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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“The earth is what we all have in common.” – Wendell Berry
I grew up listening to the sound of ocean waves crashing on the beach from my bed, a river at one end of our street and a pond at the other. I became a person while living on this magical peninsula where highlands and forests rapidly tumbled down to verdant meadows and coastal wetlands swaying with phragmites, saltwater marshes teeming with life. I was keenly aware of my place in nature, watching every bit of this vibrant ecosystem change with each season, constantly discovering clever little things that the plants and animals around me did to survive. We lived off this land, growing the most spectacular Jersey tomatoes and vegetables in a garden in the backyard, fishing and crabbing in the summer, and eating duck and venison year-round. I was raised to honor the sanctity of life, to never waste or take more than we needed, and to cherish the gifts the earth gave us.
“If you truly love nature you will find beauty everywhere.” – Vincent van Gogh
It’s not a coincidence that by spending so much of my childhood outside in nature, I developed an extraordinary sense of wonder. I came to know the trees and plants around me intimately, to feel a kinship with egrets and dabbling ducks, and to consider my place in the universe like a fish in the river or ocean – sometimes a clam left abandoned by high tide. Every time I go hiking, I see something new, and every moment I am out in nature, I feel a little more whole. My art is nearly entirely inspired by and guided by nature and the consideration of what it is to be a human animal existing, often at odds, either in or separated from nature.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” – Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder
My parents and grandparents taught us about ecology and we found the word “environmentalist” to describe what we had always been. I fell in love with science as a young girl, entranced by the method of observing and understanding the natural world, quantifying the ineffable sense of wonder I feel like a fluttering in the chest whenever I am in nature. I was shocked to learn anyone would even consider dumping waste into oceans or poisoning streams with industrial run-off. I couldn’t – and still can’t – wrap my mind around prioritizing short-term corporate profits over the health of our ecosystems. I committed to a lifetime of beach clean-ups, recycling awareness campaigns, constantly reducing the amount of plastic I use, and regularly examining my habits to see what I can streamline to do better by the Earth.
“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
As a participant in the very first Earth Day, my mother has always encouraged us, sometimes against our will, to switch off lights every time we leave the room, to reduce our carbon footprints every way we can, and to consider the environmental impact of all our purchases and activities. As kids, we occasionally begrudged the family policy of never getting takeaway from a restaurant that used entirely too much plastic packaging, washing out and reusing plastic bags and storage containers, or combining all our errands into one trip together to reduce the car emissions we produced over a weekend, but we learned, slowly, how to think about the environmental impact of our actions. We became the kind of adults who walk or ride bicycles wherever we can. In my case, I gave my car away once I realized I could get pretty much everywhere I needed to go by mass transit (not always easily, but it’s something I’m committed to now). I run my business with core values of ecology and environmentalism built into the message and mission. I changed my diet to one that I believe is more sustainable and humane. I know I can do more.
Each Earth Day over the past few years I’ve taken on a new lifestyle change, from little things like switching all my accounts to paperless billing to slightly bigger ones like setting up a composting system in my apartment (that is this year’s project, which we’ll discuss soon). I realize more and more how easy it is to make habit adjustments so small they don’t really even qualify as “sacrifices.” Most often, I just feel foolish I hadn’t thought to do it sooner, like eschewing plastic drinking straws, which kill a staggering amount of birds and sea creatures and contribute to the horrific problem of marine plastic pollution. It took exactly one photo of a bird who had died from eating plastic drinking straws to make me ashamed of every time I’d ever slurped a Diet Coke through one.
I’ve recently started making assemblage pieces out of the types of plastics that most commonly end up in landfills and the sea (recycled, of course). Now that I am approaching every material I come in contact with as if I were a bowerbird building a nest, I see just how much plastic and foam still passes through my hands. I have no fear that I will run out of materials anytime soon, but I would like to change how much of my life includes plastic and non-recyclable materials.
“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” – Wendell Berry
As I am living this type of life every day and trying to think about how to promote love and respect for nature, I am horrified to consider others who are not only indifferent to their impact on the planet, but actively seeking to deregulate industries that pollute for the sake of greater profits. I don’t know how anyone allowed science to become politicized, or how anyone could be so foolish as to accept the nonsensical view that a lobbyist’s or politician’s interpretation of climate science is as viable as a scientist’s.
The beauty of science is that it follows a rigorous method of observation, data collection, and required reproducibility of findings. It is one of the few fields that isn’t wholly interpretive or conjectural, rather empirically evidence-based and grounded in truths that any person can see for themselves. A jackass throwing a snowball on the senate floor doesn’t change the stark reality that climate change is manmade and approaching irreversibly cataclysmic peril. Even if someone insisted on remaining ignorant of facts or is somehow unconvinced, the impact of human activity is the only contributing factor to climate change that we can control. The opposition to responsible ecological policy is led by industries built on fossil fuels and pollution. We deserve better than for our natural world to be sold out by corrupt politicians for the sake of pure greed.
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” – Rachel Carson
This weekend I am participating in the March for Science in NYC, a satellite of the national March for Science in support of science and environmentalism. I am marching because I value science and believe it plays a crucial role in society, both for solving our problems and imbuing the general population with curiosity, revelations about the world and universe around us, and truly, preserving the sense of wonder.
I am frustrated that science funding is threatened and regularly cut if research does not support prevailing industries, so I am marching for intellectual freedom and expansion of scientific funding.
I believe it is essential to honor the Paris Agreement and commitments the US has made to mitigate our environmental damage, so I am marching to encourage infrastructure-level investments in clean energy, especially solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal energy capture.
I am marching because I think it is criminal for oil companies to buy and suppress (or poach) patents for every innovation in energy that threatens their bottom line. I want our tax dollars to fund these advances instead of subsidizing oil pipelines.
I am disheartened by the political destabilization we regularly cause in pursuit of oil and natural gas, and I see the way climate change has contributed to the rise of ISIS and a number of global crises from famines to cataclysmic weather events like the hurricane that could easily have washed my parents’ home away.
I am marching because I truly know in my heart of hearts that when we live in better harmony with nature, it will lead to a fairer economy, global stability, more affordable utilities, and compassionate foreign policy worldwide.
Above all I am marching because I want the people of the US to remember the spirit of Earth Day and to take responsibility for ourselves as global citizens, to take care with our impact on nature and recognize that we are all one world. The actions of a polluter in one country affect the air and water quality worldwide and for generations to come. If we want to do better by the planet, we need to think globally and act locally, starting with ourselves, every single day.
As I renew my commitment to do better, I encourage you to look at your life and find something you can make more eco-friendly starting today. No action is too small, as they all add up like drops of the sea. We can either be the species that saves the planet from the brink of destruction or pushes it over the edge to an uninhabitable wasteland. This choice will be made in our lifetime, starting right now.
I have sprinkled quotes from some of my favorite scientists and writers throughout what I guess you can call this manifesto. If you’re interested in some further reading related to ecology and environmentalism, I highly recommend:
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World and other works by Michael Pollan, particularly about agriculture and how our food choices impact the environment. You can also watch the wonderful PBS documentary of “The Botany of Desire” (fantastic date night entertainment if you want to have engaging and far-reaching conversation with literally anyone) or the magnificent Netflix series Cooked.
If you are looking for some actions you might take this Earth Day (or any time):
– Contact your representatives to voice your concerns about the environmental impact of any proposed legislation and encourage the US to take a leadership role in fighting climate change and being more responsible global environmental stewards
– Donate to plant trees! Each dollar plants a tree. You can give your donation in honor or memory of a loved one, and because trees have such amazing abilities to clean the air and prevent erosion, you are honoring them with a commitment to continue improving the world for future generations after we’ve left it.
– Plant wildflowers to support bees and other pollinators. Everyone in my family got free packets of seeds from the Cheerios Bring Back the Bees project, but you can make seed balls or start a garden of bee- and butterfly-friendly plants for pollinators in your yard (or go rogue, as I am doing around my neighborhood in the Bronx).
– Learn about the wildlife where you live. Nature is not just in parks and wildlife refuges, but rather everywhere around us. Identify the plants and trees on your street (this interactive map of trees in New York City never ceases to blow my mind), learn the species of birds, butterflies, and critters you see everywhere around you. If you have children in your life, start teaching them plant and animal identification.
– Consider reducing the amount of meat and animal products you consume regularly. It can be as easy as swapping out one or two meals a week for plant-based options in the spirit of Meatless Monday, or making an entire lifestyle change (for sure, there is much more to discuss about the reducetarian movement soon). Examine where your food comes from and the environmental impact of how it is grown, how far it travels to reach you, and ways you might improve your food choices.
– Participate in a beach clean-up, nature walk, community garden activity, or one of the many Earth Day actions and campaigns
If you have any other suggestions for eco-minded reading, thinking, or actions, please let me know. And because climate change and environmental damage disproportionately affects women and children (we’ll talk about that another time) encourage the young girls and women in your life to explore science and pursue education and careers in STEM with confidence and unabashed wonder.
We need more Millie Dresselhauses in this world (and yes, I cry every single time I see that commercial).