of why I joined) and went all-out for Halloween. In NYC, you have your choice of thousands of dance parties at just about every club, and if you wander into a random bar, you will at least find a good happy hour special and some black cat or pumpkin decorations. The sheer volume of people out in the city (and those who come in from Jersey and Connecticut to join them) reinvigorates every place, and if you keep your act together and focus on having fun, you will.
6. Unbeatable people-watching (dogs too).
You can learn so much about your friends by how they dress for Halloween. Everything from the choice of costume (or choosing not to wear a costume) to the attention to detail and execution tell you about their character in manifold ways. When you meet people in a bar, they communicate so much more about themselves on Halloween than any other night because they’ve let their guard down and let some of their true selves out. If you feel claustrophobic, you can grab a sixer and sit in Union Square to watch thousands of people’s imaginations traipse by. On the weekends leading up to Halloween, you are practically guaranteed to see some painfully adorable kids and dogs in costumes, and if you get really lucky, you can see middle aged men from your neighborhood riding the subway home at 4:30am dressed as M&Ms or Flava Flav, singing dance songs to anyone who will listen.
7. Genuinely silly entertainment.
The novelty songs are ridiculous and dated, but unabashedly fun. The pet costumes are next-level adorable. The television episodes with your favorite characters sporting Rocky Horror Picture Show garb are delightful. The movies are not scary enough to actually be haunting or disturbing (I’m thinking Elvira-level because I’m a chicken about actual horror films), and they don’t try to teach you a lesson or moralize beyond, “Watch out for dudes in hockey masks with machetes!” and, “Thank goodness the zombies are defeated!” It’s spooky in a fun way that can take its mask off at the end of the night and say, “Hey, it was all pretend, now let’s eat some candy.”
8. It’s an occasion to teach children manners or a reminder that most kids are actually really sweet and well-behaved.
My mother has become a Halloween grinch and says she hates Halloween because of all the bratty kids stomping on her porch, not saying “trick or treat,” demanding candy, then pouting when they can only take one piece and not saying “thank you.” It seems like things have changed a bit in her neighborhood, but I was raised to be almost obnoxiously polite, and I treated Halloween as a time to pop in and say hello to all our neighbors. I said “Trick or treat!” then “Hello Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So,” and I reminded them who I was if they didn’t recognize me. We talked about my costume, I complimented their decorations, occasionally they invited me in to take a picture or give me a glass of hot cider (I know, I know, but only the people we knew very well), they asked me how soccer was going or what my favorite subject was in school that year, I thanked them profusely even if they gave me a Dum-Dum or Good ‘N Plenty (ugh), wished them a Happy Halloween, and made sure to walk carefully down their steps and walkways, not stepping on any flowers or landscaping etc. It drove my brother crazy in the years when we still trick-or-treated together because he wanted to hurry up to go to other houses, but I was busy chatting and thinking I was just adorable.
It set a precedent for how to interact with our neighbors and other adults that I remembered throughout the year, and it gave me practice responding graciously to compliments on a pretty dress or answering questions about myself when it would have been easier to be shy and hide behind my brother. I try not to be a total creeper in talking to strangers’ kids, but I am always pleased when I tell a parent, “I love your daughter’s costume, that’s so creative!” and they encourage their child to say “thank you” and tell me all about it. Kids light up when you recognize their costumes (like how do you know Cinderella?!?) and it gives them a chance to safely talk to people about something sort of impersonal, but also personal enough to them that they care about it.
It is a ridiculous tradition to scoop the guts out of a gourd, carve a face or something into it, put a candle or LED in it, and leave it outside to rot on your porch. And yet, I absolutely love pumpkin carving. I love seeing the goofy and cartoony faces on pumpkins that kids obviously drew themselves, and I love the intricately shaded, artistic carvings some of my friends do. I feel like there aren’t enough opportunities for sculpture past the Play-Doh years, so pumpkin carving is a necessary creative outlet for the generation that never learned to whittle or woodwork. And I got to use the good kitchen knives, so win-win.
10. It is the day before my birthday, which is All Saints’ Day and the start of Día de los muertos.
I know, this seems like a trivial point of self-absorption, especially in light of point #4 above, but my birthday is on All Saints’ Day, a beautiful Christian holiday in the western / Catholic tradition that celebrates all the saints, known and unknown. It is part of a cycle of festivals, followed by All Souls’ Day. It is generally a time to reflect on the loved ones we’ve lost and remember them. It’s a cool time of year to balance darkness and light, and to learn about things like Día de los muertos and various rituals around death and remembrance worldwide. If children are interested in learning about spirituality and other cultures, it’s a good time to discuss that, or to learn about the difference between fictional witches and Wiccans. Or to start discussing death and what it fully means, without it being associated with the specific death of a loved one. I know that stuff isn’t strictly fun, but Halloween serves an actual purpose spiritually for some, so it’s interesting to investigate if you are inclined. On a personal level, I always thought of Halloween as a laying-to-rest of the past year, and awakening with a new life on my birthday – that’s why I tend to make birthday resolutions instead of New Year’s. And it doesn’t hurt that all my friends felt obliged to share their Halloween candy with me as a kid.
It would be flat-out strange to give someone a Halloween gift or basket or money-filled card (this does not apply to my grandparents, naturally). There is no expectation that you get your boyfriend or friends anything except maybe tossing them a lollipop or showing up to a party with some pumpkin ale. Kids can put together costumes out of clothes and items from home if they don’t want to buy a licensed character costume, and they’re celebrated for their creativity. Party decorations can be as simple as tissue ghosts, a 99-cent package of spiderwebs, or nothing at all and you just say the house is haunted. Don’t want to buy candy for trick-or-treaters? No problem – just pop an empty bowl on your porch with a “Please Take Just One” sign.
12. Wholesome, dorky activities, often with historical underpinnings
Halloween is the time of year where you can go to a farm and run through bales of hay with cardboard skeletons popping out or take a hay-wagon ride and somehow it feels festive, instead of like a bunch of straw poking through your jeans. There are always great Halloween-themed activities and events at the historical preservation village near where I grew up, and they hosted educational visits for our Brownies troop with an added history of witchcraft, Halloween traditions, or spooky local superstition component to make it thematic. If you’re into running, you can find all kinds of Zombie 5Ks and child-friendly costumed walk-run events. They don’t conflict with family time or drinking time the way Turkey Trots or St. Patrick’s Day events do – Halloween is its own thing, and it’s just for fun.
13. David S. Pumpkins
Also, I found this image of a hula dachshund in an image search, and I can’t keep it to myself.
So whatever you do to celebrate the very best holiday, be safe, kind to others, and have fun! Indulge your inner child and go all-out at a costume party, or stay home and Netflix up some silly movies. Keep a vigil for the Great Pumpkin, or just scroll through your social media feeds and gush at everyone’s ridiculously cute kids. Do whatever you want – that is the great gonzo madness of Halloween!
A few years ago, I wrote about what I believed to be a racist incident on the bus in Staten Island. When I got home, I made a formal complaint with the MTA, I wrote that blog post, I posted some things on Twitter, and I gave further details through several follow-up phone calls with the MTA. But I was deeply ashamed of myself when someone asked me if I said something while it was happening, and I had to admit no, not really, I sort of made an upset face and grumbled a little along with everyone else. My objection was obviously so opaque that a fellow rider mistook me for being complicit in supporting the bus driver’s almost certainly racially-motivated mistreatment. I haven’t forgotten the shame of knowing I should have done more.
Later that summer, Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, and Eric Garner was killed by police a few blocks from where I lived. I saw my neighborhood erupt in protests, and it was the first time I heard “Black Lives Matter” being chanted. I happened to be moving out of Staten Island the weekend of the biggest demonstration, and I had to keep begging my way through barricaded streets with a truck to get between my building and a storage locker I’d rented. I supported the protestors, both in their message and their right to peacefully protest, but I didn’t stop to join them in solidarity because I had too much stuff going on at the time. And back then, I foolishly wasn’t sure if it was “safe,” if I’d be seen as an ally or as part of the problem.
As the number of black Americans who died through extrajudicial executions and lethal force by police escalated, I didn’t know what to say or do. I felt like maybe it was pandering or lip service if I posted hashtags or articles, I worried it would appear to be some kind of self-promotion (on Twitter especially), and I thought I didn’t have anything to say that wouldn’t be insultingly banal and potentially damaging to the message being spread by friends who were better educated on the issues and more directly affected by the systemic racism threatening black lives. It was a feeling of paralysis, where I didn’t know if I should apologize on behalf of white people, start calling out friends who went the #alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter route, write letters to my representatives, or just cover my head with a pillow and cry.
I think a lot of people didn’t know how to respond, and the tone was guarded, if not outright defensive in the early days, when it was still possible to believe these were isolated incidents. I understood that response because I was raised to believe with all my heart in egalitarianism and to stand against racism and other forms of bigotry. I didn’t want to believe it was really happening so brutally. And in my mind, if I wasn’t racist, how could I be part of the problem?
I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me after I got back from India the next summer, when my personal life was imploding, and it became viscerally, painfully real to me. The threats to black lives were not just abstractions of systemic racism, and the violence done against black Americans and other people of color didn’t just start in 2012 when Trayvon Martin was murdered. Coates argued – and I agreed – that the violence is built into the system, and some people are so stuck in the system that they can’t even see the everyday, depersonalizing violence anymore. To continue in the system with complacency is to be complicit in perpetuating the violence.
I realized that not speaking up and not joining in the protest against extrajudicial executions, cover-ups, falsified evidence and reports, and systemic racism while it’s happening is not okay. For as talkative as I am with my friends, I can be shy and tend to clam up in public. I would cling to the WASP prerogative of minding my own business, but I realized that letting people say racist things in front of me on the subway or in my neighborhood gave the message to my neighbors and fellow riders that I agreed and was complicit in the racism. It has not been easy, but I’ve been making myself speak up in the moment instead of just posting the ugly things that were said on Twitter or Facebook (or, let’s be real, tearfully texting them to my mom). I recognize that as a white woman I have undeserved privileges, and I’ve been trying to use them to intervene or deescalate situations in person, or at the very least reintroduce humanity into interactions where someone is being mistreated because of race or perceived religion. I know that’s not anywhere near enough, but I do think it’s important to show people they have an ally and an advocate in me, that I will try my best to help them if they need it, and I will be an honest witness if anything bad happens.
A well-meaning friend suggested to me, when I was particularly upset about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, that dwelling on it wouldn’t change anything, and I should focus on my art and my own life. I have asked myself often, as I imagine a lot of people have in this election cycle, how I might have responded to Hitler’s rise to power and the beginning of the Holocaust. Would I have gone about running my business as usual, meekly trying to stay out of the Nazis’ way and hoping it all blew over? Would I have rebelled, protecting the Jewish members of my community and other persecuted groups and helping them escape, or would I have focused on keeping my own family safe and been afraid to speak out or take risks? If I were alive in 1968, would I have marched for civil rights and equality, or would I have quietly enjoyed a white suburban existence and hoped for the best?
It haunts me to think of the consequences of complacency, so when I was once again reeling from the shootings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, I asked myself these questions again. I came across a quote from Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I couldn’t get that idea out of my head, and I couldn’t stand sitting at home passively wishing things were different. I decided to go to a Black Lives Matter rally and march in Manhattan last week, and as unfoundedly nervous as I was, I reassured myself that my role was to listen, and to show solidarity and support. I abhor the idea of anyone feeling like they are seen as lesser or even hated in our society because of their race, so it was important to me to take a stand for what I believe in.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that the very first sign I saw as I approached the group in Union Square read, “White silence is complicity.”
When I got home that evening I read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham Jail, which I strongly recommend as a relevant and worthwhile read on injustice and the spirit of the Civil Rights movement. In a passage that feels like it could have been written yesterday (save for the anachronistic term “Negro”) Dr. King expressed surprise and disappointment that the group who most let him down were the white moderates:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
He continued to challenge the idea that “law and order” means anything if it is used to reinforce or deny injustice and inequality:
“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
In recent weeks, I’ve noticed an increasingly ugly backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, and the inherent bias at work is so glaringly obvious it’s nearly blinding. People exculpate their ignorance by saying the media is biased (for example only showing looters in Charlotte, but not the hours of peaceful prayer ceremonies and nonviolent protest before), they cling to absurd alt-right theories that Black Lives Matter is some kind of terrorist organization trying to incite violence (literally the opposite), they lash out at football players and fans who protest by kneeling during the national anthem and claim it is an insult to veterans and the military (ugh – that will be probably become its own post), and they twist and turn through every conversation to reframe the narrative as one where the issue is exaggerated or imagined, and no matter what, it’s certainly not their fault. I’ve been losing a lot of respect for friends and family lately, I’ve been unfriended, I’ve worn my thumbs down texting, and I’m starting to feel exhausted and like there is little hope for substantive change in my lifetime. I am still trying to argue with people that an historically oppressed group of Americans has the right to feel oppressed when just about every week they see a black man extrajudicially executed by police, and they are still trying to justify why it was that man’s fault. Or to be woefully ignorant and interpret critiques of the use of excessive force as condemnation of the police at large, or any of a host of other deflection tactics.
But I keep wanting to ask: What do you have to lose by listening and considering an experience other than your own?
I refuse to live quietly and complacently anymore in a country that would rather let innocent people die or people of color question the value of their lives, than to examine and try to change their inherent biases. I refuse to let fear or self-centeredness rule my decisions, and I will not let injustices go by without comment anymore. Like many white people, I could have the luxury to be passive and pretend these issues don’t affect me, claim I just want to stay out of the fray and mind my own business, but that will never sit right with my conscience because, to quote Dr. King again, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The climb is steeper and more uphill than I thought. So my goals in engaging my friends, family, and self will now start a little simpler.
Listen with empathy and compassion.
Think critically, do research, question the media, and examine your biases and those you see in others.
Acknowledge there is a real problem, and that it’s your problem too.
Recognize that complacency is complicity, and that if you don’t stand up for what’s right, you are standing on the side of oppression.
Ask: what can I do to help raise awareness, fight injustice, and make life better?
Do the work with joy and pride, in a spirit of love and compassion.
I need to believe humanity is capable of improving, and that eventually we’ll all get on the right side of history. But I see it starts one person at a time.
As adverse as I am to routines / wholly unable to manage any kind of consistency in daily life, I find my months and years flow in a personal, seasonal kind of rhythm, as I suspect most people’s do. Maybe it’s a holdover from summer vacations during the school year, or I’m keenly aware of my circadian cycles, or I’m secretly a migratory bird who’s gotten stuck in the northeast after being distracted by an abundance of food one summer. Either way, every July I get restless and spend more time traveling than at home, becoming the proverbial grasshopper fiddling the summer away and flitting from pleasure to pleasure.
And by August, it usually catches up with me and I find myself worn down and sick right when I’d most like to shift into full-time hedonism (fish are jumping, cotton is high etc). Last year I brought some weird food poisoning-typhoid hybrid back from India and spent a few weeks panicking about barfing at work every day. Then I decided it was time to screw up my whole system by adjusting medications, which was necessary, but basically took me out of commission the rest of the summer. The year before that I dragged a summer cold out from June forward, in and out of bronchitis and eventually pneumonia (with extra fun coughing-up-blood-at-work) for a month in Paris in September. So this year I was resolute that, now that I am in control of my schedule and living a much more balanced, healthy life, there was no reason to spend my midsummer miserable and sick.
Of course, hubris got the better of me, and on the very same day I actually bragged to friends about how “I just don’t get sick anymore,” I very foolishly and disgustingly smoked half a cigar, inhaling it deeply enough to burn the hell out of my throat and airway. I’m allergic to tobacco smoke, and as drunk as I was at the time, I knew as I got on the subway and could feel my throat swelling shut that I’d made a huge mistake. I woke up the next day with a terrible case of self-inflicted bronchitis and all the self-loathing I could stand, and as I spent the next week and a half in bed with a fever, a chest full of sludge, wheezing and coughing up every grievance my body has ever had to air, it gave me way, way too much time to think about where I’m at in my life and how I’ve gotten here. I think it’s safe to say that this September’s back-to-school resurgence of energy will include a hefty dose of discipline and self-improvement.
But! Before I felled myself in maybe the grossest way I could think of, I was having a great summer!
On a whim, my mother and I went to the Ananda Ashram in upstate NY for an incredible Homa ceremony performed by Amma Sri Karunamayi, which was truly both spiritually and sensuously beautiful in every way. There is something genuinely magical about breathing the smoke of offering fires while chanting in Sanskrit, catching a glimpse of the wind blowing through the trees, and feeling viscerally connected to the earth and alive. I will have a lot more to say about that experience in another post, but it put me in a tremendously open, say-yes-to-everything sort of mindset.
We reconnected with some of my grandmother’s newly rediscovered first cousins (also will have much more to say about this in another post) and I was utterly delighted to find that not only are they instantly recognizable as family, with some of our same idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, but they are just incredibly lovely people. I stayed for a nice long visit in New Jersey over the Fourth of July, transporting another big pile of paintings and works on paper up to my studio, and trying to get the first round of Boardman Summer Camp in (sailing, beach, time on the deck, cookouts, bicycling, hiking, etc.)
I went to my lovely cousin Michelle’s engagement party (more photos here) and visited with lots more family. I’ve become that weird older cousin who vividly remembers when my younger cousins were born and gets all mushy and sentimental, so I promised Michelle I’d get it all out of the way now and try to be cool at her wedding. (We all know I won’t be cool.)
My brother came into the city to see Radiohead with me at Madison Square Garden, and I’ll pause for a second so you also can wrap your mind around the fact that I somehow won whatever cosmic lottery one has to win to get impossible-to-get Radiohead tickets AND that I got to see my favorite band in the world live AND they played “Karma Police” and everyone sang along and it was honestly everything I’ve always dreamed of in a concert.
It was a phenomenal show, as you can probably surmise from the setlist, but I would also be happy to ramble on at length in person because, holy hell, Thom Yorke.
I then spent the next two days cooking food for the 60th birthday party we threw for my brilliant, beautiful Mom. For once in my life, I cooked a huge spread of vaguely Tuscan food actually worth photographing, but I was so exhausted and frazzled trying to keep the party running so she could visit with her guests that I took exactly four photos at the party and none of the food. I know, I’ve let us all down.
So please try to imagine the following menu, all cooked from scratch with lots of love, using as much local, organic produce as possible:
Caprese skewers (fresh mozzarella, basil leaf, half a grape tomato, drizzled with olive oil, sea salt, and fresh cracked pepper)
Prosciutto wrapped around cantaloupe
Spinach-artichoke dip with pita chips
Crab dip (my mom made both dips)
Fresh guacamole and pico de gallo with tortilla chips (Mom also made these)
Italian sausage and peppers
Four-cheese ravioli in a summer squash and sweet corn cream with marjoram and blistered heirloom tomatoes (this is maybe my favorite dish I’ve ever made up)
Grilled shrimp skewers (my dad made these)
Grilled London broil (my dad also made this, and the less said of it the better)
Organic herb salad with Bosc pears, bleu cheese, English cucumbers, and toasted walnuts with a lemon vinaigrette
Garlic green beans
Galician almond cake with spiced pears and vanilla cream cheese frosting (I arranged pear slices on top into a dahlia, and I still didn’t take a damn photo!)
Coconut tres leches cake
Sliced kiwis and strawberries with dried cranberries
Cranberry-orange dark chocolate chip cookies
A great group of my mom’s friends and family were able to come, including our new/old family that we’d just met, and it seemed like everyone had a good time talking, visiting, and celebrating my lovely mom. When I asked her the next day if she’d had a nice party, she seemed warmly touched when she said absolutely yes.
My mom’s actual birthday came a few days later, so I stayed in NJ getting in more beach time, hiking, sailing, garden and deck time with the dogs, and general relaxed visiting with my family. My nice brother took us all out to barbecue on my mother’s birthday, I briefly reconsidered switching from mostly-vegetarian to fully-carnivore, and I returned to NY with an irrepressible smile and restored sense of who I am, where I came from, and where I want to go.
I even got over my fear of the ocean and swam, gleefully and peacefully, which I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t done in years. And I know I haven’t enjoyed it so much since I was a kid.
This summer I also discovered, to no great surprise, that I am fanatically in love with Bhangra music and dancing, and although I am hopelessly uncoordinated when it comes to the more traditional moves, I’m kind of in the zone when it comes to bhangra-90s hip hop fusion. As soon as my lungs can bear it, I will be back out on the dance floor.
There is a whole lot else going on, some great, some less so, and I will have a lot more to say in the coming weeks as I try to get over the remains of this gross cough, get caught up with work / business stuff, and get going on new and exciting things. I still have a ton of other stuff I want to fit into this summer, and I know it will be way too soon that I start catching the first nips of chill in the evenings and the scent of autumn on the way.