IMAGE: Water Lily in Summer Light, Pisa, Italy (Prints available)
For Mother’s Day this year, I took my mother to our second sound bath meditation session, this time at the Rubin Museum of Art, one of my favorite sanctuaries in the city. (I also must strongly encourage you to check out the stunning Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit India In Full Frame on view through September 4 if you are even remotely interested in photography, India, or humanity in general.)
During the introduction one of the hosts, David Ellenbogen of the Acoustic Mandala Project, explained that over the course of the session while lying still on a yoga mat with your eyes covered, you may start to feel a little stiff or uncomfortable. “It’s okay to move,” he said reassuringly, “to change position if you need to, to make yourself more comfortable.”
He continued, as if musing out loud, “I think that probably applies to all of life. When things aren’t working or you feel uncomfortable, just remember it’s okay to change.”
Of all the things I experienced and places my mind went during that meditation session, the simple profundity of his gentle remark has probably stuck with me the most.
As I think about the most common sources of frustration or sadness in my life, they are almost all rooted in the sense of being unable to control or change the way things are. When I stop resisting change, I’ve always grown and found something better on the other side through transformation. And yet every time I am on the precipice of some daunting and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, I forget my own capacity to change. I feel like a tiny stream trying to move a massive boulder until I remember: the stream doesn’t need to move the boulder if it can move itself.
Most of the people I speak with lately feel trapped and powerless to effect change. I think we need to refresh our perspectives and regroup. I have another big set of personal changes coming up (we’ll talk about that another time) and I keep fretting about every little detail; despite my whole life so far teaching me that change is both necessary and good, I still instinctively fear and mistrust it.
So I am challenging myself to embrace uncertainty and flux for once, and to even enjoy it.
“The earth is what we all have in common.” – Wendell Berry
I grew up listening to the sound of ocean waves crashing on the beach from my bed, a river at one end of our street and a pond at the other. I became a person while living on this magical peninsula where highlands and forests rapidly tumbled down to verdant meadows and coastal wetlands swaying with phragmites, saltwater marshes teeming with life. I was keenly aware of my place in nature, watching every bit of this vibrant ecosystem change with each season, constantly discovering clever little things that the plants and animals around me did to survive. We lived off this land, growing the most spectacular Jersey tomatoes and vegetables in a garden in the backyard, fishing and crabbing in the summer, and eating duck and venison year-round. I was raised to honor the sanctity of life, to never waste or take more than we needed, and to cherish the gifts the earth gave us.
“If you truly love nature you will find beauty everywhere.” – Vincent van Gogh
It’s not a coincidence that by spending so much of my childhood outside in nature, I developed an extraordinary sense of wonder. I came to know the trees and plants around me intimately, to feel a kinship with egrets and dabbling ducks, and to consider my place in the universe like a fish in the river or ocean – sometimes a clam left abandoned by high tide. Every time I go hiking, I see something new, and every moment I am out in nature, I feel a little more whole. My art is nearly entirely inspired by and guided by nature and the consideration of what it is to be a human animal existing, often at odds, either in or separated from nature.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” – Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder
My parents and grandparents taught us about ecology and we found the word “environmentalist” to describe what we had always been. I fell in love with science as a young girl, entranced by the method of observing and understanding the natural world, quantifying the ineffable sense of wonder I feel like a fluttering in the chest whenever I am in nature. I was shocked to learn anyone would even consider dumping waste into oceans or poisoning streams with industrial run-off. I couldn’t – and still can’t – wrap my mind around prioritizing short-term corporate profits over the health of our ecosystems. I committed to a lifetime of beach clean-ups, recycling awareness campaigns, constantly reducing the amount of plastic I use, and regularly examining my habits to see what I can streamline to do better by the Earth.
“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
As a participant in the very first Earth Day, my mother has always encouraged us, sometimes against our will, to switch off lights every time we leave the room, to reduce our carbon footprints every way we can, and to consider the environmental impact of all our purchases and activities. As kids, we occasionally begrudged the family policy of never getting takeaway from a restaurant that used entirely too much plastic packaging, washing out and reusing plastic bags and storage containers, or combining all our errands into one trip together to reduce the car emissions we produced over a weekend, but we learned, slowly, how to think about the environmental impact of our actions. We became the kind of adults who walk or ride bicycles wherever we can. In my case, I gave my car away once I realized I could get pretty much everywhere I needed to go by mass transit (not always easily, but it’s something I’m committed to now). I run my business with core values of ecology and environmentalism built into the message and mission. I changed my diet to one that I believe is more sustainable and humane. I know I can do more.
Each Earth Day over the past few years I’ve taken on a new lifestyle change, from little things like switching all my accounts to paperless billing to slightly bigger ones like setting up a composting system in my apartment (that is this year’s project, which we’ll discuss soon). I realize more and more how easy it is to make habit adjustments so small they don’t really even qualify as “sacrifices.” Most often, I just feel foolish I hadn’t thought to do it sooner, like eschewing plastic drinking straws, which kill a staggering amount of birds and sea creatures and contribute to the horrific problem of marine plastic pollution. It took exactly one photo of a bird who had died from eating plastic drinking straws to make me ashamed of every time I’d ever slurped a Diet Coke through one.
I’ve recently started making assemblage pieces out of the types of plastics that most commonly end up in landfills and the sea (recycled, of course). Now that I am approaching every material I come in contact with as if I were a bowerbird building a nest, I see just how much plastic and foam still passes through my hands. I have no fear that I will run out of materials anytime soon, but I would like to change how much of my life includes plastic and non-recyclable materials.
“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” – Wendell Berry
As I am living this type of life every day and trying to think about how to promote love and respect for nature, I am horrified to consider others who are not only indifferent to their impact on the planet, but actively seeking to deregulate industries that pollute for the sake of greater profits. I don’t know how anyone allowed science to become politicized, or how anyone could be so foolish as to accept the nonsensical view that a lobbyist’s or politician’s interpretation of climate science is as viable as a scientist’s.
The beauty of science is that it follows a rigorous method of observation, data collection, and required reproducibility of findings. It is one of the few fields that isn’t wholly interpretive or conjectural, rather empirically evidence-based and grounded in truths that any person can see for themselves. A jackass throwing a snowball on the senate floor doesn’t change the stark reality that climate change is manmade and approaching irreversibly cataclysmic peril. Even if someone insisted on remaining ignorant of facts or is somehow unconvinced, the impact of human activity is the only contributing factor to climate change that we can control. The opposition to responsible ecological policy is led by industries built on fossil fuels and pollution. We deserve better than for our natural world to be sold out by corrupt politicians for the sake of pure greed.
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” – Rachel Carson
This weekend I am participating in the March for Science in NYC, a satellite of the national March for Science in support of science and environmentalism. I am marching because I value science and believe it plays a crucial role in society, both for solving our problems and imbuing the general population with curiosity, revelations about the world and universe around us, and truly, preserving the sense of wonder.
I am frustrated that science funding is threatened and regularly cut if research does not support prevailing industries, so I am marching for intellectual freedom and expansion of scientific funding.
I believe it is essential to honor the Paris Agreement and commitments the US has made to mitigate our environmental damage, so I am marching to encourage infrastructure-level investments in clean energy, especially solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal energy capture.
I am marching because I think it is criminal for oil companies to buy and suppress (or poach) patents for every innovation in energy that threatens their bottom line. I want our tax dollars to fund these advances instead of subsidizing oil pipelines.
I am disheartened by the political destabilization we regularly cause in pursuit of oil and natural gas, and I see the way climate change has contributed to the rise of ISIS and a number of global crises from famines to cataclysmic weather events like the hurricane that could easily have washed my parents’ home away.
I am marching because I truly know in my heart of hearts that when we live in better harmony with nature, it will lead to a fairer economy, global stability, more affordable utilities, and compassionate foreign policy worldwide.
Above all I am marching because I want the people of the US to remember the spirit of Earth Day and to take responsibility for ourselves as global citizens, to take care with our impact on nature and recognize that we are all one world. The actions of a polluter in one country affect the air and water quality worldwide and for generations to come. If we want to do better by the planet, we need to think globally and act locally, starting with ourselves, every single day.
As I renew my commitment to do better, I encourage you to look at your life and find something you can make more eco-friendly starting today. No action is too small, as they all add up like drops of the sea. We can either be the species that saves the planet from the brink of destruction or pushes it over the edge to an uninhabitable wasteland. This choice will be made in our lifetime, starting right now.
I have sprinkled quotes from some of my favorite scientists and writers throughout what I guess you can call this manifesto. If you’re interested in some further reading related to ecology and environmentalism, I highly recommend:
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World and other works by Michael Pollan, particularly about agriculture and how our food choices impact the environment. You can also watch the wonderful PBS documentary of “The Botany of Desire” (fantastic date night entertainment if you want to have engaging and far-reaching conversation with literally anyone) or the magnificent Netflix series Cooked.
If you are looking for some actions you might take this Earth Day (or any time):
– Contact your representatives to voice your concerns about the environmental impact of any proposed legislation and encourage the US to take a leadership role in fighting climate change and being more responsible global environmental stewards
– Donate to plant trees! Each dollar plants a tree. You can give your donation in honor or memory of a loved one, and because trees have such amazing abilities to clean the air and prevent erosion, you are honoring them with a commitment to continue improving the world for future generations after we’ve left it.
– Plant wildflowers to support bees and other pollinators. Everyone in my family got free packets of seeds from the Cheerios Bring Back the Bees project, but you can make seed balls or start a garden of bee- and butterfly-friendly plants for pollinators in your yard (or go rogue, as I am doing around my neighborhood in the Bronx).
– Learn about the wildlife where you live. Nature is not just in parks and wildlife refuges, but rather everywhere around us. Identify the plants and trees on your street (this interactive map of trees in New York City never ceases to blow my mind), learn the species of birds, butterflies, and critters you see everywhere around you. If you have children in your life, start teaching them plant and animal identification.
– Consider reducing the amount of meat and animal products you consume regularly. It can be as easy as swapping out one or two meals a week for plant-based options in the spirit of Meatless Monday, or making an entire lifestyle change (for sure, there is much more to discuss about the reducetarian movement soon). Examine where your food comes from and the environmental impact of how it is grown, how far it travels to reach you, and ways you might improve your food choices.
– Participate in a beach clean-up, nature walk, community garden activity, or one of the many Earth Day actions and campaigns
If you have any other suggestions for eco-minded reading, thinking, or actions, please let me know. And because climate change and environmental damage disproportionately affects women and children (we’ll talk about that another time) encourage the young girls and women in your life to explore science and pursue education and careers in STEM with confidence and unabashed wonder.
We need more Millie Dresselhauses in this world (and yes, I cry every single time I see that commercial).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Reading news sites. Literally just said to my cat "You're so lucky you don't know about any of this."
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.