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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.

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Keep Your Powder Dry

A few weeks ago, one of my high school friends who consistently brightens my day with her thoughts and photos put up a status on Facebook saying ordinarily she’d like to talk about a silly little event in her life, but in this current political climate, it feels terribly shallow or self-absorbed. I was bummed out to read her self-censorship because I know she is a deeply engaged, caring person, and I couldn’t imagine anyone in her life believing she’d gone into ostrich-with-head-in-the-sand mode, yet I understood where she was coming from (and have maybe been doing the same thing). I was relieved to see another of her friends point out that Facebook is a bit like a cocktail party, and if all you ever did at a party was launch into lengthy political diatribes or microanalysis of current events, you would be just as tedious as if you only ever talked about your recent haircut or your cat.

(For the record, I literally never get tired of talking about cats, and if you’ve ever got like fifteen cat photos you’d like to share with someone, I am your girl.)

I’ve been accused of being overly political, usually by people who haven’t seen me in person in a while. I find it somewhat laughable because I censor probably 98% of the political comments, rants, articles, petitions, etc. that I’d like to share, so the remaining 2% is too much for those who aren’t interested in, well, any politics at all. There are two extremes of the current polarization, both of which are actually fairly aggressive stances, and it seems many people are pulled between them in their lives at the moment.

1.) The “La-La-La No, No Politics Please!” Earmuffs Stance




Image via the Ear Plug Superstore blog, which is full of similarly adorable photos of babies protecting their hearing, awww.

This one can seem innocuous, shouting over conversations that they are tired of all the politics, and asking, “Can’t we talk about something else??” or posting about why social media isn’t joyful and fun for them anymore. Sometimes it’s a pointed refusal to engage in anything remotely political, or to even acknowledge that they live in a political world (I’m sure we all have those friends steadfastly posting diet and workout photos or inviting us to leggings “parties” or vaguebooking about relationship drama or whatever their thing is). I don’t mean the people who refrain from discussing politics publicly for professional reasons (which is an accepted form of capitalistic oppression, but that is neither here nor there) – I mean more the stance that politics are inherently unpleasant or rude, or the people who, to be blunt, can’t be bothered.

A guy who had been hitting on me at a club for an hour actually put his hand over my mouth when I made a political joke and said, “Please, you’re too pretty to think so much about these problems!” (That is a whole separate issue, and I know he was drunk and thought he was being clever, but still, ugh). I’ve been editing them out of my life, but I have had friends who brushed aside any mention of current events with, “No, I’m so sick of that stuff,” then steered the conversation to television shows and gossip. Dates who insistently redirected to what they did for leg day (NOPE).

2.) The Everything-Political-All-the-Time Stance




Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787, oil on canvas, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I am grateful for the friends always ready to call me out on my privilege, identify what they perceive as points of culture that reinforce white supremacy or heteronormativity, and help me constantly question society through a political lens. Sincerely – I think they make me a better person, and I’m glad they put up with me. But I have observed a shift toward aggression and anger that can become alienating and just as oppressive as that which they would like to fight. We all have friends and family on both sides who went overboard with political posts during the election and the post-election period, and I will admit I still have a lot of people hidden online and I have been relieved to be really busy lately and able to duck out of some social events with the more exhausting of them.

This is the type I fear I can be to the people in my life, so I may be overcorrecting to seem an earmuffer. I guarantee I am always reading and overthinking something (usually many things), and if something has happened in the world, you can be reasonably sure I HAVE THOUGHTS ABOUT IT. But I am trying to temper how I express myself so it is not all-caps all the time.



I know that the people in both groups care very much, that they are expressing either their passion for harmony and community (which can be mistaken for complacency or acceptance) or their passion for justice, fairness, and engagement (which can be mistaken for militancy). I am trying – and often struggling – to strike a balance between the two. I think I’ve made my bleeding heart liberal politics crystal clear for years now, but I am also passionate about my interests. I don’t see these things as unrelated, especially when the arts or the environment or human rights are under threat, but I do think it’s important to find balance in one’s life, so we are not trapped in fixation.

I’ve questioned if my art was “political enough,” or if I should be more overt and direct (we’ll talk more about this over on the studio blog soon). I’ve gone through days where my entire existence felt pointless in the face of these massive events and threats, and it felt shallow comforting myself with the apocryphal Winston Churchill quote that if we cut funding for the arts to fuel the war effort, there is nothing worth fighting for. I’ve made my peace with what I’m doing and what more I will be doing, but I still have this uneasiness of feeling like I need to justify the audacity of existing and carrying on, with an attenuation I hadn’t experienced prior to last November.



Here I am grateful for the elasticity of the mind and the way it can simultaneously care intensely about protesting an unjust immigration policy and about a new cake recipe. I once spoke with a veteran who, after a harrowing day with an IED, cried at the book he was reading and wasn’t sure if it was because of the story itself or his relief that he would get to read through to its sad but beautiful ending. There is still music, and it still transports the soul. Awful things are happening in the world and humanity, but rather than spend all my time lamenting them, I need to balance them with kindness, action, creativity, and compassion. I think we all do.

My strategy has become, essentially, “Keep your powder dry,” coupled with “Choose your battles.” There are a lot of people in my life whose political views are intransigent, and just as I will never change my beliefs about egalitarianism or humanitarianism, I know they will never change theirs. It doesn’t make it okay, but ranting at them will only isolate them and prevent any further communication and consideration between us. I believe it is also taking a psychic toll on many people in subtly observable ways, as fatigue sets in from the public performance of citizenship and scrutiny turned on ourselves and one another instead of those we should be holding accountable. I am trying to encourage my friends and family to save their strength for the bigger fights, and to not get mired in petty day-to-day nonsense (that is, after all, the hypernormalisation strategy being deployed) so we can catch the signals through the noise.



Often lately it has been super tempting to lie on the floor and listen to “Holocene” on repeat. But to quote my dad, “This is a lot right now. But we can’t let this be all that there is for us.”




(My dad is hella wise.)

We need to continue making life and culture, engaging each other as full human beings, and finding pleasure in life without stripping the joy away through our guilt or fear. We have some control over how we interpret our experiences, and we can tap out when we need to. As Kumail Nanjiani put it:

During jury duty this week, I was involuntarily subjected to several blaring hours of cable news programs, and I watched the energy of the room shift from a general malaise of boredom or annoyance to acute anxiety to utter exhaustion and exasperation. My district in the Bronx is full of people directly affected by discriminatory policies on immigration, repealing healthcare, institutionalized racism, and the other topics that were being discussed. My district is one the president loves to impugn as the “disastrous inner cities,” mischaracterizing life here as a hellscape of misery, desolate poverty, and unending violence, when my actual experience has been one of a vibrant, beautifully harmonious, and loving community that looks out for everyone in it. It is the most civil and human place I’ve ever lived in New York.

I looked around and chatted with a few fellow jurors, always beginning with a shared eye roll about how we wished they’d turn the televisions off. I started to recognize the face of David staring at the Goliath of a political system gearing up to steamroll everything they cared about, but instead of fear, I saw patience and stone cold determination. One woman who had just described her fairly immediate and urgent concerns about losing healthcare said, “But we’ll outlast them, I know that,” then pointed to Michael Davis’s powerful Equilibrium sculpture overhead emblazoned with MLK’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I was stunned at how comforting her words and unshakable faith in humanity were.



When you think of all the hardship and struggle trees go through, clenching everything significant about themselves into a bud and hoping it’s not frozen or nipped off through seemingly endless months of bitter cold and darkness, it is nothing short of a miracle that we have flowers each spring. They don’t do it because they are brave or heroic, but because that is what they were put here to do: they have a biological imperative and a natural drive to persist and thrive. So too, humans were put here together to help each other and be good stewards of the planet, whether everyone does it or not. I believe we are in a winter of humanity, but spring is coming.

I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of what is happening in the world right now – it is truly as big a crisis as it feels – but I think we need to focus, tap into our reserves of strength and integrity, and organize. We need to resist “either/or” false dichotomies and traps of illogical, lazy thinking or tautology. We need to be critical and clear, use precision and purity of thought and language, and always let compassion lead our principles. It is possible to sacrifice truth for dogma no matter which side of a debate one finds oneself on, so we must resist the attempts to divide and alienate our country wherever they are coming from. Expressing anger is cathartic, and it pains me that some people have not felt able or empowered to express their objections before now, but we have to think about the end games and goals. We should not abandon a good mission over imperfect execution. We should not attack our allies, but instead come together and find our common ground.

We’ll get through this, and I have to believe we’ll eventually be stronger and better for it, if we preserve our humanity and follow our hearts. Nothing is more powerful than the love we share for one another.

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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.

Progressive Postcards

I believe strongly in contacting our representatives because the pen is forever mightier than the sword. So I was delighted when the 10 Actions for the First 100 Days began with postcards to senators outlining concerns and requests.

And it turns out, I had quite a lot to say to mine.



I made postcards for 13 of the many, many issues that concern me, then I wrote specific requests for rights I want protected and actions I want taken. With each card, I focused my intentions, and it was a powerful meditative and emotional experience.

I’ve made my designs available for download, if you’d like to print them on cardstock or photo paper to send your own. The PDF download is formatted to print two 4″x6″ postcards (for each of your senators) or you can print one at a time by downloading the JPGs. If you follow USPS postcard regulations, you should be able to mail them using a 34-cent postcard stamp.

If you’d like the whole set, you can download it from Dropbox here (JPGs also on Flickr).




Mni Wiconi: Water Is Life
Download – JPG | PDF




Women’s Rights
Download – JPG | PDF




Environment
Download – JPG | PDF




Health Care is a Human Right
Download – JPG | PDF




Don’t Turn Our Backs On Humanity: Immigration, Refugees, and Ethical Foreign Policy
Download – JPG | PDF




Love Is Love: LGBTQIA Rights and Freedoms
Download – JPG | PDF




Support for Veterans and First Responders
Download – JPG | PDF




Black Lives Matter: Addressing Institutionalized Racism
Download – JPG | PDF




Make America Think Again: Education
Download – JPG | PDF




Disability Access, Independence, and Opportunity
Download – JPG | PDF




End the Epidemic of Gun Violence
Download – JPG | PDF


ERA

Equal Rights Amendment
Download – JPG | PDF


Workers_Rights

Treat Workers Like People: Fair and Humane Labor Policies
Download – JPG | PDF

I feel obliged to put the usual disclaimers that while our values may differ, I think it is essential that you also communicate yours. I’m happy to share what specifically I wrote about each issue, if you’re struggling to find words or have questions about my stances. Politics are nuanced and complex, as our conversations should be.

And while I doubt it’s necessary, I also feel obliged to remind you to please use respectful, clear, and concise language while communicating with your representatives.

The Women’s March on NYC

I had hoped to just write about what participating in this weekend’s Women’s March on NYC, a sister protest of the Women’s March on Washington, meant to me personally. But I also see there are a number of misunderstandings about what the march was about, what it was like, what marchers personally stood for, how marchers behaved, and general purpose nay-saying, so I will address that a bit too.



First, some background. The Women’s March movement was begun with a Facebook post by a woman in Hawaii, shared with friends, and it went viral, gathering momentum through the stages of grassroots organization into something global. With the need to organize millions of people and apply for legal permits, they gained partners and sponsors. (If you are inclined to think it was a bunch of women acting like sheep and somehow organized or funded under the aegis of George Soros, the DNC, the Clinton Foundation, or some vast left-wing conspiracy, I suggest you stop reading right now and if we are friends on social media, do me the favor of changing that.) There were a lot of questions in the early phases of planning, which coalesced into the decisions to include sister cities and to march the day after the Inauguration, in part so that the marchers would not be included in the administration’s attempts to fudge Inaugural attendance numbers (of course they still tried, #alternativefacts).

The march was not simply anti-Trump or pro-abortion, as I’ve seen many falsely claim, but in fact has a number of Unity Principles, which clearly reflect the nonviolence built into the Women’s March Mission and Vision. Not every marcher supported every principle, but the consensus agreement was to use First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly in nonviolent protest. This march was not affiliated with any protests that occurred on Inauguration Day, including those that advocated violence or destruction of property and were characterized on the news as riots. I was surprised that my brother and father still texted us a few times during the day to check if we were safe, but when I later saw how the first wave of protests were covered, I understood a little better how they misunderstood the nonviolent missions of ours.

(I don’t like that I keep feeling like I must have such a defensive or over-explaining tone, but it seems like a lot of basic facts I’ve taken for granted are being warped and not getting across to all my friends and family, so I am trying to be perhaps excessively clear. I am, of course, always happy to discuss anything further one-on-one or in the comments.)

I chose to see my participation as a march FOR and not AGAINST, though I was marching for both. To this end, among other things I was marching FOR:

  • equality and sanctity of humanity regardless of gender, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, wealth, or family status
  • human rights, civil rights, reproductive rights, and freedom of conscience
  • environmental protection and responsible policies in the face of climate change
  • ethical treatment of Native American and First Nations people and respect for their lands and culture
  • equitable and ethical treatment under the law for Black lives and all people of color because extrajudicial executions and institutionalized racism are reprehensible
  • immigrants and refugees, who deserve a safe haven in the world and a path to citizenship
  • universal, affordable health care because I believe health care is a human right
  • veterans and service members whose health care, benefits, and job assistance services should be nonnegotiable; increased access to mental health care and support for PTSD
  • preservation of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, along with the other social safety nets that protect vulnerable people when they need help
  • protecting disability rights and ensuring disabled people have access to education, independence, and opportunities to work and thrive in society
  • a living wage for hourly employees, expanded family leave, and protections for workers’ rights
  • protection of women against violence, rape, and sexual assault, including removing the biased institutional policies that protect perpetrators at the expense of survivors (Brock Turner, for example)
  • preservation of voting rights for all citizens and expansion of access to polls by making Election Day a federal holiday and removing discriminatory voting registration laws
  • peace and not waging untenable wars that destabilize entire regions over oil
  • honesty and transparency in our government, answerable to all citizens and not just corporate donors or SuperPACs



And that is the short list. The thing is, I was marching for everyone, as some of these concerns don’t affect me personally, though others do or could. That is what “Liberty and Justice for All” means. Mostly I was marching for what I believe is right, for the principles our nation is built on, and for what I consider ethical and morally responsible comportment in the world. I know that not everyone will agree with where I land on every issue, but some are nonnegotiable. If you are okay with the government making policies that are specifically designed to disenfranchise people of color because it benefits your candidate, you are supporting institutionalized racism. If you are okay with our government discriminating against poverty or disability in the guise of “fiscal responsibility,” then we have a much bigger discussion about morality and the role of government ahead.

So now that we’ve established just some of the reasons why I marched (I could go on), I want to move on to how incredible it was to be part of it.

A few weeks ago my mother and I started discussing the Inauguration and people planning to protest it. We discussed the Women’s March on Washington and what a peaceful demonstration could plausibly achieve. One of us pointed out there was a sister march in NYC, and I said it meant more to me to march in my beloved city than the Capitol. I wanted to be with fellow New Yorkers, to make our presence known where I live. We continued a then-hypothetical conversation about the goals of the march, the history and spirit of nonviolent protest, and by the end, we both felt compelled to join the Women’s March in NYC. I registered us with the organizers (so they could apply for an appropriate amount of permits), we worked out our logistics, and we were in. I don’t know what possessed me to, but I asked my mother, “Will Dad be cool with you marching?” and she laughed, “Frankly, it’s not his decision, now is it?” (He was, for the record, not only cool with it, but wholly supportive, proud, and said, “This is something really important.” You can’t grow up with a strong mother and five sisters and marry my mother without being an avowed feminist.)

A few days before the march, I decided to knit our protest hats. At first my mother and I weren’t going to wear any, as we were concerned they were infantilizing or made light of seriously life-or-death concerns. The more I read about the Pussyhat Project and discussed it with fellow knitters, the better I understood its power as a unifying symbol, summarized well in this article. I appreciated that these hats were handmade, as individualized as the people making them, and they served a practical purpose in January weather. Some knitters and crocheters made and donated dozens of hats for other marchers, and I wish I’d made more than our two.



The night before the march, we ate pizza, talked at length, and painted our signs. I went with Hillary Clinton’s quote, “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” and my mother made a more specific message, “Complacent Is Complicit / Strong Women Stand Together” in a somewhat retro style to reflect that she has been fighting for equality and basic human decency her whole life. As we made our way to Midtown through subway delays and extra transfers, we started to see more and more pink hats and marchers, and it was a genuine treat to feel like we were joining our tribe. People stopped us to take photos of our hats and signs, and we instantly bonded with other New Yorkers in ways I wouldn’t have considered possible before. By the time we got to Grand Central, there were hundreds of marchers in every direction, and I’ve never seen such a pleasant, considerate mood in New York.



The start times of the march were staggered by last name, so we could already hear thousands of people marching down 42nd Street as we made our way to the start point. It was an astonishingly beautiful sound. When we got to the plaza where the march was assembling, we were amazed at the sheer volume of people, dazzled by so many hats, signs, and such beauty in literally resplendent afternoon light (I have a mild sunburn on my cheeks to show for it even though I was wearing SPF 30). As we waited for our start time, we participated in chants and pointed out particularly clever or emotionally impactful signs to one another. Say what you will about New Yorkers, but our reputation for being an exceptionally literary city is well-earned. I can be hypersensitive to spelling and grammar mistakes, and I saw almost none. Just pause for a second to recognize that of the thousands of signs I read over several hours, I may have seen a total of three grammar errors or misspellings. That by itself is kind of miraculous.



© Jenny Sowry, via Mashable, #WokeBaby

I observed an incredible diversity of people marching, representing more causes than I could possibly list, with varying levels of specificity, complex emotional nuance, and unbelievable creativity. As an artist, I was deeply touched at all the people who took the time to express themselves visually, and I was stunned by how truly effective many of the signs were (including, of course, #WokeBaby from the Charlotte march, above).

The march picked up as we turned the corner onto 42nd Street, down a corridor of amazing architecture toward the gleaming Chrysler Building. I have literally never seen so many people in my life, a sea of humanity united as far as I could see, and it was just plain staggering. The family behind us lifted their children onto their shoulders to show them how far the march stretched in both directions, and their mother said, “Look at how many people are marching for what they believe in,” as my mother and I simultaneously became overwhelmed with emotion.

They continued to explain how everyone was marching for people like those in the children’s lives, whom they named by name and cause, including “so Grandma can still have her medicine,” which hit me right in the feels. They told the brother how all these people want to make sure his sister and mother have the same rights and freedoms as him and Daddy. Right about when I’d regained my composure, they said, “But it’s important that no matter what, you decide what you believe and that you care about that as much as we care about this.” Considering our family motto growing up might as well have been, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what to think, including us,” my mother and I both turned to thank the parents for raising socially conscious children and encouraging them to think for themselves. That family gives me so much hope for the future.



I didn’t take many photos, but I will never forget some of my favorite signs, chants, and experiences:

  • The Resistance is Fertile (imagery of plants and the earth)
  • A photo of Malala Yousafzai captioned just, “EDUCATION”
  • A young woman marching in memory of her grandmother, a feminist and civil rights activist who had passed away in 2017, noted “With Us In Spirit”
  • A 9- or 10-year old girl beside us shouting, “My Body, My Choice!” at the top of her lungs
  • The call-and-response style of men chanting “Her Body, Her Choice!” after women
  • People playing upbeat songs out of their apartment windows to energize the marchers; one guy saying he didn’t like the song one group was playing and his friend quipping, “Hey man, her apartment, her choice.”
  • A man in head-to-toe rainbow clothes waving a Pride flag joking, “How did they know I love this song??” when “YMCA” came on
  • The same strength and enthusiasm of chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “No DAPL” as everything else (this shouldn’t be remarkable, but it still is)
  • A group of women marching with the Statue of Liberty’s torch
  • The incredible feeling of shouting, “This is what democracy looks like!” and knowing it was true
  • In Grand Central, a man carrying a sign as tall as him reading Don’t Be a Dick
  • The admittedly somewhat petty and slightly mean-spirited chant of, “Hands Too Small, Can’t Build the Wall!”
  • The second line and drum bands leading the marchers in singalongs of “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful”
  • Several police officers being given pink hats to wear over their uniform hats, cheering for various signs and chanting along with “Black Lives Matter”
  • Speaking with several college-aged women about how for some marchers like my mother, it wasn’t clear if they were protesting Again or Still; the awe in their eyes as they asked how she could stand it, and the fire in my mother’s as she said, “By insisting we don’t go backwards.”
  • An image of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia with “A woman’s place is in the resistance”
  • Pithy one-word signs that got the point across, “UGH!” and “NOPE.”
  • An elaborate drawing of the earth surrounded by flowers and hearts, against a backdrop of space, “I Love the Whole Universe”
  • The spectacular echo under an overpass as we chanted, “This is not normal!”
  • Signs in Spanish that repeated 70s-era feminist slogans like, “I am woman, hear me roar”
  • Weak Men Fear Strong Women (one of my badass friends in Los Angeles had a great version of this one)
  • Fight Like a Girl
  • Shortly after an anti-Wall chant, “Have no fear, you’re welcome here!”
  • “We need a leader, not a creepy Tweeter”
  • You Don’t Need to Suppress the Press If You’re Not Doing Anything Wrong
  • Very young boy’s sign decorated with the Twitter logo Xed out, “Quit Tweeting and Get to Work!”; his explanation, “Sometimes I play video games when I’m supposed to do my homework, but the President shouldn’t be bad.”
  • Save the ACA If You Insist On Making Us Sick
  • I’m With Her, with arrows pointing in every direction
  • A moment I shared with a Black woman in about her late 70s, when she stumbled in a low spot and I reflexively offered her my arm. She looked me in the eyes, nodded, smiled, then said, “Thanks, sister” like she meant it.
  • A group of young women starting the Meredith Brooks song “Bitch,” but everyone forgetting the words past the intro, mumbling to the refrain, then one yelling, “The point is bitches are complex and beautiful!”
  • A quote from Hillary Clinton’s graceful and inspiring concession speech, “[To] all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world…”
  • The fact that very few of the chants mentioned the President by name, and none of them had expletives (the latter by request of the organizers)
  • Science is Not a Partisan Issue
  • Without the Arts, I Would Be Dead
  • Without the Arts, I Couldn’t Make Such a *Glorious* Sign (beautifully lettered with loads of glitter)
  • Incredible quotes by MLK and other nonviolent civil rights leaders and thinkers from history
  • And lastly, this guy, who truly pulled off that bow:


  • (You can see loads more here.)

    When we were finished marching we walked back down Fifth Avenue near the New York Public Library, where an impromptu gallery of signs had been set up (a much larger display was being established at the President’s tower). I’ve seen another misguided criticism of the marches that slams people for “leaving their trash behind” as if the signs were just discarded litter, but it was clear that this was an intentional installation so the message could continue to be considered and spread after the march. We saw crowds of pedestrians and tourists thoughtfully reading and photographing the signs, clusters of conversation among strangers discussing the issues presented in the signs, and we were stopped to have our photos taken by people who particularly responded to our messages.

    After the march, we had one of the coolest, most healing experiences of my life (I will write all about that soon) and I went home positively glowing.

    As I looked at photos and read accounts from literally every continent on the globe the next morning, the full reality of what we’d participated in hit home. We marched at the same time as millions of people in other states, for causes so important that women around the world organized in solidarity. The collective positive energy of nonviolent protest and determination was palpable, and I believe we were heard. We participated in a powerful moment in history, and I will be proud for the rest of my life that we refused to be complacent. I felt more connected to humanity and the universe in that one day than I ever have in my life, and it was more beautiful than I could have imagined.

    Naturally, I have also seen plenty of cynicism and criticism, misconstruing the tone and intent in ways that seem woefully ignorant and needlessly partisan. The march was held on a Saturday so most people would not have to miss work, yet there are still plenty of people sneering that maybe if the marchers had jobs they wouldn’t be protesting. I’ve seen attempts to bash the Women’s March as a bunch of self-involved, overprivileged white women whining because our candidate didn’t win an election, using the gaslighting technique of criticizing marchers for not doing anything about oppressed women in other parts of the world; to this I say, it’s not either / or, and I was specifically marching for their rights too. (Also, do you support NGOs that help women in India escape domestic violence or sex slavery to achieve self-sufficiency and economic freedom? Because I do, and I have met these women – it’s part of why I’m so passionate about women’s rights.)

    I’ve seen friends ordered by out-of-touch relatives to stop posting “such vulgarities” because “men are watching this!” and I’ve seen people suggest that if every marcher cooked a meal for a veteran or homeless person that day we could actually make a difference (but of course, they didn’t do anything charitable that day – I think they had something really important to do like go grocery shopping, run errands, and comment on Facebook posts). There is a common and mystifying misconception that the women who marched aren’t also actively involved in volunteer work and community organizations because they took one day to make a stand against bigoted institutional policies. As I learned about other causes and efforts made by my fellow marchers, I saw how that couldn’t be further from the truth. But while we’re at it, when did it become okay to police how others spend their free time??

    The work, obviously, is just beginning, and it’s never too late to join. Check out the 10 Actions for 100 Days, and don’t hesitate to contact your representatives to make your voice heard. Seek out local and grassroots organizations where you can volunteer or donate to national organizations to help the causes you believe in. Even something seemingly small like tutoring for adult literacy or ESL can make a world of difference in someone’s life. Above all, please never stop speaking up for what is right, and never stop standing up for what you believe in.

    I, for one, refuse to sit down, shut up, and behave myself ever again.