Tag Archives: politics


I’ve become a political documentary person

For better or worse, I am terrible at watching movies. I might see one a year in a theater, and I struggle with the sensory assault of way too loud sound, people chewing and slurping all around me, and the constant resentment that I may have spent $20+ to bring bed bugs and sticky shoes home with me. I am terrible at sitting still and paying attention to something that isn’t live. My family and friends used to tease me for how quickly I would fall asleep when we tried to watch movies, as I often passed out during the opening credits or first scene. If I stay awake, I get exasperated with bits of dialogue that don’t ring true for me, or I start obsessively analyzing themes and motifs or costuming and cinematography to find something to latch on to. If there is the slightest bit of suspense, I look up spoilers so I can watch how it plays out instead of letting myself be surprised. I struggle if I don’t have something to occupy my hands (knitting or sketching usually) and I have a genuinely hard time not talking through everything, so I imagine I am very annoying to watch movies with. Also these days, I flat-out refuse to watch horror films.

I do, however, love movies, and when I find a good one I love it intensely and elaborately because it has managed to survive my scrutiny and nit-picking AND kept me awake. So for obvious reasons, unless I am rewatching a tried-and-true, I am reluctant to agree to watching a movie with company that I want to like me afterwards (my Netflix-and-chill has customarily taken the form of nature documentaries, with bonus points if they are narrated by David Attenborough). I was delighted to discover that all my issues with watching conventional movies dissipate completely when I watch documentaries. They are soothing in the nerdiest possible ways, often fascinatingly thought-provoking, and above all (my favorite quality in just about anything) they inspire me to research topics further and learn more. I used to watch documentaries mainly for entertainment, typically about food, subculture history, niche interests like sneaker collecting, or the gold standard, biographies. If something is historically accurate, I am enrapt.

In recent times, my typical fare has felt a little less substantive than I need, so my documentary diet has gotten distinctly political. It’s not really as conducive to Netflix-and-chill as majestic lions in the wild and scenic vistas, but they are satisfying in the same way as undergrad philosophy classes, coupling ideas that change your entire sense of reality with the luxury of really delving deep into them.

So, here are some truly excellent politically-charged documentaries I’ve watched over the past few years that have been, with no exaggeration, life-changingly profound and thought-provoking. Since I talk about these all the time in person, it only makes sense to collect them here too.


1) Human Flow

Human Flow (links to watch online)

Ai Weiwei’s project exploring the lives and experiences of refugees around the world is so profoundly important that I wish everyone would watch it right now. This issue is so significant personally that my mother and I saw this film on its opening weekend in Manhattan, and we both just sprayed tears through it. More than capturing the direness of the situations the subjects are in, Ai Weiwei gets at their essential humanity, carefully crafting the point that we are all of us, everywhere, fundamentally the same, but we isolate each other and commit atrocious acts of violence over relatively small differences. The presence of Weiwei and his crew is minimally felt with spare bits of text and voice-overs every once in a while, but his sensitivity permeates the cinematography and tenderness with which the refugees are presented. As bleak and terrifying a reality as it presents, it also has some abstract seeds of hope – the scenes of people helping each other or children putting on donated winter boots and hats allude to unseen, but impactful kindness in the world trying to help them. If someone is capable of feeling empathy at all, this film will evoke it and urge them to act; and if anyone watches this film and fails to recognize the refugee crisis is a whole-world humankind problem, they are not paying attention.


2) 13TH

Watch on Netflix

Ava DuVernay’s staggering 2016 documentary posits that mass incarceration of people of color in the United States functions as an oppressive legacy of slavery. I first read about the prison industry’s role in maintaining inequality in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and 13TH builds on these ideas in an emotionally resonant, clear and sharp presentation. This film challenges the biases we all hold such as, “If you don’t want to go to prison, don’t commit crimes” by reminding us that we have all, every single one of us, broken the law in some major or minor way, but the laws are disproportionately enforced. It examines the ways lives are broken and changed by prisons and the nefarious profits being made off of, quite literally, keeping black and brown men in cages. It only becomes more urgent and relevant in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and escalating extrajudicial executions committed by police officers in the line of duty. I also came away with a new clarity that “law and order” is not what it seems and that many of our revered social constructs were put in place to protect the property and interests of those in power at the expense of human lives.


3) The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War (links to watch online; also on PBS)

This 10-episode documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick genuinely blew my mind. As recent history that my parents lived through, I thought I had a pretty solid understanding of the events and motivations, of counter-cultural resistance and the American experience during the war. I was so wrong. By digging deeper into history, presenting perspectives from all sides of the conflict, exploring recently declassified information, and giving the still-living primary sources the time and space to talk openly, emotionally, vulnerably, and potently about their experiences, the story is told more complexly, completely, and profoundly than ever before. The lesson I have typically taken away from Vietnam Era politics was “Never trust the government,” as it was (as far as I knew) the first time elected politicians knowingly, flagrantly lied to the public to achieve their aims. Even going into it deeply cynical about the war and its futility, my worldview was shattered. I came away more sincerely committed to pacifism and peaceful conflict resolution than ever before, and I am more convinced than ever that the men beating the drums of war are always the ones who profit most from it. Crucially, this series also helped me understand the motivations and beliefs of those I previously would have dismissed or failed to appreciate, and it helped me recognize the ways that factions of society are played against one another by those who thrive by taking advantage of chaos and fear. The lessons from the Vietnam War are more important now than ever, and I hope every American will watch this series with an open mind.


4) The Untold History of the United States

Watch on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and elsewhere

I will admit, I wasn’t really paying attention to Oliver Stone in 2012. I had recently written a paper on JFK in the context of historical and critical sources for a writing class, and I wasn’t feeling his particular brand of mainstream conspiracy theorizing. I watched this 12-part series as a chaser to The Vietnam War and found it a satisfying reappraisal of the jingoistic version of history I had been taught in school. Oliver Stone and historian Peter J. Kuznick of American University wrote a massive book reexamining the version of history where American is always the “good guys” and we always win because goodness prevails. Though Stone’s dry monotone left a bit to be desired, the deadpan statement of facts, reading of quotes, and placement of history in context was fascinating and haunting. I had literal nightmares over the coldly tactical decision-making process of which cities in Japan would be the most impactful and demoralizing decimation sites for dropping the bomb. The no-holds-barred examination of Truman’s character through his own words was chillingly poignant. And I could even appreciate that as much as I loved Obama (which is like, with all my heart) he didn’t give back the powers extended to the presidency by the Patriot Act and wasn’t right in all his actions, including drone strikes with heavy civilian casualties. Oliver Stone’s approach seems to be muddying the waters by giving even credence to all information rather than taking an immediately obvious declarative stance, but at the end I came out questioning and reconsidering everything I had taken for granted, especially the ideas of American exceptionalism that are bandied about quite comfortably as truth today.


5) Hypernormalisation

Watch on YouTube, Vimeo, and elsewhere

When I first watched Adam Curtis’s 2016 documentary, it was all I could talk about and remains one of my top recommendations. Juxtaposing archival footage with a powerful narrative reexamining history through our current fuller understanding of events (and underlaid with a dope soundtrack), Curtis gets to the heart of the political strategy of obfuscation of reality, exposing the ways leaders have presented the truth as “unknowable” to control and influence people. Anyone familiar with Orwellian doublethink will recognize the dystopian concept played out in our 20th-21st century reality, over and over, where the uncertainty of truth is exploited to rewrite common knowledge with state-sponsored propaganda. Curtis does not pretend to be objective – he is clearly opposed to Brexit, right-wing populism spurred by xenophobia, Putin and the Russian propaganda ministry, and all the machinations of oligarchic oppression – but he examines some of the murkier times in world history where the general public was kept in the dark to give our governments latitude to do whatever they wanted in the interest of their donors. He examines the way idealistic radicals of the 60s were worn down to complacency and are now used as a tool to discredit opposition (i.e. that’s just the way silly college kids think – wait until you own a house and have a 401k to worry about). This documentary was made before Donald Trump was elected president, but it seems to have predicted its inevitability, exploring the forces at work in our society and the ways we communicate about issues. It is important to watch this one without collapsing into nihilistic complacency oneself, to insist on finding multiple corroborating sources without bias to get an understanding of events, and to constantly question why this version of reality is the one being presented.

If you like this one, I also strongly recommend The Reagan Show (available on Hulu among other places), which goes deep into Reagan’s use of television and public relations skills from his career in acting to shape public opinion and promote his agenda during the Cold War. It is entertaining, but chilling, to see how easily we are tricked by charisma into accepting surreality.


6) The White Helmets

Watch on Netflix

Following members of The White Helmets, a politically-neutral volunteer group who rescue civilian victims of bombings in Syria, this powerfully emotional documentary puts a human face on the airstrikes. Somehow these rescue workers are still hopeful and believe with all their hearts in the sanctity of life, even as they climb through rubble every day in what feels like a futile attempt to save people from a literal hell on Earth. Despite the brutality of the bombings and the sheer terror I felt watching it, there was a strange beauty to this film, a reminder that heroes are just regular people who choose to be brave and help other people. It is inspiring to see that in the midst of the very worst of humanity playing out through various nations bombing Aleppo off the map in their power struggles, the very best are rising up, resilient and undeterred in their faith that they were put here in this space and time to help other people and that every life (regardless of religion, politics, or other differences) is fundamentally worth saving and protecting. You will probably not be able to get through this one without crying your eyes out, but it’s an important cry to have.


7) Saving Capitalism

Watch on Netflix

Made as a companion film to the book by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, this film is reassuringly calm and even-handed in its approach. It begins by explaining there is no such thing as the free market, so much as the market as it plays out within the rules the government creates. Reich examines the way those rules have shifted to be in favor of the consolidation of wealth among the richest through deregulation and tax policy that favors corporations over people. He explores the impact of these policies on average Americans, with a particularly poignant passage on the 2008 financial crisis. He finds surprisingly common ground between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements, and he presents a sympathetic view of people so disenchanted with “corporate democracy” that they saw Bernie Sanders and Trump as basically the same thing in the 2016 election (and for a tiny little moment, viewed strictly through the lens of populism and economics, I understood that thinking). Reich does not divide his audience by political party, but rather finds our mutual interests and calls attention to the ways we are being pitted against one another. He is reassuring and presents actionable solutions to unifying the people and developing an economic policy that actually makes capitalism work for all of us. I was genuinely shocked that I came away from this film hopeful and focused on the future.


8) Before the Flood

Before the Flood (links to watch online)

For your environmentalism concerns, this examination of climate change by Fisher Stevens and Leonardo DiCaprio in partnership with National Geographic is a starkly unflinching (and yet cinematically beautiful) presentation of the urgency of action to halt climate change and reverse our disastrous environmental policies. Taking an expansive view on the many facets of climate change, the film states incontrovertibly that our current environmental crisis is man-made (I agree) and urges us to make necessary changes. Of particular interest to me were the sections set in India, where environmental activists are fighting an even steeper uphill battle, yet doing it with a seriousness of purpose that makes even the most tree-hugging American environmentalist seem half-assed and lazy. This film calls on us to tap into the ingenuity and creativity that characterizes 20th century industry to find lasting environmental solutions. It is inspiring, and it will help you re-commit to your principles if you become complacent or feel hopeless.


9) Joe’s Violin

Joe’s Violin / watch on YouTube

Lastly, as an incredibly uplifting and beautiful palette cleanser, I whole-heartedly recommend Joe’s Violin, the story of a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor’s violin donation during a public radio instrument drive. This short film follows his violin as it is given to a young woman in the Bronx in an incredible program to empower students through music. While not overtly political, the story of what Joe’s violin meant to him and what it means to the student today is simply extraordinary. It serves as a reminder that all of these political events, government actions, bombastic public figures, and distortions of truth have real-life consequences for real people. We tend to study history and politics from the aerial view, but seeing individual stories on the ground is crucial for understanding what we are really doing as a human species, as well as what we are capable of doing when we use our strength for good, hope, and positivity.

So I hope you find something interesting or new among these (if you haven’t already watched all of them) and I would love any solid documentary recommendations you may have, both political and general interest. The more thought-provoking, the better.

(And in a future post, I’ll do a roundup of some of the best non-political documentaries I’ve watched lately too.)


The Sword of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


IMAGE: John Giorno, It’s Not What Happens It’s How You Handle It, 2016, rainbow silkscreen print; seen recently at the Rubin Museum of Art

I may be problematically superstitious. I don’t trust when things go too well for too long. I start to look around suspiciously, holding my breath and waiting for something to go wrong. I used to think it was a kind of distorted karmic balance, that I could not have something exciting and positive happen (completing my master’s degrees) without something catastrophic and painful too (losing my grandmother). As the years have gone by, I have embraced a different reality, that life comes at you as it does, good, bad, and sometimes both at once. But I still find myself on edge at times.

For the past few months (I can date it pretty precisely back to a time in 2016) I have felt trapped in an onslaught of fear, bad news, cataclysm, worse news, and this cycle of uneasiness that has made me afraid to exhale completely. The good times have felt like stepping out into the sun after torrential rains, not knowing if the day is getting brighter, or if I’ve moved into the eye of a hurricane. The bad times have felt like just another step in the march toward disaster that seems increasingly irreversible and inevitable. Depending on how closely you read the news and where your family lives, I reckon you have probably felt similarly at times.

Falling Water – Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, southern Iceland. (Prints available)

I set a challenge for myself this year to dig deep and mine my strategic reserves of positivity and optimism, to be strong enough to maintain hope and believe in the fundamental benevolence of nature and humanity. I have made a conscious shift in my art to move away from simply reflecting the present moment of uncertainty or trepidation to instead present a long-view vision of hope, healing, and beauty wrought from the complexity of experience and time. I still believe it is the only way to move forward: we cannot create a better future if we can’t imagine it. But lately, whew, the universe has been piling it on, hasn’t it?

I used to think it was a curse that my body would betray me at the times I needed to be my strongest. Odds are way too high that if I am on a work trip or have some massive opportunity, I will suddenly come down with bronchitis or pneumonia. To my great astonishment, I got all the way through my exhibit and almost through the end of the second show I was in this summer before I was sidelined with intense, piercing chest pain that was so severe I couldn’t draw a complete breath or lie down on my side. At first I thought it was from a pulled muscle from being clumsy with luggage or moving paintings around, but as it intensified, it seemed most likely to be pericarditis, an old scourge I’ve battled a few times since high school. The main treatments are rest and an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, and I was reminded how crucial it is to actually mind the rest part.

At one point a few weeks ago while not resting, I found myself in another uncomfortably familiar situation: over an hour and several transfers away from my apartment with my hands full of too much stuff, rushing around trying to do too many things, stricken by pain and wondering how I was going to make it home. I took a (shallow) breather on a park bench and texted my mother to whine. After declining her offer to pay for a car back to my apartment (I didn’t want to add motion sickness to the cocktail of blech), I promised that I would not overdo it, reading and rereading her sweet closing line on the way home, “Please take care of yourself baby. We only have one Vicki.”


Lavender Clouds – Soft pink and light purple cumulous clouds at sunset over New York Harbor.
(Prints available)

I started to realize that it didn’t particularly matter if I was sitting on a hot subway platform trying not to smell people or lying uncomfortably in my bed trying not to roll over the bulwark of pillows onto my left side. My chest was going to hurt for as long as it would, until I gave my heart the time and stillness it needed to heal. That sounds so much more poetic and metaphorical than the literal reality at the time, but it felt instructive in a larger sense that is applicable now that I am better. Whenever my body forces me to take a pause, it lets my mind catch up, and when I let myself heal I come back stronger and more collected than I was before.

I struggle because I keep taking on the emotional weight of all the things I can’t control. No one can stop the forces of nature that are ravaging the world right now with hurricanes, wildfires, and floods. Yes, we all know that they were exacerbated by global warming, but it’s already done. I personally don’t have the power to stop the full-on genocide being perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar any more than I can compel Saudi Arabia to stop their campaign of annihilation against Yemen or depose Bashar al Assad myself and set up infrastructure repairs and irrigation to start healing Syria. The frustration and pain of this helplessness, coupled with the rage brought on by violations against the sanctity of life, can be white hot and blinding. But I can’t help anyone from a place of anger or without a clarity of thinking. I am not adding anything to the world when I am holding my breath or overwhelmed with sadness. I need to let the feelings run through me, then dig deeper and be creative if I will find ways to inspire change.

I need to remember my mother’s urging: we only have one Vicki. I can’t fix racism and white supremacy and all the ugly things that hate drives people to do. I can raise awareness and try to change people’s minds when I see it though. I can’t fix the mess we have made of our environment by myself, but I can lift my own standards and encourage concern for nature in others. I can’t heal my friends’ and family’s illnesses or take away their pain, but I can be there with them and make sure they know how much I love them. I don’t have the kind of money that can buy a senator or influence policy change, but I can give whatever I can to the causes I believe in and encourage others to donate. I don’t have a loud voice, but I can take care that I use it as effectively and mindfully as I can, in writing, in actions, and in my thoughts. I am just one person, but so is everyone else.

I don’t want to walk around holding my breath anymore, waiting for the other shoe to drop, answering cheerful greetings from friends with heavy sighs and “all things considered” caveats. There was suffering and inequality in the world before, and unfortunately, there will continue to be; it seems hard-wired into humanity still. I can’t fix it all, and I’m not sure I can really make a difference at anything. But I can be fully present with the people in my life and give my whole heart (occasionally impaired though it may be). I can write and make art and do everything I can to inspire compassion and kindness in the world. Many hands make light work, so I can join my hands with others for what matters.

And I can remember to breathe. I can’t take the next breath until I exhale.


The Headwinds of Change

Sailing is like wizardry, computers, or electricity to me. No matter how many times people have explained how it works, how much I’ve read about it, or how many times I’ve seen its observable reality as a means of movement and transportation, it’s still an utter mystery and I’m stunned it actually works. I acknowledge that the words used to describe the forces at play make a kind of sense, but in the inner part of my mind, let’s be real – it’s an amazing superpower we’ve discovered and pretend is normal (c.f. consciousness, the taste of tomatoes and cheese together, music, and the way we feel when making eye contact with animals).

One of the few things I understand intuitively about sailing is that it is a balancing act of precision and flux. When sailing into the wind, to move forward as efficiently as possible, you often have to find the place to put your sails that is as close to being straight into the wind as you can get, without going too far to the other side and having the wind blow back around behind the sail. It is a process of finding and creating the perfect arc, which depends on all kinds of factors including wind speed, temperature, water conditions, drag, but ultimately, magic. When you find that sweet spot and hold it, the boat snaps into place and literally sings – you can feel it soaring just-there, like humming in exact resonance with a pure pitch in music. It is as exhilarating as if you suddenly took flight because, in a lot of ways, you have.

When learning to sail into the wind, it takes a Sisyphean process of trial and error. You edge closer and closer, then hit a wake in the water or jerk the tiller a little too far and get a gust of wind that makes all your sheets blow around like mad (luffing), so you have to pull back. It is enormously tempting to overcorrect and pull back so far away from the wind that you fall off from it entirely, sometimes even accidentally making a tack and spinning in circles, so you not only lose ground but become convinced that the direction you were headed was impossible anyway. With perseverance, patience, and confidence in the boat and the particular variety of magic in the universe you’ve chosen to recognize, you can not only learn to sail into the wind, but find it is one of the fastest and most exciting ways to move forward.

I use sailing as an analogy all the time for vastly complex experiences of being human that I struggle to discuss in their own terms. Love, and our ability to care for other people (even those we’ve never met) is another form of magic that we often take for granted. I have never been able to fully explain the overwhelming emotional response I feel when I read about terrible things that have happened, cruelties and hurts inflicted on innocents, and injustices in the world. That visceral, raw feeling is a scary and seemingly too-powerful headwind, and I recognize that my inclination (and I suspect most people’s) is still toward self-preservation, to turn away from it and to adjust my course to something easier, if slower-moving or regressive. A nice distraction by switching to an article about fashion or a quiz about what 1980s movie boyfriend I might have had often eases me out of it.

This week we have been at the confluence of some dizzying, terrifying winds. So many times I have literally closed my eyes and said, “It’s just too much,” before retreating away from reality. That is the path of cowardice and selfishness, so I know I need to come back and face it.

I have not been able to wrap my mind around the scale of terror experienced by the residents of Grenfell Tower in London, nor the intense coupling of helplessness and rage that the families of the fire’s victims must feel. It is beyond trying to put myself in their shoes and imagine how I’d feel because they are occupying a headspace that no person should ever have to. To know a loved one’s life might have been spared if the building owners had sprung for the fire-resistant cladding, a sprinkler system, or repairing the faulty refrigerator that seems to have started the whole disaster is a scope of cruelty and dehumanization beyond the conscionable. In the decision between human safety and cost-saving, it was ultimately decided that these lives were not worth enough to justify the extra expenses. How can a person ever reconcile that fact with the unutterable scale of grief?

The targeted shooting of Republican members of Congress at an early morning baseball practice in Alexandria this week was not just a senseless act of violence by a delusional man. He was intentional and calculating in attacking what he believed were the advocates and crafters of inhumane policy. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s A+ NRA rating and open advocacy of unrestricted Second Amendment liberties is not ironic or coincidental, but it is also by no means a reason why any such act of violence should be seen as anything but the horror it is. The shooter was not lashing out against the system, but is rather a product of it, the inevitable extension of increasing tolerances of cruelty, hatred, and dehumanizing violence being perpetrated daily.

Put more directly, I am deeply concerned with the erosion of the social contract of the sanctity of life. In many conversations about escalating police violence and extrajudicial executions, I am flummoxed by those who are able to justify these warped and brutal actions with thinking along the lines of, “The rules of law and order are clear, and if you break them, your life is forfeit.” (That is an actual quote from last summer that made me physically ill with disgust.) I guess on the very surface it seems like sound or defensible logic, and it gives people comfort to believe that the system is fair and those who die at its hands broke the rules, but… that is not actually what our society stands for. The deal is not “Follow all traffic laws or you may be executed.”

Last summer, I was shaken to my core by Philando Castile’s death. Everything I read and saw about the traffic stop – from both sides – had me honestly shocked that a man could do nothing wrong but end up shot seven times in front of his girlfriend and her child then left to bleed out and die. I asked those among my friends and family who are the strongest proponents of Second Amendment rights and responsible gun ownership what he could or should have done differently. We debated it for an uncomfortably long time, and the best rationalization one person came up with was that sometimes police officers just get “jumpy” when they are afraid. I don’t want to alienate everyone I know who disagrees with me, but I was so frustrated that our conversations kept turning toward the loss of police pensions or reduced pay as a reason why less qualified officers are on the force, or how maybe the media is actually to blame for constantly portraying men of color as the bad guys in fiction. And yet, I don’t think I successfully convinced anyone that a police officer killing an innocent man should be as alarming to them as it was to me.

No one enjoys confronting the ugly realities of racism and prejudice in America. We are a nation that was built on the massacre of Native Americans and the mass enslavement of African and Caribbean people. There is no history of America without subjugation, violence, and dehumanizing cruelty. We can’t pretend that’s not what happened, we can’t attempt to justify it by saying, “Yeah, but lots of people had slaves then,” or the most bafflingly racist argument I hear a lot, “You know there was slavery in Africa before white people, right?” The ongoing violation of the sanctity of lives of people of color is undeniably real, and it can be traced in a direct line through reluctant abolition, Jim Crow laws, desegregation, and our current iterations of institutionalized racism.

I realize that the deflection tactics and denial I see around me (and in myself) are driven by fear. It is easier to believe that people who lose their lives because of implicit racial biases had a failing of personal responsibility or behavior than to confront such a massive and terrifying headwind of normalized racism and violence. We want to believe that our system is set up fairly to protect people and respond with justice to crime because it allows us to feel basically safe and sleep at night. If we (white people here) don’t do anything obviously wrong, then we should not expect to be shot dead in our cars or in the street. We tell ourselves that we’re not criminals in the capital-C sense (a little jaywalking, some underage drinking and weed in college, or low-level white collar crimes aside), so when people of color are killed in extrajudicial executions, they must have done something wrong, they must be criminals, and there must be more to the story. Facing full-on that our society treats the bodies and lives of some as lesser, or that the system was established to protect property over lives, or that the militarization of police forces is a cynical scheme to maximize profits for weapons manufacturers that has nothing to do with public safety, or that so many of the forces that are endangering our fellow Americans are in place out of greed, and not humanitarianism – that’s a gale-force terror.

I don’t need to have been in the courtroom to know what went wrong in the miscarriage of justice that acquitted the man who killed Philando Castile. I already know what happened and why, and I am once again outraged and disgusted at a soul-level. It hurts my heart that his is another name to add to the list of lives taken carelessly for no reason, with no justice. But it just plain breaks my heart that people of color are told once again that their lives matter less than others. I will never stop fighting against this reality – but that means facing it first.

I have taken to heart something a friend said when I was texting him tearfully in the middle of the night last November wondering what was wrong with my country. “If you didn’t even talk to your own friends and family about the issues you’re so upset about, who should have? I know you didn’t want to get in fights, but was it someone else’s job to help them see another perspective?” He was not born and raised in America, so maybe he is able to see it more clearly than we can, or maybe he is just way smarter than me, but his words echo for me often. I live in a city where the majority of the people I encounter every day share my values and espouse more progressive, humanitarian ideals. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that this same city is one of the most culturally and racially diverse on the planet, so I have had countless opportunities to know and understand people with different experiences in life than me. New Yorkers are generally solidly good, kind, and fair people, no matter what fearful tourists may feel, and I think it comes from living harmoniously with such a vibrancy of beliefs, backgrounds, and sheer volume of interacting with others that we have to learn patience, tolerance, and compassion. So how do you bring those lessons and that respectful open-mindedness to people who have never met a Muslim or Jewish person in their lives and genuinely believe they are evil? How do you help people who live in economically, racially, and ideologically segregated areas of the US understand the commonalities of experience and humanity that bind us all worldwide? How can empathy be cultivated where it’s lacking?

I similarly do not believe it’s merely coincidence that a greed-driven mass loss of life in London, a terroristic shooting in Virginia, and the acquittal of an innocent man’s killer should all fall in a row in the same week as the two-year anniversary of the Charleston church shooting, one of the more grotesque modern-day hate crimes. The universe is not ironic, but purposeful here, and the winds are gathering force. We are at an inflection point in history, where we can choose to face them head-on, to confront the harsh and unsettling realities of the erosion of the sanctity of life in the face of greed in our society. We can decide to make massive and essential changes in forward progress because we are unified in our common humanity and belief in the sanctity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. Or we could turn away from the wind, retreat into partisan squabbling and the distractions of constant corrupt administration scandals, declare we are exhausted of politics or “divisiveness,” and lose ground.

I am not giving up on America or the sanctity of life. I am not letting the people I love avoid reality or accept unjust inequality rooted in hate and ignorance. We can’t close our eyes or look away, and we must not abandon ship.

All human life is sacred. No human life is inherently better or more valuable than another, especially on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or ability. Human life is more important than profit, property, or power. We need a new social contract that unifies us in the sanctity of life; this change only truly happens in the hearts and minds of our fellow humans when we can see each other as equals. I will never stop facing into this wind and steering as hard as I can toward positive change.


Keep Your Powder Dry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(My dad is hella wise.)

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

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

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

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

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

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