Tag Archives: family

Gentle Sky

The Uncle Dave Instinct

I would say it feels like a tornado has been whipping through my family, except it was a literal hurricane first, and I am afraid every day that it may not have abated yet. In the past few weeks we lost my Great Uncle Dan, my Great Aunt Pat, and this past Friday my Great Aunt Shirley, among other terrible losses and sadnesses. I am not even remotely ready to process all the emotions that are tearing through my mind, but I want to remember something specific about my family because I think somewhere in it may be the secret of life.



My Uncle Dave was married to Aunt Shirley for 61 years and loved her with a depth and sincerity one rarely sees in this world. When he gave her a glass of wine at Wine Time, he always accompanied it with a kiss on the cheek, saying, “Here you go, doll.” He built fires in the wood stove on cold winter days because he thought she’d like a cozy place to sit and sometimes tossed extra fragrant wood in so she could enjoy the smell. When she was reading and the light grew dim, he’d turn a lamp on behind her to spare her eyes, and when she dozed off, he’d cover her with a blanket, kissing her head as she slept. I am so glad that two such truly kind people found one another and shared that love and generosity of spirit with their family.

Earlier this year when I was visiting my parents, I told them how I’d come to think of these small gestures of love as the “Uncle Dave Instinct,” as if he spent his days walking around trying to think of nice things to do for everyone. He didn’t do it for show or make a spectacle of the little moments when he’d hum a waltz and spin my Aunt Shirley around the kitchen island (thinking they were alone while I was playing under the table). When my Grandma Wanda and I were chatting in their kitchen the day after Thanksgiving, he didn’t interrupt or ask if we wanted lunch, but simply placed grilled cheese and homemade tomato soup on the table, to which Gram squealed, “Oh that is just what I wanted! How did you know??” He squeezed her arm and said, “That’s what little brothers do.” It was clear that to him, it really was just the natural thing to do for the people he loved.



My father also has a strong Uncle Dave Instinct, probably nurtured from spending so much time with such a gentle, kind man, or maybe something genetic that my Grandma Wanda also shared. He brings my mother tea in bed every morning and has done so for 40 years, sometimes accompanied with a particularly fragrant rose or sprig of lilacs in a bud vase. Most of my father’s family is kind in those sensitive, beautiful ways, and it’s hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it because it seems too good to be true, that anyone in the world can be so sweetly thoughtful and caring, let alone a whole family like that.

As the grateful recipient of countless nap blankets, wordlessly refilled drinks, my favorite flowers brought in from the garden to welcome me when I visit, warm pats and hugs whenever we pass each other, and small kindnesses throughout my life, I want to be this type of person and to cultivate that kindness and love in myself. I want to love someone with that purity of affection, and I want to let everyone in my life feel the way a warm hug and a genuine smile from my Uncle Dave or my dad always makes me feel.



I also saw that despite the effects of time, grief, and life’s challenges, the Uncle Dave Instinct lasts a lifetime. When we visited my Aunt Shirley in hospice, we noticed the sheets and blankets were pulled up to her chin. My Uncle Dave was worried she would be cold from the air conditioning, so he made sure to open the blinds to let some sunlight in and tucked her in tightly, repeatedly asking the nurses if they thought we should get her another blanket.

It is easy to get distracted in this world by all the things we have to do, by global politics and unrest over current events, by over-philosophizing and abstracting all our experiences in search of meaning and understanding… and it may really be as simple as loving people with that singleness of focus and clarity. To know it’s chilly and they may want a blanket. Maybe that is ultimately the most important thing we can do as humans on this planet: to love and cherish each other and to show gentle kindness every time we can.

Learning racism is present-tense




We were about this age.

I vividly remember when I learned that racism was not just an historical problem. We were driving from New Jersey to Virginia to visit family for Thanksgiving. After several long hours in the car, we stopped to get gas in Manassas at a station with a market attached. There was a queue for an available pump, so my mother took my brother and me into the market to get snacks and drinks. We were elated when she said, “Get anything you want, but just one thing,” and we took our time carefully selecting packets of cookies and chips, with the plan that we’d split them and effectively each get two snacks (we were in first and second grade, this was the height of cleverness for us). As my brother hemmed and hawed over whether he actually wanted chips (which he knew I did) or maybe beef jerky instead (yuck) my mother got drinks and hustled us along to the register queue about a half dozen or so people deep.

“Ma’am, you come on up here, I can ring you up,” the cashier said, waving my mother ahead of everyone else waiting. She looked around confused, and it slowly started to sink in that he was waving her ahead of all the Black customers waiting. She shook her head, said, “No, I’m not next.”

I saw a shadow cast over my mother’s face as she realized what we hadn’t yet, as the cashier insisted, “Oh yes you are, come on up.”

Another customer turned to my mother and said, “Just go. He’s not going to ring any of us up until he’s done with you.”

My mother was aghast, grabbed everything out of our eager hands, and plunked it all on the counter. “I don’t want any of this anymore,” she said in a measured tone, “and I don’t want to do business with anyone who treats their customers like this.” She gestured toward the queue and finished, “You should be ashamed of yourself, man,” then pulled us out the door.

We caught up with my father just before he was about to start pumping gas and she insisted we leave. He protested that he didn’t want to stop again in holiday traffic, and she gave him that hell-hath-no-fury-like-an-Irishwoman-scorned look we all know so well. We all got back in the car and left, stopping at the next exit we saw for by then badly needed gas.

My brother and I were perplexed and tried to make sense of what all that had been about, when my father said quietly, “I just can’t understand racism. What a hateful thing.” I remember piping up, “Daddy, what do you mean racism?” and my parents started a conversation that has been going on in our family ever since. He is a big Civil War buff, so he started with a refresher crash course on slavery and how some people in the South or other parts of the country still mistreat Black people.

“Because they were on the other side of the war?” I asked naively, and he backed up to clarify that no, the abolitionists in our family fought against slavery, that it was never white people versus Black people, and my brother asked, “Then why did we make them slaves if they weren’t our enemies?”

God bless my parents, they kept on unflinching through our onslaught of questions and confusions for the rest of the car ride, tackling white supremacy, the KKK, the Civil Rights movement, and Affirmative Action, which was all over the news in the early 1980s as people were bitterly calling it “reverse discrimination.” We kept coming back to the question that started it all for us, “So why was that man waving Mommy ahead of everyone else?” We literally couldn’t wrap our minds around the idea that he was showing preferential treatment not because my mother was young and pretty with small children – as there were Black mothers with even younger children than us waiting – but he wanted the Black customers to know he thought less of them than us. That he wasn’t being polite, he was being pointedly hostile because he had hate in his heart. We were appropriately stunned.

Once our eyes were open, we started to actually see racism around us, to notice the way people of color were treated compared with us, to hear the names they were called and the way people spoke about them or made them feel threatened. We were raised to have empathy and recognize people of all races as just like us, but we were also made aware of the unfair privilege we sometimes had for being white and how that was used against other people. We tried to follow my parents’ example of speaking up and not supporting people who were racist, and I wish I could say it was easy, but I still fail to do enough to this day. I’m trying a lot harder now.




© Michael Galinsky, Malls Across America, via RUMUR

Later on that same trip, my mother took my brother and me to a shopping mall to get school clothes at the post-Thanksgiving sales (this was before Black Friday was such a huge thing as it is now). As we approached the entry to the mall, we saw a Black woman with a stroller and two small children, struggling to get through the door without letting go of the children’s hands. A parade of white customers walked by her through another door without helping, some pointing at her, laughing, and talking to each other about her. A mall security guard stood nearby looking on with amusement. As we got into earshot, we saw two women shove by, sneering loudly, “If she can’t manage them all, maybe she shouldn’t have so many children,” then letting the door slam on the stroller.

“That woman looks like she needs some help,” my mother said, and we rushed over. My mother helped pull the stroller through while my brother held the children’s hands to keep them close by. The woman looked sadder than I’d ever seen an adult look in public and said to my mother with her eyes downcast, “Thank you, ma’am. You didn’t have to do that.” My mother just said breezily, “Oh come on, every mother needs help sometimes. I can’t believe everyone else was ignoring you.” “Oh, I guess you’re not from around here,” the woman said. They shared a meaningful glance and wished each other a good day.

As we were walking away, I said something cheerful and self-congratulatory like, “I’m glad you stood up for that lady, Mommy! And I’m glad we held the door for her because she’s Black.”

My mother was quick to correct me, “No, baby, we hold the door for other people and help them when they need it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Now is the time to learn from Pollyanna

You may have already seen this on my Facebook page, but if not, here, have an excellent feel-good holiday cry on me:



Right??? I’ve seen it dozens of times, and I still burst into tears every time it comes on. I may or may not have kept it open in a tab on my browser for a week or so for when I needed a big “awww” moment and a smile. You can too, I won’t judge.

The other day my mother mentioned that my father excitedly asked her to record the recent remake of Pollyanna on PBS. She was surprised to learn it was one of his favorite movies as a boy, after his whole family (he had five sisters) piled in at the drive-thru in 1960 and he fell head over heels in love with Hayley Mills. They kept it on their DVR so I could watch it from my apartment, and it was so utterly charming and uplifting that I completely understand why they felt “a little emotional” and / or cried their faces off watching it.



Georgina Terry as Pollyanna, © Carlton Television 2016

One of the central motifs of the film – and part of why the term “Pollyanna” caught on to describe irrepressibly optimistic people – is the Glad Game, invented by Pollyanna’s deceased father. In any unpleasant situation, the challenge is to find something to be glad about, however small or seemingly insignificant, and to hold onto that positivity.

In the past few weeks, I have not particularly wanted to feel glad about anything. It has been tempting to be overwhelmed with discouragement and sink under the crushing waves of despair, to dismiss any attempt at positivity as na├»ve, magical thinking, or to snap at people who pointed out rays of hope and tear them down for their privilege or lack of concern. It was like an across the board dirge of “Let’s call the whole thing off.”

But damn if Pollyanna didn’t get me right in the feels and remind me that the times when you feel low are the most important ones to play the Glad Game and to try to find the silver linings. I saw that the key to Pollyanna’s sunny disposition and perpetual good humor is that she was always thinking about other people and trying to make life better for them. She resisted cynicism, negativity, and self-interest, and so she was able to help people and bring about change.

I’m trying not to talk too overtly about politics in every post, but a stated part of the GOP campaign strategy this year was to stoke such intense feelings of cynicism and fear that people were too despondent to get out and vote. They wanted people to believe the system was rigged or that every politician was just as corrupt as any other, and that the government was too inefficient to help anyone anyway. I have thought a lot about who benefits when cynicism prevails. When people feel too hopeless to insist on change, the hegemony succeeds in maintaining the status quo. When we feel overwhelmed by the forces of evil in the world, we start to believe good never existed and was all an illusion anyway. But I believe in my heart of hearts that most people are inherently good and want to do right by one another – it just takes overcoming fear, precarity, and self-interest enough to stand up to those motivated by greed and power. It is therefore more essential now than ever before to embrace radical, subversive optimism and to refuse to become complacent in the face of constant attempts to drown us in cynicism.

I’ve started to channel my feelings of frustration, worry, and fear into working to help other people and the environment. I want to stop wallowing in the things that upset me in my personal life and focus on spending my time more constructively, making art, raising awareness, helping promote education and compassion, listening, and working harder to understand. The more I can escape my own ego / consciousness and focus on others, the easier it is to find ways to be glad and grateful.

So that is my wish for you this holiday season and in the coming months. May you always find something to be glad about, and may your life be full of gratitude and compassion.

And go watch Pollyanna. This girl just gets it.

Midsummer catch-up

As adverse as I am to routines / wholly unable to manage any kind of consistency in daily life, I find my months and years flow in a personal, seasonal kind of rhythm, as I suspect most people’s do. Maybe it’s a holdover from summer vacations during the school year, or I’m keenly aware of my circadian cycles, or I’m secretly a migratory bird who’s gotten stuck in the northeast after being distracted by an abundance of food one summer. Either way, every July I get restless and spend more time traveling than at home, becoming the proverbial grasshopper fiddling the summer away and flitting from pleasure to pleasure.



And by August, it usually catches up with me and I find myself worn down and sick right when I’d most like to shift into full-time hedonism (fish are jumping, cotton is high etc). Last year I brought some weird food poisoning-typhoid hybrid back from India and spent a few weeks panicking about barfing at work every day. Then I decided it was time to screw up my whole system by adjusting medications, which was necessary, but basically took me out of commission the rest of the summer. The year before that I dragged a summer cold out from June forward, in and out of bronchitis and eventually pneumonia (with extra fun coughing-up-blood-at-work) for a month in Paris in September. So this year I was resolute that, now that I am in control of my schedule and living a much more balanced, healthy life, there was no reason to spend my midsummer miserable and sick.



Of course, hubris got the better of me, and on the very same day I actually bragged to friends about how “I just don’t get sick anymore,” I very foolishly and disgustingly smoked half a cigar, inhaling it deeply enough to burn the hell out of my throat and airway. I’m allergic to tobacco smoke, and as drunk as I was at the time, I knew as I got on the subway and could feel my throat swelling shut that I’d made a huge mistake. I woke up the next day with a terrible case of self-inflicted bronchitis and all the self-loathing I could stand, and as I spent the next week and a half in bed with a fever, a chest full of sludge, wheezing and coughing up every grievance my body has ever had to air, it gave me way, way too much time to think about where I’m at in my life and how I’ve gotten here. I think it’s safe to say that this September’s back-to-school resurgence of energy will include a hefty dose of discipline and self-improvement.

But! Before I felled myself in maybe the grossest way I could think of, I was having a great summer!



On a whim, my mother and I went to the Ananda Ashram in upstate NY for an incredible Homa ceremony performed by Amma Sri Karunamayi, which was truly both spiritually and sensuously beautiful in every way. There is something genuinely magical about breathing the smoke of offering fires while chanting in Sanskrit, catching a glimpse of the wind blowing through the trees, and feeling viscerally connected to the earth and alive. I will have a lot more to say about that experience in another post, but it put me in a tremendously open, say-yes-to-everything sort of mindset.

We reconnected with some of my grandmother’s newly rediscovered first cousins (also will have much more to say about this in another post) and I was utterly delighted to find that not only are they instantly recognizable as family, with some of our same idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, but they are just incredibly lovely people. I stayed for a nice long visit in New Jersey over the Fourth of July, transporting another big pile of paintings and works on paper up to my studio, and trying to get the first round of Boardman Summer Camp in (sailing, beach, time on the deck, cookouts, bicycling, hiking, etc.)



I went to my lovely cousin Michelle’s engagement party (more photos here) and visited with lots more family. I’ve become that weird older cousin who vividly remembers when my younger cousins were born and gets all mushy and sentimental, so I promised Michelle I’d get it all out of the way now and try to be cool at her wedding. (We all know I won’t be cool.)



My brother came into the city to see Radiohead with me at Madison Square Garden, and I’ll pause for a second so you also can wrap your mind around the fact that I somehow won whatever cosmic lottery one has to win to get impossible-to-get Radiohead tickets AND that I got to see my favorite band in the world live AND they played “Karma Police” and everyone sang along and it was honestly everything I’ve always dreamed of in a concert.



It was a phenomenal show, as you can probably surmise from the setlist, but I would also be happy to ramble on at length in person because, holy hell, Thom Yorke.

I then spent the next two days cooking food for the 60th birthday party we threw for my brilliant, beautiful Mom. For once in my life, I cooked a huge spread of vaguely Tuscan food actually worth photographing, but I was so exhausted and frazzled trying to keep the party running so she could visit with her guests that I took exactly four photos at the party and none of the food. I know, I’ve let us all down.

So please try to imagine the following menu, all cooked from scratch with lots of love, using as much local, organic produce as possible:

Hors d’Oeuvres

  • Caprese skewers (fresh mozzarella, basil leaf, half a grape tomato, drizzled with olive oil, sea salt, and fresh cracked pepper)
  • Prosciutto wrapped around cantaloupe
  • Spinach-artichoke dip with pita chips
  • Crab dip (my mom made both dips)
  • Fresh guacamole and pico de gallo with tortilla chips (Mom also made these)
  • Roasted nuts

Mains

  • Italian sausage and peppers
  • Chicken piccata
  • Four-cheese ravioli in a summer squash and sweet corn cream with marjoram and blistered heirloom tomatoes (this is maybe my favorite dish I’ve ever made up)
  • Grilled shrimp skewers (my dad made these)
  • Grilled London broil (my dad also made this, and the less said of it the better)

Sides

  • Herbed orzo
  • Organic herb salad with Bosc pears, bleu cheese, English cucumbers, and toasted walnuts with a lemon vinaigrette
  • Garlic green beans
  • Rosemary focaccia

Desserts

  • Galician almond cake with spiced pears and vanilla cream cheese frosting (I arranged pear slices on top into a dahlia, and I still didn’t take a damn photo!)
  • Coconut tres leches cake
  • Sliced kiwis and strawberries with dried cranberries
  • Cranberry-orange dark chocolate chip cookies
  • Chocolate-covered strawberries
  • Lime bars

A great group of my mom’s friends and family were able to come, including our new/old family that we’d just met, and it seemed like everyone had a good time talking, visiting, and celebrating my lovely mom. When I asked her the next day if she’d had a nice party, she seemed warmly touched when she said absolutely yes.



My mom’s actual birthday came a few days later, so I stayed in NJ getting in more beach time, hiking, sailing, garden and deck time with the dogs, and general relaxed visiting with my family. My nice brother took us all out to barbecue on my mother’s birthday, I briefly reconsidered switching from mostly-vegetarian to fully-carnivore, and I returned to NY with an irrepressible smile and restored sense of who I am, where I came from, and where I want to go.

I even got over my fear of the ocean and swam, gleefully and peacefully, which I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t done in years. And I know I haven’t enjoyed it so much since I was a kid.



This summer I also discovered, to no great surprise, that I am fanatically in love with Bhangra music and dancing, and although I am hopelessly uncoordinated when it comes to the more traditional moves, I’m kind of in the zone when it comes to bhangra-90s hip hop fusion. As soon as my lungs can bear it, I will be back out on the dance floor.

There is a whole lot else going on, some great, some less so, and I will have a lot more to say in the coming weeks as I try to get over the remains of this gross cough, get caught up with work / business stuff, and get going on new and exciting things. I still have a ton of other stuff I want to fit into this summer, and I know it will be way too soon that I start catching the first nips of chill in the evenings and the scent of autumn on the way.

Love is understanding

The other day (two weeks ago now) my father was picking me up at the train station the night before our family’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party. As we were chatting and catching up, he excitedly said, “Oh! I was thinking of you yesterday morning!”


(I will always be my daddy’s little girl)

He started to describe what he saw looking off a small bridge as he was driving to work just before sunrise in a light fog. A silver light glowed behind a single cloud perfectly reflected in the river, which was as still and smooth as a mirror. The horizon disappeared into a shining, seamless vision of twin clouds framed by the faint shape of the shores.

His description was so beautiful and vivid that I could see exactly what he saw, and I told him how touched I was that such a lovely little moment made him think of me.

“I think of you every time I see something like that,” he said warmly, “because I know that’s what you love most.”

I felt so profoundly understood, and in turn, truly loved.

When I shared that story with a friend at the party the next day, he laughed and said the same incredulous thing I’d been thinking, “How come guys your age don’t know how to say that kind of thing to you?” We agreed that guys just don’t seem to be made like my dad anymore (but I’ll keep looking).

I’ve been taking photographs of the sky and little moments in nature since I first got my hands on a Fisher-Price 120 film camera as a little girl, and Tumblr informs me I’ve been posting some of them to The Sky Where I Am for three years now. My dad isn’t big into blogs or social media, so usually when I visit I show him all the photos I’ve taken since the last time I saw him, and he tells me about all the things he’s seen. I cherish his descriptions full of wonder at a kestrel landing in his lap or the prompt reappearance of ospreys on March 15th (“Fish Hawk Day”) like nothing else.

I owe so much of my love of nature and the outdoors to my dad and the generosity with which he’s shared his passion for life with me. I am delighted that I got to visit my family two weekends in a row, which included hiking, neighborhood walks, and two long bicycle rides. We checked up on the birds, ducks, geese, and deer around town on a route very similar to the one we used to take on rides together my whole childhood, and we both giggled when we saw dabbling ducks on the Navesink.

I got all mushy and thanked him yet again for always including me on those afternoons. He smiled that understanding dad smile as he said, “I’m so glad it means as much to you as it does to me.”