Tag Archives: growth

Tiny-Bouquet

The Habit of Kindness

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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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.

We are who we are

I was thinking about my Grandma Wanda yesterday (as I often do) while I was walking through City Hall Park admiring the bluebells. I heard her voice come out of my mouth, probably even in her accent, exclaiming, “Oh look at you!” as I crouched down to admire their delicate flowers more closely and snap a photo. They were such a lovely burst of spring, standing fresh and happy on an otherwise gray, uncharacteristically cold and drizzly day. It was utterly charming, and like always, my Gram was with me again.

My grandmother was an incredible person. She was highly educated and well-read, a lover of opera, classical music, art of all styles, a scholar in human development and child psychology, and she actually enjoyed talking about art history and cultural anthropology with my grandfather (who apparently used to talk her ear off about Roman mosaics just like I did). She had an abundant intellectual curiosity and was the owner of a truly remarkable, well-rounded, and uniquely fascinating mind. In spite of all this, she seemed constitutionally incapable of putting on airs or acting pretentious – she was, I think, universally appreciated as a genuine, kind, authentic person with a radiantly warm heart. She laughed unabashedly (everyone who knew her can probably hear that great laugh reading this), she spoke her mind, she was intensely observant and considered other people all the time, and she was just a joy to be with.

One of my favorite things about her, and the way she has inspired so much of my painting and my whole art history thesis, was her all-consuming love and wonder for nature, especially the way things grew. She was, at her core, an Ohio farm girl, an avid gardener who loved nurturing and watching living things flourish under her care.

(Wow, do I miss her.)

One year my family was brainstorming Christmas gifts for her, and we were so pleased with ourselves for landing on an elegantly potted bonsai tree. She loved gardening, but the state of her knees at the time and the overwhelming fertility of her yard in Hawai’i was making it too difficult to manage plants outside. They hired a gardener, and she often said how she missed puttering around with the plants, so we thought it would be brilliant to get her a mini tree indoors that she could nurture, tend to, and enjoy without it becoming unruly. At first she was charmed, as we expected, and amazed that a tree would come in such a tiny, delicate form.

A few months later on a phone call we asked how her bonsai was doing, expecting to hear how maybe she’d decided on a shape she’d like to trim it into or how she enjoyed talking to it. “Oh, it’s the cutest little thing. I love it,” she said cheerfully, then added, “And I’m happy to see it’s getting so big already!” We all fell apart laughing because, after all, when you grow up on a farm you nurture plants so they will grow. Of course it wouldn’t make sense to prune her bonsai back or fuss around with limiting growth, and as much as she could intellectually appreciate and enjoy the bonsai book we gave her and the beautiful philosophy behind it, she was always going to be the Ohio farm girl who liked to see things grow.

We are who we are.

I think a lot about personal development and growth, especially as I am switching gears in my career and making a lot of changes in the rest of my life and daily habits to best support it (also just, I am making my life better). I was always fascinated by the phases of child development, like my grandmother was, and the psychological theories of personality and existential philosophy that I studied in undergrad. Increasingly, I am inclined to believe that we do have core selves, sets of intuitions and instincts that we bring with us at birth, which make us the only iteration of ourselves that ever will be. These senses are either encouraged and nurtured, like my parents regularly asking me to draw things for them or buying me bigger paper when my drawings extended off the page, up the woodwork, and all over my bedroom walls; or they are suppressed and discouraged, like a parent cutting off a fugue of creativity if paint gets spilled or it makes a mess.

Like a lot of people (maybe everyone?) I spent most of my formative years being socialized to behave and seem normal, then most of my 20s moving away from the things that made me special. It is the child or young adult’s initial tendency to respond mistrustfully or negatively to things that are aberrant, even if they’re exciting and intriguing. We learn cynicism. If you get enough weird looks for speaking your mind or get ostracized enough for being unusual, you may eventually learn to keep some things to yourself for the sake of having friends and conforming to expectations, and unfortunately that often includes hiding some of the best and most interesting qualities people have to offer. Imagine if we could all just be weirdos from the start.

I think by the time I became an adult, I gave off a pervasive sense of not really liking myself, and it’s not surprising that I attracted so many people who were all too happy to talk down to me and put me in my place. I have never been normal, not even close, and I’ve always known that. It makes me even more grateful for the unusually kind, good-hearted people who have slipped through my defenses and treated me well in spite of myself, either because they are just that wonderful and evolved as humans or because they recognized I was stumbling around getting in my own way and found some of the good stuff I was so invested in hiding. I think we should remember to treasure the people who like us for who we are and return the kindness to others.

It’s frustrating that as adults we spend so much time talking about things that we aren’t truly passionate about or fascinated by because that’s the more polite, socially acceptable style of small talk that we’re all acculturated into. I’m not sure when we learn that we’re not supposed to have strong opinions or think critically in casual conversation, but I really enjoy talking with people who have gotten past the sort of corporate / professional reservation that permeates American society and just say what they’re thinking as they’re thinking about it in unguarded, spontaneous, and sometimes slightly high-wire-without-a-net open conversation. It takes a surprising amount of trust and courage to just be who you are, to risk the fear of having your true self rejected, but I think it’s the only way we can be happy at a soul-level.

Perhaps it’s a bit like unshackling oneself from a constricting pen. We spend all these years learning how to fit into the box, follow the rules, measure ourselves by other people’s standards (typically valuing consumerism and lifestyles that are profitable for corporations), and denying the things that make us who we are at our core. I think there is a critical choice, where we either believe the impression we’re doing of who we think we’re supposed to be, or we have a David Bynre flip, “This is not my beautiful wife!” and push the walls down. I think the denial of core self and inherent instincts is at the center of mid-life crises and general existential freak-outs. I know for sure it has always been at the heart of mine. So I am working on embracing my idiosyncrasy and trusting my instincts, accepting that I am who I am, and I am enjoying my version of my grandmother’s inner Ohio farm girl.

Last summer I posted an Instagram caption, “If I ever stop feeling enthralled by backlit leaves, I will know my heart’s gone dead.” There was actually a motherlode of self-knowledge and truth in that statement and a recognition of what matters to me. I’m so happy that more and more each day, I feel the same way I did when I was a toddler drawing in the sand or staring at light glinting in water. I know who I am and what I care about, just like everyone does if they look deeply and admit it to themselves, and it hasn’t really changed. The more I’ve experienced and learned about other people and the world, the more I’ve developed back into the person I’ve always been in my heart. We are who we are, and that’s what makes us beautiful. It feels like I am finally coming home.