Category Archives: Thinky


The Sword of Time

IMAGE: Propagation, 2018, 4″x4″, acrylic on canvas (14/365)

I was recently talking with my father about a sign my freshman-year geometry teacher had hanging beneath the clock in her classroom. It read: Time Will Pass. Will You? I think there was an issue with the punctuation, or maybe two question marks, or the block letters and fonts rankled my design sensibility somehow, but whatever it was, it drove me crazy every time I saw it. My father said his third grade teacher had a similar sign, with slightly different wording, and it bothered him in the same way. We both agreed that one of the most frustrating parts (besides teachers having nothing more clever to post under their clocks several decades later) was that we usually only noticed the sign when we weren’t watching the clock. It was more often the case that when the bell rang, I was so engrossed in the class that I looked over to check if it could possibly be over already. Or someone on that side of the room sneezed or dropped a book and I involuntarily looked over. The smug little sign greeted me with its menacing words, as if the only options in life were pass or fail, and I always felt like sneering back at it, “Yes, of course I will pass, and I will probably get an A or at the very least an A-minus!” (I used to be good at math).

High school battles with signage aside, time has always been a nemesis for me. I have spent much of my life willing it to go slower, stretch out, and give of itself more generously and expansively so that I can soak in as much of what I am experiencing as possible. When my friends were in a rush to turn seventeen and get their driver’s licenses, I didn’t mind being younger because it meant more time visiting with my family while they still gave me rides places. I rarely wanted classes to end, especially in college, since that was really the reason I had left home and lived in a dorm full of strangers, pretending I was adjusting well to people who looked down on me (or were utterly indifferent) while I wondered three times a week why the bathroom in the science building perpetually smelled of vomit. (Freshman year was a mixed bag.)

Even when I am anticipating something exciting or looking forward to relief at the end of a challenge, I am careful not to wish for time to accelerate. One of the purposes of meditation is to fix time in the present by focusing on breathing and being completely in a moment. But sometimes I catch myself more looking forward to how focused and centered I will feel when meditation is over than actually doing the work to get there. I eat slowly so I can savor food, I look all around as I walk, and I try to take my time with whatever I am doing so I know I did it mindfully. The same is true with love and any pleasure – I don’t want to rush to a high point and find I was wishing my life away.

Intensifying, 2018, 9”x12”, wax and charcoal on paper (4/365)

A huge expanse of time can feel like a weight too heavy to carry. The first time my high school boyfriend broke up with me, I was so devastated that I didn’t know how I would survive time going forward. Cataclysmic events tend to cleave time into the Before and After, and to my teenage sensibility, this was the cruelest blow the sword of time had ever dealt. I imagined him going out with the new girl, the seasons changing as he transitioned from cross-country running to wrestling to spring track, the years adding up as he got his license, went off to college, and made a whole life without me. And I would be stuck, being with myself, as the person he didn’t want. I couldn’t imagine any future where I was happy, where I would ever stop hurting and get past the heartbreak, let alone one where I would be fine, meet one of my best friends while sniveling about it, or that the boyfriend and I would eventually get back together and I’d return the favor of breaking up with him for someone else a few years later.

I remember staring at the taunting clock sign in geometry class in those days with eyes puffy and sore from crying in the girls room, wishing I could escape time. I wanted to sink under water or slip into a coma for a while and only wake up when the world had changed enough around me that everything that hurt had become irrelevant, or I finally stopped hurting, as everyone promised I would with time. I snapped out of that ridiculous fantasy when I realized that to escape the pain of that breakup, I’d also miss being with my family, visiting our extended relatives on the holidays, major chunks of the short lives of our pets, and short-term things like post-prom parties or listening to a new Counting Crows album when it first came out at the same time as everyone else. I didn’t really want to escape time, just avoid hurting, and I learned for the first of many times in my life that the only way out, always, is through.

Loose Threads, 2018, 9″x12″, permanent marker on paper (11/365)

Lately I’ve found myself both trapped by and clinging to time again. Being a woman in my 30s is to be bound by reproductive time limits, whether my heart or dating life are in the place they need to be or not. My student loan debt and any attempt to save for a house or family or retirement are fundamentally at odds in an inverse relationship with time and each other. At my last office job, I simultaneously felt like I never had enough time to breathe or do anything at home, and like I was staring at the clock every day wondering how I would get through the week. I was wishing my life away while lamenting it was slipping out of my grasp.

Over the past year since the 2016 election, I cannot count how many times I’ve thought and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this.” Consciously I know there will be more life on the other side of this administration, but my mind cannot envision an America that survives it. I’ve begged the universe to fix time, or let me escape it, so I could go through quickly without feeling. The timeline I have been neglecting is once again my own, as the world spins off its axis and I look around feeling helpless and paralyzed with concern and fear. My father has reminded me repeatedly, “It happened. This is life right now. You can either spend the next few years miserable, or you can live your life the best you can.” My mother always adds, “And fight to make things better.”

Eons, 2018, 11″x14″, acrylic and ink on paper (15/365)

After the disasters that struck my family and friends this fall, paired with some heavy personal stuff, I sunk into a pretty intense period of mourning and depression that is only just abating. I didn’t mean to disappear, but time got away from me like it does. I am currently working to shift from a mindset that utterly dreads the future to one that embraces each day. It shouldn’t be as hard as it’s been, but I have never had an easy relationship with time. Some holes take longer than others to dig yourself out of.

At the turn of the new year, for the second time in a row I landed more uncomfortably on the side of “Good riddance to last year!” than “Welcome the new year!” I am exhausted of feeling bleak and hopeless, cringing through good times because I fear they are fleeting, and putting everyone on hold in case something awful comes up that I need to be prepared to face. I want to have hope again, even if that hope is simply in time. It will pass, and I have control over what I do in it.

I started a project that is both a challenge and a promise to myself, to make art every day this year (posting on my Instagram if you’d like to follow along). It has already made the passage of time bearable, stamping each day with an image I made and a promise that I will make more. It’s working remarkably well as self-prescribed art therapy because it is forcing me to be aware in time instead of going numb. Each day brings me further from the world inhabited by the people I lost last year, but it also brings me closer to a future I need to make bright, even if they are not here with me in it. I owe them that.

For the rest of my life, I am still charged with the double-edged sword of how I spend my time and how it spends me. I need to use it well.


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.


The Habit of Kindness

IMAGE: Tiny Bouquet, a miniature bouquet of wildflowers a dear friend gave me in Italy. (Prints available)

One of the initial challenges for starting a practice of meditation and mindfulness is, paradoxically, it seems too easy. At first pass, sitting still and not thinking about anything while focusing on breathing sounds like something anyone can do: simply exist quietly for a while. I quickly learned that it is actually the opposite of zoning out or contemplation. Being able to sit with both a full and clear mind is the culmination of everything else done in life to get to that place, and it is a lifelong challenge that changes you as a person.

In his revelatory “An Essay on Landscape Painting,” the 11th century Northern Song Dynasty painter and scholar Kuo Hsi described his father readying himself to paint:

On a day when he was to paint, he would seat himself by a bright window, put his desk in order, burn incense to his right and left, and place good brushes and excellent ink beside him; then he would wash his hands and raise his ink-well, as if to receive an important guest, thereby calming his spirit and composing his thoughts. Not until then did he begin to paint. Does this not illustrate what he meant by not daring to face one’s work thoughtlessly?

Approaching life with balance and mindfulness is the essential preparatory work to sit with a clear conscience, to find joy and peace in meaningful meditation rather than feeling trapped with anxiety, daily frustrations or confusions, regrets, or the mental and spiritual equivalents of a cluttered desk or dirty hands. Instead of receiving an important guest, we are meeting ourselves, in a wordless conversation about existence between the world and our spirits. To be in a moment, to fully inhabit it, we have to be a full self. That starts with being honest, being aware, and being kind.

New Forest – Lichen and moss provide the foundation for new plant growth on a fallen tree, continuing the cycle of renewal and regrowth in a forest. (Prints available)

Cultivating an instinct of kindness every day makes a habit of compassion. It is too easy to ignore or compromise the internal voice that suggests, “This is wrong,” or, “I should help,” instead telling ourselves we can’t be late, we need the money, other people treated me the same way, or the most discouraging, “I can’t do anything to change that.” I have always believed it takes extraordinary courage and intelligence to be truly kind as an adult, but it’s an instinct every person has once the conscience develops. It is crucial to keep society from suppressing it and to cling to hope and the belief that our conscience is telling the truth, to know that old Jiminy Cricket feeling of uneasiness should be heeded.

Perhaps the most powerful tool in kindness is empathy, or feeling with another’s heart. It is not enough to ponder how we might feel if something we see happening to someone else were to happen to us – we need to understand how that person feels in the actual situation we see. It starts with observation without judgment, objectively listening and gathering information before we start trying to solve other people’s problems or tell them why their feelings are wrong. It seems common to tackle large issues like racism or poverty with a sketchy and vague sense of the issues, but I don’t often see people stop to ask, “How does that feel?” I think we can be too quick to dismiss the validity of political, spiritual, or personal beliefs because they don’t make sense with how we approach the world. We brush them off instead of trying to wrap our heads around them, which is ultimately an unkind thing to do. Expanding our sense of willingness to inhabit another person’s experience is an act of profound kindness, and if we make it a habit, we gain different lenses with which to understand our own experiences.

Seaside Goldenrod – (Solidago sempervirens) is uniquely saltwater tolerant, a cheerful display of bright yellow flowers at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Jersey. (Prints available)

A second key to kindness is integrity. We should not offer kindness because it makes us look good to other people or gains an advantage of indebtedness. Like anything worth doing, being kind is its own reward. It is important to be consistently kind if it is to become a habit, and to be kind to everyone, not just those people we think are currently most “deserving.” I regularly examine my thoughts for often-unconscious stabs of unkindness: wishing for someone to fail, enjoying hearing about the misfortune of someone I don’t like, feeling relief that I am in a better situation than another person, or dismissing people I don’t understand with disdain or pettiness. It can be hard to break the habit of cruelty that we learn from a young age because it is rooted in competitiveness and the American notion of “winning” or success. Redefining success away from money, material possessions, titles, accolades, appearance, or esteem goes against everything we’re socialized into believing, but it opens the door to far greater rewards.

My goal in life is to be kind to every person I meet, to make life easier or more pleasant for others when I can, to open people’s eyes to thoughts or moments of beauty they may not have seen, and to leave everyone a little more loved than I found them. I know that the only way I can do that is with an uncompromised habit of kindness and compassion, but I’m only human. It is a lifelong project.

Weathered Hydrangea, slightly faded by summer rains, perhaps all the lovelier for it. (Prints available)

That brings me to the third critical tool of kindness: forgiveness. We cannot grow or help others if we cannot forgive. I include forgiving oneself, having a sense of compassion as deep for one’s own missteps as those of others when forgiveness is earned. When I want to comfort people, I usually say some variation of, “It’s okay,” or, “Hey, that happens to us all.” I don’t typically hold grudges when a friend says something unkind in a bad mood, so I am trying to forgive myself the same way, rather than cringing every time I relive a moment when I blurted out something rude instead of a compliment or when I wished someone ill because my feelings were hurt.

People sometimes do unkind things, but most aren’t fundamentally unkind. Often they are not paying attention, they are preoccupied with worry, they are afraid, or they are proud. I am learning that understanding what people are going through makes it much easier to forgive these shortcomings, and instead see them as opportunities to help. My own lapses and times of unhappiness are helping me grow, but only if I let myself. That starts by forgiving mistakes and acknowledging that everyone always needs to grow. None of us were born perfect, and none of us stays kind without effort.

Spray of Pink, flowers in front of a peach-colored wall in the Cinque Terre, Italy. (Prints available)

As I continue on this path of mindfulness and nurturing compassion, I am keeping notes on experiences and moments that bring me clarity or deeper understanding. It is kind to be generous with what we learn. The most important tool in kindness that I’ve found so far is awareness: of the self, of the world, and of others. We cannot grow or change, nor help others, if we don’t start by making ourselves aware of where there is hurt or suffering, or where we have a chance to do better. It can be truly painful to be aware, especially in recognizing how we impact others, but it’s imperative.

Once our eyes are open, we see these challenges everywhere. It can be overwhelming, but it’s okay. It happens to us all, and we have each other to help.


Fail Better

IMAGE: In the Face of Loss. Spent hydrangeas poking through drifts of snow after a blizzard, a metaphor for unexpected beauty in the face of loss. (Prints available)

At any given time, I can give a lengthy list of things I’ve failed at. Relationships, jobs, ill-conceived Halloween costumes, diets, securing funding for the last 3 semesters of my chemistry degree… you name it. Depending on my mood, I can also list many reasons why I’ve failed, but until recently I haven’t recognized what an asset fully-appreciated failing can be.

It’s generally understood that failure is crucial to learning and growth, and I can’t imagine how dull life might be to constantly succeed or win all the time (DJ Khaled’s anthemic proclamation notwithstanding). The way we rise to challenges and hardships makes us who we are.

Last spring my parents and I went on a walking tour through a restricted section of Sandy Hook’s Gateway National Recreational Area, where we visited one of the oldest holly forests in the US. One of my favorite details in looking at these massive, sprawling trees was seeing the ways they’ve failed and overcome obstacles. Studying the knots and eyes from lost branches, the patterns of growth where the tree compensated its balance with new branches, scars in the bark, and how they’ve twisted and turned to reach better light, you can see a tree’s full gnarled history and learn so much about where and how it’s growing.

The same is true for people, in examining their attitudes, beliefs, and how they approach new challenges in life. We wear our history in our faces, posture, language, and even voice, and however much we may think we can hide it, we are constantly communicating past pain, loss, joy, victory, sorrow, hope, failure, and how we grew through it – or didn’t. Humans can have a strange tendency not often seen in nature to regress in the face of failure, overriding biological instincts to thrive in favor of social ones, like the fear of appearing foolish if we try something new and fail or if we open our heart and get rejected. Self-consciousness is a peculiar quality, as is the protection of emotions or reputation over our instincts, but it is also at the base of some forms of compassion; that is a double-edged sword of civilization and the conscious mind. Some people have a withdrawal instinct like a spiritual withering, a leaf curling up and browning despite ideal conditions of water, nutrients, and light, while other seemingly indomitable people better resemble wildflowers growing relentlessly out of sheer rock beside of a waterfall out of virtually nothing.

Tenacity – a tiny yellow wildflower growing in the mists of Goðafoss, a spectacular waterfall in the Bárðardalur region of Iceland. (Prints available)

(I have a lot of photos of the life of plants because I think about this stuff all the time.)

Sometimes we fail because we’re not ready to succeed or we know deep-down we don’t want to succeed in that particular way. Anyone who has sabotaged a job that came easily but felt hollow, or a relationship with a person who was great on paper but didn’t make their heart sing, knows the peculiar feeling when success feels like a let-down. Sometimes we get what we think we wanted, and it feels so empty and unsatisfying that we realize we enjoyed it more when we were just imagining and wishing for it. When I really think about the things I’ve failed at, I can’t name a single one where I would have been happier to have succeeded; that path wouldn’t have brought me to where I am now. Even the disappointments that sting the most take on a “wasn’t meant to be” feeling in retrospect, and however I may regret them in the moment, I wouldn’t change much of anything now.

Other times we fail because of dumb luck or lousy timing. We meet someone amazing, but it’s at the worst possible time career-wise, so we can’t get a relationship going. We come down with bronchitis when we needed to be at 100% and let our bosses down, or tank a critical exam because we were feverish and wheezing with pneumonia (I am an absolute expert at poorly-timed illness). We total the car we need to get to work, a hurricane sweeps our home away, we join a company just before they begin downsizing, we pass up an amazing opportunity because we’re short on cash, we decline an invitation to a networking event that could have been life-changing because we just need to catch up on sleep. There is a prevailing motivational myth that if something matters enough, we can just find a way, but that doesn’t usually work in reality. “Excuses” are sometimes just what happened.

I have had uncanny bad luck at reconnecting with an artist I admire because I’ve had exams, been required to stay late at work, or been grotesquely sick at every opportunity. Thus far, I haven’t been financially independent enough to declare, “I don’t care if you fire me, I’m going to this gallery opening!” just as parents can’t actually abandon the child who needs care when they get sick at the worst possible time. To characterize unavoidable set-backs as “not wanting it enough” is a disservice to everyone, and it prevents us from nurturing and helping one another when we can.

Seedlings stretching for the pale afternoon light on a windowsill in Brooklyn (Prints available)

As a society, we tend not to acknowledge the role luck and timing (and yes, privilege) play in success either. Just as the “find a way” myth overvalues tenacity or perseverance, there is an ego-driven myth that people succeed because of raw talent, perfectly-developed innovation, or some strength of character that makes them somehow destined for victory. For every one of the limitless tiny things that fell into place just so for one person to succeed, any one of those things could have knocked someone else off track, no matter how brilliant their ideas, good their heart, sound their business plan, or determined their character.

It is not necessarily as cut and dry as, “If you wanted to succeed, you should have had the sense to inherit a profitable business from your billionaire father,” but it can be as simple as missing the subway car with your would-be soulmate on it because you didn’t want to rush by the lady with a cane walking slowly down the stairs in front of you. Getting turned down for your start-up loan because the bank rep you happened to meet with is racist or sexist. Missing the cut for grad school admissions because the person reading your application assumed anyone using the word “juxtapose” was a pretentious pseudointellectual. Being upset about a mass shooting and your date thinking you just weren’t clicking. Life happens, and it’s fundamentally unfair, and a lot of really good and deserving people fail all the time. Because we treat failure with shame instead of openness, we may never even know what they were trying or why they failed, burying cures for cancer, new inventions, inspiring art and music, the next great American novel, or the solution for the global economic crisis and a plan for world peace along with their aspirations.

Monsoon Clouds, darkening the sky before the first major rainfall in Orchha, India. (Prints available)

When I fail, my first response is to look for all the reasons why it was my fault, including ridiculous things like why I shouldn’t have trusted my team members to do their jobs competently. In addition to being terrible for my self-esteem, it extends way beyond things I can control, and beating myself up about failure is often completely useless. As a holdover from an education where I considered a B as much a failure as an F, I tend to way over-do assignments, and even when clients or bosses are thrilled, I focus on the imperfections and my regrets about the way the project was run.

I’m working on being a lot chiller, though my skin still crawls at people who say, “Done is better than perfect” or some other variation of “Good enough” when they know they can do better. But because I am always micro-analyzing my failures – real or imagined – I’ve become agile at thinking on my feet, improvising for creative problem-solving, improving efficiency and procedures, and constantly assessing situations to see how things might be done more efficiently, more economically, or more beautifully. A lot of the growth in my artistic process has come from failing miserably at what I was trying to do, then innovating in the way I steer out of the disaster I’ve made. And I’ve learned a lot about how to treat people from the ways I’ve failed in friendships and romance.

The more I fail, the better I am getting at it. I frequently use the metaphor of sailing (which I fail at somewhat regularly). When you first learn to sail, it is with the assumption that the conditions will be steady and ideal, but in reality sailing is a never-ending series of irregular gusts of wind and sudden current changes that make it impossible to simply set a course and stick with it. Good sailors meet each new obstacle with flexibility and learn from them, maybe capsizing the boat a dozen or so times before they learn to recognize a pratfall and head it off. When sailing, you have to pay constant attention and regularly make adjustments, yet even if you do everything as planned, a power boat might buzz by and throw a wake that forces you to tack rapidly, a gust might blow across the stern and cause you to unexpectedly jibe, or you just plain miscalculate how much water you have left and run aground.

Life is, in so many ways, what happens between when you set your course and what you actually encounter on the water, and no two sailors have the same run of it. The only part that truly matters is to keep sailing and to resist the (sometimes constant) urge to pull in all your sheets and give up. And of course, you have to learn to trust your equipment, just as it is crucial to trust your judgment, your sense of what you want and don’t want in life, and to follow your moral compass even when it feels precarious.

Wet Rhododendron (prints available)

I am working at embracing failure as an opportunity, learning and improving each time, and looking carefully at what I’ve done and what I haven’t done to end up where I am. Instead of wearing my past failures as constraints on the future, I am owning them and taking pride in how I’ve developed because of them, like a fantastically-branching holly tree. In addition to the big material areas like my career and finances, I am looking at the smaller failures too – times I didn’t communicate as carefully as I should have, when I didn’t give as much of myself as I wanted, when I was pointlessly selfish, when I didn’t speak up or help as much as I meant to, or when I wasn’t as fully open and honest as I strive to be. As we sail along, we should constantly refine our craft at being human and treating others well. When I look at those failings or feel consumed with regret for how I’ve treated someone, I see extraordinary potential for growth and development: I know in my heart I can do better. My sense of failure is a recognition that I have it in me, which is empowering beyond belief.

If we fail better, which is to say fail more mindfully and openly, with a forgiving spirit, the amorphous shape of regret takes on specifics. If we look at them closely instead of distracting or excusing ourselves, I believe we can learn how to be kinder, more compassionate, and ultimately stronger, more honest, open, and beautiful people. That’s the course I plan to sail anyway.


Healing Vibes: My First Sound Bath

Many of the coolest things I’ve done in my life have been spontaneous, last-minute “that sounds interesting” kinds of decisions. The night before the Women’s March, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post about a sound bath hosted by the Acoustic Mandala Project, whom I knew about through Brooklyn Raga Massive. As I happen to be working on a series of art pieces based on sacred geometry and mandalas, their name jumped out at me, and I asked my mother if she’d like to go directly after the march. We agreed it would be a stark contrast and hoped we wouldn’t be too tired to fully experience it, but we were both so intrigued we couldn’t resist. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be one of the better decisions we’ve ever made.

A sound bath is a meditative experience using specific frequencies of sound (kind of like notes or tones) that – forgive the pun – strike a chord in people. The mathematical relationship among the frequencies touches something visceral and fundamental in the body and mind, and people generally experience incredible healing and a profound meditative experience. These guys carefully explained the concepts, how they derived the tones and discovered the ways different sounds resonate with one another to form chord-like harmonies. They blended electronically purified tones with raga-inflected rhythms, instrumentation, chimes, flutes, and singing bowls struck in person to make an unbelievably rich tapestry of sound and vibrations. I don’t mean vibration in the sort of airy-fairy sense, but actual physical vibrations that coursed through the body head-to-toe for several minutes at a time. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

After the introduction, everyone in the group laid down on yoga mats in a wobbly semi-circle, covered with woven blankets and wearing eye masks. After our day of marching and feeling so connected with women and humanity on a universal level, it was a vertiginous dive into the mind and the self. The first few minutes felt like a psychedelic clearing-out of everything my mind had been processing, just loads of colors and shapes, invented cartoon characters, and as close as what I imagine LSD hallucinations might look like. I typically experience mild synesthesia in response to sound (which is part of why I am so obsessed with music), so any time I close my eyes and listen, it’s a bit like watching abstract paintings swim around. The purity of these tones evoked something much more intense and emotional than usual, which I felt to be the core of myself. The sound bath lasted a bit more than an hour, I think, with various instruments and tones being introduced, moved around the room, and bringing our bodies and minds on an extraordinary journey with them.

I have spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head around the idea of resonance, as it was the basis for the NMR research we did at Pratt and generally a very cool concept (I highly suggest reading more about acoustic resonance and then helping me explain it better). If you imagine two frequencies of energy like waves in the ocean that run into one another, they first go higher (amplification) then move together thereafter (sympathetic vibrations) at a sweet spot that causes more waves around them. It’s a bit more complex, but certain frequencies resonate in relationships that form chords that just feel right, like the brightness of the I-III-V relationship of major triads in music.

They had a pair of singing bowls that not only resonated with one another, but did so in a I-V relationship (I think – it might have been I-IV), so that when one was struck by the feet and the other by the head, the body joined in the brightness of that sound, and you could literally feel every molecule of yourself vibrating like an open chord. Maybe it is helpful to picture a bunch of particles spinning in random directions. When the tones were struck, imagine every one aligning like a crystalline grid and briefly spinning in the same direction, in a way that made the mind experience pure joy and luminous energy. There is more neuroscience and physics to it, but the sensation was like having goosebumps all over, shivering with pleasure, and feeling every part of oneself melt into another state.

Prayer wheels at Sarnath, the site of the bodhi tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
(Prints available)

I thought that might be the height of the experience, but it continued through a whole bunch of other similar body and mind sensations, choreographed in waves and beautiful complexity. It felt like my soul was dancing, simultaneously a particle and a wave in some quantum state of existence and non-existence. I felt utterly, completely free, like metaphysical flying, but also intensely grounded and connected with the raw physicality of being human.

The “finale” of the sound bath is one of those sensations I will keep with me the rest of my life. They went around to each person and struck tuning forks to a pitch that once again resonated perfectly with the softer tones washing over the room, then placed the forks on everyone’s foreheads. I am struggling to think of any way to describe it except as a soul-level orgasm. The frequencies are known to be healing, for reasons not yet fully understood, unlocking blocked emotions and energies within the body and kind of making them sing. Having this pure vibration reverberate from the head through the entire body for several minutes of exquisite being-in-this-moment presence is like nothing I’ve ever known before. I’ve never felt more awake, yet at peace, aware of everything in my mind, yet open. It was like stretching, seeing stars, and slipping through a crack into some surreality of pleasure and beauty.

I was afraid of the come-down from such a great high, that as the vibrations ceased all the muddy and dark stuff in my brain would gunk it up again. I was astonished to find that never happened. I wasn’t able to pinpoint when the vibrations ceased – I just kind of rode the wave back into myself. I preserved the clarity and purity of that moment for the rest of the session – and since then – as if all the little subatomic particles in my mind and body got right and just stayed that way.

When we took our eye masks off, I saw everyone else’s eyes were wide and shining like mine, as they described things they felt and “saw” and experienced throughout. It was the spiritual equivalent of the sun coming out from behind clouds after rain and lighting up the mind like the sky. My mother described dramatic visuals in shades of purple, which are supposed to be associated with the crown chakra in meditation. I joked with her that purple is the color I’ve always associated with her, so of course her soul would be purple too.

I am still mesmerized by what an extraordinary experience it was, and I doubt I can ever adequately convey to someone what it felt like in that moment. When I think back, it reminds me of the time I jumped off a cliff into a glacial river in Iceland – saying the words and telling the story kept horrifying me every time I repeated it, like I still couldn’t believe I’d actually done that. This sound bath was a similar sort of jumping-off-a-cliff into something exhilaratingly beautiful and unknown, and yet at the same time, diving within, to the parts of my mind and existence I know best because they’ve been with me all along. I will cherish it forever.