Old School

In the early seventies, my father accepted a post in the Nixon administration to represent the United States as its ambassador to El Salvador, and my siblings and I moved to a new country and a bilingual school. Half the day was in Spanish, the other in English. My father insisted that I would be fluent in Spanish in no time. Instead, I got a crash course in bullying.

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The Tyranny of Busyness

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.
— Anne Dillard
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Day in and day out I hear how busy everyone is. It’s our national compulsion -- we pack our schedules to the tipping point and then share JUST how insane our lives are, if we have time to do so. Despite all of our invocations to be present, to be mindful, to pursue self-care, to spark joy, our busyness is as pervasive as fake news and addictive as the devices that broadcast it. A few years ago I watched some poor soul drop into torpor as I explained how busy I was. I was not only boring the poor woman to death, but was also self-important in the process. I am quick to identify self absorption in others and was mortified by my hypocrisy. I knew better.

Decades earlier, I was regaling my sister with my schedule over the phone. I had to simultaneously move my studio and apartment; I was preparing for a group show; I had so so many unshakeable engagements; I had an energy suck of a boyfriend. The list went on. I probably implied that I was BUSIER than she was. She waited for me to finish and said: “Until you have your own children you have all the time in the world.” She had three young children and I got the message, but only understood it when I had my own children and was up all hours of the night with a sick child or whiling away hours playing chutes and ladders, or wondering if it should take an hour to get out the door. I never stopped apologizing to her for my impertinence.

It’s a hard habit to break. There is cultural validation in being busy and we have conflated human significance with the intensity of our calendar schedule. From an evolutionary standpoint busyness is not going to grow our brains, or safeguard our health. A packed schedule is not going to amplify our stardust. My busyness is not going to single-handedly save the planet. Do I really care if I’m regarded as a flaneur just because I’m not showcasing my path?

Social media reinforces all this agitation around doing and being. It is easy for all of us — producer and consumer —to be seduced by the filtered images and the airbrushed personas. And many users are driven to achieve goals just to have a viable post on Instagram — setting up a sinister feedback loop. Like most creatives, I use Instagram as a professional enhancement to showcase my studio, to reinforce that I am a working artist. But I also use it to suggest that I’m an interesting and nuanced person and attach many ancillary identities beyond my professional one simply to broaden my appeal. I tell myself that it is all part of the process of the reveal, but that could be a justification for garden variety narcissism.

Marie Kondo’s success as the good fairy of leaner living is no coincidence — the antidote to this first world problem of clutter is simplification. Material possessions are easier to purge than a to-do list but last month I decided to stop riding shotgun down the avalanche. I turned off my phone or programmed it so only my family can reach me when I’m working. I restored my written calendar and put a book back in my purse.I got up earlier. I eliminated social media apps to tackle my addiction to Instagram. I return emails once a day, not all day. I sliced my device time in half. The to do list remains daunting and the email pile grew —I still have to maintain the quotidian. I did realize how much of this “labor” is of my own manufacture, and of my own choosing, and that I need a much better “net for catching days.”

The Map is Not the Territory

We rely on maps to navigate earthly and celestial terrain, and I feel grounded, in control somehow, when I am pulled into a fabulous map. Oh here I am! There I will go!  And then there are maps for our internal landscapes and methods we call on to steer through spiritual terrain. Mine help preserve sanity and joy—and trek through heartbreak and confusion. But they were falling short of guiding me through my own brand of American angst.

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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and the birthdays of two out of three of my favorite men fall in its wake. One belongs to our son, Duncan, the other to my late father, Henry. I think of Henry and his footprint in our era of belligerence and deliberate ignorance where men like him are scarce. My son reminds me of him -- 

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I want to inject them with a serum that makes them believe what I now know: that speaking is crucial, that you have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others, that education is not something you passively consume.
— Elizabeth Alexander
                      Two Women in a Mandalay market from an old 1995 sketchbook.

                      Two Women in a Mandalay market from an old 1995 sketchbook.

I joined the movement and hashtagged #metoo on social media but did not share any particulars. I still struggle with my old WASP reflexes -- do not share, do not assume that your story is of any interest to anyone else, and by all means maintain appearances -- whatever that means. But as an artist, I know better and try to override this indoctrination to plunk down my own narrative. I want a very different story for my own daughter and all the young women in my life and decided to link in with the collective for their sake and mine. I was deeply moved by all the testimonials on social media and the courage it took to expose the raw stories, the anger and pain. And I think this movement will have positive consequences for future legislation and make the world a little better for our daughters, even with a sexual predator currently in the Oval Office.

I was seven when an employee of my parents' began touching me, and this inaugurated a long passage of harassment that at times escalated into incidents of assault. Even in the post-Gloria Steinheim era, there was still a prevailing attitude that our vulnerability as women was part of the female inheritance. I heard men, and some women, say dismissive things like: “She is asking for it when she dresses (or drinks) like that.” “She should know better. ”Girls exaggerate the extent of the problem because it serves their vanity.” “Is it really that bad?”  “Shouldn’t you be flattered?” “Boys will be boys.”  When I shared one harrowing incident to a friend who I thought might be sympathetic the reply was: "At least you're not a supermodel, can you imagine the attention they get?" I second guessed myself. Maybe I was the one who was too sensitive or was inflating the problem. It felt indulgent to mention this part of my life, so I shut up and repressed my outrage--and a great deal of the memories.

Age has granted me ease of passage in a man's world, at least physically, but the cascade of #metoo stories jolted me back to a different era, and I have been telling my stunned husband about all the transgressions I thought I'd forgotten. I mourn for all women, for all the energy it takes to maintain vigilance over our own safety, from ignoring catcalls, to the constant requests to smile, to fretting about poorly lit and spooky public spaces, to the steady intrusion from strange or familiar men, to dodging workplace harassment and insinuation, to surviving sexual assault. I think of all the squandered time we expend navigating these climates and of all that noise that distracts us from doing something else, like finding a little peace. 

And I remembered a story of kindness. I lived in New York for many years and always in gay neighborhoods. This was a deliberate choice-- I felt safe, there was a solidarity that I loved, and I preferred a community that was not dead at night. One evening I was headed home around midnight from a concert uptown. I did not take a cab because I was spooked by an aggressive cabbie the previous week.  He kept asking me out on the long ride home and though I bailed out from the ride when I could, I was not keen on being trapped in a car again. So I descended the stairs to the an empty subway platfrom save two pairs of men, each on opposite ends. I centered myself between them and hoped for the best. It was the dead of winter, and I wore a hat, a voluminous scarf, a long overcoat and boots. One pair moved closer and began to comment on my appearance, wondering what I would look like without all my layers. I moved toward the other pair. My aggressors followed. As I grew closer, the other men broke off their own conversation and hustled toward me. I recognized them as men from my neighborhood. Both were strapping, and though I did not know their names, we frequented the same coffee shop and exchanged pleasantries. As they approached, the other men retreated. We boarded the train and they walked me home, even though it wasn’t their stop. When they delivered me safely, they gave me a hug and the name of a car service and waited until they saw the light on in my apartment. Here is a thank you to all the decent men, and there are many, who have kept us out of harm’s way and pushed back with us. I was lucky enough to marry one such man and am  lucky enough to be raising one. 

Postcard from Colombia

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. ”

— Gustave Flaubert

I am currently in Colombia with my family cramming as much in as we possibly can between Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena. Traveling tilts you off axis, which to my mind, is a very good thing. Our family becomes more intimate as we push into close quarters, and reliant on each other for company.

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The Mean

"Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them." -Maria Popova

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